It's John Bercow's fifth year as Speaker. Photo: Getty
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Five years of the Speaker: what has John Bercow changed in parliament?

Sunday marked the five-year anniversary of John Bercow's time serving as Speaker of the House of Commons, having been elected to the office on 22 June 2009. What's he done in that time?

"Just because I’m a little chap it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a big ambition," John Bercow once said. And so it proved true, as he became the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009 at the age of 46.

Known for chastising MPs for behaving childishly in the chamber, warning that it is off-putting to the public, he has complained in a letter to the three party leaders about the "yobbery and public school twittishness” of politicians, particularly during PMQs. His outrage at their behaviour often manifests itself in the Speaker himself hollering across the Commons, and many – particularly backbench Tories – have been infuriated by his interjections.

However, many of the new crop of MPs, particularly 2010-intake Conservatives, appreciate the way he doesn’t discriminate by seniority when calling MPs to speak in the House, letting newbies as well as old-timers have their say.

And in spite of his tendency to rile the backbenches, he has been a bit of a moderniser in Westminster, and not least because he refuses to wear the traditional robes of the office.

Sunday marked his fifth "birthday" as Speaker, so it seems a good time to look back at what Bercow has changed.

 

  • Reinvigorating Urgent Questions

It’s a bit technical, but Bercow has resurrected the system of granting Urgent Questions. These are a way for any MP to petition the Speaker to demand that a department delivers one of its ministers to parliament to answer on an urgent matter that may have suddenly or unexpectedly occurred. Bercow has granted 177 of these so far, compared to the two granted in the previous speaker’s last year of office (2008-9).

 

  • Parliament helpline

Established this year following a run of stories in the press about bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff. It main purpose is to offer welfare support and confidential advice to MPs’ staffers.

 

  • A new Education Centre

This centre will allow the number of visitors to parliament for educational reasons to more than double from 45,000 to 95,000. It is primarily for children and students, and will open in 2015.

 

  • Parliament creche

In an unprecedented move that many MPs, male and female, continue to praise, Bercow set up a nursery in parliament, which has the capacity for 40 children of MPs, peers and other parliamentary staff.
 

  • Increasing outreach

The Speaker has been personally involved in parliament’s outreach work, going on over a hundred external outreach events across the country since being elected. He also does a lot for making parliament accessible, for example, recently inviting Newsround press-packers to watch and report on PMQs, and playing a tennis match with some visiting children in Westminster.

 

  • Reforming senior level recruitment

This includes for the first time publicly advertising for the role of Clerk of the House, and an open application process.

 

  • Equality networks

The Speaker has made some moves to improve women and minority representation in the Commons by creating four “workplace equality networks”. These are LGBT, disability, gender and race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

 

  • Allowing an extra amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013

This is a change that the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has pointed out, remarking that it “may be the most important ruling by a Speaker for decades”, and calling Bercow “less a constitutional monarch than a Commons Napoleon.” In May 2013, Bercow granted a third amendment to the Queen’s Speech, when prior to that, only two were ever allowed. It’s significant because it opens up the opportunity for a greater number of viewpoints to be expressed in the House.
 

He was elected to the Speaker’s office on a pledge to reform, and he has done so. The little man in the big chair has made some even bigger changes.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.