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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.