Time for MPs to take back control of Parliament

john bercow

John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

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There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.

The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to  take  back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.

Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament  through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.

The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.

In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to  allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.

As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:

” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”

He goes on in this longer extract:

” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.

“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.

“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”

Now you might say -particularly after this long extract –  why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.

First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.

This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.

Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by   ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named  after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.

These could be used to  change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).

This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t  avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.

So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said  week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Blair’s top donor goes Bercow

lord levy

Lord Levy

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On the very, very last day of Parliament  John Bercow, the Speaker, who faces the prospect of a contested General Election ( breaking normal precedent) announced some £20,000 in donations from some very surprising and controversial sources.

Released  the day Parliament was dissolved  it was revealed the music impresario Lord Levy – who infamously  and in his view unjustly got involved in the ” Cash for Honours” scandal has given a £5000 donation to John Bercow which presumably will go towards his election campaign.

Lord Levy, well known as Tony Blair’s tennis partner and  New Labour’s chief fund raiser  and at one stage close confidant of the former Labour PM, was arrested but never charged over the scandal which suggested that the party was soliciting donations with the hint of possible peerages for the party backers. The furore that followed led to a breach between Blair and Levy which subsequently, I understand, been healed.

john bercow

John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

The second donation  is from property tycoon Sir David Garrard who was also involved in  the ” cash for honours” scandal before the police dropped the investigation. He had switched from supporting the Tories to New Labour.

He is also a fan of  former Labour leader Ed Miliband and gave Labour a whopping £500,000 at the last general election. He has given John Bercow a more modest £5000.

The third £5,000 donor is Sun Mark Ltd, run by entrepreneur Dr Rami Ranger ,who has won no fewer than five Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, for distributing products to supermarkets worldwide. His autobiography, From Nothing to Everything, I suspect, appeals to John Bercow, or at least the title would.

The final £5000 comes  I suspect from Michael Keegan, who is  the head of Fujitsu for the UK and Ireland. It would have been much more fun of it had been Michael Keegan-Kay, an American comedian and actor, who spent six seasons on madTV but that donation would be banned under the rules blocking foreign donors though.

 

The midnight email that set off the rebellion against Hague’s dirty tactics to dump Bercow

Bercow supporter Julian Lewis. MP for New Forest East, warned colleagues of the plot in this email

Bercow supporter Julian Lewis. MP for New Forest East, warned colleagues of the plot in this email

Once you write a story you often get new information sent to you. Now an MP has sent me the email sent out by Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East and a supporter of John Bercow, to hundreds of  MPs at midnight warning them of the ambush that William Hague had set up to get rid of the Speaker.I thought it worth publishing as a little bit of Parliamentary history to go with the earlier story. I see the Spectator has also picked up the email.

Dear Colleague,
At the start of this Parliament, the Procedure Committee undertook an investigation into elections for positions in the House. As part of this, the Committee looked at methods for electing the Speaker and identified two routes: (i) an open ballot as at present, or (ii) a secret ballot.
It was the view of the Committee, in bringing forward its recommendations, that NO CHANGE be made. However, it recognised that there might be an appetite in the House to debate this. Consequently, it made it clear – in two  letters to the Leader of the House, on 7 February 2013 and on 3 February 2015 – that any such debate should take place in prime time “and should not be tucked away on a Thursday”.
Today (Wednesday), at 5.45pm, Conservative colleagues received our first ever notification that, at 10.30am tomorrow, there will be an hour-long Debate “on various Procedure Committee recommendations, including on the re-election of a Speaker”. The notification added that Motions “are in the name of William Hague”.
I understand that one of these Motions will recommend changing the method of re-electing a Speaker from an open ballot to a secret one – despite the fact that only 2 Members of the Procedure Committee have supported this in the past and the Committee as a whole has not recommended any such change.
Astonishingly, even though the notification explicitly referred to the debate being “on various Procedure Committee recommendations”, the first the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker, knew about this Business being tabled by the Leader of the House, was when I told him after reading the notification at about 6.30pm today.
Neither the daily guidance circulated to Conservative Colleagues at 11.48am, nor the Reminder about an “important pre-election meeting of the Parliamentary Party at 10.30am tomorrow”, circulated to colleagues at 11.51am today, made any mention of bringing this controversial matter before the House on the very last day of this Parliament.
Therefore, we find that large numbers of Conservative Colleagues will be attending an important ‘Strategy meeting’ in Portcullis House at the very same time as this highly contentious matter is being debated in the Chamber. The Division Bell will then ring and Colleagues will stream over to the Division Lobbies without any awareness of the issues involved in this so-called “Free Vote”. Instead, they will be likely to support whatever it is the Leader of the House has tabled.
One need not be a particular admirer of the Speaker to realise that this is no way for decent people to behave.
I trust that Members of all parties will not allow themselves to be manipulated in this unworthy fashion, and will make the effort to attend and vote appropriately tomorrow, by rejecting the proposal to re-elect the Speaker secretly rather than openly.
Yours sincerely,
Julian Lewis

William Hague’s shabby and botched attempt to unseat a great reforming Speaker

John Bercow, the Speaker  Image credit: bbc

John Bercow, the Speaker
Image credit: bbc

The Speaker of the House of Commons is someone the public recognise. Every week while Parliament sits he is seen on TV controlling the bear garden that is  Prime Minister’s Questions.. His role is like a strict disciplinarian headmaster trying to control overgrown adolescents shouting down and jeering their opponents like kids in a school playground.

But John Bercow is more than that. He is probably the best known speaker since  former Tiller girl Betty Boothroyd  became a hit in the United States with her unique smack of authority in a British Parliament. And he has made big changes that are good news for democracy and the public.

It was therefore deeply depressing  early on Wednesday evening when I was rung up by a very trusted source to tell me about a shabby plan to unseat him by changing the election rules for the next Parliament in May without people realising what was going on.

The master minds behind the plans appear to be William Hague, leader of the House and Michael Gove, the chief whip aided and abetted by Greg Hands, the deputy chief whip, and Cameron’s nasty Aussie election strategist, Lynton Crosby. The Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg also agreed to the ruse.

My source told me that throughout the day Tory MPs had been sent three texts by the whips designed to ambush Labour and push through an arcane rule change in Parliament which would mean curtains for Bercow. It told them that a plan to send hundreds of Tory MPs to canvass voters in the marginal seat of Hastings and Rye, held by Amber Rudd, had been cancelled and they all had to turn up  on a three-line whip ( Parliament’s on pain of death) to hear Lynton Crosby outline their general election strategy in Portcullis House at 10.30 am.

What it didn’t tell them was that the order of business had been changed at the last moment and an obscure report changing the election rules of the next Speaker – traditionally elected by a public vote – would be debated in the Chamber. They proposed to change this to a secret ballot so ministers could get rid of him without their votes being recorded.The plan was for the  debate to take place while Crosby was briefing Mps  and the vote to take place at 11.30 am just as all Tory MPs  were leaving the briefing. They would march in the lobby to vote on William Hague’s motion without really knowing what it said. And Labour MPs would know nothing about the shabby deal – most having returned to their constituencies- and government would  have got rid of Bercow.

But then my trusted source got to work – and I tweeted and briefed a few papers and broadcasters- and it began to unravel. For a start the very independent minded  Tory MP, Charles Walker, who chaired the procedure committee found his report had been hijacked by Hague. Furthermore it did not recommend voting changes in the election of a Speaker –  the two Tories on the committee who wanted it  – Sir Roger Gale and James Gray  – had been soundly defeated.  They then agreed to accept  the status quo  and the report was unanimous agreed. So Hague was being dishonest as well as sneaky. by proposing the change as it was not recommended by the report. And James Gray, to his credit, appeared so disgusted with Hague’s behaviour that he voted against the government.

Then it is clear that Angela Eagle,shadow leader of the house got wind of the deal and started summoning Labour Mps back and stopping the rest leaving. And Mr Bercow realised what the plot was about and suddenly granted two urgent questions on matters of policy which delayed the timing of the debate and the vote.

By the time it was debated yesterday the sneaky little proposal fell apart as there enough Labour Mps back in Parliament and enough Tories and Liberal Democrats rebelled to defeat the government by 26 votes.. But it had been a close run thing. Some 23 Conservative and 10 Liberal  Democrat MPs revolted. Scroll down this to see the debate and vote.

This is scandalous for two reasons. Parliament’s committee of MPs are independent of government and had proposed a completely different motion to be debated.. Hague had no business changing the findings of an independent committee.

And  Bercow himself is a good thing. He has made ministers far more accountable for their actions by forcing them to come to Parliament to justify decisions – on one issue we have had on this blog Theresa May has been far more scrutinised by MPs on the  child sex abuse inquiry because Bercow forced her to come to Parliament  by accepting urgent questions from MPs.

The coalition ministers hated this aspect of democracy because it was last minute and inconvenient They much preferred a  supine Parliament. On that issue alone people should think about how they cast their vote on May 7.