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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Parliament can take control when it wants to, but it remains an old boys club

Apologies for the length of the headline, but I thought it was important to encapsulate the frustration felt by many at the way that the Speaker and his allies seem prepared to quite rightly stand up for MPs against the Government, but still ignores proposed reforms that would make the Commons a more women-friendly place.

In the Guardian, Jessica Elgot describes how Speaker Bercow provoked fury from ministers and Brexit supporters on Wednesday, by accepting an amendment which radically curtails the timetable for Theresa May to prepare a “plan B” to present to parliament should she lose the vote next week on her Brexit deal.

She says that Tory backbenchers were visibly enraged during the points of order after Bercow permitted the controversial amendment:

Crispin Blunt, a Brexiter, told Bercow: “Many of us will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs, not least because you made public your opinion and your vote on the issue of Brexit, is no longer neutral.”

Despite the visceral dislike from many in the Conservative party, Bercow has the firm support of many Labour MPs, precisely because of his willingness to hold the government’s feet to the fire over significant Brexit legislation.

He has dramatically increased the number of urgent questions which he grants to allow backbenchers to call cabinet ministers to the Commons.

May has regularly been kept on her feet for up to three hours during statements until the Speaker has been certain that every backbencher wanting to speak has had the opportunity.

As others have written, Bercow has strengthened the power of MPs in holding the government to account, and has reasserted the authority of Parliament in scrutinising and frustrating an over-mighty executive.

He has been helped of course by the fact that he oversees a hung Parliament, and by the divisions amongst MPs within their own parties, but whatever the reason, his interventions could prove to be crucial in helping to rebalance our main democratic institution.

The question has to be asked though, if Bercow is able to exercise such influence, why is it that other important reforms to the working practices of the House of Commons remain unactioned?

As I wrote a few days ago, despite cross-party and government support for change, new parents and pregnant MPs continue to find the system stacked against them. Their condition is treated as a disability in terms of doing their job, whereas in other work places, their needs would be accommodated and they would be able to work normally throughout their 'confinement' and as a new parent.

It is possible of course that in frustrating the government, Bercow is motivated by a personal dislike of certain Ministers, the government and its policies. That is certainly the view of many Tory MPs.

But if he wants to be a truly reforming Speaker, it is not enough just to give MPs the upper hand over the executive. He needs to also drag the Commons into the twenty-first century in the way it operates.
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