Monday 15 June 2009
The Hansard Society organised a hustings in advance of next week's election (Monday 22nd June) of a new Speaker for the House of Commons. It was filmed by BBC Parliament and is due for broadcast on that channel at 9pm (UK time) on Sunday 21st. I'd recommend watching it. The hustings lasted for two hours, but it was both fascinating and encouraging.
The potential candidates who spoke, and then answered questions were
- Margaret Beckett MP
- Sir Alan Beith MP
- John Bercow MP
- Sir Patrick Cormack MP
- Parmjit Dhanda MP
- Sir Alan Haselhurst MP
- Sir Michael Lord MP
- Richard Shepherd MP
- Ann Widdecombe MP
- Sir George Young MP
The meeting was chaired by Peter Riddell , of the Times and Chairman of the Hansard Society. His first task was to draw lots to settle the order of speaking. Each candidate had up to five minutes to speech - and all kept within time. I am sure that there will be reports in the UK media - a colleague who sat next to me, and who has had a long involvement with Hansard Society events, observed that he had never seen so many representatives of the print and broadcast media in attendance at a Hansard Society function. The following are my own notes, and I make no claims about accuracy or representativeness.
Alan Beith was the first to speak. He regarded "maintaining effort to make parliament more effective" as a priority. He suggested that the House as a whole should occasionally sit outside Westminster. Parmjit Dhanda expressed the view that the public "don't want the language of Erskine May, but...plain, blunt English". He too advocated taking Parliament out to the country.
Richard Shepherd described himself as the "back to the future candidate". He spoke passionately of his view that Parliament once meant something. "It needs to again". He stressed that the House of Commons is NOT the government. Instead, it is made up of the representatives for the country. "The Commons' role is to moderate, influence and challenge government."
The personal qualities needed of a Speaker were stressed by Sir George Young - impartiality; authority; patience; humour; aquaintance with the rules; a basis of support from across the House; and leadership were mentioned.
Anne Widdecombe said "I'm pretty unique", pointing out that, amongst other unique qualities, she was only asking for interim authority. She will retire from Parliament at the General Election. As with other candidates she stressed the dual task of restoring the reputation of the House and shifting the balance from the Executive to Parliament.
John Bercow, the bookies favourite, said there were three challenges
1 to restore trust in politics
2 to put Parliament first
3 to be an ambassador - He, or she, must be "a robust advocate of democratic accountability - and a listener to the legitimate concerns of the public"
The final four, and this was an accident of chance, were more tradionally minded. Both Sir Alan Haselhurst and Sir Michael Lord have long experience in the Speakers Chair - currently the number 2 and 3 in the hierarchy. Sir Patrick Cormack is a House institution himself - being known for his knowledge of Commons history. Margaret Beckett has great ministerial experience and was a former Leader of the House. All acknowledged that changes were necessary but didn't display the passion for reform of some of the earlier speaking candidates.
It was well worth going - and I hope you'll be able to watch on Sunday. The Hansard Society allowed us to see both quality and hope for the future.
A BBC report with highlights is available now at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8099946.stm