Inside the Commons: Episode 4

The final episode was entitled ‘Reinventing the House’, showing the differing ideas about Westminster’s future.

The Speaker’s Role

The position of Speaker of the House of Commons has existed for seven centuries, and the Speaker is the only MP who lives within Westminster itself. The current Speaker is John Bercow, who lives there with his wife Sally and their children.

Bercow describes his job as acting as referee during the debates in the Commons. He decides who speaks and calls for order when there are too many jeers and interruptions.

Speaker John Bercow in action

Bercow is not universally liked: Michael Fabricant is a vocal critic, and there were persistent rumours of a rift between the Speaker and the outgoing Clerk of the Commons, Sir Robert Rogers.

In fact, MPs rebelled against Bercow’s suggestion of the replacement Clerk. There were objections to the proposed candidate Carol Mills, and the issue was given to a committee to look at. The committee, after spending 4 months looking at the issue, dismissed Carol Mills as an unsuitable candidate and recommended splitting the role into two new separate roles.

The building itself

The Palace of Westminster is in need of costly renovations. Its problems include vermin, damp, crumbling stonework and leaking roofs. Cables and piping directly underneath the Commons chamber are currently being renovated, but have to be worked on in such a way that it doesn’t interrupt debates. The total repair bill could run to as much as £3 billion, and temporary relocation may prove necessary for some parts of the work to be undertaken.

Parliament and the public

The majority of MPs who were newly elected in 2010 believe significant reforms are needed. They believe politicians need to be held accountable and subject the government to more scrutiny. They also recognise that the public are disillusioned with politicians.The high turnout and narrow vote in the Scottish referendum was an additional wake-up call for Westminster.

Zac Goldsmith MP wants powers to recall MPs at any time and sought amendments to the government’s Recall Bill, which he considers toothless. Others disagree with the notion: Alan Duncan MP says ‘there has never been so much nonsense as this idea of recall’ and thinks it destroys the concept of Parliament.

The initial support for Goldsmith’s amendements melts away as party whips put pressure on their MPs to reject them. Goldsmith asks ‘What is the point of being an MP spending time working towards something you believe in, only to yield for opportunistic reasons at the last?’ Officially, it is declared a free vote so that MPs can vote with their own conscience, but Goldsmith’s amendments are rejected.

For progressive MPs seeking an end to the whip system (where MPs must vote on the party line) and wanting to get away from the jeering and shouting of Punch and Judy politics, changing the building would be conducive to changing the behaviour of parties and politicians.

Conclusions from the series

In summary, narrator Michael Cockerell describes Parliament as ‘perhaps the most magnificent and maddening institution in Britain’. My conclusion is that reform will be a slow and painful process, but it is at least increasingly being seen as desirable.

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