Thursday 24 September 2009

Bercow promises backbenchers super powers

The world of Parliament just shuddered a little: John Bercow had set out radical plans to create a new more powerful era for backbenchers, taking back the Commons from the hands of Government.
Bercow set out in his public speech tonight proposals for a shorter summer recess, and a return to September working as well as a welter of other reforms. He called it a time for the House to "look at itself in a full and frank fashion".
He gamboled with puppy dog eagerness through a list that should set hearts of parliamentary traditionalists beating a little faster and they hear of his outline of a new shaken and stirred parliamentary model.
Those traditionalists might find their hearts warming to the new Speaker's plans to hand more power to backbench MPs and remove them from the role of glorified councillor, something he alluded to when he set down why he felt the role of the backbencher had weakened in recent years, undermining parliamentary democracy.
For years backbenchers have moaned at the lack of power; how no one listens to them any more; how there is no point turning up to debates when there is no chance to contribute or change legislation.
Those who thought "denial, delay or dilution is a serious solution are deluded", Bercow suggested in a welter of alliterative enthusiasm, and then added that any scheme that failed at "the court of public opinion surely founders".
An end to all this, says the new super-Speaker, who one can see flying in with a special cape and other super democracy-fixing powers.
In a fluent and funny flow of words, he set the stage for a new era for the backbencher, one where they had more power to speak in the House, and for ministers to be called to respond; for ordinary MPs to organise more of the business of the House; and for the government to find its power a little depleted.
In one flash of his cape, super Speaker called for ministers in the Lords to be open to questions from MPs, just as their colleagues in the Commons are, and lo, he has a solution: there will be special sittings in the great and historic Westminster Hall for this purpose.
He suggested rather cheekily that Lords Mandelson and Adonis were champing at the Parliamentary bit for just such an opportunity, and they could hardly say otherwise.
A jokey aside about Lord Mandelson having more power than anyone since Alexander the Great also received a warm chuckle from this audience, which included academics, union reps for parliamentary researchers, and campaigners for an English Assembly - a real mixing pot.

Watch that Bercow space for a "backbenchers bill of rights" to include:

* 20 minutes in "primetime" for select committee chairs to make a speech on the day of a report launch

* moving private members bills to the middle of the week to give them more status

* more topical questions at the House at the request of MPs not government

* the Speaker to preside over more Friday sittings

Things in the borough of St Stephens may never be the same again. The rumbles of change are spreading, and, as Bercow pointed out, the centenary of the Parliament Act is almost upon us, they can be no more opportune time to spell out the need for radical change.

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