John Bercow has long made clear that he would like MPs to behave a little better at Prime Minister’s Questions, which he believes is so rowdy that it upsets voters. Well, he seems to have got what he wants, or at least for the first week of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. Last night, at a lecture to the think tank Policy Exchange, he was asked about the session, and whether he thought it would improve permanently.
The Speaker said he didn’t believe ‘that a huge amount of additional work is required in terms of creative construction of the session’, though he added that the session could be longer, or have a mix of open and substantive questions from MPs, if they wanted that. But he argued that the tone of the session would only change and the public would only notice that change of tone if everyone involved stuck with that for months.
‘What is required if you think that Prime Minister’s Questions can usefully improve, is persistence with a changed culture. Persistence with a changed culture. Just changing for a short period isn’t going to avail us, there have been occasions before, periods would be more accurate, before when it has been changed, but it has not necessarily lasted very long.’
Jeremy Corbyn’s allies have already said that he will try something different once he returns to the dispatch box after the conference recess, though the presumption is that he will maintain the same even tone throughout the exchanges. It will be interesting to see whether his new approach lasts as long as he does as leader, however long that is, or whether he drops it early.
He was asked what he thought of Corbyn’s decision to ask questions submitted by members of the public:
‘I think that’s got to be left to the individuals. I don’t think there are any particular limits to topicality, as far as that goes, there may be institutional limits to topicality. As to how people go about asking their questions, whether they operate on a sort of consultant basis, you know, putting forward other people’s propositions, which they will probably also argue are their own, or whether they cheerily advance their own, I think that’s got to be left to them.
‘In a sense in a very, very polite way you’re really dare I say it probably asking me do I approve of the leader of the opposition’s method of interrogation and I think the safest thing on that is to say that it’s clearly new, it represents a different approach, we shall have to see how it works, I thought they were very courteous exchanges last week. I am very keen to preserve the idea that backbenchers get plenty of time at PMQs, so I think whatever the method adopted in the exchanges between the leader and the opposition and the PM, by about 12 minutes past 12 I want to be getting on to backbenchers who’ve got important issues to raise, but otherwise I don’t see a particular limit.’
Bercow did say that PMQs was an important session, and not one he thought should be abolished. Indeed, when he visits other parliaments, he finds their members are jealous that British MPs have the chance to scrutinise their Prime Minister in this way.
He does think there are more ways to improve the way MPs scrutinise legislation, focusing particularly on the idea of post-legislative scrutiny. People were often happy to move onto the next thing, he said, but not to look at how a bill was working a few years down the line, and what should be changed. The system for private members’ bills, which are currently often slain by backbenchers who filibuster until the House has to rise on a Friday afternoon, should change too, he argue, so that the bill fails as a result of scrutiny, rather than tactics by a few MPs who have taken against it.
And he suggested that MPs should also be able to set the time for debating and scrutinising legislation. Currently they officially set the allocated time in that they vote on a programme motion, which the government writes and which they are whipped to support. This means that many measures, particularly controversial ones that the whips don’t want to be jeopardised by a long debate, are given just 90 minutes’ debate before a vote. Bercow said:
‘In practice, all the forces are ranged on the government’s side and parliament has very little natural and obvious scope to try to choreograph events, and I think in that context I would argue that if you have a House Business Committee, there would be a change.’
He said the House Business Committee could work along the lines of the existing Backbench Business Committee, which chooses debates in non-government time. But for the rest of the time, MPs should have more say on what is allocated for debate and how long it gets.
‘Rather than being done behind closed doors through all the usual channels, there should be a House – capital H – business – capital B – committee – capital C – which perhaps would be chaired either by the Deputy Speaker of possibly, if it was necessary to get it through, possibly chaired by the Leader of the House, if the government wants to keep its claws into the legislative steps. There should also be an opportunity for Opposition members to sit on that committee and some backbenchers to sit on that committee and ideally it should sit in public, though perhaps it wouldn’t in the first instance, but it should, and then a proposition as to time application for government business in the subsequent week and in the prospective week thereafter should be put to the House and that should be a divisible proposition. It’s not actually that radical, though I think it would be a welcome change.’
Now, if this all sounds rather procedural and like people squabbling about a school timetable, the reason it is important that the Commons has more control over debates is that it is not in ministers’ interest to allocate sufficient time and space for good scrutiny. Scrutiny may unearth something that slows the progress of a bill, which makes a minister look bad. Scrutiny may encourage more MPs to turn against legislation, or table amendments which are designed to improve the bill but which ministers regard as humiliating criticism.
Some people argue that true scrutiny will only come about if we have full separation of powers between the legislature and executive, something Bercow does not support because he believes it would take ministers a step away from Parliament. But if MPs at least have the control over how much time they can debate a bill for, then the Commons may do a better job at producing good legislation that actually helps people, rather than complicates life still further. And if they have to look back at that legislation once it has been set loose as an Act, then they may get even better at working out what actually works, rather than allowing governments to blunder repeatedly, often in the same pattern.