Long Road Sixth Form College was honoured to receive a visit from John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, on Friday 24th March.
Mr Speaker gave a hugely entertaining and informative speech to a packed audience of Long Road Politics and other students. He talked about his role as Speaker, and how important he considered it to go out and meet the people represented by Members of Parliament, in particular young voters.
He explained how he had had to learn the names and faces of 400 new MPs after the 2015 General Election so that he could make sure that representatives of all points of view had an opportunity to speak in debates.
He talked about how he had worked to make the government more accountable to Parliament. One example of this was arranging for chairs of select committees to be elected by secret ballot, rather than appointed. This meant that they could be more impartial and better able to scrutinise proceedings. He had also ensured that back bench MPs were able to choose topics for debates once a week – out of this had come the enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster.
When Mr Speaker took over his role, he discovered that there was a shooting gallery in the Houses of Parliament but no day nursery – he had been able to reverse that situation to make it easier for parents to work in Parliament. He had also learned that some employees of the Parliamentary Estate (all the building used by Parliament, not just the Houses of Parliament) were paid below the living wage and had zero hours contracts – again, a situation he remedied. He had also set up an Education Centre in the Houses of Parliament to enable school trips to gain maximum benefit from their visit to London.
Mr Speaker then opened the floor to questions.
Why oppose Trump’s visit but not Xi Jinping?
He was asked why he had opposed President Trump’s visit and prevented him from speaking at Westminster Hall, but had not opposed the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. He explained that China was demonstrating ‘a positive trend’ towards a more open and democratic society and that he too did not make a speech at Westminster Hall.
He was asked about PR and reminded the audience that there had been a referendum after the 2010 election and that it was perhaps too soon to revisit the matter – it was something that might be considered once or twice a generation.
Terrorist attack at Westminster
Mr Speaker visited the college two days after the terrorist attack in Westminster and was asked for his views. He explained that the attack had failed if its purpose was to disrupt the work of Parliament. He did not want a ‘Fortress Parliament’ and would continue to perform what he considered a key duty – to visit the people who chose their representatives and who were therefore entitled to question them.
‘Punch and Judy’ behaviour
He was asked about the ‘Punch and July’ behaviour of MPs but commented that this was generally only seen at PMQ (Prime Minister’s Question Time) when the decibel level was higher than ACDC.
Making government accountable
He was asked how the government could be made accountable when it had an overall majority. Here he talked about the role of the opposition, the House of Lords and the media, who could all put pressure on the government to rethink policies. He gave as an example the privatisation of forests. He admitted that it could be difficult unless the ruling party was about to lose a vote.
Is there an effective opposition?
He was asked if the country has an effective opposition. Mr Speaker did not feel that it was appropriate to comment but stressed the importance of an opposition which could be seen as a credible alternative, able to probe and scrutinise the work of the government. He considered it key to his role to get on with all parties and to remain impartial.
Federalisation of the European Union
He was asked for his opinion on Jean-Claude Junkcer, President of the European Commission’s efforts to federalise the European Union. He said that although this had had a ‘negative read-out’ here (hence Brexit), there was a stronger identification with the European idea across the rest of the EU membership. He felt that our membership had always been pragmatic rather than idealistic.
Which public figures most admired?
Finally, he was asked which politicians or public figures he most admired. In addition to some more contemporary British politicians, he mentioned Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Rathbone, William Wilberforce and Winston Churchill.
Dave Evans, Head of Politics, says: “We are extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for visiting Long Road at what has been a traumatic and challenging time for Parliament. John Bercow demonstrated very clearly that the government will carry on its work to represent the people of this country. Mr Speaker also demonstrated his commitment to listening to young voters, and his visit was viewed very positively by our students. It was an privilege to have him here.”