Speaker Bercow takes another step!

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceWhen I was on the front bench listening to the Prime Minister’s statement and wanting to get called to ask my ‘helicopter’ question – I thought I would carry out a little experiment to see if Speaker Bercow was going to get rid of silly rules.

Under Speaker Martin – and probably legions before him – LibDem frontbenchers who want to get called to ask a question have to go and sit in the second row – as until now we have only been allowed one speaker from the front bench – and that is obviously the opposite number to the Government minister.

Now – I am the same person – whether I am on the front bench or the row behind – so it has always struck me as a stupid rule – and stupid rules is what I am looking to Speaker Bercow to get rid of.

So – I decided to test him out by standing to get called whilst still on the front bench – and not moving to the row behind.

Nearing the end of the statement period, and the last person Speaker Bercow called before he changed over to the Deputy Speaker – was – yes me!

This may seem one small step for me – but this was huge in terms of political mankind. Well done Speaker Bercow – moderniser and man of your word!

Electing a new Speaker

It must have been one of the shortest statements ever. Basically, Speaker Martin said for the sake of the unity of the house he would step down on 21 June – allowing for a new speaker to be voted for on 22 June. And that was that.

I though just as he got it wrong yesterday – he got it right today. I just wish he hadn’t had the humiliation of yesterday. But politics is like that – sudden and often quite brutish in its endings.

Speaker Martin’s announcement today is just the start of a process that will hopefully sweep away the cobwebs and dust of a system that has been sustaining a broken politics – and will let light into all the old, dark secret ways.

We all now have a duty to give our ideas and energy for reform to the Kelly commission, who will independently set the new rules for all expenses and the like. He needs to get a shifty on – as the sooner we can cleanse our body politic the better. There are massive problems out there for so many people that this inward focus must end as soon as possible.

And whilst the Speaker has now done the honourable thing – and I am glad that he can now go with dignity – that still leaves the many MPs on a spectrum of guilt from potentially criminal (that means they must face the law of the land), through excessive greed (deselection) to smaller transgressions (the ballot box ). All those must be dealt with appropriately – and the punishment must fit the crime. For the rest – being sainted in the Telegraph is their earthly reward. (Fair play to the Telegraph too – as they are now publishing each day a list of ‘saints’. See their coverage of myself here.)

As to who will be the new speaker – I don’t know. I do know that the new system of secret ballots means that hopefully the dreadful pressure of the whips and the totally partisan approach will not hold sway. We need someone who can deliver a modernising agenda. That is the crucial point and I don’t care which party they come from – only that they can deliver and take us forward out of this unholy mess.

Frank Dobson and I had a real set to as we were waiting to go on the BBC’s Daily Politics show. He is against the secret ballot and was trying to argue that we shouldn’t have anything secret. I think he doesn’t get it. Expenses – open and transparent so the world can see and be reassured about our behaviour. Voting, just as in general elections, in a secret ballot to make sure we don’t suffer undue influence.

Methinks Frank doesn’t get it. He still clearly wants to stack the odds, use the whips, ensure a Labour Speaker – rather than fair play. Luckily we had to go on set before we got to fisticuffs!

Michael Martin

I was sitting in the chamber yesterday awaiting the arrival of Speaker Martin – and thinking of history. I was remembering other ‘rotten’ Parliaments that I had yawned at in my school history lessons – bored and not understanding the import of history – that it was once reality. Ironic – really. And then Speaker Martin rose to make his statement.

Whilst I had called for him to go last Sunday – as I sat there in the chamber I wondered – could he, would he? Was there a rabbit out of hat? As his first words left his mouth – I knew that nothing had changed. Speaker Martin just hadn’t got it. He did apologise to the nation. He said we all had to bear our responsibility. And then he said he would call an urgent meeting with all the leaders. He just seemed not to understand the raging torrent of public opinion out there. Calling a meeting just wasn’t going to do it!

Not enough. Not nearly enough. You cannot defend the indefensible – and yet he believed he should.

The world has moved on – and MPs are not a special breed who can hide behind some special arrangements that make them in some way exempt from the scrutiny and openness that we prescribe for others. The Americans have got this together so much better than us.

Anyway – Speaker Martin failed to command the respect of the House – as MP after MP defied him and challenged his authority. One MP shouted from behind the bar (from which you cannot speak). Centuries of convention and respect dissipated as Mr Speaker lost control.

He was not helped by his own mistakes in understanding the standing orders of the House and had clearly not been briefed properly by his Clerks – as he said that the motion of no confidence (tabled by Douglas Carswell and on which I was one of the initial signatories) was not a substantive motion. But it is. He said it was an EDM. Shouts from the House – anger and derision mixed.

But with today’s news that he’s going to stand down – that’s all history now. The job now is to get a Speaker who can help us all start fixing the system.

Reaction on the doorsteps to the expenses scandals

Knocking on doors in Crouch End yesterday was generally friendly – but it is quite clear that people are upset and angry with politicians who cheat and/or milk the system. There is also deep concern about the future of our democracy as people feel that they have been betrayed and don’t know where to turn and who to trust. And quite frankly – I feel the same – and don’t even know how to reassure them.

Only using this ‘opportunity’ for radical change and reform stands even a chance of restoring any trust or respect – in a decade’s time if we are lucky.

That is why it is crucial that the Speaker goes. It is crucial that those MPs who have evaded tax or committed fraud should face the consequences of their actions – and for any other MPs if the Standards Committee finds them at fault – then deselection. The rest who have transgressed should face their electorate.

And the sooner we have an election the better!

The Speaker should go

The Speaker should go. This is the man who moved to block freedom of information on MPs expenses. This is the man who is meant to hold the respect of Parliament and parliamentarians. This is the man whose first instinct last week was to shoot the messengers rather than address the crisis breaking all around us.

There is to be a vote of confidence next week – but I hope for his as well as our sake – that he goes of his own volition before then.

That doesn’t deal with the MPs who have defrauded the system or evaded tax – who must face investigation under the law. They should be sacked. Those who have had to ‘pay back’ depending on the scale of the offence either should be deselected/resign or face their electorate in due course and give them the ultimate say on their future. And those MPs who haven’t done anything wrong should have equal space in the Telegraph saying so.

I texted Nick Clegg a few days ago to suggest he call for the dissolution of Parliament as I cannot see how we can continue given that we, the members of the House of Commons, have collectively no credibility or respect or trust. Listening to a pundit on the news just now, though, he said we need three months to do this in orderly fashion – to deselect those MPs who have abused the system and to not go to the polls at a moment when in anger – the baby would be thrown out with the bathwater. I assume he meant that the anger and the fury of the people voting at this moment would turn it into an election exclusively about an expression of that anger – and that elections should be about the economy etc. I am not sure I agree – as everything feels contaminated at the moment.

Kissing the wrong man

Today is ID day! It is also the day when our newest Lib Dem MP, Willie Rennie, fresh from our stunning Dunfermline by-election, is introduced to Parliament. There is a wee ceremony – where the new MP is accompanied on each side by colleagues and then walks to the Speaker, bowing heads at particular spots. The new Member is ‘sworn’ in and then shakes hands with Mr Speaker (Michael Martin).

All good stuff.

A little later I went out into the Lib Dem Whips office – and Willie was standing there. So I shook his hand, congratulated him, and he leaned forward for a kiss (peck on both cheeks type). Then I went back into the chamber for the beginning of the ID card debate where I am on the front bench with Alistair Carmichael – our Shadow Home Secretary. However, I see Willie in there.

Trying to explain this to Alistair – half way through the story – I pass him a note saying ‘well – who the hell did I kiss then’? The note came back! ‘Nichol Stephen, Deputy First Minister of Scotland’. That’s what happens if you help an election by making phone calls rather than delivering leaflets with the candidate’s photo all over them …!

Anyway – more to the point – we failed to defeat the government on ID cards. I’m truly sorry – as I believe the scheme is flawed and dangerous and moves us ever nearer to a police state – but without the promised ‘benefits’ of the card. The idea that a database of this size and complexity won’t go wrong is naïve in the extreme. In the end I suspect the costs will mean it becomes untenable. The only danger, as pointed out by one MP, is that if they have already invested billions – even if useless and unworkable – there will be a momentum to continue because of the money down the drain to date.

The key issue – and where Labour broke their manifesto promise – was that in the manifesto it was to be a voluntary scheme. Of course, now they are linking it to passports (and despite a Minister saying you didn’t have to have a passport – I wouldn’t fancy trying to explain to a border guard that I didn’t have one because it was ‘voluntary’). And of course, as 80% of us have passports – that means it will effectively be compulsory for that 80%.

I haven’t the heart to go through the numbers of flaws and dangers ahead if this scheme does go ahead. The usual Labour rebels still voted with us and the Tories, but the swing rebels – the ones that can deliver the final defeat – appeared to have been driven back into their corner by the Labour whips, probably scared rigid after Dunfermline that they had better not rattle Labour’s position any further or their seats could be on the line.

Depressed – I run into Chris Huhne (our future leader I hope) and David Howarth MP and Martin Horwood MP – we are all of us on Team Huhne. So we adjourn to a bar – and Chris and I have a diet coke. The fun never stops!

How not to make legislation

Went to the gardens next door to Parliament to be photographed with a sheep (not real) for an RSPCA promotion of their ‘mark’ which will would signify food that has their approval ofr how the animals are treated. Realised after photographer had finished that I had stood at sheep’s rear end!

During questions today in Parliament I was desperate to get in on a question (somebody else’s) on British Transport Police. I wanted to ask the Minister what action he had taken since the controversy in summer over the use of stop and search powers on the rail network and the hugely disproportionate number of ethnic minority members being stopped.

Then statement in the House on Turkey’s accession to the EU. I was particularly interested in this as there’s a substantial Turkish community in Haringey and the issue of Cyprus very important to both the Turkish and Greek community here. From the statement, it became clear that there will be around 10 – 15 years while Turkey now tries to bring a whole raft of things in line with EU policy. There is no question that the Cyprus issue would have to be resolved and that its record on human rights would have to be vastly improved. It was equally clear that this must be the way forward – as Turkey’s desire to join the Union is the strongest motivator for improvement and resolution.

The bit of the debate I was less keen on was the constant reference by Straw to the EU being seen as a Christian club if a Muslim country such as Turkey (albeit pretty secular) was not admitted. I would have much preferred the debate to remain on the secular side as the EU should have no truck with using religion as a deciding factor on how to treat people or countries.

Later, Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) had invited new MPs to the Speaker’s House for a drink. Magnificent apartments! I talked to his chief of office for a while – and now understand better how I need to jump up and down to be called during question sessions. But it means jumping up and down all the time – even if it’s not really the question you want to be called on – so you end up risking getting called to speak on something you don’t want to talk about or staying sitting most of the time and not getting called at all.

It’s one of the macho things about the house I already can’t stand. Another is that the longer you talk, regardless of value of content of what you say, the better man you are. I had noticed in debates where speeches are limited to ten minutes that MPs nearly all talk for the entire ten minutes regardless – but not me! No doubt I am wrong to only say what I need to say; but call me old-fashioned – burbling endlessly is not a skill I intend to acquire.

Another bugbear is the way that legislation is brought forward and amended. You would not believe how archaic this is or that the age of technology had arrived.

Take the In Violent Crime Reduction Bill which is starting its committee stage starting on Thursday, You have the Bill, the Lib Dem amendments, the Tory amendments, the Government amendments, explanatory notes, selection order papers and so on – all which have to be to hand on each amendment. It would be SO SIMPLE to have an electronic version of the Bill with all the different amendments and information marked up on it in different colours. But no – another macho game is to make it much more complicated than it needs to be. Of course it does result – as we see all the time – in badly written legislation.

I whipped in to see the Labour whip on the committee to ask him about the programming motion (a 15 minute meeting on Wednesday to decide what and how long each bit should take). And he agrees with me about the presentation of bills and amendments – so cross party – perhaps … in the next century …

Age Concern reception

Nick (Mr Europe and jolly good at it) Clegg rang last week to say could I step into his shoes and take his place speaking at an Age Concern reception in Parliament.

The reception is held in the Speaker’s House – not so much of house as a castle at the left-hand side of Westminster Palace as you look from the main road. The apartments were grand – understatement! Reception rooms, leading to a state dining room with a table that would seat I guess about 50 or 60 – leading to a bedroom with the whole caboodle of four poster, desks, etc. Of course, Mr Speaker actually lives upstairs – but this is where he entertains.

Drinking champagne (yes – sorry – already being seduced by now being member of best gentleman’s club in town) and chatting, I discover that there will be three MP speakers as well as the Chief Executive of Age Concern and the Speaker himself – the other two being Teresa May and David Blunkett.

I gravitate, as instructed, towards the far end of the mile-long dining table and guests assemble around it. Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) and I have a little chat. I thought what he did when Patsy Carlton, our LibDem MP for Cheadle, came to the Commons to swear in – in a wheelchair and only a few days before she died after a long battle with cancer – was absolutely fantastic.

Patsy was pushed in the wheelchair as far as the Despatch Box where the chamber becomes too narrow for the chair to pass. Mr Speaker came down from his chair, kissed her, and said ‘welcome home Patsy’. I can’t even write this without welling up. It was incredibly moving and entirely the right thing to do. It was against all tradition – and this place is literally the bastion of tradition.

Anyway – after Mr Speaker and Age Concern spoke – I had my turn. They had chosen the three MPs not just from the three parties – but an oldy (David Blunkett), a middly (Teresa May) and myself as a new kid – three generations of MPs.

First time in the chamber

Go to City Hall for AGM of London Assembly – my vote is necessary to see Sally Hamwee safely into the Chair of the Assembly for the coming year. Other committees are set up and later I sign my letter of resignation from the Met Police Authority. (I’ll be standing down from the GLA in a couple of weeks once I’ve tided up various loose ends). Makes me very sad as I love the work I have been able to do on policing and my hope is that I will be able to carry it on at the Commons.

Am called to see Chief Whip at Commons who asks what experience I have and how I am getting along etc. The Chief Whip is Andrew Stunnell – who I shadowed at Parliament eight years ago before I was elected to anything – so he can take due credit!

Into chamber for first time to elect the Speaker of the House (although there is only Michael Martin standing). Nevertheless – clearly an occasion for speeches. I sat in the third row – and was very squished. Too many people for too few seats – and very, very noise. No doubt it will all become familiar in a relatively short time.

Then off for a briefing for Question Time. Everyone says ‘you’ll be fine’ – but I don’t know that or think it even possible at this point. Can’t wait for it to be over! Back to Commons for Parliamentary Party weekly meeting – interesting to see everyone. At least we are now a big enough party for me not to know everyone and then home – to emails and more emails.