When I endorsed John Bercow for the Commons Speakership, one of the reasons for my support was that I believed that as a committed parliamentarian he would work to enhance the power of backbench MPs.
So it was interesting to hear how he has developed that principle as he delivered a lecture to the Hansard Society, which I have just attended.
He proceeded to set out what he called a "backbencher's Bill of Rights" relating to enhancing the role of backbenchers in parliamentary inquisition and legislation. Most of the proposals are subject to agreement by various other parties before they can take effect, but they can be summarised as follows:
- Introduce cross-cutting questions to ministers from several departments at once in Westminster Hall on subjects which cover the responsibilities of two or more departments.
- Give one of the two weekly Ten-Minute Rule Bill slots to another type of back-bench opportunity, for example asking a question of a minister which doesn't meet the criteria for an Urgent Question.
- Further reform in the process of scrutinising delegated legislation and European business to allow backbenchers a louder voice, including the possibility of more debates in the Commons chamber on certain EU documents.
- Introduce Private Members’ Motions so that individual MPs can put a proposition to the House and have it voted on.
- Make Cabinet Ministers in the House of Lords more accountable to MPs. The Speaker (who described Lord Mandelson''s empire as being "of a scale not seen since the death of Alexander the Great") suggested the option of having them answer questions in Westminster Hall and said he would consult further on it. In questions afterwards, I reiterated my proposal (alas already rejected by Ken Clarke) that they should have to come to the Despatch Box in the Commons like ministers who are MPs. The Speaker said that this was "a possibility" and that just because something has never been done before should not rule it out, but reiterated that he would consult further on the issue.
- Supplement the resources of the Public Bill Office to offer additional support to Members who are successful in the Private Members’ Bill Ballot.
- Remove the Government's present monopoly of decision as to whether a Private Members Bill can go into a Public Bill Committee.
- Find a far better balance between cutting a debate improperly and extending a debate artificially on Private Members Bills.
- Consider the option of a Report Committee for Private Members’ Bills.
- Look at moving Private Members' Bills from Fridays to, perhaps, Wednesdays, putting them more squarely in the heart of a sitting week.
Several of the proposals are somewhat arcane, but I think all are to welcomed and I hope that the Speaker's detractors will admit that these are sensible ideas which it is good to see being taken forward.