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'An agent for change': Harriet Harman on her bid to be Speaker 'An agent for change': Harriet Harman on her bid to be Speaker
(32 minutes later)
Harriet Harman has pledged to be a radically reforming Speaker of the Commons if she succeeds John Bercow, warning that a hidebound parliament must change as rapidly as the outside world to bridge a widening gap between MPs and the public.Harriet Harman has pledged to be a radically reforming Speaker of the Commons if she succeeds John Bercow, warning that a hidebound parliament must change as rapidly as the outside world to bridge a widening gap between MPs and the public.
The veteran Labour MP and longstanding campaigner for a more modern, family-friendly Commons has even planned a tour of the UK ahead of the election for a new Speaker, so she can ask voters what they think of parliament. The veteran Labour MP and longstanding campaigner for a more modern, family-friendly Commons has planned a tour of the UK ahead of the election for a new Speaker, so she can ask voters what they think of parliament.
Who are the candidates to replace John Bercow as Commons speaker?Who are the candidates to replace John Bercow as Commons speaker?
In an interview with the Guardian, Harman pledged to follow Bercow’s rebalancing of the chamber in favour of MPs, but to go further, making it easier for backbenchers to propose legislation and giving them more control of the Commons timetable.In an interview with the Guardian, Harman pledged to follow Bercow’s rebalancing of the chamber in favour of MPs, but to go further, making it easier for backbenchers to propose legislation and giving them more control of the Commons timetable.
She recalled writing a report in 1990 calling for a change to Commons hours. At that time the chamber would usually begin at 2.30pm and regularly sit until after midnight. It took until 2005 for the hours to actually change. She recalled writing a report in 1990 calling for a change to Commons hours. At that time the chamber would usually begin at 2.30pm and regularly sit until after midnight. It took until 2005 for the hours to change.
“The outside world is changing very rapidly, but change in parliament is painfully slow – parliament needs to change with the outside world,” said Harman, a south London MP since 1982. “Most MPs do not have the 30 years I’ve had to put up with this pace.”“The outside world is changing very rapidly, but change in parliament is painfully slow – parliament needs to change with the outside world,” said Harman, a south London MP since 1982. “Most MPs do not have the 30 years I’ve had to put up with this pace.”
Failure to act, she said, would risk worsening the public’s perception of parliament, which has been badly affected amid the chaos of Brexit and has resulted in a number of MPs receiving regular threats.Failure to act, she said, would risk worsening the public’s perception of parliament, which has been badly affected amid the chaos of Brexit and has resulted in a number of MPs receiving regular threats.
The Speaker is the chief officer and the highest authority in the House of Commons. They chair parliamentary debate to call MPs to speak, to keep order, and to instruct when votes should be taken.The Speaker is the chief officer and the highest authority in the House of Commons. They chair parliamentary debate to call MPs to speak, to keep order, and to instruct when votes should be taken.
The Speaker is expected to remain politically neutral on all issues, and to continue this even in retirement. On appointment as Speaker, they resign from their political party. They continue to stand for election as an MP, but by tradition they are unopposed in their constituency by the major parties.The Speaker is expected to remain politically neutral on all issues, and to continue this even in retirement. On appointment as Speaker, they resign from their political party. They continue to stand for election as an MP, but by tradition they are unopposed in their constituency by the major parties.
The Speaker has the power to compel MPs to withdraw remarks, to suspend individual MPs, or to suspend the whole sitting of the House of Commons in case of serious disruption.The Speaker has the power to compel MPs to withdraw remarks, to suspend individual MPs, or to suspend the whole sitting of the House of Commons in case of serious disruption.
The current Speaker is John Bercow, who was elected to the role by MPs on 22 June 2009. He has announced he intends to step down on 31 October.The current Speaker is John Bercow, who was elected to the role by MPs on 22 June 2009. He has announced he intends to step down on 31 October.
Speakers are elected by MPs in a secret ballot. MPs are given a list of candidates and make their choice. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the question is put to the house that he or she takes the chair as Speaker. If no candidate reaches 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes and those with less than 5% of the vote are eliminated, and MPs vote again until one candidate succeeds. Speakers are elected by MPs in a secret ballot. MPs are given a list of candidates and make their choice. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the question is put to the house that he or she takes the chair as Speaker. If no candidate reaches 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes and those with less than 5% of the vote are eliminated, and MPs vote again until one candidate succeeds. 
MPs expected to stand for the post include the deputy speakers Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Eleanor Laing, Labour veterans Harriet Harman, Meg Hillier and Chris Bryant, and the Tory MP Sir Henry Bellingham.MPs expected to stand for the post include the deputy speakers Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Eleanor Laing, Labour veterans Harriet Harman, Meg Hillier and Chris Bryant, and the Tory MP Sir Henry Bellingham.
While it was up to parliament to change, she added, it would be dangerous for Boris Johnson’s government to play on the divisions, for example through a mooted “people v parliament” general election focusing on delays to Brexit.While it was up to parliament to change, she added, it would be dangerous for Boris Johnson’s government to play on the divisions, for example through a mooted “people v parliament” general election focusing on delays to Brexit.
“While the government is entitled to express frustration, there’s a line that it shouldn’t be crossing, because we don’t want to be undermining what is the foundation of our democratic process,” Harman said.“While the government is entitled to express frustration, there’s a line that it shouldn’t be crossing, because we don’t want to be undermining what is the foundation of our democratic process,” Harman said.
Bercow announced on Monday he would step down as Speaker after 10 years by 31 October, triggering a race to succeed him in which Harman is seen as a frontrunner alongside the deputy speaker, her fellow Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle. Bercow announced on Monday he would step down as Speaker, after 10 years in the role, by 31 October, triggering a race to succeed him in which Harman is seen as a frontrunner alongside the deputy speaker, her fellow Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle.
Bercow has used the role to greatly increase parliamentary oversight by MPs, for example through the use of topical urgent questions, once very rarely granted but now routine. Bercow has used the role to greatly increase parliamentary oversight by MPs, for example through the use of topical urgent questions, once very rarely granted but now routine. Harman said she would continue this: “It’s much better for government for their policies to be challenged before what they’ve done have consequences which they did not foresee.”
Harman said she would continue this: “It’s much better for government for their policies to be challenged before what they’ve done have consequences which they did not foresee.”
What the Camberwell and Peckham MP calls her “great reform agenda” has three main planks: changing the interaction between parliament and government; improving how the Commons itself works; and better connecting parliament to the outside world.What the Camberwell and Peckham MP calls her “great reform agenda” has three main planks: changing the interaction between parliament and government; improving how the Commons itself works; and better connecting parliament to the outside world.
On the first area Harman proposes resurrecting a plan begun when she was leader of the Commons under Gordon Brown for a “house business committee”, whereby the parliamentary timetable would be set jointly between MPs and government.On the first area Harman proposes resurrecting a plan begun when she was leader of the Commons under Gordon Brown for a “house business committee”, whereby the parliamentary timetable would be set jointly between MPs and government.
It is, for now, largely set by ministers, forcing the opposition and backbench MPs to resort to emergency motions and other ruses to push the government, for example in the rebel bill obliging Johnson to extend the Brexit deadline.It is, for now, largely set by ministers, forcing the opposition and backbench MPs to resort to emergency motions and other ruses to push the government, for example in the rebel bill obliging Johnson to extend the Brexit deadline.
“It really infantilises parliament that we are not able to decide what we talk about, except during the narrow bit of the backbench business committee,” Harman said.“It really infantilises parliament that we are not able to decide what we talk about, except during the narrow bit of the backbench business committee,” Harman said.
Another promised change would be a more regular system for legislation instigated by backbenchers, rather than the current once-per-session ballot for private members’ bills.Another promised change would be a more regular system for legislation instigated by backbenchers, rather than the current once-per-session ballot for private members’ bills.
“MPs are also infantilised if they are allowed to talk about the government’s legislation, but they’re not allowed to bring forward their own,” she said. “It’s a mistake to think that the monopoly of wisdom about legislation resides in government.”“MPs are also infantilised if they are allowed to talk about the government’s legislation, but they’re not allowed to bring forward their own,” she said. “It’s a mistake to think that the monopoly of wisdom about legislation resides in government.”
On reforming the Commons, Harman would propose “a fresh look” at the way longer-serving MPs receive precedence, including the order of speaking in debates, meaning the same backbench faces tend to dominate the initial stages.On reforming the Commons, Harman would propose “a fresh look” at the way longer-serving MPs receive precedence, including the order of speaking in debates, meaning the same backbench faces tend to dominate the initial stages.
“If you haven’t been the chair of a select committee, or if you haven’t been here for many years, you can be sitting for four hours, even as someone with a deep interest in the subject,” she said. “A new MP could have run their own business, or been a headteacher, something like that. The idea they should keep their head down for 10 years is ridiculous, and it builds in a time lag for change.”“If you haven’t been the chair of a select committee, or if you haven’t been here for many years, you can be sitting for four hours, even as someone with a deep interest in the subject,” she said. “A new MP could have run their own business, or been a headteacher, something like that. The idea they should keep their head down for 10 years is ridiculous, and it builds in a time lag for change.”
On the the public’s perception of the Commons, Harman proposes more regular use of the chamber by outside groups during recesses, but also hopes to use her upcoming mini-tour to hear people’s views, including on the “really frustrating” phenomenon of ministers routinely not answering direct questions.On the the public’s perception of the Commons, Harman proposes more regular use of the chamber by outside groups during recesses, but also hopes to use her upcoming mini-tour to hear people’s views, including on the “really frustrating” phenomenon of ministers routinely not answering direct questions.
For all her commitment to continued change if she follows perhaps the most interventionist Speaker of modern times, Harman is adamant she is not standing as “continuity John Bercow”.For all her commitment to continued change if she follows perhaps the most interventionist Speaker of modern times, Harman is adamant she is not standing as “continuity John Bercow”.
She said: “I’ve never been a candidate, ever, for continuity. I’ve always been an agent for change. So that is not the right label to attach to me. The idea that I am in the mould of John Bercow, as somebody asked me – I’ve never been in the mould of any man. I’m my own woman.”She said: “I’ve never been a candidate, ever, for continuity. I’ve always been an agent for change. So that is not the right label to attach to me. The idea that I am in the mould of John Bercow, as somebody asked me – I’ve never been in the mould of any man. I’m my own woman.”
Harriet HarmanHarriet Harman
House of CommonsHouse of Commons
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