NICVA organised a fringe event at the last day of the Political Studies Conference in Belfast. Representatives from voluntary and community groups had a change to listen to and question the Speakers of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and think through ways in which they could contribute to a healthy democracy.
Stratagem’s Mark Shepherd – who’s a reputation for being able to explain d’Hondt – first gave an overview of the political structures in Westminster and Northern Ireland, including a critique of unicameral versus bicameral systems.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercowthen spoke about the opportunities for legislative scrutiny and issues being raised in and around the Commons. Shorter questions and shorter answers have allowed more issues to be raised. Massively increasing the use of Urgent Questions (which require a department’s minister to come to Commons to address a topical issue) has improved timely accountability. He also noted that some of Northern Ireland’s MPs attend a very wide range of debates, including Jim Shannon who attends adjournment debates.
The Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza followed with explanation of the collected wisdom of the Upper House members, and there role – not to legislate – but to ask the House of Commons to consider what they think. She recognised that some say the House of Lords is said to be the ‘Outer Mongolia for retired politicians, but it has more to offer. The unconstrained timeframe means the Lords can go through bills ‘line-by-line, comma-by-comma’ which helps with scrutiny and gave examples of where the Lords have made an impact on legislation, including trial by jury, ID cards, detention.
In a curtailed chat with John Bercow afterwards, I asked about his role, Parliament accessibility and just before he was whisked away for a photograph:
Q: Legality aside, would you ever fancy a job swap with Willie Hay?
A: I don’t envy Willie Hay’s job. I think he does a great job. I think that we can all learn from each other. I’m not looking for a job swap. I’ve enough to contend with where I am and I think he’s got enough too contend with where he is!