John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons delivered a lecture in Belfast last night that assessed “What Westminster can learn from the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies”. Ulster University is only one of thirteen UK universities that delivers a Parliamentary Studies module that is approved and co-taught by the Houses of Parliament.
The Speaker referred to research on public opinion of the UK Parliament and summarised the findings as “doing better than it was, important that it does better still, but with room for improvement”. He reckoned that the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had the advantage of starting with something close to a blank sheet of paper, able to borrow good practice from Westminster … and avoid less useful legacy.
Despite his encouragement of the use of urgent questions in the Common, Bercow felt that devolved institutions adapt faster to crises and events than Parliament, and he still faces a “topicality gap” in London. He noticed that in contrast to most elected members, the representative for Strangford Jim Shannon stands out as someone who not only attends every end of day adjournment debate, but also nearly always intervenes and contributes – perhaps recognition of his unionist view that issues matter across the whole of the UK. [Ed – selectively.]
In his lecture, Bercow recognised that while some Parliamentary tradition was important (even if not widely understood), there was less worthy tradition that erected barriers between institution and public. He applauded the ePetitions scheme but felt it was a weakness that ePetition issues were being debated in Westminster Hall, with no opportunity for MPs to vote. Some of those debates should perhaps move to the main chamber.
He expects that the recommendations of the Digital Democracy report will be implemented over the next few years.