Is John Bercow breaking the rules of impartiality?
September 10, 2010 Leave a comment
In the voting reform debate on Monday, only about 40 MPs out of the 78 who had put their name down to speak were in the end able to do so. One of those excluded was Caroline Lucas, the lone representative of the Green Party, who despite standng up to speak numerous times ‘did not catch the Speaker’s eye’ and was not called to speak, as I believe she should have been - indeed as one of the first ten speakers.
The House of Commons online information pages has the following guidelines for the speaker’s behaviour:
The Speaker has to protect the rights of minorities in the House and must ensure that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their point of view. This is especially important when deciding whether or not to allow the closure to be moved – that is,whether a debate can be brought to a close. If minorities have not yet been allowed to speak, the Speaker may decide to keep the debate open.
At present the Green Party holds – at least within Parliament - minority views. It must do; it is, within Parliament, a minority party. Yet Caroline Lucas was not called to speak. Additionally, on the same day, the Speaker refused to select the amendment which she put forward on the voting reform bill, although Labour’s amendment was called. It seems to me that in both these cases the Speaker, John Bercow, has broken the guidelines outlined above.
There may be a strong case to be made – for democratic reasons - that no selection of amendments should occur at all, although if a large number of amendments are put forward on a bill at second reading the democratic process could perhaps get unwieldy. Yet Caroline Lucas’s amendment was put forward by the leader of a political party, so at the very least should have been selected for Parliament and the public to hear, even if no vote was taken. Moreover the system is completely closed and opaque: there are no reasons given why some amendments are selected and not others. What is clear, however, is that the amendments selected will most likely be those tabled by the those most powerful in government and opposition, with all others shut out: in other words it is not a level playing field.
If the idea of the selection process is that ‘unreasonable’ amendments should be weeded out then what indeed was the Labour amendment accepted? Many would have agreed with the idea that the bill should have been broken in two, with voting reform and constituency borders treated separately, yet this amendment would have, if accepted, have wrecked the bill. As such, it was an unreasonable amendment.