Monday, 18 May 2009

The Speaker can't change Parliament ... but

I've written here before on the responsibility of Speaker Martin and Clerk of the House, Graham Jack, for poor management of parliament's accounting duties.

Views on whether the Speaker should resign have polarised rapidly.

On the one hand, many MPs blame the Speaker for holding back reform. They want to see an appropriately chosen 'new brush' Speaker to clean up the stables and restore parliament's dignity. In support of this they add, rather weakly, that delaying replacing the Speaker until after a General Election will mean new MPs must select from colleagues they do not really know.

On the other hand, other MPs are hesitant to over-rule precedent by voting their Speaker out. These MPs also believe it is the wrong point in the process of reform to remove the present Speaker. To do so would open MPs to the charge of using a scapegoat to absolve them from their own faults.

While a competent and respected new Speaker, especially with skills in management as well as communication, would be a great benefit to the House, MPs calling for Speaker Martin's immediate resignation may be attaching more significance to a Speaker's abilities than the role actually allows.

The Speaker cannot directly affect either the timetable or the agenda for reform. It is up to the government to call for internal or external commissions to review MPs allowances and expenses. And it is up to MPs in parliament to agree to any suggested reforms. The Speaker can only agree to voting debates.

Management of the Fees Office certainly needs reform and a new Speaker is certainly needed to implement such changes. But such changes can't be effectively introduced until MPs have agreed a new structure for their additional pay.

Replacing the Speaker now might seem like bringing the dawn of a new day. But until MPs new pay arrangements are settled and a general election has truly cleared out the stables it won't much improve the public standing of parliament or MPs.

Following Speaker Martin's performance in the House this afternoon, I'm no longer so sanguine about the date of his retirement. His suggestion of talks with party leaders can have no affect on the agenda. His revelation that he relies on waiting on a report from Sir Christopher Kelly not available until the autumn brings little confidence. Even less confidence comes from his inability as Speaker to distinguish between early day and substantive motions. Nothing much has changed except the standing of the Speaker and the House has fallen further. He seems determined to be obstructive and dig in his heels. This is not the right attitude to encourage reform of the House.

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