Shailesh Vara: I will rebuild trust and ensure Parliament provides a gold standard of conduct
Writing ahead of The House magazine's Speaker Hustings, Shailesh Vara says he would work to restore trust and confidence in the role
The role of Speaker is vital to our democracy. The holder of this great office must be scrupulously impartial in all her or his dealings, leaving aside all previous political views.
Sadly, that impartiality has recently come into question when decisions taken by the Speaker in the House of Commons have been perceived as biased. Hardly surprising given that advice from the clerks has not always been followed, Parliamentary conventions have been ignored at critical times, and on other occasions conventions have been followed when it appeared that a particular objective needed to be achieved. This cannot continue. Parliamentary procedure cannot be decided on the hoof.
If elected as Speaker, one of the first things that I would do is ensure that no Speaker in the future is put in a position where they take decisions which can be construed as not being completely impartial. That means ensuring more clarity to the existing rules to prevent the type of ambiguity that we have seen in recent times.
One matter that is outstanding and gets more urgent by the day, is the implementation of Dame Laura Cox’s recommendations regarding bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment.
Dame Laura put forward her proposals last year but despite the House of Commons Commission agreeing to them with warm words, so far a key recommendation remains to be implemented.
This is the setting up of an independent process for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament.
There must be zero tolerance for this type of behaviour and the setting up of this process has to be a priority for the new Speaker. We cannot on the one hand legislate good practice in the workplace for the rest of the country but then fail to implement the same rules in our own place of work. It is simply not acceptable.
The right of backbenchers to challenge the Executive is of paramount importance but there needs to be a balance between urgent questions, statements and time allowed for debates that follow on the days that the House is sitting.
Currently, the balance is tilted in favour of urgent questions and statements, while debates that follow them regularly have their time curtailed. These are often matters of national importance, impacting on the lives of millions of citizens, and they deserve to be properly debated.
The lessening of debate time means that backbenchers who wish to contribute are either reduced to speaking for only a few minutes or sometimes not being able to speak at all. This needs to change.
Minority parties play a key role in Parliament and the Speaker should always ensure that they receive a fair opportunity to be heard as well as be included in House matters generally.
I welcome some of Speaker Bercow’s reforms. The new Education Centre plays a key role in informing tomorrow’s voters about our Parliamentary system, and the creche is much appreciated by parents with young children, as is proxy voting by new MP parents.
But there is more to do and the next Speaker should seek to build on these positive reforms. We should ensure that Parliament provides a gold standard and the Palace of Westminster has to be a welcoming place for everyone who works in or visits it. The drive for improvement must not let up.
By making the necessary changes, trust and confidence can be restored in the role of the Speaker. With proper and effective leadership we can truly improve the Palace for all who have the privilege to be associated with it.
Shailesh Vara is Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire and former vice-chairman of the Conservative party