Below is the text of an article published in today’s Times, following Sir George’s decision to enter the race for the Speakership
The House of Commons has left behind the Age of Deference, without arriving at the Age of Earned Respect. There are two questions it needs to address before June 22 when we elect a Speaker.
First, what are the reforms needed to enable the House to win that respect and begin to rebuild public confidence in its relevance and effectiveness? Second, what is the role of the Speaker in all this?
The Commons is an unhappy place to be at the moment and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The freedom of information business was mishandled; resistance to the application to publish our expenses gave the impression that we had something to hide. And a number did. As well as the press, we now face star chambers, audit committees, references to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, police investigations, public meetings in our constituencies and deselection by irate party supporters.
The only point I make now is a plea for justice, rather than hysteria. We must have a fair and rational process for distinguishing between minor mistakes and serious misdemeanours (or breaches of the criminal law); and we must calibrate the punishment accordingly. We should also rationalise, if possible, the various disciplinary processes. Could we have one tumbrel instead of five?
But all this has aggravated an existing condition. The professional political class was already held in low esteem, damaged by disputes over party funding, spinning, leaked e-mails and perceiveddisengagement. Our procedures are antiquated, our language arcane and the chamber has joined those of most other democracies as no longer being the cockpit of the nation. We make ineffective use of MPs' time and don't do what we are paid to do. We need a reform agenda to address this and bring us into the 21st century.
My views are set out in the Democracy Task Force publication, Power to the People - Rebuilding Parliament(http://www.conservatives.com/pdf/dtfpaper.pdf).
The publication proposes greater independence for the Commons from the executive, so we can better represent the public interest; the setting-up of a business committee to set the agenda, instead of dancing to the Government's tune; greater timeliness, so we can respond to the issues of the day; greater scrutiny so that we can look at legislation, as we are paid to do; and greater accessibility, so that the public have more understanding of, and access to, Parliament and its powers.
Our output simply doesn't match our input; many MPs get home exhausted, wondering if their day was well spent. We need to re-engineer how we use the House, possibly building the time spent in the chamber more around the time spent on select committees, instead of the other way round. This is a middle-distance race, not a sprint - with the House doing what it has always done, adapting itself in an evolutionary way to the changing demands of the time. But we have some serious catching up to do.
Important reforms should be agreed by the House, but here are some starters. The parliamentary week is shoe-horned into Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when too many meetings are scheduled. We should move Prime Minister's Questions from Wednesday to Thursday to bring Thursdays more into play. And why should ministers have a monopoly on statements made to the House? Before the summer recess, a select committee chairman should present his or her report to the House and take questions. This might not mean much to those outside; but it would be hugely symbolic of a more assertive House, sharing with the executive decisions about time and making the place more relevant. We should wind up the Modernisation Committee - which has not met for nearly a year - and transfer its responsibilities to a committee for strengthening Parliament, chaired by a backbencher instead of a member of the Cabinet.
On the role of the Speaker, I would identify three factors. First, I was struck by what Michael Martin said in his resignation speech: “Since I came to this House 30 years ago, I have always felt that the House is at its best when it is united.” Whoever gets the job - and there are already many good candidates - should have broad support on all sides of the House. The Speaker is more referee than player, and should be cautious about imposing on the House his or her agenda for the future. But the House is entitled to know where a Speaker is coming from, and he or she can be a catalyst for reform and effective management of how the House is run.
Second, the Speaker should be an ambassador for the House. The doctrine that the Speaker should not speak is an odd one. I have been struck by what Helene Hayman, the Lord Speaker, has been doing quietly but effectively, putting into the public domain the work done by the House of Lords and hosting seminars on constitutional change. We should do the same, possibly in partnership, to promote a better understanding of what Parliament does as a whole.
Finally, accountability. Too much of the decision-making process is still hidden. It may be odd to end on this example, but we must sort out how to get rid of a Speaker. Last month's muddle about whether the motion of no confidence in the Speaker could be debated and voted on was absurd. We cannot leave such a decision to the Government. We have procedures for getting rid of party leaders and prime ministers. The first job of a new Speaker should be to clarify how to get rid of him.