The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, addresses Trades Union Congress 2015 Congress in Brighton.
Leslie, thank you for that generous introduction. Congress, I am reliably informed that the height of the podium has been specially adjusted for my benefit. This does, however, allow me to puncture the prevalent myth that I am the shortest man ever to be Speaker of the House of Commons. Sir John Bussy, Speaker of the House from 1394 to 1398; Sir John Wenlock, Speaker from 1455 to 1456 and Sir Thomas Tresham, Speaker in 1459 are all believed to have been shorter than I am, although I do have to admit that this was true only after all three of them had been beheaded.
Congress, I am truly delighted to be here and for two reasons. First, become I come at the invitation, and I am now happy to be in the company, of your outstanding General Secretary, Frances O’Grady. (Applause) Secondly, because I believe in the work of trade unions, and that belief has been buttressed and reinforced by my own interaction as Speaker with unions in the House of Commons. The work that you do in resolving grievances, in standing up for the disadvantaged and in acting as agents of progressive change is important work which deserves respect, and it certainly has mine.
This year, in the Palace of Westminster, we are marking, as has been mentioned, the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and the 750th anniversary of the first English Parliament instigated by the rebel baron, Simon de Montfort. I am not trying to pretend or to hoodwink you in any way into supposing that Simon de Montfort was some sort of Martin Luther King figure on horseback, or that he was an avowed opponent of the feudal system, for he was not. He was, as I have said, a baron, a baron with interests of his own, and a baron with an agenda to match those interests. That said, Congress, the Magna Carta and the De Montfort Parliament did hand down to us a number of important principles which are as valid and as compelling today as they were then. First, that all power, unless subject to strong checks and balances, will tend to be used arbitrarily or even despotically. Secondly, that legitimacy is derived through representation, not acquired by might nor majesty, and, thirdly, that we must be governed by the rule of law, not principally in order to protect those with wealth or power, but principally, by contrast, in order to protect those without either wealth or power. Those fundamental principles are at the heart of our national history, our national narrative and our national institutions, whether uttered in medieval Latin or in modern Parliaments, the case for the accountability of power is the same and just as strong.
As the late Tony Benn was fond of observing: “Whenever I meet anybody with power, I always ask that person five questions. What power have you got; who gave it to you; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable, and how can we get rid of you?”
Congress, I mentioned our anniversaries. I mention to you also that this year, as part of the anniversaries programme, the House of Commons is staging a Festival of Freedoms, and centre stage in that Festival of Freedoms — I hope you agree rightly so — is the heroic struggle of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. (Applause) In recognising and celebrating their heroic struggle, we have to remember that that struggle was not merely an historic struggle. All too often, it is a current struggle as well, and that struggle is most assuredly an international struggle. It is hugely and enduringly to the credit, both of the TUC and of affiliated unions, that you are backing, from Belarus to Colombia, from Saudia Arabia to Zimbabwe, people to enjoy the rights in their countries which we have so long enjoyed and, probably, been inclined to take for granted in ours.
I have talked to you about anniversaries, celebrations, struggles and the accountability of power. What about the management of the House of Commons as a Parliamentary estate and the discharge of our obligations as an employer? Congress, I must tell you that when in 2009 I stood for election as Speaker, I was all too keenly aware that there was a shooting gallery on the Parliamentary estate but no nursery that could be used by the children of Members or the children of staff of the House. This bullets-before-babies ethos struck me as inherently perverse. I resolved at once, with the support of colleagues, to change it without delay. We quickly identified a suitable site to be a workplace nursery, and then met the objection that it would involve the destruction of a bar. Congress, this did not seem to me to be a powerful objection. There is, after all, no shortage of watering holes on the Parliamentary estate. There was no shortage of places where you could get a beer, but there was nowhere that you could put a baby, so I pressed ahead, with the support of the House of Commons Commission, and we established that nursery. Five years on, I am proud to tell you that that nursery is well resourced, well managed and it is well used. I don’t suggest to you, job done, that somehow we are transformed as an employer or a workplace or an institution, but I do think it has done something to normalise the work-life balance and, dare I say it, perhaps, to make the House of Commons look a little more like the country that we aspire to represent. So that was a start.
A couple of years ago I asked a senior House of Commons official if everyone employed by or working as a contractor to the House of Commons was paid at least the London Living Wage. It transpired that some were not. That seemed to me plain wrong. Once again, I resolved that that must be changed. Today I am proud to tell you that everyone employed by or working as a contractor to the House of Commons is paid at least the London Living Wage, and we have our accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. (Applause) Surely, that was the right thing to do, both for the benefit of the individual employees themselves and in turn of what it said about the DNA of the institution, a matter, you might think, not just of money but of ethics to boot.
To be candid, I was even more shocked 18 months or so ago, and, if I am honest about it, rank embarrassed to learn that more than 100 people employed by the House of Commons were employed on zero-hours contracts. It did not seem to have happened as a result of any democratic decision or conscious choice. They had mushroomed. They had grown like Topsy. They had simply come about almost, if you will, by accident. That seemed to me to be wrong, exploitative and indefensible. Once again, with the support of colleagues on the House of Commons Commission, I decided that that must be changed. I am equally proud to be able to tell you today that no one is employed by the House of Commons on a zero-hours contract against his or her will, and everybody who was has since been offered a minimum hours guarantee instead. That is, surely, right in terms of our culture and the message that we send as an exemplar organisation to the wider electorate.
Since my election as Speaker a key theme and personal passion for me has been to build links with and to offer support to young people. For years there had been in the ether plans for the establishment of an education centre in the House of Commons, but nothing had happened. We worked at it, we developed the plans, we got the permission from the local authority, we established the make-up of the site and the contents that would go into it. I am delighted to be able to tell you that we have now opened a new state-of-the-art, cutting edge, digital, interactive Education Centre in the Palace of Westminster, which will allow more than a doubling of the young people who can come to Parliament and learn about the arduous journey to the rights and representations which we all enjoy today. That is part of the equation but it is not all that is required.
Again, back in 2009, I said, in standing for Speaker, that I wanted to build a good relationship with the UK Youth Parliament. Every year since 2009 it has been my privilege to go to the UK Youth Parliament Annual Conference, wherever it has taken place in the country, to talk to and hear from young people, because they are the future of our democracy and, in a very real sense, the future of our country. Similarly, every year I have been proud to chair the proceedings of the UK Youth Parliament on a non-sitting Friday in the Chamber of the House of Commons. I do that, which I regard as an honour, for two reasons. First, because I want to offer that supportive encouragement to young people and, secondly, Congress, because I believe very simply that if we in Parliament want to be respected by young people, we have to show some respect for young people. Respect is not an automatic right. It is an earned entitlement or, to put it another way, respect is a two-way street.
Congress, 30 years ago, when I started out in politics as a right-wing Conservative student leader, I would not have wanted to address the TUC, and, believe me, you would not have wanted to be addressed by me. Today I am proud to be here, proud to be amongst your number and proud to be your guest. I say that because I respect and admire the invaluable and precious work that you do, the work that you do in promoting fairness in the workplace and the wider work that you do in pursuit of greater equality across society as a whole.
Thank you for having me. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your forbearance and, thank you, indeed, for your generosity of spirit. I wish you all the best, both for a successful Conference and in your activities in the year ahead. Thank you very much indeed.