Harriet Harman – 2019 Tribute to the Speaker of the House of Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, in the House of Commons on 31 October 2019.

Mr Speaker, you are my fifth Speaker now, and I can say from that experience that you have been a remarkable Speaker of this House. You have been a champion of Parliament and a reformer. As other hon. and right hon. Members have said, you have thought about opening up this House so that young people all around the country can see that it is their Parliament that is here for them. You have been a great champion of the Youth Parliament. The Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House were right to say that everybody agrees with that now and recognises that it is a thoroughly good thing, but you had to fight for it because there were those who resisted change and said, “We cannot have all these children here in the House of Commons. We’ve got work to be done.” You relentlessly, and in a principled way, pushed for it, and I thank you for that.

You have used the Speaker’s state rooms to give outside organisations a sense that their work is recognised by and valued in this Parliament. As the shadow Leader of the House said, over 1,000 organisations have come into this House, and the grandeur of those state rooms has inspired and encouraged them that their works in communities all around the country are valued here.

I would like to pay particular tribute to the work that you have done for the women’s movement. Organisations campaigning for equal pay have been in those grand state rooms surrounded by those 20-foot-high portraits of former Speakers. They have had their place there: those championing equal pay; those complaining that we need more childcare; those campaigning against domestic violence. They have been there; you have brought them in and endowed them with a sense of importance.

You actually turned one of the bars of the House of Commons into a nursery for the children of staff in Whitehall and in the House and of Members. That too is something we can be proud of, but it is something that you had to fight for. We had been fighting for it for decades and had failed; it was not until you were in the Chair that you made it happen. You supported the coming into this Chamber of 100 women MPs from 100 Parliaments from all around the world so that here in the mother of Parliaments we could validate their work in their Parliaments all around the world.

I think we can fairly say that you are politically correct, but it was not always the case. You have been on what they describe as a political journey. You started off going towards the views of the Monday Club. You are woke now, but my goodness me, you were in the deepest of slumbers.

You really have made a huge difference in championing us here in the House. Above all, you have been concerned about the role of Parliament in being able to hold the Executive to account. That is not just about Back Benchers and Front Benchers; it is about the role of Parliament. Members who have come here more recently perhaps would not remember this—I thank the Library for getting this information for me—but in the 12 months before you took the Speaker’s Chair, two urgent questions were granted in that whole time. The impact of that was that people outside the House would be discussing issues but they would not be discussed here, and therefore Parliament felt irrelevant. In the past 12 months, you have granted 152 UQs. You have made Parliament relevant. I thank you for that—but again, it has not always made you popular. Ministers would rather sit in their Departments talking to civil servants and junior Ministers who agree with them than come here and face the House. But it is better for Government to be held to account. It is easy to make mistakes when doing things behind closed doors. You have always believed that the minority must have its say in Parliament, and you have championed that, but you have also always believed that the majority must have its way, and that is right.

Precedent offers less help in unprecedented times, which we have been experiencing, but you have had a profound sense that you are accountable to the House and that you want to enable and facilitate the House, and that is what you have done. You leave the Chair in uncertain and, I would say, even dangerous times. Thank you for your support and recognition of all those Members—men as well as women—who have gone about their business under a hail of threats of violence. Our democracy should not have to experience that. I would like to thank you for being tireless in your work, and I would like to thank your family for their support of you. They can be rightly proud of what you have done, and we are too.