Parliament has a drink problem and may well have a drugs problem too, according to the bookmakers’ favourite to become the next Commons Speaker.
Lindsay Hoyle, the current deputy speaker, called for counselling for MPs and staff in the Palace of Westminster who abuse controlled substances and alcohol.
His remarks were made at a hustings for nine candidates hoping to succeed John Bercow in the powerful role on 4 November.
During an intense debate over Bercow’s decade in the role and how to improve the House of Commons, Hoyle was asked by the Guardian if there was a drink problem in parliament.
He replied: “It’s not just drink we’ve got to catch out, there is a drug problem. I genuinely believe that counselling and real support should be available for all staff and members.”
Pushed to confirm whether he had just disclosed there is evidence of a drug problem within parliament, Hoyle said: “I think, I believe, there will be a drug problem – there is a drug problem right across this country.
“We should have health and wellbeing in place for drink and drug counselling, and real support for anybody who needs it.”
The Labour MP for Chorley has been a deputy speaker for nine years. He faces competition from fellow Labour MPs Harriet Harman, who announced her candidacy with a vow to be a “champion of parliament”, Chris Bryant, who has written a book about parliament, Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, and former chief whip Rosie Winterton.
Four Conservatives are also standing – Sir Henry Bellingham, Shailesh Vara, Sir Edward Leigh and another deputy speaker Eleanor Laing.
In Westminster there are eight licensed bars for MP, with more in the House of Lords. Most are accessible to all passholders and sell cut price alcohol.
Whether women should be allowed to breastfeed in the chamber was also discussed and led to disagreement between the candidates.
Harman, the mother of the house and one of the first MPs to breastfeed her child in the Commons, said that MPs should be allowed to set an example to the rest of the country and nurse where they wish.
“Most women would not want to breastfeed in the chamber or in a select committee, but if they feel they needed to I think they should be allowed to,” she said.
Laing, who nursed a child while sitting as an MP, argued that breastfeeding in the chamber is unnecessary.
“If I managed to bring up a healthy child without breastfeeding in the chamber then it can’t be all that difficult,” she said.
Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, was among candidates who called for a curb on MPs breaking into applause, which he said was being used to make time-wasting, partisan points.
“I hate clapping,” he said.
Candidates were split, largely among party lines, over the leadership of Bercow. All agreed he had transformed the role but three Conservatives criticised his attitude towards fellow MPs.
Vara said Bercow has “tarnished the role of speaker with his biasness”.
“Bercow has at times behaved like a verbal playground bully in the way that he treats his colleagues; he insults them, demeans them,” he said.
Bellingham was the only candidate who said he wished the Speaker to return to the traditional wig, tights and gown last worn by Bernard “Jack” Weatherill, later Lord Weatherill, in the early 90s.