Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


    The balance of power between the Executive and Parliament will remain too firmly tilted in favour of government until MPs win a say on the agenda of their proceedings through some form of collective business committee. (Robin Cook, The Point of Departure, 2003)[26]

A. Terms of reference and connected matters

(iv)  In this section we map in some detail the terrain of what is meant by "scheduling of business in the House". We identify a number of closely connected issues, in particular the handling of Bills at report stage, which can only be properly addressed following the solution of the main question, of how the business of the House is scheduled; the question of on what days the House should sit through the year; and related scheduling issues in general committees. There is much necessary detail in the first four sections of the chapter, with our main proposals from section E onwards.


95. Our terms of reference direct us to examine "scheduling business in the House". As originally tabled by the Leader of the House they referred to "scheduling non-Government business in the House". We welcome the change, which has enabled us to consider how all business in the House is scheduled. As we show below, the distinction between "Government" and "non-Government" business is far from clear-cut. By looking at business as a whole we can give a more rounded picture of business in the House and how its scheduling can be improved.

Scheduling and timetabling

96. We have taken "scheduling" to mean the act of deciding which items of business are to be taken; on what specific day they are to be taken; and in some respects for how long items of business are to be debated. Some items—for example a motion to approve secondary legislation in an affirmative instrument—have a time-limit fixed in Standing Orders; others are conventionally understood to last for an approximate time often referred to as a "day" or a "half-day". The actual time available for a "day" is rarely the maximum of around 6 hours. It is determined in practice by how much time is left after the end of questions and statements and before the fixed end-point of each parliamentary day at the "moment of interruption".

97. Scheduling is therefore different from timetabling, which conventionally refers to the detailed arrangements made for a given item of business to start or end at a specified time or after a specified period. It is a term particularly applied to legislative business. In practice of course there is overlap between the two terms. The Procedure Committee announced in May 2009 that it was undertaking an inquiry into timetabling of business, examining "recent developments in the use of business motions and programme motions to govern Commons business on the Floor of the House and in Committee". The paper from the Clerk of the House provided in connection with that inquiry sets out in detail the issues arising.[27] We have sought to avoid duplication with that inquiry.

Sitting patterns

98. The principal constraints of scheduling business in the House and on the volumes of business which can be transacted in a session are the total number of days on which the House sits in a given year, and the length of those sittings. Both issues have been well ventilated in recent years. We have for the sake of argument assumed:

a)  the current pattern of around 35 sitting weeks in a typical year and around 155 days;

b)  the current 4-day week plus 13 Fridays;

c)  the standard sitting day from Mondays to Thursdays of around 8 hours, whether it starts at 2.30 p.m., 11.30 a.m. or 10.30 a.m.;

d)  the 3 half-days for sittings in Westminster Hall on 3 days a week, amounting to 12 hours in total.

September sittings

99. Holding sittings of the House in September would of course increase the number of days available for business, unless countervailing reductions were made in sitting times at other points, for example by rising earlier in July. Following a decision of the House in October 2002, the House sat for the first fortnight of September in 2003 and 2004. There was Government and non-Government business. In 2005 the House was unable to meet in September because of the erection of the security screen in the Chamber. On 1 November 2006 the House decided on a vote not to sit in September, unless subject to an emergency recall.[28]

100. There is not much Ministerial legislative business needing to be done in September, since the most contentious Bills are by then in the House of Lords. Greater use of carry-over of bills from one session to another, meaning they can conveniently be introduced at any time in the session, could alter that (see para 103). Other categories of business could also be scheduled for September sittings. It is no doubt undesirable that the executive enjoys a 80 day period free from parliamentary scrutiny; while noting that since 2005 it has been possible to table written questions and receive written answers to them in September. There is also a widely held view, mistaken though it may be, that when the House is not sitting then Members are on holiday. We recommend that the House in the new Parliament should be asked to decide on the issue of September sittings, along with other sittings issues, sufficiently early in its life to be able to decide whether to sit in September 2010.


101. There are a number of contentious issues over the House's sitting patterns, much debated over the past 10 years. Under Standing Order No 25, decisions on the sitting pattern of the House are taken at present on the basis of effectively unamendable motions which can only be moved by a Minister, and are decided without debate. We have no collective view on September sittings, nor on the issue of the recall of the House, on which proposals were made in the Governance of Britain Green Paper and referred to the Modernisation Committee and which remains unresolved. But we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit.

Annual sessions and carry-over

102. We have also of necessity assumed continuation of annual sessions. In some Westminster-style parliaments these have been either lengthened to two years or more or effectively by-passed by having a single-session Parliament.[29] Longer sessions would mean a loosening of the constraints on Bills having to complete their passage in one twelve-month session and would of course have an effect on scheduling. It may be time to re-examine the need for annual sessions overall, drawing on the varying practice of parliaments around the world who face similar issues.

103. The House agreed in 2002 to allow for the "carry-over" of bills from one session to the next, so as to allow a smoother flow of legislation through the parliamentary year. Relatively little use has been made of this provision. The Standing Order provides that the passage of a Bill must still be completed in 12 months from its introduction. It was suggested to us that a slight relaxation in that time-limit might be helpful.[30] Greater use of carry-over of Bills from one session to the next could have a significant effect on scheduling business in the House.

House of Lords

104. The House of Lords exercises a powerful if barely visible influence on the scheduling of business in the Commons. Its commitment to fixed intervals between stages of Bills, the absence of time limitations on debates in the Lords on legislation, and the detailed scrutiny of much legislation taking place on the floor of the Lords Chamber rather than in committees as in the Commons, mean that the time allowed for by the business managers for the passage of Government legislation in the Commons is heavily influenced by the time to be allocated to the passage of legislation through the Lords. The business managers have to pencil in a date for Third Reading for a Bill introduced in the Commons which allows sufficient time for its passage through the Lords.

Closely connected matters: general committees

Committees: public bill committees

105. Our terms of reference also allow us to consider matters which we consider to be "closely connected" to our principal terms of reference. We have not examined in any detail the scheduling of business in the House's public bill committees. They are indeed closely connected to business in the House but subject to a separate set of rules. The recent changes in these committees have been broadly welcomed. A research review identified some areas for improvement of practices and procedures.[31] We are aware in particular of concerns at some aspects of the way the evidence sessions in these committees are scheduled and the witnesses selected.[32] This is an aspect of detailed timetabling of business, since it arises in part from the short time between Second Reading and the first day of the public bill committee. It may well form part of the Procedure Committee's current inquiry into timetabling. Meanwhile, we hope that a more open approach to the scheduling of public bill committee evidence sessions can be piloted in the short 2009-10 session without the need for changes to Standing Orders, and request that the relevant authorities produce a report for an appropriate successor Committee in the new Parliament to consider.

Committees: Grand Committees

106. Standing Orders provide for the existence of Grand Committees—debating committees with a membership comprising all members of a part of the United Kingdom, such as the Welsh Grand Committee, or a region of England, such as the North West. They are "closely connected" to business in the House by virtue of functioning like the House in miniature, with questions and debates. The scheduling of business in these committees is effectively in the hands of Government. Motions to set up a meeting can only be tabled in the House by Ministers. The motion put to the House sets out the proposed subject of debate, the place and starting time and length of meeting. If the House is to take greater control of the scheduling of non-Ministerial business in the House, as we propose below, it must follow that it should take similar steps in relation to these debating committees. It should be open to others than Ministers to schedule business in Grand Committees, by relaxing Ministerial control of what Motions can be put to the House and decided.

Committees: delegated legislation committees

107. Most items of the Government's secondary legislation requiring the positively expressed consent of the House—so-called "affirmative instruments"—are debated in a small specially convened committee upstairs, and then later (normally the next day) formally agreed to by the House without debate. The decision as to whether in exceptional cases to hold the debate in the Chamber is for Government. Similarly, the power to bring on a debate on a prayer—a motion seeking to disapprove an item of secondary legislation which does not require consent resolution, so-called "negative instruments"—is also vested in Ministers. These arrangements will not stand up to examination in the light of the general principles we set out below. The Procedure Committee as long ago as 1996 recommended a system which at least provided an avenue for Members to seek to get prayers debated in a committee.[33] There will have to be relaxation of Ministerial control of motions to refer negative instruments for debate in committee.

Committees: European standing committees

108. European standing committees question Ministers and debate European documents which have been recommended for such treatment by the backbench European Scrutiny Committee. Ministers determine the timing and table the substantive motion which is debated and then reported to the House for its decision without further debate. Ministers need to hold these debates because otherwise they would be prevented by the terms of the House's 1998 Scrutiny Reserve Resolution from agreeing to the documents in the Council of Ministers.[34] The European scrutiny system offers an admirable if still imperfect model of responsible backbench committee control of business, in partnership with the Government, on an important part of the House's work.

Closely connected matters: Report stage of bills

109. The single greatest cause of dissatisfaction which we have detected with current scheduling of legislative business in the House arises from the handling of the report stage of government bills—technically the "consideration" stage when a Bill has been reported back to the House from a public bill committee. In the majority of cases, the programme motion decided without debate immediately after Second Reading allows for a single day for report and Third Reading. It also usually specifies that the report stage will end one hour before the moment of interruption, leaving at most one hour for Third Reading. Even where no other business is taken first, such as a Ministerial Statement, that leaves around five hours for a report stage.

110. The report stage is a highly valued opportunity for scrutiny of legislation for a number of reasons.

  • It offers all Members of the House at least a theoretical opportunity to propose amendments to a Bill or speak to them.
  • It provides the one opportunity for the House as a whole to vote on a major specific provision of a Bill or a closely connected issue, including issues of public concern which might have been dealt with in a Bill but are not.
  • Because it is on the floor of the House, debates on report stage represent the only opportunity for detailed participation in scrutiny of the Bill for senior backbenchers such as select committee chairmen who have not served on the public bill committee, for dissenting backbenchers who have not been chosen to serve on it and those members who for other reasons have been unable to serve on it.
  • It represents what in many cases will be the only opportunity for Members from the smaller parties to participate in legislative scrutiny.

The report stage is the only opportunity for the House as a whole to engage with proposed legislation and debate and decide its principal provisions in any detail.

111. Practice and procedure on report have a significant effect on outcome. New Clauses moved by Ministers are taken first. They may well be grouped for discussion with related new Clauses and amendments moved by the Opposition or other parties or individual Members. Ministers—and only Ministers—may move a motion to take new Clauses and amendments in a different order so as to prioritise one "topic" over another. Ministers—and only Ministers—may move a motion to provide for end-times—"knives"—for particular groups of amendments so as to give time to others further down the list.

112. In practice, as a result of the programme motion proposed by Ministers and approved with little or no debate, the situation is that on many report stages several groups of amendments from Opposition parties or backbencher amendments selected by the Chair and grouped for a joint debate are not even reached for debate, let alone a decision. The practice of the Chair is only to allow a vote on a non-Ministerial amendment or new Clause if it has been part of a group which has at least had some debate. At the end of the time allowed for report, there is a ritual whereby Government amendments within the last group to be debated, and those relating to later unreached and undebated parts of a Bill are put without any explanation and routinely agreed to, while other amendments are simply lost. Because of the default position of Ministerial new Clauses being taken first, backbench propositions which seek to amend the Bill, including those with cross-party support, are most likely to be "lost" in this way, rather than propositions seeking to add new matter to the Bill. The extent of the problem can be demonstrated by the number of groups lost in this way in bills in recent sessions and the number of Bills affected.[35]

113. This is an issue which causes great dissatisfaction in the Opposition parties and on the backbenches. The Government stands accused, not always fairly, of having prevented or suppressed debate, and the House bemoans at Third Reading its failure to exercise full and proper scrutiny. The point is then often echoed in the Lords and used by that House as the basis for significant revision in those areas of a Bill not touched upon by the Commons.

114. There are a number of means of ameliorating these problems within existing arrangements or under new arrangements, which do not necessarily require scheduling more time on the floor of the House. They include a combination of one or more of the following:

  • more frequent use of internal finishing times—"knives" ;
  • protection of time for report stage from intrusion by statements or other urgent business;
  • greater use of partial re-committal: that is, requiring part of the bill, or selected new Clauses and amendments, to be sent back to a public bill committee to deal with some or all Ministerial new Clauses and amendments if these are too numerous;
  • power given to the Chair to change the order in which new Clauses and amendments are taken;
  • use of speech limits at report stage or development of a special speaking time regime;
  • encouraging the prompter tabling of new Clauses and amendments on report so that the a possible timetable can be established several days in advance: given that there are sometimes weeks between the out-date from Committee and the bringing on of a report stage there is ample time to table texts.

115. Effective scheduling of business at report stage of many bills would often require nothing more than the allocation of a sufficient total time. It is too often insufficient at present. The House Business Committee which we recommend below will be a forum for agreeing the length of time to be devoted to a report stage in order to fulfil the scrutiny function adequately. But that is not enough in itself. Because effective scrutiny of legislation is of fundamental importance to the role of the House, the detailed use of that time must be a matter of concern. We believe that the time should be set so that the House should if it wishes be able to vote on new Clauses and amendments in every group, if and when they are selected for separate division by the Chair; and that there should be a presumption that no major group should go undebated. The House of Commons would then be able to exercise the same rights as the House of Lords.

116. This is precisely why we will have a House Business Committee. It will decide where, if at all, knives should fall bringing debate to an end on each group of selected new Clauses and amendments. As now, priority would be given to Government new Clauses and amendments. It would normally propose a provisional agenda a fortnight ahead as at present. At that stage it would have a provisional view as to how new Clauses and amendments would be most helpfully grouped and would communicate that to the Chair. By its next meeting a week later there would normally be a sufficiently clear idea for the House Business Committee to be able to agree how the report stage should be arranged. That proposition could then form part of the agenda to be put to the House.

117. It will be for the House Business Committee working between its formal meetings to interact with all the players to resolve all the practical issues which will require resolution: for example, the tabling at relatively short notice of unanticipated fresh amendments and new Clauses, including Government new Clauses, which inevitably disturbs any previously proposed timetable, and is likely to lead to the Chair making a different grouping; and the extent to which a specialist knowledge of the Bill and its contents is required to be able to construct such a timetable. On the first, the House Business Committee could reconvene if necessary in the event of new groups of new Clauses and amendments being tabled late in the day, and agree a revised scheme. On the second the House Business Committee could invite representations from those who have tabled new Clauses and amendments setting out their preferences as to those matters on which they place particular weight. It is not for us to second-guess the minutiae of House Business Committee business. We are confident that it will deal with these and other such issues and that as trust and experience grow it will operate ever more consensually and effectively.

118. In order to ensure that this system can work, without using up too much time and to avoid attempts to "talk out" full debate, we recommend the introduction of a regime of speaking time restrictions at report stage. We have gone beyond the issue of scheduling total time for report stage because we recognise that unless the current problems in this area are resolved then there will continue to be dissatisfaction and a sense that the House is failing to perform one of its core duties. In those circumstances, we will have failed in one of the primary parts of our mission. Our recommendations outlined above as part of the general reform which we propose below of the scheduling of business are intended to ensure that the House itself decides what matters are debated and decided at report stage of a Ministerial or a Private Member's Bill.

Closely connected matters: consideration of Lords amendments

119. Similar issues arise when the House considers Lords amendments. Unless Ministers bring forward a Motion to change the sequence, Lords amendments are considered in the order in which they relate to the Bill. Although they may be grouped for debate, that can leave the motions to agree or disagree with significant Amendments to later and thus not reached before the allotted time expires. The rules about the scope and form of permissible amendments in the later stages of "ping pong" - the passage of amendments back and forth between the two Houses - are incomprehensible to most participants. While we recognise that time for consideration is of necessity constrained in the later stages of further consideration of Lords amendments and messages, the initial consideration of Lords amendments is often too compressed. We recommend the introduction of a scheme similar to that described above for report stage for consideration of Lords amendments, including restrictions on speech lengths.

B The current framework

(v)  In this section we set out the existing system for the scheduling of business as embodied in the House's Standing Orders—its rule-book.

120. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation.[36] In 1811 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for Orders of the Day as opposed to Notices of Motions: these Orders were principally Government Orders. In 1835 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for "Government Orders", a category of business recognised for the first time in that way. Ministers could no longer tolerate waiting in a disorderly queue behind a mass of backbench business, and constantly liable to procedural devices of delay or diversion. The public had growing expectations that a Ministry would bring its own detailed legislation to the House, discussed and agreed in outline in Cabinet, announced in a Royal Speech and drafted by professional draftsmen working for the Crown. By the 1880s legislation was seen not only as largely the preserve of Ministers, but their principal function. In 1896 Balfour first limited by temporary and annually renewed Orders the business of Supply—the principal opportunity to raise debate by moving amendments to a formal Question or by seeking to amend the actual Supply motions—to a fixed number of days each session, with the Opposition given the freedom to choose the subjects. On 11 April 1902 the House agreed to what was first Standing Order No 4, and in a revised form is Standing Order No 14, giving "government business" precedence at every sitting unless otherwise provided.

121. SO No 14 (1) provides that "Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting". The specific savings in SO No 14 are for:

  • Opposition days each session, allotted on days determined by the Government: and
  • Private Members' Bill Fridays each session, fixed by the House at the outset of each session on the basis of a Motion moved by a Minister.

Protected time

122. Time in the Chamber is also set aside by other Standing Orders for:

  • oral questions for an hour on Mondays to Thursdays and Urgent Questions [SO No 21];
  • motions for leave to bring in Bills under the "ten-minute rule", on Tuesdays and Wednesdays [SO No 23];
  • emergency debates [SO No 24];
  • end of day 30 minute adjournment backbench debates every sitting day [SO No 9];
  • three Estimates days each year, for debates under the auspices of the Liaison Committee [SO No 54];
  • opposed private business [SO No 20], to be distributed between "the sittings on which government business has precedence and other sittings".

Westminster Hall

123. Time in Westminster Hall is technically at the disposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker) under SO No 10. It is used on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for five separate 30 or 90 minute backbench debates selected by ballot and on Thursdays for debates on either select committee reports or other matters chosen by the Government. The same Standing Order provides for the Speaker to appoint six days in Westminster Hall for debates on select committee reports chosen by the Liaison Committee. In practice the majority of Thursdays in Westminster Hall are on select committee reports less formally nominated by the Liaison Committee.

Order in which business is taken

124. Government control of the agenda covers not only what items are considered but the order in which they are considered. SO No 27 allows Ministers the right "of arranging government business, whether orders of the day or notices of motion, in such order as they think fit". The Government therefore organises the Order Paper more or less as it wishes. It chooses which items of Government business to put on the paper. A backbencher may name a specified future day for an item of business but unless the Government assents it does not even appear on the effective Orders for that day.

Technical business motions

125. Only Ministers can move the Business of the House or other procedural motions required to ensure that items of business are decided at a fixed time of day or after the passage of a period of time, or to allow debate to continue after the normal end of the day's business.


126. The default position is therefore that time "belongs" to the Government, subject to a number of exceptions and practices which allow others to influence and even determine the agenda. Put crudely, and subject to maintaining a majority, the Government enjoys not merely precedence but exclusive domination of much of the House's agenda, and can stop others seeking similar control.

C. Government-initiated business

(vi)  In this section we categorise in detail the various sorts of business which are currently scheduled by Ministers for debate in the House. The categorisation shows how much of this business is not in origin initiated by Ministers.

127. Coming to an unarguable definition of "Government business" is not easy. Some business would be placed by most observers in that category, including legislation brought in by Ministers. This is not to deny that the time devoted to its scrutiny is the House's time, not the Government's, since it is the House that scrutinises legislation whatever its source and Parliament that passes laws. Some business is patently not Government business, such as motions moved by the Opposition front-bench on Opposition days. But items of business such as debates on the floor of the House on affirmative statutory instruments which have been sought by the Opposition or backbenchers could be categorised as "Government business " in that it is Ministers who initiated the matter and who move the motion the House is asked to consider, but others who have insisted it be debated on the floor of the House rather than in a committee upstairs.

128. Because of the difficulties in defining the term, we set out below a rough categorisation of most of the business which now comes before the House as a result of Government initiative, and briefly identify how each comes to be placed on the agenda. The fact that at present it may be Government Ministers who either initiate the business or move the relevant Motion has little or nothing to do with whether it is usefully to be regarded as "Government business". We prefer the terms "Ministerial business" and "Government-initiated business".

Who owns time?

129. Ownership of the time of the House is to be distinguished from responsibility for sponsoring or promoting the business before it. There is a strong case for regarding all time as the House's time. It is not the Government that seeks debate but the House: what the Government needs are the decisions which enable it to carry out its programme. In practice Ministers may subscribe to the theory that parliamentary scrutiny is good for them, and that good scrutiny makes for good government. But it is hard to believe that, other things being equal, they would of their own volition bring on critical debates. There is not in reality the stark dichotomy suggested between business taken in time controlled by the "Government" and other business.


1. Ministerial legislation

130. Most business initiated by Ministers is legislative business. It is entirely the result of the Government's own proposals: if they bring in a lot of Bills then there will be a lot of time spent examining them. Legislation accounts for 35-40 per cent of time on the floor, measured in hours and minutes, and around 50 or 60 days in the rougher measure of business management. On the floor of the House that means for a typical Ministerial Bill a Second Reading debate lasting a day: a further day typically several months later devoted to report and Third Reading: and often a half day devoted to Lords amendments. Several Bills have all their stages on the floor of the House, because of their content, urgency or, on occasion, relative insignificance. Ministerial legislative business also covers the associated financial resolutions and programming motions, most of which are not separately debated.

Government Bills: 2008-09

Stage of BillDays required in Commons
Second Reading 17 days
Committee of the whole House7 days
Report and Third Reading16 days
All stages1 day
Lords Amendments 8 days

The figures are approximate. Some minor bills were given or required a half-day for committee of the whole House and all remaining stages. One Bill was given 2 days for CWH and all remaining stages. Lords Amendments time is calculated as a day or half-day (three hours) or one hour. Days or fractions of days on Bills carried over from the previous session or to be carried over to the next session are included.

2. Budget

131. The annual Debate of several days (four days in 2008-09) on the Budget arises technically on the first of the many Ways and Means Motions moved by the Chancellor on Budget Day, which are necessary to give effect to the Government's fiscal plans for the year. In that sense these are days devoted to Ministerial legislation. The debate is in practice an opportunity for a general economic and financial debate, and in that respect may be seen as at least in part House business. The number of days devoted to these debates is not wholly of the Government's choosing, in that Ministers would presumably have no objection to fewer days being required, but is determined with an eye to the assumed wishes of the House.

3.Queen's Speech

132. In a similar category to the Budget debate are the five or more days each year dedicated to the debate on the Queen's Speech (six days in 2008-09). The debate on the Queen's Speech, although technically arising on a motion for a loyal Address moved by a Government backbencher, is in effect a debate on all aspects of the Government's programme. The Government constitutionally needs the approval of the House and a defeat would be fatal, so in that sense it is Government-initiated business. But in practice it is a central part of the House's work in holding the Government to account by wide-ranging debate.

4. Ministerial statements

133. There are typically around 80 Ministerial statements in a year, meaning between two and three a week. The statement and subsequent question and answer normally take around an hour. A statement is made—in theory at least—of a Minister's own volition, and in that sense it is Government-initiated business: but it offers an opportunity for Opposition and backbench critique as well as praise, and in practice again is in part House business. And in practice statements are often made in response to pressure from inside or outside the House.

5. Affirmative instruments and European documents

134. Time also has to be found on the floor for other debates which arise on Ministerial motions, and concern matters for which Ministers are responsible, but where the debate arises because of demands from the House rather than the needs of Ministers. These are now relatively infrequent. The two main categories are:

  • debates on the floor of the House to approve affirmative statutory instruments, all of which would otherwise be held in committees off the floor, but where convention dictates that they be held on the floor. Several recurring affirmative instruments, including those on the annual local government and police grant settlements, council tax capping, annual social security up-rating, and prevention of terrorism, are by convention normally debated on the floor.
  • Debates on European documents where there has been a recommendation from the European Scrutiny Committee that a debate is held on the floor rather than as is generally the case in committees. This is now relatively infrequent, with only one debate in the 2008-09 session.

6. Prayers etc

135. When the Government "gives" time on the floor for a prayer against a statutory instrument (see para 107) the motion is tabled in the name of the Member—usually but not always an Opposition front bencher—who has tabled the prayer and who will lead the debate. That is now infrequent. In 2008-09 there were two such motions taken on the floor. Such business is scheduled by the Government in response to demand and arises out of Ministerial actions, but is not in fact initiated by Ministers nor is the relevant Motion moved by them.

7.Estimates Days

136. Estimates Days are a survival of the procedures whereby the Government needed to obtain the consent of the House to spend money, which was the peg for debate and the raising of grievances. The necessary financial motions are now moved formally by a Minister to enable debate to take place on a select committee report selected by the Liaison Committee. This is not really Government-initiated business but an extension to select committees of the 20 Opposition days, which also have their origin in financial supply procedure. The Liaison Committee has proposed, in the context of reporting on the Treasury's Alignment Project proposals for reforms in the way expenditure figures are presented to Parliament, an additional two days' debate, combined with a widening of the scope of debates on Estimates Days to permit "genuine examination of future spending plans".[37]

137. We broadly endorse the Liaison Committee's proposals for increasing from 3 to 5 the number of Estimates Days and in particular its suggestion that the type of debate on such days be widened to allow substantive opinion motions on expenditure plans for future years. These would normally be tabled and moved by the Chair of the relevant departmental select committee, thus giving committees an increased influence on the House's agenda. The Chair of the Liaison Committee wrote to the Chair of this Committee on 4 November to convey the Liaison Committee's decision that it would be prepared to select for debate a particular departmental Estimate.

138. In view of our desire to enhance the relevance of select committee work to the work of the Chamber we consider that these debates on Estimates Days could also usefully cover substantive motions on departmental annual reports, and recommendations in select committee reports which in the view of the Liaison Committee have not been adequately addressed by the Government's response.

139. We also note the Liaison Committee's repeated view that the Government should give an undertaking to provide a day's debate on the outcome of each Spending Review and on each year's Pre-Budget Report. Pre-scrutiny of expenditure is weak at the moment. In its recent response the Government said that it will aim to provide "adequate time" for debate of these issues, depending on other business. That neatly encapsulates the problem that it is the Government and not the House that determines what time is allocated to holding the Government to account. The debates on the outcomes of Spending Reviews and the Pre-Budget Report sought by the Liaison Committee are exactly the sort of debates which it should be up to the House to decide whether or not to schedule.

8. House business

140. Perhaps the most significant category of business scheduled by Ministers but not Ministerial business is the collective domestic business of the House itself. Motions on these matters are conventionally moved by the Leader of the House in her awkward dual role as a Government Minister and a spokesperson for the House.[38] In recent sessions they have included a number of motions on Members' pay and allowances and related matters. Some of these are in a technical sense linked to Ministerial business, since the effective motions on Members' pay and allowances require a Money Resolution, which can only be moved by a Minister.

141. In the 2008-09 session time has been spent on, among other things, business relating to the police searches of a Member's office in November 2008; changes in select committees consequent on machinery of Government changes; the proposal that the UK Youth Parliament use the Chamber; and the membership of the Speaker's Committee on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee. Into this broad category also fall matters of privilege, such as those arising out of findings of the Standards and Privileges Committee, or where Mr Speaker has authorised a Member to raise a matter as one of privilege. And exceptionally in June 2009 a day was laid aside for the election of a new Speaker.

142. The Government will also on relatively infrequent other occasions put on the Order Paper motions to be moved by non-Government Members, such as those responsible for Church of England or Electoral Commission business. Motions to appoint members to the House's permanent select committees are tabled in the name of the backbench Chairman of the Committee of Selection.

143. House committees such as Modernisation, Procedure and Administration - all of whose business is intimately linked with the House as an institution - have no special right of access to the House for their proposals. This committee is in the same boat. Committees rely on Ministers to find a slot on the Order Paper for their proposals to be put to the House and decided upon. As we note below, the system is such that a proposal such as for e.petitions does not reach the House at all (see para 252). Where there is no opposition, a substantive proposal can go through without debate if tabled by the Government on the Order Paper. But if there is any objection—as was the case with the establishment of this committee—then committees are dependent on time being "found" by the business managers.

144. There is also no opportunity for the Speaker to put a proposition to the House for its decision, other than through the good offices of the Leader of the House. Any such matters will almost by definition be House and not Ministerial business, and often of some significance.

9. Set piece debates

145. Much Government-initiated business is scheduled as much from respect for conventions that certain debates are held in the course of the year as from a positive desire on the part of Ministers to hold a debate. These debates are sometimes referred to as "default" or "set piece" debates. They include each year:

  • five days for defence debates—arising from the former two-day debate on the annual Statement on the Defence Estimates and the three individual service debates;
  • two days for pre-European Council debates;
  • two half-days [formerly one full day] on recent Public Accounts Committee reports;
  • one day on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee;
  • one day on Welsh Affairs;
  • one day to mark International Women's Day;
  • four days for "periodic adjournment" debates normally held immediately before recesses, during which any matter can be raised.

10.General debates

146. The Government is also responsible for initiating general debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on subjects determined by the Government, whether or not following consultation with others. It is comparatively rare for such debates to be held on a substantive motion; recent examples include the debate on 18 March 2003 on Iraq and on Trident on 14 March 2007. Instead, they are held on an unamendable motion in the form recommended by the Modernisation Committee, that the House has considered the matter. In session 2008-09 there were 12 general debates in the Chamber as set out below. Most were on Thursdays.

11. Topical debates

147. Following a recommendation from the Modernisation Committee, a new category of debate was introduced in 2008, known as "topical" debates. They are in effect shorter versions of the general debates referred to above, lasting 90 minutes and with a bespoke regime for front-bench speech lengths. They have to date always been held on a Thursday. They last 90 minutes. In session 2008-09 there have only been 10 topical debates, compared to 25 in 2007-08. The subjects are explicitly selected by the Leader of the House; there has been some controversy over the means of selection.


148. Leaving aside the 20 Opposition days, three Estimates Days, and business initiated by individual backbenchers, it is Ministers who decide whether a particular debate is held in the House; if so, when; and on what terms. Business scheduled by Ministers is diverse. It is by no means limited to matters the Government is comfortable with debating. But much of the business scheduled by Ministers as a result of their control of the agenda is neither required by Ministers for their legislative and political programme, nor initiated by Ministers. That is the issue. There is no transparent mechanism for individual backbench Members or groups of such Members to get motions onto the effective Orders, let alone secure a decision of the House. That includes motions to give effect to select committee reports as well as the choice of subjects the House is to debate.

D Process of scheduling business

(vii)  In this section we give a brief overview of some of the mechanics of the scheduling of business.

Sitting and non-sitting weeks

149. The scheduling of business is dictated by the annual calendar of sitting and non-sitting—"recess"—weeks. This calendar is now normally announced by the Leader of the House in the autumn, running up to the return of the House from the summer recess in the year ahead. The dates of the end of the session in the autumn—"prorogation"—and the start of the next session are usually not announced until shortly before the House rises for the summer. The dates of the Christmas, February, Easter, Whitsun and Summer adjournments now follow a fairly standard pattern. Although announced in advance on a firm but provisional basis, the dates for each recess are only formally put to the House for decision without debate as each individual recess approaches.

Annual planning

150. The business programme is managed at official level by the Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip and his staff in conjunction with his opposite numbers in the House of Lords. At the outset of a session, or shortly before it begins, the business managers look at the Government's proposed legislative programme. Decisions have to be taken on which House each Bill is to start. Some Bills may require Royal Assent faster than others. A few may be introduced later in the session and be carried over. For each Bill, estimated dates are needed by when they should reach the second House. From these considerations spring the dates by which committee proceedings in the Commons must end—the "committee out-date"—which appears in the programme motion now usually applied to Government Bills in the Commons immediately after Second Reading. The date by which the managers wish to conclude Commons proceedings, at Third Reading, is not published. The business managers also have to allow for scheduling of the 20 Opposition days and the scatter of "default" debates (see para 145) through the year, as well as the Queen's Speech and Budget debates.

Business Statement

151. The business for the next fortnight is agreed internally by the Government business managers at a weekly meeting.[39] Before and after this meeting there are some consultations through the usual channels with the Official Opposition Whips. The Leader of the House then announces future business to the House each week on Thursday as a rolling two-week programme, with the second week avowedly less firmly determined than the first. Business in Westminster Hall is often announced more than two weeks in advance. The announcement of future business is akin to a Ministerial statement but preserves the facade of being an Urgent Question from the Shadow Leader.

Business Questions

152. The House is not given the opportunity to approve or amend the draft agenda. Individual members can comment on it in the course of Business Questions, which usually runs for an hour and in which typically 30 members are called to ask questions, meaning all or most of those who seek to catch the Speaker's eye. Few interventions are directly related to the details of the business announced and in practice the occasion is used by backbenchers to raise a range of matters of concern to them.


153. The statement is neither definitive nor all-embracing. Ministers retain the freedom to put whatever they wish on the Order Paper, whether or not announced at Business Questions, with the conventional courtesy of making an additional business statement if there is a substantial change. These are infrequent: there were two in session 2008-09, one making a proposed topical debate on Gaza into a full day's debate, and the other bringing on a full day's debate on Afghanistan in place of one planned on preparations for the Copenhagen climate change conference. In both cases this was in response to demand within the House. The debate on the Queen's Speech in December 2008 was interrupted on its third day to debate the setting up of a committee on the search of a Member's office. The business in the second week is explicitly provisional: it is not uncommon for there to be some change, including the re-allocation of announced business from one day to another, when it is announced a week later as a firm plan.

Matters not announced until later

154. The subject of a forthcoming Thursday topical debate is as a rule not announced until the Monday evening before, by using the House annunciator system and insertion of the information in the House's papers for the next day. The Opposition parties are not obliged to give more than minimum advance notice of the subjects they propose to raise and may change them; the actual texts of Opposition Day motions are usually not tabled until the afternoon of the previous day, and the Government amendments therefore commensurately later.

Matters not announced

155. Detailed Business of the House and other procedural motions are not announced in advance and are often tabled only the evening before they appear for the first time on the effective Order Paper. Formal questions to be put forthwith or without debate, such as those on statutory instruments requiring affirmative approval are not announced. Some Ministerial statements are announced several days in advance but most are not. Although Ministers will use the Future Business section of the Order Paper to give advance notice to Members of significant Motions which the Government intends to put to the House on a subsequent day, that is by no means the invariable practice.[40]

E Is the current system satisfactory?

(viii)  In this section we describe the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, and identify five ways in which it fails to match the basic principles set out at the beginning of the report: in relation to parliamentary control of business, cross-party working, transparency, topicality and the use of time.

156. The fact that the House has referred to us the issue of "scheduling business in the House" implies that the matter requires examination and that there is something unsatisfactory about the current system.

157. Some of the dissatisfaction arises from frustration felt by individual Members or parties represented in the House at the difficulties they have in bringing on a debate on a matter of their choice so that Parliament properly fulfils its function as a forum for deliberation and debate on issues of importance to the country. It may also reflect frustration that even where there has been an opportunity for debate there has been no resolution of the issue, because there has been no vote on a substantive motion.

158. Others see the fundamental fact that the Government controls the House's time as both a cause and a symptom of the weakness of the House of Commons as an institution, demonstrating the inadequacy of parliamentary procedures and processes as a means of holding the Executive to account. As a result, reformers have for many years called for changes in the management of business.


159. We acknowledge the grounds for discontent and the extent of a desire for change. In shaping a new approach we must seek to build on the effective elements of the current arrangements. In comparison with the situation in many of our sister parliaments we have several advantages.

  • Advance Notice: An outline agenda is now announced two weeks in advance and is largely adhered to; Westminster Hall Thursdays are announced even further ahead. Some seek further notice.[41] But in many parliaments there is little or no advance notice of business.
  • Challenge: every week there is an opportunity for backbench Members to challenge the Leader of the House on the future agenda, even if not to vote on it, and to seek debate on other matters or a change in the suggested agenda: although we recognise that it is now used by Members primarily for an assortment of other purposes.
  • Consultation: The Official Opposition—although generally not other parties—are at least recognised as deserving limited informal consultation and the opportunity to make representations, even in the absence of a formal Bureau or Committee as is the general practice in other European parliaments. We are aware that the supposed beneficiaries of this consultation do not on occasion feel it is of much value.
  • Protected slots: There are protected and regular time slots in the House for the Opposition parties, select committees and individual members to debate matters of their choice and to question Ministers, and no suggestion that these should be reduced or constrained.
  • General debates: debates on general policy topics are on at least some occasions brought forward in "government time": and contrary to the impression sometimes given there is not a mass of time taken up by general debates on wholly innocuous topics selected by Ministers.
  • Westminster Hall: the sittings of the House in Westminster Hall offer backbenchers the opportunity for short 30-minute debates with a Ministerial reply, like those at the end of each day in the Chamber, and longer 90 minute debates on issues of wider interest of their choice, subject only to the luck of the draw.

Operation of the system

160. It is also important not to let frustration with the system spill over into criticising those who operate it, whether Ministers or officials. We acknowledge the excellent work of the professional civil servants in the Chief Whip's Office, in the Leader's Office and in the Opposition Chief Whip's Office. Ministerial-sponsored legislation reaches the statute book by the desired date having been debated on the floor (at least for some parts) and in committee; the 20 Opposition Days are scattered relatively evenly through the session: the days of set-piece debate which seem to be regarded as required are scheduled in. Hundreds of Statutory Instruments are laid, debated and formally agreed. The House runs according to rules which are obeyed and enforced. The smooth running of the House, whatever the political arguments, owes much to the talents of those operating the business system. It is no mean feat in a Chamber of 646 vigorously individual Members, and with a second chamber with interests and concerns of its own.

Failure to match principles

161. But we have concluded that the system fails in several ways to match the basic principles set out at the beginning of this Report. We set out below five ways in which it fails to meet these tests.


(ix)  It is wrong in principle that, in addition to controlling its own legislative timetable, the Government rather than the House decides what is discussed, when, and for how long.

162. It is entirely right that a democratically elected Government should have a priority right to put its legislative and other propositions before the House at a time of its own choosing, and to be able to plan for the conclusion of that business. But it should be for the House as a whole to determine how much time to devote to such debate and scrutiny. It is also right in a democratic Chamber that the Government is free to deploy its majority to pass its business. But the procedures and practices which have grown up over the past two centuries have delegated to Government too much power to fix the agenda, and to take too many decisions without reference to its notional majority in the Chamber. We consider it for example unacceptable that Ministers can determine the scheduling of Opposition Days without reference to others; that they have an untrammelled power to decide the topics for general and topical debates; that they can determine which issues in major bills are debated on the floor of the House and by corollary which issues are not; that they can determine the fate of backbench legislation by procedural means rather than by decision of the House; and that they determine which pieces of secondary legislation are or are not debated in the Chamber. It is not easy for Members to bring on a debate—as opposed to a 30 minute exchange between a Member and a Minister—on a topic which Ministers do not want to have debated, irrespective of the strength of feeling across the House: let alone a debate on a substantive motion. Nor does the House have a mechanism to establish its own inquiry, beyond existing select committees, when the Government is unwilling to do so.


(x)  The current framework provides protected time in the Chamber for the Government, Opposition and individual Members, but scarcely recognises the cross-party work of select committees, let alone other groups of Members.

163. The House devotes considerable resources to select committees and then largely neglects their output in drawing up the House agenda. That is in sharp contrast to prevailing parliamentary practice elsewhere. Time in Westminster Hall is not a substitute for committees having access to the House agenda when it is most useful rather than when it suits the convenience of Ministers.


(xi)  The system for scheduling business is not transparent to many inside the House, let alone those outside.

164. Even the term "the usual channels" has a distinct air of mystery which demonstrates the difficulty of establishing who has made or can make a particular decision.[42] There is no consultation with minority parties or backbenchers. Most decisions are taken in private, do not have to be justified in public and can sometimes only be gleaned after the event. Naturally much of the detailed planning and negotiation needs to be conducted in private, but the process itself needs to be clear in order to be legitimate.


(xii)  The House is not systematically using its time to debate those matters of current concern which the nation expects its elected Chamber to be debating, nor is it responding flexibly to a swiftly moving political agenda, nor setting a long term policy agenda.

165. This applies to general and topical debates in the Chamber, and in Westminster Hall. Some debates seem to be mounted as platforms for speeches a department wishes its Ministers to make. Others are provided because there may be a row if they are not or because they have traditionally been provided; it may be a convenience for the business managers to plead such force majeure. As a result controversial select committee reports are often not debated promptly; and other controversial issues are avoided.


(xiii)  Time in the House is frequently described as a scarce commodity; but it is often wasted on business stretched out artificially to a pre-determined voting time or on arid debate on subjects on which backbenchers on neither side much wish to speak.

166. Ministers may not be best attuned to deciding how long or short an item needs to be. Each session around 30 hours of possible Chamber debate are "lost", measured by the half hour adjournment coming on early. Many other debates are pointlessly strung out. In Westminster Hall a number of the 3-hour Thursday debates on subjects picked by the Government fall away early and time which backbenchers might have welcomed is lost: almost a third of the available time for the 8 such debates in session 2008-09 was not used, and only 2 backbenchers on average participated in a debate. This could of course change if there were whipped votes on Thursdays on a regular basis.

F Five elements of a reformed system

(xiv)  We describe five elements of a reformed system: the House determining its own agenda and sitting pattern; backbench business to be scheduled by backbenchers and the House; the Government retaining the initiative on ministerial business; more say and more freedom for the Opposition on its business; and enhanced opportunities for select committees and individual Members. We propose a committee of backbenchers to propose backbench business, and that business should be put to the House in a weekly agenda motion.

167. We consider that there is a strong case for change, particularly in the scheduling of debates on backbench business in the House and Westminster Hall, but also in the way in which the agenda as a whole is decided and justified.

I.The House should determine its own agenda and sitting pattern

168. Time in the House belongs to the House. At present the House has no mechanism for determining its own business and therefore takes no responsibility for it and for the difficult choices which have to be made. It is then all too easy to blame the Government for not providing time for debate: the Business Statement is followed by a raft of suggestions for additional debates but no proposal as to where the time is to come from. The current system infantilises Members and demonises Government: ending it would be to the advantage of both Ministers and Parliament.

Weekly agenda motion

169. The agenda should therefore fall to be decided by the House, if need be by a majority. The straightforward way of doing that is by putting a motion to the House on a set day and time each week. That is standard practice in many parliaments around the world and has operated in the Scottish Parliament without problems for the last decade. No extra time would be required as it would take the place of the Business Statement and subsequent questions. This Motion would:

  • set out the basic details of the agenda in the House for the week ahead, including the next Thursday in Westminster Hall;
  • be available for inspection by Members by the middle of the previous day;
  • be open to amendment, subject to the Chair's powers of selection;
  • be put formally to the vote after the elapse of a period set in Standing Orders, such as 45 minutes;
  • if an amendment were selected, give rise to a debate with specific speaking time limits following the 45 minute question and answer session, and would if need be end in a non-deferrable division.

Business for the second week in the cycle

170. The House would plainly want to retain the advance notice currently given for the second week in the cycle, if not get a rather longer forward look.[43] The introduction in the 1992 Parliament of the fortnightly forward look was widely welcomed as helping members and others plan ahead. A draft agenda for the second week should also be announced to the House at the same time as the formal agenda Motion, and on broadly the same provisional basis as at present. It would be explicitly provisional and it would be open to Members to make representations to the Business Committees (see below) before it was finalised for the formal motion the succeeding week.


171. There is no reason why there should as a rule be a vote on the agenda, all the more once it has been the subject of wider discussion than at present and will have been exposed in draft the previous week. But the ability of Ministers to deploy a whipped majority provides a necessary insurance policy for them. On what we expect to be the rare occasions when push comes to shove, a disciplined majoritarian party can have its way if it disagrees with a proposed agenda or if it wishes to defeat a proposed amendment. Such decisions will of course normally be taken on a whipped vote. It would be unrealistic to seek to stop the whips from operating in votes on such decisions. The Government will generally be able to secure a majority, should it wish to do so. But if a significant number of its own backbenchers are unhappy it will at least have had to make a convincing case, and in public: and at the cost of delaying the main business for the day and interrupting the smooth flow of business for all Members. If the time lost as a result of debate and vote on an amendment moved by Ministers comes out of backbench business, there should be commensurately more backbench time available in the next week's agenda.

Scope of possible amendments to agenda motion

172. The Speaker's power of selection of amendments would be required to ensure that merely destructive amendments were not selected and that a proposition coming from the House Business Committee (described below) was treated with respect. No consideration would be given to amendments which had not been raised previously with the committee. Amendments intended merely to draw attention to some issue without proposing an alternative would not be in order, and we would expect the Chair only to select amendments demonstrating widespread support. But where Members across the House disagreed with, for example, the specific topic proposed for a general or topical debate and wished to press a cogent alternative expressed in an amendment, it should ultimately be for a majority in the House to decide. Such amendments to backbench business should however only be in order if tabled and moved by backbenchers. The House could not restrict the overall time allocated to backbench business (as set out below), nor deny the Opposition or government its time. It could not alter the topic of an Opposition Day, which is properly the property of the Opposition frontbench. But Members could, for example, propose that time on one Government Bill be curtailed in order to allow for more debate on another. We would hope that such challenges, to either government-initiated or backbench business, would be rare, with most difficulties ironed out beforehand in the House Business Committee.


173. Where there is serious dissent a majority will of course prevail. That majority may not always be the majority of the governing party. But the system we propose will clearly have failed if disagreements have to be re-fought on the floor of the House. It will also have failed if debate on the agenda becomes a ritual leading to a ritual party vote. Ideally the agenda will be put together so as not to require a vote or an amendment: the effectiveness of the mechanism is not to be judged by the frequency of discord but its absence.


174. A votable motion on the agenda provides a traditional accountability mechanism for such decisions, and ultimately a sanction were the wishes of a majority of the House to be misjudged or ignored. Any programme which requires the positive approval of the House will necessarily be drawn up—and we deal below with how and by whom it is to be drawn up—with the intention of satisfying a clear majority of members and delivering to the Government sufficient time to get the business it initiates through the House.


175. As set out above [paras 100-101], the House as a whole must also be given the opportunity to determine on a regular basis when it is to sit, on the basis of a proposition made by the House's own Business Committee in the autumn for the year ahead, which can be amended by the House nearer the time of each adjournment should it be thought necessary.


176. Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business, comprising Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements The rest of the business currently scheduled by Ministers—such as House domestic business, select committee reports and general and topical debates—is for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.


177. On some business there needs to be an explicit partnership between Ministerial and backbench scheduling: this includes the length of debates on the Budget and Queen's Speech, the timing of Estimates Days and the handling of secondary legislation and European documents on the floor. And the rota for oral questions must allow for ministerial availability but is also quintessentially an opportunity for the House to scrutinise the Executive. The suggestion has for example been made that oral questions might be switched from being first business to later in the day, so as to give an opportunity to the majority of the population who are otherwise engaged during the day to see it live. This would be a matter for backbenchers and for Ministers to agree together.

Backbench Business Committee

178. The scheduling of backbench business by backbenchers will require a means to decide what proposals for such business should be put to the House for its agreement. The obvious route is a committee of backbenchers elected by the House for that purpose. Such a committee's task will not be an easy one. But it is in our view time for Members of the House, through a committee of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length. For example, the House must be enabled to decide whether to sacrifice or curtail or move to another forum one or more of the set piece debates to make space for other business.

179. This will reduce the current extent of Government control or influence over the Parliamentary agenda. But the matters "lost" to Government will be principally those in which it has no direct interest: for example, the timing and topics of general debates and discussion of select committee reports. Rather than Ministers seeking to prioritise the many demands for time that are presented by Members, this responsibility would be handed to a committee representative of the House as a whole.

180. We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole, with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House. To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government's business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the protected days and/or time-slots [see below] available in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench business in the week immediately ahead.

181. So what would be gained by a Backbench Business Committee along the lines we suggest? We believe that establishment of clear "backbench time" managed by a Backbench Business Committee will be a major step forward. Without in any way compromising Government's ability to have its own initiatives discussed and scrutinised, this Committee will take clear charge of part of the agenda for at least one day a week or its equivalent for the House collectively to discuss those matters that Members feel should be prioritised. It will create new opportunities for all Members, giving them a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for what goes on in their own House. It will make debates more responsive to public concerns, as fed in to Members by their constituents. It will strengthen the position of the widely-respected select committees. We feel that this is an essential reform which will have many benefits for Members, for Parliament as a whole, and for the esteem in which it is held. But these gains will not be realised unless individual backbenchers are committed to parliamentary activity and avail themselves of these opportunities, and that will only happen if they think it a more worthwhile use of their time than the many other tasks which make up the life of an elected Member.


Ministerial Business

182. Ministers should continue to have the first call on House time for Ministerial business, meaning Ministerial-sponsored primary and secondary legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements on major policy changes. Ministers would for example retain the right to determine the date of second reading of a Government Bill, and the day by which the Bill was to conclude its passage through the House.

Ministerial control of timing

183. Ministers should also continue to be entitled to put to the House for its assent the order in which items of Ministerial business are scheduled and the day on which they are to be taken. They would also retain the ability, which any Member in charge of an Order of the Day has, to prevent others bringing a Ministerial-sponsored item forward onto the Order Paper which Ministers do not want to have moved at that time. Their control over the timing of the business they need to be put to the House will thus be preserved.

Length of business

184. The Government's right to have the opportunity to put its legislative and other propositions to the House, at a day of its choosing, should not however extend to deciding without any reference to the House for how long these are to be debated by the House. Scheduling must allow for Ministers to have a proper opportunity to present their case; for Opposition parties to present theirs; and for backbenchers to speak. But it cannot be right that Ministers effectively decide with little or no consultation the length of a Second Reading debate or the report stage of a Bill or the time to be devoted to Lords amendments. There needs to be some means of consultation with Members speaking for the House and not just front-benchers.

185. Under programming of most Government Bills, the time allowed for the report stage is put to the House in the programme motion moved immediately after Second Reading. These motions are effectively unamendable and are not open to separate debate. It is unnecessary for the House to be asked to agree so peremptorily before a Committee stage how long the report stage should last.

186. Generally there is and will be no controversy. The current "standard allowance" of a day for Second Reading, a day or two for report and Third Reading, and a day or a half day for Lords Amendments is broadly recognised. But there are rough edges and rough justice. Every session there are second readings to which a full day is allocated which is not required: report stages which may require an additional half or full day to the amount given, or which do not require a full day: and Lords amendments which are unnecessarily squeezed. The House itself should take responsibility for determining how much time it wishes to devote to such matters.

Ministerial Statements

187. Some similar considerations apply to the time devoted to ministerial statements and the subsequent question and answer, which conventionally lasts for 60 minutes, up to a third of which may be devoted to the Minister reading out the text of the statement in full for up to 10 minutes, and the exchanges with the Opposition parties front-bench spokesmen. The text of the statement is not made available to most Members in advance. There is plainly room for different procedures designed to give an opportunity for a more thorough form of parliamentary scrutiny, without undermining a Minister's right to make a statement and respond to questions on it; and statements could well be taken at a different point in the parliamentary day.


Opposition Days

188. The Official Opposition and other Opposition parties should continue to have a pre-emptive right to their fixed number of days, to be spread evenly through a session. There is a case for the Opposition parties to be given more say on when they can take such a day or half day. In order to give the Opposition parties more opportunity to have a debate when they need one, Standing Orders could provide for the Opposition to have the right to schedule a day at a week's notice, exercisable on a given number of occasions in the session. Opposition business would not come within the ambit of the Backbench Business Committee.

Content of Opposition Days

189. There is a "somewhat ritualistic element" to Opposition days.[44] A wider range of business could be taken rather than what has now become the standard fare on Opposition Days of two debates of three hours each, dominated by the front-benches: such as the introduction of the format used in European Committees of question and answer followed by debate. It has also in the past been suggested that there could be Opposition legislative business. This would represent a change in practice sufficient to require an explicit decision of the House and could of course have repercussions for the existing system for prioritising non-Ministerial bills. But it would in our view represent a significant opportunity for debate to focus around a specific legislative proposition from an Opposition party.

Announcement of topics

190. We are also aware of the inconvenience and uncertainty sometimes caused by delays in announcing the subjects to be debated on Opposition Days, or those subjects being changed at the last moment. We consider that the subjects of Opposition Day motions should normally be laid down with at least two days' notice.


Select committee debates

191. Select committees do have some opportunities for having their reports debated. Most Thursdays in Westminster Hall are taken up from 2.30pm to 5.30pm by such debates. That may not be the most popular time or place, but these debates are often lively and reasonably well-attended. Six further select committee reports are in practice debated on the floor each year on the three Estimates Days [see para 136 above] . But there are flaws in the system, which the Liaison Committee has pointed out over the years. It is hard for select committees to get the attention of the House itself. Debates are not held until a Government Reply is received, which can take two months to compile, and sometimes more. And where there are debates there is no opportunity for a committee to test its conclusions in a vote of substance, based on a draft resolution it can put forward, itself then subject to amendment. Furthermore the now standard time of three hours for a debate on a report either on an Estimates Day or in Westminster Hall is on occasions too long and could usefully be reduced to 90 minutes, as for topical debates and longer backbench debates in Westminster Hall. These are the sort of opportunities which should be possible under a reformed system. Select committees, including those concerned with the House's own affairs, deserve greater access to the agenda, so that they can have their reports debated and decided upon a substantive motion, at a time which best suits them and the House.

Individual Member initiatives

192. Individual backbenchers must continue to be able to raise subjects as adjournment debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall, and to press legislation through Private Members' Bills, as well as participating in debate and questioning. In addition, any revised system must respond to the widespread sense that the right should be restored to Members to get a substantive motion put to the House and decided. We propose below [paras 271-2] the introduction of a regular slot for debate on a heavily signed motion from the backbenches, separate from the EDM system. That would offer a return to backbenchers of the right to move a motion in the House which was lost in 1994. We also propose some other new forms of business which might be introduced, to be scheduled within backbench time.

Private Members Bills

193. Several Members have expressed dissatisfaction with the system of Private Members' Bills. It was last reviewed in detail by the Procedure Committee in 2002-03.[45] The proposition that they be taken after the end of other business on Wednesdays enjoys some support, as do the ideas that there should be some sort of automatic guillotines after a certain number of hours of debate on second reading and report, so as to constrain the ability of a handful of members or a Minister to "talk a Bill out". Our recommendations on report stages apply equally to Private Members' Bills.

194. One essential test of the House's control of its own business is whether the handful of legislative propositions tabled by those backbenchers fortunate enough to win one of the top 7 places in the sessional ballot should be able to see their bills progress in the House unless and until defeated by a majority. The House should be responsible for ensuring that merely procedural devices cannot obstruct Private Members' Bills, and that they are brought to a decision. This could among other things mean scheduling Private Members' Bills at some other time in the week than Fridays, such as Wednesday evenings. As a corollary to this, the Government and other parties should be free to whip against those Bills it opposes; but the outcome should be clearly dependent on a decision of the House one way or another.


195. In summary, we envisage a system whereby Ministers indicate as now the business they intend to bring forward, principally legislation and related motions. It would not be realistic, or indeed reasonable, to expect Government to surrender control over these decisions to a committee of backbench Members. Ministers quite rightly want to determine the broad timing of the legislation they sponsor. At the same time, a committee of backbenchers should be set up to bring forward proposals to the House for backbench business. The Opposition should have some greater say than at present in when it uses its Opposition Days. Select committees and backbench Members deserve enhanced access to the House agenda. By giving Members greater control of the agenda, we are confident that the House of Commons will be strengthened.

G Assembling the jigsaw

In this section we set out our proposals for a House Business Committee which would assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion

196. A draft agenda will have to be assembled from these various separate streams of business as a "composite" motion to be moved in the House, a task now carried out for want of any other structure by the Government Chief Whip's office. We considered a number of options before deciding on a model to recommend to the House.

Option 1: a single Business Committee deciding all business

197. One option would be an all-purpose Business Committee with responsibility for all scheduling decisions, including backbench business. Any backbenchers on the committee would be in practice overshadowed by the Whips, as on the Committee of Selection. The conclusions of the studies by Meg Russell and Akash Paun of the Constitution Unit is that a Business Committee with wide-ranging and quasi-decisive power will in practice be dominated by party whips, and was so dominated in every case studied where that system currently runs, including Scotland.[46] If such a committee was created and then dominated by the Whips, the House would have gained no more ownership of backbench business than it has at present. We therefore rejected this option.

Option 2: the existing system with a Backbench Business Committee bolted on

198. Another option would be to continue with a variant of the present system, with a Backbench Business Committee feeding in its proposals for the use of backbench time. Such an arrangement would fail on several counts. The Backbench Business Committee would be just one more player—albeit a significant one—on the stage, together with the Official Opposition, the Liaison Committee, and other parties. It would as now be left to the Leader of the House and Government officials to sort it all out. There would therefore be no real sense of House ownership of the Ministerial part of the agenda: and no backbench challenge possible to it before the agenda was put to the House. A Backbench Business Committee created in these circumstances might not long survive. The House would gain something by its creation, but not to the degree we believe possible under other schemes. We therefore rejected this option.

Option 3: a House Business Committee with two sub-committees

199. A further variant would be to have a single House Business Committee with two sub-committees—a backbench sub-committee and a government business sub-committee. This would have the advantage of giving clear and equal weight to both backbench and government business. It would also formalize the usual channels. However, we accept there may be some reluctance from the executive to take this additional step. We therefore rejected this option.

Option 4: a House Business Committee and a Backbench Business Committee

200. Our preferred solution is to have two committees. The task of assembling a draft agenda to put to the House should be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised of representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest: backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The members of this committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders. We would expect the Leader and shadow Leaders of the House to be among these nominees. The House Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means [the Deputy Speaker], whose would have been elected by the House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

House Business committee: internal operation

201. Given the complex nature of House business and the competition for scarce time, we accept that, in the interests of individual Members and the need for Government to get its business, and in order for our proposed system to work, extensive informal negotiation would take place well before the formal committee meetings. In such meetings, the frontbench members of the House Business Committee would be free to comment on the propositions brought to the Committee by the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, but would not be able to alter or attenuate them. Similarly, the backbench Members of the House Business Committee would be free to raise objections to, make suggestions on and seek explanations of the Government or Opposition propositions. Either part of the committee would be free to change their original proposition following discussion. Standing Orders would oblige the Committee to accommodate the reasonable demands of Government, Opposition and backbenchers for time. A consensus would have to be arrived at. We do not envisage that a vote in such a committee would be possible. In the absence of a consensus the Chair would have to use their discretion to settle the matter so far as deciding what was to go into the draft agenda to be put to the House. Anybody wishing to challenge that would have to contemplate moving amendment to the draft agenda on the floor of the House.

Agenda and agenda motion debate

202. The resultant draft agenda would be moved formally in the House in the name of the Chair of the House Business Committee. We envisage that the question and answer session thereafter would be answered by the Leader of the House as at present where the matter concerned Ministerial business or the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee if it concerned backbench business. This session would in effect provide a similar opportunity to the current Business Questions on Thursdays.

Process of consultation

203. We would expect both committees to meet weekly, with the Backbench Business Committee meeting first to consider backbench business to be brought up to the House Business Committee. We would also expect that there would be a process of constant consultation and negotiation between the secretariats of the two committees. The drawing up of a draft agenda for the second week gives a further chance to reach consensus as well as to react to the views of Members. Discussion in the privacy of a select committee should also enable Members to resolve any remaining rough edges.

Usual channels

204. It may be that the Government and Opposition nominees on the House Business Committee will want to meet separately in advance of the House Business Committee meeting to settle so far as possible the scheduling of the business for which they each have responsibility. We regard that as a matter for them and should they wish to constitute themselves as a Government business committee comparable to the Backbench Business Committee that could be accommodated and would have the benefits of greater transparency.

Annual planning transparency

205. The House Business Committee will not operate effectively unless it has a handle on the sort of annual planning exercise carried out at the start of each session—or rather before that—by the business managers. Without some sense of what other business might be coming up, it would not be possible to challenge the judgements being made about the time to be devoted to an item of Government business or how far additional time could be spared without creating countervailing pressures elsewhere in the programme. It is legitimate that some of this be held in confidence by the Government: for example, if they have in mind some legislation not yet announced which they do not wish to reveal to others. But we believe most of this provisional long-term planning could be shared with such a committee without damage.

Advance notice of plans

206. If there is not a guaranteed day each week for backbench business it will be difficult for the Backbench Business Committee to know what spaces it is seeking to fill. Even were there to be a regular day, there would still be the option of scheduling some backbench business on days largely devoted to other business. The Government should therefore be under an informal obligation to indicate to the Committee and its staff well in advance the slots it envisages needing in the coming fortnight for specified government business, and the Opposition likewise. By the time the House Business Committee meets to agree a draft agenda, there should be no surprises for anyone.

Minor unannounced business

207. Present practice allows a good deal of latitude to Ministers to bring up additional items not mentioned in the Business Statement. These are principally motions of a technical nature put down for the end of the day and either requiring unanimity to be agreed, or being capable of being voted upon as a deferred division on the next Wednesday. But they also include motions of real significance which seem as if they are being "smuggled through" [see para 155]. We would expect a greater discipline to be applied in giving advance notice of motions, to the extent of allowing the Speaker to refuse to put a Motion to the House of which sufficient notice had not been given.

Avoiding undue rigidity

208. Tying the agenda down in a Resolution of the House should not be allowed to impose excessive rigidity on the House's business. There are rare occasions when the announced business has to be changed at short notice [see above]. We believe that the Leader of the House should be given the right, subject to the discretion of the Chair, to move a supplementary business motion without previous written notice, and have it decided by vote if need be after 10 minutes. The Leader would be obliged to signify the consent of the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

Decisions of the House

209. The House Business Committee could be empowered to include in the agenda to be put to the House a binding proposition—which the House could amend or reject—that debate on a specified item of business be brought to a decision point after a fixed period— for example "after 90 minutes"—or at a specified time—for example "at Four o'clock" : or a mixture of the two—for example "at Four o'clock or after 90 minutes, whichever is later". Such propositions could also cover backbench business. Some advance timetabling is fairer to the House and ensures that debate cannot be used to talk out a specific proposition where it is reasonable to expect the House to express a view. But we would expect such a power to be used sparingly.

Substantive motions

210. Most general debate in the House and in its debating committees proceeds on neutral and unamendable motions. There will on occasions be good reason to hold a debate on, for example, a foreign policy issue or a general social topic where being tied to the detailed terms of a draft proposition may be positively unhelpful. A substantive motion may invite amendment and stimulate dissent without necessarily achieving a useful outcome. On such occasions a take note or equivalent motion is positively helpful. But in general terms we favour more use of substantive motions so that the House can come to a recorded conclusion which will then carry weight. The Backbench Business Committee will be in a position to decide as to what sort of motion is best suited for the backbench business it proposes and to put forward for inclusion on the agenda either a neutral motion or a substantive motion already drawn up by a select committee or by backbenchers.

H Time available to the backbench business committee

(xv)  We set out the options for protecting the time available for the business to be scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee: a nominated day each week, whether always the same day or a movable day, or the equivalent of a day spread through each week or through the year as a whole. We conclude that the minimum offering should be of one day a week or the equivalent.

211. Put very crudely, the current system relies on the Government taking the time it needs for legislation; the Opposition getting its allocation over the year as a whole; any other of those with a call on time—such as for opposed Private Business—being satisfied; and then filling the rest with set-piece debates either from the list of hardy annuals or ad hoc debates. Some weeks there is virtually no non-Government business other than an Opposition Day; in other weeks there may be two days of miscellaneous non-Ministerial business. The creation of a Backbench Business Committee will call for a more transparent system and one which gives the protection of Standing Orders to backbench business. We have identified several options.

A foreseeable weekday every week?

212. The simplest and probably most transparent way of ensuring sufficient time for backbench business spread evenly throughout a session, and susceptible to planning by the Backbench Business Committee, is to identify in Standing Orders a fixed day of the week as reserved for backbench business. From the figures available, one day a week could easily be devoted to backbench business as we have defined it above, leaving more than enough days required for a standard Government legislative programme and for Opposition days. The Backbench Business Committee could fill the day as it thought fit, drawing on the menu of possible items we refer to below, and with regard to any regular mandatory slots. This system would be easy for all to foresee. It would import a degree of rigidity, however, and it might also tend to rule out shorter items of backbench business being taken on days otherwise given over to Ministerial business.

213. If a particular day were to be identified, and if it were to be the same day every week, the first suggestion made is likely to be Thursday. With the move in 1997 of Prime Minister's Questions to Wednesdays, Thursdays in the Chamber have lost status and are now increasingly used for unwhipped or only lightly whipped business. They are not well attended. The prospect of votes on substantive motions may change that. Another possibility is Monday. This is a day for main-stream business. But Members from further afield may only reach Westminster some way through a Monday, in time for an evening vote. Ideally, if a particular day is to be protected, we would like backbench business to be scheduled on Wednesdays, with Thursdays once again becoming a "main" day for debate on Government legislation and other matters. It is important that backbench business is not relegated to a backwater, and that Thursday be revived as a proper day for business, with its earlier finishing time. One suggested way of doing that would be to return Prime Minister's Questions to Thursday. We ask the Chief Whips to pursue the suggestion that Prime Minister's Question Time be timetabled for Thursday afternoon.

A changing weekday every week?

214. Alternatively, it could be left open to a process of regular discussion and negotiation as to which day of each week would be devoted to backbench business. This would avoid the rigidities referred to above.

Equivalent of a day every week?

215. Another means of providing a guaranteed minimum amount of backbench time every week would be to spread backbench time over each week in packets of half days or smaller fractions. This could ensure some backbench business on most days but might be unduly diffuse.

A minimum ration of days through the year?

216. A further variant, drawing on the parallel of the provision of 20 Opposition Days each session, would be to provide for a similar but higher number of backbench business days—say 35 Backbench Business Days—possibly with a requirement in Standing Orders that they be spread over the year as a whole. This could also allow for half days and shorter periods. In order to allow for some weeks which for good reason would be devoted exclusively to Government and Opposition business, there could be a fixed number per three month "term".

Quotas for specified categories of business

217. Whichever option is chosen, it would also be possible to create an obligation on the Backbench Business Committee to schedule a given minimum number of specified items for the agenda over a period of a month or the year as a whole, or indeed every week. For example, it could be an obligation to have

  • one topical debate each week:[47]
  • one select committee report presentation slot each week or fortnight[48] or 35 select committee presentation slots spread through the year:
  • one debate on a heavily supported backbench cross-party motion each month.

218. Whichever option emerges from the debate and discussion which we expect to follow this Report, some time must be identified and protected for backbench business, not less than the equivalent of one day a week. We propose that Standing Orders should be sufficiently tightly drawn to guarantee this, but with some flexibility, so that the Backbench Business Committee can take matters forward.

I Backbench business

219. In the time we have had available it has not been possible to conduct an exhaustive inquiry into all the possible categories of backbench business which a Backbench Business Committee might in future bring forward. Over recent years there have been a number of suggestions and propositions, but no means of implementing them or even putting them to the House. A Backbench Business Committee will be empowered and expected to do that. It would be up to that Committee to innovate and mix and match. The last thing we would wish to do is to try and set down a narrow menu now.

220. Existing categories may well be adapted. Some changes may not require changes to the Standing Orders, or very minor changes. For example a topical debate could in future be led off by a back-bencher; some general debates could draw on the European Standing Committee format; and a debate on a select committee report could usefully be held on a substantive draft resolution based on that report. We would expect the Liaison Committee to continue to take the initiative in selecting select committee reports for presentation and debate, leaving it to the Backbench Business Committee to find an actual slot.

221. There are a number of welcome ideas for new sorts of business or revised forms of current categories. A Backbench Business Committee would be in position to seek the House's agreement to try these out. Some of the sorts of business which we would hope to see included are :

  • substantive motions moved by backbenchers either after a ballot or based on the sort of procedure we identify in para 271;
  • some category or categories of non-Government bills given priority over, or at least equality with, those presented following the ballot;
  • brief presentation of a select committee Report in the Chamber by the Chairman and one or two Members, without it engaging instant rebuttal by Ministers;
  • alternative uses of the 10-minute rule bill slot or its extension to Monday and/or Thursday;
  • periods for short miscellaneous speeches not expecting a Ministerial reply, on the Australian model, where in the equivalent (and predecessor) of Westminster Hall six 10-minute speeches from backbenchers on any matter are permitted in a weekly "grievance" debate and ten 3-minute "constituency statements" at the start of proceedings: neither attracting a ministerial response.

J Conclusion

222. We have concluded that reform is both necessary and desirable. We have not drafted the specific changes to Standing Order No 14 and many other Standing Orders which will be required to implement our recommendations, but we believe that work on that task should now begin.

223. The House is unused to deciding its own business and has become dependent on Government. It may therefore be understandably fearful about change. But the public would find it strange if Members do not summon up the confidence to give effect to the view of all three party leaders that the time is now right for a clearer and more important role for Parliament. It is also worth pausing to consider how some of the practices and procedures we now value would look if proposed as an innovation, and how quickly they take root. Who would now suggest a 10 minute slot for a backbencher to move a motion to bring in a Bill—a quite unnecessary stage in procedural terms—at prime time before the main business of the day? And how many people 10 years ago could imagine that the parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall could thrive as it has? Is there any likelihood that the House would turn its back on topical questions introduced only a couple of years ago? Innovations swiftly become traditions; and it may in the future come to seem odd that the House once lacked the ability and confidence to control its own business.

26   Robin Cook, The Point of Departure, 2003, pp 236-7 Back

27   See Back

28   HC Deb, 1 November 2006, col 418 Back

29   See Ev10 footnote 7 for international comparisons Back

30   Ev9 Back

31   Jessica Levy, Strengthening Parliament's Powers of Scrutiny? (Constitution Unit, University College London, 2009) Back

32   eg Ev9 Back

33   Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 1995-96, Delegated Legislation HC152  Back

34   Standing Orders of the House of Commons, HC 2, 2008-09, pp 167-169 Back

35   In Session 2008-09, on selected significant Ministerial Bills, the numbers of groups not reached included Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning, 5 groups out of 10; Coroners and Justice, 7 groups out of 15; Marine and Coastal Access [Lords], 2 groups out of 8; Policing and Crime, 4 groups out of 8; Political Parties and Elections, 9 groups out of 18; Welfare Reform, 5 groups out of 8. Back

36   See Erskine May, 24th Edition, pages 6-9 Back

37   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, Financial Scrutiny: Parliamentary Control over Government Budgets, HC 804, para 116 Back

38   See Justice Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09, Constitutional Reform and Renewal, HC 923, paras 40-49 Back

39   Rush and Ettinghausen, Opening up the Usual Channels (Hansard Society, 2002) Back

40   See eg OR 28 October 2009, cols 397ff Back

41   Ev 7 [Jo Swinson MP] Back

42   It dates back to at least 1905, when used by the then Prime Minister Arthur Balfour in response to a question. Back

43   Ev 7, [Jo Swinson MP]; Ev 26,para 9 I [Hansard Society] Back

44   Conservative Democracy Task Force, Power to the People, p 5: Ev 27, para 15 II Back

45   Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedures for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker, HC 333 Back

46   Meg Russell and Akash Paun, House Rules? International Lessons for Enhancing the Autonomy of the House of Commons (Constitution Unit, University College London, 2007) Back

47   Ev4 [sir Patrick Cormack], Ev6 [Dr Brian Iddon] Back

48   Eg Ev6 [ Michael Meacher] Back

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