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Backbench Business Committee

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee, Session 2008-09, on Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, and its First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Implementation, HC 372. ]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Mr Speaker has published his provisional selection of amendments. Those selected can be debated as part of the joint debate on the motions on the Order Paper. At the end of the debate, and in the light of what has been said, Mr Speaker will decide which of the provisionally selected amendments should be called formally and, if necessary, pressed to a Division.

5.48 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): I beg to move,

Mr Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss motions 3 to 15 inclusive.

Sir George Young: This is the first time I have spoken with you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I welcome you. As the Deputy Leader of the House said in the final stages of the debate that has just ended, we will not be moving motion 13, and I shall explain why not in a moment.

Today we are presenting the House with an opportunity to seize back some of the powers that have been taken away by the Government. We want to restore to Back-Bench Members greater control over the business of the House than they have had for not only a generation, but more than a century. As the hon. Member for Nottingham
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North (Mr Allen) said earlier, in future, how long debates such as this last and whether they should be segmented into their component parts will be a matter for the House and the Back-Bench business committee, and no one will be more pleased about that than the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House.

In tabling the motions on the Order Paper, we are pressing ahead with the implementation of the Wright Committee's proposals by setting up the Back-Bench business committee that was endorsed so emphatically by the House in the previous Parliament, and delivering the first of the Government's commitments on parliamentary reform from the coalition agreement. Although many members of the Wright Committee are no longer in the House, I pay tribute to them, and to those who remain, for a ground-breaking report produced in record time. I similarly commend the work of Parliament First, which is continuing to set the pace on reform.

Although many useful reforms were introduced in the last 13 years-debates in Westminster Hall, better sitting hours and the replacement of Standing Committees with Public Bill Committees-on some occasions the momentum was frustrated by the previous Government. If one looks at the delays and prevarications in setting up the Wright Committee and debating its report-and, indeed, reaching a conclusion on its central recommendation of a Back-Bench committee-they make the case more eloquently than anything else for the Government to relinquish their iron grip on the procedures and agenda of the House. Now we are finally giving the House a chance to debate and vote on that issue.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): In the context of the iron grip to which my right hon. Friend refers, is there any reason why we cannot have the committee for an entire Parliament?

Sir George Young: I will come in a moment to the question of whether the committee should be established for one year or five years.

I turn now to Standing Order No. 14. It is just over 107 years-in fact it was on 1 December 1902-since the House first passed a Standing Order governing the precedence of business at different sittings. That was the predecessor of today's Standing Order No. 14, which provides for Government business to have precedence at every sitting, with certain exceptions. The motions before the House today will change that proposition radically. For the first time in over a century, the House will be given control over significant parts of its own agenda.

The new committee will give Back Benchers the power and time to schedule debates on issues that matter to them and to their constituents, and allow the House to become more responsive to the world outside. Motions 2 to 5 establish the committee, make arrangements for its election by secret ballot of the whole House and set out its powers and role. Much of what we propose is self-explanatory and, in the interests of brevity, I will direct my remarks towards those points that I feel need some further explanation, and on which Members have tabled amendments.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Leader of the House agree that to be effective the Back-Bench committee must include Back Benchers from every part of this House, including the minority parties?

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Sir George Young: The Wright Committee is specific about the size of the committee, which it said should have between seven and nine members. We have proposed that it should have eight members. The chair will be elected by the same process as other elected Select Committee Chairs, but with no prior party allocation-so the hon. Gentleman would be free to stand. There will be total freedom to choose a chair from either side of the House. The remaining members will then be elected by another secret ballot, using the same system as for the Deputy Speakers in order to ensure overall party and gender balance. We propose that, in the first instance, the committee should be re-elected every Session.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): It is surely not possible to reflect the balance in the House with so few members.

Sir George Young: We are implementing the recommendations of the Wright Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member. The Wright Committee said that the committee should have between seven and nine members, and we are proposing that it should have eight members- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman may not have been able to persuade other members of the Wright Committee to recommend a larger business committee that would have greater opportunity to include minority parties, but the proposition-

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): May I attempt to help the Leader of the House?

Sir George Young: If the hon. Gentleman will help me, I will of course give way.

Mr Allen: I cannot remember an occasion on which I did anything other than help the Leader of the House. I even attempted to help previous Leaders of the House. I shall try to elaborate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The Back-Bench committee is the culmination of a process. When it meets and puts its report to the House, that will be the summit of a process that will involve much wider and deeper consultations with all parties and any Back Bencher who wishes to participate. So we do not need to have a vast, all-encompassing committee that would be too bulky to work properly. The members of the Wright Committee felt that that was an appropriate approach and we had no intention of trying to freeze anyone out.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I may give way to him later if I feel that he can elucidate my points as well as he has just elucidated that one.

I turn now to the question of why the committee should be elected every year. The committee will have power to schedule business in the House and Westminster Hall. Given the significance of this, we believe that members of the committee should be accountable to their peers for the decisions they take in scheduling debates. This will not affect the eligibility of the chair and members, who will still be able to offer themselves for re-election. This will be by secret ballot, so there is no question of Members coming under the malign influence of the usual channels in making their choices.
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As well as providing accountability, it will, I hope, also provide a way of bringing new blood on to the committee from time to time, to keep its thinking fresh.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I concur with the point made by hon. Members from the minority parties, because it is important that the whole House has the opportunity to be represented on the committee. However, motion 3(1)(c) states that

of the nominators

That may be an oversight, but perhaps the Leader of the House can explain how it would be possible for Members from the minority parties or independent Members to be nominated. I am sure that the intention is not to exclude them, but that wording might need Mr Speaker to interpret it flexibly when it came to nominations.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out those restrictions which might preclude the nomination of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for chair of the committee, unless he was minded to join a larger party for a day.

If colleagues believe that the committee should be accountable to the House, they might wish to resist the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham North, which would have the committee elected for the whole Parliament.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has tabled an amendment to increase the size of the committee, and I have already dealt with that point. Although I understand the reason behind his amendment, the review may also be able to consider it.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): My right hon. Friend is involved in a historic shift of power to this House that is extremely welcome, but will he consider the balance that needs to be struck between accountability and independence? Members of the Back-Bench business committee may be able to act more courageously and independently if they do not feel under threat of defeat at an election.

Sir George Young: I am not sure that I buy that point. The object of the Back-Bench business committee is to reflect the views of the House in selecting the agenda for discussion. I am not sure that a display of heroic independence-to an extent that led the committee away from the centre of gravity of the House-is what the committee should be about.

Motion 4 defines Back-Bench business and provides for the committee to have 35 days at its disposal in the House and in Westminster Hall. This is one of the central recommendations of the report, but it is important to remember the bigger picture. The Wright Committee noted:

In implementing one part of the Wright report, it is important not to undermine what another part of the same report says. In addition, the Back-Bench business
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committee is only half of the picture, and we must not lose sight of the progress that we want to see made in the third year of this Parliament on a House business committee. The creation of a House committee-looking at both the scheduling of Government and Back-Bench time as a single entity-will be better able to balance the time more effectively between debates and scrutiny.

I shall explain briefly how the proposals will work. The committee will have a total of 35 days at its disposal, which equates, as the Wright Committee recommended, to about one day per sitting week. The time will be divided between the House and Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee will have 20 Thursday sittings in Westminster Hall for debates on Select Committee reports, and all other Thursdays will be for business determined by the Back-Bench business committee. Each of these Thursdays will count as half a day towards the total allocation of 35. In a typical Session of about 35 sitting weeks, therefore, the committee will use seven or eight days of its allocation in Westminster Hall debates, and the remainder-about 27 or 28 days-will be taken in the Chamber. Some of that time may be taken in the form of 90-minute topical debates, under Standing Order No. 24A, which will count as a quarter of a day; and I am happy to say that I see no difficulty in accepting amendment (a) to motion 4, which encapsulates the 27 days in the form I just outlined.

It may also be helpful if I say to the House that it is my intention to invite the Procedure Committee to consider whether the sittings in Westminster Hall could be extended to allow for sittings on Monday afternoons. That would provide the Back-Bench business committee with even more flexibility in how it schedules business. In future, it will also be for the Back-Bench business committee, not the Government, to schedule debates on pre-recess Adjournments, on set-piece debates on defence, Welsh affairs and international women's day, and on topical debates. These decisions will rest entirely in its hands, and just as I am accountable to the House for Government business, so it will be so accountable for Back-Bench business.

Finally on the Wright Committee recommendations, we propose that the operation of the new system should be reviewed at the beginning of the next Session, in late 2011. I recognise that there is concern about the reasoning behind this review, but the object of the review is to enable the House to move forwards, rather than, as some have said, to wind back. There is absolutely no intention to shut down the Back-Bench committee after the first Session. We are committed to establishing a House business committee, dealing with both Government and Back-Bench business, by the third year of this Parliament, so a review of the Back-Bench business committee any later than that would make no sense. I would therefore urge the hon. Member for Nottingham North not to press his amendment deferring the review until the beginning of the next Parliament, which, as I said, will be after the House business committee has been set up.

I shall now deal briefly in turn with each of the remaining motions on the Order Paper.

Mr Allen: If having a review every year is such a good system, will it be extended to decisions on Select Committees, the occupant of the Chair and perhaps even to Government Ministers? If it is so good to review
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everybody and put everything up in the air annually, does the Leader of the House intend to extend the practice?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member of the Wright Committee, which said that its recommendations needed to be implemented in stages. To that extent, the proposals before the House are different from those that govern other Select Committees, which are well established and do not need to be subject to review to make progress. For example, I have just outlined that we have not gone the whole way on the 35 days-they will not all be allocated to the Chamber-but I hope to make progress, and the review that I have outlined will enable the Government and the Back-Bench committee to see what progress has been made and how the momentum might be driven further forward.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My experience in the Leader of the House's office was that one was not necessarily in charge of one's destiny in these matters, and that the relationship with Whips tended to be difficult when it came to allowing things to go forward-

The Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Mr John Randall) indicated dissent.

Chris Bryant: I see there is a charming Whip saying the whole world has changed, but I do not think that is true. The Leader of the House is asking the House to take it on trust that at some stage he will come forward with further proposals. That means we have a long way to go.

Sir George Young: At the end of the day, it is of course up to the House to deal with the matter. The Chief Whip is as my brother on these matters. If the hon. Gentleman reads the coalition agreement, he will see a clear commitment to implementing the Wright Committee recommendations in full. That is in the coalition agreement and that is why we want the review-to make further progress towards full implementation.

In February, the previous Parliament resolved that the new Parliament should have an early opportunity to decide on the issue of September sittings-indeed, sufficiently early to be able to decide on them this year. Motion 10 gives effect to that decision.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has made a great argument on the importance of increasing the powers of the House as against the Executive. Does he not consider it ironic, therefore, that he is proposing, in motion 10, that in order to reaffirm

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