Procedure Committee - Review of the Backbench Business Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 168

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House of commons



Procedure Committee


Wednesday 23 May 2012

Professor Tony Wright

Rt Hon Paul Murphy MP, Richard Ottaway MP and Mr Dominic Raab MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 54


1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 23 May 2012

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Nic Dakin

Sir Roger Gale

Mr James Gray

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg


Examination of Witness

Witness: Professor Tony Wright, Former Chair of the House of Commons Reform Committee, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Welcome back to the Palace of Westminster.

Professor Wright: Thank you very much.

Chair: It seems like old times.

Professor Wright: Yes.

Chair: As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the Backbench Business Committee. Although it would be wrong to say we are starting with a blank piece of paper, I think it would be accurate to say we have made no decisions, we have ruled nothing out and we have ruled nothing in at this stage. So we would very much welcome hearing from you, with your views as to how it has worked so far and what could possibly be looked at to see if we could improve the basis upon which the Committee operates. Would you like to make an opening statement or do you want us to get straight down to questions?

Professor Wright: Half a minute?

Chair: The floor is yours.

Professor Wright: Having chaired committees half a minute seems to be acceptable.

Chair: The floor is yours, and also, having chaired committees, half a minute normally means two minutes.

Professor Wright: No, I mean half a minute. Two points only. I think the measure of a change is whether people can envisage it not existing, and it seems to me that the formation of Backbench time, the Backbench Business Committee, is one of those things, which I donâ€(tm)t think-I may be wrong-people would want to disinvent having done it. It seems to be right. That is one thing.

The second thing is the delicious pleasure I take in the fact that almost the only person on the Committee that you and I were on that produced this change, who opposed its formation, now chairs it with Ă(c)lan and energy. I think that captures how we do things here.

Q2 Sir Roger Gale: Again, welcome back. You, as Chairman of the Wright Committee, and our own Chairman, who was a member of that Committee, agonised long and hard before you produced the report, which was then put through with some opposition from the House. But a lot of, particularly, new Members may still be wondering what it was that you thought you wanted to achieve through the Backbench Committee. Could you clarify that, and, having done so, can you then say fairly succinctly to what extent you think that what you wanted to achieve has been achieved and what has not?

Professor Wright: On the first point, and without going through the whole history, you have to remember the context in which we were established and the sort of meltdown this place was in at the time. Certainly I felt the huge task was not just to agonise about expenses and how we get out of that, but to do something serious that over the longer term would enhance the reputation and the vitality of the House of Commons. I thought it was in a parlous state, frankly, and not just because of expenses either. But that had really brought it to a head. Along with other people, I thought that part of that was trying to be serious about what we thought being a Member of Parliament was all about, and what we thought the relationship between Executive and Legislature was all about. It was in that context that this Committee was established. I was more interested in getting the axial principles right. The structures you can talk about and you can amend and you can see over time, but I thought the axial principles focused on what I have just said.

What we proposed was designed to reflect a change in the terms of trade inside this place between Government and Legislature. That is why it seemed to me to be obvious that we ought to have our scrutiny committees elected by Members and not chosen by the party managers.

Once you have done it, it seems just obvious that you wouldnâ€(tm)t have scrutineers chosen by those that they are scrutinising. But for, well, eons that is how it was. Similarly, in principle, it did not seem right that, apart from certain defined exceptions, the business of the House was in the hands of the Government. That had happened for particular historical reasons back in the 19th century, but there was no reason why it should endure now. So changing that, so that at least we could identify a category that we could call backbench time-and it is not easy to separate it out, as you all realise-which would be base time owned by backbenchers seemed, as I say, to be an important principle.

The third area was to do with petitioning. You may want to ask about that. I have certain views on that and I think it is still causing us difficulty.

Q3 Sir Roger Gale: You did not answer the second half of the question, which is, having done it, to what extent do you think the expectations have been met? There are those in this place who would say it is simply a forum for a handful of malcontents.

Professor Wright: I tell you what I would say about that because it is said in the report as well-and I said it a lot when I was introducing the report here. It is that the success or failure of this will not depend on having put in place a structure. It will depend entirely on how Members see themselves and how they want to use their time. Just looking at the report again, we say, talking about the Backbench Business Committee, "These gains will not be realised unless individual backbenchers are committed to parliamentary activity and avail themselves of these opportunities". If they donâ€(tm)t want to do that then the structure will collapse. It all comes back to how people see what they are doing.

Q4 John Hemming: The House of Commons Reform Committee recommended that-uniquely among the select committees-the Backbench Business Committee should be elected by the whole House. That is not just the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee but the members. The Government pushed for change relatively recently, and there have now been elections under the new system as well as the old system. For myself, I am a member of the Backbench Business Committee and I was unopposed under both systems, so the electoral systems made no difference, but there have been substantial changes with the other representatives. The first question is why did the Reform Committee recommend that all the members should be elected by the whole House, and do you believe that the Government was right to change that so that the ordinary members are elected by the individual parties?

Professor Wright: I see that the Leader of the House, in his submission to this Committee-and I think also on the floor of the House when it was debated-talked about the present arrangements being, as he calls it, "an anomaly". Whatever else it was, it wasnâ€(tm)t an anomaly. It was there by design. The intention was that there should be a collective House mechanism: something that wasnâ€(tm)t the usual kind of party business that dominates most of what goes on here. Members of Parliament were quite able to decide for themselves who, among their number, they wanted to sit on their Backbench Business Committee, and it did not require the parties to decide, only that they would elect their own people. So it wasnâ€(tm)t anomalous at all. It was an absolutely intrinsic part of our thinking, and I do think it is a retrograde step that it has happened.

What I think about the way in which it happened-to go back to my point about how it all comes back to the culture, really-is that it all comes back to how Members of Parliament think about themselves: the fact that not only was it proposed but it was assented to by Members of Parliament. I know the argument was, "You are doing your inquiry. Why not wait?" Yes, that is an important argument, but I am also quite dismayed by the fact that Members of Parliament were happily whipped. That was the other thing that seemed to me to be outrageous: House business whipped; people thought this was acceptable, and then they voted for it. It wasnâ€(tm)t an anomaly. It was part of the design of the original.

John Hemming: I think you answered all of it reasonably completely.

Q5 Mr Gray: There was a whip, but quite a few of us rebelled and made the point at the time. There should not have been a whip. It was quite wrong-outrageous. The law of unintended consequences sometimes occurs in these things. I am very concerned about the set-piece debates, in my case with regards to defence. The same also applies to all the other set piece debates there used to be. There were about of the order-as you well know-a dozen days or thereabouts for a variety of subjects. Of course that has all been handed to the Backbench Business Committee. As a result of that, nearly all of those set-piece debates have been superseded by more attractive, sexier things that they are doing instead. I very strongly support the Committee but, nonetheless, do you think there is a law of unintended consequences here, and is there some mechanism by which we could insist there are a number of days for set-piece debates, as well as the free-roving topical debates that the Committee is doing?

Professor Wright: I donâ€(tm)t have a line on it. All I know is that this is a necessary part of setting up a new arrangement. I think that is a good thing, actually. Having had my share over the years of set-piece debate days-and I know the particular issue about defence-I do think it is a good idea to put them in the pot, and to think-

Q6 Mr Gray: But they have gone. They are not in the pot, they have gone.

Professor Wright: No, but time is always scarce. We want to do new things. We want to do innovative things. If you say we should always do what we have done then the scope for innovation is much reduced, that is all I would say.

Q7 Mr Gray: No, that wasnâ€(tm)t the point I was making. For example, the Intelligence and Security Committee day: is it likely that that will take preference over the debate to ban the keeping of wild animals in zoos? I donâ€(tm)t think it is. Therefore, looking forward, say, 10 years, I think that things like the set-piece days on defence, the all-day debate we used to have prior to European summits, the half-day for the Intelligence Committee, and the Welsh and Scottish days, all those things will almost disappear by definition because they are not the matters on which Members have overflowing postbags. Members are going to be asking for things that are sexy to them, but things that are actually important for the wealth of the nation may well be removed.

Professor Wright: Yes. I donâ€(tm)t know what the answer is. You could say, "We will guarantee we will have these as a little first take on backbench time". I would resist that because then I think it will stop you thinking freshly-there may be accommodations here-about how you can divide the time so that you can get new things in. I donâ€(tm)t know whether you should have a day devoted to international womenâ€(tm)s day. The House has to take a view on these things as to whether they were in at a time for a reason, whether in fact you might want to do other things now, or whether you want to do it for a shorter time and do other things for other bits of the time. It is an opportunity to think quite freshly about how this precious commodity called time is used in this place.

Q8 Mr Gray: To press you slightly further on it, of course, it is not an opportunity for the whole House to think of it constructively.

Professor Wright: No.

Mr Gray: It is an opportunity for the very small group of people who have been elected on to the Backbench Business Committee to decide. So it is not actually the 650 Members of Parliament saying, "We are not going to waste any time on set-piece defence debates". It is a group-of whatever it is; eight people I think, isnâ€(tm)t it-on the Committee who are under pressure and have a structure; people turn up there on Monday afternoons and they bid for things that are important to them. Almost by definition that means that these important matters for the state will not be discussed in Parliament. It is not a matter for Parliament. It is a matter for the Committee.

Professor Wright: That is why it is important to make sure that you get people on to this Backbench Business Committee in whom you have some sort of trust, who you can hold to account, who you can elect and re-elect, or not re-elect if that is your disposition.

Q9 Karen Bradley: I am going to cover questions about allocation of time to the Backbench Business Committee. But before that, could you share with the Committee any thinking that you had, before it was created, about the way that the Backbench Business Committeeâ€(tm)s motions can be amended, which is of course later than most motions in the House, and in practice has caused some uncertainty for colleagues who have other commitments and things?

Professor Wright: Yes. Frankly, we did not give any thought to that, those issues about how it would work in practice-not least those to do with how this time should be used-and whether there should be some Standing Order changes to allow it to control time and so on, and your point about amending motions. That was way down the track for us. It was getting the mechanism in place that was the objective. I think the ethos of what we said was, "This body should have the maximum amount of flexibility in its operation".

My sense is that there are issues to do with the broad issue of time. I do think it is disappointing that there is not more predictability in when Backbench business is to be taken, and I know this has become a complaint. There have been some very significant debates taking place through the channel of this Committee. But, as I have said, they have happened at very short notice, and I think it is not acceptable really for it to be sort of ad hoc-ed. I know there are huge difficulties in timetabling, but I do think that there should be more predictability in the system. We certainly expected there would be more. We discussed whether it would be best to take a defined day a week, or whether you could do it slightly differently. The fact is at the moment there is no defined time. It is what the Government gives to it when it can find the time to do it.

I see from the Backbench Committeeâ€(tm)s own report that the overwhelming majority of these debates have taken place on Thursdays, or on the day before the recess. We were pretty emphatic in our report, and in fact we say, "It is important that backbench business is not relegated to a backwater". That is a big fight to make sure that it sits in mainstream time. In fact we even had outrageous ideas, and of course we were also grappling in the margins with the fact that Thursday, at that point-and I donâ€(tm)t really know what happens now-had become a dead day. There was nobody here on Thursdays. We said rather outrageously that we thought there was a case for putting PMQs on a Thursday, to make sure it was a proper day in a proper week. Then in the context of that we wanted perhaps a Wednesday to be backbench day. To be shuttled out so that you donâ€(tm)t know when it is going to be, so there is no predictability, and then only to have it when the Government allows it to happen, I think these are not acceptable things.

Q10 Karen Bradley: Rebuilding the House put several options for time allocations. Is there any one that you would recommend for us to consider for the report?

Professor Wright: Just reading the report again now, thinking, we didnâ€(tm)t come down on one and-I think we recognised, not least because we were being guided by a clerk who understood the intricate problems of scheduling-in a sense, we flagged up the advantages and disadvantages of different models. Looking at it again, I wonder if there is not a sort of hybrid here that we could do, so that you could get some fixtures. I am not saying weekly, but at least over a fortnight, over a month, so that you know there are fixtures in the calendar. Then, yes, there can be variability around that. So I am sure you could possibly get the best of both worlds on this.

Q11 Karen Bradley: What if there was more use of Westminster Hall, particularly the times at the moment of adjournment debates chosen by the Speaker, would you favour seeing more of those going towards the backbenchers?

Professor Wright: Personally, I would. I donâ€(tm)t think it is something we pronounced on. But I see the Backbench Committee has talked about this, and it seems to be a very sensible idea.

Q12 Nic Dakin: From your perspective-and you have a particularly unique perspective on this-what impact do you think the Backbench Business Committee has had on governance and decision making, and how effective do you think it is at this point in its development?

Professor Wright: It has had an entirely positive effect on the reputation of Parliament. I am not sure if that is what you mean, or whether you mean more direct impact on policy?

Q13 Nic Dakin: Both really; policy in particular. One of the issues is that people get excited about an issue. The issue is then debated on the floor of the House, but what happens next? Is that raising expectations in order not to deliver?

Professor Wright: Yes. What is interesting is if you read the press, if you read commentaries on Parliament now, it is almost becoming axiomatic now to say that Parliament has upped its game. If you just go back three or four years, the commentary was all about Parliament dying on its feet. Now something has changed, and I am not saying it is entirely because of these new reforms. But I do think there is a certain extra authority that comes from electing chairs of select committees, and I think there is an extra vitality that comes from getting things discussed that neither the Government nor the Opposition particularly want to talk about.

That is wholly good. It is wholly good in policy terms, because it enables people through Parliament to speak to Government in debates that would not otherwise take place, but it is very good for the reputation of the House itself.

Q14 Nic Dakin: You mentioned e-petitions earlier, and you indicated you might have some views on that.

Professor Wright: I just think at the moment it cannot be a satisfactory situation. You have had a party or a Government that says, "Our policy is that if you get ÂŁ100,000-"

Chair: That is the old policy.

Professor Wright: They were the old days. "If you get 100,000 names on an e-petition, then we will guarantee that Parliament will debate it." Again, we said this. We say that in an electronic age numbers alone are not enough to guarantee attention. They shouldnâ€(tm)t be. It is not difficult to get 100,000. But if a Government is giving a promise to the electorate, "First, you get 100,000 names and we will give you a debate in Parliament", well, that is a Government promise. It is not a House of Commons promise. I think there is a huge issue then. If the Government says, "Ah, but it has to come out of backbench time", I think that cannot be right. There are issues about how the House thinks it wants to handle petitions. I have a view that says, actually, I believe in representative democracy not in direct democracy, but what I do know is that the demand for direct democracy will increase the less vital the House of Commons looks. The more vital it becomes, then I think the more it can claim the representative democracy mantle and then handle the petitions thing in a different way.

Q15 Chair: Is there anything else you want to add to the evidence you have given? If there was one change you could make now to the way the Backbench Business Committee operates, what would it be?

Professor Wright: I think I would unscramble these changes that have been made recently. In the debate back in March, I saw the shadow Leader of the House said that our report was not holy writ. It is not holy writ, but I do think the principles behind it are ones that the House has to decide whether it still believes in or not.

Q16 Chair: Do you mean the Shadow Leader or the Deputy Leader?

Professor Wright: What did I say?

Chair: "Shadow Leader."

Professor Wright: No, I meant the Deputy Leader of the House. Thank you for clarifying that. No, I am sure that would have been a mistake too far.

Chair: On behalf of the Committee, thank you for your time and for your input into this very important matter. If there is anything else you wish to add, which comes to mind at a later date, please do not hesitate to drop me a line.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Paul Murphy MP, Richard Ottaway MP, and Mr Dominic Raab MP, gave evidence.

Q17 Chair: On behalf of the Committee, thank you for being with us today and being willing to share your views with us. Do any of you wish to make an opening statement before we get down to questions? Richard?

Richard Ottaway: Yes, Chairman, I would just like to say that I think the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee is the most important reform that has happened since the select committee system was established in 1979. It has been remarkably effective and I welcome the fact that you are looking at ways to improve it.

Q18 Chair: Then could I ask the other two witnesses the questions that emanate from that: how do you rate the effectiveness of the Backbench Business Committee to date; how do you rate its performance, and how effective do you think it has been in seeking to hold the Government to account on a number of issues? Perhaps I could start with you, Paul, and then ask you, Dominic.

Paul Murphy: It has given Members of Parliament the opportunity to raise issues that neither the Opposition nor the Government were particularly keen on being raised. I am not so convinced about the petition through email, because I think that is an opportunity for organisations and single-issue groups to whip up opinion in a way that perhaps would not necessarily be representative of the majority of the people in the country. I think you have to weigh up each petition individually, in such a way that it is the more genuine ones that are dealt with by the Committee. I am a bit dubious about Parliament by email.

However, I do think that the time that has been given to Members of Parliament has raised hugely important issues-some of which, in fact, I think have shaped Government policy. I suppose I would share Richardâ€(tm)s view that it is one of the most important developments in our procedures, certainly in my time in the House of Commons over the last 25 years.

Q19 Chair: Thank you. Dominic?

Mr Raab: I see the value in the Backbench Committee in a similar way to Richard, but in specific terms it is the ability of Parliament to hold the Government, the Executive, to account. Secondly, as a new MP, it shows remarkable scope for cross-party consensus. The debates-all three of the ones that I have managed to secure-have been cross-party debates, and perhaps I might come on to why I think that is significant later, both if you believe in slightly less tribal politics but also in terms of using the Committee as a lever to influence Government. So I think that is important.

For a backbencher, the ability to push the envelope and push the Government 10% out of its comfort zone rather than over a cliff edge is important. Ironically, today is a good example of it. The Prime Minister gave in PMQs a very clear commitment on prisoner voting. As you may well remember, he referred directly to a Backbench Committee debate where, with a majority of 200 on a free vote, we defeated the motion that prisoners should be given the right to vote. I think that is a good, tangible illustration of the kind of difference the Committee can make.

Q20 Nic Dakin: You have all had experience in the process of bidding. Are you satisfied with that process or is there anything you think could be improved?

Richard Ottaway: Do you mean the process by which the Committee operated?

Nic Dakin: Yes.

Paul Murphy: The process by which the Committee itself operates or our experience of trying to get a debate?

Nic Dakin: I suppose your experience of trying to get a debate and that process of bidding, which obviously engages with the Committee.

Paul Murphy: It took me two years to get a debate on St Davidâ€(tm)s Day, the Welsh Day debate. I wouldnâ€(tm)t for one second put the blame for taking that time on the Backbench Committee because I think that on both occasions, when I and others appeared before it, the Members were sympathetic to the points that I and others were making, bearing in mind I was part of a cross-party delegation to the Committee, and that every single Welsh Member of Parliament had supported the proposal for a Welsh Day debate, which had been held in the House of Commons since 1944. It was one of the days that was supposedly surrendered to the Backbench Committee to come within their purview.

My point had been that I thought it should have been a matter for Government time, and I think the Leader of the House has indicated that he thinks that should be the case. But the problem we faced was that they didnâ€(tm)t have enough time. They just didnâ€(tm)t have enough days to give us. It was quite hard, particularly for Members of Parliament who are not Welsh, to understand why it was that we wanted this, bearing in mind that devolution had occurred. I will not go through the pros and cons of why in fact we thought it was necessary, but on the second occasion the Committee did give us almost a full day on the Floor of the House. The problem they faced was a logistical one of simply not having enough time to be able to satisfy the demands put before it. The process was fine, but the resources simply werenâ€(tm)t there by way of days.

Q21 Nic Dakin: Richard, is that similar to your experience?

Richard Ottaway: Yes. First of all, I like the format that they operate, a drop-in-type thing. It was a Tuesday lunchtime, I think. I think it is quite smart compared with the more formal set-up we have on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I think that works quite well.

I have been successful in having three debates. I asked for three debates and I was given three debates; two in my capacity as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The first was on the cuts to the BBC World Service. The Government having rejected the Foreign Affairs Committeeâ€(tm)s report calling for a partial-reversal of the cuts, we took it to the floor of the House with the support of the Committee, had the debate and the Government did a U-turn-a decision they had rejected in their response to our report. So it was remarkably influential there. I went to a reception at lunchtime today with the BBC setting out their coverage of the Olympic Games, and the BBC World Service-the Arabic Service-is going to have a box at the Olympic Games. That service would not be in existence if it wasnâ€(tm)t for the decision by the Backbench Business Committee to give a debate on the Floor of the House. It gives you an idea of the leverage that you can get there.

The second was a very straightforward debate on the oversight of the European Common Foreign and Defence policy. It just needed a motion of the House. It was an hour-and-a-half debate, which-interestingly enough-a colleague of ours tried to talk out because I think he was opposed to anything with the word "Europe" in it, and the Speaker granted a closure motion. We needed a closure motion on the Backbench because there was no time set out by when the question had to be put.

The third one was the debate on assisted suicide, which was a whole dayâ€(tm)s debate, which I was granted. We would not have had a debate like that on a substantive motion-which went through unanimously-without the support of the Committee. I am very satisfied with the way in which the Committee works, and the results it is producing, but it has thrown up some weak spots that I know you are addressing.

Q22 Nic Dakin: Dominic, did you want to add anything?

Mr Raab: My experience is that I secured three debates: on prisoner voting, on the Sergei Magnitsky law and on extradition. Obviously the key issue is supply and demand. There is no point in complaining endlessly that the Committee has not let such-and-such get there and make their debate. My experience is it has been very well chaired and very pragmatically chaired, which is important. I am a big fan of the Committee, and I think its current chair has done a very good job.

What has not quite filtered out, at least in my experience, is what it takes to secure a Chamber debate. In my experience, they want three things: topicality; they want the issue to be timely, and they want it to be influential. That effectively means a prescriptive and substantive motion that can command cross-party support because whichever side you are on, what the Whips do in one party is very influential in terms of what the others do. If you can manage to get cross-party support, which secures a free vote, you are on to something. That is the Committeeâ€(tm)s appetite, and I think parliamentarians and backbenchers are starting to figure that out.

I would be cautious on one point, which has already been mentioned, and that is the suggestion by some that there ought to be automaticity between e-petitions and securing a debate. We should be very careful about that. We are elected representatives and the Backbench Committee is important for that purpose, but also for issues that actually donâ€(tm)t get a lot of populist attention, so I would be quite careful on that front and I actually think it is maturing quite well.

Q23 Nic Dakin: Thank you very much for that, all three of you. Caroline Lucas has suggested the Backbench Business Committee should make its decisions in public or have its decision making published. Are you attracted to that idea, or do you think that is not helpful?

Richard Ottaway: One of the times I appeared here-they hear the evidence in public-I was rather disappointed that diary columnists trivialised the whole thing. It appeared as a rather silly diary piece by Quentin Letts the next day. I think select committees at times do have to meet in private to make sure that that sort of behaviour doesnâ€(tm)t go on.

Paul Murphy: I agree with that. You have to have a frank discussion of the pros and cons of different cases, and to do that in public I think would be impossible.

Mr Raab: I agree.

Q24 Mr Nuttall: All of you have been successful, between you, on seven occasions in securing debates, most of which were in the Chamber. Could you put on the record, in respect of those debates, how much notice were you given by the Backbench Business Committee of the date on which your successful debates were going to be held?

Paul Murphy: I think a week or so, but there was no problem. I missed the boat once on the second occasion when I got it wrong, but that wasnâ€(tm)t the Committeeâ€(tm)s fault; it was mine.

Q25 Mr Nuttall: Did you think that was sufficient?

Paul Murphy: Yes.

Mr Nuttall: You thought a week was sufficient?

Paul Murphy: Yes.

Richard Ottaway: For World Service and European Scrutiny of Defence and Foreign Policy, about a week, 10 days-I canâ€(tm)t remember offhand, but it was thereabouts-which was fine.

Assisted suicide was very different. I actually came with a request that perhaps a month be given before granting the debate and the actual timing of the debate, because something like this, which is essentially conscience territory, the various sides of the argument wanted to marshal their forces, their arguments, lobby MPs-sorry about that, guys-and generally ensure that a proper debate on a moral issue, which was a concern to millions of people, was properly conducted. They accepted that. Their problem was that they didnâ€(tm)t have a date to offer me, other than that they knew they were going to have the adjournment debate before the Easter recess. They knew that they had the last day before the Easter recess and that was the only date they had available a month out. The debate, well, it was terribly well attended. In fact, they had to put a four-minute time limit on by the end. But there is no doubt about it, a lot of people the night before were thinking of the Easter recess and left, so it might have even been better attended still if it hadnâ€(tm)t been jammed up against a recess.

I would like to see power given to the Backbench Business Committee-perhaps not for every debate-to give one or two fixed dates out in the future where some of the debates that need preparation can be allocated to that slot.

Mr Raab: My experience was I think just shy of a week, which is the least notice I have been given. It was significantly longer on prisoner voting and I think extradition. It always depends on what else is in the pipeline, both for the Committee and also the Governmentâ€(tm)s time. I donâ€(tm)t really understand the mechanics behind it, but they have always seemed to be waiting on a decision from others in order to be able to allocate time.

Q26 Mr Nuttall: One of the problems is this degree of uncertainty. Therefore, would you be in favour of having some level of certainty, either in the form of some of the days being fixed, a fixed day every week, or at least some of the days? For example, we know that private Membersâ€(tm) bills are always on a Friday, but certain days could be listed at the start of a parliamentary session.

Mr Raab: From my point of view, the only thing I would be careful with is that if we dump them all on Thursday afternoons, we will get no one voting for motions, and that would be my nervousness. So it depends what the price of that certainty is.

Q27 John Hemming: There is obviously an issue about motions and amendments to motions. The Government has said that backbenchers should be expected to table motions three days in advance. There is then the question as to what amendments are tabled and the timing of those, and there is a subsequent question, which is whether the Backbench Business Committee should try to offer advice to the Speaker as to which amendments it would wish to see selected, whether it should be entirely left to the Speaker or whether it should be a decision of the Backbench Business Committee. Starting with Paul, do you have any views on the question of motions and amendments and the timings of those?

Paul Murphy: Yes, I do. The difference between my request, Richardâ€(tm)s and Dominicâ€(tm)s was that mine was something that was simply asking for a debate to be reinstated because it had been a custom of the House to debate those matters for 60 years. So there was nothing new in it. The problem then with my first attempt to get a debate was that we had to get a motion. That was quite hard because the purpose of my colleagues from Wales appearing was that there was absolute unanimity among all Welsh Members of Parliament, from all parties, that we wanted it. But then it became much more difficult to craft a motion that could command widespread support from among the Members. For example, constitutional issues, which two years ago, or indeed one year ago, were a very significant part of the Governmentâ€(tm)s programme, obviously produced very different views among Welsh Members of Parliament as to what should be put into a motion. Happily, on the second occasion when we were granted the day, we didnâ€(tm)t have one. It was simply that, "This House considers the matter of Wales", or something like that; you know, Welsh business. So we did not have a motion upon which we voted in the end. It was as it always had been: basically, an adjournment debate where there is no vote. But it gave the opportunity to Members of Parliament from Wales to do what they had always done, and that is to have the St Davidâ€(tm)s Day debate, which happened to be on St Davidâ€(tm)s Day this year, that opportunity. But had a motion been required-and we were thinking about it-we would have had some difficulty in introducing it.

Richard Ottaway: On the assisted suicide debate, I wanted to table the motion quite early. Because of the way the order paper is set out, I think you can only put it down about 36 hours in advance. So I wrote to every MP saying, "This is what the motion is going to be". That is the way I got round it, so people knew where the thrust of the argument was coming from. Two amendments were tabled to my motion, which caused problems. One was toughening it up and one was going off in a different direction. There is no need to go into the detail. I know the Speaker deliberated long and hard about which ones to select and in the end selected both of them without, I think, any advice from the Backbench Business Committee. So it was left entirely to him.

I am not convinced it would have made much difference if they had made an input on it. I donâ€(tm)t think they are any better qualified than the Speaker. In fact, he is probably better qualified than them to decide which amendments should be selected because he understands the centre-of-gravity issues inside the Chamber better than most. The difficulty came at the end of the debate because, if it is not Government business, and if an amendment is not put by the time limit it canâ€(tm)t be moved, and one of the amendments got pulled. But until that moment we had to contrive a finish where the debate voluntarily stopped. Remember, we were on a four-minute time limit. It voluntarily stopped about 20 minutes early so the first amendment could be put and voted on, and at 15 minutes then allowed the second one at 6.55pm, before the deadline. That was silly, and quite clearly I think reform is needed to allow all amendments selected by the Speaker to be put at the moment of interruption.

Q28 John Hemming: So a programme motion of some sort to make sure that those are all considered or proceeded with?

Richard Ottaway: A programme motion is a slightly different point. If you have, say, two debates in a day, you may stop the first one after three hours or whatever. This is a procedural point on whether an amendment can be moved or not.

Q29 John Hemming: The procedural point is more about allowing more than one amendment to be moved at once, so that all are voted on at the end of bringing the substantive issue?

Richard Ottaway: Exactly.

Q30 John Hemming: Dominic?

Mr Raab: On that specific issue, from my own view and my own experience, I donâ€(tm)t think that you need the Backbench Committee to second-guess or intervene on the question of amendments. I didnâ€(tm)t have any amendments to the motions that we secured, and obviously the whole point is to try to craft your motion so it is substantive enough, but with enough quality and quantity of heavy-hitting support that you repel all amendments. That was certainly the psychology with which I approached it, and I tended to view all the amendments coming down as wrecking amendments. But thankfully, we didnâ€(tm)t have any.

Q31 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Mr Murphy, you have already mentioned the St Davidâ€(tm)s Day debate. Could we move on to the other set-piece debates and whether the three of you feel that they ought to have special consideration, perhaps be taken out of backbench time and given back to Government time, or whether it is not a bad idea to allow the Backbench Business Committee to decide which of the set-piece debates are going to be of interest and which ones may have lost their historic significance?

Paul Murphy: I think that there should be a number of set-piece debates in Government time, because I think that puts even greater pressure on the Committee to have to decide whether they stay with tradition or whether they allow topics that are more current to be debated in the way they have been. As I said earlier, the Government is minded to put back the Welsh Day debate in its former capacity.

Another one with which I was concerned: I was chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee for two years, and the ISC always had a debate in Government time. But again, it seems that went back to the Backbench Committee.

There are certain things that ought to be a matter of the annual parliamentary timetable, and I have given you two examples. The problem for both Government and the Committee is where do you stop in all that, knowing that there is limited time? For instance, in the next couple of weeks Laurence Robertson-who co-chairs the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly-and I will be making a request for a debate on the business of British-Irish relations, on the basis that the Irish Parliament debated it last week and we want a similar event to take place in our Parliament. Should that be out of backbench business-it is the only way we have to do it at the moment--or should it be some other opportunity that presents itself? So yes, I think there should be set-piece debates, which would then give the Backbench Committee more time for other debates.

Q32 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Richard or Dominic, do you want to add anything?

Richard Ottaway: I agree with that completely. The criteria for a Backbench Business Committee debate should be that the subject that would not normally come up, and so the Welsh Affairs, Intelligence and Security, some of the Womenâ€(tm)s Day debate, or whatever, that should not come out of the Backbench Business Committeeâ€(tm)s time.

Q33 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Do you agree?

Mr Raab: Broadly, yes. It may be a technical distinction without a difference, but I would rather see the Backbench Committee given more time than us start shovelling our debates into Government time, mainly because I think that distinction is quite important.

Q34 Jacob Rees-Mogg: If you did this would you have to take the 11 days of set-piece debates away from the days of debate given to the Backbench Business Committee, or is it trying to get the Government to give up more of its own time?

Paul Murphy: I suspect it is asking the Government to give up more of its own time. I donâ€(tm)t think there is any great problem this year. We have been having committee stages of bills, which would normally go to a committee on the floor of the House. Frankly, if there isnâ€(tm)t sufficient Government business to make up each week then, basically, that should be plugged by backbench time. I know that is quite difficult, because you have to deal with these things sometimes on a weekly basis. But I believe that, in reality, there is more Government time than Governments make out, and I say this as a former Minister.

The other issue, so far as this is concerned, is that ultimately we shouldnâ€(tm)t reduce the number of backbench days, simply because we have taken out the set pieces. In other words, letâ€(tm)s say it has taken out 30 days and they say, "Weâ€(tm)ll have them back in Government time and you can have 25 days", there still has to be the 30 days for the backbench and these should be extra. Interestingly, when we were applying on both occasions for a debate in backbench time for Welsh matters, the Secretary of State for Wales wrote a letter to the Committee saying, "Please can we have some time for a Welsh debate?" whereas on previous occasions that would have been Government time.

Richard Ottaway: In time terms it wonâ€(tm)t make much difference, but I donâ€(tm)t think the Committee should have to be put in a position where it has to decide whether to have a debate on the Intelligence and Security Committeeâ€(tm)s annual report or, say, reform of pubs or something. That is putting the Committee in a rather difficult position, being forced to prioritise here, and I think it would make sense to take this out and let all the days for the Committee be for backbench demands.

Q35 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Mr Raab, you were saying that there are three basic conditions for a backbench debate, which the set-piece debates, by and large, do not fulfil because they are important but they are not necessarily topical.

Mr Raab: Yes. To be clear, I think if we are going to squeeze the time of the Backbench Committee to make a place for the select committee debates, then they need to have extra time to allow that to take place. Otherwise you will end up with fewer debates or-even worse-one-hour debates or one-and-a-half-hour debates; quite difficult for enough colleagues to get in.

Q36 Mr Gray: Select committee debates, that is slightly different. What we were talking about here was that in the old days there were five defence debates a year. There were two or three debates before European Councils, there was a half-day for the Attendance Committee, there was a Welsh debate, and so on. A certain number of set-piece debates always occurred every year-I actually wanted to move on-and I think actually what has happened is the Government has dumped those into backbench business time. Very convenient for them. They donâ€(tm)t have to worry about all those things now and, if indeed they were to continue, it eats into otherwise potentially trouble-free backbench business.

I wanted to move on to what you mentioned in passing, Dominic, namely select committees. Richard, it is helpful that coincidentally you are also a select committee chairman. In the old days you bid for a dayâ€(tm)s debate on whatever the topic might be, and if the Government felt that way inclined they did it. But I think you are right that what has happened is that there are now incredibly few main day debates on select committee reports. Do you think that is right? Do you think the select committee reports should be a matter for the Backbench Business Committee? Should they be considered, perhaps, in Westminster Hall? We have increased the powers of select committees through elections. What do we now do about giving select committee reports an opportunity to be properly debated, either in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall?

Paul Murphy: The big issue is actually Westminster Hall: whether there could be more debates or more time in Westminster Hall, full stop. Whether they could start on a Monday maybe, I donâ€(tm)t know, or what opportunities there might be. Of course, the difficulty is that everybody wants their debate to be on the floor of the House, as we did, because that had been the tradition for the Welsh Day debate, and indeed we ended up with that. Otherwise I think we would have been satisfied-ish if we had had it in a Westminster Hall context. But things like select committee reports could well be debated in Westminster Hall, if Westminster Hall had more time. The danger is that if you try to take away the opportunity Members have for having adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, by then replacing the Backbench Business Committee, I think there is a great row coming up there as well. So you need to extend the time at Westminster Hall. But certainly I think select committees should have their chance to have their reports debated.

Q37 Chair: That is very helpful to us. Just to make sure we have this right, you would not have objected to a debate on Welsh affairs in Westminster Hall if that was all you were offered, in effect?

Paul Murphy: In effect, yes. I think we actually said that. People, including myself-who were speaking on behalf of Welsh Members of Parliament on the particular day-said that we wouldnâ€(tm)t have preferred it, but had there been no other option, of course, we would have settled for it in Westminster Hall. But very often the topics themselves can determine whether they should be in Westminster Hall or on the floor of the House, on the basis of what interest there is in it. For example, Richardâ€(tm)s debate on assisted suicide would have been wholly inappropriate in Westminster Hall, because there were so many people who wanted to attend.

Chair: Nic Dakin, do you want to pursue this further?

Q38 Nic Dakin: Yes. How can we encourage backbenchers to view Westminster Hall debates as having equal status to Chamber debates, or is that unrealistic?

Richard Ottaway: No, I donâ€(tm)t think it is unrealistic. If I just deal with an anomaly here, and that is that the Liaison Committee gets a quota of time in Westminster Hall for select committee debates. For example, when we come back from the recess, the Foreign Affairs Committee has a slot to debate our report on piracy off the coast of Somalia. That will be quite useful, because I want to pin a minister down on a particular issue, on the guidance given to putting armed forces on to British ships, and it does not need to be on the floor of the Chamber to actually pin him down in a debate.

I just received a phone call a couple of weeks ago. The Liaison Committee has a list of people who have put in debates that they want. I put some things in months ago and have never heard any more. You donâ€(tm)t know when it is coming. You just suddenly get a phone call or an email saying, "There is a slot coming up in Westminster Hall". It is not satisfactory, but what the Committee has is the chance for topicality at the BBC World debate. We were on in under two weeks, with some effect. There is no easy way of saying to colleagues, "Westminster Hall is equally as attractive as the Chamber", because it isnâ€(tm)t. But if the mindset is right, that you are trying to get something out of a minister, it should be impressed on them that Westminster Hall is just as effective-arguably, more effective-than the Chamber, because it has a slightly more informal atmosphere.

Q39 Chair: I will come back to you on that. But can I just ask Richard-arising out of what he said-if we are looking at modernising and streamlining this procedure, surely the role of the Liaison Committee here could be given over to the Backbench Business Committee, so one body deals with all allocations of time?

Richard Ottaway: It could do. The Liaison Committee might get a bit protective about it, but I am sure good men and true could resolve something on that front.

Q40 Mr Gray: Can I just come back to what I was saying a moment ago on select committee reports? If we are-as we are doing-making select committees very much more important than they used to be, much more powerful and much more forceful, is there not a risk that at the same time, because of this procedural matter, we are giving less time to select committee reports being debated on the floor of the House of Commons? In other words, is there not a risk that we are giving them muscle on the one hand but on the other hand, because they are competing with much sexier and much more topical matters, you donâ€(tm)t get a debate on some obscure transport matter that is, frankly, just as important but canâ€(tm)t compete with circus animals?

Mr Raab: My own view is that is an inherent risk in all backbench debates, as well as select committee report debates, and of course the overlap is not quite so clear-cut. The extradition debate I secured was off the back of the Joint Committee on Human Rightsâ€(tm) report, and the motion referred directly to its recommendations. I donâ€(tm)t think colleagues should be sniffy about Westminster Hall, but the key difference-what is precious about the Chamber-is the ability to vote. I think the Backbench Committee well understands that and people who apply need to understand that. Of course, in at least two of the three debates I had, we had three preliminary debates in Westminster Hall, and you then used those to demonstrate the support for a Chamber debate on a prescriptive motion.

You are right. You have to be very careful you are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. I donâ€(tm)t really have a clear view of select committee versus the backbenchersâ€(tm) ability to go to the Committee, but I think you would need to look quite carefully at the options to see quite where you would be losing time. The select committees are very formal. I like the idea that in the Backbench Committee any Member of the House can curry and cajole enough support on an issue to take it to the Chamber and get a vote.

Q41 Mr Gray: Yes, that is certainly a very good thing. That is precisely my point-that because of that ability other things, which are very important but dull or not topical, will be precluded. They will land up with lots things that are very important to backbenchers, and then they can say, "Yes, we must debate that", as a result of which some frightfully worthy but utterly dull thing from the Transport Select Committee will not be heard of again.

Mr Raab: Let me put the counterpoint to that. I donâ€(tm)t disagree with you, James, but let me put the counterpoint. First, the select committees churn out reports at a rate of knots, and not all of them are necessarily worthy but unnoticed. Also some of the Backbench Committee debates-like the Sergei Magnitsky debate-arenâ€(tm)t populist issues, so if you craft your support for your application for a backbench debate, it doesnâ€(tm)t have to be just populist issues, but that is where my reticence about petitions comes in.

Paul Murphy: I also think that there is an onus then on the members of the Backbench Committee to work out themselves which is more likely to be a debate for Westminster Hall or the Chamber, and most of the time you could probably work that out quite easily.

If I might say, just as an aside there-I touched on it earlier-there is also a case for the international bodies of the House, the CPA, the IPU, and, as I said earlier, the British-Irish Parliamentary Association, to have an opportunity to be able to put their case for debates, which could include debates in Westminster Hall, because what do you do if you have a serious issue that you think should be debated? At the moment the mechanism is through the Backbench Committee, but it is not quite used as much by those organisations as it is for individual Members of the House. I think by extending the Westminster Hall side of things then the opportunity there would be made as well.

Richard Ottaway: You are making a very good point that some very worthy things do sometimes get pushed to one side by some of the more livewire issues. I have found that foreign affairs, because people donâ€(tm)t debate it much in their day-to-day lives, often attracts a lot of attention. Dominic is talking about his debate on extradition, there is prisoner voting in the European Court of Human Rights, and they have debates on Afghanistan, human rights reports. These are things that people do get quite interested in, and it would not surprise me if that had priority over health services in Wiltshire. A very worthy and important matter, health services in Wiltshire, but I hope you get my point.

Q42 Chair: Richard, I would like to raise an issue with you, as you are a senior member of the Liaison Committee and have been singing the praises of Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee have written to this Committee asking us to back a change in our Standing Orders, so that select committee reports could be launched on the floor of the House. My difficulty with that is it seems to be rather specific. Shouldnâ€(tm)t we be saying that there ought to be a mechanism for launching select committee reports orally, and then leave it to the Backbench Business Committee to decide whether, indeed, it should be on the floor of the House or in Westminster Hall?

Richard Ottaway: Yes, that has to be at their discretion. There has been a bit of a mini-trial on statements about select committee reports, where they have taken a day and carved it up. I may be wrong. I thought I read it in their report. I personally wasnâ€(tm)t in the Chamber when it happened. If you are going to go down that road, it obviously goes to the timetable motion, the point that all the Standing Orders need to be revised in order to facilitate this.

Q43 Chair: You would have no difficulty with leaving the final choice of venue to the Backbench Business Committee on a case-by-case basis?

Richard Ottaway: I wouldnâ€(tm)t. I would have to say, though, if we had all sweated blood over a Select Committee report, one would like it to be in the Chamber.

Q44 Chair: My point is this. If, in Standing Orders, you prescribe a select committee report can only be launched in the Chamber, you are ruling out the opportunity of some perhaps still worthy but less important reports being moved to Westminster Hall. I would like Westminster Hall to be one of the options the Backbench Business Committee has, and I am just seeking your agreement to that suggestion.

Richard Ottaway: I can see the logic or the premise that you base your question on and it is unarguable. Of course you would like to do it in the Chamber, but if Westminster Hall was available that would be quite sensible. We are not talking here about a debate on a report. We are talking about statements and it has a degree of immediacy. I think it would have looked a bit odd if the phone-hacking report had been dealt with in Westminster Hall.

Q45 Chair: I agree, but I think you would also agree with me there are many that could quite properly be sent to Westminster Hall.

Richard Ottaway: Yes.

Q46 Chair: Do either of you want to comment on that?

Paul Murphy: I agree entirely. The only issue I think we ought to always bear in mind is that if more and more select committees are asking for their reports to be debated-and I see nothing wrong in that-then there has to be extra time, otherwise you are then taking away the time for individual Members of Parliament or groups of MPs to put forward these very important issues that the Backbench Committee has agreed to in the last year or two.

Q47 Chair: Thank you. I think Roger Gale wants to take us back to the question of business motions, but, before I call Sir Roger, did you want to say anything?

Richard Ottaway: Going back to the point I was making a couple of minutes ago about the Liaison Committee, it already gets slots in Westminster Hall for debating select committee reports.

Q48 Sir Roger Gale: I have been listening to all this with a growing sense of alarm, because this Committee has yet to publish its own report into sitting hours in the calendar. That is in draft form at the moment, and I certainly donâ€(tm)t intend to quote from it, but I do rather wish that we had taken this evidence before we had got to where we have got with that.

I want to make a statement and then ask you to comment on it, having listened very carefully to what you have said and to what colleagues have said around the table. First of all, there is an assumption that there isnâ€(tm)t enough time. That canâ€(tm)t be right. There is oodles of parliamentary time if we choose to use it, and the way that that is allocated is a matter for discussion between colleagues. But the idea that there isnâ€(tm)t enough time to do these things, unless Members want to rush off to their families or go down to the constituency and deal with cracked paving stones, is nonsense. There is enough time.

Second, to take a point that James Gray made, there used to be a number of fixed debates. Nobody has done a flow chart on any of this. Nobody has said there should be a foreign affairs debate, at least one; there should be an armed forces debate; there should be a Welsh and-at the moment, while we still have Scottish Members-a Scottish debate, a Northern Ireland debate, and a number of other fixed points. Then surely there should be a fixed and pre-determined number of Backbench Committee debates, which ought to be allocated on the basis of urgency rather than some sort of Buggins turning up, saying, "Oh, I applied for this four weeks ago", and, "Please can I have a go at it?" So there should be a greater sense of topicality about those debates.

Then there are the select committees, which we all recognise are important. If you go to Government business, secretaries of state have to bid for Government bills, and somebody up there decides which bills are going to go into the Queenâ€(tm)s Speech and which Departments have failed and donâ€(tm)t get their legislation. It does seem to me that every select committee ought to be entitled to a debate on the floor of the House, and it should be surely for that select committee to decide, in terms of its own priorities, which of its issues it wants debated on the floor of the House and which other issues can then be left to be debated in Westminster Hall. But it seems to me as though we have the cart in front of the horse, and what we ought to be determining is what we want to debate over what period of time, then allocate it and then let the Government work out how much longer we need to sit into the recess if necessary to get Government business.

Chair: Your question is?

Sir Roger Gale: My question is: I want Mr Murphy, Mr Ottaway and Mr Raab to comment on that.

Chair: To comment on your statement. Okay.

Paul Murphy: You are absolutely right; ideally, there should be sufficient time. I remember the first time we applied for the Welsh Day debate we didnâ€(tm)t get it, simply on the basis that they had run out of days. I got the impression on both occasions I went before the Committee is that they were in a bit of a quandary about how many days they had left, and they were saying, "Oh well, weâ€(tm)re not sure yet. They havenâ€(tm)t told us how many days are left. So weâ€(tm)re not quite sure whether we can give you anything". I think the point you are making is that there should be greater certainty on the number of days available throughout a parliamentary year, so they wouldnâ€(tm)t get into that position. It looked as though they were almost living from day to day almost, or week to week, in terms of what they could allocate because they didnâ€(tm)t know, a few weeks away, what was going to happen. Of course, that always happens to a certain extent with Government business, but that shouldnâ€(tm)t happen if, at the beginning of a parliamentary year, so many days are allocated specifically and firmly for backbench business, and I donâ€(tm)t think that has happened so far. That is the impression I gained about it.

Q49 Chair: Richard or Dominic, do you want to add anything to that?

Richard Ottaway: Yes. Roger, you and I and the Chairman are a generation elected in 1983, when you used to sit until 10 oâ€(tm)clock Thursday nights, Government business was taken on Fridays and midnight was an early night, and it has been truncated for the convenience of Members. Can I just point out to you-you were talking about some MPs wanting to nip down to their constituencies to deal with paving stones-a fifth of Parliament has to go home every night because they are given no expenditure to stay in town. Mr Knight is well aware of-

Chair: I hesitate to interrupt you in full flow, Richard, but it would be helpful if you could relate this to the Backbench Business Committee review.

Richard Ottaway: I just thought I would give it a shot, on hearing you hadnâ€(tm)t finalised your report on sitting hours. Otherwise, Roger, I agree with the points that you are making. The focus should move towards urgency and topicality rather than the set-piece debates.

Q50 John Hemming: Coming in on that, because I see a slightly different picture of that, we are given sitting hours and all that. We do have a limit.

Chair: I do not really want to do sitting hours.

John Hemming: Yes. On the assumption that obviously, if you sit 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you have no real limit on parliamentary time. But given the sitting hours, we have a limit on parliamentary time and I want to just postulate the question. For instance, if you have a select committee meeting at which other honourable Members can turn up, speak and be transcribed, and which the Minister attends to consider a select committee report, we are potentially extending proceedings in Parliament so that-much like some of the European Scrutiny Committees and various other committees where other Members can comment-it is perhaps a way of finding extra time for the discussion of select committee reports by those who are not on that select committee. Do you think that potentially has merit?

Paul Murphy: Yes. There is no reason why Westminster Hall debate shouldnâ€(tm)t go on for much longer than they are at the moment, going on into the evening to accommodate this. Another issue could be why, for example on Wednesday, when we formally finish sitting at 7 pm, you canâ€(tm)t have another three hours that is devoted to backbench business as well. I donâ€(tm)t know, but those are opportunities that I think should be there.

Q51 Sir Roger Gale: Coming back to the mundane business of the mechanics of the Backbench debates, at the moment the Backbench Committee doesnâ€(tm)t have the power to table business motions to organise those debates. Should they?

Richard Ottaway: Yes. For the reasons I set out earlier, I think they should allow amendments to be put and, if they have more than one debate in the day, they need to have a cut-off point at which a motion can be put if necessary.

Q52 Sir Roger Gale: Does everybody agree on that?

Paul Murphy: Generally speaking, yes, I do agree. But I do think there are occasions-like the one I applied for-where we certainly couldnâ€(tm)t get a motion that was appropriate. We went back to the old idea of being effectively an adjournment debate that gave us the opportunity to talk about Welsh issues. I donâ€(tm)t think we should be too prescriptive on that, and I think even though perhaps-I donâ€(tm)t know-80% of the time there should be a motion, there should be some opportunity for there to be simply a general debate on something that hasnâ€(tm)t had the opportunity to be debated elsewhere.

Q53 Sir Roger Gale: So if we got to the situation where there was a guillotine to allow a second debate to take place, we then come to the subject of the vote itself. Of course, not all Backbench motions are demanded out. Bernard Jenkin suggested that the procedure used in Opposition days, which is where the substantive motion is taken first, should apply to Backbench days, so that if there is a helpful Government backbencherâ€(tm)s wrecking amendment on a motion the substantive motion will be taken first, and only if it was defeated would the wrecking motion then be taken. Any views on that?

Paul Murphy: I think it is sensible.

Mr Raab: Yes. I think the motion of the backbench Member proposing is sensible.

Richard Ottaway: I agree.

Mr Raab: Can I answer an earlier question, Mr Chair, about whether there ought to be some kind of automaticity or more prescriptive rules on issues for debate in particular select committees? I think there must be a degree to which you cannot legislate out of the human judgment on the relative value of different debates, different motions and different issues and select committees. For me personally, I would err on the side of leaving the Backbench Committee with more discretion and less prescriptive rules. Select committee reports are important, but they normally stand on their merits and you can use them to get Backbench Committee debates and they are powerful enough in and as of their own right. So I would just be careful about being too prescriptive on any rules that were set down.

Q54 Sir Roger Gale: But by implication they are not topical?

Mr Raab: Lots of backbench debates arenâ€(tm)t either.

Sir Roger Gale: I think they should be.

Mr Raab: What I am saying is that that question, that relative value between things that are not particularly populist but important, is inherently subjective. Therefore, I am just a bit nervous-a personal view-about being overly prescriptive about the balance.

Chair: Gentlemen, thank you for your time today. Your contribution to our deliberations has been invaluable. If after today you think of something that you wish you had raised but did not raise, please do feel free to drop me a line. Thank you very much.

Prepared 20th November 2012