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

Back to Report








Evidence heard in Public

Questions 55 - 98


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 13 June 2012

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Jenny Chapman

Nic Dakin

Sir Roger Gale

Mr James Gray

Tom Greatrex

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Natascha Engel MP, Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Jane Ellison MP, member, Backbench Business Committee, and Ian Mearns MP, member, Backbench Business Committee, gave evidence.

Q55 Chair: Welcome to this afternoon’s public session of the Procedure Committee, in which we are looking into the workings of the Backbench Business Committee. Thank you, Natascha, Ian and Jane for coming along and being willing to share your thoughts with us. Before we turn to questions, would any of you like to make an opening statement?

Natascha Engel: I have submitted very late in the day a short piece of paper with two points on it about e-petitions and the representation of Members from the minority parties on the Backbench Business Committee. Those are the two most vexatious issues for me on the Committee, but I imagine that those issues will be touched on during the questions. I am quite happy to leave that until the end if you like.

Q56 Chair: We probably will not dwell too much on e-petitions, because as you know, we have looked into this in depth and have made recommendations, which you broadly support. The problem now is not whether it relates to solutions not being identified; it relates to the Government not having yet implemented what we have recommended.

Natascha Engel: Indeed.

Q57 Chair: But perhaps, in opening, you could tell us, for the benefit of the Committee, a little bit about your view on minority party representation on the Committee.

Natascha Engel: One of the problems has been the unfairness in the way in which Members are selected for the Backbench Business Committee, which makes it impossible for somebody from a minority party even to put their name forward, so there is effectively no place for somebody from a minority party, because you have to get nominations from 10 people from your own side. Actually, now, with the change in the Standing Orders, there are party elections for members of the Committee, so there is literally no place for minority party Members.

By coincidence, the Committee entirely comprises Members who represent constituencies in England, and this is the second Session in which that is the case. The minority parties tend to represent the nations of the UK, and I just think that they would add something to the Backbench Business Committee which, at the moment, we lack. I think also that they are supreme backbenchers. There is an argument to say that they are all frontbenchers in their own political parties, but I see it the other way round. I see them as only backbenchers who will never have the opportunity to be frontbenchers and therefore I would really welcome their representation on the Backbench Business Committee.

Chair: Thank you for that.

Q58 Tom Greatrex: Although I appreciate the point that Natascha Engel is making, I would point out that in terms of both of the nations, there are considerable numbers of Members from other parties who represent those as well. So the fact that you have representation from only English constituencies is not necessarily anything to do with the minority parties, particularly in Scotland and Wales.

Jane Ellison: Just to support the Chairman’s point, in terms of issues to be debated it would give a different perspective to have minority parties, because there might be issues that just do not really feature on the radar of backbenchers from the main opposition parties and from Government parties.

Chair: Do you want to add anything to that, Ian?

Ian Mearns: I don’t think that I need to, Chair.

Q59 Mr Gray: I entirely endorse what you say-it is a very good idea-but none the less, is there not a difficulty, particularly with the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, that either they will be on it, in which case that question may dominate the business, or if the Unionists are strong, the SDLP will be upset and vice versa, and either way they will take up a slot that would be otherwise used by the Scot Nats or Plaid Cymru? Just one slot for the minority parties is an awkwardness, is it not?

Natascha Engel: There are a couple of issues around that. The Government argue that one slot extra on the Committee filled by minority parties would lose the Government majority on the Backbench Business Committee, which is, because of coalition Government, not currently the case. We have four Conservatives, one Liberal, two Labour and one Labour Chair. If you add one minority party member, you would still not lose the majority. That would not necessarily be the case if you had non-coalition Government. You could increase the size of the Backbench Business Committee, which I would not have a problem with, to deal with that point. On the specific issue that you raise about the minority parties that have the greatest number dominating, the minority parties, as I understand it-I have met up with them-are quite happy, in the way that they do with other select committees that they are co-opted on to, particularly subject group select committees, to agree among themselves a person who they would nominate on to the Backbench Business Committee.

Q60 Chair: But under the new amended arrangements, they can attend the Committee. Why is that not proving to be enough? Are they boycotting the Committee?

Natascha Engel: They are effectively boycotting, for understandable reasons. They have been given observer status. They have no voting rights and they are not full participating members of the Committee. In reality, it would not make a difference, because we do not have votes on the Committee. Like most other select committees, we work on consensus. We would very much like them, in any way, shape or form, to make the case that they add value to the Committee. I totally understand, however, why they are boycotting at the moment, on the grounds that they want to be full voting members with a full place on the Committee.

Q61 Sir Roger Gale: If the members of the minority parties collectively are willing to sort out their own business and do a deal and nominate somebody, what is the objection with that?

Chair: Can you tell us who you are addressing that question to?

Natascha Engel: I know; it is rhetorical, is it not?

Sir Roger Gale: It is rhetorical. I am asking the Committee, I think. The Chairman of the Committee has told us that they are willing to do this.

Mr Gray: It is a question of Government majority.

Sir Roger Gale: But that can be arranged after the next election if there is a change in Government majority.

Q62 Chair: I think it would need-I stand to be corrected-a change to Standing Orders, because it would breach the proportionality rule on the Committee. That is the problem, I think. It is something that we have the power to recommend and when we have heard all the evidence we may decide to do so. Can I take you on to the question of the time given to you to allocate? Do you think that the amount of time that you are given overall in a session is broadly reasonable?

Natascha Engel: It is a very complex question, which I hope my colleagues will help me with. The questions of time and the amount of time cannot be taken in isolation from how that time is divided up. At the moment, the way that the Committee works is that we are allocated days in the Chamber-Westminster Hall is organised slightly differently-on a very ad hoc basis. I, as the Chair, am told before the Committee meets on a Tuesday at 1 o’clock by the business managers whether there is a day available in the following weeks. We work provisionally on two weeks ahead and definitely on one week ahead. It is that kind of arrangement-the same way as the House works. We take representation from Members on a Tuesday lunchtime and we can fill a slot if we have one. Because it is on a hand-to-mouth basis, the time available has to fit what is brought to us, but the amount of demand absolutely exceeds the supply. That has been particularly true at times of dearth-for example, when you have the Budget, which is a good example of where very little time is available and given to us by Government. We have to fit what we have with the representations that are brought to us.

Jane Ellison: If you looked at the bids that we were left with at the end of the session, you might think, "Well, you got through nearly all of it," but of course, some missed their moment of opportunity because topicality had passed. I think one of the great strengths of the Committee has been the ability to deliver topical debates, so being able to schedule a cycling debate during the Times cycling campaign fortnight, or whatever, gave it added topicality and generated enormous interest from Members. There are times when the application will effectively just fall by the wayside, because the moment has gone.

Our debates have been greatly enhanced when we have had any sort of ability to plan ahead. Assisted dying is the most obvious example, where we felt that it was a very important topic that many constituents would want to communicate with Members about. We were also aware that more of that communication might, by the nature of the age profile, be by letter rather than e-mail. On that occasion, we scheduled it by rejigging the last day of term, as it were. We were able to plan nearly a month ahead, and the debate was greatly enhanced by that. There will be other examples where we would like to be able to do that and put on a set piece debate with enough notice, so that people can really participate, and Members can research and make thoughtful contributions.

Q63 Chair: Is it not inevitable, however much time you get, that demand will always outstrip supply?

Natascha Engel: I think that is absolutely the case. We were quite surprised, actually; I thought e-petitions would overwhelm us and swamp the Committee for a time. That has not happened, and on the whole, we still have things that have overhung and are on our list. They have been parked, and are looking for slots to be debated in, but on the whole we have managed, and as Jane said, some debates have just lost their topicality and other avenues have been found for debating. It has dealt with it by itself, but it is quite an organic process.

The business managers have a grid for a period of a session, and they can slot things in over what is effectively a year. We just do not work like that; it is much more organic, so we have managed to fix things in the best way that we can, but that has led to a lot of disappointment from Members who have not been given the time to debate. Most of those have been set piece debates.

Ian Mearns: I think there was concern at the outset, when the whole question of e-petitions was handed to us to deal with, that it could in essence be a hostage to fortune. A number of us saw a situation where the amount of e-petitions coming to us with over 100,000 signatures could escalate. We currently have two on the stocks that have over 140,000 signatures and are awaiting a slot in which to be debated, if there is enough interest from Members. We have about another four that have in excess of 50,000 signatures and are waiting to grow out there in the ether, in the e-world. I think that it would be too easy for determined individuals to wrest control and begin things that could grow quite easily. I do not think it is too difficult to get 100,000 signatures on an e-petition, if you word it correctly in the first place.

Q64 Nic Dakin: Would you favour allocating a set day each week for backbench business?

Natascha Engel: I have to speak in a personal capacity here, because I am not sure whether the Committee is of one mind about a set day. That set day would almost certainly be a Thursday, and I am not sure whether that is something we would particularly want. What would help would be to know that there will be a day every week for us to have a backbench debate. We could then say to Members, "Okay, the day that will be allocated as a backbench day in week x will be for your debate", because a lot of the way that the Backbench Business Committee works on a day-to-day basis is negotiating with Government in terms of time: "It would be good to have a debate on assisted dying," for example. That was going to be a very high-profile debate, and having a Monday or a Tuesday, or even a Wednesday, would be beneficial, rather than having a Thursday debate. If we were scheduling a general debate without a vote, obviously a Thursday would be quite suitable. So if there were more of that kind of negotiation between the Backbench Business Committee and Government, that would give both of us the flexibility to schedule around, but I do not think a set day would necessarily be the answer, because we would be given a Thursday.

Q65 Nic Dakin: Have most of the days that you have been given been Thursdays, in practice?

Natascha Engel: Yes, almost all, apart from pre-recess adjournment debates.

Jane Ellison: And occasional half-day slots. I agree with the Chairman. If we were just given a set Thursday, that would be quite limiting.

Q66 Nic Dakin: Does that not relate to the current practice anyway? From what you have said, you are looking backwards; forwards could be pretty similar to backwards, but you would have an element of certainty.

Jane Ellison: Yes, but it always being Thursdays does not always enhance participation. Although most debates have been very well attended, they are not always evenly attended. We have had quite a few in Westminster Hall that have been 85% Government speakers and very few from the Opposition, for example. I am sure that participation will vary between debates, but I think that Thursdays are a difficult day if you don’t have to be there. For people with long-standing constituency engagements, the reality is that some of them will go, even though it is actually a topic they would really like to speak about. I know they should make that choice, but it is not always an easy choice for all Members. I think we have to accept the reality of that.

Ian Mearns: Not being Scottish, but being one of the closest people to Scotland geographically, it is a three-hour trip home. I quite often have things scheduled on Thursday nights, and they are scheduled weeks and weeks in advance. The Backbench Business Committee necessarily, because of the allocation of time and when the time is allocated, is determining that these things will take place only 10 days in advance. So there are tensions in trying to sort out our diaries, particularly when you have long travels to get home, and the Scots are even worse.

Q67 Nic Dakin: Are you arguing, Natascha, for greater certainty about the weeks in which days will fall? Perhaps they can’t always be every week, but if you know that in week x, week y or week z there will be time for a debate, that would assist your planning and managing of business?

Natascha Engel: Yes. If we look at the standard parliamentary year, there are 35 sitting weeks, and we have 35 days allocated to us, of which 27 are in the Chamber. So that is 27 of 35, which is almost a day a week. Understanding that around Budget time there are different flash points and bottlenecks in the Government’s timetabling, we should be able to do that.

Also, it is important to remember that we have only been in existence for less than two years. These are very early stages, and not just for the Backbench Business Committee. Our relationship with Government and the business managers is also in its early years. The success of the Committee has been in establishing a working relationship with Government. The Government understand that if they always give us Thursdays, that is the only time we can put on votable motions, which is not to their benefit or our benefit. The relationship evolves and, hopefully, if we can establish something like an understanding that it is one day a week so that we can say to people, "You have come with a debate, but it is definitely not until September because you want to have a debate on international day," or something or other, that is something we can then take to Government and schedule in advance.

Jane Ellison: Another example of that might be select committee reports. A really welcome innovation has been that the Committee has given chairmen of select committees an opportunity on the floor of the House to introduce a report and speak to it, albeit usually for quite a brief period so far. Again, having some certainty, even about knowing there is a particular day coming up, would allow for scheduling, because generally, the dates of those publications are known. That would mean that we could have markers down against that, rather than trying to slot things in at the last minute.

Q68 John Hemming: On the issue of days, correct me if I am wrong, but the debate on the EU referendum was initially scheduled for a Thursday and was moved to a Monday because it suited the Government Whips to have the vote on that day. Do you think it would be useful within a certain number of days to have some guarantee of non-Thursdays? Obviously there are pressures on people getting home to their constituencies after a vote on a Thursday. What pressures have there been on the Committee on Thursday debates?

Natascha Engel: Again, I go back to the point about this being an organic rather than a systematic way of scheduling. Yes, the Government does change its mind. It has the power to do so. It preferred to have the debate and the vote sooner rather than later so it moved the debate forward. It can. That is what government is about.

Q69 John Hemming: Would it be nice if the Government offered some days earlier in the week-a limited number at least?

Natascha Engel: The Committee ought to be led by the debates that are brought to it. Each representation is dramatically different from the previous one and from the next. We try to schedule debates according to what is most appropriate. So sometimes we put them in Westminster Hall. Sometimes we put them on the floor of the House. Sometimes we can say to the Government that as it is a really high-profile debate-this is why the relationship with the Government is so important-everybody will want to be at it so it would make sense if it could be scheduled on a non-Thursday. Then it would be down to the Government to participate in making sure that that is possible rather than saying that there will be a set number of Mondays or a set number of Wednesdays to counterbalance the Thursdays. We don’t know what is coming from week to week.

Ian Mearns: To add to that, Chair, I would concur with Natascha about the organic ad-hocery of it all. We have to deal, sometimes about a week or 10 days in advance, with specific dates and allocate time for those dates. Then on other occasions we are tipped off about provisional dates which may or may not occur. That ends up with us trying to tie it all together with as much common sense as we can muster and not a little frustration because we are sometimes tipped off that dates will occur which subsequently do not materialise.

Q70 Karen Bradley: I want to turn to the powers of the Committee. In your report you have invited us to consider whether the Committee should be given some limited powers to propose motions regulating the timing of debates. Could you give the Committee some examples from the previous session of when such a power would have been useful?

Natascha Engel: This was something that cropped up in previous evidence that you received from Richard Ottaway as well. There have been issues about the length of debates, then votes at the end and then going into another debate. What we have ended up doing, even though we think it is something that would warrant a whole day, is that, because we have not had enough time, we have split the day in two and we have had two half-day debates. That is why you have ended up with very tight speech limits-often just four or five minutes. In those situations everything comes very close together.

Again-this is speaking personally-I quite like the fluid nature of the way things are and our relationship with the Speaker has been very good. We have looked at things on the day to see how many speakers have put in for each debate and things have been divided up in that way. I would be reluctant to start giving the Backbench Business Committee powers to put down business motions. Again, this is something that we could ask the Government to do. It is not something that we have ever done, so I would rather try that before giving us the power to do so. Actually, we could then start having business motions way beyond the moment of interruption, and I don’t know whether that is really what we are there to do. Really, what we want to do is to enable people to have their debates to their satisfaction. If that is really not working, I would look at a business motion and giving the Backbench Business Committee the power to have a business motion again. At the moment, it does not seem that broken; it is something that we might need to do a bit better. This is a personal view, but at the moment I do not think we need the power to do so.

Jane Ellison: I would certainly agree. Of the various challenges we encountered over the past two years, that was probably the least of them. There has been really good co-operation with the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. One of the really nice things is that there has been real co-operation between Members. Very often two lead Members with two debates on the same day would go off and have a sensible conversation about how it was going to work. That is a level of welcome co-operation that one should recognise.

The only relatively minor point in terms of programming is that it is less the length of the overall debate and more within the debate-trying to encourage frontbench speeches to be confined to the limits suggested by the Speaker. To see backbenchers in a backbench debate being reduced to a four-minute time limit almost immediately when you have had two 25-minute frontbench speeches is not the right way round.

Q71 Karen Bradley: Ian, do you want to add anything?

Ian Mearns: No, I’m fine, thank you.

Natascha Engel: There is also the issue of having debate, vote, debate, vote, debate, vote at the end of the assisted dying debate. First, I don’t think that is going to be a common occurrence. I would like to have a look at whether there are other ways of putting all the votes at the end or whether the only way of doing that is by having the power to have a business motion or asking the Government to put one on. I can’t see the problem, if I went to the Leader of the House to ask him to put down a business motion, because it would enable us to do so. I don’t think there would be any particular problems with him to do that.

Q72 Karen Bradley: Why was that not done with the assisted dying debate?

Natascha Engel: We didn’t think about it.

Q73 Karen Bradley: It was just that that was the first time it happened. Bernard Jenkin has suggested that the procedure used for Opposition days should be applied to Backbench days, where the unamended motion is voted on at the end. What is your view on that?

Natascha Engel: Again, this is quite complex. I’m not against having that. The issue is that if a Member comes to us for a debate and puts down a motion, then other Members put down amendments, then the amendments are voted on before the main motion. The idea is that if the Government put up some people to table what would effectively be a wrecking amendment, whip everyone through the Lobby and the amendment stands, the main motion doesn’t even get voted on. The backbencher who has come to us with the representation never even gets to vote on the motion on which they have organised the debate. That has not really been an issue for us.

Jane Ellison: Because the Speaker hasn’t taken any of the amendments.

Natascha Engel: It is down to the Speaker to decide which amendments are selected and he has been very careful. He has taken far greater care in the selection of amendments when it comes to backbench debates than he would otherwise do, so it has not been that big an issue for us. If it does become an issue, it is certainly something that I wouldn’t mind revisiting. In terms of natural justice, if someone has made all the effort, done all the organising and come to the Committee and we have tabled a motion and it never gets voted on, that does seem wrong, but generally that has not happened.

Q74 Sir Roger Gale: The Backbench Business Committee as a select committee has fairly limited powers and resources. Basically, you see Members, hear their pitch, exercise the judgment of Solomon and decide what is to be debated. Would there be any mileage or advantage in your having the power to call witnesses and have a sort of pre-debate examination of the subject before reaching a decision?

Natascha Engel: I think we are very different from other select committees. We are a select committee in name, but we do not work in the same way as other Select Committees. We don’t travel. In between the meetings of the select committee we do not have vast volumes of evidence that we have to go through. It is very distinct in the resources that we need, so I certainly wouldn’t argue for that.

I think in terms of the way that we work, I would like to carry on, first, because we have existed only for these two years. I would like to carry on to bed down what we have at the moment before we start making too many changes. The reason is because there are always unforeseen consequences in everything that we do.

In terms of calling for people and papers, the only time that we have come across this has been when we looked at e-petitions. Arguably, the reason we had to look at e-petitions was because the Government landed them on us when it wasn’t something that was in our competency to start with. It was something that was dealt with through the Procedure Committee. A report was submitted. Nothing happened, and we, as the Backbench Business Committee, needed some kind of action to move it on, but it was in neither of our remits to do so, and we were waiting for the Government to do something. However, that was the only time that we have really wanted that power, because we held a seminar to get around it and it wasn’t ideal. I would say that that was an extraordinary situation. We would not normally be in a situation where we wanted to call our witnesses and our MPs-

Ian Mearns: There is one person that I would like to call.

Natascha Engel: Who is that?

Ian Mearns: I am a member of the Education Committee and some of the biggest fun that I have is when the Secretary of State comes along every now and again. We do not have a Secretary of State, but we do have the Leader of the House. I think it would be useful if the Backbench Business Committee could, on occasion, have a chat with the Leader of the House.

Jane Ellison: I agree with what Natascha says. One of the things that the Committee is setting out to do is highlight the expertise of backbenchers, so, in the sense of calling for expert witnesses, we really see ourselves as facilitating backbenchers who are expert and knowledgeable in an area to come forward and bid for or lead a debate in that area of expertise. It is a particular strength of the Committee that we found out so much more about some of the expertise that sits on the backbenches of the House of Commons, and some of the insight and knowledge that, in particular, backbenchers have. In that sense, we see individual Members as the experts in the field that they are bidding for a debate on, and we are there to facilitate them getting time on the floor of the House.

Q75 Sir Roger Gale: I think I accept both of your answers-both sides of the answer-almost in their entirety. It seems to me that you are saying that you are still fairly young as a Committee, that you quite clearly have a duty to expedite the business that you are already doing and that to add in witnesses would clutter that. However, would you welcome-to take Ian’s point-a change to the Standing Orders very specifically to allow you to call the Leader of the House to answer questions from your Committee?

Natascha Engel: I am not sure. I think if we invited the Leader of the House, he would come. Again, if we were in a situation where we really needed the Leader of the House to come before our Committee and he refused to come, I would come back to the Committee and ask you to help us in changing the Standing Orders.

Jane Ellison: He has sat in sometimes.

Natascha Engel: He has come and sat in, yes.

Q76 Sir Roger Gale: So basically it is a voluntary arrangement, but he does it?

Natascha Engel: That is right.

Q77 Mr Gray: Before I go on to my main question, Jane mentioned briefly a moment ago that she thought that a very useful use of time was that there were now more Select committee chairmen launching their reports on the floor of the House than there had been previously. I have not see the figures for this, but my feeling is that there used to be far more in the old days and that relatively few select committee chairmen now have that opportunity. Do you have figures or evidence for that?

Jane Ellison: Obviously, I can speak only about 2010 onwards, but it was my understanding that there wasn’t time for select committee chairmen.

Q78 Mr Gray: No. There always was. Absolutely.

Jane Ellison: Well, then I stand corrected. I thought that it was an innovation in the last Session.

Q79 Mr Gray: It would be interesting to know, if we can discover it, whether there are more or fewer select committee reports debated on the floor of the House than previously, because it is quite an important point.

Natascha Engel: I think that is slightly at cross-purposes. The launching of Select committee reports on the floor of the House is an innovation. It has not been done before, whereby chairs of select committees stand up, give a brief outline of what their report says and take questions in the form of interventions. The Standing Order might already have been changed. The launching of select committee reports in Westminster Hall has always happened.

Q80 Mr Gray: It has always happened on the floor of the House. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I am sure that I remember taking part in all kinds of debates over the past 15 years on select committee reports on the floor of the House.

Jane Ellison: The only thing I would say is that I am fairly sure that when the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee launched a report, he believed it was the first time that that had been done in a short statement in the Chamber.

Mr Gray: It might have been. Anyhow, we will move on.

Chair: For clarification, the old practice was that we had debates long after the report was published. The new innovation is the Chairman’s introducing and announcing what the Committee has decided.

Q81 Mr Gray: That is the point. I beg your pardon. That is the difference.

This is a linked question on set piece debates: do you think it is inevitable that useful but boring things like defence, the Intelligence and Security Committee or pre-summit debates will always be trumped by exciting but less worthy things?

Natascha Engel: I think "sexy" was the word that you used in the last-

Mr Gray: I wouldn’t like to use it here.

Natascha Engel: I have given a great deal of thought to this. It is one of the many things about which you have to conclude that there are 650 Members in this House, and therefore there are 650 very firmly held opinions that all want an airing. There are some people who are very strongly in support of defence days, International Women’s Day and St David’s day; there are also many others who are not.

The set piece debates make up 15 days altogether, and they are in the Wright Committee report. They are very important, because they formed the original allocation of 35 days. We must not ignore them, because they are what gave us the allocation of time from the Government in the first place, but if you look at them, they were traditional debates. It is perhaps a bit strong to say that some of them have had their day, but when they are competing on merit against everything else that is coming-your sexier debates-it is really important that we take a decision. We must decide whether there is a certain set of debates that is untouchable-that we keep as set piece debates-or whether we start with a blank sheet of paper. Thirty-five days-27 days, really, in the Chamber-is not a lot of time, so if we start taking out 15 days of set piece debates it will leave us with 12 days, and we will start getting into problem areas. What we should do a little better is use the fact that these are set piece debates that have existed traditionally and give them extra points when people make representations to the Committee.

One final point: both the St David’s day debate and the International Women’s Day debate happen at the beginning of March, which is generally when the Budget happens, too. So they both happen at a tight time for the Backbench Business Committee.

Q82 Mr Gray: Can I unpick this more? Your argument is that you have insufficient days and that if we went back to the previous regime, with set piece days for defence, your available days would be reduced to an unreasonably small number. That is almost certainly correct, but surely it is an argument for saying to the Government, "If you want to have this wonderful innovation, the Backbench Business Committee days, you must give us the time." Simply loading what should be Government things into Backbench days reduces the purpose of having a Backbench Business Committee in the first place.

Natascha Engel: I would be delighted if you recommended that.

Jane Ellison: I think the Chairman says that most Thursdays at business questions, actually.

Q83 Mr Gray: Is the solution not to say, "Fine. The 35 or 28 days"-whatever it is you have-"are about right, but certain things, such as the defence of the nation or the scrutiny of the Intelligence and Security Committee, are matters that the nation ought to be considering"? Parliament should be considering the defence of the nation, not making that subject to whether international women’s day or live animals in circuses is a more or less important topic. There is something wrong here, isn’t there?

Jane Ellison: There are a few points I would make. Broadly speaking, if you frame it like that, we would all say yes, but issues of topicality come into it. One of our challenges over the past two years has been to give a certain freshness to parliamentary debate. An experienced Member came up to me in the corridor shortly after we scheduled the cycling debate in Westminster Hall, around the time that lots of Members were receiving correspondence about cycling, and said, "So you think that cycling is more important than manufacturing?" Someone had missed out on a bid. It was not more important, but the point was that we could come back to debate manufacturing a little bit later down the line, and I think it was good to capture the zeitgeist at that time by having a debate in which lots of Members could participate and interact with their constituents. I do not think it was a measure of relative importance.

Q84 Mr Gray: No one denies the importance of freshness and topicality. That is correct, and that is the advantage of the new system. I am not arguing against that. The question is simply whether things of immense importance to the state should come up against that question. Things are topical and important-that’s right-but the defence of the realm, for example, and the consideration of how MI5 and MI6 operate are not topical and not interesting-

Jane Ellison: But-

Mr Gray: Let me finish the question, if I may. They are not topical, not sexy, not interesting and not important from the point of view of anybody’s constituency-unless you happen to live in Cheltenham, I suppose. These are matters that Parliament ought to be discussing, and almost no Member of Parliament apart from a few defence anoraks like me will be seeking to advance them in your Committee. Surely there is an argument for saying that the Government should be allowing debate on those things, and the Backbench Business Committee should be focusing on precisely on the things you describe-topicality, interest and freshness-which, by definition, defence and intelligence, for example, are not.

Jane Ellison: May I respond quickly on that? The first thing I would say is that defence of the realm is the job of the Government of the day, and not necessarily a backbench matter anyway. There is a strong argument there. I am not sure that that applies to all the set piece debates, however. I do not think it has hurt at all that over the past two years people have had to come and make the case for why they should debate something that had otherwise just been regarded as routine. Some of the cases made have been really good, but some have literally been someone saying, "Well, we have always done it this way." I think if that is the best argument that you can advance, it is pretty poor.

Q85 Mr Gray: But you accept the point that that should be a matter for the Government.

Natascha Engel: I totally agree with that. I also think that it goes back to the point that Government have the ability to schedule things in a grid across the whole session. Traditionally, the five defence days were dotted over the parliamentary session. We do not have the ability to do that, so you are constantly running up against things that are more topical and more relevant than a general debate on defence. I absolutely endorse what Jane said: that is not an indication that the Backbench Business Committee sees defence as less relevant or less important than the issues that are brought to us, but-

Q86 Mr Gray: No, but if the conclusion of our deliberations were to be-this is one possible conclusion-that we think the Government ought to allow set piece debates in their own time without touching backbench business, that would be a recommendation to which you would not demur.

Natascha Engel: Absolutely not. I have made this point to Government and Government will respond that the defence days and all the other set piece debates were part of what made up our allocation. They will say that very firmly. But the set piece debates have, more than anything else, been a vexatious issue for the Backbench Business Committee, because they are something that certain groups of backbenchers have always had, and they feel that it has been taken away from them. That has been where there has been the most negative feeling.

Jane Ellison: That said, Chairman, I would say that if you look at it by subject matter, probably the greatest number of hours of backbench time have been given to subjects largely around the defence of the realm, not necessarily just general defence. If you look at Afghanistan, Iran-a lot of the topics were across general defence issues and some foreign policy issues, and a lot of days were given to those. It may not always have been as a set piece-

Q87 Mr Gray: Thank you for that contribution. I wonder whether you would very kindly back that up with hours. We would like to see the evidence, because I cannot believe that that is the case. If indeed you are right in saying that over the past two years, a significant part-I think you said the largest part-

Jane Ellison: A significant part, yes.

Q88 Mr Gray: If the largest part of backbench business time was spent on defence issues, I would like to see that in terms of numbers of hours of debate.

Jane Ellison: In those broad terms I defined-

Mr Gray: We have got to talk facts here, not impressions.

Q89 Tom Greatrex: My question follows on, in a way. In your report you asked us to consider whether the definition of what is backbench and what is Government should be further clarified. Have there been any practical problems that you can explain as a result of that lack of clarity in your work so far?

Natascha Engel: Again, I go back to the fact that we have existed for only two years, and that there has just been one very long parliamentary session. That is where things went wrong, and hopefully in this session we will put them right. We had a rather aggressive ticking clock on the Order Paper, so everything was about the time that we had been given versus what we were owed. There were quite a lot of serious debates about reports by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. Do they come out of Government time or backbench time? They were scheduled by the Government, and then they were scooped out of backbench time. Any of that Government scooping time out of our allocation I really objected to in principle. It was that kind of thing. They were sort of the smaller areas.

Also, the Government would, towards the end of the session, suddenly put on general debates. It was perfectly understood that that was backbench territory. There were general debates on issues that people hadn’t even come to see us about. We found that a bit puzzling and didn’t quite understand it. If they were going to put those on-they were general debates-what was the harm in allocating that time to us and letting backbenchers choose for themselves what debate they wanted to have?

Chair: It would be neat, but not necessary, if we could finish by 4 o’clock, when I believe there will be a division in the House of Commons. Snappy questions and answers would be helpful.

Q90 Jacob Rees-Mogg: This follows on from the division of time. Do you think the Backbench Business Committee should have the power to schedule time for debate on motions to annul statutory instruments subject to negative resolution?

Natascha Engel: I have given this a lot of thought. No, because we are talking about legislation. It may be delegated legislation, and it may be annulling statutory instruments, but it is still legislation. I think the Backbench Business Committee keeps away from legislation, even private Members’ bills; we don’t have anything to do with that. We put on debates that are brought to us by backbenchers that do not result in legislation. I would very firmly say that we should avoid it.

Q91 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I imagine, therefore, that you will say no to my follow-up question, which is, when there is an enormously popular second reading debate, as with the Health bill a couple of years ago, should the Backbench Business Committee be able to allocate a second day, so that more Members could get to speak?

Natascha Engel: That I would say yes to, because second reading debates are much more general. Yes, they are about whether a bill should go forward, but if we are talking about the topic-let’s take the Health and Social Care Bill, for example-that would have benefited from more days on second reading. If people had come to us, and if we had agreed that it did not have enough time to be debated properly, that would not end up in legislation. It is just a debate about a general topic on health and social care, so it does not affect the legislative process. I would definitely look at something like that.

Q92 Jacob Rees-Mogg: So you would say yes to second reading but no to delegated legislation?

Natascha Engel: Yes. I would also say yes on the later stages of bills, where amendments have been nobbled by vast numbers of new clauses. If an amendment by a backbencher is not reached-thinking about the Freedom Bill-there is no reason why that Member can’t come to the Backbench Business Committee and say, "This is something that really has traction within the House and outside. Can we have a debate on it?" I think we would look at that very sympathetically.

Q93 Mr Nuttall: It has been suggested by the Government that where the Speaker grants an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24, the time that is taken up by that debate should be taken out of the Backbench Business Committee’s allocation. I would be grateful if you placed on record what you think of that particular proposal.

Natascha Engel: I wouldn’t want to interfere with what is the Speaker’s decision, so no.

Q94 Mrs Chapman: You said before that you would like to see a more imaginative use of Westminster Hall. I am quite imaginative, but I can’t quite think what that would be.

Natascha Engel: Our imagination doesn’t go that far. What we wanted to see was, first, a raising of the status of Westminster Hall. That was the really key thing. We are on a single-handed-

Jane Ellison: Mission to get the Cabinet in there.

Natascha Engel: That’s right. We want to get Cabinet ministers responding to debates in Westminster Hall, so that people ask us for Westminster Hall debates rather than wanting to be in the Chamber. It was really about maybe launching select committee reports there, asking ministers to make statements in Westminster Hall and having proper question-and-answer sessions with select committee chairs and Members-anything that does not require a vote.

Jane Ellison: There might be a progress report on certain things. In the last session, Ministers often came and responded to a debate by making certain commitments to action. We are quite keen in the new Committee to see people come back and say, "I’d like to hold that minister to account for that commitment to action. I don’t necessarily want there to be great antagonism; I just want a progress report on how that’s going, because I was reassured at the time and we want to see how things are progressing." Again, that might be a use for Westminster Hall-a kind of part two to a debate that has already been held-where a minister and debate leaders follow up on commitments made.

Q95 Mrs Chapman: It is more about the status, isn’t it? That is the big issue. People just do not see it as having equivalence with the Chamber at all.

Ian Mearns: I think that is right. I am convinced that on several occasions, because of the subject matter being debated, the number of Members present in Westminster Hall has exceeded the number present in the main Chamber, so I think we need to try and erode the idea in Members’ minds that Westminster Hall is a second-class option.

Q96 Mrs Chapman: And you would do that by allowing different forms of activity in there?

Ian Mearns: Yes.

Q97 Chair: Is there anything that any of you wish to add?

Jane Ellison: It might be worth mentioning-I did just tot it up-that there were four days in the Chamber on defence-related matters, as I defined it, including defence aspects of Afghanistan and Iran. No other ministerial area got that many. I accept it is not as many as Members might have wanted, but over the Session it probably was the single biggest area in terms of full-day debates in the Chamber.

Natascha Engel: You have just done the sittings report, and I am sure you will have found that there is no one solution to anything, because every single Member does things differently. One of the things that I think is really important in the Backbench Business Committee is to have flexibility, rather than being too prescriptive, because there is no one perfect solution. You do one thing and it means you displease others. That is something that we as Committee members have to manage. That is just our role. Jane mentioned, "You have chosen cycling over manufacturing," but that is a decision that we have to make and then justify and defend. We use a very clear set of criteria against which we judge our debates, and at the end it is actually just a scheduling job, but there is no one solution.

Q98 Chair: May I thank you all for coming along today and giving us the benefit of your views, which will be invaluable to us as we progress with this inquiry? If, after today, you think of something that you have not mentioned, which you wish you had mentioned, please feel free to write to me.

Natascha Engel: Thank you very much.

Prepared 20th November 2012