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

Back to Report

House of COMMONS



Procedure Committee

Review of the Backbench Business Committee

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Ms Angela Eagle MP

Pete Wishart MP

Sir George Young MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 99 - 173


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 20 June 2012

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Nic Dakin

Thomas Docherty

Sir Roger Gale

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg


Examination of Witness

Witness: Ms Angela Eagle MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q99 Chair: Angela, thank you for coming. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the workings of the Backbench Business Committee, and we are at an early stage of that inquiry. We have made no judgments or formed any opinions at the moment. Our views have not crystallised. We are in listening mode and are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Eagle: A small one, if I may, Chairman.

Chair: Okay, the floor is yours.

Ms Eagle: First of all, I would like to thank the Committee for the amount of work that has gone into the report that you produced today on sitting hours of the House. It is a contentious area about which it is difficult to get any kind of consensus across the House, but you have gamely tried. I am sure we will have a lot of opportunity to discuss that in the near future. I have not quite managed to digest it yet, but I can assure you that I will be doing so.

I would also just at the beginning of my evidence like to point out that I am speaking largely in a personal capacity because there is no real set parliamentary Labour party view on some of the issues we are considering today with respect to the Backbench Business Committee. You will note, I am sure, that in votes on the recent changes to the election of the Backbench Business Committee-I think it was debated on 12 March-there were parliamentary Labour Party members in both lobbies from the frontbench as well as the backbench for the typical reason that we had a free vote.

Q100 Chair: Okay, thank you for that. How do you personally rate the performance of the Backbench Business Committee during the last session?

Ms Eagle: I think it has gone well and it has been a good innovation. There have been some really important debates held under the auspices of the new arrangements. There were a few challenges at the beginning in operating the new system because when there are dividable motions there was a view that perhaps the party whipping system should not have an interest in how people voted because it was a backbench debate. People understand now if there are divisions on issues that a political party, the Labour Party, has policy or views on, then it is legitimate to whip them. That has certainly largely been the case on the Labour side now.

Also I would just like to say that some of the most important and impressive debates in the last session have actually been on motions that are not divisible. I think of the Hillsborough debate-obviously a very, very deeply moving occasion that has particular relevance for those of us who come from Merseyside, but also last week’s debate on mental health, for example, was another really important occasion that was facilitated by the decisions taken on the Backbench Business Committee.

Q101 Sir Roger Gale: The Wright Committee’s original proposals for the selection of the Backbench Business Committee were that the Committee should be elected by the House as a whole. That was very clear, indeed, with safeguards to ensure proportional representation in terms of the makeup of the House. The Government decided it wanted to alter that and to create a situation where members of the Backbench Committee were only elected by members of their own party. In March of 2012 the Government brought forward those proposals, and you supported them. Why did you do that?

Ms Eagle: I think it was anomalous that the Backbench Business Committee was the only committee whose membership-this is excluding the chairman or chairperson who is voted on by all members of the House at the beginning of each parliamentary session-should be voted on by other political parties’ memberships. I think that is anomalous. I personally voted to support the change that actually came about, and I think that ensures that the way that the Backbench Business Committee is elected matches select committees. It prevents there being party political game playing, particularly by parties that have to be in the majority, that could influence, for reasons that may not always be noble, the kinds of people that might be elected for other parties. That was my personal view. Sir Roger, you will know that it was a free vote and that there were members of the parliamentary party in both lobbies.

Q102 Sir Roger Gale: I was raising an eyebrow at the free vote.

Ms Eagle: There was a free vote. It was a genuine free vote, Sir Roger.

Sir Roger Gale: It was a genuine free vote-

Ms Eagle: Yes, I can assure you of that.

Sir Roger Gale: -as opposed to the traditional free vote.

Ms Eagle: It was actually a genuine free vote; you will see if you look that there were members of our frontbench in both lobbies, which is a pretty good sign of a free vote if you ask me.

Q103 Sir Roger Gale: Under the Wright proposals, the minority parties at least had some say in who was selected. There was an amendment tabled at that time to give minority parties representation on the Backbench Committee and you voted against that. Why did you do that? That is another anomaly. You have replaced one anomaly with another anomaly.

Ms Eagle: I think that the minority parties, if you exclude Sinn Féin, are about 4% of the membership of the House. If you look at what they do, very many of them are frontbench spokespeople, by definition, for their parties. They are not backbench in that sense. They speak from their own frontbenches and they all have their own opposition debates. I think if we are going to have a committee that has eight members, then you cannot start accommodating every nook and cranny-be it geographical minority parties or all of those things that you do not expect to get entirely in proportion. If you wanted to have minority representation on the Backbench Business Committee, you would have to probably make it a lot bigger.

Q104 Sir Roger Gale: But under the Wright proposals originally there was that possibility. Now there is not.

Ms Eagle: As I say, my view is that the minority parties have their own way of having opposition debates. They are a small minority of the House. It is possible for them to stand for election, I suppose, and persuade other parties perhaps-no, that would not work with the new system, would it? I see what you mean.

Sir Roger Gale: No.

Ms Eagle: I do think that they are too small to be guaranteed a place, 4% of the membership. If you wanted to guarantee them a place, then I think you would have to increase the membership mathematically to about 25. Now, that is threeplus times the size of the Backbench Business Committee now.

Q105 Sir Roger Gale: It is an interesting concept that the size of their representation in the House denies them any representation on the Committee. Too small is-

Ms Eagle: Well, 4%. The issue that is they can make representations to the Backbench Committee. They can persuade the Backbench Committee to give time for debates that they wish to have, but being only 4% of the entire House, if you want to have that kind of representation for parties that are that small a percentage of membership of the House, then you would have to have a much larger committee.

Sir Roger Gale: Okay, we will save round two for the Leader of the House. Thank you very much.

Chair: Thank you. Can I ask members of the Committee in response to an answer not to raise their eyebrows-it is difficult to capture this in the evidence-but actually to follow through with a supplementary?

Q106 Nic Dakin: The Backbench Business Committee has identified the ad hoc and uneven allocation of backbench time as they see it as a significant hindrance to their work. Would you welcome a more formal process for the allocation of backbench time by the Government?

Ms Eagle: There has to be a balance struck between having rigid time and flexibility. The Government has to have time to deal with its legislative programme; that is obviously why we are all here. Sometimes the Government’s legislative programme is lighter or more imbalanced in that it is all stuck in the Lords, which is what we saw happen at the end of the last session. That gives more time for backbench business. In fact, we were having days and days of backbench business and not a lot of legislation while the log-jam in the Lords worked through at the end of the last session.

Obviously, I think an important principle is that backbench business should not be announced at the last minute. It should not be arbitrarily changed at the last minute to make it difficult for people, like it was with the Europe debate that was suddenly switched from one day to the next with little notice. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the Government saying it needs to have some flexibility to ensure that it can deal with events and get its own business. What I would like to see is a reasonable balance between those things. If you had a set day, I think it would be too rigid.

Q107 Nic Dakin: You would not welcome that because the quantum-

Ms Eagle: The quantum is being decided, yes.

Nic Dakin: -it roughly works out to a day a week, does it not?

Ms Eagle: Yes.

Q108 Nic Dakin: The Backbench Business Committee were keen on the idea of a set day, a day allocated each week, because that would help them plan their business. But you are saying that you feel that would be too rigid?

Ms Eagle: I think it is a bit too inflexible. If you had it on a Thursday, then people may just generally tend to leave the House knowing there was going to be no whipped business unless there was a dividable motion early, or you have it earlier in the week, in which case it could be disruptive and inflexible. I think the important principles are that backbench business is announced in plenty of time, and that there are not sudden arbitrary changes made by the Leader of the House to the days when backbench business is going to be heard, unless there is an extremely good reason for it. I think that is probably the best compromise you could get.

Q109 Nic Dakin: You feel as an alternative to one day a week there is no reason why at the beginning of a session the backbench business cannot be sketched out roughly in advance so that proper planning can be done?

Ms Eagle: We know how many days there are, but in politics we are suddenly subject to events that we cannot predict in advance. You have to achieve a balance between allowing business managers the flexibility to deal with those events and scheduling the appropriate amount of backbench business. With goodwill on all sides it can be done, as long as there are no sudden arbitrary changes. If a pattern were to develop whereby backbench business was routinely switched or changed about, then this Committee would have cause to worry, but there is no sign-except on that one occasion with the Europe debate-that that is happening regularly.

Q110 Nic Dakin: The Backbench Business Committee is still relatively young. Do you think that we have already reached a point where there is sufficient confidence about what is coming up in the future for them to be able to plan their business? Or do you think there is more that could be done to encourage greater confidence?

Ms Eagle: These systems will develop over time as the whole system beds in. It is still relatively young in parliamentary terms, and I think it is quite right this Committee is looking at these issues. It should continue to keep an eye on how this evolves and see whether there are ways that it could work better once we have had more experience of it.

Q111 Nic Dakin: Is there any improvement you would want to see in that scheduling of business process recognising the balance between the demands of business managers and the desires of the Backbench Business Committee?

Ms Eagle: I know that there is some worry about having business motions so that they can get both their debates in and things like that. That might be something we would want to look at.

Q112 Karen Bradley: That leads very nicely on to my question about business motions. You have said that it is a possibility. Are you in favour of it and, if so, should there be any limit on the powers of the Backbench Business Committee to table business motions?

Ms Eagle: In the past, prior to there being timetabling of motions, the House got used to nods and winks and doing things in that way. The House has moved away from that kind of approach for government business; it is perhaps anomalous, therefore, that the Backbench Business Committee can schedule two debates in a day-I think particularly of the debate on iPads and HS2. That seems to be the obvious one where we had the gallery packed with people from the affected areas, all wondering why on earth we were discussing the provision of iPads to members while they wanted to listen to the debate on HS2. Obviously, at times like that, the old way of doing things would be to have a nod and a wink between a few people and get the business on iPads cleared up as fast as possible. I do not have a particular problem with the idea that the Backbench Business Committee should be able to table a motion to ensure that if it is scheduled to debate then they can both be heard in the appropriate time with the amount of time allocated that the Backbench Business Committee decided.

Q113 Karen Bradley: Do you see any need for limits on those powers?

Ms Eagle: Well, it depends what you mean. I am assuming they are going to behave reasonably and try to facilitate the business happening in both Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the Commons that they wanted to happen, rather than suddenly let it go straight to their heads and start tabling all sorts of peculiar business motions.

Q114 Karen Bradley: One of the points that has been made to us by witnesses is the amount of time frontbenchers sometimes take up and eat into the backbench time. Would you object to an imposition of time limits on frontbench contributions to backbench debates?

Ms Eagle: Would that be by the Speaker or the Backbench Business Committee?

Karen Bradley: Either by the Speaker or by the Committee.

Ms Eagle: I do not object to the use of time limits particularly. It can sometimes make debates very perfunctory and it is unfair if the frontbench hog all sorts of time, especially in backbench time. Frontbenchers should always be mindful of that. I think if you are going to have a system like that, and I do not particularly have an objection, the Speaker should probably be the person that does the allocation, as he does in all other instances.

Q115 Chair: Thank you. That ends our formal questioning. Is there anything you want to add?

Ms Eagle: Not really, except that I look forward to your thoughts when you publish your report.

Chair: Thank you. If something occurs to you after today that you wish to draw to our attention, please do write to me. Indeed, if a strand of opinion or view develops within the Labour Party on this subject and you wish to inform us formally, please do write. Thank you for coming.

Ms Eagle: Thank you.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Pete Wishart MP, Scottish National Party Member of Parliament for Perth and North Perthshire, gave evidence.

Q116 Chair: Do you wish to make an opening statement before we get down to questions?

Pete Wishart: Nothing other than it is a real pleasure to be back in front of this Committee once again. The only thing I would like to say in advance of any questions is that the Wright proposals have been an absolute disaster for the smaller parties of the House. Most of us did have a place on a number of select committees prior to Wright becoming a feature of the select committee system. There are now very few members of the smaller parties on select committees, particularly departmental select committees, and I think that impoverishes committees. The only opposition party that committees get to hear from is the Labour Party; surely we want to have as wide a range of views as possible when it comes to considering some of the major issues that departmental select committees consider. I think it has been a real loss, and certainly the Wright proposals have been a disaster for us. We are excluded from the Backbench Business Committee, as you know, and it is not a Backbench Business Committee; it is a Backbench Business Committee of three parties of the House. It does not cover all the parties at all. As we are moving towards a House Committee, once again we would be expected to be excluded from that, too. So, just to let you know that it has not been a good time for us when it comes to places on select committees in the past two years.

Q117 Chair: You tweeted a few moments ago that you regarded the treatment of the smaller parties as appalling. What is appalling about it? You are invited to attend the Committee and you are invited to play a role in the deliberations of the Committee.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to be able to put the case for the smaller parties, and it is a good opportunity just to restate the position that the smaller parties find ourselves in. It is appalling. The treatment has been appalling. We made some great progress in the course of the past 10 years. We were in a situation with the smaller parties where we had very few places on select committees. Prior to Wright we made fantastic progress. At one stage I was on two select committees-I was on Scottish Affairs and Administration-I am now no longer on any select committee whatsoever. There are, in fact, only five members of all the smaller parties that are actually on departmental select committees. Now, I do not know how you would describe that, Chair, but I would describe that as something approaching appalling. I think it is exclusion, and I think that this House does not get to hear the views of the other parties of this House in its major work in select committees.

Q118 Chair: But in the particular case we are looking into, the smaller parties are being invited to take an active part in the deliberations of the Committee. What is appalling about that?

Pete Wishart: In this Committee?

Chair: Yes.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for that-

Chair: No, on the Backbench Business Committee.

Pete Wishart: We are a second-class participant when it comes to the Backbench Business Committee. We are invited to attend, we have no voting rights, we have no rights to speak at the Backbench Business Committee. Where we are invited along, we have absolutely no place on the Backbench Business Committee and we have no right to vote.

Q119 Chair: Just for accuracy, I do not think that is entirely right. As I understand it, subject to the discretion that the Chair always has, the position is that minority parties would have a right to speak at the meeting but not to vote.

Pete Wishart: I think that is in the discretion of the Chair, yes?

Chair: I believe so.

Pete Wishart: We do not have a right to speak; it is at the discretion of the Chair.

Chair: But the Chair has also told us that that Committee never votes on anything. They normally reach agreement by consensus.

Pete Wishart: I think the point, Chair, is that where all the other parties, the big three parties, do have official membership of that Committee, we are a status apart. We are like secondclass citizens when it comes to being part of that Committee. I do not think that any fair-minded person would be in a position to accept that status. Certainly, that is the view of all the smaller parties of the House. We welcome the work of the Backbench Business Committee, but we will not accept second-class status when it comes to actually being able to participate in that Committee.

Q120 Chair: What you are telling us is although this right exists, it is not something that has been tried and failed; it is something you are not prepared to try?

Pete Wishart: That is absolutely the case. We are not prepared to accept a secondclass status when it comes to the composition of the Backbench Business Committee. I do not think any fair-minded person would accept that. Certainly, it is the view of all the minority parties; nobody will attend that Committee as long as that type of secondclass status exists.

Q121 Thomas Docherty: You represent less than a twentieth of the House, and you mentioned the big parties, ones that represent 95%, 96% of the House-why should you have a disproportionate voice on the business of the debates?

Pete Wishart: Well, we should not. If that is the view of the House, that is fair enough. If the House wants to impose strict arithmetical data, that is up to the House. We will have to accept it, as we do have to accept it. I would have thought it was in the House’s interest to over-represent minorities. That is what happens in the Scottish Parliament. The Liberals in the Scottish Parliament are now down to five. All of them have two places on the equivalent of select committees in the Scottish Parliament, as do the Greens. There is a real effort in the Scottish Parliament to over-represent minority and smaller parties. This House can make up its mind and we have no right according to the crude arithmetic, but does the House not want to hear the views of other parties other than just the Labour Opposition?

Q122 Thomas Docherty: You can have your views heard because it has been made clear, as the Chair has made clear, that your views can be heard at the Backbench Business Committee. You are disproportionately being given places. If we are on the subject of lack of representation, your member of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, as I understand it, has not attended in something like nine months now. We talk about the voice of the minority parties not being heard; it would be helpful if the member actually wanted to turn up.

Pete Wishart: That member was threatened with a "doing" from the select committee chair and she will not attend that committee as long as he is in that place. Nobody would be prepared to go along to a select committee if that was the case and the situation that she was placed in. She is absolutely right not to take that place as long as that person is the chair of that committee.

Q123 John Hemming: Just one little point of clarification. I believe that there has been one vote, on the issue of whether or not there should be a debate on women. I am not quite sure whether I was there or which way I voted; I think I would have voted to debate that, to be fair.

Chair: Just for the record, Mr Hemming is also a member of the Backbench Business Committee and he is referring to a vote on that Committee, not on this one.

John Hemming: I do not remember any other vote on the Committee, so if, for example, you were given the same rights to speak as any other member of the Committee but not a vote, would that make a difference to your view?

Pete Wishart: The fundamental concern for us and the key issue in this is that there was an effort to try to accommodate us, but it is not satisfactory. This idea that we have to accept this second-class status-as a Liberal member you are a full member of the Committee, all the other members are full members of the Committee, but we have to accept an inferior membership of that Committee. We are allowed to speak at the discretion of the Chair and we are not allowed to vote. Now, I do not think any fair-minded person would accept that. In the House of Commons, we are all supposed to be equal, that was the idea. Mr Docherty and myself have had several conversations about the rights of Scottish MPs; there is always this predominant view that we are all equal, but at the same time we are expected to accept an unequal status on the Backbench Business Committee and we are just not going to do that.

Q124 John Hemming: The point I was trying to make is this question about the power to speak as well, because obviously as pretty well everything has been without a vote, the vote is not-there has been one vote, there may have been more than one vote, but there has definitely been one vote. There may not have been more than one vote. Would it make any difference if your speaking rights were just the same as any other member of the Committee?

Pete Wishart: No, I do not think it would. It would be up to the other smaller parties to discuss that. We would have to decide that, but I think the overriding principle for us is the fact that we are expected to accept a second-class position on the Backbench Business Committee that no other Members of this House have to accept. That is the key principle in all of this, and I do not think that would be acceptable to the other smaller parties.

Q125 Nic Dakin: I just wanted to pick up this point about the Backbench Business Committee being very young in its life. There has been, and is, an opportunity to fully participate in that. Would it not have helped in terms of demonstrating the role and voice and value of the minority parties to have taken part in that process? I understand the concern on principle, but in terms of pragmatism we would be in a stronger position here to have demonstrated the role through evidence in terms of influencing the debate that we are in. I do not really understand why that path has not been chosen.

Pete Wishart: It is really funny because we were actually given a place on the Wright Committee and Elfyn Llwyd, who did a fantastic job for us on the Wright Committee in helping build up the proposals, consistently put forward the view that where this was going was going to be bad for the minority parties. We got a place on the Wright Committee, but we are not getting a place on the Backbench Business Committee, which seems a little bit strange to us. We were prepared to help out and assist building up what became the Wright proposals. When they were presented to Parliament I spoke in that debate and made it quite clear that the eventual outcome of the Wright proposals would be very damaging to the minority parties. There would be fewer places for us. It looked likely that we would not get a place on the Backbench Business Committee. I was assured at that point by the Leader of the House and others that this would be looked at. Being looked at, I was presuming that some sort of solution would be brought forward. What was brought forward was an unacceptable solution where we were given observer status but not full membership. We are really back to where we were.

We have always been prepared to help out when it comes to the issues of the House. Most of us are quite experienced politicians. Most of the members of the smaller parties have been here for 11, 15 years. I just think, "Why don’t you want to hear?" Why does the House not want to hear from the smaller parties? What did we do wrong? I am a former musician and you would have thought, "Why don’t we get him on the DCMS Committee". I cannot get on the DCMS Committee. Why do you not want us on the Backbench Business Committee? Surely we have something to offer and contribute to the House; I just do not get it. True to the arithmetical position, keep us out, and if that is what this House wants to do-exclude the smaller parties of the House-get on with it, but do not try to pretend that this is a Backbench Business Committee. It is a Backbench Business Committee of some of the House, not all of the House.

Q126 Mr Nuttall: Just for the record, how many members of the Scottish National party are there in the House of Commons?

Pete Wishart: We have the six SNP members.

Q127 Mr Nuttall: Thank you. Do you all speak on an area of frontbench responsibility?

Pete Wishart: It is not going to be frontbench responsibility. We all obviously have to take departments. Because we are a small party-

Q128 Mr Nuttall: Every member, every one of those six, has some form of responsibility?

Pete Wishart: Absolutely. It is the only way we can do it in a small party, yes.

Q129 Mr Nuttall: You would accept, therefore, in that case that to that extent, unlike myself, for example, a backbencher from one of the two largest parties in the House, we have no frontbench responsibilities whatsoever and to that extent you would be in a different position?

Pete Wishart: Well, I am not a frontbencher. I speak on particular issues.

Q130 Mr Nuttall: Yes, you speak on issues just in the same way as a shadow minister or shadow secretary of state in the Labour Party? They are frontbenchers but they speak on that issue?

Pete Wishart: If the House was to treat me as a frontbencher where I was taken early in every question session and perhaps got two questions to the secretary of state, then I am quite happy to describe myself as a frontbencher, but we do not get that; sometimes I do not even get taken in question sessions.

Q131 Mr Nuttall: Under Standing Order No. 14, do you have any say in the allocation of the opposition days?

Pete Wishart: I think we are given an opposition day. I think it is like one half day per year we are entitled to.

Q132 Mr Nuttall: You are guaranteed that?

Pete Wishart: Yes.

Q133 Mr Nuttall: I think if you asked most groups of six backbenchers that they be guaranteed a half-day, they would probably take that.

Pete Wishart: Yes.

Q134 Mr Nuttall: To that extent, would you accept, therefore, that you are in a slightly more privileged position than the average group of six backbenchers?

Pete Wishart: Under the Labour Government it was particularly generous, and they were actually prepared to give us more than our arithmetical time when it came to opposition days. Again, the Government have been reasonably generous when it comes to that. We have no gripe about opposition days and I think that sometimes Government is keen to fill the time that is available when they have nothing to do, so, "Let’s give some time to the opposition parties", or, "The Labour Party does not have anything to say so let’s see if we can give it down to the minority parties". That is generally the way that it worked. It is not as if a spirit of, "Let’s make sure that you could give them the opportunity to speak about any issues they want"; it is usually because they do not have anything to fill the time with, so it works its way down. That has never been a problem for us. We get that time, and we are very grateful for that. That does not get away from the fact that there is an increasing exclusion of other voices in this House. The only opposition party that gets to participate in most of the committees of the House is exclusively the Labour Opposition. You do not get to hear from anybody else in the Committees of this House.

Q135 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I think I can predict your answer to this, but do you think the size of the Committee should be increased to allow for a minority party member to be put on it?

Pete Wishart: Yes, I think that would be the most sensible conclusion to that, at least increase it by one and put us on. If you need to keep a Government majority, then increase it by two. In some of the departmental select committees we are on-for example, we managed to get a place on Treasury-that was increased to accommodate Stewart Hosie from the SNP, as was the Justice Committee, which was increased to ensure that Elfyn Llwyd could get a place on that. These things are pretty straightforward, just increase it by one or two and then you will hear other voices.

Q136 Thomas Docherty: Just for clarification, if the minority parties were to be allocated a place, do you believe that should be voted on by the whole House or just the 22 members of the minority parties?

Pete Wishart: My understanding is that Labour Members vote for Labour candidates, as do Conservative Members. In the smaller parties we now work very well together; what we would probably do would be to decide internally to see who would take a place and we would rotate that. That is how we have always worked these things out. In the past the Leader of the House and others have not presented this as a problem, but how do you get disparate parties places on all this. Now we work together. We get places on things like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the IPU, and we come to an arrangement about how we take these places. There has never been an issue and a problem, and we tend-when it comes to these type of issues-to work very closely together. That would not be a problem. We would make sure that through our own democratic processes we would have a member.

Thomas Docherty: You would fill it yourselves; that is fine.

Chair: Thank you. We are nearly coming to the end of this session.

Q137 Sir Roger Gale: You heard the question that I put to the Shadow Leader of the House. If the Wright proposals had been accepted in their original form and the whole House had voted on the membership of the Committee, do you think the minority parties would have fared better or would you still have been excluded?

Pete Wishart: Most people I speak to, they get it. They cannot believe the fact that we are excluded from something that is called the Backbench Business Committee, and then it is not all of the backbenchers; it is just most of them. I think most Members of Parliament understand that and there is a great deal of sympathy towards our position. I was surprised to hear the shadow Leader of the House saying that it is the Labour Party’s position now that they do not want to have minority parties on Backbench Business Committee. That is disappointing because most Labour Members I have spoken to think that it is unfair and believe that there should be a place for us. If there was an unwhipped vote in the House, I am absolutely certain that by a large majority we would be allowed a place on the Backbench Business Committee. But if it is going to be whipped in the way that has been described by the Shadow Leader of the House, then I do not think we have a chance.

Thomas Docherty: Just for clarification, I do not think there was any suggestion that there was a whip on the issue. It is House business. It will be a free vote.

Chair: Okay, thank you for that.

Q138 Jacob Rees-Mogg: As you work very well with the other minority parties, is it a particular concern of yours that it is, in fact, impossible for any Northern Irish MP to be on the Backbench Committee at all and that it is, therefore, much more of a problem for Northern Ireland than it is for Scotland or for Wales?

Pete Wishart: I think that is a good point. I know that that is an issue that concerned the DUP particularly, that there is not an opportunity for anybody from Northern Ireland to be there. Scotland obviously can through a large number of Labour Members from Scotland, and obviously from Wales, too, but there will not be a Northern Irish Member of the Backbench Business Committee as it currently stands.

Q139 Chair: Thank you for your evidence. Just for the avoidance of all doubt, can I just clarify a few matters? Unlike the Shadow Leader, who has just given evidence, you are saying you are speaking on behalf of all the minority parties with their authority on this issue?

Pete Wishart: I am speaking on behalf of the smaller parties, giving you my own version and view of that. I am not answering every single question on behalf of the DUP or the SDLP, whatever, but I was asked to come along and give this evidence. I cannot speak for all the smaller parties; that would be impossible.

Q140 Chair: Are you saying a principled decision has been taken that you are not prepared to participate on the Backbench Business Committee without voting rights?

Pete Wishart: That is correct.

Q141 Chair: Would that position change-would a minority party member be prepared to go along and to take an active part in the Backbench Business Committee if we were to say we will review the position after a year and examine any shortcomings that you or your colleagues identified as existing in that arrangement?

Pete Wishart: That would have to be considered by all the minority parties. I cannot answer on behalf of them for that.

Q142 Chair: Can I ask you to put that to them and perhaps to let me know at a later date what the answer to that question is?

Pete Wishart: Yes, of course.

Q143 Chair: Is there anything you want to add?

Pete Wishart: No, thank you.

Chair: I thank you for your time and for coming along.

Pete Wishart: My pleasure.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, Leader of the House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q144 Chair: Sir George, thank you for coming. I realise you are very busy, and we appreciate you have found time for us in your busy day. Do you wish to make an opening statement before we get down to questions?

Sir George Young: Very briefly, Chairman, I have submitted written evidence, which your Committee has. If I could just add three short footnotes, I think the Committee has been a great success partly because there is a commitment to, and ownership of, the debates by backbenchers that simply was not there when the Government chose the subjects and presented them to the House. I think also there is a transparency and an element of competition in the choice of subjects that simply was not there before when they were chosen by the Leader of the House. Also, I think the Backbench Business Committee has gone where angels fear to tread, if I may say so, in choosing subjects that the Government and, in some cases, the opposition would not have chosen. There may be areas where, for example, the backbenchers want to hold the Executive to account, which is different from the areas where the opposition may want to do that. I think it has been a great success and I pay tribute to those who have operated the system for the first two years. I very much look forward to the review that your Committee is undertaking.

Q145 Chair: Thank you. There has been some controversy about the change in the way members are elected to the Backbench Business Committee, a change that was brought about because you described the original arrangement as an anomaly. If that is your view, why was the Backbench Business Committee set up in that way in the first place?

Sir George Young: Initially, we implemented the Wright recommendations as they were proposed by Wright. We felt the House should have an opportunity before this session began to decide whether they wanted to bring the method of election for this Committee in line with the method of election for all the other select committees. In my response to one of your reports, I think on the election of the Speaker, I made it clear that the Government would give the House an opportunity to decide on this before this session began. On 12 March there was an opportunity for such a debate, which we held and the Deputy Leader in that debate set out the reasons why the Government felt the change should be made. There was a debate and then a vote, and the House resolved to change the method of election and bring it into line with the other ones.

Q146 Sir Roger Gale: Tony Wright described the changes that the Government introduced as a retrograde step. Is there not a danger that the form of election that the Government has introduced with the support of the major opposition party hands power back to the Whips and allows them to put placemen into the Backbench Business Committee?

Sir George Young: It is a secret ballot, so it is difficult to see how the Whips could encourage people to vote in ways other than the way in which they wanted to. The change was endorsed by the House rather than by the Government and the opposition. There was a vote and the House decided to change. But in a secret ballot, it is quite difficult to see why a Member should vote according to what the Whips have asked him to do if he wanted to do something else. It would be a secret between the Member and the Almighty.

Sir Roger Gale: If all Members are honourable and if they gave an undertaking to the Whips, they would, of course, keep it, wouldn’t they?

Chair: Is that another raised eyebrow?

Sir Roger Gale: That is another raised eyebrow. I rest my case.

Q147 John Hemming: On that particular point, perhaps the argument is that the opposition party might vote for more independently minded representatives of, say, the Conservative Party whereas Conservative Members may vote for people who are less inclined to be independent of the Government. There was a substantial turnover in terms of the Conservative representation on the Committee. Do you see that as being significant?

Sir George Young: I think it is right that the Conservative Party should decide who it wishes to represent itself on this Committee in the same way that the Labour Party and the other parties choose their own representatives. I think that argument, if you were to extend it, could be applied to every single select committee. I think we divide the select committees on party lines and I think it is right that each party should then decide who represents its party rather than having the decision potentially distorted by the votes of other parties with perhaps other motives.

Q148 Mr Nuttall: As you may be aware, one of the biggest contentious items, as we have just seen in the earlier evidence session, is a place for the minority parties. Would the Government be inclined to support a change to allow a place for the minority parties if the Government could be guaranteed still having a majority on the Committee? I understand at the moment the Government would still have a majority even if a minority party was put on. It could be made more certain by extending it by two.

Sir George Young: The Wright Committee, at paragraph 180, recommended a committee of between seven and nine to represent the balance in the House. That is what we have done. Of course, we will listen to any recommendation your Committee makes. Having listened to Mr Wishart, he applied for one debate, which he got, I think, within a month. If you look at the representations made by minority parties, I think they asked for 16 debates and they got 12 of them granted, the other four being dealt with another way. There is no evidence at the moment that the minority parties are in any way discriminated against by the current system. We tried to make a move towards the minority parties in the change that was approved in March in giving them a place on the Committee in its deliberative stage. I am sorry that they have apparently decided to boycott it in an environment where, as we have just heard, there has I think only been one vote in two years. Of course, we would listen to any recommendations that you make, but we do not think there is a particular problem of discrimination against the minority parties. Nor do we think a strong case has been made for dealing with this select committee in a totally different way to the other ones.

Q149 Mr Nuttall: Of course, using the normal formula, to get to the stage when the minority parties are entitled to a member would make the Committee very large and unwieldy, wouldn’t it?

Sir George Young: Yes, a point that I made I think in oral questions last Thursday when Mr Wishart raised the matter on the floor of the House.

Q150 Nic Dakin: Given that the Government wants the Backbench Business Committee to work and given we have heard of this issue of principle acting as a barrier for participation by minority parties on the Committee, what is the argument for not giving them a voting place?

Sir George Young: A voting place as opposed-

Nic Dakin: Yes.

Sir George Young: Well, firstly, it is not a committee that operates by votes. We have heard that there has only been one vote. The principle with select committees is that you look at the size of the select committee and then you allocate them according to the representation in the House. We have dealt with this Committee in the same way as other select committees and also, as I said a moment ago, the Wright Committee did not recommend a place as of right on the Backbench Business Committee for minority parties. Presumably he considered it, but they did not propose that, so we are where we are.

Q151 Nic Dakin: The current allocation of time to the Backbench Business Committee Wright described as a minimum offering. Is there scope for more time to be offered to that minimum offering?

Sir George Young: Within the context of the discussions at the end of the last Parliament, where we now are, which is 27 on the floor, 35 in all, is-it would be fair to say-at the top end of the expectations of those who sat on the Wright Committee. It is a minimum and, in fact, in the session that has just ended, admittedly a longer session, we exceeded the minimum. I think there were 40 days on the floor of the House, whereas technically we could have stuck with 35 because it is so many days per session. It is a minimum. I would be raising false hopes if I said that we plan to exceed it, particularly in the current session, which is not going to be as long as the one that has just ended.

Q152 Nic Dakin: How does the Government determine the subjects for general debate in Government time?

Sir George Young: The ones that we retain? Well, we do not retain very many. I will listen to what is raised at business questions. The Government has a right, as you know, to nominate subjects for general debate. The ones that we chose-I think the SDSR was one, we also chose another one on defence-we were just listening to the views of the House. It also depends very much on whether there is time available; there may not be so much time available in the current session as there was in the past, so the possibility of Government debates, Government time for debates, may be reduced.

Q153 Nic Dakin: Given that the Backbench Business Committee is listening all the time to the views of the House and is developing its ways of doing that, why not give that time currently being used by Government for general debate to the Backbench Business Committee to allocate?

Sir George Young: In a sense we did that, because we gave them more days than those to which they were strictly entitled. I think as a matter of principle the Government should retain the right to have general debates. It would be slightly odd if the Backbench Business Committee could have general debates, the opposition parties could have general debates, but the Government could not. It is important we retain the right and exercise it, obviously not as often as we used to, listening to the views of the House as a whole or perhaps the requirements of Government.

Q154 Karen Bradley: Continuing the topic of the general debate, the set-piece debates is something that has come up regularly in our evidence that we have received, with some views that because the set-piece debates have moved into backbench time they are being usurped by more topical or, as one of my colleagues has described them, sexy issues. Do you feel that some of those set-piece debates should actually be within Government time and not part of the backbench time to make sure that they are preserved and that we have them on an annual basis?

Sir George Young: The short answer is no. I think in paragraph 17 of my evidence I made it clear we would resist this. The whole point of giving the time that used to be allocated for certain set-piece debates to the Backbench Business Committee is to exercise that discretion. As you may have heard from the Chair, initially they were minded to replicate some of the set-piece debates, but they found that they were not asked for, better cases were made for other subjects with more people putting forward those other subjects, and so they moved away from those set-piece debates. It was precisely to allow the backbenchers to use the time as they wanted that we have not enshrined, either within the Backbench Business Committee, that they have to have the defence debates or, indeed, reserved the right for the Government to hold them instead. It is enfranchised in the backbenchers, and they are accountable for how they use the time.

Q155 Karen Bradley: On the topic of time, not so much the amount of time but the certainty over days, one of the comments made to us is that there are 35 days allocated, of which 27 are in the Chamber. If one was to take out set-piece events like the Budget, we would pretty much get to having 27 weeks that a backbench debate could be held. Now, without actually allocating a set day of the week for that debate, would there be scope for saying in advance that "This week we will have a backbench debate in the Chamber"? Because one of the pieces of evidence we have heard is that, for example, the assisted dying debate, where there was a significant lead time before that debate was actually held, meant that there was much more engagement with the public about the debate; there was much more time for members to be prepared for the debate.

Sir George Young: Tony Wright did not recommend a set day per week in his report. The mathematics do not quite work because there are 35 weeks when we sit and there are only 27 days promised in the Chamber, so we could not actually do one day per week even if we wanted to. Then you have issues like the Budget and the Queen’s Speech where you do not want the debates interrupted. What I have said to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is if there are certain set-piece debates that she and her Committee want, like preEuropean Summit or the Welsh Day, if she will come along at the beginning of the session and say, "My Committee definitely wants to hold a debate on this subject at a relevant time", then we could factor that in as business managers, and do our best to make sure that they did have a date roughly when they wanted it in order to meet that particular set piece. That is an offer that I have made to the Backbench Business Committee, which I repeat this afternoon.

Q156 Karen Bradley: It would not be possible to say at the beginning of a term, shall we phrase it, that actually there will be so many days of debate in the Chamber in this term and they will be broadly in weeks one, three, five, seven?

Sir George Young: No. There are real issues of programming Government business that make that quite difficult. There is the interaction with the House of Lords, as the shadow Leader has said, and the imperatives of getting Government business through by particular deadlines. Even Government Ministers do not have the sort of certainty about their own legislation that you have implied by giving them a promise of a certain date some time ahead.

Q157 Karen Bradley: Just finally on the timing of debates, the days in the Chamber do tend to be on a Thursday; is there more scope for more days to be earlier in the week so that backbenchers would not have the conflict of returning to constituencies stopping them from being able to take part in the debate?

Sir George Young: I think there are two points on that. The first is that the trend towards having a Thursday as a non-voting day began before the Backbench Business Committee was established in the last Parliament. Thursday tended to be the day when there were not votes, and it may be that that was convenient for Members who have the pull from their constituency. Thursday is perhaps a better day not to have a vote than an earlier day in the week and then you have to vote on a Thursday. The other point is, we allocated 40 days and 17 were not on a Thursday, so it is not the case that they are all on Thursdays. But again, I will listen to the views of your Committee on that. There may be a view of the House as a whole that they quite like Thursdays as a backbench business day.

Q158 Chair: On the subject of giving greater notice of backbench days, could I just ask you to reflect further on that? It is not that long ago that we were told we could not be given the business two weeks in advance, that we could not be told in advance when recess dates would be, and yet Leaders of the House have managed to grapple with those issues and deliver. Perhaps you can just reflect a bit further as to whether it is possible to give greater notice of the allocation of backbench time.

Sir George Young: There is some small print in both those undertakings on the second week and also the recess dates. I think the small print is subject to the satisfactory progress of Government business. It may be that informally behind the scenes the Backbench Business Committee is given an indication of what might happen beyond the immediate two weeks but, Mr Chairman, I will, of course, reflect on the proposition you have put to me.

Chair: Thank you.

Q159 Sir Roger Gale: One of the arguments advanced for not granting the minority parties a place on the Backbench Committee was that effectively they are frontbenchers because they all have frontbench responsibilities. We were dealing with anomalies earlier; my understanding is that opposition frontbench spokesmen are allowed to apply for emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24 as frontbenchers. If that is so and a Speaker grants a Standing Order No. 24 debate and it is asked for by a frontbencher, why are they held in backbench time?

Sir George Young: Sorry, I have not quite understood that question.

Sir Roger Gale: A Standing Order No. 24 application made possibly by a frontbencher from the opposition benches is deemed as being held in backbench time. It is deducted from the allocation of time.

Sir George Young: Oh, I see. Is that right? I am not sure that is the case.

Chair: No, that is, I think, what you are proposing. I think the current scenario is that it is not backbench time. As I understand it, that is what the Government is proposing, that it be backbench time in future. I think Sir Roger’s point is why that should be.

Sir George Young: I am not sure that is the Government’s position. I will check. Backbench time is meant for the general debates that used to be held, plus the time for the set-piece debates. There is a grey area as to what is backbench and what is frontbench. You choose from whatever source, or some of the debates granted by the Speaker do not score, as far as I am aware, against the Backbench Business Committee. The Backbench Business Committee is time that they decide how to use out of time that has been allocated to them by the Government. I am not sure if I have correctly understood the question, but I do not think we would score that against the Backbench Business Committee.

Sir Roger Gale: I am sorry, I misunderstood this and I apologise for that. The Government’s memorandum says the Government believe that in the case where business is scheduled in accordance with the provision under Standing Order No. 24 that should be taken into account in the allocation of time to the Backbench Business Committee.

Chair: Paragraph 25.

Sir George Young: Okay.

Q160 Sir Roger Gale: I do not understand why, because Standing Order No. 24 is not a backbench prerogative. It is a prerogative of any member-frontbench or backbench-that seeks the Speaker’s permission to hold the debate.

Sir George Young: Yes. The Government’s position is that in any case where business of the kinds noted in the previous paragraph, which is Standing Order No. 14, is scheduled in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. 24, that should be taken into account in the allocation of time to the Backbench Business Committee. In other words, it may not be directly deducted, but it should be taken into account when we look at the score towards the end of a session.

Sir Roger Gale: I do not think the Committee is going to understand that.

Sir George Young: I am very happy to write and clarify this at a later stage.

Q161 Sir Roger Gale: I think that would be awfully helpful if you could. Just pursuant to that, but it is a relatively minor issue because it does not happen very often, my understanding is the reports from Standards and Privileges Committee are also debated in backbench time, is that right?

Sir George Young: Yes, they do score as backbench time.

Q162 Sir Roger Gale: Why?

Sir George Young: Because it is essentially House business. A report from Standards and Privileges is nothing to do with the Government at all; it is right at the heart of business of the House. When the 35 days and the 27 were allocated, the time devoted to select committee reports was taken into account. The key thing is that if there is a report from Standards and Privileges, it should be debated promptly, and the Government will undertake to find that time to make that debate possible. The member should obviously not be left in suspense. We will then have a discussion with the Backbench Business Committee as to how it scores, but the theory is quite clear. This is not the Government’s legislative programme. It is not Government business. It is House business and, therefore, it should come under backbench business allocation.

Q163 Sir Roger Gale: I am sorry, Sir George, I understand what you are saying, but there has to be a difference between House business, which is matters relating to the House of Commons that are not strictly Government business like they are not legislation, and backbench business. The Wright Committee’s recommendations originally were designed to create time for backbenchers to debate issues relevant to the backbench. The Standards and Privileges Committee, which does a hugely valuable job, is very important and must be debated, I accept all of that, but it cannot be described as backbench business, can it?

Sir George Young: The time is allocated to include debates on select committee reports. The Backbench Business Committee have used some of the time to debate select committee reports. A report of the Standards and Privileges Committee is a select committee report of the House and, therefore, it is right to include it within the allocation of time allocated to the Backbench Business Committee.

Q164 John Hemming: On this particular point, however, my understanding is that the relevant Standing Order, which off the top of my head is probably No. 14-whichever one creates the Backbench Business Committee-defines the time that is used to refer matters to particularly the privileges part of the Standards and Privileges Committee as being specifically not backbench time. In other words, we have this situation where references to the Privileges Committee are not backbench time, but things that come back from it are. Now, one would presume they are both House business so is there an explanation as to the logic of that?

Sir George Young: I think it would be wrong to deduct from the Backbench Business Committee the time a Member spent asking Mr Speaker to refer something to the Standards and Privileges Committee. That is wholly outwith the control of the Backbench Business Committee. Again, I think it is right to say that Standards and Privileges reports, along with reports from other select committees, in principle should come out of the Backbench Business Committee’s allocation. When the allocation was made, we specifically knew that Standards and Privileges would have to come out of that allocation.

Q165 Mr Nuttall: There have been occasions when backbench business would have benefited from being subject to a business motion. Now, the present Chairman of the Committee has indicated that personally she would be reluctant to start down the road of giving the Backbench Business Committee powers to put down their own business motions. But just to put on the record your own views, would you support such a change, i.e. giving the Backbench Business Committee the power to table business motions in order to regulate the debate? Also, if I could deal with the second point at the same time and follow up by saying that regardless of the answer to that question, would you personally be in favour of the Government, if necessary, tabling business motions for backbench business if they were asked to do so by the Committee?

Sir George Young: Yes. The answer to the second question is yes. We did so once in order to protect, I think, the debate on Hillsborough. We tabled a business motion in order to restrict the length of the time of the debate prior to it. It was blocked by a member of the Backbench Business Committee. But we tried. Since then I understand from the evidence that the Chair has given is that she quite likes the flexible arrangement, but if they came along and asked us to get a business motion through on the nod, as we did before, we would assist.

Q166 John Hemming: I think this is the distinction of the nature of business motions and business motions on the nod as opposed to business motions tabled on the day. Now, obviously a business motion tabled by a minister of the Crown has the advantage from the point of view of managing business that it in itself has an inbuilt time limit of three hours after which the Speaker puts it to the vote. Obviously, it is possible to have other motions that would schedule business, but they would not have that advantage of automatically closing. Would you see any difficulty with that?

Sir George Young: I think the Government would like to retain control of business motions, and we would do so in conjunction with the Backbench Business Committee rather than cede to them the right to put business motions on the Order Paper. That remains where we are.

Q167 John Hemming: My understanding is that motions timetabling business of the House can already be tabled by other than the Government, it is just that they do not automatically close. You just need a closure motion to close the business.

Sir George Young: I do not think this is an area of contention between the Backbench Business Committee and the Government. If they want a business motion, they can come and ask for it. As I understand it, at the moment the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee quite likes the flexible way that they manage their time by general agreement. They have not come to me and asked for business motions.

Q168 John Hemming: The one business motion was an "on the nod" one rather than one of the ones tabled on the day that has to be voted on within three hours. Do you think the Government would agree to the one that is voted on on the day?

Sir George Young: In the Government’s name?

John Hemming: Yes.

Sir George Young: As long as the Government put down the motion, then we are content. We want to retain ownership of the time of the House if we can.

Q169 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Moving on to Westminster Hall, the Government considers that Westminster Hall provides a forum for debate of equivalent value to the floor of the House. Now, I cannot speak from personal experience because I have never actually spoken in Westminster Hall, but I wondered if to ensure that this status was a fact whether the Government would be willing to get Cabinet ministers to attend debates there.

Sir George Young: Yes, and this is something that I will raise with my colleagues to try to move more towards equality of status by encouraging, where appropriate, Cabinet ministers to reply to debates in Westminster Hall.

Q170 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Do you think there are any other things that could be done to raise the status of Westminster Hall, or is it even a good idea to raise the status of Westminster Hall? Might that not devalue the status of the floor of the House?

Sir George Young: I think the status of Westminster Hall, Mr Rees-Mogg, would be elevated if you spoke in it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is very flattering.

Sir George Young: But some of the best debates have actually taken place in Westminster Hall: the cycling debate, very well attended; a debate on football clubs, very well attended. It is a slightly different forum in that, as you know, it is horseshoe rather than confrontational so the tone is slightly different. That tone I think is more appropriate for some of the debates that are held there. I see it as a parallel debating chamber. I have floated with your Committee the idea of statements being taken in Westminster Hall. I take your point about Cabinet ministers answering debates where appropriate.

Q171 Chair: Have you decided yet out of whose time a debate on sitting hours should be taken?

Sir George Young: On the debate on sitting hours, and I commend your Committee on producing it-I confess I have not read it from cover to cover-I revert to my negotiating position that this is a report of a select committee. We would expect the Backbench Business Committee, therefore, to find time for such a debate.

Q172 Chair: I hope you will assist them to do so. Do you wish to add anything to the answers you have already given?

Sir George Young: No. I will clarify the bouncer that was bowled by Sir Roger on Standing Orders and do that in writing at an early date.

Q173 Chair: The Committee is obliged to you for that and for your evidence in general and for making our job easier in reaching a conclusion on this matter. As I said to the other witnesses, if, in addition to writing to us on that specific point, there is anything else that occurs to you after today, please do add that into your letter.

Sir George Young: I am much obliged.

Chair: Thank you for your attendance.

Prepared 20th November 2012