3 The Backbench Business Committee |
38. Wright envisaged the role of the Backbench
Business Committee, elected "by secret ballot of the House
as a whole", as being to meet weekly to
consider the competing claims for time made by select
committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the
protected [backbench] days and/or time-slots available in the
two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench
business in the week immediately ahead.
The Committee was established in June 2010.
39. The Backbench Business Committee has recently
been the subject of a thorough review by the Procedure Committee,
which concluded that it had been widely welcomed as a "successful
and effective innovation" but suggested some "generally
modest" changes intended to "improve and refine the
framework within which the Committee operates".
A resolution containing suggested changes is before the House.
40. The Backbench Business Committee was also
regarded by many witnesses in our inquiry as having been a success.
Outside commentators, frontbenchers and backbenchers welcomed
the opportunities provided by the Committee for Members to raise
important subjects. The Shadow Leader of the House, Angela Eagle
MP, described the Backbench Business Committee as "a key
avenue for Members wanting to give voice to public concern."
Graham Brady MP, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative
backbenchers, said: "The Backbench Business Committee has
led to some very important changes. Critically, there are debates
that have been held that the Government would not have wished
to hold, and that has opened up the process and has opened it
up to public opinion far more."
41. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha
Engel MP, suggested that there had been a lasting change in the
House's culture as a result of the Committee's establishment,
believing that "we work now as Back Benchers, rather than
as individual political parties ... The first time that I heard
a cross-party group on this side of the table calling
each other 'hon. Friend' I thought I would fall off my chair,
but it is now quite common practice."
Ms Engel also considered that "In terms of public
engagement and the rebalancing of the relationship with the Executive,
the fact that Back Benchers can now table votable motions on the
Floor of the House has given them a bit more muscle." She
welcomed the fact that "Government cannot now choose, in
a compact with the other Front Bench, that Europe will not be
debated on the Floor of the House."
David Howarth of the University of Cambridge, a former Member
of this House and of the Wright Committee, welcomed the fact that
the Backbench Business Committee had recovered for the House at
least the possibility of changing Standing Orders through a Motion
in Backbench Business Committee time.
42. Underlying these achievements are said to
be the good working relationships which, according to some of
our witnesses, have developed between the Backbench Business Committee
and others with a role in determining the agenda of the House.
Ms Engel welcomed the close work between her Committee and the
Liaison Committee in considering which select committee reports
should be chosen for debate on the Floor of the House.
She also identified an improvement in the attitude of the Government
business managers towards the Backbench Committee, with the Committee
growing in influence. She said that, when the new Committee was
first established, the Leader of the House might say, when pressed
to arrange a debate on a controversial topic, "Go to the
Backbench Business Committee." Ms Engel said: "That
is not so true any more. In fact, the negotiation that takes place
on time includes what is Government business and what is backbench
43. Ms Engel gave an example of how the business
managers can help the Backbench Business Committee to plan its
part of the agenda, telling us:
There are days when the usual channels see quite
far ahead that there are debates that are less likely to run the
full course, so we do have a very good relationship now. It depends
on having a debate that can go down to as little as half an hour.
44. Responsiveness to the interests of Members
was also regarded as important by Ms Engel; she saw the benefits
of the Backbench Committee being elected at the beginning of each
Session rather than each Parliament.
It would probably be easier if it were for the Parliament,
but it is quite important, since we are a Committee that is supposed
to represent Back Benchers, that Back Benchers have a regular
opportunity to replace us if they want to. That is important and
it is much more for the benefit of Back Benchers than it is for
the benefit of the Executive.
45. The Backbench Business Committee
has been a success and we welcome the good working relationships
which it has established with the business managers, the Liaison
Committee and other bodies.
BACKBENCH BUSINESS COMMITTEE - SOME
46. While the Backbench Business Committee
now has considerable scope to allocate business within the number
of days it is given by the business managers, its writ still does
not run very far. For example, the Government recently rejected
a proposal from the Procedure Committee that the allocation of
35 days per session (27 of them in the Chamber) to the Backbench
Business Committee should be increased proportionately in sessions
of longer than one year. Although this is not a problem that is
likely to recur often, Dr Russell suggested that this demonstrated
that "the Government clearly still sees itself as the arbiter
of how timeincluding backbench timeis allocated
in parliament. This reflects a flawed, but deeply ingrained, logic."
47. Dr Russell described as "inappropriate"
the fact that the decision on when the backbench days are given
remains with the front bench.
Those over-arching decisions not about what to do
with Government time, but about when non-Government time takes
place, remain in the hands of Government, and I think perhaps
that is the next bit of encroachment that might be sensibly madeto
either put those things more firmly in Standing Orders or to have
some other forum in which those decisions are made about Opposition
business, Private Members' Bills, timetabling of Backbench business
and when other Government slots are compared to when these other
More generally, there is still confusion about what
is appropriate for Backbench Business Committee time and what
is not; as Dr Russell told us: "the delineation between government
and backbench business (and indeed between government and Parliament)
has not yet become fully settled and agreed between both sides."
48. Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Public Administration
Committee, did not agree that the Backbench Committee had created
harmony in its dealings with other parts of the House. He told
us that "There is clearly now a dysfunctional relationship
between the Leader of the House ... and what the Backbench Business
Committee is intended to provide for, from its very limited allocation
of time." While
the Backbench Committee felt the need to respond to demand, from
the public as well as from Members, Mr Jenkin said that the Government
had "made it clear that the [Backbench Business Committee]
should be using its time to provide for regular debates"
on subjects like Defence, the EU the Civil Service; the Police
and other such matters. Mr Jenkin observed that "Few of these
debates ever now take place. There has not been a debate about
the Civil Service during this parliament ... There is no objective
way to justify this."
49. Dr Russell noted that the Wright Committee
recommended greater certainty over the timing of Opposition Days,
but that these proposals had not been acted upon. She urged the
House to go further and ensure that the timing of backbench business,
Opposition Days and Private Members' Bills, all of them subject
to similar mechanisms in Standing Order No. 14, should be "both
regularised and made explicitly proportional to the length of
the session, where this exceeds one year."
Dr Russell criticised the Government's "blunt" rejection
of the recent Procedure Committee proposal on what she described
as "proportionality" on backbench business. She did
not accept the Government's justification for their rejection,
that such a change would be "inconsistent" with the
arrangements for Opposition Days and Private Members' Bills. Her
comment was that "the best way of avoiding such inconsistency
would surely be to introduce proportionality and more fixed timing
for all of these forms of non-government business. At present,
too much discretion lies at the hands of the whips."
50. Another aspect of timing was raised by Angela
Eagle MP, Shadow Leader of the House, who expressed concern at
the impact on the Parliamentary week of the Government's regular
scheduling of backbench business on a Thursday. Ms Eagle was concerned
at the effect on attendance at backbench debates on days when
whipping was light, and thought it "impossible not to draw
the conclusion that the Government prefers the House to be quiet
on Thursdays. There is a case for looking at this again."
She recalled that the Wright report had recommended Wednesday
if a fixed day were considered for backbench business. 
51. The number of days allotted
for backbench, Opposition and Private Members' business should
be regularised, and made proportional to the length of a session.
The Backbench Business Committee should have more say over the
scheduling of backbench business, meaning both the determination
of the day of the week and of the length of the slot on that day.
This change would require an amendment to Standing Order No.
52. Several witnesses were critical of the Government's
actions of 2012 when it tabled motions to change the way in which
Backbench Business Committee members were elected. While the original
2010 elections were on a whole-House basis, in 2012 they became
internal political party elections, like those for other select
committees. The Government also changed the method of election
of the Chair of the Committee to provide that no Member could
stand as a candidate for Chair of the Committee "if that
Member's party is represented in Her Majesty's Government."
Ms Engel noted that the Government had in this case acted on its
own, at a time when the Procedure Committee was reviewing the
workings of the Backbench Business Committee. She said that the
change was not subject to consultation with anyone on the Backbench
Business Committee, and commented: "Those were quite dramatic
changes and my only objection was that the motions were tabled
by the Government in consultation with no one while a review was
going on of how the Backbench Committee worked. It seemed very
odd at the time."
53. Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy saw a broader
implication of the episode, describing it as
another example of how the culture has not changed,
and how the Executive basically still thinks it is its job to
reorganise things in Parliament for its convenience, and not necessarily
Parliament doing it. Any move whereby, in effect, it moves away
from the principle of it being elected by the whole Houseit
is a Backbench Committeeand into the party caucuses undermines
54. David Howarth said that there was a case
for reconsideration of the current restriction on using backbench
time for legislative business, "at least with regard to matters
that themselves might be characterised as debates that both front
benches might want to suppress, for example some prayers against
negative Statutory Instruments."
He said that one purpose of the restrictions on backbench time
was to protect it from incursion by the government, but that "where
there is currently in practice very little chance of the government
using its own time for a matter, the restrictive rules function
not as protectors of backbench time but as limitations on it."
The Chair of the Committee, Natascha Engel, was however wary of
giving it any role in proposing legislation. She told us: "The
Backbench Business Committee has established an independent role
for backbenchers to schedule backbench time. Its strength lies
in the fact that it cannot instigate legislation, but gives voice
to the House."
MINORITY PARTIES AND THE BACKBENCH
55. A representative of the minority parties
can take a place on the Backbench Business Committee, but only
as an observer; the representative has no vote. Elfyn Llwyd MP,
of Plaid Cymru, told us that the Backbench Business Committee,
while "a positive innovation", had "failed to find
a way of representing adequately the views of minority parties
... Surely, it is fundamentally wrong that 31 Members of Parliament
have been effectively disenfranchised."
Pete Wishart of the SNP echoed Mr Llwyd's criticism, calling for
full membership of the Backbench Business Committee for a representative
of the minority parties.
Natascha Engel agreed, saying:
We really feel the lack of the minority parties on
the Backbench Business Committee. I think we should find a way
to accommodate one Member from the minority parties. They can
decide for themselves who should serve on the Committeeas
a full voting member, not as an observer, as the Government have
56. A representative of the
minority parties should have full membership of the Backbench
would be required to Standing Order No. 152J.
47 HC (2008-09) 1117, para 180 Back
Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Review
of the Backbench Business Committee, HC168 Back
Ev w11 Back
Q 194 Back
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Ev w16 Back
Q 37 Back
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Ev w11 Back
Q 205 Back
Q 126 Back
Ev w14 Back
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Ev w36 Back
Q 193 Back
Q 216 Back