Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents


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.[47]

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".[48] 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."[49] 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."[50]

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."[51] 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."[52] 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.[53]

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.[54] 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 business."[55]

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.[56]  

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.[57]

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 UNFINISHED BUSINESS

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 time—including backbench time—is allocated in parliament. This reflects a flawed, but deeply ingrained, logic."[58]

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 made—to 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 slots occur.[59]

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."[60]

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."[61] 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."[62]

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."[63] 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."[64]

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. [65]

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. 14.

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."[66]

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 House—it is a Backbench Committee—and into the party caucuses undermines the reform.[67]

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."[68] 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."[69] 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."[70]

MINORITY PARTIES AND THE BACKBENCH BUSINESS COMMITTEE

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."[71] 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.[72] 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 Committee—as a full voting member, not as an observer, as the Government have allowed them.[73]

56.  A representative of the minority parties should have full membership of the Backbench Business Committee. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 152J.


47   HC (2008-09) 1117, para 180 Back

48   Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Review of the Backbench Business Committee, HC168 Back

49   Ev w11 Back

50   Q 194 Back

51   Q 214 Back

52   Q 197 Back

53   Q 231 Back

54   Q 200 Back

55   Q 222 Back

56   Q 222  Back

57   Q 202 Back

58   Ev w16 Back

59   Q 37 Back

60   Ev w17 Back

61   Ev w20 Back

62   Ev w20 Back

63   Ev w18 Back

64   Ibid Back

65   Ev w11 Back

66   Q 205 Back

67   Q 126 Back

68   Ev w14 Back

69   Ibid Back

70   Ev w7  Back

71   Ev w36 Back

72   Q 193 Back

73   Q 216 Back


 
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Prepared 18 July 2013