This report aims to pass on the lessons the Backbench Business Committee has learned during its first Parliament of operation and to discuss the unresolved difficulties which its successors will have to negotiate.
The Committee has been as open and transparent as possible in reaching its decisions. It does not judge the motivation behind applications for debate, but takes decisions against a published set of objective criteria. The Committee sees itself as a resource and a scheduling forum for backbenchers.
We note changes in government policy that appear to have arisen as a result of backbench debates. However, we also note that both Members and the public feel frustration when a backbench motion is agreed but nothing further happens, because such motions are not binding on the Government. We recommend some mechanisms for improving the way in which Government responds to backbench debates: in particular, we seek an undertaking that the Government will issue a written ministerial statement after each debate setting out the action it proposes to take in response; and we recommend greater monitoring by departmental select committees of the follow-up to debates.
We consider where opinions differ as to the future role of the Committee, such as whether it should accrue powers to schedule debating time on legislation (which we reject), and how the smaller parties in the House should be represented on the Committee (an issue which should be addressed in the discussions which will take place at the start of the next Parliament).
We summarise our working methods and review the various procedural developments since the Committee was initially established.
We support the establishment of the new Petitions Committee, which we see as having a separate but complementary role to our own. The public engagement function of the new committee will be critical, and the committee should be properly resourced to enable this to be carried out.
Although there have been numerous occasions when both the government and opposition business managers would have preferred us not to schedule certain debates, we have maintained good working relationships with the front benches. The Government has provided us with sufficient time in the Chamber for backbench debate, giving us as much advance notice of dates as they realistically can.
We have tried to raise the status of debates in Westminster Hall, and urge our successors to continue to promote it as a smaller and more intimate venue than the main Chamber and one which is ideal for certain debates.
We conclude that the Backbench Business Committee has made a positive difference to the work of the House by providing new opportunities for self-expression by backbenchers and making Parliament more relevant to the outside world. We hope that its work will be continued and extended in the next Parliament.