Work of the Committee in the 2010-15 Parliament - Backbench Business Committee Contents

2  Establishment and operation of the Committee

5. The idea of setting up a Backbench Business Committee was first proposed by the House of Commons Reform Committee (also known as the Wright Committee) in November 2009.[1] Before the Backbench Business Committee existed, only government and opposition parties could schedule votable motions on the floor of the House.

6. On 15 June 2010, early in the new Parliament, the House voted to establish a Backbench Business Committee with the powers to "determine the backbench business to be taken in the House and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, allotted for backbench business".[2] Other provisions in the new Standing Orders were that the Government was required to make available at least 35 days per session for backbench business, of which at least 27 had to be in the Chamber. The Standing Orders specified the number of members of the Committee (seven plus the Chair); and that members had to be backbenchers. The quorum was set high (at least four out of eight members had to be present for the Committee to be able to take formal decisions); and it was a requirement that the Chair and members stand for election by secret ballot of the whole House at the start of every session, unlike on most select committees where they are elected for the whole Parliament.

7. The Chair was not allocated by party, as was the case with other select committees, but by a vote of the whole House. The Committee's first Chair, Natascha Engel MP, was elected on 22 June 2010 and the other seven Members on 29 June. These were four Conservative members, three Labour members (including the Chair) and one Liberal Democrat.

8. The Committee met for the first time on 6 July 2010 and published a special report setting out its provisional approach to its work on 21 July.[3]

9. From the start the Committee was conscious that the power it had been given to allocate debates on behalf of backbenchers presented both opportunities and dangers. The opportunities were to give Members a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for what went on in the House, make debates more responsive to public concerns and strengthen the House's select committees by providing them with more opportunities for their work to be debated in the Chamber. [4]

10. The dangers were that control of a large part of the parliamentary agenda (one day per sitting week) would be transferred from the Executive and Business Managers to a small and unaccountable group of backbenchers.

11. Taking those dangers and opportunities into consideration, the Committee used the scope afforded by the broad drafting of its remit under the Standing Orders to explore and experiment with what would work and what would not. The Committee therefore determined its own guiding principles.

12. We decided to meet in public in order to be as open and transparent in our scheduling decisions as possible.

13. We took scheduling decisions against a published set of objective criteria:

·  breadth of interest across all parties

·  why it is felt important for a debate to be held, when the topic was last debated (and how much interest there was on that occasion) and the topicality of the subject

·  the amount of time available and requested

·  how many Members have made a firm commitment to participate in a debate (as a rule of thumb, we consider that a 3-hour Chamber debate would normally require at least 15 backbench speakers)

·  and why such a debate is unlikely to be secured through other routes.

14. The Committee does not make decisions on the basis of what debates it finds interesting but on whether they satisfy the above criteria.

15. We do not judge the motivation behind bringing forward a debate. There are as many different ways of being a backbencher as there are backbenchers in the House. We therefore try to provide a wide forum to allow Members to highlight national or local campaigns, to hold the Executive to account better or even to find a way to get noticed by the front bench to get promotion.

16. Thus the Committee does not itself generate ideas for debate. We have been guided entirely by our backbench colleagues who bring us their ideas. We have acted as a scheduling forum for them.

17. From the outset of the Backbench Business Committee's existence there were certain tensions which remain unresolved today. We deal with these in the following paragraphs.

How the Government responds to backbench motions

18. The area of greatest unresolved disagreement is whether a backbench motion should be binding on the Government. This will continue to be a matter of debate in the future. Many Members as well as the public have expressed frustration and anger when a backbench motion is debated and voted on (or nodded through) and then nothing further happens. For instance, when the House voted overwhelmingly (147 votes to 28) on 25 October 2012 to suspend the badger cull, or agreed without a vote on 23 June 2011 to "direct the Government to use its powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to introduce a regulation banning the use of all wild animals in circuses to take effect by 1 July 2012", many people could not understand why these decisions of the House were not then implemented.

19. Backbench motions, when agreed to, become Resolutions of the House, but these are not binding on the Government. Rather, the motions provide an opportunity for backbenchers to raise their concerns and to force a Minister to the despatch box to answer them. If backbench motions were binding on the Government, then the result would be that backbench debates would be heavily whipped and each motion defeated. It would mean that the freedom currently enjoyed by backbenchers to explore issues and speak relatively freely (much more so than ever before) would be sacrificed.

20. Because they are not binding, Government is free to ignore or reject Resolutions of the House. In our conclusions to this report we suggest some mechanisms for improving the way in which Government responds to backbench motions (see paragraphs 81 and 82 below), and in which the House and its committees could follow up failures by the Government to respond.

21. It is, though, possible to identify key changes in government policy that almost certainly have had their origins in backbench debates.

22. Dr Mark Stuart of the University of Nottingham has supplied us with his own summary of backbench debates which arguably affected government decision-making:[5]

    It is always difficult to measure the influence of any parliamentary process on government policy. One never knows which pressure point leads the Government to alter course. However, Backbench Business Committee (BBCom) debates and motions (although not binding on the Government) appear to have played a discernible part in altering a range of government policy on the following issues: compensation for victims of contaminated blood and blood products;[6] government funding of the BBC World Service;[7] the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough Disaster;[8] and the freezing of fuel duty.[9] Backbench pressure exerted during BBCom debates and votes may also have played a part in David Cameron's decision to delay giving prisoners the right to vote[10] and to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.[11] Lastly, John Baron's BBCom debate and vote over arms to Syria may have had an indirect effect on the eventual government defeat on Syria on 29 August 2013.[12]

23. To give more detail about Dr Stuart's final example: in July 2013 the House supported, without a vote, a backbench motion stating that "lethal support should not be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament".[13] Although not formally binding, the House's decision added to the pressure on the Government and may have contributed to the Prime Minister's decision the following month to recall Parliament when he wished to accede to President Obama's request for the UK to join the US in taking military action against Syria.

24. The backbench debate on the future of town centres and high streets on 17 January 2012 influenced the Government's response to the Portas Review on 30 March 2012.[14]

25. In their response to backbench debates, Ministers frequently give undertakings as to future government policy and actions. One example out of many would be the announcement given by the relevant Minister in his reply to a backbench debate in October 2014 that the Department of Health would release all papers relating to the use of oral hormone pregnancy tests by expectant mothers between 1953 and 1975, and would set up an independent panel to examine those documents, as requested by the motion before the House.[15]

26. The announcement on 14 January 2015 of a backbench debate on the timing of publication of the Iraq Inquiry's report, scheduled for 29 January, was followed on 21 January by a statement by the Chair of that inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, on that same matter.

27. In some cases Ministers responding to a backbench debate may give undertakings from the despatch box which are not then met, or subsequent government action, even when taken, may be regarded as unsatisfactory. This is different from the Government choosing to ignore Resolutions founded on backbench motions. If and when a Minister makes a commitment or agrees an undertaking on the floor of the House, we have encouraged Backbenchers to return to our committee for a follow-up debate to enable continuing pressure to be placed on the Government. An example would be in the case of the passing of infection via blood products (known as 'contaminated blood') to those with haemophilia and others during the 1970s and 1980s. Several years after the original debate on this matter (first scheduled in October 2010), widespread concern remained over government policy, and we accordingly scheduled a further debate in January 2015.[16]

Whether the Committee should accrue powers to schedule debating time on legislation

28. During the course of the Parliament and particularly during the Procedure Committee's inquiry into Private Members' Bills, it was suggested by some Members that the Backbench Business Committee should take responsibility for selecting Private Members' Bills for debate.[17] The Backbench Business Committee was concerned about this for a number of reasons.

29. First, it would mean our having to rank the comparative merits of competing campaigns to change the law. This would be an impossible task and could not be done objectively. It is far better for bills to be selected for debating time, as at present, through a random ballot of all Members.

30. Secondly, it would mean that the Backbench Business Committee was potentially scheduling legislation. We have argued that it is the role of the democratically-elected government to do this, not that of a small committee of backbenchers. It is why we rejected the power to schedule votable motions to revoke negative statutory instruments.

31. This is another area of unresolved disagreement and we are certain that these issues will continue to be debated by the next Parliament.

Backbench motions which are binding on the House

32. There are a number of areas where motions scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee and agreed to by the House will have automatic effect, because their application is to the House itself and not the Government: in particular, motions to change the Standing Orders of the House or to set up select committees. The Committee has provided time for standing order changes to be debated on several occasions.[18] This has enabled Procedure Committee proposals to be put to the House for decision even if they are not supported by the Government. The Committee has also allocated time for debate on setting up, or giving a formal instruction to, a select committee: for instance, on 12 May 2011, when the House agreed to a backbench motion instructing the Committee on Members' Allowances to review the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, and on 10 September 2014, when the House agreed to a backbench motion to set up a Select Committee on the Governance of the House of Commons.

33. If an application were put to us to debate a motion to set up a select committee with a remit overlapping with the remit of one of the House's existing select committees, in deciding on the application we would be mindful of the risk of duplicating effort and resources. In those circumstances, or where an application for debate on an Instruction to an existing committee had been made, we would also normally seek the views of the existing committee's chair, and take those into account along with other relevant factors, before making our decision on the application.

How smaller parties should be represented

34. From the outset, the lack of representation on the Backbench Business Committee for smaller parties was a problem. It continues to be so at the end of this Parliament. The Standing Orders made it impossible for Members from smaller parties to be nominated to the Committee, as a Member needed to have their nomination papers signed by at least 10 members of the candidate's party.

35. In a 2011 report, the Procedure Committee recommended that Standing Orders be amended to increase the size of the Committee to nine Members, including the Chair, to enable the additional place to be allotted to a Member from a minority party to be elected by the whole House.[19]

36. In the event, the Government chose to put two different proposals before the House, which were agreed to on 12 March 2012. One was to enable a Member from one of the smaller parties (or of no party) to stand for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. The other change provided that:

    "The Committee shall have power to invite Members of the House who are not members of the Committee and who are of a party not represented on the Committee or of no party to attend its meetings and, at the discretion of the chair, take part in its proceedings, but -

    (a) no more than one Member may be so invited to attend in respect of the same meeting;

    (b) a Member so invited shall not move any motion or amendment to any motion, vote or be counted in the quorum.".[20]

37. There was an initial reluctance on the part of the minority parties to exercise their right under this provision to participate in the proceedings of the Committee. Pete Wishart MP, giving evidence on behalf of those parties, commented that they were "not prepared to accept a second-class status when it comes to the composition of the Backbench Business Committee".[21] However, a representative of the minority parties has taken up the Committee's invitation to participate. This followed an undertaking from the Procedure Committee that it would review this matter before the end of the Parliament. In pursuance of this undertaking,[22] the Chair of the Procedure Committee has written to the Leader of the House "to ask him to ensure that he or his successor as Leader in the new Parliament address the need to ensure appropriate minority party membership representation on the Backbench Business Committee and across all select committees in the discussions which will take place at the start of the Parliament". We support this request.

1   House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117 Back

2   Standing Order No. 152J Back

3   First Special Report of Session 2010-12, Provisional Approach: Session 2010-11, HC 334 Back

4   These were objectives originally set out in the Wright report: see HC (2008-09) 1117, para 181. Back

5   Email dated 22 December 2014 to Clerk of the Committee, published on the Committee's website. Back

6   HC Deb, 14 October 2010, cols 519-74; see government change of policy: HC Deb, 10 January 2011, cols 33-42 Back

7   HC Deb, 19 May 2011, cols 536-57 Back

8   HC Deb, 17 October 2011, cols 622-725 Back

9   HC Deb, 15 November 2011, cols 622-813 Back

10   HC Deb, 10 February 2011, cols 493-586 Back

11   HC Deb, 24 October 2011, cols 46-144 Back

12   HC Deb, 11 July 2013, cols 587-628 Back

13   Votes and Proceedings, 11 July 2013 Back

14   HC Deb, 17 January 2012, cols 622-722 Back

15   HC Deb, 23 October 2014, col 1114 Back

16   The debates were held on 14 October 2010 and 15 January 2015. Back

17   Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2013-14, Private Members' bills, HC 188-I and Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, Private Members' bills: Government response and revised proposals, HC 1171 Back

18   For example, standing orders changes recommended by the Standards and Privileges Committee, on 2 December 2010, and ones relating to sittings of the House, on 11 July 2012. Back

19   Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 elections for positions in the House, HC 1573, para 61 Back

20   Amendment to Standing Order No. 152J Back

21   Procedure Committee, HC (2012-13) 168, para 19 Back

22   Letter dated 23 June 2014 from Charles Walker MP to Natascha Engel MP, entitled "Minority party membership of the Backbench Business Committee", published on the Procedure Committee's website Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015