2 Establishment and operation of the
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.
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".
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.
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. 
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:
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
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
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:
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
funding of the BBC World Service;
the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough Disaster;
and the freezing of fuel duty.
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
and to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.
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.
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".
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.".
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".
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,
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
Standing Order No. 152J Back
First Special Report of Session 2010-12, Provisional Approach:
Session 2010-11, HC 334 Back
These were objectives originally set out in the Wright report:
see HC (2008-09) 1117, para 181. Back
Email dated 22 December 2014 to Clerk of the Committee, published
on the Committee's website. Back
HC Deb, 14 October 2010, cols 519-74; see government change of
policy: HC Deb, 10 January 2011, cols 33-42 Back
HC Deb, 19 May 2011, cols 536-57 Back
HC Deb, 17 October 2011, cols 622-725 Back
HC Deb, 15 November 2011, cols 622-813 Back
HC Deb, 10 February 2011, cols 493-586 Back
HC Deb, 24 October 2011, cols 46-144 Back
HC Deb, 11 July 2013, cols 587-628 Back
Votes and Proceedings, 11 July 2013 Back
HC Deb, 17 January 2012, cols 622-722 Back
HC Deb, 23 October 2014, col 1114 Back
The debates were held on 14 October 2010 and 15 January 2015. Back
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
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
Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 elections for positions
in the House, HC 1573, para 61 Back
Amendment to Standing Order No. 152J Back
Procedure Committee, HC (2012-13) 168, para 19 Back
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