3 Subsequent developments and procedural
38. During the course of its first session-the unusually
long, two-year Session 2010-12-the Committee experimented with
a variety of new ideas, some of which have put down roots and
survived, some of which have not. In April 2012 the Committee
produced a report on its work during that session as a way of
consulting with Members about their views of the work and operation
of the Backbench Business Committee.
39. At the same time, the Procedure Committee had
been asked to review the work of the Backbench Business Committee
by the beginning of the second session of the Parliament.
40. The Procedure Committee published its report
on 22 November 2012.
It made several recommendations which were implemented by the
House in Standing Order changes on 2 December 2013. These were
as set out in the following paragraphs.
41. The Committee was given a formal power to "hear
representations from Members of the House in public".
This regularised the position whereby the Committee heard bids
for debates from Members in public and on the record, despite
having no formal power to take evidence. The new provision fell
short of a being a full power "to call for persons, papers
and records", to reflect the fact that the Backbench Business
Committee is not a select committee authorised to conduct inquiries
but has a more tightly specified role. The Procedure Committee
had noted "the widespread approval for the Committee's innovative
approach in hearing representations from Members pitching for
debating time in public, and we think that approach has proved
a courageous choice which has helped cement the Committee's reputation
42. A new Standing Order gave the Committee power
to allocate time for select committee statements, within
five sitting days of a report being published or an inquiry launched.
This, again, regularised a practice of the Committee, which had
previously provided time for this purpose under the guise of a
mini-debate (on a motion "That this House has considered
the publication of the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee,
etc."), with the committee chair having to make a speech
and take interventions by other Members. Under the new procedure,
the chair makes a statement and then takes questions, just like
a Minister making an oral statement in the House.
43. Another Procedure Committee recommendation was
implemented without any need for a formal decision by the House.
This related to adjournment debates in Westminster Hall.
The Procedure Committee recommended that responsibility for scheduling
one of the four 90-minutes adjournment debates each week be transferred
from the Speaker to the Backbench Business Committee, initially
on a trial basis. A trial was carried out from January to July
2014. The Committee has concluded that this is a useful addition
to the range of timetabling options at its disposal; but it has
not been possible to fill the slot every week (if not filled,
the fallback position is that the Speaker allocates it, as before,
from the weekly ballot conducted by his office), and we do not
seek responsibility for more than one such Westminster Hall debate
44. Two changes proposed by the Procedure Committee
were rejected by the House. One was to provide that the figure
of 35 days of backbench time which the Government was required
to provide per session should be increased by one day for each
week the House shall sit in a session in excess of a year.
The Backbench Business Committee did not seek this power, on the
grounds that it was not needed: the existing informal arrangements
for approving a pro-rata allocation of backbench days in an extended
session had proved successful, and in any case it was unlikely
that Parliament would ever see an extended session like 2010-12
45. The second proposed change to be rejected would
have conferred on the Committee a formal power to table business
motions to regulate the time for which it is responsible.
Such motions would not have been able to suspend the moment of
interruption, and would have been most likely to be used to set
a time-limit for debate on the first of two debates sharing the
same backbench time. This proposal was rejected by the House on
the grounds that the existing informal arrangements for managing
time in the Chamber allow flexibility to respond to events on
the day, such as ministerial statements or urgent questions, and
to take account of the balance of speakers in each debate. The
Committee also noted the Government's undertaking that it would
be responsive to any request from the Chair for the Government
to propose a business motion if the need for this were to arise.
It has always done so: for instance, on 8 September 2014 the Government
put forward a business motion, which was agreed to by the House,
guaranteeing two hours' debate on the backbench motion to set
up a Select Committee on the Governance of the House, scheduled
for 10 September.
46. The final recommendation in the Procedure Committee's
review was that "Standing Order No. 47 be amended to allow
the Speaker, where he sets a limit on speeches in debates on backbench
business, greater discretion than at present to apply and set
a suitable limit on frontbench speeches".
This recommendation has not been implemented. It was an attempt
to remedy a continuing problem. Often a disproportionate amount
of time in a backbench debate is taken up by frontbenchers. This
can lead to frustration when the debate is heavily subscribed
and the Chair imposes a tight limit on backbenchers. We support
the Procedure Committee's recommendation and hope that the House
will make the necessary change to protect backbenchers' time.
47. One significant change to the Standing Orders
governing the Backbench Business Committee was put forward by
the Government with no prior consultation with the Committee or
the Procedure Committee. This change, agreed to by the House on
12 March 2012, provided that the members of the Backbench Business
Committee would be elected, not by a secret ballot of the
whole House as hitherto, but by members of the political party
to which they belonged, "by whatever transparent and
democratic method they [the parties] choose".
The Government argued that this brought the Committee into line
with other select committees. However, the lack of prior consultation
by the Government on this change, and the way it pre-empted the
conclusions of the Procedure Committee's review of the Backbench
Business Committee, was against the spirit of the relationship
that had grown up between the Backbench Business Committee and
the Government. During the debate on this proposal, the Chair
of the Backbench Business Committee suggested that the Government
might withdraw it in order to allow a swift consideration of its
merits by the Procedure Committee.
However, the Government did not take up this suggestion. We continue
to regret this change and the way in which it was brought in.
23 Second Special Report of Session 2010-12, Work
of the Committee in Session 2010-12, HC 1926 Back
Second Report of Session 2012-13, Review of the Backbench Business
Committee, HC 168 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 24 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 51 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 54 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 28 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 61 Back
HC (2012-13) 168, para 64 (our underlining) Back
Votes and Proceedings, 12 March 2012 Back
HC Deb, 12 March 2012, col 50 Back