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


3  Subsequent developments and procedural changes

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.[23]

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.[24] 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 with backbenchers".[25]

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.[26] 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.[27] 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 per week.

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.[28] 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 again.

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.[29] 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".[30] 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".[31] 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.[32] 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

24   Second Report of Session 2012-13, Review of the Backbench Business Committee, HC 168 Back

25   HC (2012-13) 168, para 24 Back

26   HC (2012-13) 168, para 51 Back

27   HC (2012-13) 168, para 54 Back

28   HC (2012-13) 168, para 28 Back

29   HC (2012-13) 168, para 61 Back

30   HC (2012-13) 168, para 64 (our underlining) Back

31   Votes and Proceedings, 12 March 2012 Back

32   HC Deb, 12 March 2012, col 50 Back


 
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