On 28 February 2012, the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee declined an application to hold a debate on an e-petition calling on Parliament to drop the Government’s bill to reform the National Health Service (NHS). The e-petition had received over 100,000 signatures, and the request for a debate was brought to the Committee by Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.
The reasons why the debate was refused centred primarily on two important considerations: the bill had received, and would continue to receive, debate in Parliament, and the request for a debate on dropping the bill would be better suited to an Opposition day debate rather than a Backbench business debate.
As explained on the Backbench Business Committee website, the Committee selects topics for debate based in large part on the following criteria:
- topicality and timing
- why holding a debate is important
- the number of MPs who are likely to take part
- whether a debate has already been held or is likely to be arranged through other routes
One of the key questions raised at the Committee meeting was whether the issue of NHS reform would be debated if the Backbench Business Committee didn’t give it any time. The obvious answer was yes. The bill had already received debate in the House of Commons, having passed through first reading, second reading, committee stage and third reading, and was currently before the House of Lords. It would then be returned to the Commons so that it could consider the amendments proposed by the Lords. It is a general policy of the Backbench Business Committee that if a bill is currently being debated by the House, or going through Parliament, the Committee will not schedule debates on that bill.
The second major issue for the Committee was that among the many supporting MPs who’d signed the application for the debate on dropping the NHS bill, there were no MPs from the largest party in the Commons, the Conservative Party. There were a few signatures from Liberal Democrat MPs, but the support for the debate was largely from the ranks of the opposition. It is important to the Committee that matters brought forward as backbench business debates have cross-party support. Because of this, the Committee felt the debate would be better as an Opposition day debate. Opposition days are days allocated in the House of Commons in each session for the discussion of subjects chosen by the Opposition. Seventeen days are at the disposal of the leader of the largest opposition party to decide which topics are debated. Three days are also allocated to the other smaller opposition parties.
Another problem with the request was that Reynolds and Lucas were asking for a full day debate. The Backbench Business Committee had very little time left for scheduling debates before the spring break and the Queen’s Speech, and it felt that awarding a large block of time to a matter which was before the House and which had already been debated, and would be debated again, would simply mean that other issues important to backbenchers would not be brought forward for debate. The Committee felt that the request for a debate based on this particular e-petition was in essence a request for another second reading debate.
The main purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to schedule debates on matters of importance to backbench MPs which wouldn’t otherwise be brought forward for debate. A debate on this particular e-petition simply did not meet the Committee’s criteria.
You can watch the Committee meeting where the request was discussed here.