Update on the House Business Committee

In a recent appearance before the UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Lansley admitted that:

the Coalition programme commitment to the establishment of the House Business Committee in the third year of Parliament will not be met. From my point of view it is not the abrogation of the commitment to pursue the principle of a House Business Committee, but what I am saying is we are now exercising a reality check and recognising that we are not in a place to do this yet.

Establishing a House Business Committee was one of the reforms proposed by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee (more commonly referred to as the Wright Committee) in its 2009 report, Rebuilding the House (PDF). The House Business Committee would assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion. The Wright Committee considered various models and favoured the following (see pages 59-62 of the report for complete details):

  1. There would be two committees, a House Business Committee and a Backbench Business Committee;
  2. The task of assembling a draft agenda of House business would be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised of representatives of all parts of the House: backbenchers, Government and Opposition;
  3. The members of the committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders;
  4. It would be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker);
  5. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

Lansley explained to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that it was the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, which occurred in June 2010, which complicated matters. Given that the Backbench Business Committee was something new, it was necessary first to understand “what the impact of the Backbench Business Committee is and how it works” and until that was clear, it wouldn’t have been practical to shape a House Business Committee.

Lansley studied the Scottish Parliament’s Parliamentary Bureau, which is their equivalent of a House Business Committee and noted that it was put in place in the expectation  that there would never be a single-party majority government in Scotland (because Scotland uses proportional representation to elect its MSPs). Because the Scottish Parliament would most likely end up with hung parliaments and coalition or single-party minority governments, there would be a need for some sort of mechanism to find a consensus to get business through the House. However, the last general election in Scotland resulted in (to most people’s surprise) a single-party majority government and the Parliamentary Bureau:

literally rubber stamps what has been decided beforehand, but not just Government business; it actually controls the backbench business. It has a substantial control in relation to the selection of Members for participation in debates. There is  a degree of control happening in the Scottish Parliament that would not be contemplated here.

Lansley added that the backbenchers in the UK House of Commons have far more autonomy than do their Scottish counterparts, and had they set up a House Business Committee as proposed by the Wright Committee,

it would have undermined the decisions made independently by the Backbench Business Committee by subjecting them to what is effectively another control, which the Whips of the main parties might be held to have control over.

(…)

The conclusion I have reached, and which I think is reflected in much of the evidence that has been given to you, including from those who were directly involved with the Wright Committee, is that as it was presented in the Wright Committee report the model of a House Business Committee is not practical and workable.

Lansley was asked by one member of the Committee if it would be accurate to say that there is a House Business Committee, but it is called “the usual channels”. Lansley agreed, saying that it was between the Whips, himself, the Shadow Leader and his opposite number in the House of Lords, and that they use the terminology “business managers”. When asked by the Chair if there wasn’t then a need for a House Business Committee as such because the business managers currently fulfill the objectives of a House Business Committee, Lansley replied:

I would not characterise it like that. There are a lot of conversations and discussions that take place between the parties through the usual channels and from my point of view, and indeed my opposite number in the House of Lords, on a basis of discussion with Members across the House, I try to establish where expectations in the House lie in business. That includes, for example, meetings with the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee and meeting the Chair of the Liaison Committee and so on. From that point of view, I see my role as achieving that, and sometimes I do not get it right and sometimes the Members have a bit of a go at me about it. Sometimes, like they did on the Crime and Courts Bill, they say, “Actually, you got it wrong.” We put forward a motion to the House and fortunately the alternative approach did not secure the majority.

In the end, Lansley indicated that the door is not shut on a future House Business Committee, but that “I am looking for further guidance, not least from the report of this Committee.”

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