Revisiting Rebuilding the House – The Backbench Business Committee

Background: The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

I am providing a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings, beginning with the section on Select Committees. This is the second installment, looking at Section 3 – The Backbench Business Committee.

Much as been written on this blog about the Backbench Business Committee, or BBCom as it has come to be known. It has also been the subject of a very thorough review by the Procedure Committee, the major findings of that report I summarised in this post. For those who are not familiar with the BBCom, it is the result of one of the main recommendations of the Wright Committee. It is a new committee established for the first time at the outset of the current parliament in June 2010 to organize debates on subjects brought forward by backbenchers. The Committee has 35 days allocated to it  per session during which it decides what will be debated. Most of those debates take place in the main Chamber, but some also take place in Westminster Hall.

The main conclusion of the Procedure Committee’s review was that the BBCom has been a success, and this view was echoed by most of the witnesses who testified before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:

Outside commentators, frontbenchers and backbenchers welcomed the opportunities provided by the Committee for Members to raise important subjects. (p. 16)

Based on witness testimony, the BBCom has:

  • provided a “key avenue” for Members to give voice to public concerns;
  • allowed debates to be held on subjects the Government would have preferred to ignore;
  • changed House culture by creating more solidarity among backbenchers across party lines;
  • helped to rebalance the relationship between the House and the Executive;
  • recovered for the House the possibility of changing Standing Orders through a Motion in Backbench Business Committee time;
  • provide time for select committee reports to be debated on the floor of the House.

The PCRC report did identify some areas of unfinished business. Notably, the Government has rejected a proposal put forward by the Procedure Committee to allocate more days to the BBCom in sessions of longer than a year. Some witnesses, notably Dr. Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit, called it “inappropriate” that decisions on what days are allocated to the BBCom are still the domain of the Executive. Another issue raised was that the Government regularly scheduled backbench business on Thursdays, when whipping is light, meaning attendance is lower. Consequently, the report recommends that:

The number of days allotted for backbench, Opposition and Private Members’ business should be regularised, and made proportional to the length of a session. The Backbench Business Committee should have more say over the scheduling of backbench business, meaning both the determination of the day of the week and of the length of the slot on that day. This change would require an amendment to Standing Order No. 14. (p. 19)

Several witnesses brought up the unilateral changes made by the Government to how BBCom members were elected and the method of election of the Chair of the committee. Originally, members were elected by the House as a whole, but the Government’s changes meant elections were now internal party elections, like those for other select committees. The rules governing the election of the Chair were changed to bar any Member from standing for the post if that Member’s party was represented in Government.

Again the issue of the representation of minority parties was raised. In the case of the BBCom, a representative of the minority parties in the House can sit on the Committee, but only as an observer. The PCRC report recommends:

A representative of the minority parties should have full membership of the Backbench Business Committee. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 152J. (p. 20)

 

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