A reader of this blog asked if the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee has been a success. This is a difficult question to answer because I am not certain how one would measure – or even define – success in this context.
For those unfamiliar with the Backbench Business Committee, this is a new Commons select committee created on 15 June 2010 through the adoption of a new standing order. The creation of such a committee had been proposed during the previous Parliament by the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons in its report of 12 November 2009.
The purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to schedule debates on 35 days during the current session. The House has decided that these days will be devoted to backbench business and that at least 27 of them will be debates in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, with the remainder to be taken in Westminster Hall. The Committee encourages suggestions for subjects suitable for debate from backbenchers (i.e., members who are not Ministers of the Crown or shadow ministers).
Why this is important/different
Prior to the creation of this committee, it was the government of the day which determined what items would be called for debate. This is exactly what happens in the Canadian House of Commons and provincial legislatures. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation, and hasn’t abated. There is time specifically allocated for the debate of non-government business, for example Opposition days and Private members’ public business, but this made up a fraction of the overall business of the House. While the Government can call any item on the Order paper, including motions and bills moved by backbenchers, it is government business that takes precedence and dominates the business of the House.
The Wright Committee determined that:
176. Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business, comprising Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements The rest of the business currently scheduled by Ministers—such as House domestic business, select committee reports and general and topical debates—is for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.
178. The scheduling of backbench business by backbenchers will require a means to decide what proposals for such business should be put to the House for its agreement. The obvious route is a committee of backbenchers elected by the House for that purpose. Such a committee’s task will not be an easy one. But it is in our view time for Members of the House, through a committee of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length. For example, the House must be enabled to decide whether to sacrifice or curtail or move to another forum one or more of the set piece debates to make space for other business.
179. This will reduce the current extent of Government control or influence over the Parliamentary agenda. But the matters “lost” to Government will be principally those in which it has no direct interest: for example, the timing and topics of general debates and discussion of select committee reports. Rather than Ministers seeking to prioritise the many demands for time that are presented by Members, this responsibility would be handed to a committee representative of the House as a whole.
180. We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole, with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House. To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government’s business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the protected days and/or time-slots [see below] available in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench business in the week immediately ahead.
Has the Committee been a success?
Again, I am not certain how one would ascertain whether or not the Committee has succeeded. It has scheduled and continues to schedule, debates that are of interest to backbench MPs. The very first debate centred on the issue of Ministers making major policy announcements outside of the House of Commons. Following that debate in July last year, the House invited the Procedure Committee to consider how the rules of the House could be changed or better used to ensure that Ministers made important announcements to Parliament first. The Committee was also asked to develop a protocol governing the release of information by Ministers. The Committee reported in February, and among its recommendations, it proposed that the House adopt a resolution setting out in broad terms the behaviour expected of Ministers and that any minister who breached that protocol should make a formal apology to the House, and at a time when the House is well-attended, such as prior to PMQs. In particularly serious cases, a motion of censure could be moved.
There have been slight glitches, most recently concerning e-petitions, as explained in this post. However, the Committee recently announced two upcoming debates on both the riots and the Hillsborough documents, which will take place on October 13 and 17.
The Committee has been a success in the sense that the business of the House is no longer completely controlled by the Government. This situation may improve further still because the Coalition Government maintains that it is committed to establishing a House business committee in 2013. A House Business Committee would be tasked with assembling a draft agenda to put to the House. According to the Wright Report, such a committee would be comprised of
representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest: backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The members of this committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders. We would expect the Leader and shadow Leaders of the House to be among these nominees. The House Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means [the Deputy Speaker], whose would have been elected by the House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind. 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.