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Backbench Business Committee

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 3 March 2011

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on means for that Committee to receive representations from hon. Members. (43619)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House meets regularly with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to discuss a range of issues relating to Back-Bench business. My right hon. Friend and I have attended meetings of what he calls the Backbench Business Committee’s weekly salon. We have been impressed by the work of the Committee and the quality of presentations by hon. Members.

With all the non-legislative debates being transferred to the Backbench Business Committee, does the Deputy Leader of the House recognise that hon. Members will want to make representations for more parliamentary time to be allocated to Back-Bench business, particularly given its popularity since its introduction?

It is important that we get the right balance in the House between legislative business, which is the proper business of the House, and the debates that the Backbench Business Committee organises on behalf of the House. The Wright Committee made clear proposals on how we should allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee, which the Government have followed. The days have been transferred and I think that it is working extremely well.

I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on attending Tuesday’s Backbench Business Committee meeting. Will he make it clear to the House that the Committee can allocate only the time given to it by Her Majesty’s Government, and that the days on which Back-Bench business takes place are decided on entirely by him and the Leader of the House?

It is the business managers who allocate the days that are made available, but that is done within a framework by which the number of days is allocated according to a formula, as the hon. Gentleman knows and the House understands.

Further to that answer, the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that the 35 days allocated to Backbench Business Committee debates at the moment is a minimum number, so given the popularity of those debates, will he increase that number from 35 to many more?

At the moment, the hon. Lady’s Committee has 15 days of the allotted 35 days left, so we have not yet reached the allocation. There would not be a need for a change to Standing Orders to allocate more if it seemed appropriate to do so, but I stress again that for the system to work—I think it is working very well—we have to get the right balance between legislative time and time for other debates. We often hear calls for more time for Committee and Report stages of Bills, and we have to be aware that that takes time as well. If we restrict the number of days available for scrutiny of Bills, it restricts the opportunity for Back-Bench Members to have their say on legislation that is passing through the House.

Given the level of interest in Back-Bench business, does the Deputy Leader of the House think that the time has now come to allow Members to make representations in public by having questions to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on the Floor of the House? Does he agree that that would have two advantages? It would raise the Committee’s profile with the public, who may well have issues that they would like to see debated, and it would allow the Leader of the House to concentrate on requests for the use of Government time instead of having to refer many bids to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), as he does at present.

As I said earlier, the public sessions that the Committee holds are extremely effective. As I heard on Tuesday, when the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) was unfortunately not chairing the session—it was elegantly chaired by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—they give people the opportunity to expand on the case that they wish to put. We are going to move to having a Committee for all business of the House, and we will then need to consider seriously the arrangements for the business statement and how we deal with business sessions, to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to bid for time in an effective way.