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Backbench Business Committee

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Newmark.)

It may be convenient for hon. Members if I remind them, before I call the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), that the Backbench Business Committee has recommended that the first debate should last no more than 20 minutes in total.

Until the Procedure Committee introduces a change in the Standing Orders, unfortunately, we are unable to make proper mini-statements, so I invite hon. Members to intervene on me and, hopefully, this will take us no longer than 20 minutes, so that the important business that follows can take place.

I want to mark the occasion of the Backbench Business Committee’s finishing its first session and launching the end-of-term report, part of which is designed to feed into the Procedure Committee’s investigation into how the Backbench Business Committee has operated over the past year and a half to two years. It is important to give hon. Members the opportunity to comment or give further suggestions about the Committee’s operation.

I place on the record my thanks, and that of most of my colleagues, to the hon. Lady for her hard work in a ground-breaking role. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I should also like to place on the record my thanks to members of her Committee.

I am not here to be an advocate, because as the hon. Lady has already identified, I, along with other Procedure Committee members, will have to be a judge in this matter, but I invite her to encourage as many colleagues as possible to let the Procedure Committee know what they would like to happen in future.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is important that Back Benchers participate in this review of the Backbench Business Committee, because it is their forum to amend, adjust and use as they see fit. The best way of doing so is by participating in the review that is taking place under the auspices of the Procedure Committee.

I echo the thanks of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) for the hon. Lady’s excellent work in chairing the Committee, on which I sit. I also sit on the Procedure Committee.

The Wright Committee report suggested that there was a role for parliamentary inquiries which could be created through motions tabled by the Backbench Business Committee. This has not happened so far, and in areas such as the reliability of evidence in family courts, it needs to be done. Have there been any discussions with Officers about how best the procedure may operate to do that?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman use the opportunity of the Procedure Committee’s investigating the operation of the Backbench Business Committee, because this is exactly the sort of thing the former could consider.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Wright Committee, which first suggested and recommended establishing a Backbench Business Committee. You served on that Committee, Mr Brady, as did the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. The Wright Committee’s setting up the Backbench Business Committee, which we voted on at the start of this Parliament, has led to one of the most significant cultural shifts in the way this place works—one that was pretty unimaginable, even in the Wright Committee. The new intake from 2010, which has grown up with the Backbench Business Committee, has made it their own.

I join others in paying tribute to the hon. Lady’s excellent chairmanship and for the way that the Committee has acted as one body throughout the Session.

On the new intake, I want to record my thanks, as a new Member of Parliament, for what I have learnt from being a Committee member. On behalf of lots of hon. Members in the 2010 intake, some of whom are gathering for the next debate, I should like to say that the Committee, and the debates organised by it, have offered them an opportunity to get really stuck into parliamentary life at a much earlier stage, and lead debates they might not otherwise have dreamt of leading for some years. Does the hon. Lady agree?

I agree, especially in respect of the new intake from 2010, who were unused to the way Parliament worked before and made no assumptions; they have made this Committee their own. The biggest difference I have identified between the previous Parliament and this one is that the Backbench Business Committee, as a forum for Back Benchers, has given them the opportunity to hold the Government to account properly and do the job of a Back Bencher much more effectively than in previous Parliaments. In large measure, that is thanks to the imaginative way that the 2010 intake, especially, has used the Backbench Business Committee.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and to her Committee for preparing this report. I, too, will be careful in my remarks, as a member of the Procedure Committee. She has made a pertinent point about the value of the Backbench Business Committee, particularly the opportunity it has provided to Back-Bench Members to raise matters that otherwise would never have seen the light of day, and which have attracted enormous interest throughout the country—no more so than last October’s debate on whether there should be a referendum on our relationship with Europe. Paragraph 51 of the Committee’s report shows that it attracted more than 500,000 viewers on the BBC Parliament channel and the internet. Is the hon. Lady aware of any other debate, scheduled by the Government, that attracted that level of attention?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that plug. Of course, it was he who came to the Backbench Business Committee with the suggestion for a debate on a referendum on the EU.

One of the most shocking events I encountered while chairing the Backbench Business Committee—I do not know whether other hon. Members felt the same—was the first time I ever heard a Conservative Member call a Labour Member his honourable friend.

I know; it was a shock to all of us. When hon. Members come to the Backbench Business Committee, they are, collectively, Back Benchers holding the Government to account. The event I mentioned was a mark of how dramatically things had changed.

On the debate on the EU referendum, although the Committee has not always selected subjects for debate that the Government have been entirely happy with, the Government have made the working of the Committee possible. Certainly, although not always entirely happy with what we have done, the business managers and the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the House have always co-operated.

One of my criticisms of the way that relationship has worked is that the allocation of time to the Committee has been entirely ad hoc and pretty random, which means that we have not been able to schedule ahead. That has caused us a real problem and some difficulties; it is quite unnecessary.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her chairmanship and on the way she is leading this debate. Despite the scheduling difficulties, is it not remarkable that 10 debates have attracted more than 50 Members? Three pre-recess Adjournment debates attracted more than 50; the fuel prices debate, 89; the high streets debate, 87; the EU referendum debate, 85; prisoner voting, 71; assisted suicide, 62; cycling, held in this Chamber, 56; and contaminated blood, 52. For those of us who were Members in the previous Parliament or the ones before, these are good attendances. We all know that Government debates have attracted just a handful of Members in the main Chamber.

I absolutely agree with that. When Back Benchers are given the responsibility to conduct time for themselves, they do so with added interest. If something is in people’s control, they participate in a completely different way. Also, certainly from the perspective of observers of Parliament, there is a slightly more chaotic atmosphere when Back-Bench business debates take place, as there is not the massive control that takes place on days in the control of the Government. That is important, because there has been the freedom to have debates that otherwise might not have taken place. That is a big difference between debates arranged by the Backbench Business Committee in this Parliament and previous debates.

My hon. Friend has always been noted as someone who sticks with her colleagues through thick and thin, so it is no surprise that she has been such a successful Chair of the Committee. She talks eloquently about the often cross-party nature of many of the Backbench Business Committee debates; that has been its main strength. Will she comment on the potential tension over e-petitions, given the culture of the new Committee and its often consensual nature?

My other criticism of the Backbench Business Committee is in dealing with e-petitions. Potentially, they are a mechanism for Parliament to have direct contact with our electorate—an opportunity that we do not often get between elections. They could work tremendously well in letting us know directly, in Parliament, what the electorate are thinking. Unless e-petitions are dealt with in a much better way, however, rather than having hundreds and thousands of people making contact with us through signing an e-petition, they could be disappointed by their contact with Parliament.

The Backbench Business Committee is not designed to deal with e-petitions. We are having to deal with the consequences, but unfortunately, we cannot do so ourselves. The Procedure Committee has made some good recommendations, and I hope we can deal with the problem immediately after the Queen’s Speech in the new Session, because it urgently needs our attention; otherwise all those who have signed e-petitions in good faith will be sorely disappointed. The longer we leave it, the more people will be disappointed. We should be able turn the problem round and make e-petitions work, so that people can have adequate and proper contact with us and not be disappointed. My hon. Friend’s point is an important one.

I do not want to take up too much time because I am conscious that this is a Back-Bench debate, but it might be helpful to put on the record that the Government remain proud to have facilitated the House in its decision to set up the Backbench Business Committee. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sorry that he could not be present today, but he is looking forward to giving evidence shortly to the Procedure Committee on all the matters in the report. He particularly wanted to make it clear that the Government will give special consideration to the points made by the hon. Lady in the Backbench Business Committee’s report about the flexible use of the allocation of time, to see whether that can be improved. I am sure the Procedure Committee will want to question the Leader of the House on that when he gives evidence.

I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention. The Backbench Business Committee is brand-new, and the Standing Orders that brought it into existence were basic—dealing with how many people were on the Committee, its complexion and the allocation of time—so we have made everything else up as we went along. In our provisional approach, right at the start, we made it clear that we would take a lot of risks and that we would fail in many areas. Without that failure, however, we would not have been able to learn the lessons.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the Committee and its wonderful work in making this Parliament come alive for Back Benchers. One of the voices absent from the Committee, however, is that of the smaller parties. One improvement would be for the Government to allow space on the Committee for representation from the smaller parties.

Again, that is an important point, and I tabled an amendment to the Government motion on the Backbench Business Committee to allow minority parties membership of the Committee. That is an important change that absolutely must happen to make it truly a Committee of Back Benchers. The Committee cannot exclude one group rather than another.

On that very point, the Procedure Committee is conscious of the discontent among some minority parties. We intend to take evidence on the issue, I believe from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).

Again, that is a helpful intervention; I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

I was talking about provisional approach that the Backbench Business Committee decided to take in its work. One of the most important decisions we took early on was to meet in public. That was not in the Standing Orders, but we were very aware that seven members and a Chair meeting in private almost one day per parliamentary week to decide which debates should be held would not be right. It was important for us to meet in public, to receive representations from our fellow Back Benchers and to be guided by what they brought to us, rather than by what we ourselves thought might be interesting debates. One of the Committee’s successes was to open it up to Back Benchers. That means we never have any idea what—if anything—will walk through the door, but it has added to the frisson of chairing and being a member of the Committee.

I add to the general paean of praise for what the hon. Lady has done. One of the predictable things walking through the door every year is the debates that some argue should be held in Government time: the defence debates. We used to have three such debates a year on predictable days, but now they are arranged by the Backbench Business Committee. Is that right, or would she rather they went back to the Government for them to arrange?

That is an important issue that I hope the Procedure Committee will look at in some detail. Part of the allocation of 35 days for the Backbench Business Committee comprises what were previously set-piece debates. Defence actually had even longer—five days—along with a number of other debates, such as on fisheries or EU Council matters. There are many such debates, but we decided that they should compete on merit with all the others brought to us each week, which has disappointed those who were used to having the five defence days or the Wales day debates, for example. We, as Back Benchers, collectively need to resolve the matter, through the Procedure Committee.

I wish to draw to a close now to allow the following Back-Bench debate to take place, but I want to say a big thank you to the original members of the Committee—there were two Labour members who were replaced after they were promoted, one to the Whips Office—and to the Clerks who have supported our work, without whom we could not have done it. On a personal note, I express my gratitude for being given the opportunity to chair the Committee, which is an innovation; it is very rare that something brand-new comes along in Parliament. To have been involved right at the beginning has been a tremendous privilege.

I hope my hon. Friend will consider standing for re-election, as Chair of the new Committee, and that the Government will ensure that the elections to the new Committee take place as soon as possible after the Queen’s Speech.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I absolutely share the hope that the Government and the Opposition will conduct those elections as soon as possible, so it can continue its work. Thank you very much, Mr Brady, for chairing this mini-statement. I look forward to giving evidence to the Procedure Committee on the operation of the Backbench Business Committee, and to a new Committee being set up in the near future after the Queen’s Speech. Thank you.