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Backbench Business Committee

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2012

I beg to move,

That Mr David Amess, Mr David Anderson, Bob Blackman, Jane Ellison, John Hemming, Mr Marcus Jones and Ian Mearns be members of the Backbench Business Committee.

I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, at this late hour and I apologise for delaying the House to debate the motion. I shall outline the factual position that has brought us to where we are this evening. The concept of the Backbench Business Committee emanated in the last Parliament from the Committee on Commons reform, commonly known as the Wright Committee. The Backbench Business Committee was created by Standing Orders made in the House on 15 June 2010.

The Committee has responsibility for scheduling debates on 35 days, at least 27 of which must take place in the Chamber. This represents a significant amount of parliamentary time in each Session to schedule debates on matters of genuine interest to Back Benchers—more than that afforded to Opposition parties. Before these reforms, Back Benchers had not been able to bring forward substantive motions regularly to the Floor of the House since the late 19th century.

On 12 March 2012 the House amended the way in which the Chair and other members of the Backbench Business Committee were elected, with the following effect: first, to ensure that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee will always be a member of the non-governing party; secondly, to bring minority parties into the fold by allowing the Backbench Business Committee to invite a Member from a party not represented on the Committee to participate in its proceedings; and thirdly, to amend the rules on electing members of the Backbench Business Committee to reflect exactly what happens now in other Select Committees.

There would be elections within the three major party groups, and it was the Members who emerged from these elections that the Committee of Selection, which I have the honour to chair, selected for membership of the Backbench Business Committee. That forms the basis of the motion on behalf of my Committee that we are debating now.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing the debate and the Leader of the House for facilitating it, albeit through gritted teeth. It also gives us an opportunity to congratulate all the Back-Bench Members who have been elected to serve on the Backbench Business Committee this Session. My purpose this evening is certainly not to criticise any of those elections, but to point out that they are elections for one year and that this time next year we will be electing not a Backbench Business Committee, but a House business committee, because the coalition agreement specifically states:

“A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”

We are already in the third year of the Parliament, so if a House business committee is not established before the next Queen’s Speech, the coalition agreement will not have been complied with. Given that the powers that be might think it much more convenient to start those new arrangements from the beginning of a new Session, I presume that arrangements will have to be made to ensure that the House business committee can start at the very beginning of the next Session and that we will not have the sort of delay we got this year between the Loyal Address and the Government’s response on what the business of the House would be.

Does my hon. Friend therefore assume that the formation of the House business committee in due course will automatically mean an end to the Backbench Business Committee? It could be that both could continue.

Perhaps that is possible, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The debate gives the Deputy Leader of the House the opportunity to confirm for the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers would say, that the commitment in the coalition agreement will be complied with, and when he gives that commitment perhaps he would also answer my hon. Friend’s question on whether there will be a House business committee and the Backbench Business Committee or just one covering both important subjects.

It would also be wrong if the Members present tonight did not pay tribute to the work of the Backbench Business Committee in the previous Session, which was a very long Session and the Committee’s inaugural one. Its members were effectively pioneers and I think that they served the interests of fellow Back Benchers with dedication and distinction. I would like to mention three Members in particular: my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They are not on the list of Members to be reappointed to the Committee, and I think that when hon. Members look back on its work over the previous Session they will realise what an enormous contribution those three hon. Members made.

In the previous Session the Backbench Business Committee ensured that Back-Bench debates, to a large extent, reflected the priorities of Back Benchers and our constituents, rather than those of the Government, which I think was a very refreshing change from our previous procedures. Notable highlights included the debates on prisoner voting and on the case for a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. It should be noted that both debates were on substantive motions on which the House was able to express a clear view. I think that the Government certainly found the expression of a view on prisoner voting helpful, although perhaps they did not find the expression of a view by 81 Conservative Back Benchers on an EU referendum quite so helpful. Nevertheless it was an opportunity for the Government to hear what Back Benchers thought on those subjects.

I would urge the new members of the Committee whom we will appoint tonight not to be intimidated by the Whips into always selecting for debate bland subjects that do not have substantive motions with teeth, because if we always did that, we would not be serving the best interests of Back Benchers and our constituents. I urge those Members to ensure that we have some substantive motions.

One of the best things about the Backbench Business Committee is that it includes votable motions, and Back Benchers should be able to table motions and have them debated and voted on to ensure that if the Government or, indeed, the Opposition of the day are going off kilter the temperature and viewpoint of the House can be taken.

I agree absolutely.

I raise this little subject because, immediately after the election and certainly on the Conservative side, one of those who was successful sent out a circular, saying that he would try to ensure that there were no motions on which we could vote on Thursdays. If the Government and the Whips decide that the only day to be allocated for Back-Bench business is going to be a Thursday, and Backbench Business Committee members throw in the towel early on and say, “We’re not going to have any substantive motions on which we can vote on Thursdays,” we will be in a rather sorry state of affairs, so I hope that those people who are on the Committee, and who may aspire to be on the House business committee in due course, realise that Back Benchers want some substantive motions. That does not mean every time—but quite often.

I should like to defend the idea that votable motions on a Thursday are not in the interests of Back Benchers, because the danger is that the Government will simply impose a one-line Whip and any vote held on a Thursday will be rather meaningless, as people will not attend in sufficient numbers. I believe that my wish to have a votable debate on the renewal of Trident has been shortlisted and is somewhere in the queue for future debate, and I hope that that votable debate, which would not be worth having if it were not votable, will be held on an evening other than a Thursday so that people are present and the temperature within and across parties can be measured accurately.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am with him all the way on his campaign to have a debate about that all-important issue of renewing our nuclear deterrent.

This coming year offers an opportunity for the Backbench Business Committee to work with the Government more closely on developing what will eventually become the House business committee, and that work must mean looking at opportunities for such debates and at fitting them in throughout the whole week, rather than thinking of them as something to be held on a Thursday. I hope that that is one thing the first-class Chairman of the Committee takes forward during this Session.

My hon. Friend will recall that, when it suited the Government, on the occasion of the debate about whether there should be a referendum on our membership of the European Union, the debate was moved from a Thursday to a Monday.

Exactly. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The debate was moved because the Government took the view that they had to get their Ministers and payroll involved in the vote, but I am not sure that that is the right approach for the Government to take. They should be quite prepared to say, “This is the view of Back Benchers, and we, the Government, will listen to the views of Back Benchers.” Back Benchers should vote on a substantive motion, and, if they agree on something that is not Government policy, the Government should not regard it as an issue of confidence in them; they should listen to what has been said. Up to now, one difficulty has been the Government’s interpretation of any motion by Back Benchers in Backbench Business Committee time as a potential attack on their integrity.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, since the debate and vote on holding a referendum on our membership of the EU, there has been some potential for change in the Government’s position? The Chancellor is talking about a vote on any reshaped relationship with the EU, and even yesterday we had a written ministerial statement entitled, “Post-EU Competitiveness Council”.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Such circumstances show that, although some of us may think that the Government do not listen enough, they certainly do sometimes, and we must be grateful for that. Indeed, we know that they have listened on prisoner voting. Then yesterday the Home Secretary came here and said that she wanted us to express a view on an important issue so that we could, in effect, try to influence the interpretation of the judges on article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Although the Government certainly did not enjoy the experience of the vote on a referendum on Europe, might they not, taking a broader view over time, come to reflect on the fact that Parliament as a whole was a definite gainer from that vote and that a lot more interest in, and respect for, Parliament resulted from it?

I am sure that that is absolutely right. We should accept that the Government have done Parliament and Back-Benchers a good turn in facilitating the work of the Backbench Business Committee. Nothing that I have said so far is intended to pour cold water on that radical reform of our procedures in this House.

My final point concerns the problems that are caused when there is a delay in setting up a Committee. Some Members were surprised when on 24 May, at column 1285 of Hansard, the Leader of the House announced that there would a debate on mental health and that the subject was “previously suggested” by the Backbench Business Committee. That debate is scheduled to take place this Thursday. The use of the word “suggested” contrasts strongly with the provisions of Standing Order No. 14(3D), which says that such business shall be “determined” by the Backbench Business Committee. It is a pity that the Leader of the House did not spell out that, notwithstanding that expression of intention, the debate would need to be confirmed by the Committee after it had been formed and was essentially only provisional business if it was to count as Back-Bench rather than Government business. Perhaps the Government will want the Committee to meet them tomorrow to give the green light to Thursday’s business being Back-Bench business—in effect, one of the 27 days allocated for Back-Bench business—rather than Government business on a Government motion.

That shows why some of us are rather sceptical about the Government’s use of words in what they put down on the Order Paper. I, for one, will be looking closely at how they prepare to deliver on their commitment in the coalition agreement to set up the House business committee in the third year—not the third Session—of this Parliament.

Let me once again put on record my tribute to the work already done by the Backbench Business Committee in the first Session, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said. We had some very good debates, including debates on Hillsborough and on wild animals in circuses, the resolution of which issue we still await.

Labour Members are happy with the process undertaken to elect the new Backbench Business Committee. The parliamentary Labour party has run its election to the Committee and is more than happy—in fact, proud—to put forward my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). I am sure that they will be fine members of this new institution as they join its wonderful Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who has shown real leadership in taking the Committee’s work forward.

As for the House business committee, Labour Members await with interest developments on that front. In particular, we will be looking to see whether we get U-turn No. 35, or perhaps No. 36, when we do not see the committee materialise over the next year or two. That would be one of the biggest U-turns of all, as this commitment goes straight back to the coalition agreement.

On what basis can the hon. Lady possibly suggest that the coalition agreement will be breached in that fundamental respect?

Perhaps we will see tomorrow one of the reasons why.

It remains for me to congratulate all those who have been elected. I hope that this Committee will be as successful as the previous one in the forthcoming Session.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing the motion on behalf of the Committee of Selection. As he rightly said, the sole purpose of the motion is to bring into effect the results of the ballots held in the respective parties to provide for the constitution of the Backbench Business Committee. One might imagine that that was a fairly straightforward process. One might imagine that having elected Members to the Committee, the House would wish for the Committee to undertake its work at the earliest opportunity.

The concern of some Members tonight is why it has taken so long to bring the motion forward. The House has been sitting for a number of weeks since the elections. People are concerned about why the Government have delayed the Backbench Business Committee in coming forward.

Uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong to say that there has been any delay. At the very first opportunity following the elections in the various party groups, the matter was put before the Committee of Selection, and the Committee of Selection took the very first opportunity to put it on the Order Paper. There was an objection, so we could not form the Committee. That is why we are debating the matter—again, at the very first opportunity that the House has had—to bring it into effect.

There has been absolutely no delay. Matters have proceeded as quickly as possible. That is why I was a little flabbergasted to find that we would have to have a debate. As I said, I would have thought that the House would have wanted the Committee to be constituted as quickly as possible. Of course, there are legitimate reasons why hon. Members might wish have wished to have a debate. They might have felt that there had been procedural irregularities in the elections. However, I have heard no arguments of that kind. Indeed, quite the reverse: I have heard Members congratulating the hon. Members who have been elected. I am glad that they seem to have the acclamation of the whole House.

On the constitution of the Backbench Business Committee, does my hon. Friend think that it is rather demeaning that the minor parties have only observer status, rather than full membership?

No, I do not think that it is remotely demeaning. It is the result of what the House decided just before the close of the last Session. The House has debated that matter and I do not intend to repeat the arguments.

Now, would the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) like to intervene?

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House, as always, for giving way graciously. Given that we have the opportunity of this debate, would he care to use it to reassure Back-Benchers that the Government have no intention whatsoever of trying to prevent votable motions from being debated on days other than Thursdays?

Whether the Government have any mechanism to do that is in the hands of the Backbench Business Committee, which was set up by this Government. Incidentally, it was not set up by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who was so concerned about the progress towards a House business committee that her Government would not allow a Backbench Business Committee of any kind. We set it up and are very proud of its progress over the past year. I am pleased that it has managed to do the work that it has done, and I look forward to it doing its work in the years ahead.

The hon. Gentleman wants to delay his own Adjournment debate. I am happy to allow him to intervene.

I have a very brief point. Sometimes, the Leader of the House is given a hard time about how things are with the Backbench Business Committee. However, is it not right to say that it was very much his brainchild to make it happen and to implement it? Should not the House recognise that he has fostered this major improvement in our parliamentary machinery, which the previous Government did nothing about?

I am perfectly happy to take credit on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for implementing what was clearly set out in the Wright Committee report. I thought it was a great shame that the report was not implemented by the previous Government, but it has been and will be by this Government. I commend the Wright Committee’s report to everybody who wants to see the way forward on some of the relevant issues.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who seems to misunderstand some elements of the Wright Committee’s report, would do well to revisit it. I will let him intervene and explain what I have got wrong.

Well, I do not think I have long enough to be able to do that in an intervention.

There have been references to a House business committee, to consider Government business, being established by the third year of this Parliament. Is that going to happen?

Again, I commend the Wright Committee report to the hon. Gentleman. He will find that he was simply wrong in some of the points that he made earlier about the Committee’s suggested structure for determining House business.

I move on to the last substantive point that needs to be made. The hon. Gentleman seemed to take exception to the fact that the Government had attempted to facilitate the Backbench Business Committee’s procedures for this week.

No, not for the moment. Let me explain what the Government have been attempting to do.

It seems that there is some objection to the fact that the Government have tried to help the Backbench Business Committee by providing the debate that it would normally have scheduled this Thursday. We are committed to the Backbench Business Committee having time for Back-Bench debates at an average of once a week, although not necessarily every week consecutively, and we have kept up that average.

We felt it imperative that we reserved time this week for a Backbench Business Committee debate. Did we pluck a subject out of the air for that debate? No, of course we did not. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House asked the Chair-elect of the Committee, who of course was its previous Chair and so has some experience, what she felt would be an appropriate subject for debate this Thursday prior to the Committee being formally instituted. She undertook to consult the new Committee’s members-elect to see whether they had views, and she took into account the requests that had come forward. She suggested that we might provisionally propose that there be a motion on mental health, tabled by Back-Bench Members and in the name of the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan).

The Government are now being criticised for providing at the earliest opportunity what members of the Backbench Business Committee wanted. We are told that we are wrong to have done that. I reject that criticism, which I think is frankly rather stupid. All that we have done throughout the process has been to say that we will do whatever we can to help the Committee in its work. Had the Committee been set up last night, it would have met today and agreed the subject for debate on Thursday. I have every confidence that the subject it would have chosen was the one that its members asked for. If the Government are to be criticised for helping the Committee and facilitating its setting-up at the earliest opportunity, I fail to understand what more we can do to assist Back-Bench Members. I believe that we have acted entirely properly.

I think the debate has now covered all the topics that could conceivably be relevant to the motion, and I hope that the House will now have the opportunity to move swiftly to a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.