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Amendment of Standing Orders

Volume 571: debated on Monday 2 December 2013

[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2012-13, Review of the Backbench Business Committee, HC 168, and the Government response, Session 2012-13, HC 978.]

Before I call Mr Charles Walker to move the first motion, I should inform the House that I have selected the amendments in the name of Mr Andrew Lansley and Mr Tom Brake. The motions will be debated together and the questions necessary to dispose of the amendments will be put at the end of the debate. To move the motion, I call the Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

I beg to move,

That:

(1) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) be amended in line 23, at the end, to add ‘and to hear representations from Members of the House in public’;

(2) Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) be amended in line 50, at the end, by adding the words ‘Provided that the figure of thirty-five days shall be increased by one day for each week the House shall sit in a session in excess of a year’;

(3) the following new Standing Order be made:

‘Allocation of time to backbench business

(1) Where proceedings to be taken as backbench business have been determined by the Backbench Business Committee in accordance with paragraph (8) of Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business), a motion may be made on behalf of that Committee at the commencement of those proceedings by the chair or another member of the committee allocating time to the proceedings; and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.

(2) A motion under paragraph (1)–

(a) shall be in the terms of a resolution of the Backbench Business Committee reported to the House in accordance with paragraph (9) of Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee);

(b) may not provide for any proceedings to be taken after the expiration of the time for opposed business other than the decisions on any questions necessary to dispose of the backbench business, such questions to include the questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved.

(c) may provide that Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the backbench business.’

(4) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) be amended in line 42, at the end, by adding the words:

‘(9) The Committee shall report to the House any resolution which it makes about the allocation of time to proceedings to be taken as backbench business on a day allotted under paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business), provided that such a resolution is agreed without a division.’

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:

That the following new Standing Order be made:

‘Select Committee Statements

(1) (a) On any day allotted for proceedings in the House on backbench business (and not being taken in the form of a half-day), or on any Thursday sitting in Westminster Hall other than one to which sub-paragraph (b) applies, the Backbench Business Committee may determine that a statement will be made on the publication of a select committee report or announcement of an inquiry.

(b) The Liaison Committee may determine that such a statement may be made in Westminster Hall on any day appointed under paragraph (15) of Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall).

(2) A statement on the publication of a select committee report or announcement of an inquiry–

(a) shall be made by the chair or another member of the select committee acting on its behalf;

(b) shall take place–

(i) in the House, after questions and any ministerial statements, or

(ii) in Westminster Hall, at the commencement of proceedings.

(3) A statement made under paragraph (1) above may not take place later than 5 sitting days after the day on which the report is published or inquiry announced.

(4) The Member making a statement may answer questions on it asked by Members called by the Chair, but no question shall be taken after the end of any period specified by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee in its determination.’.

The first of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations has been accepted by the Government—let us start on a positive note—as it is uncontentious and simply formalises the current practice of the Backbench Business Committee taking representations in public. I think all colleagues will agree that that fantastic occasion on Tuesday is well attended and extremely exciting. It portrays and presents Parliament at its absolute best. I know you share that view, Mr Speaker, if I may be so presumptuous as to involve you in this debate.

Our second suggestion does not meet with quite so much favour from the Government Front-Bench team—nor, I am sad to say, from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee—but I thought that for the sake of debate I would expand on the Procedure Committee’s view on this matter. I should say at this early stage that I do not want to keep colleagues here until the small hours of the morning, so it is unlikely that I will put this to the vote tonight. Perhaps I have shown my hand too early, but I know colleagues have important things to be getting on with in their offices.

This second suggestion, which is opposed by the Government, is to amend Standing Order No. 40, so that it allows for 35 days of backbench business per Session or, when the Session is longer, a pro rata increase of one day per each additional week. It is possible to imagine a scenario after the general election when the incoming Government—whether it be the current coalition, a Conservative Government or, dare I say it, possibly a Labour Government—might decide that their business agenda is so expansive that it requires two years to put it into place. The Procedure Committee thus thought it would be helpful—nay, necessary—for the number of days given by the Government to be commensurate with the additional number of weeks for which that first Parliament ran.

The Front-Benchers have assured me—these assurances are taken at face value by the Chairman of the Backbench Committee—that I need not worry about these things, and that if there were additional weeks and Parliament lasted for more than the standard 35 weeks in the year, the Government would find it within their favour to provide some additional days.

Do not the facts paint a very different picture? In the first part of this Parliament, when the first Session ran for two years, there were not the requisite number of days for the Backbench Business Committee as there should have been. These assurances, I would suggest, are completely worthless.

In an ideal world, the Standing Order would be amended to ensure—so that there was no wriggle room—that the additional days would be provided, but at this point I do not feel that the House is with me. This is an argument in gestation, and we need to allow it longer in the womb before it bursts forth in its full glory.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of our Procedure Committee. Does he agree that if the Government were to accept the motion—and I appreciate that they are reluctant to do so—there would be no reason for the Backbench Business Committee, in its present or a future incarnation, not to refuse to accept the extra day if it were offered, on a case-by-case basis?

The Backbench Business Committee is known for its independence of thought. I rather agree with my hon. Friend, who is a stalwart of the Procedure Committee and one of its leading lights. Once again, he has made an incisive contribution.

Because we do not have all night, I am now going to make a little progress. We also propose a new Standing Order—again, resisted by the Government—allowing the Backbench Business Committee to organise its own time through a motion proposed at the commencement of one of its days of business, regulating the business that follows. Such a change would enable the Committee to make provision for decisions on a series of motions and amendments to those motions to be taken together at the end of a debate, at the normal moment of interruption or before.

I shall canter through the next part of my speech. I shall have to read it, because it is quite complex, and I would not want to make a deliberate or unnecessary mistake. Let me give two examples in which that power might have been useful. In the case of recent debates on the sitting hours of the House, the need to take a complex series of votes before the usual time of interruption required the sacrifice of an hour and a half of debating time. The debate on assisted dying, which was scheduled to last an hour and a half, had to be voluntarily stopped 20 minutes early so that the first amendment could be put and voted on, in order to allow a second vote to be taken before the 7 pm deadline. The power might also provide for a timetable for decisions to be made on a series of separate motions at fixed points, or for a day simply to be divided between two or three debates. That would be entirely convenient to the House because it would make everything reasonably predictable.

In anticipation of resistance from the Government, the Committee has proposed a fairly formidable set of constraints on the use of the power, which I shall set out now. I can see that the House is waiting with bated breath to hear about this series of protections.

First, the decision to use the power must be a unanimous decision by the Committee, made, obviously, at a quorate meeting with due notice given. Secondly, the Committee— unlike the Government—is given no power to stretch a day, except in so far as Divisions might run past the normal moment of interruption. It cannot extend the length of a sitting on Thursday. Thirdly, and most importantly, the House would be free to disagree with any proposal made by the Committee at the start of the day to which it applied. The proposal would be put without debate, but could be divided on and defeated. If the House did not like it, the House could reject it.

So there is no possibility, in a perfect world—the world that I would like to see become a reality, although it is not going to become a reality tonight—of the Backbench Business Committee’s abusing its power to force the House to make unpalatable decisions in an unpalatable way. The whole Committee, and the whole House, must want the business to which this power might be applied to be conducted in a rational and predictable way. It is not applicable to anything other than Back-Bench business: it cannot affect Government business, Opposition business, or private Members’ Bills.

I appreciate that there is resistance to this. There are many here who feel that the Government, motivated by good will, would want to ensure whenever possible that the Backbench Business Committee was able to achieve its objectives, and that there would be helpful Whips supporting them in the process. This is where I diverge slightly from the view of my opposite number, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Backbench Business Committee. This is a point of principle and the—slow—direction of travel at the moment is for this House to take back more powers for itself. It was the case about 110 years ago that if the Government of the day wanted to transact their business in this place, they had to come and seek our permission. Over the past 110 years we have given up successive powers through Standing Orders so now we are in the position of begging the Government for time, or relying on the good will of Government to give us that time.

This is what I suggest: I am not going to press the House to a Division tonight, so the amendments put down by the Government will carry the day, but I am convinced that the day is coming—slowly—when this House will have the courage and desire to take back some of its own power and we will have the self-confidence not to rely on the Whips to transact our business for us on those days when it is our business. I accept that there will be Government days for business, and that is fine, but I think that on those days when there is Back-Bench business—those days when it is our business, when this place comes back to us—in a few years’ time we will have the self-confidence and courage to say, “Actually, we can handle our own affairs in a grown-up, mature and successful fashion.”

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee for giving way. Surely what we are talking about here is the House growing up and our being treated like grown-ups—being able to vote as well as debate? I therefore wonder why the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—who chairs it absolutely marvellously—is not going to press the House to a Division this evening.

I shall answer the hon. Lady in an honest way: quite frankly, I have been here since 10 o’clock this morning, and I have toured the Tea Rooms and I have toured the Library and all the other places where Members of Parliament work diligently through the day, and I do not feel that I have the support to carry the day, so it is better to live to take the fight to another day than to die on this day. I appreciate that that is a slightly over-dramatic statement of the position, but why not, because it is late and I have had far too much coffee?

I really now think it is time that I sat down and allowed others to participate in this important debate, because we have literally hundreds of colleagues here champing at the bit.

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who has made some very arcane points, which were more entertaining than I could ever have imagined them to be. My disagreements with him are about bringing more powers to the House and what we do with those powers, rather than in judging what he has tabled in all good spirit against the Government’s wishes. I thank him and the Procedure Committee, and the previous Chair of the Committee, who undertook the review of the Backbench Business Committee. The Committee had been in existence for only one Session when it was reviewed and was therefore very much in its infancy. The report recognised an important truth about the Committee: it is a Select Committee in name only, and completely different from any other Committee of the House in what it does.

When the Backbench Business Committee was established, it was governed by a very basic set of Standing Orders. They said how many members there should be and the party make-up. They also said how many days Government were to allocate to us, and that we could not table any motions that affected the workings of the Committee, which was perfectly sensible. That was it—the day-to-day working and functioning of the Committee were not mentioned in Standing Orders.

When we started, there was nothing to stop the eight members of the Backbench Business Committee meeting in private session and deciding for ourselves what would be debated by our colleagues on one day every parliamentary week. Therefore, the very first founding principles we established were to ensure that any debate we scheduled came from our colleagues—came from ideas from other Back Benchers—and that we met in public so that everything we decided was open and transparent. These were very important founding principles.

We set some other founding principles, together with our excellent first Clerk, Andrew Kennon, one of which was that the Backbench Business Committee should take as many risks as possible as soon as possible, in order to see what worked and what did not. One of the risks we took, when the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) was a member of the Committee, was a new way of doing pre-recess Adjournment debates. That got mixed reviews and we have chopped and changed that around, but one of the more successful innovations, which is mentioned on the Order Paper, was enabling Select Committee Chairs to launch their reports on the Floor of the House. Interestingly, that did not work in quite the way we wanted it to. They used to have to do it by taking interventions from Members, without being able to stand up like Ministers and take questions from the Floor. We felt that that really required a change to the Standing Orders, and we welcome the motion on the Order Paper today in the name of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who chairs the Liaison Committee.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s and the Government’s support for this change. It has involved some discussion and there is an element of compromise about it, but it will be a much better procedure that will enable a Chair to table a report within five days of the Committee issuing it, and to take questions, rather than going through the contrived process of interventions that we have now.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

We also wanted to keep to the principle of having as few rules as possible governing the Backbench Business Committee, in order to allow Back Benchers themselves to decide what they want to do within their own allocated time. Although we congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne on the paragraph in his motion that deals with allowing us to meet in public and to take representations from Members—as he said, it simply formalises current practice—we disagree with the points made in the following paragraphs. The honourable exception to that is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who is a member of both the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee, and supports these changes. We are concerned that these changes impose rigorous rules on us that might have negative consequences. We have enjoyed the freedom resulting from there being no rules governing what we could and could not do.

The first point on which we really disagreed was the allocating of our time pro rata. At the moment, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne said, the Backbench Business Committee is allocated 35 days a Session. As he also pointed out, the first Session stretched to almost two calendar years. We demanded, quite vocally, that the Government extend our allocation of time pro rata, and they did. There was a slight dispute over one or two days that the Government had scheduled before we came into existence, but broadly, the arrangement worked very well.

At the moment, the 35-day allocation is a minimum; the Government are perfectly free to allocate us more than that. My worry is that if pro rata-ing is imposed, there is nothing to say that this allocation will become a fixed amount of time. By the same token, if a Session is shorter than a calendar year, there is nothing to say that the Government could not then pro rata downwards. As the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I would not want that to happen. Given that the arrangement only happened because of the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, for which we were compensating, and given that we now have fixed-term Parliaments, it is highly unlikely that this situation will ever arise again. I just do not think it is worth taking the risk of an unforeseen consequence.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech, which I am listening to closely. Let us say there were a change of Government, and a Labour Government decided to do the same thing and have an initial Session over two calendar years, the then Leader of the House and the then Chief Whip might not be as amenable as the current ones, and if so, without the change to the Standing Order, her words would ring very hollow indeed.

The hon. Gentleman was present when we produced our first provisional report, and all I would say is that one of our founding principles was that we should consider changing rules as and when we found a problem. There was not a problem in that first Session. However, if there is a problem in the future, I will personally lead the charge to ensure that we change the rules in order to accommodate and rectify it.

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, but there was a problem. She had to get up on her feet every week during questions to the Leader of the House and beg for the Backbench Business Committee to be given time. In the end, that begging worked, but there was a problem and it was only her active intervention that solved it.

I would say that I was assertively, or even aggressively, demanding rather than begging. The Government eventually realised that they had no option but to pro rata the days, because there would have been uproar if they had not done so.

That brings me to my next point. As has been said, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) mentioned his debate on assisted dying in his submission to the Procedure Committee. A full day of debate was allocated. It was considerably longer than an hour and a half, but it is true that there would have been another 20 minutes of debate and that votes would have taken place at the end of the day. However, that problem was identified only in retrospect, so even if we had had the power to timetable a business motion, it would not have happened on that day.

I am concerned that the proposal could have unintended consequences. One of the things that I have witnessed working really well in Back-Bench debates is that, at the moment, Back Benchers control their own time by having flexibility. We are therefore able to respond to events such as urgent questions, statements and whatever else might happen in the House on the day. Unlike in debates in Government time, it is extraordinary how Back Benchers are aware and respectful of any subsequent debates and of the number of Members who have put their name down to speak. When time limits are imposed, Members take less time in order to allow others into the debate and to shorten the debate in order to allow the following debate enough time to be heard. We all know that, if we started to timetable our debates, that would no longer happen. When debates are timetabled, we fill that time. We go to the limit of the time that is permitted. That would take away something from the Backbench Business Committee that is working extremely well and that makes Back-Bench debates flexible.

The proposals could make the situation worse, which is why I oppose them. At the same time, I welcome the spirit in which the report was written and in which the motions were tabled by the Procedure Committee. I take nothing away from any of that. I ask the hon. Member for Broxbourne to leave the door open so that, if I am wrong and there are problems of this nature in the future, we will be able to return to the Procedure Committee and ask it to table motions for us to help us out. I would appreciate that enormously. I am glad that he has said he will not press these matters to a vote today, because our two Committees work very well together to represent the best interests of the wide variety of Back Benchers in this House. I am therefore grateful that he has taken such a conciliatory attitude this evening.

I am in the unusual position of having divided loyalties, being a member of the Procedure Committee and of the Backbench Business Committee. In this instance, however, I support the Procedure Committee, because I wish to see more power for Parliament and less for the Executive.

I do not think that the question of the number of days per year is a massive issue of principle. If a Parliament were to have a forced caesarean, which none of us would want to see, rather than its normal gestation period, a reduction in the number of days would not be a big issue. It is entirely reasonable to have a system in Standing Orders that means that if Parliament goes on for a longer period, there is no need to come to say, “We need more time” and it is automatically delivered. That is a fair way of working. It is not a big issue of principle.

The second matter involves more of an issue of principle. The point is simple: why do only the Executive have the power to timetable Parliament and Parliament cannot timetable itself? Let us consider the changes that have happened since the Wright report. The first change meant that the Backbench Business Committee was accountable not to Parliament as a whole, but to the political groups—again, that increased the power of the Executive. Our proposal is to give the Backbench Business Committee a power—if it does not work, it does not have to be used—that is currently held only by the Executive. That is an important step forward, and it would give Parliament a power that it currently does not have.

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he not struck by the argument put forward by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) a moment ago—if there is a timetable and a time by which the debate must end, that will become not the terminus ad quem, but something towards which we work? We will fill the time up to that point. She made a particularly good point.

The hon. Lady made a good point if we exercise the power. The idea is not that every debate should be timetabled; it is that the Committee should have this power. Her argument was that perhaps that power might be needed in the future, but we could give the Committee that power to use if it sees fit. Instead she recommends that the discretion should not be there. In the interests of democracy and of increasing the power of the representatives of the people—Parliament—and reducing the power of the Executive, that power should be given to the Committee and not just limited to the Executive.

That was not quite what I said. I said that if we were given the power, Members would demand it. I am worried that if we are given the power, that is what Members will constantly want and then the time will become filled to the timetable rather than by what is needed.

Members will only want it if they see a need for it. The Committee will have discretion over whether to give that power. As I said, this issue comes down to where someone sees the power resting between the Executive and the legislature. My view is that democracy is important and that we should give power to the legislature.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), on the way in which he opened this debate, and the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), on the way in which she responded.

If any Members present are regretting this debate taking place, they have only themselves to blame, because the House in its order of 26 November said that this motion should be debated for 90 minutes at the close of play today. Members should have objected to that at the time if they disagreed. The Chairman of the Procedure Committee says that he will not press the motion to a vote, so does he intend to withdraw it rather than just concede defeat to the Government amendments?

My hon. Friend has identified my own weaknesses in matters of procedure. My understanding is that I will allow the Government amendments to go forward unchallenged, because Mr Speaker’s intention was to put the amendments to the House. If I am wrong about that, I apologise, and my hon. Friend has exposed me as a charlatan and a fraud as Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to refer even to himself, who is by virtue an honourable Member, as a charlatan and a fraud?

I know for a certain fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne is not a charlatan and a fraud. I very much hope that he withdraws his motion, because then the Government amendments could not be passed.

The hon. Gentleman made the point just before accepting my intervention: if the motion is withdrawn, the Government amendments cannot be passed. However, then we would not have any changes at all. It is a question for the House as to whether the House divides; it is not a question for the Chairman of a particular Committee.

I strongly encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne to withdraw his motion at the appropriate point and to come back to this matter on another day.

As I understand it, Mr Speaker, for a motion to be withdrawn, it requires the consent of the whole House, and one Member opposing it can stop that withdrawal taking place. It is too late for my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to withdraw his motion.

The hon. Gentleman’s understanding is correct. The motion is now owned by the House, and withdrawal of it would require the assent of the House. It cannot be summarily withdrawn.

In that case, I encourage my hon. Friend to seek the leave of the House to withdraw the motion. I gently say to him and to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire that if ever the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee come to the Floor of the House divided on an issue, they are effectively allowing the Executive to walk all over both of them, which is a great shame as far as the whole House is concerned.

I disagree with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire about her worries over the 35 days. I simply do not trust the Executive, whoever they might be, to honour their commitment to give 35 days to the Backbench Business Committee. There might be all sorts of excuses that a re-elected coalition Government, a majority Conservative Government or indeed a Labour Government might give to the House about not sticking to that ruling. In a Session longer than a calendar year, it would be very tempting, especially for an incoming Government, to seek not to give a pro rata adjustment to the Backbench Business Committee’s allocation of time.

We have not spoken very much about the Select Committee statements motion, but I have some concerns about how it has been drafted. It says in paragraph (1)(a) of the proposed Standing Order that

“the Backbench Business Committee may determine that a statement will be made on the publication of a select committee report or announcement of an inquiry.”

It does not make it clear that the Committee would do that only in response to a request from the relevant Select Committee. As I read that proposed Standing Order, the Backbench Business Committee could force a Select Committee to make a statement on the publication of one of its reports. I am sure that that is not the intention of the Backbench Business Committee for all the reasons that the hon. Lady outlined about its not seeking to become more powerful than it should be, but the way that the motion is drafted would give the Backbench Business Committee the power to do that, although I am sure it is not requesting it.

In paragraph (4) of the Select Committee statements motion, it says, in relation to the time given to such a statement, that

“no question”—

on the statement—

“shall be taken after the end of any period specified by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee in its determination.”

I do not agree with that, Mr Speaker. When we have statements on the Floor of the House from Ministers, you, through your wisdom, decide how long that statement should run, and you do that by seeing how many Members of the House are standing to ask questions. Sometimes those statement do not include all the Members who want to ask questions; sometimes they run for a very long time indeed. The point is that the allocation of time is not specified beforehand. It is in your wisdom and at your discretion how long a statement should last. If, under the proposed procedure, the Backbench Business Committee allows a statement on a Select Committee publication to take place, either in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall, it should be up to Mr Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or the Chairman in Westminster Hall to decide how long that statement should run depending on the level of interest in it shown by those Members who are standing to ask questions. I am disappointed in the rather sloppy wording of the Select Committee statements motion. The point about how long statements should run has been missed, and I am very worried that if we have an extended Session of Parliament the Government will not necessarily provide the pro rata entitlement to the Backbench Business Committee that this House would like.

I do not intend to go through the motions again, because the House has already heard about them in detail, but I want to place on record that it was not the intention of the Procedure Committee to fall out in any way with the Backbench Business Committee. If the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) does not mind my saying so, we were only trying to be helpful. In many ways, it is a sadness and a disappointment that our attempt to be helpful has resulted in a debate that might appear to an onlooker to be a dispute between the two Committees. That certainly was not the intention of the Procedure Committee and, to be fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), I am sure that with his two hats on he would have made it clear if he thought that we were going down the wrong track. These are permissive powers, but I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady's arguments and they have some merit. If at any point in the future the hon. Lady and her Committee feel that the Procedure Committee can be helpful by introducing some changes, I for one would be amenable to suggesting that we gave that request careful consideration.

I have just listened carefully to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and to his concerns about the proposed new Standing Order on Select Committee statements. I am inclined to agree that paragraph (1)(a) suggests that the Backbench Business Committee would have the authority to demand a statement and I wonder whether, even at this late stage, we might receive from the Leader of the House an oral clarification or even a manuscript amendment with which the whole House could agree that would put the words “if requested” after the words “may determine” in line 4. That might deal with that concern.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering raised a concern about paragraph (4), which states:

“The Member making a statement may answer questions on it asked by Members called by the Chair, but no question shall be taken after the end of any period specified by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee in its determination.”

When I read that the first time, I wondered whether it meant that there would be no vote on the statement as no question would be put to the House. I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend that hon. Members on both sides of the House would expect that the sensible convention that has grown up under your chairmanship and since I have been a Member of this House, Mr Speaker, that as many Members as possible given the circumstances are allowed to question a Minister—or, in this case, the Chairman of a Select Committee—after a statement has been made should continue if at all possible.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, who have tabled these motions. I thoroughly support the changes to the arrangements for Select Committee statements in this House and in Westminster Hall. They will be much more practical, there will be much more discipline and flexibility and Select Committees will be able to make far more statements about the reports we produce, which can only be good for the profile of Select Committees and for understanding in the House of the work that Select Committees do.

On the other matter before us, it pains me that the most reasonable and sensible proposals that are brought forward—for example, on the House’s ability to manage its time in its own way—are still rejected by the Government. I will be very interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House says about that. When it comes to any proposal that started with the Wright Committee, getting people to accept reform has been like pulling teeth. We have come so far from the days when the House really controlled its own time.

The principle of the Wright Committee was that the Government are entitled to be able to obtain their business. I do not know why the Government have to micro-manage the time of the House to such an extent when there is no threat to their ability to obtain their business. So capable are modern Governments of obtaining their business that the House sits shorter days than at any time since before the first world war. The idea that the House sits for too many hours, or too late into the night, or that debates go on for too long, is an absolute travesty. We now have so many timed and curtailed debates, and so many truncated speeches. [Interruption.] I make no apology for provoking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House into pointing at the clock, because it is rare for us to debate something that is important to the House, rather than the Government.

The authors of the Government amendments are standing against the tide of history. The British people want the House to have more, not less, power. They want more, not less, accountability. This is a tiny change to enable the House to ensure that things are debated in good time and in good order. I am interested to know the arguments against the proposals, which were unanimously supported by the Procedure Committee. I rather suspect that on both Front Benches, there is something of a reflex action against the Backbench Business Committee obtaining more discretion and influence over the way in which the House is run.

Does my hon. Friend feel that this evening’s activities bode well for the oft-promised introduction of a House business Committee?

I suspect that if I moved on to the question of the introduction of a House business Committee, Mr Speaker, you might begin to twitch and suggest that I was straying beyond the remit of the motions before us. I see absolutely no sign that the Government will fulfil their commitment, written into the coalition agreement, that after three years, a House business Committee would be established. Perhaps the Front Benchers could say today when they plan to table motions to do that.

It is worth reminding hon. Members that we in this House have no power to lay a motion before the House to change Standing Orders. We are entirely dependent on the Front Benchers’ beneficence in tabling motions to make such changes. That power was lost much more recently than people imagine; I cannot remember the exact date, but it was long after the beginning of the timetabling of business at the time of the Home Rule debates in the 19th century.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Indeed, item 21 in today’s Order Paper is a helpful list of adjournment dates for the House going all the way through to the end of 2014, but it is an item about which there is no debate allowed whatever. It has been put on the Order Paper by the Executive, and the House is not even allowed to debate it.

I have some sympathy with the idea that we do not debate everything that is on the Order Paper, because there is so much on a modern Order Paper that we would be here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if we did. However, it should be for this House to decide what is debated and what is important. It should not be stitched up between the two Front-Bench teams, or laid down by the Government of the day. We respect and fully understand the principle that any Government must be able to obtain their business, but the ability to manipulate the Order Paper in their interests is surely not right for a modern Parliament in a modern democracy in which people expect more accountability and more debate on important matters.

Finally, I counsel my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, in whose name the motion stands, that he would be well within his rights to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion. The Backbench Business Committee will continue to sit in public regardless of whether or not a Standing Order requires it to do so. This exercise has therefore become rather otiose, because of the Government’s amendments. If he begs to ask leave to withdraw the motion, I think that he will be making the point that the Government have made this exercise rather pointless.

I rise to support the motion on Select Committee statements and to offer our support to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), in relation to the amendments to the motion that was tabled by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), which stand in the names of the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House.

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Broxbourne for opening the debate and explaining his thinking behind the motion. He is a treasured Member of the House and a staunch defender of Back-Bench Members’ rights. He is deeply respected by all Members. On this occasion, however, I am afraid that, despite his erudite explanation of the rationale behind his amendments, we are unable to support them in their entirety, for reasons I will lay before the House shortly.

Before that, I want to acknowledge the Backbench Business Committee, an innovation that arose from the Wright Committee reforms, which has enjoyed a great deal of success since its initiation in 2010. That success has been in no small part due to the tireless work of its Chair and her open-minded approach to the selection of topics to be debated.

Another success of the Wright reforms has been the election of members of Select Committees and their Chairs. There is no doubt that the work of Select Committees has been given more credibility as a consequence of those reforms. How often now do we see the broadcast media giving priority to the coverage of Select Committee hearings? Who can doubt that the Public Accounts Committee, under the steely leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), is now seen as a really effective way of holding public services to account for the resources they spend on our behalf.

The changes to Standing Orders recommended in the motion are the next logical step in the process of improving the workings of the House and raising further the profile of the work of our Select Committees. There is no doubt that the present system of allowing Select Committee Chairs to make a statement to the House is cumbersome and that the proposed change to the Standing Orders will make it easier for Members of the House to draw out areas of interest in a Select Committee report by asking the relevant question, rather than by having to intervene. Interventions are good for the cut and thrust of a full-blooded debate, but in our view they are not the most appropriate mechanism for handling what is in effect a statement to the House by a Select Committee.

The proposed new Standing Order will also give the Backbench Business Committee discretion in allocating a specified period of time for a Select Committee statement. The same discretion will be made available to the Liaison Committee in relation to debates in Westminster Hall.

With regard to the amendments to the motion relating to Back-Bench business, we support the first change proposed by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, which would give the Backbench Business Committee the formal power to hear representations from Members of the House in public. My understanding is that that has become the norm. Indeed, I have been present when Members have made representations. I know, because I have seen it myself, that it really works, in the sense that it reflects entirely the slow but welcome progress to ever-greater transparency in this place. It would therefore be helpful to see that practice written into Standing Orders. However, we join the Chair of the Committee and the Leader of the House in opposing a formal writing into Standing Orders of the principle of extending the number of days made available for Back-Bench business when the parliamentary Session extends beyond the usual year. This did not prove to be an issue in the first Session of this Parliament, which went on for what seemed like an almost interminable two years. We agree that that is unlikely to occur again given the legislation on fixed-term Parliaments that is now on the statute book.

We disagree with the part of the motion that would give the Backbench Business Committee the power to table business motions governing Back-Bench business days. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee believes that it is important that it should not have the power to table programme motions. Back-Bench business days have always been more flexible and the time has generally been split on the day depending on the number of speakers for debates. This means that Members regulate themselves and almost always have respectful regard for subsequent debates. Her fear, as she clearly articulated, is that if the Committee were to start programming, debates would fill the space they are allocated rather than the space they need.

Does the hon. Lady appreciate the dichotomy in her argument in that she is in favour of flexibility with regard to debates on the Floor of the House but not with regard to how long statements should run in Back-Bench time?

The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee pointed out that for the greater part of the time Back-Bench business works on a consensual basis. I think she would want that spirit to be reflected in future arrangements rather than having written into Standing Orders a procedure that is unwieldy and may, in effect, start to distort the nature of the business that takes place on these days, which are typically sitting Thursdays.

We agree with this way of continuing Back-Bench business and encourage Members of the House to support the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and the amendments. Of course, it is up to right hon. and hon. Members to make up their own minds on these changes, but I hope they can be guided by the Committee on these important matters. I am pleased that the Chair of the Procedure Committee has acquiesced in that view. On that basis, I hope that the House will agree to allow the amendments to stand.

I rise to speak on behalf of the Government in support of the motion relating to Select Committee statements and to speak to the motion on Back-Bench business moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), to which I will wish to move the amendments standing in my name and that of the Leader of the House. I thank him for opening the debate as he did and for clearly setting out the effect of and the thinking behind his motion and for explaining that his moment has not come as the Tea Room was deathly silent in pledging support for it.

I agree with the first paragraph of the motion on providing the Backbench Business Committee with the formal power to hear representations from Members of the House in public. As my hon. Friend explained, this merely brings Standing Orders into line with the Committee’s existing practice. As a regular attender of its public meetings, I can say that they work very well. It is a real advance in this House for Back-Bench Members to be able to bid directly and openly for time to debate subjects of their choosing.

Turning to the rest of the motion, the House will be aware from the Backbench Business Committee’s evidence to the Procedure Committee and the Government’s response to that Committee’s report that we both oppose the proposals for a pro-rata increase in the number of days allocated to the Backbench Business Committee in a parliamentary Session lasting longer than a calendar year and for the Committee to have the power to table business motions. We have tabled amendments to remove these provisions, in support of the Committee’s stated views.

I listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the Chair of the Procedure Committee. While I understand the rationale behind the proposals, I do not believe that either is necessary. The first arose partly as a result of the unusually long first Session of this Parliament. We have now passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which ties us, other than in exceptional circumstances, to five-year Parliaments with an election in early May. As a result, a spring-to-spring one-year Session should be the norm, and I do not expect a repeat of the two year Session. If there is one—one can never rule it out—or if a Session extends slightly beyond one year, I assure the House that business managers will take account of the interests of the Backbench Business Committee and the House to ensure a balanced spread of business.

In fact, that is what happened during that long first Session. The Government did not seek to stick to the Standing Order requirement of 35 days, but allocated the Backbench Business Committee 58 days, which was—contrary to the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)—well above what a simple pro rata increase would have delivered. Members may recall that it took several weeks at the start of the Session for the Backbench Business Committee to become established, during which time the Government provided time for debates that would otherwise have come from their allocation. That demonstrates, as the Chair of the Committee has said, that an element of flexibility is helpful to the House in the unlikely event of future long Sessions.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne will be able to accept those arguments and the Government amendment. Indeed, he has indicated as much. Should it come to a vote—although I understand that that will not be the case—I hope the House will support our position and that of the Backbench Business Committee and vote in favour of amendment (a), to leave out paragraph (2) of the motion.

On amendment (b) and business motions, I understand the case made by my hon. Friend but, again, the Government do not believe it is necessary to provide the Backbench Business Committee with the power to table business motions governing Back-Bench business days. There is already flexibility for the Committee to indicate on the Order Paper the amount of time it expects each debate to take. In these circumstances, as the Committee Chair has said, Members are generally very good at exercising restraint when necessary and respecting the interests of others wishing to speak in subsequent debates. The occupant of the Speaker’s Chair is also able to encourage Members to lengthen or shorten their speeches or even to impose formal time limits, having regard to the interest shown by Members in contributing to debates. That arrangement has worked very well. It provides maximum discretion for the Backbench Business Committee to organise the business as it sees fit and avoids the rigidity of a business motion.

The House may recall that there have been occasions nearer the start of the Parliament when the Government have provided a business motion at the request of the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee. It is also true that this Government have never refused a request for a business motion from either Committee. Furthermore, I can assure the House that we will continue to respond positively to similar requests from both Committees in the future.

Has not my right hon. Friend defeated his own argument? If that is always going to be the case, why not let the Backbench Business Committee table the motions itself instead of having to ask his permission? Why does the Backbench Business Committee need to ask the Government’s permission for a business motion?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has heard from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee why she is not seeking that power. The risk is that if it were available, Members would start to exercise it, which would do away with the flexibility she has said is such an advantage to the Committee.

The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee has already said in evidence to the inquiry that she does not think the power is necessary and she cannot see the problem. I agree with her. Again, I hope that, given my assurances and the views of the Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne will accept the Government’s amendment—for the moment at least—until things move further and more quickly in the direction he seeks.

I will now turn to Select Committee launches and the motion standing in my name and those of the Leader of the House and the Chairs of the Liaison and the Backbench Business Committees. The motion provides for a new Standing Order governing the procedure relating to Select Committee statements. The Procedure Committee, in its second report of Session 2012-13, supported a new Standing Order for that purpose, an idea proposed by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip when he was Leader of the House. I am sure he will be pleased that his good ideas continue to come to fruition.

Before briefly describing the effect of the motion, I would like to add that it has been tabled on the basis of much negotiation and discussion. I am grateful to the Chairs of the Liaison and the Backbench Business Committees for adding their names to the motion, signifying the degree of consensus achieved on it.

The Government agree that the present procedure, under which Members may contribute to the short debate by way of intervention only, is rather cumbersome. The launch of a Select Committee inquiry or report is more akin to a ministerial statement than a debate. It therefore makes sense for Members to be able to ask questions of the Member making the statement, rather than by seeking to intervene during a single speech. That will prove a more natural and convenient way of proceeding.

The proposed new Standing Order gives the Backbench Business Committee full discretion in allocating a specified amount of time to Select Committee statements, which can be set down on any of its allocated days. The Liaison Committee will enjoy a similar discretion in respect of its allocated days in Westminster Hall.

I want to respond to two points made by the hon. Member for Kettering. First, I want to reassure him that paragraph (1)(a) assumes that an application has been made by a Select Committee to the Backbench Business Committee for a statement, so the Backbench Business Committee cannot require one. I hope that he is reassured that the Backbench Business Committee will not force Select Committees to make statements that they do not intend to make.

Secondly, Select Committee launches can last any period determined by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee, but they are not obliged to specify a time, and if they do not do so, the launch would be open-ended, and there would not be the constraining mechanism about which the hon. Gentleman expressed concern.

It is important that the House remains able to respond rapidly to new developments so as to be at the centre of political debate. That is why I believe that any Select Committee statements should be made no later than five sitting days after the day on which the report is published or inquiry announced, as provided in the Standing Order. I encourage Select Committees, wherever possible, to continue the current practice of launching reports on the day of publication.

The Select Committee statement provides Select Committees with an excellent opportunity to publicise their work either by launching their inquiries—that practice has found favour in the Scottish Parliament, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House found when he visited—or by explaining the contents of their reports to the House.

So far, 13 Committees have made a total of 14 statements. Committees now have the chance to ensure that their work becomes a staple feature of Back-Bench business, although they will have to compete with many other demands for time. No doubt Committees will wish to review how the new arrangements work in due course.

I hope that the House will find that the new Standing Order provides an improved procedure for this innovation. I welcome the support of the deputy shadow Leader of the House and that of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on a common position with the Government on these issues this evening. I hope that the House will support that motion when I move it.

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I have learned a lot of procedure during its course, and it is good to know that, no matter how inexperienced we are, we can always become more experienced by listening to the wisdom of colleagues. If this is possible and acceptable to the House, I would ask to withdraw the motion on Back-Bench business—I understand that that is acceptable to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee—while of course leaving the motion on Select Committee statements alone. I have nothing further to add, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Permission has been refused. [Interruption.] One objection alone suffices, although I think I heard more than one. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has been gesticulating as to the source of the objection, but that is not a matter of order for the Chair. We now come to the amendments to the motion, which remains the property of the House.

Amendments made: (a), leave out paragraph (2).

Amendment (b), leave out paragraphs (3) and (4).—(Tom Brake.)

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That:

(1) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) be amended in line 23, at the end, to add ‘and to hear representations from Members of the House in public’.

Select committee Statements

Ordered,

That the following new Standing Order be made:

‘Select Committee Statements

(1) (a) On any day allotted for proceedings in the House on backbench business (and not being taken in the form of a half-day), or on any Thursday sitting in Westminster Hall other than one to which sub-paragraph (b) applies, the Backbench Business Committee may determine that a statement will be made on the publication of a select committee report or announcement of an inquiry.

(b) The Liaison Committee may determine that such a statement may be made in Westminster Hall on any day appointed under paragraph (15) of Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall).

(2) A statement on the publication of a select committee report or announcement of an inquiry–

(a) shall be made by the chair or another member of the select committee acting on

its behalf;

(b) shall take place–

(i) in the House, after questions and any ministerial statements, or

(ii) in Westminster Hall, at the commencement of proceedings.

(3) A statement made under paragraph (1) above may not take place later than 5 sitting days after the day on which the report is published or inquiry announced.

(4) The Member making a statement may answer questions on it asked by Members called by the Chair, but no question shall be taken after the end of any period specified by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee in its determination.’. —(Tom Brake.)