Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create a Business of the House Commission to regulate the timetabling of business in the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.
I thank you for that introduction, Mr Speaker. You yourself have done much to enhance Parliament and parliamentary scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to introduce today a Bill that I am certain will be uncontroversial. This is because my Bill aims to complete the measures promised by the 2010 coalition Government to strengthen this House’s legislative work. Page 26 of the 2010 coalition bible, “Our Programme for Government”, states:
“A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”
My Bill has cross-party support from senior parliamentarians, and I am very grateful to them for sponsoring it.
We—or should I say the British people?—have already done away with one limitation on parliamentary sovereignty by voting to leave the European super state. It is now time to reassert that sovereignty and strengthen our ancient democracy as a result. We have done away with one such influence on our democracy. It is now time to do away with another. By this I mean the practice that the Government set the timetable in this Chamber.
I am one of many Members frustrated that we as Members of Parliament cannot debate what we want, when we want. Government control of the scheduling of House business undermines our role in scrutinising proposed legislation and demonstrates our inadequacy when it comes to holding the Executive to account. It must be for Parliament to set its own timetable, not for the Government to force their own agenda upon Parliament. This issue was identified by the Wright Committee, the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which recommended in November 2009 that a House business committee should be established. Its function would be to
“assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion”.
To quote an esteemed former Member:
“The House of Commons’ historic functions were to vote money for governments to spend, and to scrutinise laws. It now barely bothers with the first, and does the second extremely badly. There was a time when legislation that had been formulated after months of civil service and ministerial deliberation was sent to the House of Commons which would pore over it, shape it, send it back, get it back, look at it again - and improve it some more. Bill by bill. Clause by clause. Line by line. Every piece of legislation would be put under intense scrutiny. Is it legally sound? Will it be effective? Is it worth the cost? Compare that to today. Let me take you on the journey of a piece of legislation as it passes through the modern House of Commons. It’s likely to have been dreamt up on the sofa of Number Ten. A Bill gets drafted. It’s sent to the House for a couple of hours of routine debate among a few MPs. Then the bell rings, the whip gets cracked and suddenly, out of nowhere, all these other MPs turn up to vote. More often than not, they don’t even know what they're voting for. The Bill limps through. Then it goes to the Standing Committee. Their duty is to look at the details clause by clause. But it’s packed full of people that the whips put there. So, surprise, surprise, the Government rarely loses the vote on any of the individual points of detailed scrutiny. And then it’s back to the House to do it all again - debate, bell and then vote to wave the legislation through… How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?”
I am sure you will recognise those words, Madam Deputy Speaker. They are, of course, the words of former Prime Minister David Cameron, in his fiery “Fixing Broken Politics” speech. I think that many Members will agree that this picture is still very familiar. In that speech and the subsequent manifesto, the Conservative party promised to implement the measures of the Wright Committee to strengthen Parliament, and this commitment was translated into the coalition agreement. The House business committee was to be introduced within three years, but, for whatever reason, the creation of this committee to regulate the parliamentary timetable was never proposed or voted on—apparently the Whips just did not get round to putting it on the Order Paper.
My Bill seeks to put this oversight right and bring in these long-overdue recommendations. It is patently absurd that I, as a Member of Parliament, can propose legislation only through winning a ballot or by sleeping for a week outside the Table Office. We were all elected to properly represent the interests of our constituents, but currently we have little freedom to do so. On 23 June 2016—independence day—the British people voted to reassert this Parliament as the supreme democratic power in the land. Now that we are taking control of our laws back from the European Union, they will expect us to represent them and to hold Government to account in their interest. How can we possibly do this if the House is unable to run its own affairs? The referendum was a decision to strengthen Parliament and we must live up to this expectation as an institution. Instead of the Government running the whole timetable, my Bill makes sure that the Commons takes back control of its agenda.
I am today proposing to institute a business of the House commission that will decide the parliamentary timetable. The commission would be made up of the Leader of the House, who would be directly elected by the whole House, the shadow Leader of the House and Back-Bench MPs. Crucially, it should be made up of a certain type of Back-Bench MP. It should be immune from Government or shadow Government domination and thus be made up of Members who are true parliamentarians. Those who concern themselves with becoming Ministers or shadow Ministers—and there is nothing wrong with that at all—are far too often beholden to the Government or Opposition Whips.
Having such Members on the commission would be counterproductive to its aim. To try to combat this tendency, members of the commission should, when elected, commit to staying members of the House commission for the entirety of the parliamentary term. The numbers on the commission would be half from Members of the governing party and half from the Opposition. The chairman of the commission should also be an impartial voice whose interest is with Parliament rather than the Government. I suggest that this role be filled by the Chairman of Ways and Means, which of course is exactly what the Wright Committee proposed.
Too often now House business is agreed through the usual channels between the Whips Offices. This backroom dealing lacks the transparency one would expect of a democratic Parliament. The business of the House commission would resolve this current anomaly by meeting in public. It would hear representations from Government, Opposition and Back Benchers each week on what they would like to be included in the timetable. It would deliberate before issuing the timetable for the following week, which would then be voted on in the House. In that way, our Parliament would be given an open and transparent system of timetabling, rather than the closed door dealing and Government handout that currently dominates our system.
The aim of the Bill is to finally establish a commission that would be responsible for timetabling the business of the House. This mother of Parliaments has a democratic heritage like no other, but without control of our own affairs we cannot fulfil our role as a Parliament. Parliament should be the mother rather than the “pliant child” of our democratic process, and I am seeking leave to introduce the Bill in order to rectify that. When the voters in the referendum voted to take back control, they were voting to take back control from the European Union and give it to Parliament, not to the Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Peter Bone, Mr Christopher Chope, Chris Bryant, Henry Smith, Paul Flynn, Mr Philip Hollobone, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Zac Goldsmith, Tom Brake, Esther McVey, Philip Davies and Sir Edward Leigh present the Bill.
Mr Peter Bone accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 November, and to be printed (Bill 106).