Changing the way the House of Commons works

As the Backbench Business Committee publishes its end-of-term report, committee chair Natascha Engel writes exclusively for PoliticsHome on how it has changed the way the House of Commons works.

More than any other Parliamentary reform, the existence of the Backbench Business Committee has changed the working culture in Parliament. Government has ceded control over 35 days each Parliamentary session so that now it is backbenchers themselves who decide what is debated and, more importantly, what is voted on.

Debates such as those on compensation for the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, the rights of prisoners to vote, the regulation of loan sharks, and the banning of wild animals in circuses would not have happened if the Backbench Business Committee had not existed, and each of those debates enlivened the Commons in a way that has rarely happened before.

When the Backbench Business Committee was set-up in June 2010, there was little real idea of how the Committee would operate. We quickly agreed, though, to hear representations from MPs in public and at our final meeting on Tuesday 17 April we agreed our end-of-term report. The report sums up our experiences and we hope it will help our successor committee build on the successes and deal with (or avoid) the failures when it is elected in the new Parliamentary session. But the report’s main aim is to help the House to decide the future of the Backbench Business Committee.

Members are now able to bring forward subjects for debate rather than see the Whips dictate time. This transfer of power has taken a while for both government and backbenchers to get used to. Government has not always been happy with our choice of debates. Backbenchers too have sometimes found themselves in awkward situations, having to make difficult decisions on voting with their hearts or heads. As backbenchers we have learned that with the power to schedule debates comes responsibility, and that has not always been comfortable or easy.

It has, though, without a doubt, made the role of a backbencher more fulfilling. We have been better able to do the job we were elected to do, namely to hold the government of the day to account.

For all the successes, the Backbench Business Committee remains a work in progress. The debate on Assisted Suicide highlights better than any other one of our greatest constraints, our inability to schedule ahead.

We are entirely at the mercy of the government business managers who allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee on an ad hoc basis and often at short notice. Our job as committee members too often becomes one of managing disappointed expectations. If a Member comes to us with an urgent debate and we have been given no time to allocate, there is simply nothing we can do.

This is unnecessary. The 35-day allocation equates to around one day per Parliamentary week. There is no reason why the government cannot give us either the same day every week or guarantee us a day per week. The government would be free to choose what the day is. We would then be able to schedule ahead. We would be able to allocate, for example, a debate in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day or International Women’s Day. We could schedule a debate on EU council meetings in the week before they meet. We would be able to give ample notice to Members and organisations of forthcoming debates on important and emotive issues which divide the House and the country, such as the debate on Assisted Suicide.

So, if I could send only one message to our successor committee, it would be to urge them to continue the argument with government for more control over the when backbench debates take place.

Such a move would provide certainty for the House and almost certainly make it easier for the business managers to schedule their business around. They will, of course, resist it, but that’s what the Backbench Business Committee is for – to allow backbenchers to make their case.

On a personal note, it has been an amazing privilege to chair the first session of the Backbench Business Committee. As a committee, we took the decision early on to try everything, to take risks and learn from our mistakes. The committee itself reflects the diverse make-up of the House and whilst the job may not always have been easy, it has always been fun. It is not often that you get the chance to be part of an innovation and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

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