Category Archives: Backbench Business Committee

Changing the working culture of the House of Commons

Natascha Engel, Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, writes  following the Committee’s end of term report.   To view report click here.

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 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 wewere 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 then 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, for example, be able to allocate 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, and 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 country like 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.

Backbench Business

THE HOUSE MAGAZINE

18 October 2012

Natascha Engel calls for urgent reform to the system of Parliamentary e-petitions

E-petitions should be an excellent way to engage the public with democracy, helping people to learn more about Parliament and how to influence it better.

It’s a missed opportunity when the current e-petitions system often serves to leave people feeling disappointed and frustrated. Many thousands of people will have signed an e-petition, perhaps on fuel duty or on the NHS. But the success (or failure) of e-petitions cannot be a numbers game. For e-petitions to work, people need to be given a better sense of how the political system works and of how their issue can be dealt with.

In our system, unless a petition reaches an arbitrary number of signatures, nothing happens. Hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition and never hear anything back.

Expectations play a part too. People who sign an e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures expect rather more than they receive now. They want it to trigger a debate, a vote and a change in the law. This will almost never happen, so disappointment and frustration is built into our system.

Another flaw in the current system is that the process starts with Government but ends with Parliament. An e-petition is started and signed through the www.direct. gov.uk website, is allocated to a government department, but is only then given to the Backbench Business Committee to deal with once 100,000 signatures have been reached.

These issues could be resolved by taking e-petitions into Parliament, as we do with paper petitions, thus providing a better way to engage people with democracy.

A system administered by Parliament itself was recommended by the Procedure Committee and followed up by the Hansard Society recently.

There is a model in Scotland for petitions that works. Before you even launch your petition, someone from the Scottish Parliament talks through what the outcomes could be and indicates if the issue is better dealt with by, for example, a local authority or your MSP tabling a question.

In Scotland, there is no threshold on petitions. So while an e-petition receiving a lot of signatures may indicate strength and breadth of feeling, an important issue with only limited support could still be considered. It also means that Parliament would be aware of urgent deadlines.

In Scotland a dedicated Petitions Committee decides how to progress a petition. This could result in a referral to a Select Committee, a letter to a Minister, or a debate in Parliament. The Committee can even invite the petitioner into Parliament to make their case to the Petitions Committee.

By ensuring the petitioner will always be put in touch with their local MP, a link is fostered between the originator of petition and their MP. While the Member will be free to disagree with subject of the e-petition, it is important that a petitioner’s MP is aware the e-petition has been started.

We need to change the e-petitions system urgently to ensure that anyone who uses it feels that it was fair, robust and transparent. Most importantly, we want anyone who signs a petition to learn something about how Parliament works and how to influence it better. It’s a great opportunity but we are in serious danger of missing it.

Hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition and never hear anything back

Natascha Engel is a Labour MP and Chair of the Backbench Business Committee

She will be talking about how to engage with Parliament at “Parliament Talks Constitution” at King’s College London on Monday 19 November (7-9pm). The event is organised by Parliament’s Outreach Service and is part of a programme of activities taking place during Parliament Week 2012 (19-25 November). See www.parliament. uk/talks-constitution for details

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.

Backbench Business Committee

The Backbench Business Committee is a brand new invention for Parliament. It was created this year and Natascha Engel is its first chair. Backbench MPs turn to the committee when they want a debate but the Government will not give them the time.

 

Natascha was elected by MPs from all political parties to chair the committee after she said she wanted it to meet in public rather than to decide which issues would be debated in private. Every Tuesday lunch-time, groups of MPs will queue up to tell the committee why their issue should be debated. Since the General Election this committee has given MPs the chance to debate a wide range of issues including immigration, prisoners’ right to vote, blood donations, circus animals, discarded fish and many other topics.