1 Origins and establishment |
1. Business committees are not a new phenomenon.
Many parliaments have established such committees (or parliamentary
bureaux) as a means of choosing and managing the business to be
scheduled for debate. The idea of creating a Backbench
Business Committee, however, is a real innovation. It stemmed
from the perception that the extent of the Government's control
over what should be debated in Parliament is too wide, and that
backbenchers too should have time in which to debate subjects
of their own choosing.
The Wright Committee
2. In 2009, in the wake of the expenses scandal,
a Committee was established to find ways of restoring public confidence
in the House and consider proposals for reform. The Select Committee
on Reform of the House of Commons (chaired by Dr Tony Wright MP
and hereafter the Wright Committee) was tasked with considering
four aspects of parliamentary business: the appointment of members
and chairs of select committees; the appointment of the Chairman
and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means; scheduling business in
the House; and enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings
in the House. It published its main report on 24 November 2009.
This was followed by a further report dealing with the implementation
of the recommendations contained in its first report, which was
published in March 2010.
3. Drawing on research by the UCL Constitution Unit,
the Wright Committee noted that the business committees which
operated in other parliaments were often little more than an institutionalisation
of the usual channels. They tended to provide a forum for the
front benches of each party to communicate and were largely exclusive
of backbenchers. The Wright Committee concluded that:
Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling
of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business,
comprising Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions,
substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their
policies and Ministerial statements. The rest of the business
currently scheduled by Ministerssuch as House domestic
business, select committee reports and general and topical debatesis
for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.
It recommended that a Backbench Business Committee
should be established to act as the mechanism by which backbenchers
would choose their own debates.
4. The recommendations of the Wright Committee were
debated in the House of Commons in February 2010.
Not all of its recommendations were agreed, but the House decided
that a Backbench Business Committee should be established after
the General Election. In its follow-up Report on implementation,
the Wright Committee strongly recommended that preparations should
be made so that a Backbench Business Committee could start work
immediately in the new Parliament.
Election of the Backbench Business
5. The standing order changes creating a new category
of House business, 'backbench business', and establishing and
setting out the functions of the Backbench Business Committee
were agreed by the House shortly after the beginning of this Session
of Parliament, on 15 June 2010. Changes were later made to these
standing orders on 12 March 2012, and the effects of these changes
are noted where relevant below. The Committee was to consist of
eight members, including the Chair. Unlike other select Committees,
the party affiliation of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee
was not pre-determined under the June 2010 version of the standing
orders, although the overall number of places on it were allotted
in proportion to party strengths in the House. One Labour and
one Conservative Member stood for election to the Chair of the
Committee. Natascha Engel (Labour) was elected as the Committee's
first Chair on 22 June 2010. This meant that the other members
would consist of four Conservatives, two Labour and one Liberal
Democrat. The seven remaining members were elected a week later,
on 29 June 2010.
6. On 12 March 2012, Standing Order No. 122D was
amended to restrict future candidates for the Chair of the Committee
to Members who did not belong to parties on the government side
of the House. This will have effect from the next election of
the Chair at the beginning of Session 2012-13. However, as with
other elections of select committee Chairs, any contested election
will continue to be decided by a secret ballot of the whole House.
7. The other most prominent difference in the way
in which the original standing orders provided for the election
of the members of the Committee was that the remaining seven members
were all to be elected by secret ballot of the whole House. There
was also a requirement that the Committee should have at least
two men and two women as members.
8. The Procedure Committee published a report in
October 2011 which reviewed, amongst other matters, the arrangements
for the election of the Backbench Business Committee.
It noted in particular that the calculation of the party proportions
on a Committee with eight members meant there was no place for
a representative of a minority party (that is the DUP, SNP, Plaid
Cymru, the SDLP, the Green Party, the Alliance or independent
Members). The Procedure Committee recommended that the number
of members on the Committee should be increased to nine and that
one place should be reserved for a Member from a minority party
(or from no party).
The Government suggested (in its response to the Procedure Committee
report on elections) that the franchise for elections of members
of the Committee should be restricted to the political parties
responsible for filling the places, rather than holding elections
across the whole House.
9. The Government subsequently brought forward proposals
on its own initiative to change the system for electing members
of the Backbench Business Committee (without any further consultation
with either this Committee or the Procedure Committee). It tabled
these on Tuesday 6 March 2012. On Monday 12 March the House agreed
to the changes proposed by the Government, after various amendments
to restore the original form of elections and to create an extra
place for members of parties not otherwise represented on the
Committee were defeated.
Elections of members of the Committee other than the Chair will
therefore in future be conducted within each party according to
the system of their choice (providing it is by secret ballot).
As a consequence, the standing order requirements for gender balance
10. The Government's proposals, as agreed by the
House, did not expand the membership of the Committee to include
an additional place reserved for Members from the smaller parties
or of no party, as recommended by the Procedure Committee. Instead,
the Committee was given power:
...to invite Members of the House who are not members
of the Committee and who are of a party not represented on the
Committee or of no party to attend its meetings and, at the discretion
of the chair, take part in its proceedings, but
(a) no more than one Member may be so invited to
attend in respect of the same meeting;
(b) a Member so invited shall not move any motion
or amendment to any motion, vote or be counted in the quorum.
11. Standing Order No. 152J originally provided for
the entire membership of the Committee, including the Chair, to
lapse at the end of each Session, and this provision was not altered
by the changes made in March 2012. Fresh elections for the Chair
and members must therefore take place at the beginning of each
Session (unlike most select committees which are elected for an
entire Parliament), and those at the start of Session 2012-13
will be conducted in accordance with the changes made by the House
on 12 March 2012.
12. Standing Order No. 152J also excludes from membership
of the Committee any "Minister of the Crown or parliamentary
private secretary (PPS) or a principal opposition frontbench spokesperson"
(although not opposition PPSs). This provision also continues
Review of the Committee
13. In June 2010, on the same day that the standing
orders establishing the Committee were agreed to, the House resolved:
That, in the opinion of this House, the operation
of the Backbench Business Committee should be reviewed at the
beginning of the next Session of Parliament.
The next sections describe some of the challenges
we have encountered in our work and explain some of the choices
that we have made. The Procedure Committee has announced that
it intends to lead the review of the Committee's operation, and
we hope the Procedure Committee and the House may wish to consider
this Report when reviewing the operation of the Committee at the
start of the next Session.
1 See, for example, The House Rules: International
lessons for enhancing the autonomy of the House of Commons,
Meg Russell and Akash Paun, London: The Constitution Unit, 2007
and Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons,
First Report of Session 2006-07, Revitalising the Chamber:
the role of the back bench Member, HC 337. Back
Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, First Report
of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117 and First
Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Implementation,
HC 372. Back
The House Rules: International lessons for enhancing the autonomy
of the House of Commons , Meg Russell and Akash Paun, London:
The Constitution Unit, 2007. Back
Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, First Report
of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, paragraph
Ibid., paragraph 180. Back
22 February 2010, HC Deb (2009-10) 506 cc37-132. Back
First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Implementation,
HC 372, paragraph 8. Back
The original members of the Committee were Mr David Anderson,
Mr Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Jane Ellison, John Hemming, Mr Philip
Hollobone and Alison Seabeck. On their appointments to front bench
opposition posts, Mr David Anderson and Alison Seabeck were later
replaced by Mr George Mudie and Ian Mearns (see paragraph 12). Back
Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 elections for positions
in the House, HC 1573. Back
Ibid., paragraph 61 Back
Procedure Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010
elections for positions in the House: Government Response to the
Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1824. Back
As the Chair of this Committee subsequently noted: without frontbench
votes, backbenchers would have secured all-House elections by
38 votes. Official Report, 15 March 2012, c 382. Back
Standing Order No. 152J(6A). Back
In that context, we note that the Chair of the Procedure Committee
said in the debate on the changes to standing orders relating
to elections to this Committee and its membership on 12 March
2012 "May I place it on the record that the Procedure Committee
will in no way feel inhibited by what is determined today ...
what the House decides today it can later decide to undo or amend?"
Official Report, 12 March 2012, c. 48. Back