2 Working methods |
14. The Committee had to start work very quickly
after its appointment. The Government announced that the first
backbench business day would take place on 20 July 2010. There
was no set model for the Committee to follow when approaching
its task, as it was the first body of its kind to be established.
The decisions of the House in June 2010 did not include any prescription
for how we should determine the business to be taken in backbench
time and the Wright Committee had recommended that "No Standing
Order should constrain the inventiveness of colleagues in the
15. We met for the first time on 6 July 2010 and
agreed that we needed to publish some guidance for backbenchers
and others on how we planned to choose subjects for debate. On
21 July, our First Special Report, Provisional Approach,
was published in which we indicated that we would aim to consider
a range of possible sources as inspirations for backbench debates,
i. Suggestions made directly to the Committee
by Members for debates.
ii. Early day motions tabled and the weight and
breadth of support they have received.
iii. Public petitions recently presented to the
House and petitions published on the Downing Street website [which
was in operation at that time].
iv. Select committee reports recently published
or due shortly to be published, proposed resolutions embodying
specific recommendations of select committees, and perhaps short
debates on new inquiries or single evidence sessions by select
v. Representations made at Business Questions
for subjects to be debated.
vi. Recent written ministerial statements.
vii. Recent ministerial announcements outside
viii. Events of importance to the nation.
ix. Other substantive motions.
16. The Report also noted the Wright
Committee's assumption that the time to be provided for backbench
business in the new Session might include the regular 'set-piece'
debates which had been provided each year in government time to
debate specific subjects. In recent years these have included:
- Defence5 days
- Pre-recess general adjournment debates4
- Welsh affairs1 day close to 1 March (St
- International women's day8 March
- Public Accounts Committee reports1 day
(usually taken as two half days)
- European affairs2 days before EU Council
- Fisheries1 day
- Intelligence & Security Committee reports1
17. We stated that we intended to start from the
presumption thatfor the first Sessionwe would continue
to recommend debates on these subjects, provided there was sufficient
support among Members for each such debate.
18. In the Provisional Approach Report we
made clear that we expected that our practice would evolve over
time to best suit the needs of the House and its backbench Members.
For example, in the course of the Session, some bids for debate
were received from frontbench spokespeople and parliamentary private
secretaries (PPSs). Since this situation initially gave rise to
some confusion, we took a formal decision not to hear bids for
time for debates from those Members who would be excluded from
membership of the Backbench Business Committee under Standing
Order No. 152J, that is any "Minister of the Crown or parliamentary
private secretary or a principal opposition frontbench spokesperson".
This does not include opposition PPSs. We reserved the option
to waive the rule in cases where there is a strong constituency
interest and the issue is unconnected with the frontbencher's
policy area, but to ask any Member in such a position to notify
the Committee to explain the situation in advance of making a
19. The Provisional Approach Report explained
that we planned to hold weekly open meetings where backbenchers
could come and put to the Committee in public their proposals
for debate. These public sessions have no formal procedural status,
as the Committee was not given the power under its standing orders
to take evidence.
We drew up a short application form, which we placed on our website,
for Members to complete in advance of the session to provide the
names of the Members who support the suggestion and an indication
of the length of debate sought. The form also sets out the criteria
on which we decided we would make decisions on which proposals
to schedule for debate, and asks Members to indicate briefly how
their proposals meet these criteria. They are:
- why holding a debate is important;
- the breadth of interest (that is how many Members
were likely to take part and whether there is support for a debate
from Members on both Government and Opposition benches);
- whether debate could be secured through other
- the amount of time required for debate.
20. At our Tuesday lunchtime open meetings, we ask
Members proposing subjects for debate about the level of support
for the proposal and why they think it is a worthy subject for
debate. Generally the exchanges are brief, lasting between two
and five minutes as a rule. The aim is to understand what kind
of a debate is being sought in terms of the timing, length, format
and number of Members wishing to participate. We then hold a private
meeting to decide which proposals to give time to, if any time
21. At the time the Provisional Approach Report
was published, we had no idea what the level of demand would be
for debates, and what the proposed subjects would be. At most
of the open sessions between two and six proposals have been put
to us by individuals or groups of Members (although attendance
has varied and there have been a very few occasions on which no
Members have attended). Overall, this represents a level of demand
for time which greatly exceeds the time available.
22. As a result of the level of demand expressed
at open meetings, this has become the main route for taking suggestions
for subjects to be debated in backbench time and we have only
very occasionally allocated time to a subject which Members have
not proposed in this way. This has meant that we have not allocated
time to some of the set-piece debates listed above, either because
Members have not come to request them, or because the weight of
support demonstrated for them at public sessions was less than
that for other subjects.
23. In December 2011, after more than a year of operation,
we conducted a feedback exercise among Members to find out what
they thought of the way it operates. The survey asked them about
arrangements for public sessions and their views on the types
of subjects scheduled. The results of this feedback exercise are
published in full as an Annex to this Report.
15 HC (2009-10) 372, paragraph 9. Back
First Special Report of Session 2010-12, HC 334. Back
Ibid., paragraph 8. Back
See also paragraph 31. Back
See Annex A. Back