3 Time for backbench business |
24. 35 days per Session are allocated to backbench
business under the standing orders. At least 27 of these must
be in the main Chamber. The remainder is allocated to sittings
in Westminster Hall, in the form of three-hour Thursday afternoon
debates (these count as half days for the purpose of calculating
the 35-day figure). The standing orders also provide for there
to be backbench "topical debates" which under Standing
Order No. 24A may last for 90 minutes and must take place on a
general 'take note' motion. These count as a quarter day for the
purposes of calculating the 35 days. The standing orders do not
say when backbench days in the main Chamber should bethis
is decided by the Government.
25. We have encountered two difficulties in relation
to the time allocated to backbench business in our work this Session.
The first is the amount of time available compared to the demand
for debates from backbenchers: throughout the Session, demand
for backbench debates has outstripped supply and the allocation
of days could have been filled many times over. Secondly, because
the Government still chooses the dates for backbench business,
it has not been possible for us to allocate debates much in advance,
which has meant that the option of planning ahead for some debates
has not been available. These two issues are explored below.
The amount of backbench time
26. In this first Session of operation, the 35 days
allocated to backbench business were exhausted by November 2011.
Session 2010-12 has, of course, been twice the length of a normal
Session. Since then the Committee has been offered 'unallotted'
days on an ad hoc basis by the Leader of the House, often
at short notice. As at 27 March 2012, the Committee had chosen
the business on the floor of the House on 44 occasions and at
33 sittings in Westminster Hall.
27. As noted above, demand from
backbench Members has consistently outstripped the supply of time
available. However, other types of business have also been suggested
as candidates for backbench time during this Session, increasing
the competition for the limited number of days still further.
the 2010 General Election the Coalition's Programme for Government
included a commitment "that any petition that secures 100,000
signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament".
The Leader of the House gave effect to this commitment in 2011
by announcing that he would refer to the Backbench Business Committee
(to be considered for debate in backbench time) any petition on
the government's e-petitions website that passed the threshold
Since the announcement was made, the Leader of the House has made
it his practice to write to the Committee informing us of each
petition which exceeds the 100,000 signature threshold.
29. Since the
introduction of the new process for e-petitions, we have adopted
the practice of only considering scheduling a debate on the subject
of an e-petition when it is proposed by a Member in the same way
as any other suggestion for debate in backbench time; and the
same criteria have been applied to evaluate subjects related to
e-petitions as other subjects for debate. So far, ten petitions
have passed the 100,000 signature threshold, and seven have been
debated in backbench time.
The only e-petition for which we have chosen not to schedule time
called on the Government to drop its Health and Social Care Bill.
We considered that this issue did not meet our criteria for selection
of debates: it had already been the subject of extensive debate
and votes in Parliament; and the application for a debate did
not have broad cross-party support (there were no supporting backbench
Members from the largest political party). It was not therefore
a suitable candidate for the limited backbench time available.
30. We have also scheduled debates
on subjects proposed as a result of traditional paper petitions,
including a debate on a referendum on the UK's membership of the
EU related to a paper petition which had gathered over 100,000
31. The introduction of e-petitions has heightened
competition for backbench time and has had a significant impact
on our work both in terms of the scope of our work and its priorities.
In order to reflect on the way in which the Committee might in
future best approach e-petitions, we held an informal seminar
with academics and campaign groups in March 2012. This was moderated
by the Hansard Society, which plans shortly to publish an account
of the session and its own thoughts on the future of e-petitions.
Since the Backbench Business Committee was not given the usual
powers of a select committee to 'send for persons, papers and
records' when it was established, it was not given the power to
take evidence on issues surrounding its operation and was unable
to hold any kind of inquiry on the effects of e-petitions. The
House may wish to consider providing these powers to the Committee
at the same time as making any other amendments to standing orders
as a result of the review of its operation.
32. The Procedure Committee has conducted an inquiry
into the implications for Parliament of the Government's e-petitions
system and recently published a Report on the handling of such
petitions. It identified an urgent need to resolve some practical
problems it identified as arising from the current arrangements
and recommended that "a dedicated time slot be created for
debates on subjects raised by e-petitions".
Its Report recommended that additional time could be created for
this purpose by means of occasional sittings in Westminster Hall
on Mondays between 4.30pm and 7.30pm. It suggested that these
sittings would take place on the recommendation of the Backbench
Business Committee when it decided that an e-petition should be
debated. These recommendations were broadly accepted by the Government
in its response, for implementation on an experimental basis.
33. The Procedure Committee also
recommended that the Backbench Business Committee could do more
to publicise the existence of e-petitions which had reached the
100,000 signature threshold, but which no Member had yet suggested
34. The success (or otherwise) of
the arrangements for debate of e-petitions will have an important
effect on the ability of the House to engage with the public.
The Procedure Committee notes in its Report that "More detailed
consideration should be given to proposals for more substantial
changes [to the e-petitioning system] in the future", including
"moving to an entirely parliamentary system of petitioning".
The House may also wish to consider ways of handling e-petitions
which may not involve the Backbench Business Committee, such as
the creation of a separate Petitions Committee. These are matters
for others to take forward, but we hope our successors will give
the whole House the opportunity to consider and decide on proposals
for the future.
35. One of our tasks is to provide
time for so-called 'House Business' to be debated and decidedfor
example on implementation of proposals from the Procedure Committee
or on matters relating to Members' pay and allowances or other
internal issues. We have scheduled a number of such debates.
We have recognised that it is important to provide time for these
matters, since the ability of backbenchers to decide upon changes
to the House's own procedures is an important new freedom given
by the creation of backbench business. We think there remains
room for some give and take between this Committee and the Leader
of the House about finding time for such mattersthe Leader,
for example, decided to give a day to such matters on 12 March
36. However, there is a minor problem
which has emerged in respect of motions relating to reports from
the Standards and Privileges Committee. Reports about the conduct
of Members (which in future will come from the new Committee on
Standards) appear to us to fall into a different category of business
which is neither exactly backbench or government business. They
are more akin to matters of Privilege or other issues which are
commonly set down by the Speaker for debate. These motions need
to be considered at short notice, and there is no discretion as
to whether they are taken or not. It might be helpful if such
motions, which rarely take up much time, were more clearly defined
as non-discretionary business which it was neither the responsibility
of Ministers or the Backbench Business Committee to schedule,
but for which the Leader of the House would make time at the request
of the Committee on Standards.
Planning backbench business
Government decides which days are to be taken in the Chamber as
backbench days, and the dates of backbench business are announced
in the Leader of the House's weekly Business Statement, up to
two weeks ahead. Thursday sittings in Westminster Hall are divided
between the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee
and are not determined by the Government. In our Provisional
Approach Report, we asked the Government to give two or three
weeks' notice of the specific days on which backbench business
will be taken in the Chamber, but this has rarely happened.
38. The way in which backbench days
in the Chamber are allocated has meant that we operate by scheduling
the next available date and then waiting for more time to become
available. It precludes the possibility of scheduling debates
a few weeks or even months in advance. It also means that it is
not possible to schedule in advance any debates which are connected
with a particular date in the calendar (such as St David's Day
or International Women's Day) as it is not known beforehand whether
there will be any backbench time allocated to the day or week
in question. This has also been a difficulty when scheduling high-profile
debates in which many Members wish to participate, such as the
recent debate on assisted suicide.
Understandably, Members wanted advance notice of the debate on
this sensitive issue in order to allow a reasonable period of
time for their constituents and campaign groups to feed in their
39. The distribution of backbench
days through the current Session has been uneven. In some periods,
the Government has provided regular weekly allocations of backbench
business, whereas in others (for example the spring/summer of
2011) the allocation averaged one day per month. This has caused
some difficulty, and we have found it particularly hard to explain
to backbench Members why it has not been possible to meet their
requests for debates in periods when very little time has been
40. The distribution of backbench
days across the week has also been uneven. The large majority
of days allocated to backbench business have been either Thursdays
or the last day before a recess (32 out of 44 days).
41. We hope
that following the review of the operation of this Committee,
some solution will be found which will enable a more strategic
approach to be taken to the scheduling of backbench business.
20 For details, see Annex B. Back
The Coalition: our programme for government, p. 26. Back
See Business Questions, 2 December 2010, HC Deb (2010-12) 519,
See http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ Back
The petition was subsequently the subject of an Opposition Day
debate on 13 March 2012. Back
Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, Debates on Government e-Petitions,
HC 1706, p. 1. Back
Procedure Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2010-12,
Debates on Government e-Petitions: Government Response to the
Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1902. Back
Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, Debates on Government e-Petitions,
HC 1706, paragraph 35. Back
For example, on proposals from the Procedure Committee, on the
report of the Members' Expenses Committee and on the proposal
to charge for tours of the Clock Tower. See Annex B for details. Back
First Special Report of Session 2010-11, Provisional Approach:
Session 2010-11, paragraph 23. The dates of the sittings in
Westminster Hall are negotiated with the Liaison Committee (which
under standing orders chooses the business of at least 20 of these)
under the general direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means. Back
27 March 2012. Back