4 Forms of Backbench Business |
Format of debates
42. One of our tasks has been to decide how to split
up the backbench time available between different groups and proposals.
The options we have used include:
- allocating a full day's debate
in the main Chamber to a single topic;
- scheduling two debates in the main Chamber of
around three hours each;
- scheduling a ninety-minute 'topical debate' on
a backbench business day, followed by an unrestricted debate on
- scheduling a 'statement' by a select committee
Chair in the main Chamber followed by one or more debates;
- scheduling a three-hour debate (or two shorter
debates) in Westminster Hall at a Thursday afternoon sitting.
It is up to the Member proposing a debate to decide
whether it should be a debate on a substantive motion or a general
debate, and to draft the wording for any motion. We have not so
far sought to schedule any debates on a substantive motion in
Westminster Hall (which would require the agreement of the Chairman
of Ways and Means), so we have only allocated this time to Members
seeking a general debate.
43. Debates have normally been opened by one of the
backbench Members who sponsored the subject for debate. On backbench
days the speeches of Ministers and Opposition frontbenchers are
generally no more than 15 to 20 minutes in length. The Government
and Official Opposition have only one speech each in a backbench
debate. Usually time has been made available for a very brief
wind-up by the mover of a motion or a supporter nominated by him
or her. We express our gratitude to the Speaker and his Deputies,
as well as the usual channels, for their support in making backbench
business work effectively.
44. Proceedings on backbench days may take different
forms, such as:
- General debates on a motion
"That the House has considered the matter of x".
- Debate on a substantive motion.
- When a select committee report is presented as
a short 'take note' debate.
- In Westminster Hall, proceedings have continued
to arise on an adjournment motion moved by a Minister (though
it is technically possible to adopt other forms of motion with
the consent of the Chairman of Ways and Means).
Some of the main ways in which we have experimented
with these different formats are outlined below.
45. We have regularly scheduled two separate topics
for debate at the same sitting. The Committee has no power to
table Business Motions to determine how much time to spend on
each debate, or to make allowance for any complex series of motions
to be decided at the conclusion of a sitting or a period of time,
but we have sometimes recommended the duration by means of a note
on the Order Paper. On other occasions, the Speaker and his Deputies
have steered the timings with regard to the number of Members
who have applied to speak in each debate.
46. Under Standing Order No. 24A the Committee has
power to designate a debate as a "topical debate", thereby
limiting it to 90 minutes. This procedure can only be used for
general debates and is not available for debates on a substantive
motion. We have so far used this power twice.
PRE-RECESS GENERAL DEBATES
47. During this Session, the Government has chosen
to allocate most or all of the last day before each of the main
recesses to backbench business. Traditionally, these were used
for a day-long general debate where Members could raise any subject.
We have tried a new format for these debates, inviting Members
to specify in advance a subject of their choice and from which
government department they would like a response. We have then
grouped speeches into subject areas and, in the case of the departments
with the highest number of speeches, the relevant Minister has
been invited to respond to the issues raised. We have continued
to reserve a portion of the debate (usually around two hours)
for Members who wished to raise any other subject in general debate.
Members were asked for their views on this new format in our feedback
exercise, which is published as an Annex to this Report.
48. We have experimented with allocating
time for the Chair of a select committee to introduce a report
published by that Committee on the floor of the House in a form
of 'mini-statement'. Four such 'statements' have taken place so
far this Session. Initially, we recommended a time limit of 15
minutes for the statement, but this was increased to 20 minutes
on later occasions to enable more Members to participate and the
relevant Minister to give a brief initial response to the Report
on behalf of the Government. The aim was to help highlight and
promote the work of select committees through this procedure.
49. These select
committee 'statements' have not taken place under the same procedural
mechanism as Ministerial statements, since the Backbench Business
Committee has no power to timetable this type of
business. Instead, the Chair of the committee has moved a 'take
note' motion on the subject of the publication of their Report,
taking interventions as necessary and sitting down after 20 minutes.
This improvised procedure has served its purpose, but the House
may wish to consider whether it would wish it to be formalised
in standing orders.
50. Demand from Members to hold debates in backbench
time has been consistently high and the amount of time available
has been under severe pressure. This has resulted in some backbenchers
being unable to secure debates on their proposed subjects even
if these subjects had been debated regularly in previous years.
We asked Members whether they thought their suggestions for debate
were treated fairly in its feedback exercise and what they thought
of the range of subjects chosen. Their responses are published
as Annex A to this Report.
51. The debates held during backbench time both in
the Chamber and in Westminster Hall have been heavily subscribed.
The approximate number of Members who have spoken in backbench
debates is provided in Annex B along with information on the number
of times the Speaker has imposed time limits on the length of
backbench speeches in debates in the Chamber. Debates in both
the Chamber and Westminster Hall have been well attended. For
example, 56 Members participated in the recent three-hour debate
in Westminster Hall on cycling.
The evidence available from web statistics and viewing figures
for the Parliament TV site and the BBC Parliament channel also
suggest that backbench debates have attracted significant public
interest: 330,000 people watched BBC Parliament on the day of
the debate on the Hillsborough e-petition and 480,000 watched
the debate on whether there should be a referendum on EU membershipon
that day there were also 69,434 views of the Parliament Live
Guidance for Members
52. The Committee has often been approached by Members
who have secured a debate seeking advice on the procedures involved.
Members of the Committee are always pleased to speak to backbenchers
about these issues and we have instituted a regular pre-debate
briefing meeting with lead Members shortly before their debate
takes place in order to answer any queries.
53. Members who have sought our advice have raised
a variety of technical questions including:
- Who will speak first and wind
up a debate, and when Ministers will respond.
- What time limits apply to a debate.
- Who is responsible for providing tellers in the
event of a division.
- Who they should notify if they wish to speak
in a backbench debate, and whether the lead and supporting Members
still need to notify their intention to speak.
- Whether joint bids can be received from Members
on opposing sides of a single debate, and which side should table
the Motion for any such debate.
54. We have aimed for a flexible format for backbench
debates, so that Members can tailor the debate to the specific
issue at hand. There is a strong case for a future Committee to
make available more structured guidance on the options available
in the form of a leaflet and/or intranet page describing how Members
can bid for a debate and what to do if they are successful.
31 For a debate before the European Council meeting
on the Fiscal Stability Pact on 26 January 2012 and for a debate
on International Women's Day on 8 March 2012. See Annex B. Back
See Annex A. Back
23 February 2012 - see Annex B. Back