Work of the Committee in Session 2010-12 - Backbench Business Committee Contents

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 another topic;
  • 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.[31]


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.[32]


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.[33] 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 membership—on that day there were also 69,434 views of the Parliament Live webcast.

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

32   See Annex A. Back

33   23 February 2012 - see Annex B. Back

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Prepared 26 April 2012