Annex A: Summary of responses from Members
to the Committee's request for feedback |
The Committee circulated a short feedback form to
Members of Parliament in December 2011. Members were also able
to provide feedback by email or letter. Comments received are
reproduced verbatim below.
There were 35 responses (29 completed feedback forms
and six separate emails).
Of the 29 responses to the feedback form, 16 Members
had attended a meeting of the Backbench Business Committee in
person to suggest a debate; six had supported another Member's
suggestion and seven had not suggested a subject for debate.
Of those who had suggested a subject for debate,
13 had been successful in securing a debate, two had not and a
decision was yet to be taken on one.
26 respondents had participated in at least one of
the debates scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee during
this session and three had not.
Question: Was it clear what the Committee was
looking for and how your application was to be evaluated?
"Yes, I found the Committee constructive and
"Certainly with fair challenges."
"It was clear. I asked for advice from a member
of the committee in advance of my application and this was a great
"Absolutely. All members of the committee are
very approachable and help with advice."
"Yes this was clear."
"I only appeared brieflybut I think the
process seems to be working well."
"I think it was reasonably clear."
"At first, no; later, yesnumber of supporters
present at the meeting seemed to help."
"I felt I had to deduce this, but that doing
so was fairly obvious."
"Not entirely but they were very interested
"Far from clear what the committee was looking
for and its criteria."
Question: Did you feel your suggestion was fairly
treated by members of the Committee?
"Yes (thank you!)"
"Yes I did."
"Yes. I tried twice, got two debates. Can't
argue with that."
"Yes, on that occasion; but it made me feel
that debates on select committee reports would usually not get
approval if something more populist might be available as a subject."
"Kind of...seemed to require motion that would
force a vote particularly on opposition to government policy."
Question: Do you think that there are any other
criteria that the Backbench Business Committee should apply when
selecting subjects for debate?
"The e-petition website."
"Topicality or importance must NOT be determined
by e-petitions promoted largely via the mediatoo much of
recent debate has been controlled via this route and it will ultimately
denigrate the ability of backbenchers to truly influence debate
in our society and to hold Government to account."
"The importance in terms of providing a voice
for backbenchers in holding the executive to account, where a
debate might otherwise be tabled by the frontbench but with a
motion that does not address the full range of issues."
"There should be a 'preference hierarchy' which
would put true backbench inspired debates ahead of e-petition
debates and ahead of debates on Select Committee Reports."
"Yes. Many days were allocated to BBBC which
were previously reserved for debates on Defence, Foreign Affairs,
EU Council meetings, the annual debates on Wales, Scotland, Northern
Ireland, the Civil Service etc....There seems to be no mechanism
to ensure that these debates still occur, unless MPs clamour for
them. (I am most grateful for the WH debate this week on the forthcoming
EU Councilbut this 3 hour debate on WH is no substitute
for the debates we used to have twice per year on the Chamber
before each EU council)."
"Public pressure for a debate."
"Strength of public feeling, issues that have
been neglected by party politics."
"Yes. (1) The intrinsic importance of the subject.
(2) The Committee's own guidance in its first report. (3) The
perceptions of the public."
"Level of public interest (not necessarily just
demonstrated through public petitions though)."
"Yeskey issues for the country, not just
"They should be wary of manipulation by the
mediaespecially the tabloids. Tabloids have used the committee's
procedures to advance their objectives on the EU and fuel prices.
More influence and power to the media at the expense of backbenchers?"
"On occasion it might be worth considering if
the issue could lead to a change in lawi.e. a sort of boost
to sensible Private Member's Bills (PMBs), the extra publicity
and sensible wider debate might boost backbench legislative change.
This should be used sparingly as it would dilute the main work
of the committee if it became an alternative route for PMBs. Some
PMBs are simple, sensible and resisted by Government. If backbenchers
are to have more strength the extra pressure that could be applied
by the BBBC might make Government think again before a potential
"Do not become a Government Party mouth piece."
"No, I think these are the right criteria by
which to assess applications."
"Nothing that I can think of."
"None occur to me."
"No. I think this aspect is working fine."
"No the above seems a comprehensive list of
"Not really, no."
Question: How can the Backbench Business Committee
improve the information it provides to Members wishing to suggest
a subject for debate?
"It may be helpful if the committee explains
why certain requests have been declined."
"It could set out its reasonsbecause
they are not apparentfor considering a vote at the end
to be as important as they seem to think it is."
"A list on the order paper of the business likely
to come before the committee."
"It could circulate a rolling list of applications
received and approved so that members can see what issues are
being raised and which might be being neglected."
"Guidance on other routes, and on other Members
who may be interested in the topic."
"More frequent e-mails on the committee's thinking."
"It should publish a provisional timetable of
debates for consultation, showing when each of the debates above
would be accommodated in the weeks ahead. MPs would then be invited
to indicate whether they would support a debate on (say) Defence
Procurement. it would then also be evident when the Government
fails to offer sufficient days to accommodate all the responsibilities
which BBBC has been allocated."
"The application form is very clear, but could
be linked from the main page for the Committee."
"Circulate the application form once or twice
a year as a reminder."
"Is there information on the intranet?"
"Guidance leaflet to advise process etc is not
as visible as it could be."
"Not sure the BBBC provides any information."
"I couldn't find the form recently."
"It may have improved, but I do remember early
on trying to get info on the clerks of the BBBC and so on, and
not finding it easy to acquire on the internet. Does the BBBC
have its own page, and is this easily searchable?"
"I'm not really aware of the process. I may
have missed emails etc so it would be helpful for staff to be
briefed on your work regularly so that they spot opportunities
and keep us informed."
"It is difficult to think of what more could
be done or how the process could be made any simpler or easier."
"I think it does OK. You've been feeling your
way but done some great work. In a place with conventions of 100s
of years old it'll take a while to get members to understand."
"Fine as it is."
"Advice on the intranet, however I rarely have
time to look at the intranet and would always prefer to approach
someone I know and trust who sits on the Committee."
"There was no problem with the information but
a sense that some members of the Committee had some strong prejudices
which can determine the outcome of a decision.
"I don't think you need to."
Question (for respondents who had never suggested
a subject for debate) Would you consider suggesting a subject
for debate to the Backbench Business Committee in future? What
would prompt you to suggest a subject?
"If other ways of having a subject debated are
unlikely to succeed."
"Yes. An issue I felt Government was ignoring
or that warranted a longer and more thoughtful debate than a Westminster
"Yesparticular issues that I feel are
cross cutting and relevant to many Members but not getting attention
from the parties."
"I would consider if constituents, organisations
or colleagues suggested an issue."
"Something I would feel is important though
it is undebated."
Question: What other improvements could be made
to the process of suggesting a debate to the Backbench Business
"A historic list of the subjects covered."
"The Committee should beware of orchestrated
campaigns promoted by the media or professional lobbyists. Applicants
should be routinely questioned on who is funding or promoting
"I would like to see EDMs abolished in favour
of a process which leads to backbench business. It seems to me
that we have parallel processes: one which leads nowhere (EDMs)
and one which does not enjoy much publicity and organisation around
the matters to be considered. I feel the two could be usefully
"I am concerned that debates are chosen on the
basis of weight of support rather than merit i.e. if enough members
turn up with their friends in tow then the Committee feels it
cannot turn down the debate irrespective of how relevant the debate
is. I think this is demonstrated by the number of debates that
have reached the floor of the House that have consisted of members
of one side speaking to themselves."
"Only danger is that there will be a backlog
of issues so topical issues drop down the timetable."
"The Committee could recognise that a debate
in Westminster Hall, appropriate though it often is, is not appropriate
for all matters."
"More electronic information."
"More awareness of when the BBBC is meeting?"
"It is known that there is a preference for
a votable motion for a backbench debate on the floor of the House.
I think this pressure should be lessened. One of the few examples
of a debate that was not votable but was held in the chamber was
the debate on private debt which was a very good debate."
"It would be helpful for backbenchers to be
able to have votes on backbench business which should impact on
what then happens."
"Perhaps a forum for members to suggest a debate
which others could sign up to. I think this would be more effective
than EDMs which are sometimes taken over by professional lobbyists
"It seems to work OK."
"The process is already easy to understand and
simple to follow."
Question (for respondents whose suggested debate
was scheduled) Did the Backbench Business Committee help you to
organise your debate? What improvements could be made to the support
provided by Committee for backbench Members organising debates?
"Yes. The Clerk to the Committee was very helpful
as were the House staff. Perhaps a brief fact sheet could be produced
setting out what the lead Member should do ahead of the debate
and on the day."
"Yesthough more contact advising numbers
of speakers and speaking limits for the opening speaker would
be helpful, i.e. I was advised to speak for 10 minutes as opening
speakerand had more to say but restricted myself to the
limit. It ended as the second shortest speech of the afternoon!"
"Perhaps there could be a routine pre-meeting
before each debate."
"The Committee officers were helpfula
bit more understanding about how the debate would work would have
been helpful as I was very new."
"It worked as it was a popular topic."
"Can't think of any."
"We are grownups do we need more help?"
"No, but I certainly felt there was help available
Question (for respondents who were unsuccessful)
Did you feel you received feedback on why your debate was not
selected? Were you satisfied with the explanation?
"YesI was told that there were matters
more pressing than a select committee report which I proposed
for debate. I was left with the feeling that select committee
reports are always likely to be in the 'too boring' / 'not enough
Question: Did you feel that debates scheduled
by the backbench Business Committee differed from those scheduled
by the Government? If so, how?
"Yessome quite obscure but really valuable
debates on issues that I can't imagine being debated in any other
way. Park homes debate and motion and the debate on the horseracing
levy would never have got into Government or Opposition time."
"They shone a light on topics that the Government
might want to ignore."
"Totally different in that the Government would
have been unlikely to choose the subjects themselves."
"They were wholly different to Government-inspired
debates. They tend to be topical, very often to be difficult or
embarrassing for the Government, very often reflecting real concerns
in the country which the Government might well prefer not to have
"More difficult for Government."
"Yes. The influence of the whips is less. But
whips have instructed MPs on the Afghanistan and the EU debates."
"The BBBC debates were often on subjects which
did not attract the Government's attention or support."
"Yes. The debates are more topical and there
is a greater likelihood of matters being debated which the Government
might, for whatever reason, not be able to provide time for debate."
"More relevant to current issues."
"More topical and important in several cases."
"Debate was often more engaged and fluid with
views being impacted on by the arguments presented. This is less
likely to happen in debates in Government or opposition time."
"More general in nature."
"More thoughtful, behind the scenes collaboration
from members of all parties. Government response can be a bit
weak frankly. Better quality of debate partly because enthusiastic
and knowledgeable members speakwhips operations can lead
to bland Government/ Opposition debates."
"In general more collegiate and less confrontational
but always subject to being hi-jacked by groups who wish to make
"Yes but hard to give a specific example, more
just a flavour of being more independent."
"Controversial and well attended."
"Varies greatly! Sometimes more collegiate and
open, but other times as controversial as any Government business..."
"Sometimes but not enough."
"Some of them were debates where there is only
really one point of view so the speeches can get repetitive."
"It variedfrom daft ones on circus animals
to emotional like Hillsborough to not enough time for key debates
on Fisheries and exceptionally effective ones like mobile broadband."
Question: What factors do you think make for a
successful Backbench debate?
"Topicality, wide popular interest, controversy."
"Topicality and breadth of subject. Personally
I think that debates should not be too narrow in scope."
"Topicality, relevance to current issues."
"Topicality, popularity, being of a generally
non-party political complexion, being capable of intelligent argument
as opposed to any kind of preset view. Matters of conscience,
to do with the way we ourselves conduct ourselves or our business,
perhaps peripheral matters which would not attract the attention
of the whips or leader of the House."
"Ability to raise a new topical issue that would
otherwise be severely constrained by other methods."
"The importance of the subject, the engagement
of members, the topicality of the subject."
"Level of interest of members and their knowledge
of the subject."
"Widespread appeal across party lines and informed
"Cross-party support, with a serious number
of MPs feeling the issue had been ignored."
"Good cross-party participation, a topical and
important issue and of course where the vote may make a difference
"Subject with cross-party support probably work
bestbut there should be facility for debates proposed by
one political group."
"Freedom from influence or manipulation by whips.
The Executive are reasserting and strengthening their role over
"They need to be relevant to both sides of the
House i.e. genuinely about backbench interest and not about issues
of interest only to one party (who can get lots of backbenchers
to turn up to support them at the backbench committee). Debating
issues that are 'popularist' simply raises unrealistic expectations
with the public and ultimately degrades politics."
"Give the ability to often explore an issue
in a less partisan manner."
"An issue that has arisen from constituencies
rather than a reaction to Government proposals."
"Constituency experiencedesigned to genuinely
highlight our work as MPs not kick the Government."
"Broad brush of views or exceptionally important
to large numbers of constituencies."
"A lot of contributions."
"Importance, breadth of interest."
"Lots of participants, a point of difference
(everyone agreeing is generally not particularly useful, though
I accept there are exceptions e.g. Hillsborough debate, UN Women
"Well chosen topic, not one that easily succumbs
to partisan politics."
"Important and topical issues that don't necessarily
cross the party divide commitment of a good ten members and a
subject that will draw other members in."
"Not having a controversial motion. It becomes
a nightmare having to explain to constituents why you are taking
a view on something, especially when they think that a No. 10
petition buys them a right to order you how to vote, particularly
when they are clueless as to how it works in practice. Non-controversial
motions would be an incredible help and the two debates I have
been involved in were 'this house notes' and one today with a
'calls on the Government to consider...'"
Question: What are your views on the new format
for pre-recess adjournment debate?
"I think it seems to have worked well."
"I support the changes."
"I think it provides a great opportunity."
"Much bettersuccinct slots, only downside
is if you ask for a department that doesn't end up having to send
a Minister. It would be good if the Departments then wrote to
colleagues after the debate in such circumstances to give a response
to points raised."
"This would appear a sensible development."
"I have used it. it is of some value as a chance
for raising issues that have not been raised by others means."
"Better than the old."
"Approve of the breaks and different topicsbut
would like to have a bit at the end on debate day which could
be added on."
"I'm relaxed either way."
"I have not participated in these yet, but not
for any reason down to the format or notification of these debates."
"Jury's out. Could work. Still finding it a
bit complicated but it does mean more real issues can come up."
"I have never taken part either before or after
the changes, but grouping them according to topic makes them slightly
less irrelevant than they used to be!"
"Quite a nice idea but does it achieve anything?"
"Let's suck it and see but it sounds a bit awkward."
Question: The Backbench Business Committee would
be grateful for any other suggestions you have on how we could
improve our approach:
"The main difficulty is lack of time and in
view of the fact that time is now expected to be provided to debate
topics raised on the Government's e-petition website I think more
time should be allocated for the Committee."
"It is important that the Committee tries to
put their own prejudices to one side and make decisions based
on the merit of giving a subject a hearing."
"You do not need me to tell you that the current
arrangements for e-petitions are ill thought through. Nor do I
believe it right for select committee reports, which may well
be dull and worthy but deserving of a debate should have to jostle
with sexy backbench ideas. There should perhaps be a set amount
of time for each20 days for e-petitions in Westminster
Hall on a 'Take Note' motion, 10 days for select Committee Reports,
30 days for true backbench business."
"Congratulations to the Committee on their great
progress. It has been a reform of major significance but it is
not right (or Wright) yet. Those who have control of the levers
of powers have speedily used e-petitions to advance their causes.
The critical approach adopted by the Committee to their work is
very welcome. Well done!"
"I recommend merging the EDM and Backbench Business
Committee processes as indicated earlier, so that topical, popular
subjects come to the Committee as a matter of procedure."
"Keep up the good work. Parliament needs to
reassert itself and you are helping to do that."
"I support the suggestion that the BBBC should
consider more open debates which do not call on the Government
to take action as a way of making sure their business does not
get hi-jacked by party politics."
"As you can see from the rest of this form,
I am generally supportive of the Backbench Business Committee.
But I am a backbencher on the Government side of the House and
it's extremely unsatisfactory not to know for sure, several days
in advance, whether or not there is going to be a whipped Division
on a Backbench Debate (particularly when the debate is on a Thursday).
Yet this seems to be a recurring themeeither a three line
whip on a Thursday (which never used to be the case), or, perhaps
more often, a three line whip that then gets downgraded to a one
line whip at the very last moment (by which time it's far too
late to organise any important alternative engagements outside
of the Parliamentary estate). This is NOT ACCEPTABLE. We should
not have to hang around Parliament waiting for a Division on a
Backbench Debate if we are not particularly interested in the
topic chosen for debate. Ideally, there would be NO Divisions
on Backbench Debates. If it is decided that there should be the
possibility for Divisions on Backbench Debates, then these should
be DEFERRED DIVISIONS that take place on a Monday, Tuesday or
"Can you provide time for well-supported but
threatened private member's bills or do something else to counter-act
the influence of MPs who are deliberately stifling other people's
private member's bills? In the past they have tried to do this
by regularly talking them out or using other procedural means.
This year they have produced dozens of their own so that no serious
bills can get through."
"Less pressure for votability."
"Non-controversial motions. Otherwise I think
you do a terrific job."
"Allow shorter debates in Westminster Hall;
not just three hour ones."
"The Chairman of the BBBC should answer business
questions, not Sir George Young!"
"I think you and your Committee can be rightly
proud of what has been achieved over the past 18 months. The only
constructive criticism I make is that I think Defence debates
should come in Government time and should not have to be competed
for amongst subjects raised by MPs. 'Defence' should not be a
Back Bench matterit should be a Government matter."
"Decades of MPs being told on a daily basis
what to do by Government and alternative government have left
us with atrophied faculties, ill prepared to take on even a small
part of the subtleties of managing the business of our own House
and had robbed us of an alternative vision to the Executive dominance
of the legislature. Thankfully on the back of the 2010 Wright
committee proposals the new Backbench Business Committee is starting
to turn this around. Many congratulations to you for an excellent
start. A burst of reform by a new government was welcome but even
so it was clear that a steady period of Parliament building up
the intellectual muscle to run even a part of its own affairs
was always going to be necessary. The Wright committee put the
basics of a new mission in place but that is now being resisted
by a combination of reviving executive control of parliament,
some poor judgements by individual MPs , abuse of a still delicate
process by factional interests, and pressure of events. The BBBC
needs to continue its evolution to handle these challenges or
MPs could lose control of many of the recent reforms of Parliament.
It is not a surprise that the e-petition has now increasingly
being reclaimed from Parliament by the real powers in politicsthe
media and the Government/alternative Government. E-petitions circumvent
rather than rebuild MPs' representative abilities and were always
going to end in an even greater belittling of the MP's role. Like
the 'e-campaigns' that flood MP's in-boxes, most of the 'e-debates',
far from being spontaneous are highly organised by vested interests,
most appear to be 'got up' at the tabloid editorial meeting, even
frontbenchers are now openly colluding with newspapers to fix
the agenda for debates. Some MPs have no value to add, some appear
to be willing indeed enthusiastic conduits for the raw sewage
of populism. Because there is so little self confidence in the
role of MPs and an independent Parliament, there is no coherent
and uniquely Parliamentary response to thisthe BBBC has
to fill this gap even at this early stage in its maturity. If
they don't then local/backbench/constituency issues will be squeezed
out and the BBBC will become the e- petitions committee giving
away hard won backbench time to whatever is the most intimidating
media bandwagon. In addition the BBBC must revisit the issue of
voting on backbench business rather than the House taking note.
Government (and opposition) is being drawn by voting into whipping
backbench business which was intended to normally be thoughtful
and mind opening. This was always meant to be the uncontroversial,
non-threatening end of the parliamentary agenda. A faction might
have thought they were clever in 'winning' a vote against the
EU on prisoners rights and were emboldened to try to win a vote
against their own Prime Minister on the European Union, but in
order to do so, most probably did not even realise or care that
they as MPs were abusing and discrediting the very weapons of
their own future liberation. If the frontbenches (admittedly by
their own misjudgement) get sucked into more difficult/embarrassing
voting situations then Governmentthrough the powerful civil
servants who run Parliament's agendawill feel obliged to
reassert control by one means or another of the Backbench Business
Committee. Until the BBBC's role is established beyond Executive
interference it should ensure debates 'take note' not vote. The
BBBC was always the important hors d'oeuvre before the main course
of the House Business Committee. If MPs are unable to keep the
balance on the BBBC tightrope between holding Government to account
while not embarrassing it then this bodes ill for the much more
difficult trick of running the proposed House Business Committee.
It was a central tenet of Wright that Government would always
get its business and if Government through the whips seek to control
of the HBC for fear that it will prove to be a source of weekly
embarrassment, then the whole of the reform agenda will be not
only be halted but set back a generation. Those of us who helped
drive the Wright Committee agenda did so to strengthen MPs and
Parliament not the media or the Whips. It is time to pause and
reflect on the great achievements of the reforms and the threats
they now face from the very institutions they were meant to better
hold to account. Some thoughtful statesmanship about the bigger
picture from the BBBC is essential, good wishes in that challenge."
"Congrats on all that you are doing with the
BBBC. In terms of feedback re future direction etc I read [the
above] note which I thought was spot on (though obviously he has
much more depth of knowledge on this than I do). Can I therefore
please just echo his comments?"
"I quite agree that e-petitions should not be
able to randomly eat into the main allocation of BBCom time, given
the role that media and powerful players often have in getting
a high number of signatures. I wonder if one solution to that
could be to argue for additional 'ring-fenced' BBCom time for
e-petitions. For example, two three-hour debates every quarter?
That would only be an additional four days time over a year(or
even one three hour debate every quarter, only two days) and I
understand BBCom currently gets 35 days in a Session. I'm afraid
I don't agree that the House should just 'take note' rather than
have a vote on BBCom motions in the main Chamber. For example,
with last night's motion on extradition passed, we now have a
peg on which to hang a potential delegation to Ministers to try
and get a Bill this Session. I really think it'd be a backwards
step to take away the option of a motion with a vote. If the BBCom
debates and votes actually start to put pressure on the Government
to do things that they don't want to do then I guess the BBCom
could be put under threat behind the scenes. However, I feel that
the more votes that the BBCom has on important issues the stronger
it will become, as there will be a record of action to defend.
We already have Westminster Hall for the Government to 'take note'this
has its uses but so do votes. If the Government whip people on
BBCom votes that is a shame but it still means the issues are
having an impact and better to have a whipped vote than none at
all. I don't think a vote stops passionate backbenchers from saying
what they'd say anyway in a debate without a vote. Having said
this, I do quite agree that we do not want BBCom time to be hijacked
by attempts aimed more at embarrassing the Government rather than
holding them to accountbut I'm afraid that this distinction
is not always clear cut. For example, there was a lot of genuine
backbench interest in the recent Europe debate, whilst some clearly
wanted to embarrass their own side. I also very much share the
desire for the longer-term aim of a House Business Committee,
but I'm not convinced that taking away the vote on BBCom main
Chamber debates will help us to get it. As ever, open to discussion
and debate on these points!"
"Already doing excellent work. Hard to improve