Backbench Business Committee

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons 4:13 pm, 12th March 2012

Before I call the Deputy Leader of the House to move the motion, I should inform the House that I have selected amendments (a), (b) and (c) in the name of Natascha Engel and amendments (g) and (h) to amendments (a) and (b) in the name of Mr John Hemming. I have also selected amendments (d), (e) and (f) in the name of Mr Peter Bone. The amendments will be debated together with the main motion and the questions necessary to dispose of the motion will be put at the end of the debate.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:16 pm, 12th March 2012

I beg to move,

That—

(1) this House endorses the principle that parties should elect members of the Backbench Business Committee each Session and thereafter when a vacancy arises in a secret ballot of all Members of that party by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose.

(2) Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, at end, insert—

‘(ba) No Member may be a candidate for the chair of the committee if that Member’s party is represented in Her Majesty’s Government.’;

(b) in line 12, leave out from second ‘of’ to end of line 14 and insert ‘a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and no fewer than ten shall be members of a party not so represented or of no party’;

(c) line 28, leave out paragraph (2);

(d) line 64, leave out sub-paragraph (b); and

(e) in the Title, after the word ‘of’, insert ‘chair of’.

(3) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

‘(3) The chair of the committee shall continue as chair for the remainder of the Session in which that person is elected as chair unless the chair is declared vacant by the Speaker under the provisions of Standing Order No. 122C (Resignation or removal of chairs of select committees) as applied by paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Backbench Business Committee).’;

(b) in line 12, leave out ‘and members’;

(c) line 21, at end, insert—

‘(6A) The Committee shall have power to invite Members of the House who are not members of the Committee and who are of a party not represented on the Committee or of no party to attend its meetings and, at the discretion of the chair, take part in its proceedings, but—

(a) no more than one Member may be so invited to attend in respect of the same meeting;

(b) a Member so invited shall not move any motion or amendment to any motion, vote or be counted in the quorum.’.

As the House will be aware, the Select Committee on Procedure, which is chaired with such distinction by Mr Knight, is conducting a review of the Backbench Business Committee. The Government look forward to contributing to that review and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House looks forward to giving oral evidence. I am sure that the whole House will look forward to the conclusions set out in the review and the Government will certainly consider any recommendations very carefully.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for his preamble. In the light of what he has said, why do the Government consider it inappropriate to leave this motion until after the Procedure Committee has reported?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. Having already said what a splendid fellow he is, I am happy to address the issue that he raises. We expect the Procedure Committee’s conclusions to be of great value, as they have been on a number of other topics. I want to emphasise that today’s motion is not intended to pre-empt the review—[ Interruption. ] Well, it simply does not. It makes three changes that need to be made this Session in order to take effect before the next elections for members of the Backbench Business Committee and therefore before the completion of the review. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, those changes arise in part from points made in evidence to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the 2010 elections and that Committee itself envisaged changes as regards minority parties being made in advance of the review.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for giving way and I apologise as I am chairing a Committee upstairs at 4.30 pm and will therefore be unable to stay and listen to the end of his remarks. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I thought I would raise the notion that the question of whether the Committee should be elected on a party basis is a difficult matter that I shall be considering very carefully during the forthcoming proceedings of the Procedure Committee. In the meantime, given that he is proposing to make that change without such consideration having taken place, I have no option other than to vote against the Government this evening.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am sorry to hear that, obviously, but it is for the House to make that decision in the light of today’s debate. There would be very little point in our determining that we should have made a change to the process of election after the elections had been held for the next Session. It seems appropriate to me that the House should have the opportunity, as it does today, to consider the matter and come to a conclusion. The will of the House on whether it wishes to make the suggested changes will then prevail.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is for the House to make its decision as this concerns House of Commons business. Will he tell us whether Government members and parliamentary private secretaries are being whipped on this business and if so why?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman will have to ask his right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary about the position on whipping. There are motions on the Order Paper for debate later today that very much reflect the Government’s position on the conduct of business. On those matters, it is quite clear that right hon. and hon. Members who are members of the Government will be whipped to support the Government view, and they are of course here as a consequence.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, it is perfectly possible that the Government will get this motion through, without any of the amendments that have been tabled, on the back of a payroll vote. Will he undertake that if that does happen and the Procedure Committee then decides that it wants to take the House down a slightly different route, he will table motions to allow that to happen in the next Session?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I have already indicated that we will want to see the Procedure Committee’s conclusions. It has been the practice of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and myself to bring forward motions to allow the House to consider the Procedure Committee’s recommendations. I do not think we have anything to be ashamed of in that respect as we have been very careful to ensure that the House has opportunities, where possible, to determine these matters. Obviously, we shall have to wait and see what emerges from the Committee in due course.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way but he still has yet to explain why he and the Government are pre-empting the Procedure Committee’s findings, particularly given one of its last-known findings, at paragraph 59 of its latest report, which stated:

“We have received no adverse comments on the arrangements for the elections to the Backbench Business Committee”.

Can the Government justify their position?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

There was limited scope for complaints about elections to the Backbench Business Committee because, certainly on the Government side of the House, there were no elections: the Members who serve on the Committee were elected unopposed. However, the Procedure Committee proposed that we needed to consider the position of minority parties and I assured Members from the minority parties when we first debated this matter that we would look into this and come back with proposals. I think we would be deficient in our response to the House if we were not to have that debate before the opportunity arises to vote again on the Backbench Business Committee.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for using the word “deficient” because his proposals for the minority parties are clearly deficient and unsatisfactory. Our being given observer status on a Backbench Business Committee—a Committee of the House—as though we were second or third-class citizens of the House is totally unacceptable to us, so if this is all about the minority parties and the smaller parties, he can forget it.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am rather minded to forget it. I went to a great deal of trouble to address the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman asked me to consider when we first debated this. He asked for his party and the other minority parties to be allowed to put up candidates for election as the Chair of the Committee. That is what we are proposing today and he says, “Forget it.” Well, we shall see whether he supports the contention when it comes to the vote.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I think I should make a little more progress as I have yet to explain what the proposal is, but I will come back to right hon. and hon. Members who wish to contribute.

The motion aligns the method of election to the Backbench Business Committee with that for other Select Committees. Pete Wishart might feel aggrieved that he does not have representation on all the Select Committees of the House, but he does not because, on the basis of the formula, he does not have enough party members in the House to have that level of representation. The motion provides protection against unwarranted interference by a future Government in the election of the Chair—something that some hon. Members were very concerned about. We propose to give the House an opportunity to determine that issue today. The motion provides also for participation by the minority parties, however ungrateful they may be, in the Committee.

Nearly a month ago, the Government’s response to the Procedure Committee’s report was published. It stated quite explicitly that

“the Government believe that it would be appropriate for the House to address the anomaly whereby members of the Backbench Business Committee other than the Chair (unlike those of other select committees) are elected by the House as a whole rather than by Members of the political party to which they belong before the next elections of members. The Government propose to allow time for consideration of proposals to this effect towards the end of the current Session.”

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Should not a strong and confident Government accept whatever kind of scrutiny the House thinks is appropriate? Does the hon. Gentleman not get the mood of the House today? Everyone who has spoken so far today and, I think, those who have not spoken believe he should withdraw the motion and await the proper conclusions of the Committee?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I prefer to hear the preponderance of voices in a Division, rather than take a snapshot of how the House may feel before it has had a chance to hear the debate. It is for the House to determine which way it wants to go on the proposals—

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I shall make a little more progress. I have been reasonably generous in giving way to hon. Members, and I will no doubt be sufficiently generous again.

The Government could not have been clearer about their intentions. There has been some suggestion that the motion has been sprung on the House without notice or at the wrong time. I suggest that that contention is without merit.

When moving the motion which led to the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee on 15 June 2010, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out that

“For the first time in over a century, the House will be given control over significant parts of its own agenda.”—[Hansard, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 779.]

That shift in control is one which this Government facilitated and to which they remain fully committed. The subjects of debate and the form that motions for debate take on the equivalent of 35 days a Session, including at least 27 days on the Floor of the House, are now properly a matter for the Backbench Business Committee. The debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee have helped to raise the public profile of the House of Commons, and increased public awareness of the crucial role of the House in holding the Executive to account. The subjects chosen might well not have been chosen by the Government, or indeed by the Opposition, and have been challenging for us. That is part and parcel of the switch of power that the Wright Committee envisaged.

The Government are committed to the continuing role of the Backbench Business Committee, and to providing the time to that Committee in a Session of normal length which is set out in Standing Orders. The motion before us today does not affect in any way the Committee’s powers or its role.

The first change addresses an anomaly in the method of election of members of the Backbench Business Committee. At present, all members of the Committee are elected by the whole House. This is wholly appropriate for the Chair of the Committee, who represents the whole House, but it may not be appropriate for the other members. It is wrong in principle that, for example, the choice of Opposition Members on a Committee could be decided by the votes of Members on the Government Benches, who will inevitably outnumber them.

I read a comment in the electronic media earlier today—because of the anomaly, why do we not change the rules for all the other Select Committees to match those for the Backbench Business Committee? The reason is obvious. If we were to do that, the Government of the day would control who the Opposition parties put on Select Committees. The House would rightly be outraged if that were the position, yet that is the position that we currently have with the Backbench Business Committee.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

No doubt my hon. Friend has seen the evidence submitted by Dr Meg Russell to the Procedure Committee, in which she expressed her view that to go down the route he has chosen

“would be very much contrary to the spirit of what the Wright Committee intended.”

Is not the answer that the Backbench Business Committee is a special committee, not like an ordinary Select Committee, and that its Chair should be selected in the same manner as the Speaker and represent the whole House, as indeed should its members? That is what Wright intended. Why is he departing from Wright?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

As I said when responding to the debate on the original motion to set up the Backbench Business Committee, Wright is not holy writ and should not be treated as such, not least because there are internal contradictions in the Wright report, just as there are sometimes in holy writ. Therefore, the House has to take a view on what is in the best interests of its procedures. That will be for the House to decide. I simply contend that it is a strange situation where the biggest party represented in the House can override the interests and decisions of other parties in deciding who its representatives on the Committee will be. I would have thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex had confidence in the ability of his own party’s procedures —I am afraid I have no specialist knowledge of them—to make a proper determination of who should serve on the Committee on its behalf.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex that different considerations apply to the Chair of the Committee, as he set out, which is why we propose that the Chair should continue to be elected by the whole House, with one proviso: we think that the Government should not provide the Chair, for perfectly obvious reasons. The situation is exactly analogous to that of two other Committees—the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. There is a strong argument in favour of the Committee’s decisions not being seen as the result of some sort of internal collusion between the Government and the legislature, and I think that the clearest way of indicating that they are not is to ensure that the Chair comes from a party that is not represented in Government.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission

So, the Deputy Leader of the House can of course give us an assurance that the Government are not seeking to change the rules now because existing members of the Committee have proved too independent.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I can give that clear assurance, because I have absolute confidence that the members elected by the party groups will be every bit as independent as those elected by Committee of the whole House, and perhaps even identical in person. What I am trying to do is prevent the potential abuse of that process, which could clearly happen under the present rules. I hope that each of the parties, through their internal mechanisms, will have sufficiently robust structures in place to ensure that the Whips, if they come running to Back-Bench Members to have a particular Member elected to the Committee, will be robustly told where to go. But we shall see, because that is internal to the various parties and their internal democratic processes.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I am struggling a little to follow the argument the Deputy Leader of the House is making. If it is the case that the present Chair and members of the Committee have been conducting themselves excellently, why change now in a hurry when we are still waiting for a report? If the Government are so concerned about this—perhaps there is a point I have overlooked—why did he not bring in the arrangement he is proposing at the beginning of the process? Why are we bringing it in when the process is well underway, given that the people who have been running the Backbench Business Committee appear to be doing such a splendid job?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I have already said why. We are doing that now because we are about to have elections, and we do not change the rules of elections after elections. It is normal practice, and normally more constructive, to change the rules before elections, rather than afterwards.

The hon. Gentleman asks why we did not start from a different basis. I accept, and the House is fully aware, that we started with the draft proposals from the Wright Committee, and it was obvious then that what applied to the Backbench Business Committee was different from what applied to any other Select Committee. The precautionary principle in elections to other Select Committees exists for a reason: to stop interference—in a party political way, between the parties—as to who on Select Committees should represent Members. I think that is quite an important principle, but the House must decide whether it considers it to be an important principle. If the House considers it to be nugatory, the House will vote accordingly.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I realise that my hon. Friend is keen to bring the rules of the Backbench Business Committee into line with those of other Select Committees, so why does he not propose to bring it into line with Standing Order No. 151(11) so that its members are elected for the whole Parliament, rather than for a Session at a time?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman raises a separate issue, one that we explored at length when we set up the Committee. The answer is that the Committee is a Committee of the House which deals with the topical issues before it, and it is right that Back Benchers have a regular opportunity to express their view on its performance; I make no apologies for that. It is sensible that the House has such control, because if we were to elect the Committee’s members for an entire Parliament, the House would lose that opportunity to reflect on, or to see, whether the Committee was conducting itself as the House had hoped.

That is entirely different in kind from the responsibilities, within a Select Committee, of Select Committee members, who need such continuity in order to do their job effectively of holding to account the Department in question. To my mind there is a clear separation, but the hon. Gentleman may take a different view. I am simply confident that the House is capable of making decisions about the way in which it conducts its affairs, and of doing so without the benefit of distortions of any kind in the system. That is what is proposed today.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am going to have make some progress very soon, because I have gone very little distance in explaining the tenor of my comments, but I will give way once more to the hon. Gentleman, as I am a very generous man.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

My hon. Friend is being very kind, but in all these exchanges he has singularly failed to answer one simple question: why are the Government pre-empting the findings of the Procedure Committee?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman says that I have singularly failed to answer the question, but I have answered it several times; he simply does not like the answer I have given. There is a subtle distinction between not answering and others not accepting the answer. As I have said, the answer is that this is the opportunity we have before the elections.

The Procedure Committee will not report before the elections are due, and I do not want to put any further pressure on it to complete its report in a hurry, because these are very important matters on which we want the full benefit of its advice. It is no good crying after the event if it proves that we have made an error in our election of Members to the Backbench Business Committee. That is why the House has been given the opportunity today to consider whether it wants to make the changes that I have suggested.

The motion achieves that—

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, but this will be the last intervention for some time.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

On that point, the problem so far in getting Procedure Committee debates on to the Floor of the House has been the Government allocating time for the Backbench Business Committee so that the Committee can allocate time to debate a Procedure Committee report. If the Government were to promise to allocate time immediately to debate a Procedure Committee report, there would be no difficulty in getting that through in time for the elections.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

There is one small difficulty with that, which is that the Backbench Business Committee is precluded from putting forward time for amendments to its own constitution. That is why it has to be a matter for the Government and why we are providing time today, and would provide time in future, to consider the results of the Procedure Committee report.

The motion achieves what I have been describing by a simple endorsement of the principle that parties should elect members of the Backbench Business Committee each Session, and thereafter when a vacancy arises, in a secret ballot of all Members from that party by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose, following the same approach as that agreed for other Select Committees on 4 March 2010. In consequence, we are, if the House agrees, removing the provisions in Standing Orders for elections of members of the Committee other than the Chair. The amendments in the name of Mr Bone and others would remove the provisions whose purpose I have described and retain the current arrangements. Given what I have said, it will be no surprise that I will not support those amendments, but it is open to the House to do so if it wishes.

The second element of the motion relates to the Chair of the Committee, and I have already indicated why I believe that it introduces a beneficial change. The Government believe that it would not be appropriate for a Member from the governing party, or parties, to be nominated for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, because to do so might give rise to the Government’s appearing to seek to influence a key position in the House in an improper way. Having an Opposition Member chairing the Backbench Business Committee headlines the Committee’s independence not only from the business managers—of whom I am one, on behalf of the Government—but the influence of the Government party generally. My right hon. Friend

Sir Alan Haselhurst stood for the post of Chair in 2010, when Natascha Engel was elected, and his wisdom and experience have subsequently been deployed in his service as Chair of the Administration Committee. However, conventions evolve over time, and we think the time is now right to recognise that the Chair should be held by an Opposition Member.

At the same time, we are taking the opportunity to remedy an anomaly in the Standing Order that was identified by my hon. Friend Jo Swinson and referred to by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire during the debate on 15 June 2010—namely, that at present no Member can be nominated for the Chair unless he or she belongs to a party with at least 11 Members of this House. I acknowledged on that occasion that my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman had identified a possible defect in the Standing Order that needed to be considered, and I am pleased to move this motion to remedy it—[ Interruption ]—despite the protestations of the hon. Gentleman who, it seems, is never satisfied. We propose to replace it with a provision that requires cross-party support of comparable strength but allows Members from minority parties to stand for Chair of the Committee.

Finally, the motion makes provision for hon. Members from parties not represented on the Backbench Business Committee to participate in its work. The motion allows the Committee to invite an hon. Member who does not belong to a party represented on it to participate in its proceedings, including deliberative sessions, but not to vote. It would be for the Committee to decide whether to invite one hon. Member for a Session or a shorter period or to invite different hon. Members to different meetings. [ Interruption. ] The Government believe that this effectively addresses minority party concerns—although clearly, according to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, it does not—in a manner consistent with the principle that the composition of the Committee should reflect the party composition of the House. The hon. Gentleman protests from a sedentary position that it does not reflect it because he wants full membership of the Committee, but that is not the way in which this House has determined its membership of Select Committees, whereby such membership reflects the composition of the House as a whole. It seems to me that that principle of proportionality is something that the House would wish to maintain, because otherwise it becomes open to the House to distort the composition of the House as represented in the membership of its Select Committees, and I am not sure that the Backbench Business Committee should be separate from that consideration.

We made it clear in our response to the Procedure Committee, which was published last month, that we do not agree with the proposal for full membership for a minority party Member. Our proposal allows for the participation of hon. Members from different parties, as and when the Backbench Business Committee considers it appropriate, whereas the amendments would provide for only a single hon. Member to participate. That is why we oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire and others.

The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend John Hemming would apply the principle of whole-House elections to the election of a minority party Member. That is instructive about the conduct of this whole debate. Were the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire and the amendments to them tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley successful, the larger parties in the House would determine not only which Member from the minority parties would appear on the Committee, but which party would be represented. That would put the larger parties in the inappropriate position of deciding whether it should be a Member from the Democratic Unionist party, the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru who was selected for the position. That amply demonstrates what is wrong with the current system of elections.

In conclusion, the motion will change the elections for the membership of the Backbench Business Committee and how Members participate in its work in a way that enables the Committee to continue to work effectively. It will make those changes at the right time—in fact, the only possible time—before the membership is settled in the next Session. The motion will facilitate the Committee’s effective operation in the future and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:46 pm, 12th March 2012

It is appropriate that I start my comments, which I promise will be brief, by drawing attention to the success of the Backbench Business Committee so far. That needs to be put on the record. A wide range of topics has been introduced to the House via this mechanism, some of them as a result of the e-petitions process, with which we are now all familiar. Of course, one particular subject was not allowed to be debated in the Chamber and the reasons for that are well known.

There have been 39 days of Back-Bench debate in the Chamber and 16 in Westminster Hall. The impact has been considerable and has outweighed the number of days that have been allocated. There have been challenging debates on a range of issues and there have been six votes, including two on Afghanistan, one on contaminated blood, one on the regulation of financial advisers and one on accountability to the House. All those are important topics that would not have been debated or voted on if we had not had the Backbench Business Committee. The House would therefore not have been able to express its view.

One of the two most memorable debates was last year’s debate on wild animals in circuses. The decision of the House, without a vote, was that wild animals should be banned in circuses. The view of the Opposition is that the wild animals in circuses may die of old age before they are banned if the Government have their way.

Perhaps the biggest and most profound debate was on the Hillsborough disaster, which was held in the House last autumn. I was proud to take part in that debate, and in my view, it showed the House at its finest. It was a moving debate that consolidated the growing view that the Hillsborough disaster requires open and transparent examination, especially in relation to the records that are given over to the inquiry, and that no stone should be left unturned in revealing the truth of what happened on that day. The House played an important part in confirming the view of the establishment, if one wants to call it that, on that point.

The Backbench Business Committee is clearly a useful new mechanism for strengthening the effective scrutiny of Government by the Commons. We support the motion because it follows the example set by the new arrangements for Select Committee membership, which were hard fought for. Those arrangements determine that the membership of Select Committees should be decided by elections of all Members of the House. The new Select Committee procedure, which will apply to the Backbench Business Committee if the motion is passed, gives Back Benchers on both sides of the House the opportunity to determine their own representation on Committees. Equally importantly, it allows them to do so without interference by any other party.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Chief Whip, SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady says that the motion will give parties on both sides of the House the ability to select their Committee members without interference by anybody else. In fact, it will give three parties in the House the ability to select their members. It ignores the representatives of the other six parties. The Social Democratic and Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, the Alliance party, the Green party and the Democratic Unionist party will have no ability to select members. Does she not think that she should have thought the matter through a little more carefully, or is this just about the Labour party Whips controlling their Members, in the same way as it is about the Tory Back Benchers being controlled by their Whips?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Perish the thought. I would argue, actually, that the motion gives minority party Members more right to representation on the Backbench Business Committee.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does the hon. Lady agree that there would be a problem if the motion were accepted, in that two elections would take place, one among Government Members and one among Opposition Members? The rules provide that two female Members have to be elected to the Committee. How would that work in practice? How would it be determined who the two female Members should be?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is a minimum of two women, and the Opposition have plenty of very good women who would put their names forward. In my view, women on the Labour Benches are equally likely to be represented on the Committee as our male colleagues, if not more so.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Very briefly, but then I must make progress, because I want to give Back-Bench Members time to make their contributions.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

As I understand it, the Government’s proposal will do away with the gender balance on the Committee. Does the hon. Lady support that?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The Opposition will have a quota to provide gender balance on the Committee, because we are committed to equality when it comes to gender representation in the House. We are proud of the fact that we follow that principle.

The motion will also abolish the prohibition on members of minority parties standing for the position of Chair of the Committee, which is an important improvement. That is provided, of course, that they are not members of any governing coalition, which is an equally important improvement.

A Procedure Committee inquiry on the Backbench Business Committee is ongoing. We seek assurances that there will be an opportunity at the appropriate time for the House to take a view on any recommendations arising from that report, with adequate time provided. I believe that the Government have already conceded that point to some extent, but I should like to hear more about it when the Minister concludes the debate.

We cannot support the amendments, because they are incompatible with the Select Committee membership arrangements that are already in place.

I shall conclude now, because I wish to give Back-Bench Members adequate time to contribute.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. It is clear that several Members wish to speak, and we have, I think, only 53 minutes for them to do so. There is no formal time limit on Back-Bench speeches at this stage, but a certain self-denying ordinance would be widely appreciated.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 4:53 pm, 12th March 2012

I rise to speak against the motion, largely in sadness and regret, because I will have to criticise those on the Government Front Bench, particularly the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House. I could do that in 10 seconds, because as we have already heard, Government and Opposition Front Benchers support the motion on the Backbench Business Committee, so we could almost say, “When the two Front Benches agree, it’s a clearly a stitch-up and can't be right for the House”—and sit down.

This attempt to alter Standing Orders on the Backbench Business Committee to suit the Executive is absolutely outrageous. It is an attempt by the Executive to ignore Parliament and to impose their will on the House. What is particularly shocking is that they are trying to interfere with business that is exclusively Back-Bench business. Such business has no relevance whatever to the Government.

The Government’s actions fly in the face of the House of Commons Reform Committee report, “Rebuilding the House”, HC1117, which proposed what are known throughout the House as the Wright reforms. Those reforms were designed to restore trust in Parliament and to reduce the power of the Executive. They were the very reforms that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House supported so vigorously when they were in opposition. I am sad to say that it has taken less than two years for the Government to do a U-turn and go back to the bad old days of the Executive trying to tell Parliament what to do. There have been several signs over the past few months that the Government are adopting the policy of always knowing right and of assuming that Parliament is there only to rubber-stamp their decisions. This motion is the clearest and most obvious breach of their commitment to put Parliament first.

One of the most shocking and shameful aspects of the debate is its timing. The Leader of the House put the motion on the Order Paper without any consultation with the Backbench Business Committee. Even more significantly, he did so only hours after the Committee met, so that it could not formally consider the issue. He has also tabled the debate and vote prior to tomorrow’s Committee meeting. He has deliberately slighted the Committee, which meets weekly, by putting the motion on the Order Paper hours after last Tuesday’s meeting and before tomorrow’s meeting.

What is even more reprehensible is that the Committee is reviewing its operation so that it can report to the House and provide evidence to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry. The Government’s timing is the most disgraceful discourtesy to the Backbench Business Committee. The Leader of the House is saying to the Committee: “I want to sneak this through before your Committee can formally protest.” That is devious, undemocratic and a disgrace to the Government.

I shall now turn to the crux of the matter—this is why the motion should be defeated. The Procedure Committee, chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend Mr Knight, who is in his place, announced on 21 February 2012 that it was launching a review of the operation of the Backbench Business Committee in accordance with a previous motion agreed by the House of Commons. The review was

“in particular to inquire into…issues relating to the membership of the Committee…the amount of time available to the Committee and the way in which the Government allocates that time…the powers of the Committee, and the process by which the Committee determines the matters to be debated in backbench time.”

The closing date for submissions was Thursday 8 March. Let us dwell on that for a moment. Thursday 8 March was two days after the Government tabled their motion and decided what the House would do. At best, that was a shoddy attempt by the Government to ignore a Select Committee; at worst, it was an attempt by the Government to interfere with a Select Committee, which could give rise to a number of issues for the Minister, possibly including a breach of the ministerial code and referral to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Government might think that they can ignore the will of Parliament, but this is a different Parliament to previous ones. This Parliament is willing to stand up to an all-powerful Executive.

As the House is aware, Members were requested to send representations to the Procedure Committee by last Thursday. The first three things they were asked to consider were:

“The composition of the Committee and the process for electing its members; whether the Chair of the Committee should be reserved for an opposition Member; whether a place on the Committee should be reserved for the minority parties.”

The top three issues, then, that we were asked to consider and report on to the Procedure Committee by last Thursday are exactly the three issues that the Government are trying to shoot through Parliament today.

The Executive have decided, without waiting for the Procedure Committee report, that Committee members will be elected by party groups and that the Chair of the Committee will be an Opposition Member, and they have completely fudged the issue of the minority parties. The Government have predetermined the Procedure Committee’s inquiry before it has had time to collate the written evidence, take oral evidence and consider its report.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s explanation—that they had to push this through prior to an election—runs rather shallow given that, unlike for other Committees of the House, elections are every Session, so these proposals could quite easily have been postponed for a year until the next elections?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Of course that is the case. These elections will determine the Backbench Business Committee not for the term of the Parliament but for a year. If the Procedure Committee happened to report after the next elections and there was a change to procedure, the elections afterwards could be run on the new system. There was absolutely no need to prejudge the Select Committee report, apart from the fact that it might have resolved matters differently from what the Government wanted.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

May I place it on the record that the Procedure Committee will in no way feel inhibited by what is determined today? Does my hon. Friend agree that what the House decides today it can later decide to undo or amend?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. Nobody who knows him will think that this sort of ploy could possibly affect what his Committee does.

I turn to one of the most appalling aspects of today—the whipping on the Conservative Benches. There is no question but that this is House business, and there is no question but that it is Back-Bench business. By convention, such votes should not carry a Whip; they should be free votes. There is no way that the Executive should try to instruct the House how to organise Back-Bench business affairs, but Conservative Members were told last week that we would be on a three-line Whip to vote for this outrageous motion. After protests, the Whips Office reduced it to a one-line Whip. [Laughter.] Chris Bryant laughs, and of course he knows why the Whips Office did that: to keep Back Benchers away from the House. I have received a very nice text from a Member saying, “I’m out working in my constituency. Aren’t the xxx Whips very devious?” That is very true.

After our protests, then, the Whips Office reduced the vote to a one-line Whip, but that is not a genuine free vote, because Members here will still be instructed how to vote. This is wrong, should not be happening and flies in the face of the coalition Government’s pledge to restore trust in Parliament. Even worse, I understand that Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries are on a three-line Whip to vote through this despicable motion. The very people who should have no interest in Back-Bench business are the ones who are being told to vote for the changes. I am more than happy to take an intervention from the Leader of the

House if that is not the case.

[

Interruption.

]

I see he does not want to intervene. This really is going back to the bad old days.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Is my hon. Friend aware that some years ago, in an extremely important book called “The Commons In Transition”, a former Clerk of the House said that the root of all the trouble with Standing Orders and whipping was collusion between the two Front Benches in the 1880s in order to take control of Standing Orders away from the Speaker? In those days it was the Speaker who determined these questions, which preserved the integrity of the House.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I think you would admonish me if I went down that route, Mr Speaker, as it is a little wide of today’s debate, although I must say that it has much merit.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I turn to the amendments in my name and five of the seven other members of the Backbench Business Committee, including the Chairman. The purpose of amendments (d), (e) and (f) is to leave out the Government’s proposed changes to the election of Backbench Business Committee members. The Government are proposing that future members of the Committee will be elected by party group. There are two distinct disadvantages to that proposal. The first—I suggest that this is the reason for it—is that it will give the Government, as well as the shadow Government, greater influence in deciding who is elected to the Backbench Business Committee. Through their Whips Offices, they will try to engineer more pliable Members to be elected to the Committee. I believe that this will make the Committee much more divided on party lines. In all the time that the current Committee has met, there has been only one vote, and that did not divide it along party lines. The Government’s proposal will reduce the likelihood that independent parliamentarians will be elected to the Committee.

Secondly, the authority that members of the Committee hold is greatly enhanced by their being chosen by the whole House. Their mandate comes from Back Benchers of all political persuasions, not by a narrow party group. The Wright Committee was clear on that issue, saying in paragraph 180 of its report on page 54:

“We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole”.

So there we have it: the Wright report recommends that individual members of the Committee should be elected by the whole House, not by party groups. That is what the House agreed when setting up the Backbench Business Committee—the House agreed with the Wright Committee. Now the Government want to change Standing Orders while a Select Committee is looking into the matter, and against the wishes of the Wright Committee and an earlier decision of the House.

In conclusion, I therefore wish to press my amendments, and if they are not accepted by the Government, I will seek your leave to divide the House, Mr Speaker. I will also be supporting the amendments in the name of Natascha Engel. I would urge Members both to support the amendments and to vote against the motion.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Several Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I give notice to the House that after the next speaker whom I intend to call—namely the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee—I will impose a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench contributions, because I am keen to facilitate as many Back Benchers as possible. However, that will not apply to the next speech.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee 5:08 pm, 12th March 2012

I will keep my comments brief, in order that Back Benchers are given a bit more time.

I am deeply disappointed that the Government have tabled this motion without consulting either the Procedure Committee or the Backbench Business Committee. It goes absolutely against the spirit of the sort of relationship that has grown up between the Backbench Business Committee and the Government. The fact that motions affecting the Backbench Business Committee’s operation have been tabled while the Procedure Committee is still looking at that matter in detail and asking for their ideas people far and wide, inside the House and beyond, means that today’s debate cannot be as informed as it should be. Furthermore, to allocate one and a half hours for such a debate is laughable. Members are being asked to make decisions on matters that require much more information.

The Backbench Business Committee will produce its report either this week or next week. The Procedure Committee could work much more quickly on its review of the operation of the Backbench Business Committee if it needed to, and could report very quickly on it. If the Government were willing to withdraw the motion, I am certain that we would benefit from a debate informed by the end-of-term report from the Backbench Business Committee and by the Procedure Committee’s report, well before the end of the Session and timed to coincide with the elections to the Backbench Business Committee. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are willing to consider withdrawing the motion and having a debate on these matters on another day? I am sure that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Mr Knight and I would work very quickly to produce our Committees’ reports in order to facilitate such a debate.

The amendments tabled in my name deal with the minority parties. This matter has been a running sore to the Backbench Business Committee. We are, by accident, a Committee of Members from England. We have three members from the east midlands region, and we are an entirely English Committee. We could be far more representative not only of Back Benchers but of the country as a whole if the minority parties were more actively involved.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

As a Member from Wales, I endorse what the hon. Lady has just said. She will be aware that the leading characters from Wales came to her to put their case for a St David’s day debate, and I am happy to report that the English members of the Committee yielded to that request, but it took two years to achieve that. The point that she makes about geographic spread is an important one.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee

Indeed. Such representation would give added flavour to the Backbench Business Committee.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

It is more than that; the Committee must be for Back Benchers of the whole House, not just those of the Government parties and the Labour Opposition. There are five other political parties in the House; surely they should be represented if it is to be a Back-Bench Committee of the whole House.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee

That goes to the heart of the amendments. The minority parties are Back Benchers. They can never really be Front Benchers. It is very unlikely that we will ever see a member of one of the minority parties at the Dispatch Box.

Using the principle of proportionality is also wrong. The Committee has four members from the Conservative party, one from the Liberal Democrats and two from the Labour party, plus the Chair, who has a casting vote. An additional member from one of the minority parties would not automatically lose the Government their majority—certainly not during a coalition Government, and I see no reason why we should not consider expanding the number of members of the Committee if there were not a coalition.

The Backbench Business Committee is different from other Select Committees, in that it represents all Back Benchers of the House. At the moment, however, we do that very poorly by not having representation from the minority parties. The Procedure Committee’s report of October 2011 recommended that these changes be made, and that an additional place on the Backbench Business Committee be created in order that the minority parties be given representation. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire has just made the point that, after the Procedure Committee had reported, we could table motions to amend what had been decided today. That is sort of true, but only the Government are able to table motions that affect the Backbench Business Committee. Quite rightly, we as a Backbench Business Committee cannot table motions that affect our own operation. What the right hon. Gentleman says is rather difficult unless it is within the Government’s agreement that the motions are tabled. That worries me. That brings me back to why the Government cannot simply wait until the Procedure Committee has produced its report and the Backbench Business Committee has told the House about its experiences in the one and a half years of its existence.

Let me briefly support the amendment tabled by Mr Bone that deals with the issue of the whole House participating in the elections. This goes back to the point that the Backbench Business Committee is somewhat different from other Select Committees, in that it represents all Back Benchers. Therefore, the whole House should have a say in who it wants on the Backbench Business Committee.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

The hon. Lady and I both served on the Wright Committee, and I am sure that she remembers, as I do, that it was very much that Committee’s deliberate intention to achieve a cultural change in the House of Commons. Part of that was precisely the issue of the Backbench Business Committee being elected by and representing the whole House, not individual parties.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee

That is absolutely right. We should not throw away that important principle today. I am worried by the fact that the Government have tabled these motions. There has been inadequate time to look at them and inadequate time to explore all the different consequences arising from them. We are dealing with something that is not broken, so I do not understand why the Government want to fix it.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Apparently, some people in the Government think that under the current arrangements the Labour party can gang up to ensure that so-called troublemakers are on this Committee. Is that not to politicise the whole issue? The fact is that members of the Committee are independent. They are not troublemakers; they are independent-minded people. We should keep party politics out of this.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee

That goes back to my point that the Backbench Business Committee is not broken. We do not vote on party lines and the discussions we have are not on party lines. Its members are independent-minded. They are members of different political parties, but the wider issue is about how we best represent Back Benchers as a whole. We currently have a spread on the Committee, with every type of Back Bencher in today’s Parliament represented.

I urge Members to vote for the amendment that includes the minority parties as full voting members. We do not want them to be there only as a result of some kind of patronage of the Chair which allows them to attend and listen to the Committee’s words of wisdom. We want them to have full membership and full voting rights. I also urge support for the amendment tabled to allow the entire House to vote on who should represent Back Benchers on the Backbench Business Committee.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay 5:17 pm, 12th March 2012

I find the proposals in the Government’s motion to be very unfortunate, as they are bringing party politics into this place when dealing with Back-Bench business matters. That is, as I say, most unfortunate—and, more importantly, it will be viewed as unfortunate by people outside this place, too.

I suggest that a key aspect of the reassertion of Parliament was the formation of the Backbench Business Committee, which has proved—neither the Government nor Opposition Front-Bench Members have been able to suggest otherwise—to be an excellent method of holding the Executive to account, ensuring that matters of importance are debated here, at times against the wishes of the Government. I have heard no evidence from anybody that the Backbench Business Committee is not working well.

I have my own reasons to be grateful to the Backbench Business Committee. The full-day debate that I led on Iran on 20 February was the first time that the subject had been debated for many years. Whatever the views across the House, it was a good day for parliamentarians.

It was a packed debate; we ran out of time; we heard many excellent contributions, including from former Foreign and Defence Secretaries. It was deemed by everyone who participated in the debate to be well worth while. At the time, the Government opposed it; they opposed even the wording of the motion, as we saw.

It is therefore very regrettable that the Government have pre-empted the findings of the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the operation of the Backbench Business Committee by producing their own recommendations today. The response from those on the Front Bench that they had to do it now, because if they did not it would be too late for the election, is complete and utter nonsense. The elections come round every Session: they come round every year. There is no real reason why the Government’s suggestions could not have waited until the Procedure Committee had presented its recommendations, and perhaps they could then have influenced the elections next year.

I am afraid that, whatever my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may say from the Dispatch Box, the justification does not stack up. There can be no doubt that implementation of the Government’s proposals would result in a weakening of the Committee. It would take power away from the Back Benches and Parliament and hand it back to the Executive, and that cannot be right. This is all about control.

Finally, let me say something about the question of who selects the Chairman and Committee members. Surely all those who are selected as members of the Committee would have far more authority if they were elected by the whole House, rather than by party groups. That would enable the Committee to perform its role even better, with greater justification and, I would suggest, with greater credibility and integrity as well.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution) 5:20 pm, 12th March 2012

You will recall, Mr Speaker, the sense of disappointment, outrage and anger two years ago, when we first learned of the membership of the Backbench Business Committee. We had been excluded, as though we did not exist. We were not entitled to a place on the Committee. That would not have been so important had it been just another Select Committee of the House—we expect to be excluded from those, because that is what the arithmetic does—but for us to be excluded from the Backbench Business Committee, a Committee of Members acting for other Members, was absolutely and utterly ridiculous.

When we complained, we were reassured. I was told, “Don’t worry, Pete, it will be fine. As soon as we have the first opportunity to review this, we will put it right and ensure that it is fixed. We will have a place for you on the Committee.” And what did we get? Observer status. This is not the United Nations; this is the House of Commons, one of the Houses of Parliament. We do not do observer status in this place. What a ridiculous and utterly fatuous notion! We demand a place on this Committee.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I am sorry; I do not have enough time.

I could stand for the position of Chair of the Committee, but I have as much chance of becoming its Chair as the Deputy Leader of the House has of becoming the SNP

Member for Somerton and Frome. There is no chance whatsoever of a member of one of the minority parties being allowed—

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If it is of such little consequence that the hon. Gentleman could stand for the position of Chair, why on earth did he make such a song and dance about it two years ago?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

What we were making such a song and dance about was membership of the Committee. I should be delighted to be able to stand for the position of Chair of the Committee as a member of the Committee, but for me to be able to stand for that position without having a place on the Committee is utterly and absolutely ridiculous.

We in the minority parties will have to have a think about this. We cannot have a Backbench Business Committee of some of the House; it must be a Backbench Business Committee of the whole House. We decided that we would involve ourselves with the Committee over the last two years, despite our great disappointment about what happened. We were reassured by the Chair, who has been fantastic with the minority parties, and who has been able to work with us to ensure that we could at least secure some of our debates. However, we will now have to take a good long look at our relationship with the Committee. I suggest to other members of the smaller parties that we should be saying, “If you, the House, do not want us, why on earth should we have anything to do with you?” If this is to be a Back-Bench Committee consisting exclusively of members of the Government parties and the Labour Opposition, why should we have anything to do with it at all?

We must ensure that the Backbench Business Committee is a Committee of the whole House. The present arrangements are nonsense, the idea of observer status is absurd, and I appeal to the House to back the amendments and ensure that we have equality in the House. There are five other political parties here. There is more than just a Labour Opposition; there are other members, there are other parties, and we must ensure that we are properly represented in the House. The Wright Committee has been a disaster for the smaller parties. We have effectively been turfed out of Select Committees, and now the same is happening with other Committees in the House.

I urge Members to back the amendments. I urge them to ensure that there is justice for the smaller parties, and to ensure that we have a Backbench Business Committee that represents the whole House.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley 5:24 pm, 12th March 2012

I am a glutton for punishment, because as well as being a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I serve on the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee, so I follow the deliberations on these matters through the entire process.

I agree with Pete Wishart that the BBC should be a Committee of, as it were, the whole House. The Member who communicates with the minority parties should be a full Committee member and be elected by the whole House. I drafted a couple of technical amendments that would have ensured that the election for Committee members of the minority parties would have been the same as the election for those of the other parties, so that all are elected by the whole House. One reason for suggesting that is that not all political issues are party political.

Essentially, the Government and Opposition Front-Bench teams are trying to shift the balance of power back towards the Executive. Let us consider the elections at the start of this Session. I was uncontested as the Liberal Democrat representative, and the four Conservatives were also uncontested. There were three candidates to be the two Labour representatives, but there have not been any by-elections since. We could therefore argue that the proposal under discussion may not make any difference. In practice, however, it is still moving away from the recommendations of the Wright report, which state that Parliament should operate as a Parliament, and not do everything divided along party lines. We need representatives from the parties to make sure that systems of communication are in place and that Members know that there is somebody they can talk to.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the following fact: every other region of the United Kingdom can be represented—there can be a member from Wales, a member from England, a member from Scotland—but none of the three major parties have representatives from Northern Ireland? Who will speak with authority for the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is why I think it is important to have somebody from the minority parties elected by the whole House as a full member of the Committee. There has been one vote on one issue, and the rest of the decisions have, in effect, been made by consensus. In a House business committee, there would, obviously, have to be a Government majority. In this case, however, there is clearly no need to add an extra Member of the Government parties when adding a full Member communicating with the minority parties.

My point is that the idea of having a BBC representing the Back Benchers of the whole House and elected by the whole House has worked very well and should not be changed.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:26 pm, 12th March 2012

I think the Leader of the House has, in general, been an excellent Leader of the House; since he took up his post after the general election, he has, broadly speaking, done a good job, as has the Deputy Leader of the House. I therefore feel sorry that today is not a day when we are able to praise the Leader of the House, as I think the proposals he has come up with are ill-considered and ill-timed. I think that he has let himself down, to be honest.

I say that because we are now coming to the end of a two-year Session. This will, I believe, be the longest parliamentary Session since 1643. That has given additional power to the Government, as they have been able to keep on having a go at getting legislation through in the other place. That is why we are still having a row about the health service Bill. If we had not had a two-year Session, many of its elements would have been ditched long ago—and likewise in respect of many other pieces of proposed legislation.

The Backbench Business Committee has been a genuine success, however. As has been said, the timing of this proposal is wrong because the Procedure Committee has not yet completed its business. The proposal is therefore a bit of an affront to it. Also, the Government had plenty of time to organise for today. They could have set about this process months ago, because we always knew that another set of elections was going to be held at the end of the second year. We could have started this process six months ago rather than recently.

I also point out to the Leader of the House that the coalition agreement says that there will be a House business committee by the third year, which starts in a few weeks’ time. We therefore should, in fact, be debating the House business committee tonight, not the Government trying to seize a bit of power in relation to the BBC.

The amendments tabled by Mr Bone and my hon. Friend Natascha Engel go to the heart of what it is to be a Member of Parliament. Every single one of us can be partisan. I can be extremely partisan on occasion. [Interruption.] Indeed, other hon. Members can be partisan, too. That is not wrong, as we were all elected on party tickets. My constituents in the Rhondda do not vote for me because I am a lovely, decent chap. [Interruption.] I think I have carried the House on that. They vote for me because they want a Labour Government and a Labour person to be elected.

Of course, that partisan element of how we do our business and the way we tussle in the Chamber is part of making sure that the Government do a better job. I have no problem with being partisan, but we also have to rise above being partisan on occasion. We have sometimes let ourselves down on that and it is where the Leader of the House is doing so on this matter. It was a sadness that Robin Cook never managed to get some of these things through previous whipping organisations when we were in government, but it was a delight when people who were standing for election by the whole House—the Chairs—were lobbying all Members of the House; they actually wanted a mandate and wanted to understand what all the Members of the House thought. Surely that is why it is better that the members of the Backbench Business Committee should be elected by the whole House, not just by their individual parties.

I launched my “save the backbench three” campaign last Friday because of a concern. The Committee has done a good job, having given us the best debates this year, whereas the Government have given us some pretty poor debates during the past year and for the past few months they have given us hardly anything to do at all. I fear that next year’s business will be a waste of time, unless we keep the “backbench three”.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee 5:30 pm, 12th March 2012

It is a good thing that Chief Whips are not required to speak in these debates. We have heard some full tributes to the work of the Backbench Business Committee from the Deputy Leader of the House and his shadow, and I would be very surprised if the Government Chief Whip would be able to utter the same words of praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Backbench Business Committee, because the Committee has been an utter pain for the Government Whips Office. It is no good Angela Smith nodding her head, because the Committee has been bringing to the Floor of the House issues that very often neither Front-Bench team wanted brought here—they wanted to suppress them. That has been the great strength of this Committee.

If the coalition Government have a problem with who was elected to the Backbench Business Committee or how it was elected, they have nobody to blame but themselves, because some posts went uncontested. That shows a remarkable lack of assiduousness, given how the Whips Offices usually try to influence such elections. We should have no doubt that this operation today is an exercise designed to reduce the accountability and responsiveness of the Committee.

Let us briefly consider the detail of the motion. Most important is the proposal that the regularity of elections will reduced: they will be held once per Parliament. If this motion through, the election in the new Session will be the last this Parliament—

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon if I misunderstood things, and I stand corrected.

The motion is also determined to reduce the way in which the membership of the Committee reflects the views of the whole House, on the basis of the spurious idea that parties voting for Members of other parties have a malign intent. The Chair is to be chosen from the Opposition, but that will reduce the Chair’s authority. The great authority that Natascha Engel has is that she was elected as much by the votes of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as by the votes of the Labour party. She was not a choice predetermined by the Standing Orders of this House and it was not a predetermined choice that she was chosen from her party.

For all those reasons, we should want to defend the existing system, not least because the Wright Committee intended the election of the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair to be carried out on a different basis from the elections to the other Select Committees. The Deputy Leader of the House keeps saying that he has given a reason for needing to pre-empt the findings of the Procedure Committee. He may have given a “reason”, but it is an excuse and a motive; it is not a justification for pre-empting the findings of the Procedure Committee.

I wish to conclude by making a brief point. Those of us from the previous Parliament who went through—how shall I describe it?—the purifying fire of the expenses debacle came out of it determined that things should change in this House, that politics should change and that at least some of what happens in this House should be taken out of the ghetto of the Westminster political parties talking to themselves. Are we now seeing this House reverting to type? Are we seeing the vested interests beginning to reassert themselves? I urge this House to be ever-more vigilant to make sure that that does not occur and ever-more vigilant because we are seeing today how determined the forces of darkness in politics can be.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 5:34 pm, 12th March 2012

This debate is about power and those on the Front Benches are misguided in thinking that it will enhance ministerial power to seek to influence the way in which Back-Bench business is conducted against the interests of all the Back Benchers who have turned up and spoken in today’s debate. It is wrong of those on the two Front Benches to impose a Whip on Ministers and shadow Ministers—[ Interruption. ] I accept, then, that there is no such Whip on shadow Ministers, but we will see. We will study the Division results with great interest to see the view that shadow Ministers take. It is wrong for Front Benchers to seek to stop Back Benchers continuing with their arrangements in a timely way.

I share a common cause with my Front Benchers as I happen to think, as they seem to, that Ministers do not have enough power. I think that there is a danger that under any Government we could have Ministers in office but not in power, but the reason is not our powerful Backbench Business Committee and the fact that it makes them come to this House to discuss things that they do not wish to discuss. If Ministers do that well, it enhances their stature. The reason is that too many decisions are taken by the European Union, overridden by the European Court of Human Rights or taken by independent quangos. We have the Environment Agency, the Bank of England and United Kingdom Financial Investments; Ministers are very limited in what they can do. I would happily make common cause with those on my Front Bench in getting Ministers more power and think that many of my colleagues would take the same view. We would be cheering them if they came to this House and said that Ministers needed more power to settle our borders, sort out the problems with prisoners, deal with taxation or money supply and so on. We want it to be accountable power, however, which is why we want Ministers to have more power but think that they should come to the House of Commons to answer for how they exercise it.

Ministers should get real. They are in danger of being in office but not in power because they will not take the accountable power they need to improve our country and to make the necessary changes. Their problem is not the Backbench Business Committee; their problem lies elsewhere. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to wake up and smell the coffee, as the phrase goes these days, and to understand that people want a strong, proud and independent Parliament and that people want their Ministers to come here to talk about the difficult issues on any day. They want Ministers to talk about the issue that they do not want to talk about today, because that is what matters and that is what is topical. A strong and confident Government can debate anything at any time about their conduct, their views and their policies and the more we make them debate it, the stronger their case should be. I want the Opposition to challenge them, I want the Backbench

Business Committee to challenge them and, above all, I want the decisions that matter for our country to be made here by accountable Ministers.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North 5:38 pm, 12th March 2012

There is absolutely no clamour from Back Benchers for any change in the method of election to the Backbench Business Committee. Let us be clear about that. I pray in evidence paragraph 59 of the fifth report of the Procedure Committee of this Session, which states:

“We have received no adverse comments on the arrangements for the elections to the Backbench Business Committee but there are two issues which have been raised in evidence to us which we now consider.”

One related to the representation of the minority parties and the Procedure Committee suggested adding a member to the Backbench Business Committee,

“to be elected by the whole House.”

The second issue was a rather technical matter relating to by-elections. There was no suggestion that the whole Committee and the nature of its members’ election should be changed.

I submit as evidence Standing Order 152(1), which states:

“Select committees shall be appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments as set out in paragraph (2)”.

Paragraph (2) then lists 19 Departments; obviously, the Backbench Business Committee is not on that list. The Government have suggested today that the changes in the motion are needed to bring the Backbench Business Committee into line with other Select Committees. Incidentally, however, they also seek to differentiate the Committee from Select Committees when it comes to the length of membership. I understand why some Members might be confused about this. The Backbench Business Committee is and should be regarded as a Committee of the House and should be treated differently from Select Committees. On that basis, elections to it should be by the whole House and I urge Members to support the amendments of my hon. Friend Mr Bone.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 5:40 pm, 12th March 2012

This has been a passionate debate and I agreed with much of what my hon. Friend Mr Bone and Natascha Engel had to say. Perhaps they gave their case a little less credit by resorting to elements of hyperbole—indeed, there were hints of hysteria coming from Pete Wishart —but I agree fundamentally with what they said. This Executive, like every other Executive and—this is even sadder to see—shadow Executive, have an unhealthy tendency to meddle in matters that are best left to Parliament. That should rightly be resisted and it is through the Backbench Business Committee that we try our best to resist.

Unlike any other Member who has spoken, perhaps, I think the motion is more of a curate’s egg. I believe that the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee should be an Opposition Member. As has been pointed out, in the initial election, my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, who is a very good friend of mine and a distinguished parliamentarian, was pitted against the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire. I thought it would be very unhealthy for that role, particularly initially, to be in the hands of a former Deputy Speaker of 13 years’ standing who was therefore very much part of the establishment, so I voted with my head rather than my heart. Like every other Member who has spoken I have been extremely pleased with the outcome and I pay great tribute to the wonderful work that the hon. Lady does in chairing the Committee.

Let me pick up on the contribution of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. The Leader of the House would do well to recognise that every single party in the House of Commons is a minority party, and I think it is quite wrong that we are prescribing the rights of the minority parties. The suggestion in amendment (a), which I think would have come through with the Procedure Committee, that there should be a special member for all the minority parties, is something we should follow.

I also believe there are very good reasons why the Backbench Business Committee should have some anonymous rules, as has been suggested by Ministers, for the election of its members, because it is by its nature an anonymous Committee: it is a Back-Bench Committee looking at Back-Bench business. I say that as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which, alongside the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, has different election arrangements. Those anomalies are open to a certain amount of criticism but are, none the less, rightly tolerated. If we do not adopt that approach, we run the risk of having approved party candidates rather than those who have the broadest party support. I shall be supporting amendments (a) and (d). There are elements of the motion with which I agree, but I regret the way in which it has led to the rancour we have seen in the past hour or so in this debate.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills 5:43 pm, 12th March 2012

I recall that the Leader of the House was one of the most eloquent advocates of Dr Tony Wright’s proposed reforms in this area. I also remember a famous conference speech in which he said that we would not resort to guillotines in the manner that had happened in the past. I also remember that when I was a student, the constitutional writers of the time used to discuss and describe the role and function of the Leader of the House. Fifty years ago they would argue that it was the most important role in the management of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House brought the views of the House to the Government and would try and influence them in the interests of the House and in the interests of the Government. It is a divided position; it is not an easy one. Yet here we see on the Order Paper, in the name of the Leader of the House, a motion that clearly has not been the result of any form of consultation, but has come from the very bowels of Government to assert their own primacy yet again.

The debate is about the Backbench Business Committee. This is Back-Bench business, in a sense, yet we know the apparatus, as has been described by many Conservative

Members, through which the motion has come about. It is not to the credit of the Leader of the House that his name is the first of the proposers.

The reforms have not been bad. They have been rather successful, and maybe it is their success that arouses fear. After all, we had a debate on a referendum. That is something that no Government—Labour or the present Government—would have tabled. We were able to discuss matters on which debate had been denied to Members for a very long time. I support much of the work of the Backbench Business Committee. It is essential that it carries on in future. I have always supported—

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, 7 March ).

Amendment proposed:(d), leave out paragraph (1). —(Mr Bone).

The House divided:

Ayes 105, Noes 186.

Division number 485

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed:(a), at end of paragraph (1), after ‘choose’, insert:

‘; and that the members of those parties who would not otherwise be represented on the Committee, or of no party, should choose one Member to represent them on the Committee by a secret ballot of those Members’.—(Natascha Engel.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 101, Noes 166.

Division number 486

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Q uestion put.

The House divided:

Ayes 203, Noes 82.

Division number 487

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That—

(1) this House endorses the principle that parties should elect members of the Backbench Business Committee each Session and thereafter when a vacancy arises in a secret ballot of all Members of that party by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose.

(2) Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, at end, insert—

‘(ba) No Member may be a candidate for the chair of the committee if that Member’s party is represented in Her Majesty’s Government.’;

(b) in line 12, leave out from second ‘of’ to end of line 14 and insert ‘a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and no fewer than ten shall be members of a party not so represented or of no party’;

(c) line 28, leave out paragraph (2);

(d) line 64, leave out sub-paragraph (b); and

(e) in the Title, after the word ‘of’, insert ‘chair of’.

(3) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

‘(3) The chair of the committee shall continue as chair for the remainder of the Session in which that person is elected as chair unless the chair is declared vacant by the Speaker under the provisions of Standing Order No. 122C (Resignation or removal of chairs of select committees) as applied by paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 122D (Election of 25 Backbench Business Committee).’;

(b) in line 12, leave out ‘and members’;

(c) line 21, at end, insert—

‘(6A) The Committee shall have power to invite Members of the House who are not members of the Committee and who are of a party not represented on the Committee or of no party to attend its meetings and, at the discretion of the chair, take part in its proceedings, but—

(a) no more than one Member may be so invited to attend in respect of the same meeting;

(b) a Member so invited shall not move any motion or amendment to any motion, vote or be counted in the quorum.’.