2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee – an event that marked the first major reversal of a century-long trend of the government taking increasing control of the agenda of the House. But the anniversary went largely unnoticed. Paul Evans, a former Clerk of the committee, asks whether this is because it has been outmanoeuvred by the usual channels, has lost its cutting edge, or because relative obscurity is what backbenchers really want.
The birth of the Backbench Business Committee
The background to how the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (commonly known, after its chair Dr Tony Wright, as the ‘Wright Committee’) was established can be found, for those interested, in the introduction to its first report. Amongst the matters the House instructed it to consider, when it was set up on 20 July 2009, was the ‘scheduling of business by the House’. It recommended the creation of a new category of ‘backbench business’, to be managed by a new committee of backbenchers, a new ‘House Business Committee’ to bring transparency to the way in which the House’s wider agenda was determined, and a system by which the House as a whole would be given the final say on its agenda. Many of these ideas had been foreshadowed in a Constitution Unit report published in 2007.
After an inconclusive debate on the proposals of the Wright Committee on 22 February 2010, on 4 March, amongst other reforms arising from the committee’s recommendations (most significantly on the election of chairs and members of select committees) the House agreed that a proposal for the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee should be brought to it by the government (emphasis very deliberately added) before the start of the next parliament, and that a House Business Committee should be established during the course of that new parliament. In fact, as everyone knew at the time, the timetable for doing so was well-nigh impossible. The parliament was dissolved on 12 April, just 20 sitting days after the 4 March debate. That could have been the last we heard of the recommendations on new ways to schedule the House’s business.
However, the election produced a coalition government, with the Conservative Party’s Liberal Democrat partners keen to secure constitutional reform. The coalition’s ‘Programme for Government’ included the following promise:
‘bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament’.
Progress was probably hastened by the fact that George Young (now Lord Young of Cookham), a member of the Wright Committee, had become Leader of the House. On 15 June 2010 he presented the necessary motions and the House agreed, without a division, to a standing order creating a new Backbench Business Committee (BBCom) to schedule debates on the equivalent of 35 days in each parliamentary session, 28 of which were to be in the main Chamber. On 22 June the Labour MP Natascha Engel was elected as its Chair. On 29 June the remaining members of the committee were elected, and it began its work.
Tucked away in the formal minutes relating to the report the Wright Committee had published the previous November there had been a dissenting minority report, presented by that very same Natascha Engel. She rejected the proposals for scheduling the business of the House, arguing that it was ‘in danger of shifting the balance of power from one democratically and directly elected elite (the Executive) to a less directly accountable and less expert elite (backbenchers)’ and recommending ‘that we continue with the current system…’. In the debate on 22 February 2010, Engel had elaborated a little on her reasons for initially appearing to want to reject the entirety of the Wright Committee’s recommendations. In essence, she argued then that the committee had failed to begin its task of reform by asking itself what parliament was for, and that its proposals were as a consequence inward-looking – technocratic ‘tiny, tinkering’ reforms which would either make no fundamental difference or have the potential to do damage. Ten years later, can we yet tell whether she was right then? As a spoiler, I should probably warn readers that the answer given here is going to be mixed.
The committee’s early work: 2010–12
The new committee, sensibly, began by setting out how it was going to approach its task. This manifesto made a number of promises that it proved unable to keep. It did not, for example, ever appear to consider well-supported early day motions for debate, nor did it ever seem to take much notice of public (paper) petitions, ministerial statements or events outside the House. It never took up the idea of short ‘topical’ debates. I can find only one example of a substantive motion on a recommendation from a select committee (17 July 2012) though there are other more indirect examples.
What it did stick to resolutely was its promise to hold weekly public evidence sessions at which MPs could pitch for debating time. These Tuesday afternoon sessions, which soon became known as the ‘Dragons’ Den’, were a daring but successful innovation. And they rapidly became pretty much the sole channel through which debates were chosen. BBCom adopted an almost wholly reactive stance, and made little obvious effort to shape any strategic programme of debates or identify gaps in the scrutiny of government that might need filling.
An almost complete list of subjects chosen for debate by BBCom over the decade can be found on the committee’s webpages (2015–16 is missing unfortunately, and the subjects for 2010–12 can be found at the end of the report cited above). There are some standout occasions in the early years:
- A passionate debate on the victims of the contaminated blood scandal on 14 October 2010 probably played its part in eventually (some years later) causing the government to establish a public inquiry on the matter.
- On 10 February 2011 the committee scheduled a motion, on the joint initiative of Jack Straw and David Davis, on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on prisoner voting rights. The House affirmed that it was opposed to abiding by the court’s judgment and permitting some prisoners to participate in elections.
- On 17 October 2011 it facilitated a debate on the 1989 Hillsborough football ground disaster, when a motion directing that the independent inquiry into those events should receive all government documents relating to the catastrophe was agreed.
- And, perhaps most notoriously, just a week after the Hillsborough debate, it scheduled a debate on a referendum on membership of the EU. Though the motion was overwhelmingly defeated, the scale of the Conservative backbench support for it is sometimes credited with shifting David Cameron’s attitude, making it perhaps the first pebble in the avalanche that became Brexit.
The government changes the rules of the game
The debate on a possible EU referendum was perhaps a wake-up call to the party business managers about the potential dangers posed by the beast they had uncaged. The original standing order for BBCom had provided for its members (as well as Chair) to be elected by a secret ballot of the whole House, using a complex Single Transferable Vote system to ensure gender balance as well as party balance. The government whips seemed to have been asleep at the wheel at the time of the first election – all the Conservative members were elected unopposed, which resulted in the membership being heavily skewed to the Eurosceptic wing of the party. But unlike other select committees, the membership (and Chair) had to be reappointed every session and, before that happened, on 12 March 2012, the government sprang a motion on the House to abandon whole-House elections and replace them with internal party elections, thus removing to a significant degree any sense of common ownership of the committee by all backbenchers, regardless of party. As a small quid pro quo, the standing order was changed to require the chair to come from an opposition party – Natascha Engel was re-elected in each of the succeeding sessions of the 2010–15 parliament.
Parliamentary assessments of its early work
The House had required the operations of BBCom to be reviewed during its first session of existence – a review which the government had cheerfully pre-empted with its little coup, described above. The Commons Procedure Committee’s response to this instruction, published towards the end of the 2010–12 session, was largely positive, and no further substantive changes to the system were made.
BBCom itself produced a report on its own work as a contribution to the review – an exercise that regrettably it never repeated. One of the promises it had made in its original manifesto had been to explain why it had chosen the subjects it did – this was another of the undertakings it has not really kept to. As a consequence, while BBCom’s selection of debates is, in one way, highly transparent (through the ‘Dragons’ Den’ process) in another way it is entirely opaque – it doesn’t really explain to MPs what, if any, rationale underpins its decisions (and there is no easy way to tell what subjects it decided to ignore and why).
Agent of change: has it enhanced the power of the Commons?
This takes us to a key issue in measuring BBCom’s achievement – to what extent has it been a catalyst or agent of change in empowering the House against the Executive more widely? David Foster analysed its impact in its first session of existence in an article published in 2015, but there has been scant academic analysis otherwise.
A controversy which surfaced in BBCom’s one and only annual report was the scheduling of what it called ‘House business’. In its first session it did – in collaboration with the Leader of the House – schedule debates on various proposals to reform the House’s procedures and related internal matters: but since a final major debate on sitting hours was held in backbench time on 11 July 2012, there are few further examples.
One of the surprising things about BBCom’s original standing orders was how permissive they were. It was left free to schedule ‘substantive’ motions for debate, with hardly any restriction except that it could not fiddle with its own powers. But resolutions of the House of Commons are generally not binding on government (see the report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the subject). In one crucial area such resolutions are, however, binding. That is when they apply to the House itself – whether through the creation or amendment of standing orders or through motions giving more ad hoc control over its proceedings in particular cases. But BBCom has not in the last eight years or so shown an inclination to give time to debate proposals from the House’s own Procedure Committee and others for internal procedural reform.
When control of the House’s agenda became a critical issue during the Brexit wars of 2019, during a period in which the government did not have a secure majority, the backbench agitators against ‘no deal’ did not turn to BBCom for help, but improvised around a series of baroque and impromptu procedural devices. A consequence of that improvisation was a good deal of incoherence.
As Meg Russell and Daniel Gover have documented in their recent Constitution Unit report, Taking Back Control, a similar situation arose in 2020 in relation to the controversies over the House’s temporary procedural responses to pandemic restrictions – particularly in relation to remote voting and virtual participation in debate (as also discussed in this post on the Unit’s blog). The decisions about what motions were to be put before the Commons and when they were to be debated have rested entirely with the government – BBCom has been nowhere to be seen until it facilitated a select committee statement by the chair of the Procedure Committee on 19 November.
Why has the committee not had the impact some might have hoped for?
Though in its early days it scored some notable firsts, what was heralded as a revolution seems quite quickly to have become a humdrum part of parliamentary routine. Why might that be? And is it a bad thing?
One reason is that the motto of the committee seems to be ‘first, do no harm’. It hasn’t really stuck its neck out or put its head above the parapet since 2012. That may be wise counsel, and the experience of the ambush by the government over the method of electing its members that year could indicate what the response from the executive to a more adventurous agenda could have been.
A second factor is that there were two crucial further steps that were never taken. Firstly, the creation of a House Business Committee – also proposed as part of the Wright Committee reforms – was postponed and then quietly abandoned (without any debate in backbench or government time). Secondly, and more importantly, it lacks the ‘votable agenda’ recommended by the Wright Committee. As a consequence, BBCom was always the supplicant and the government business managers the holders of the key to the treasure trove of time. Backbench business became consigned to the Thursday afternoon graveyard slot, where it languished largely un-whipped and unnoticed.
These elements are unfinished business, and without them, the work of the committee seems doomed to remain generally uneventful and largely uncontroversial. They were discussed in much more detail in last week’s Constitution Unit report by Meg Russell and Daniel Gover on the Commons’ control of its own agenda.
A positive change, but no revolution
Was the revolution of 2010 in practice just a ‘tiny, tinkering’ technocratic reform – a mere rearrangement of the deckchairs, as Natascha Engel had predicted? That would be too harsh a judgement. The simple change to asking backbenchers what they want to debate, rather than the government telling them what they will debate, has almost certainly made the House of Commons a more lively place on some Thursday afternoons. It has done no very obvious harm (unless as a Remainer you credit the debate of 24 October 2011 with having started the Brexit process). But it certainly did not inaugurate a permanent backbench revolution. Party managers and the usual channels have been mildly unsettled but certainly not shaken.
However, Natascha Engel was right in one respect – the committee has not felt it necessary to account for itself to backbenchers or to report back on its achievements against its now ten-year-old manifesto. It is hard to be sure, therefore, whether the continued overwhelming dominance of the parliamentary agenda by the front benches on matters where change is possible is what our elected representatives want, or simply what they have been ground down to expect and be grateful for.
This is the third and final post in a short blog series about MPs’ control of parliamentary processes. The first, on the problems of government control of the rules on remote participation in parliament, is available here. The second, which is a summary of a new Constitution report on control of parliamentary business, is available here.
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About the author
Paul Evans is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit and author of the Unit’s 2020 report, Braking the law: Is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament? He worked as a Clerk in the House of Commons from 1981 to 2019, retiring as Clerk of Committees, responsible for the staff of the House’s select committees.