The short Commons debate on Monday 12 March on procedural changes to the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) provided further proof that Government (and front benches generally) has no intention of ceding its dominance over the parliamentary agenda in any fundamental way, and will permit ‘reform’ only on its own terms and in its own good time.
What a pity that the vast legions of the ‘conventional wisdom’ – in academe, media and inside Westminster itself – will no doubt ignore this, as they have all clear signs in the last few years that the alleged empowering of Parliament, through the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, is being skewed and diluted by ministers and their allies. The Backbench Business Committee is hailed as the battering ram which is breaching Government control of Commons business (what is discussed and when etc.), leading to the ultimate prize of a ‘full’ House Business Committee in the coming year.
I have blogged on all this, both in this Blog and elsewhere (eg here, and here), arguing for genuine Commons control (on behalf of the public they represent) of their own House and its operation, especially in respect of its business. Monday’s debate is a good example of a government (any government) unilaterally deciding to propose its own changes to a select committee – and the one which is supposed to determine Backbench business! – at a time of its own choosing, and, according the BBBC’s chair and others, not only without consulting that committee in advance but also in the middle of a Procedure Committee review of the BBBC. Because Ministers control time, all backbenchers can do is complain about it, or try to prevent it through amendments, when surely in any mature parliament worthy of the name, the timing of such a debate and the content of any proposed motions would be a matter for the House itself – through some form of genuine Business Committee.
The standard ministerial excuse is that all Government is doing is ‘providing an opportunity’ for debate and ‘facilitating’ discussion through its agenda-setting. Note, in passing, that this debate was held alongside ‘sexier’ ones on MPs standards, guaranteed to monolopolise the limited available political and media interest. Even worse, the minister putting all this through was David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House (and my local MP) – the same David Heath who, when in opposition, demanded “An Everest of reform … to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose” and declared that “It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business.’” Oh, I forgot, he’s now only ‘providing opportunities‘ for debate and decision ….
Mr Heath is learning all the front bench business manager tricks. For example, he said on Monday that “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.” In other words, we in Government can cherry-pick what we want out of the Wright reform blueprint, and ignore or change what we dont like.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the best – indeed, only – sensible strategy for acheiving reform is to go along with the Government (as has been done over the Government’s own unilateral e-petitions system being dropped into the BBBC mix) and to try and ‘save’ as much of the Wright blueprint as possible. We can argue how radical Wright really was, in that glorious window of opportunity provided fleetingly by the expenses scandal of 2009. What the incrementalists and trimmers have to demonstrate now is that when (perhaps, if) they actually can claim success over a full House Business Committee, it will be one worth having, and that the arrangement of Commons business will have really shifted decisively from the Government (and front benches more generally) to the House collectively on behalf of the people.
Monday’s debate confirms that the omens are not good. But there may just be time for those who profess to seek genuine radical reform to act before it is too late, and try to overcome the House’s self-defeating acquiescence to government initiative over parliamentary reform. After all, it was the Wright Committee itself which rightly asserted, in unequivocal terms, that “Time in the House belongs to the House,” and warned that Government control of parliamentary time “infantilises Members.” Time to grow up!