The Backbench Business Committee was one of the most innovatory ideas to emanate in the last Parliament from the Committee on Commons Reform – widely known as the Wright Committee, after its chairman the former Labour MP Tony Wright, rightly seen as one of the patron saints of parliamentary reform.
It must have been particularly disappointing for him that it was the last Labour Government who used every procedural device in the book to block this idea from coming to fruition before the election; something that the Coalition Government is proud of having put right immediately we came to office.
The creation of a new committee may not seem in itself a particularly radical move; indeed, some may say it seems like the opposite. But in this case, what was important was not so much its structure or membership; it was its remit and powers. In addition to setting up the Committee, the Government handed over a significant chunk of parliamentary time during a session – more than that afforded to opposition parties – to schedule debates on matters of genuine interest to backbenchers and their constituents. Before these reforms, backbenchers have not been able to bring forward substantive motions regularly to the floor of the House since the late 19th century. The government has helped to liberate the legislature from 100 years of executive control.
I celebrate this greater freedom. Of course, it hasn’t been particularly easy for the government. There have been debates and votes on issues that neither the government nor the Official Opposition would have chosen. That is part of the point. However, many of the debates have helped to restore to the House a sense of purpose and a self-confidence that was absent when government controlled the whole agenda. That can only be a good thing for the country. My firm view is that we need a strong Parliament, because a stronger Parliament leads to better government. More bulldog, less poodle.
So while the Backbench Business Committee is definitely a strong brew, I reject entirely suggestions that the government is trying to water it down. If anything, we have moved to strengthen it ahead of the election – or re-elections – of the members that are due following the Queen’s Speech in May. On Monday, the House voted in favour of a number of measures to help this:
First, the House ensured that the Chairmen of the Backbench Business Committee will always be a member of a non-governing party. Were a Conservative MP to be elected as chairman in the next round of elections, it would be difficult to prevent suspicions arising of the government seeking to influence a key position in the House in an improper way. With an opposition backbencher in the chair, there is little danger of that; and I applaud the job that Natascha Engel has done in bringing quite properly independent leadership to the Committee.
Second, the House acted to bring minority parties – whom I recognise were ill-served by the Wright Committee’s recommendations – into the fold, by allowing the Backbench Business Committee to invite an MP from a party not represented on the Committee to participate in its proceedings. Although this proposal was sniffed at by some members of the Scottish Nationalist Party on Monday, the government was only aiming to implement exactly what SNP MPs demanded when we originally set the Committee up, without minority party participation.
Finally, the House amended the rules on electing members of the Backbench Business Committee to reflect exactly what now happens in every other select committee: elections within party groups. The previous arrangements could have led to a situation in which the choice of Opposition members on the Committee were decided by votes cast by MPs from the government benches. That would have been wholly wrong.
The proposal led some people to assert that the whips would be able to nobble the Committee; although nobody managed to explain exactly how they were going to achieve that. Elections will be carried out by secret ballot. While I bow to no-one in my admiration of the persuasive skills of the Chief Whip, even he may find a secret ballot beyond his reach. It was additionally odd seeing MPs who have favoured taking select committees out of the hands of party managers being unable to explain why that same system of election is not suitable for the Backbench Business Committee.
Far from eroding the powers of the Back Bench Committee, I believe the changes the House supported on Monday will build on its strengths and the successes of its first year.