By Matthew Barrett
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One of the great reforms of this Coalition has been the creation of the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC). The Committee has forced debates on topics as diverse as Europe, voting rights for prisoners, banning circus animals, and cuts to petrol prices. It has caused trouble for both the Government and Opposition. It has helped to hand back power to the backbenches, and remove it from the executive. Most importantly, it has helped restore Parliament to its rightful place as one of the centres of national debate.
Therefore, the Government has decided to change it. Sir George Young is expected to amend the workings of the BBBC so small-party MPs like Caroline Lucas can attend the currently eight-member Committee. Not only is Sir George's proposal an intrusive intervention in itself, but the Procedure Committee, chaired by Greg Knight, which deals with the practices and procedures of the House, is already compiling a report into the workings of the BBBC, and is expected to issue its verdict soon.
Total Politics quotes the BBBC's chair, Labour MP Natascha Engel as saying:
"They, out of the blue, put these motions down for debate on Monday when today [Friday] is the last day for a call for evidence from the procedure committee on the workings of the backbench business committee. What's the hurry? Why can they not wait for the procedure committee to do their report? The government is not consulting with anybody and just putting down these motions," Engel adds. "Why ask the procedure committee to do a review if they are just going to do this?" She also reveals that neither herself nor the procedure committee were consulted about the plans tabled for Monday's order paper – "which is a bit of bad form".
There is also the possibility that the Government will try to end the current procedure whereby the whole House votes for members of the Committee. At present, the Committee contains four Conservatives: Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Philip Hollobone and Jane Ellison. Bone, Davies and Hollobone are noted rebels. The reason they are voted onto the Committee by the whole House is explained by Labour MP Chris Bryant: "On most issues, I would consider these three as the axis of eurosceptic, lefty-bashing, "political-correctness-gawn-mad" evil – but, in relation to the business of the House, I have to admit they are saints." If the Government were to change this, they might allow only Tory MPs to vote for the Tory members of the Committee, and Labour MPs for Labour members, etc. This would allow the whips to rig the committee with more compliant and leadership-friendly MPs.
Whatever the advantages or disadvantages of Sir George Young's attempt to change the workings of the BBBC, the Government should have waited for Greg Knight and his Procedure Committee to file its report before making any changes of this nature. The timing of the Government's intervention is disappointing and strikes one as simply being an attempt to reverse the tide by taking power from the backbenches and giving it back to the executive.
Sources close to Sir George Young have pointed out the anomalous status of the Backbench Business Committee – the members of the Committee are elected by the whole House, whereas members of all other Select Committees are elected by members of their own party. Sir George's amendments seek, therefore, simply to bring the BBBC in line with other Committees. Another change being made this week is that the Chair of the BBBC will always be an Opposition party member.