By Matthew Barrett
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The Government's decision to change the rules of the Backbench Business Committee – the substance of which I wrote about yesterday morning – was debated and voted upon in the House yesterday. John Redwood has written on his blog about the debate:
"Yesterday the government rushed proposals through to change the way the Committee is elected in future, against the wishes of the current Committee. It was a sad and strange decision. Everyone speaking claimed the current Committee has done a good job. They were all elected by the whole House. They have not operated in a party political way. Now the government wants them to be elected by party, with Conservatives voting for Conservative members and Labour voting for Labour members. Backbenchers fear the front bench aim is to exert more influence over who gets these jobs."
This perfectly sums up the spirit of contributions from Conservative backbenchers, the highlights of which I have selected below.
"The Government’s actions fly in the face of the House of Commons Reform Committee report, “Rebuilding the House”, 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."
"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."
"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."
Jenkin also noted that the over-mighty executive seen during the expenses era is re-asserting itself:
"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."
As predicted, the Government won its votes, so that members of the Committee will be elected by members of their own Party, rather than the whole House, minority parties like the SNP and DUP will be allowed observer status, and the Chairman of the Committee will always be a member of the Opposition.
The full debate can read in Hansard.