By Matthew Barrett
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In March, I reported on the Coalition's attempt to emasculate the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) by allowing minor parties – like the Greens – to attend its meetings. That attempt to change the BBBC's workings was especially insensitive, because a report by a different Committee into how well the BBBC had worked so far was about to be published, yet the Government went ahead and ignored those changes, and imposed its own.
The BBBC – which allows backbenchers proper time to debate issues that matter to them (and the public) like Europe, petrol prices, or prisoners' votes - has been one of the best things the Coalition has done to make Parliament look like the honourable and relevant institution it should be.
However, some Tory MPs are wary of the Government's plan to introduce a "House Business Committee" which would, it is alleged, replace or render useless the existing BBBC. The Coalition Agreement (pdf) says:
"We will 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."
"We are already in the third year of the Parliament, so if a House business committee is not established before the next Queen’s Speech, the coalition agreement will not have been complied with. Given that the powers that be might think it much more convenient to start those new arrangements from the beginning of a new Session, I presume that arrangements will have to be made to ensure that the House business committee can start at the very beginning of the next Session and that we will not have the sort of delay we got this year between the Loyal Address and the Government’s response on what the business of the House would be.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend therefore assume that the formation of the House business committee in due course will automatically mean an end to the Backbench Business Committee? It could be that both could continue.
Mr Chope: Perhaps that is possible, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The debate gives the Deputy Leader of the House the opportunity to confirm for the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers would say, that the commitment in the coalition agreement will be complied with, and when he gives that commitment perhaps he would also answer my hon. Friend’s question on whether there will be a House business committee and the Backbench Business Committee or just one covering both important subjects."
Alas, the Lib Dem Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, David Heath did not, to my mind, properly address the issue. Chope asked:
"There have been references to a House business committee, to consider Government business, being established by the third year of this Parliament. Is that going to happen?"
…and Heath responded:
"Again, I commend the Wright Committee report to the hon. Gentleman. He will find that he was simply wrong in some of the points that he made earlier about the Committee’s suggested structure for determining House business."
Perhaps Chope and Nuttall are wrong, but given the Government's previous attempt to take power from the BBBC, it would be right to be wary of the proposed House Business Committee.
The full debate can read here.