The Backbench Business Committee has today published a special report outlining the experiences of the Committee and setting out options for its future operation. Since the Committee was set-up in June 2010, backbench MPs have had the opportunity for the very first time to bring forward debates of their choice. The report reflects on the challenges the Committee has faced, principally the shortage of back-bench time available, the demands generated by e-petitions, and the difficulty in scheduling debates in advance.
Comment from the Chair
Natascha Engel, Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, said:
"Backbenchers have seized upon the opportunity presented by the Backbench Business Committee to put forward a range of interesting and important debates on subjects such as Iran and the Hillsborough disaster. A regular, guaranteed slot for backbench debates is needed to help Members contribute more effectively to debates and allow greater opportunities for constituents and others to make their views known."
Presentation of report
Natascha Engel will present the Committee's report in a short debate in Westminster Hall at 2.30pm.
In its first session of operation, the Committee has scheduled popular debates on a range of issues, including cycling, compensation for people given contaminated blood, fisheries policies, high-speed rail, metal theft, fuel prices, and the future of town centres and high streets (Portas Review). In many cases, these have resulted in Government action. The Committee has also made innovative use of the time available through the use of short 'topical debates' and by giving Select Committees the opportunity to launch their reports in the Chamber on the day of publication.
The Committee has, however, faced a number of challenges including:
The lack of time to allocate to backbench debates Demand from Members for debates has always outstripped supply and the Committee could have filled its quota of 35 days many times over.
The lack of predictable dates to schedule backbench debates Backbench days are allocated by Government and specific dates are often given with less than two weeks' notice. This has precluded the Committee from scheduling debates a few weeks or months in advance. Fitting backbench days into the Parliamentary calendar in advance or setting aside a fixed day each week for backbench business could be considered to help overcome these difficulties.
The introduction of e-petitionsThe Backbench Business Committee is an opportunity for Members to bring forward issues of backbench concern. The introduction of e-petitions has heightened the competition for backbench time and raised public expectations that e-petitions reaching the 100,000 threshold will be scheduled for debate by the Committee. The Committee suggests the House may wish to consider new ways of handling e-petitions, such as the creation of a separate Petitions Committee.
Proposals for the House to consider
To maximise the opportunities for backbench debate, the report suggests a more flexible approach to scheduling backbench business could be adopted, including using days when government business may not take up the whole day and more imaginative use of sittings in Westminster Hall, reinforcing its status as an equal debating Chamber.
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