Backbenchers, parties and the public: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

The last Parliament saw what some would characterise as the "rise of the backbencher", driven in part by reforms that gave them more say over the business of the House of Commons. Will the 2015 Parliament see backbench Members having even an even greater impact, or will political parties seek to restrict their influence over the House's agenda? And how will Parliament and Government respond to calls for the public to have a greater say in proceedings?

Backbench access to the agenda

Since the start of the 2010 Parliament, the Backbench Business Committee has been allocated 35 days per session for debates in the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall, and hears applications from Members for the use of that time.

The increased role of backbenchers in determining the House's business has arguably led to debates on subjects that previous Governments would have been able to avoid.

As the Committee has favoured applications where there has been cross-party support, Members from all sides of the House have been encouraged to work together in making requests for a debate.

Influential debates held in the last Parliament have included those on prisoner voting, fuel duty, circus animals, and the Hillsborough disaster.

It is perhaps too early to tell whether the Backbench Business Committee and its current procedures are part of the established parliamentary furniture.

A future Government may wish to reconsider the access that backbenchers have to parliamentary time. And backbenchers themselves may wish to experiment with the new access they have to the House's agenda.

Opening up the "Usual Channels"

Although the Backbench Business Committee has given Members greater access to the House's agenda, the Government still decides how most of the time on the floor of the House of Commons is spent.

It does so primarily through meetings and discussions between the whips and leaderships of the main parties, a process known as the "Usual Channels".

The process has been criticised in some quarters for its secrecy. In its 2009 report, the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons recommended that more of the management of House business should be conducted in public, through a "House Business Committee".

A weekly agenda would then be put to the House for its agreement. Although it was in the Coalition Agreement, the previous Government did not implement this recommendation; but the issue may resurface in the new Parliament, especially if there is a greater number of smaller parties vying for influence over parliamentary time.

The operation of the "Usual Channels" might itself be put under pressure if there are a larger number of players hoping to influence the business of the House.

Resurgent Select Committees

Most Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House, with Committee members elected within parties.

A number of commentators have argued that these elections have reinvigorated Select Committees by giving them a stronger mandate.

Certainly, media coverage of both the evidence sessions and reports of some Committees has increased: inquiries into phone hacking and banking standards, and evidence sessions on tax avoidance, have attracted a particularly high profile.

Greater resources have been made available to Committees, with more support for chairs to be made available in the new Parliament.

In their Legacy Report outlining their developments in the work of Select Committees during the 2010 Parliament, the Liaison Committee argued that any attempt to move away from the election of chairs would be a "retrograde step".

Backbench influence and rebellions

In voting terms, the evidence for the 2010 Parliament being more rebellious than previous ones is mixed. There was a slight increase in the number and proportion of votes with a rebellion, but the average "size" of each rebellion was smaller.

Chart 1: "rebellions" through last three Parliaments

The number of rebellions in the last Parliament was higher than in 2005–10 (and there were roughly the same number of total votes...) cumulative number of "rebellions" through last three Parliaments.

Chart showing the rebeliions by MPs in the 2001-2005, 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 Parliaments

Chart 2: Average size of rebellion

Chart 2 shows the average size of rebellion was smaller, leading to a fewer overall number of "rebels" cumulative number of "rebel" votes through last three Parliaments.
Chart showing the average sise of a rebellion over the course of the last three Parliaments

However, a focus on how backbenchers choose to vote may paint a deceptive picture of their full influence.

If parliamentary arithmetic is tight, the Government may not proceed to a vote at all: for example, despite overwhelming support at Second Reading, the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012–13 did not make further progress because the Government was not convinced that enough of its backbenchers would vote for a programme ("timetabling") motion that the Labour Party would not support.

In such cases, the influence of backbenchers can be decisive, even though their "rebellion" is not formally reflected in a vote.

Opening up: public access to the agenda

While the 2010 Parliament may be considered, rightly or wrongly, to have witnessed the rise of the backbencher, the new Parliament could see a focus on opening up the business of the Commons to the public.

There may be calls for more time to be put aside for debates initiated by public demand, through e-petitions. Public access to the agenda of the House might also be broadened through the "public reading" of legislation, or greater use of social media to gather views.

It has even been suggested that Prime Minister's Questions could be supplemented, or perhaps even replaced, by a public question time for the Prime Minister.

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The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library produces new briefings as topics evolve.

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