I must confess that when I put my name forward for consideration by colleagues as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I did so with some trepidation. I was somewhat cynical about the purpose of the committee and its powers. I am pleased to say I have been proved quite wrong. It is a delight to serve on the Committee and unlike my ten years on the Health Select Committee it is not too onerous in terms of time commitment and paperwork! Our Committee does not operate like any other committee I have served on in that the agenda is very much an ‘evolving feast’. It also is a somewhat strange experience to have colleagues from all parts of the House appearing before the Committee each week and arguing their case for a debate to be granted.
I now fully appreciate the power of this Backbench Committee because more often than not, the Committee grants a debate on an issue and the Government gives way! This is a Committee which is certainly having a real effect on Government policy. For example, we granted a debate concerning the badger cull, and the government decided to delay the cull for a year. This was a very well attended debate and was well argued.
As the Committee develops and evolves, it is important that colleagues fully understand what it is we are looking for when prioritising a debate. The Committee needs to hear evidence that there is urgent need for the debate which could not be fulfilled through some other method. A good case in point is that of the West Coast Mainline franchise decision in September. There was a defined period in which the debate needed to take place and members needed to be given an opportunity to air their views. Again, note that this debate added to pressure which encouraged the government to quite sensibly re-think their decision.
Secondly, for a bid to be successful, it needs to be demonstrated that there is All-Party support. Recent examples of such debates which attracted the necessary support are: Tax Evasion & Tax Avoidance, Mental Health, Social Mobility, Adoption and Banking Competition. These debates should neither be comfortable or uncomfortable for the government, but should give a strong opportunity for the backbench voice to be heard.
Finally, it is crucial that bids stimulate a real debate. A good example of one held recently was that on Assisted Suicide last March. A further example would be that held on Charging For Access to Parliament which led to a frank and healthy exchange of views. To summarise, whether it be to bid for a debate in the main Chamber or Westminster Hall, the things that colleagues need to demonstrate are urgency, All-Party Support and a diversity of views.
Above all else, the thing that I feel most strongly about as a member of this Committee is the sanctity of the Easter, Whitsun, Summer and Christmas Adjournment debates. These all provide a wonderful opportunity for Members of Parliament to raise any issue of concern on behalf of their constituents and obtain a government response.