Government changes to the Backbench Business Committee

The deputy Leader of the House, David Heath, has put forward proposals to change the way members are elected to the backbench business committee. Currently, members are elected by the whole house with parties allocated by their strength in the Commons, but now they want to change that so that like all other committees normal membership is elected by internal party procedures. The chair would still be elected by the whole house but would have to be a non-government member. The length of time members serve for isn’t being changed (elected for a session rather than a full parliament like other committees). They’ve proposed this in time for the next elections but before the procedure committee report on the same subject is published. Even worse, the motion was put down so that the backbench business committee couldn’t meet to co-ordinate a reaction to government proposals – and no, of course, they weren’t consulted.

Understandably, David Heath and Angela Smith (his opposition counterpart) are currently getting monstered by backbenchers from all sides, though it does appear the opposition front bench supports this too. As, Meg Russell pointed out, this goes against the spirit of the Wright reforms which produced this committee and it seems that many feel this is a front bench attempt to nobble the committee. It’s worrying, nonetheless, that the government won’t even wait for the procedure committee report and feels the need to act in haste while saying that actually they don’t see their doomsday scenario of government members electing pliable opposition members happening any time soon. I don’t quite understand the need for this, nor I do I think it likely the front benches are acting out of altruism in this.

I’ll update with the result when it happens. There are also several other changes which aren’t very controversial but are quite innovative and I’ll blog about them another time.

UPDATE #1: Peter Bone, Conservative member of the backbench business committee, speaking out of sadness, frankly demolished the arguments from the deputy Leader of the House and says it’s a stitch-up between his and the opposition front bench. The Labour chair of the committee agreed. It still went through, unamended, despite significant numbers of rebels. It’ll be interesting to see the division list for that!

UPDATE #2: Now that I’ve had a glance at the division lists, there are a few interesting¬†tit-bits:

  • The low turnout. It looks like, as Peter Bone said, many MPs weren’t in Westminster with the government payroll vote out in force
  • There were over forty rebels on both the Labour and Conservative sides, with 12 Lib Dems rebelling too
  • On the Bone and Engel amendments, more Labourites voted against their front bench than for it (41 to 17 and 49 to 12)
  • A few Select Committee chairs voted against the amendments – James Arbuthnot (Con) of Defence, Graham Allen (Lab) of Political Reform, Greg Knight (Con) of Procedure (!), and Graham Stuart (Con) of Education
  • Vince Cable, our very own Business Secretary, abstained by voting with both the ayes and the noes

It will be interesting to see what the Procedure Committee comes up with in its proposals, and how closely they will follow them. It will also be interesting to see if and when their proposals are given government time to be voted on (since the backbench business committee is forbidden from giving time to reform itself, leaving reform firmly in government hands).

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