The Backbench Business Committee – Doomed to fail in an executive controlled system.
After the expenses scandal of 2009 it was certain that Parliament needed to respond in some way in order to attempt to regain the respect and trust of the electorate in the UK. The Reform of the House of Commons Committee (The Wright Committee) was formed during July of 2009 in order to assess the ways in which Parliament could become more engaging with the public. The committee returned a report entitled ‘Rebuilding the House’ in November of the same year.
Recognising the issues faced, the Wright Committee noted that: ‘We have been set up at a time when the House of Commons is going through a crisis of confidence not experienced in our lifetimes.’ But were their suggestions enough? Did the Committee fail to come up with suggestions that would truly engage the public and make politics a more transparent and seemingly fair domain?
Initially and upon face value for many people looking at the report the answer would be ‘no’. The Hansard Society called the reforms ‘weak and disappointing’, while Dr Liam Fox commented that they ‘wouldn’t be enough to restore public trust in Parliament’.
However, while seeming disappointing initially the report contained numerous suggestions for ways in which the House of Commons could begin to work more effectively, and thus provide a much better democratic function. These included reforms to Select Committees as well as sitting patterns, but perhaps the most revolutionary suggestion was that of a ‘Backbench Business Committee’ (BBBCom) which if implemented correctly could restore the legislative power of the House of Commons that has diminished so radically. (That is if you can argue it has truly existed in the modern era.)
The BBBCom was created in June 2010 and aimed to give backbench members of the Commons the opportunity to raise issues outside of either the Opposition Days, or the standard Government timetable. Allocated 35 days in each parliamentary session, the BBBCom has provided some of the finest moments that the Commons has seen in a long time. Debates on assisted suicide, Europe and immigration have shown the debating talents of a number of backbench MPs and made life uncomfortable for the government in areas that perhaps previously may have gone untouched.
However, while the BBBCom has shown what an effective tool of democracy it had the potential to be; changes from the government that mean members are now elected by the parties themselves look set to return control of such tools to the government.
Initially members of the committee were elected by backbench members across the House. However, while the BBBCom has shown what an effective tool of democracy it had the potential to be, changes from the government mean that members are now elected by the parties themselves; ensuring a return to ‘the norm’. If the parties elect members who aren’t likely to speak out against the party line then surely that ends the chance of the BBBCom to make a difference in Parliament?
While some people may question if the BBBCom even made a creditable difference in the first place; (the media coverage received by the debates was almost zero) the changes being introduced by Cameron’s coalition government to restrict the powers of such a body even more will surely see the end of any progress that was being made.
When the government sets out plans to ‘clean up politics’ – the buzz words of the 2010 election, steps such as this only seem to be taking them in the opposite direction. If the government were truly committed to reforming the Commons in order to ensure that it is a more effective legislature then a change such as this would not have been allowed to happen.
While we can hope that the BBBCom can continue with the good work it’s started during the previous Parliamentary sessions, the hopes that it will strengthen in to a creditable body ensuring effective scrutiny of the government are thwarted by the way in which the coalition have changed the rules on how to be elected to the committee.