28 January 2019

Parliament is trying to take greater control of the Brexit process. To do this MPs are searching for ways to have more say over the control of parliamentary business—something that largely rests with the Government. But, says Dr Alice Lilly, these proposals really reflect broader concern over who controls the Order Paper.

Following Parliament’s rejection of the Prime Minister’s deal, MPs are seeking to exert greater control over Brexit by trying to give themselves greater ability to determine what business is debated and voted on in the Commons.

Several of the amendments tabled to the motion that the House has “considered” the Prime Minister’s Plan B statement contain various efforts to change or suspend—at certain times—one of the Standing Orders, or parliamentary rules, which sets out who controls time in the Commons. Standing Order 14 states that government business has precedence on each day of a parliamentary session, with certain exceptions. Currently, the key exceptions include:

  • The 13 Private Members’ Bill Fridays on which the Commons debates bills proposed by individual MPs
  • The 20 days allocated to Opposition parties
  • The 35 days given over to debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, which chooses topics on the basis of bids made by MPs

Outside of these days, it is the Government that decides what is debated, and when. More than this, the Government can also choose when the time allotted to the Opposition or backbench business is scheduled—meaning that they can simply choose to delay scheduling this time if they think something politically embarrassing might be debated.

Backbenchers have little control over what is debated in Parliament

Practically, this makes it difficult for backbench MPs to exert control over what is debated in Parliament—and it is even harder for them to actually pass backbench-originated legislation. It is is estimated that just 5% of all Private Members’ Bills introduced in the last decade actually made it into law.

There is good reason for the Government to have such control over the Commons’ time. As the modern British political system developed over the nineteenth century, governments increasingly became the originators of legislation. At the same time, the expansion of the voting franchise gave governments and their legislative programmes—as spelled out in their manifestos—greater legitimacy. The combination of these trends created the default assumption that the Government should control most time in the Commons, something formalised in the first version of Standing Order 14 back in the early twentieth century.

But in more recent decades, concern has persisted about the extent of government’s control of the Order Paper—and it is failure to fully address this concern, as well as specific political circumstances, that is shaping MPs’ current efforts to alter the rules.

Suggestions for reform are not new

A decade ago, the Wright Committee on the reform of Parliament recognised “concerns expressed for some time about Members’ inability to control the business in their own House.” To give MPs more say over Commons business, the Committee recommended a new system. In this, a new Backbench Business Committee would control time allotted for backbench-led debated. Members of that committee would sit alongside government and Opposition representatives on a new House Business Committee, which would draft—by consensus—an agenda for the coming week. MPs would then be able to approve—or disapprove—the draft agenda.

Some of these reforms were put into action: the Backbench Business Committee was established, and is responsible for choosing subjects for the 35 days’ of backbench time each session. But the House Business Committee idea ultimately did not get off the ground. Despite the Commons endorsing the idea in 2010, and the Coalition Government committing to its establishment, the then-government dropped the plan in 2013. It claimed that they couldn’t find a consensus on how the new system would work in practice—and no subsequent government has seen fit to resurrect the idea.

But it has not entirely been forgotten: one amendment to the Government’s motion, tabled by the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, calls for the establishment of an EU Withdrawal Negotiations Business of the House Committee, which would be primarily responsible for scheduling Commons business relating to Brexit. On days where the Committee decided that business related to Brexit, Standing Order 14 would not apply.

Whether the amendment passes or not, it is a reminder that questions about who controls the Commons’ business are not new, even if Brexit is bringing them more sharply into focus. In Westminster, the government has more control over what is debated and voted on than in many other legislatures—and concern over this is likely to persist. Given the importance of the principles that have once again arisen, it may be time for the Commons—and, perhaps, the Procedure Committee— to return to the issues of who controls parliamentary time.

Comments

Note also that there are limitations on what may be debated on Opposition days: for instance, legislation is never taken on such days. This has to do with their origins as days on which supply (ie the provision of money to the Government out of general taxation) was debated.

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