Charles Walker calls for more power for Parliament in managing its time

Charles Walker, in his role as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, leads a debate on the way the House of Commons operates in particular giving Parliament more power to manage its time in its own way rather than at the behest of the Government.

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Mr Walker: The first of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations has been accepted by the Government—let us start on a positive note—as it is uncontentious and simply formalises the current practice of the Backbench Business Committee taking representations in public. I think all colleagues will agree that that fantastic occasion on Tuesday is well attended and extremely exciting. It portrays and presents Parliament at its absolute best. I know you share that view, Mr Speaker, if I may be so presumptuous as to involve you in this debate.

Our second suggestion does not meet with quite so much favour from the Government Front-Bench team—nor, I am sad to say, from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee—but I thought that for the sake of debate I would expand on the Procedure Committee’s view on this matter. I should say at this early stage that I do not want to keep colleagues here until the small hours of the morning, so it is unlikely that I will put this to the vote tonight. Perhaps I have shown my hand too early, but I know colleagues have important things to be getting on with in their offices.

This second suggestion, which is opposed by the Government, is to amend Standing Order No. 40, so that it allows for 35 days of backbench business per Session or, when the Session is longer, a pro rata increase of one day per each additional week. It is possible to imagine a scenario after the general election when the incoming Government—whether it be the current coalition, a Conservative Government or, dare I say it, possibly a Labour Government—might decide that their business agenda is so expansive that it requires two years to put it into place. The Procedure Committee thus thought it would be helpful—nay, necessary—for the number of days given by the Government to be commensurate with the additional number of weeks for which that first Parliament ran.

The Front-Benchers have assured me—these assurances are taken at face value by the Chairman of the Backbench Committee—that I need not worry about these things, and that if there were additional weeks and Parliament lasted for more than the standard 35 weeks in the year, the Government would find it within their favour to provide some additional days.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Do not the facts paint a very different picture? In the first part of this Parliament, when the first Session ran for two years, there were not the requisite number of days for the Backbench Business Committee as there should have been. These assurances, I would suggest, are completely worthless.

Mr Walker: In an ideal world, the Standing Order would be amended to ensure—so that there was no wriggle room—that the additional days would be provided, but at this point I do not feel that the House is with me. This is an argument in gestation, and we need to allow it longer in the womb before it bursts forth in its full glory.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of our Procedure Committee. Does he agree that if the Government were to accept the motion—and I appreciate that they are reluctant to do so—there would be no reason for the Backbench Business Committee, in its present or a future incarnation, not to refuse to accept the extra day if it were offered, on a case-by-case basis?

Mr Walker: The Backbench Business Committee is known for its independence of thought. I rather agree with my hon. Friend, who is a stalwart of the Procedure Committee and one of its leading lights. Once again, he has made an incisive contribution.

Because we do not have all night, I am now going to make a little progress. We also propose a new Standing Order—again, resisted by the Government—allowing the Backbench Business Committee to organise its own time through a motion proposed at the commencement of one of its days of business, regulating the business that follows. Such a change would enable the Committee to make provision for decisions on a series of motions and amendments to those motions to be taken together at the end of a debate, at the normal moment of interruption or before.

I shall canter through the next part of my speech. I shall have to read it, because it is quite complex, and I would not want to make a deliberate or unnecessary mistake. Let me give two examples in which that power might have been useful. In the case of recent debates on the sitting hours of the House, the need to take a complex series of votes before the usual time of interruption required the sacrifice of an hour and a half of debating time. The debate on assisted dying, which was scheduled to last an hour and a half, had to be voluntarily stopped 20 minutes early so that the first amendment could be put and voted on, in order to allow a second vote to be taken before the 7 pm deadline. The power might also provide for a timetable for decisions to be made on a series of separate motions at fixed points, or for a day simply to be divided between two or three debates. That would be entirely convenient to the House because it would make everything reasonably predictable.

In anticipation of resistance from the Government, the Committee has proposed a fairly formidable set of constraints on the use of the power, which I shall set out now. I can see that the House is waiting with bated breath to hear about this series of protections.

First, the decision to use the power must be a unanimous decision by the Committee, made, obviously, at a quorate meeting with due notice given. Secondly, the Committee—unlike the Government—is given no power to stretch a day, except in so far as Divisions might run past the normal moment of interruption. It cannot extend the length of a sitting on Thursday. Thirdly, and most importantly, the House would be free to disagree with any proposal made by the Committee at the start of the day to which it applied. The proposal would be put without debate, but could be divided on and defeated. If the House did not like it, the House could reject it.

So there is no possibility, in a perfect world—the world that I would like to see become a reality, although it is not going to become a reality tonight—of the Backbench Business Committee’s abusing its power to force the House to make unpalatable decisions in an unpalatable way. The whole Committee, and the whole House, must want the business to which this power might be applied to be conducted in a rational and predictable way. It is not applicable to anything other than Back-Bench business: it cannot affect Government business, Opposition business, or private Members’ Bills.

I appreciate that there is resistance to this. There are many here who feel that the Government, motivated by good will, would want to ensure whenever possible that the Backbench Business Committee was able to achieve its objectives, and that there would be helpful Whips supporting them in the process. This is where I diverge slightly from the view of my opposite number, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Backbench Business Committee. This is a point of principle and the—slow—direction of travel at the moment is for this House to take back more powers for itself. It was the case about 110 years ago that if the Government of the day wanted to transact their business in this place, they had to come and seek our permission. Over the past 110 years we have given up successive powers through Standing Orders so now we are in the position of begging the Government for time, or relying on the good will of Government to give us that time.

This is what I suggest: I am not going to press the House to a Division tonight, so the amendments put down by the Government will carry the day, but I am convinced that the day is coming—slowly—when this House will have the courage and desire to take back some of its own power and we will have the self-confidence not to rely on the Whips to transact our business for us on those days when it is our business. I accept that there will be Government days for business, and that is fine, but I think that on those days when there is Back-Bench business—those days when it is our business, when this place comes back to us—in a few years’ time we will have the self-confidence and courage to say, “Actually, we can handle our own affairs in a grown-up, mature and successful fashion.”

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab) rose—

Mr Walker: Before I sit down, I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee for giving way. Surely what we are talking about here is the House growing up and our being treated like grown-ups—being able to vote as well as debate? I therefore wonder why the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—who chairs it absolutely marvellously—is not going to press the House to a Division this evening.

Mr Walker: I shall answer the hon. Lady in an honest way: quite frankly, I have been here since 10 o’clock this morning, and I have toured the Tea Rooms and I have toured the Library and all the other places where Members of Parliament work diligently through the day, and I do not feel that I have the support to carry the day, so it is better to live to take the fight to another day than to die on this day. I appreciate that that is a slightly over-dramatic statement of the position, but why not, because it is late and I have had far too much coffee?

I really now think it is time that I sat down and allowed others to participate in this important debate, because we have literally hundreds of colleagues here champing at the bit.

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And at the conclusion of the debate

Mr Walker: This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I have learned a lot of procedure during its course, and it is good to know that, no matter how inexperienced we are, we can always become more experienced by listening to the wisdom of colleagues. If this is possible and acceptable to the House, I would ask to withdraw the motion on Back-Bench business—I understand that that is acceptable to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee—while of course leaving the motion on Select Committee statements alone. I have nothing further to add, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

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