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Artillery Row

Parliament’s Dragon’s Den

The former inaugural chair of Parliament’s Backbench Business Committee recalls its first ever meeting

It seems odd today to think of Parliament without the Backbench Business Committee, but when we first opened our doors ten years ago this week, we had no idea what to expect.

While the words “Backbench Business Committee” don’t exactly get pulses racing, its establishment was a real parliamentary innovation – a disruptor in an institution where nothing changes, and even when it does, it’s so slow that no normal human can detect it.

There wasn’t much in the way of rules

The best thing was that because it was new, there wasn’t much in the way of rules. The standing orders only stipulated the number of members on the committee and that we were in charge of scheduling debates on 35 days of each parliamentary session. I’m not sure if the Government was fully aware of what 35 days meant. Backbenchers had been given the power to decide what was going to be debated and voted on pretty much one day a week.

The allocation of time in Parliament is one of the greatest powers there is. We could easily have decided to meet behind closed doors (as was the original intention) and schedule our pet topics week in week out. That would, as we all knew, have transferred powers from the Government to a small backbench elite, not to backbenchers themselves.

To guard against this, we made up three rules. The first was always to meet in public. The second was to be led by backbenchers, not ourselves, and the third was that any application for a debate needed cross-party support.

Even though Government generally gave us Thursdays to schedule our debates – a day when Parliament was usually packing up for the weekend – demand vastly outstripped supply. Every Tuesday lunchtime we would open our doors to groups of backbenchers making their pitches for debates (which was how we got the name Dragon’s Den).

Since these were often televised, the fact that people were making their case would sometimes generate interest itself, although none so much as David Davis who arrived with his own BBC film crew to ask for a debate on Prisoners’ Voting Rights.

One of our first debates caused great displeasure in the whips’ offices. When Geoffrey Robinson tabled a motion about compensation for the victims of contaminated blood, there were heated conversations behind the scenes. There had, it seemed, never been a debate on the subject since the scandal first happened in the 1970s because the compensation payments would, apparently, bankrupt the country.

We pressed ahead, and on a miserable Thursday in October, the public galleries were spilling over with the families of victims, some of whom had waited 50 years for this moment.

The Health Minister rose to respond to the debate. She read out the figures, the prohibitive amounts of money that full compensation would cost the taxpayer, but even as she was speaking, notes were being passed about and anxious looks exchanged. There were interventions that challenged the figures and demands to make them public. These were not the numbers that anyone else had calculated.

Not long afterwards, the Minister explained that her figures were out of date, or not quite right at any rate. More note-passing this time alongside angry looks until, at the end, the Minister promised that corrected figures would be published before Christmas.

The triumph wasn’t so much that we had got a commitment from the Government to look at this again. It was that without the power to table a debate and a vote, this mistake would never have seen the light of day. The scandal would have rumbled on until the last victim of the contaminated blood scandal had passed away.

There were other interesting things that the debate exposed. For example, we saw for the first time that the Government and the Opposition frontbenches aren’t so different from each other. The Opposition also doesn’t want to be landed with a huge compensation bill when it comes to their turn in government. The “us and them” wasn’t Tory versus Labour as we had always thought, but frontbench against backbench.

The fact that the Committee is now an unremarkable part of Parliamentary life is itself a mark of success

We also learned the hard way what happens when you call a vote without whips to tell you which lobby to walk through nor tellers to count you out. Just after the division was called, it turned out none of us had a clue what to do. Even though it was a bit chaotic, we got through it. But it drove home to us that with our new powers came new responsibilities. No more hiding behind the whips and no more making excuses. This was never truer than with our most controversial debate on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. When he ran the Institute for Government, Peter Riddell used to talk about how, during the miners’ strike in 1984, there was no debate or vote. The country was experiencing something like a civil war, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the order paper because it was in neither the Conservative nor the Labour leaderships’ interest to raise it.

It wasn’t long before a group of MPs made the case for a debate on an EU referendum and we scheduled it. It wasn’t just the Government’s whips office that went into overdrive. Every party whipped hard against it. Unusually, the debate was moved from our usual Thursday slot to Monday 24 October 2011. The Parliament Channel, normally the preserve of political geeks and insomniacs, had record viewing figures and many more watched live online.

The problem for many backbenchers was that this was an issue they had long been swerving – or had pledged to support in the knowledge that Parliament would never raise it. Not only was it now raised, there was going to be a vote on it for the first time.

That vote was a hard choice between party loyalty, pressure from constituents and personal conscience. More than that, it was a brutal lesson in power and responsibility for many MPs. Once backbenchers fully understood the power they had been given, though, they weren’t going to give it back.

The first few years of the committee were a careful balance of asserting these new powers without overplaying our hand. The fact that it is now an unremarkable part of Parliamentary life is itself a mark of success.

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