MPs' demand for backbench debating time exceeds supply

Last Monday may have been the Commons' Backbench Business Committee's finest hour so far - with national attention, political turmoil and half a million viewers on BBC Parliament, for its debate on an EU referendum - but it has its troubles.

Today's bidding session for the two slots in the chamber of the Commons available to the committee on the 8th and 15th of November demonstrated the pressures it faces. The Conservative Robert Halfon, backed up by a formidable online petition, wanted a debate on cutting fuel prices. It was, he pointed out, a very big issue - with soaring fuel prices squeezing family budgets and businesses across the land.

Then there was a contingent from the Defence Select Committee bidding for a general debate on defence. The chair of the Defence Committee, James Arbuthnot, made a powerful case that defence deserved special treatment - and that it would be disrespectful to the armed forces to relegate discussion of these matters to Westminster Hall. In the days before the Backbench Committee there were five such debates a year; now there are hardly any.

Part of the problem here is that the Backbench Committee was handed the time once devoted to this kind of set-piece general debate. There were regular debates before EU summits, there was an annual fisheries debate, a Welsh debate, held close to St David's Day a Scottish debate, a debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee, an annual fisheries debate, and so on. And the committee has not always been keen to continue with these traditions, often to the ire of those who value them.

And then there was rising Tory star Dominic Raab arguing for a debate on the UK's extradition arrangements, flanked by Lib Dem patriarch Sir Menzies Campbell and Labour select committee chair, Dr Hywel Francis - a classic issue for a backbench debate.

Which to choose? The committee is caught between assorted rocks and hard places most weeks, now. It was slammed in the press last week for failing to schedule a debate on fuel prices, and accused of ignoring the many thousands who signed the supporting petition. It was clear that the members of the defence committee were not amused to have to bid for time to debate vital defence issues. And of course the committee was set up in the first place to allow backbenchers a route of their own to get subjects onto the floor of the Commons.

Of course they had e-petitions foisted on them by the government, which simply announced that they would henceforth be responsible for finding the time for them to be debated. There's already talk of the need for a Petitions Committee to take over this duty. And maybe there's a case for having a block of time specifically allocated for debates on the work of select committees - perhaps via the Liaison Committee. But it would shatter the progress made in opening up the work of the Commons if either of those innovations came at the expense of backbench debating time.

As it happens, the government has an opportunity to be generous with Commons time at the moment. Almost all major legislation has gone across to the Lords, and MPs are dealing with Lords amendments. Ministers could allocate time for many of these causes if they wanted.

UPDATE: The committee has approved the debate on fuel prices for 15th November. There will be half a day on the petition and half a day on fisheries.

On 8th November the chair of the Transport Committee, Louise Ellman, will make a statement on her committee's latest report and then lead a debate on the cost of motor insurance, based on this report, published in September.

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