Moving revelations reveal Parliament's better side

The moving revelations of depression and OCD by MPs in yesterday's Commons debate on mental health reflect well on Parliament in a number of ways.

First, the fact that MPs can now choose some of the subjects they debate, and chose this one, and, second, that it piled on a bit more pressure behind Gavin Barwell's private member's bill abolishing the ban on people who have suffered mental health problems serving on juries, as company directors, or indeed as MPs.

In fact, the Health Minister Paul Burstow used the debate to pledge government support for the Bill.

But it also struck me, listening to the debate, that it was important in another way; it helped humanise parliament and parliamentarians. As with an earlier backbench debate on assisted dying, it provided an opportunity for MPs to step out of their normal tribal behaviour patterns and talk about their experiences. And that's something that happens quite regularly in backbench debates - they tend to cover subjects which matter to "real people", when so much of the Westminster agenda is driven by party politics and dissolves into tribal ranting.

Sarcasm and invective tend to be absent from backbench debates - and they showcase the better angels of our politicians' nature.

Which is one reason why I'm very interested to see how the new composition of the Backbench Business Committee (which chooses the subjects for these debates, and decides whether they will culminate in a vote) pans out. The recent elections to the committee have resulted in a bit of a clear-out of members, with a notable decline in the contingent from the Tory awkward squad - although the chair, Labour's Natascha Engel, remains in place. Will the result be a reluctance to allow debates that are inconvenient to the government? Or a new aversion to votes that (the horror, the horror) require the whips to keep MPs in parliament on a Thursday?

We may get a clue when the new-look committee meets for the first time next week. Meanwhile, the Commons Procedure Committee has been considering various changes to the backbench business system, which, remember, is still in its infancy.

A way needs to be found to include a voice from the minor parties in its operations - they were rather miffed to be offered a non-voting co-opted representative. The handling of petitions and e-petitions needs to be sorted out, so petitioners have a clearer idea of what will happen when they petition MPs. Are petitioners running away with the idea that with enough support they can change government policy directly? Should there be a threshold of 100,000 signatures before a petition is considered for debate? Should the whole issue be hived off to a separate petitions committee, as in the Scottish Parliament?

All this matters because, having given the public some traction over what the Commons debates, both though backbench debates, which are mostly prompted by issues spotted by MPs, or directly, through petitions, the Commons needs to ensure the voters find it a worthwhile, rather than disillusioning process.

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