Change is well overdue: the current system of the "Usual Channels" makes the courts of medieval monarchs look openby John Bercow / September 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Times of great upheaval often yield unexpectedly positive outcomes and, in the case of the expenses scandal, this outcome was the establishment of the Reform Committee of the House of Commons, known as the Wright Committee, named after the former Labour MP Tony Wright. Although there was no direct correlation between the political authority of the House of Commons and its members ordering bath plugs and duck houses on the company card, there was a pervasive sense that the marginalisation of parliament and parliamentarians had contributed to a climate in which the abuse of expenses had sometimes occurred. Rather than looking at how to ensure the Biros were not being taken home at the end of the working day, the Wright Committee was charged with providing an answer to a more searching question: what was the office for in the first place? The role of the backbench MP, perhaps especially, had become a particularly dispiriting one: relegated to criticising from the sidelines but with little opportunity to contribute.
Two of Wright’s recommendations were especially acute. First, departmental select committee chairs were to be elected by the House by secret ballot, not appointed by whips. As a result, the select committee chair has been transformed from a government placeman into an independent scrutineer.
The second innovation was the establishment of a new BBC: the Backbench Business Committee to oversee the tabling of business in what the parliamentary timetable referred to as “backbench time.” The Committee has enabled subjects which neither the government of the day nor the opposition front bench would have wanted discussed in public, to be vigorously debated. The Committee has helped to revive the House, allowed backbenchers the opportunity to speak about chosen issues, and helped parliament connect with the country at large.
There is one further piece of the Wright jigsaw, and one of great value, which has yet to be put in place. This is the House Business Committee. For more than a century the parliamentary timetable has been considered to be government property and has been commanded exclusively by the government business managers, the whips, usually in co-ordination with the opposition front bench. This system of the “Usual Channels,” as it is called, makes the courts of medieval monarchs look like models of political openness. The Wright Committee insisted that this arrangement should be replaced by a House Business Committee to oversee the parliamentary schedule.