Change is well overdue: the current system of the "Usual Channels" makes the courts of medieval monarchs look openby / 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.
How would a House Business Committee work? First, the government is entitled to have a majority, but not a monopoly, on the Committee. The party, or coalition, with the majority of seats in the Commons should not have its business scuppered by being denied parliamentary time, as that would be undemocratic. The House, however, should have the right to ask that certain measures receive more scrutiny than the norm because of the nature and implications of those measures.
Second, it should be chaired by an independent individual, thus securing the confidence of the whole House: the Wright Committee suggested the senior Deputy Speaker. Third, there should be a backbench component and representation from the so-called “minor parties.” Fourth, as it would be desirable to link the work of select committees to the Chamber, there is a strong case for a representative of the select committees to be included, possibly the chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, there is a strong case for the backbench members of the Committee being elected by the whole House, so they can speak with that mandate.
Yet it has not happened, even though the Coalition Agreement of 2010 contained a commitment to make it so. I can only speculate as to why not. The idea may have fallen victim to the success of the adopted Wright committee innovations. Governments that hold power and oppositions that aspire to it are rarely keen to give it up. Both the Backbench Business Committee and the empowered select committee chairs have demonstrated their keenness to flex their muscles, often to the discomfort of the executive. Hence the unwillingness of the executive in recent years to allow any further parliamentary muscle-flexing.
So why am I arguing that we should revisit the idea of a House Business Committee? The simple answer is that it is the right, democratic, thing to do. Inadequate scrutiny hardly makes for stellar legislation. The other answer is that it is the right time. Just as the expenses crisis created room for Wright to make parliament more relevant, engaging, and open, our current unprecedented political situation has prompted the prime minister to state that: “At this critical time in our history, we can either be timid or we can be bold. We can play it safe or we can strike out with renewed courage and vigour, making the case for our ideas and challenge our opponents to contribute, not just criticise.”
Contribution to our democratic narrative is at the heart of the Wright Committee in general and the strongest argument for the creation of a House Business Committee in particular. Andrea Leadsom, the new Leader of the House, has been at pains to emphasise her commitment to reaching out to colleagues in all parties and to carry them with her. Setting up such a committee would be the most eloquent expression of that commitment.
John Bercow is Speaker of the House