Inside Parliament’s Dragon’s Den
It’s hard to imagine now what a disruptor the Backbench Business Committee was when it was first set up 12 years ago.
Part of wider proposals to give more powers to Parliament, only a handful of parliamentarians really understood its potential. As a result, the Backbench Business Committee was voted through with little fanfare.
Did government know how significant its power to schedule votable motions was? I’m still not sure. Did it realise that giving backbenchers 35 days a session translated to a day a week? I suspect not. Did it appreciate how powerful backbenchers could be once they started working as a coherent group rather than being divided along party lines? Certainly not.
I actually voted against the motion to set up the Backbench Business Committee – for the same reason I eventually ran to become its inaugural chair. I worried we were transferring powers from one elite (the whips) to another (senior backbenchers) while bypassing more recent arrivals to the backbenches.
I actually voted against the motion to set up the Backbench Business Committee
There was nothing to stop the committee from meeting in private every week and choosing their personal hobbyhorses for debate, which was why one of our first decisions was to meet in public and be led by our fellow backbenchers. Every Tuesday afternoon we invited colleagues to pitch us their ideas for debate. The sessions were quickly dubbed Parliament’s Dragon’s Den – only here MPs had to prove they had cross-party support.
It led to my favourite moment in Parliament, when I heard for the first time a Conservative MP call their Labour co-sponsor “my honourable friend”. We hear it all the time now, but in those early years it felt transgressive.
The purpose of the committee was to allow backbenchers to debate and vote on issues they cared about even when their parties would rather not. During the miners’ strike in the 1980s, when some parts of the country were close to civil war, neither Conservative nor Labour leaderships wanted to have a debate or vote. As much as backbenchers tried, there was no mechanism by which MPs could bring a vote on the issue.
In the same way, no government had an interest in resolving the contaminated blood scandal, worried the costs for compensation would be prohibitive. It was one of our earliest debates. On a Thursday afternoon, the public galleries were packed with victims, families and campaigners, and the green benches were full.
It was the first time a minister was brought to the despatch box to explain why compensation had never been paid – and only then were we able to see the calculations had been vastly overestimated. We would never have known without a debate and votable motion.
At the end, as usual, a division was called but unlike usual, there were no whips to organise the vote, nor to put tellers in place to count us out. We simply had no idea how to do it.
After frantic running around trying to find backbenchers who had been whips in the past, and who could tell us what we needed to do, we managed to get everything in place just in time. But we learnt that with our new powers came responsibilities, and we could no longer hide behind the whips. It was an important lesson.
The fact the committee still exists today, that it feels like it’s been part of Parliament’s founding fabric, shows it was a necessary innovation.
But its real legacy is that backbenchers understand the power they wield when they work across party lines. That lesson is as relevant today as it was a decade ago.
Natascha Engel chaired the Backbench Business Committee from 2005 to 2010. She is now CEO of cross-party think tank Policy Connect.
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