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We are facing a national crisis – it's vital that backbenchers are able to hold the Government to account

Backbenchers who are shielding should not have to choose between their health and representing their constituents, Ian Mearns writes

3 min read

MPs should not have to make a choice between following public health advice and participating in backbench business.

Ten years ago this week, the House of Commons agreed motions to establish the Backbench Business Committee. The formation of the Committee was a genuinely historic moment for Parliament, providing a space for backbenchers to raise important issues and scrutinise the Government. 

Due to the very specific nature of some of the topics scheduled by the Committee, public interest can be extremely high. The first debates scheduled by the Committee back in 2010 attracted, on occasion, three to four times more viewers than average on the BBC Parliament television channel.

Important issues that may be uncomfortable for the Government are given a chance to be scrutinised. A debate on Afghanistan in 2010, which gave the Commons its first vote on the subject since the conflict began, along with debates on circus animals, the Hillsborough disaster and membership of the European Union have garnered a great deal of attention. 

With its large majority – and especially during this time of national crisis – it's important that we're able to hold the Government to account, and Backbench Business debates are an important way for Members to do that. 

After a three-month absence, I was pleased to see the reinstatement of backbench business on the Order Paper this week, when on Thursday we will hear an important debate on the effects of covid-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. However, there remain a significant number of other important debates still awaiting scheduling by the Committee.

The Government risks putting Members’ safety at jeopardy by forcing them to choose between their constitutional duty and adhering to medical guidance

As we reflect on the great strides made by the Committee in the last ten years, we must not be complacent. Just last week, I felt compelled to make representations to the Leader of the House, asking the Government to introduce virtual participation for backbench business for Members who have self-certified or who are precluded from attendance in person for other perfectly valid personal or public health reasons.  

The absence of virtual participation in backbench business means that we find ourselves in an absurd situation – expecting Members with a specific interest in debating matters relating to the Covid-19 outbreak, potentially with an higher vulnerability to Covid-19 due to their ethnic background, to be physically present in Westminster in order to participate in those debates.

The Government risks putting Members’ safety at jeopardy in forcing Members to choose between their constitutional duty and adhering to medical guidance.

One Member has told us that their debate is so important to them that they would be prepared to come Westminster for it, in direct contradiction to the medical advice that they have received, whilst Members based in constituencies further away from London have confirmed that their debates could not take place under current arrangements because they cannot come to Westminster.

The Government must act on this matter immediately – Members should not have to make a choice between following public health advice and participating in backbench business – on subject matters which are of incredible importance to them and their constituents.

Looking ahead to the future, our hope is that the Backbench Committee continues to remain an advocate for backbench MPs and an important forum where issues of concern can be raised in Parliament.

Ian Mearns is Labour MP for Gateshead and chair of the Backbench Business Committee

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