A Tussle over Time

Standing Order 14 allows for at least 13 Fridays for Private Members’ Bills. Last week, however, the Government moved a motion to reduce the number of backbench Fridays from 13 to eight, on the basis that the 2009-10 session will be a truncated because of the impending general election. Eight days would be, pro rata, roughly the correct amount for a short session and on the last two occasions when we’ve had a fifth session – in 1991-92 and 1996-97 – the Conservative Government of the day moved similar motions to restrict the number of backbench Fridays, and neither were contested by the Opposition.

This time around, however, Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough was having none of it. He moved an amendment to restore the 13 days for backbench business. Seeing the scale of support for Bone’s amendment, Sir George Young, the Shadow Leader of the House, allowed his backbenchers, though not his frontbench, a free vote, as did the Liberal Democrats. But while all the Lib Dem MPs present voted for Bone’s amendment, the Conservatives split nearly in half: 30 Tory backbenchers supported the amendment, while only 27 Conservatives (24 of them frontbenchers) opposed it. Bone’s amendment, however was heavily defeated by 254 votes to 78, with Labour whipping their side against Bone’s amendment. Only three Labour MPs – Paul Flynn, Kelvin Hopkins and Austin Mitchell – defied the whips.

This debate (and vote) matters because it reflects wider backbench concerns over the Government’s failure thus far to debate Building the House, the Wright Report into the Reform of the House of Commons, which reported back in November. Wright’s proposals include the creation of a backbench Business Committee to protect backbench time, together with a House Business Committee, responsible for putting a weekly agenda to the House for its decision. Such plans mean challenging the Executive’s current hold over what gets debated.