The government's control of the House of Commons

We saw in Chapter 2 how, in order to be invited to form a government, a prospective Prime Minister must have control of the House of Commons - that is, for his or her party (and, if necessary, its coalition partners) to have a sufficient parliamentary majority to be certain of getting approval for the legislative programme (announced in the Queen’s Speech) and for government taxation and spending (through the Finance Bill and the Estimates). But having a numerical majority in order to be able to win votes and secure government business is only one kind of control; control of the House’s time and agenda - what is debated, for how long, and on what terms - also matters. And while the government retains very significant control of what the House debates and when, this control was weakened in the 2010 Parliament by steps taken to give backbenchers greater influence over the House’s time and agenda.

Control of time

Every Thursday, the Leader of the House announces what the business will be - that is, what items will be taken on each day - for the next fortnight. In many parliaments, particularly those on the continental model, there is a business committee or bureau, involving not only the business managers and other party representatives, but also the president of the assembly and his deputies, who decide what business to propose. And even then, that draft agenda is subject to approval by the assembly as a whole. At the start of the 2010 Parliament, it seemed that the House might soon adopt a similar approach: the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to implement in full the proposals of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee - or ‘The Wright Committee’ as it was better known, after its Chair, Dr Tony Wright, the former MP for Cannock Chase - including plans for a House Business Committee, which would have carried out bureau-style functions. In July 2014, however, the Leader of the House said that there was as yet no basis of agreement on the proposal.

The absence of a House Business Committee in the Commons means that it remains primarily for the government of the day to propose and to dispose. Ever since the Balfour reforms at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries, all House of Commons time that is not ring-fenced is at the disposal of the government of the day. This meant, before the 2010 Parliament, that in 150 or 160 sitting days in a parliamentary session, only 20 ‘opposition days’, 13 days for private members’ bills, some time for private bills, 3 ‘Estimates days’ for debates on select committee reports, the daily half-hour adjournment debate, urgent questions and the daily Question Time were not in the gift of the government. Even then, it was for the government to decide when the opposition days, private members’ bill days and Estimates days were to be taken.

It is still the case that non-ring-fenced time is at the government’s disposal, but the big difference in the 2010 parliament was the appointment of the Backbench Business Committee (BBCom) (see also page 258) and its allocation of 35 days (27 in the Chamber, and the remainder in Westminster Hall) of backbench business. This has loosened the (still formidable) grip of the government on the timetable and agenda of the Commons. The statistics bear this out: the amount of time spent on business initiated by the government has fallen from nearly three-fifths in the 2003-04 and 2004-05 sessions to around one-third in 2012-13 and 2013-14, while time on business initiated by backbenchers has risen in the same period from around one- tenth to nearly one-quarter.

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