Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Backbench Committees Should Return

A few days ago I suggested that a new Conservative government should increase the number of PPSs, while at the same time cutting the number of Ministers. Today I have another suggestion concerning the operation of the new Conservative parliamentary party.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s the party convened backbench committees who would shadow the work of each government department. They would meet once a week and membership would be open to any backbench member of the parliamentary party. PPSs, special advisers and CRD officials would also attend, and each group would have a Chairman, Vice Chairman and Secretary - all elected. The Secretary would be responsible for inviting a speaker each week. The officers would meet with the relevant Department's Ministers once every three months and advise them of any concerns among backbenchers, and the group's chairman would often get quite a lot of media coverage in the subject area concerned.

These groups served several purposes. Firstly, they allowed MPs with particular interests to join a relevant policy group, and secondly, they were quite helpful in coming up with new policies for the government to consider. Thirdly, it provided an opportunity for new MPs to make their mark and develop more expertise in particular policy areas.

The groups fell into abeyance in 1997 when the party went into opposition. I suggest that if we get back into government, they should be reformed with a clear mandate and objective.

14 comments:

Erskine May said...

I agree very strongly with this. The committees were also invaluable as a channel of communication between backbenchers and party leaders. Without them, the only structured channel is that of the whips, which does not allow for the deliberations and constructive engagement possible through the backbench committees. The committees were extremely important from the period of their development in the 1920s through to going into abeyance in 1997. The case for their revival is compelling.

John R said...

Fine idea - but is anyone listening? As far as I can see communicating with Tory HQ is a one way street, outwards only.

Fuddled Medic said...

Were there any examples of these groups disagreeing with policy and publicly announcing it?

javelin said...

A while ago I remember talking about an audit function fir each Ministry. I would suggest also giving these committees an auditing and risk management function.

This would take the form of the chief risk officer and perhaps there would be a minister for the back benches to sit in cabinet to raise concerns.

I understand this would make the committees less creative and more constraining but it's worth remembering that Givernments lose election through their mistakes.

Anonymous said...

What was the cost of them iain? Who pays? As a charity lobbyist, I find them an interesting idea. However, they could just be more committees that comes up with great reports but which have no impact on gov policy, like (shamefully) select committees and bill scrutiny committees.

Paul W said...

I think its an interesting concept and its valuable to have scrutiny conducted at a backbench level to give a degree of analysis to Government policy. So in terms of resurrecting it - your analysis is compelling.

The issue I have from a purely economical standpoint is will be gaining any new utility in the way government functions and the mechanisms of scrutiny which follow if we adopt what you are proposing?
The realist in me says NO.

Captain Scarlett said...

A good idea in theory but in practice who knows.

Conand said...

This seems an excellent idea. I never knew about them. I imagine this is because I became a Conservative about six years after they'd gone.
My only question relates to their relationship with the Conservative members of the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee. Would those Select Committee members be permanent members of the Backbench Committee or just guest speakers etc?
Please excuse my ignorance. I'm learning new things every day. I now know more about the finances and internal workings of West Ham United Football Club than I previously imagined I ever would.

Insider said...

Have faith! Plans are already under way.

Erskine May said...

Quite a number of commentators seem unaware that you are not proposing anything new, but rather (as you say) seeking to resurrect a system of backbench committees that previously existed, cost next to nothing (the MPs elected as officers basically organised them), and proved effective at influencing ministers. They were more effective than the blunt weapon of the 1922 Committee.

Magical_Mist said...

A fine idea, completely agree. "Make it so"

OldSlaughter said...

Now you are talking Iain.

Elliot Kane said...

I like this idea. It gives the backbenchers a far greater say in how the country is run and also should help them to spot ministerial mistakes before they happen, which is always good.

I would also suggest opening the committees to backbenchers from other parties, as it never hurts to get a broad view - nor to help train up those who may also one day be helping the country.

Bardirect said...

Why are you still going on about this when there are worthy causes like this to support:

http://www.tuc.org.uk/international/tuc-17488-f0.cfm

Laugh, I'll probably never start