Circuses, injunctions and PFI: MPs battle for debates
- 9 June 2011
- From the section UK Politics
To Committee Room 8 on Tuesday, for the weekly Dragons Den session of the Backbench Business Committee. This is one of the old-style committee rooms up on the Committee Corridor of the main building of the Palace Westminster, but fortunately it's one without the sometimes migrane-inducing high Victorian decor, so your correspondent was able to focus on proceedings.
A succession of MPs were there to bid for a scarce slice of debating time in the Commons, or the parallel debating chamber, Westminster Hall - where less contentious business can be discussed and responded to by a minister.
Conservative Mark Pritchard wanted a full Chamber debate on a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses (a subject on which DEFRA minister James Paice was monstered by MPs a couple of weeks ago). Uber-rebel David Davis argued for a debate on privacy and superinjunctions to inform the work of two committees set up to review those issues - and flatly rejected the offer of a shorter Westminster Hall debate, on the basis that a serious taking of Commons voices was now needed.
Treasury Select Committee member Jesse Norman wanted a debate on the costs of public sector projects funded through the previous Government's Private Finance Initiative (PFI). He's part of a campaign to get the companies involved in PFI to hand some of their profits back.
And so it went on. War crimes in Sri Lanka, Parliamentary Reform (including the suggestion that MPs should elect the Committee of Selection, which decides who sits on the public bill committees which scrutinise new legislation - currently it's a conduit for lists produced by party whips, so changing it is a major extension of backbench power), Student Visas.
All important subjects with strong cases for an airing in the Chamber. The trouble is that the Committee only has one full day to allocate, June 23, and as the Chair, Natascha Engel, helpfully pointed out, that might be taken away. Committee members did make increasingly desperate attempts to find someone to debate something, anything, in Westminster Hall this Thursday.
They'd suddenly inherited a slot following the cancellation of a select committee debate on international development issues, after the minister due to respond was unable to attend, and by the end of proceedings they were giggling in embarrassment.
Week in week out, the evidence is clear; MPs have a new route to bring issues before parliament, and they're seizing the opportunity. The bad news is that the time they have available to allocate is so limited. I suspect it won't be long before MPs start agitating for more.
UPDATE: Jesse Norman tells me the Backbench Business Committee has now scheduled his debate on PFI for Westminster Hall on June 23.