Backbench dilemma

An interesting test of nerve is looming for the Backbench Business Committee - the new-fangled institution that controls a chunk of Commons debating time, and parcels it out to allow discussion of concerns raised by backbench MPs.

Almost unnoticed, this week, the senior Conservative, Bernard Jenkin, came to the Committee to bid for a debate on a motion to create a Parliamentary Commission on the Civil Service.

Now, all the cool kids on the Liaison Committee (the super-committee of the MPs who chair Commons select committees) have wanted a Parliamentary Commission of their very own, since Andrew Tyrie made such a splash with the Parliamentary Banking Commission, which managed to exert huge leverage over the Banking Act.

Jenkin, who chairs the Public Administration Committee, has spent much of this parliament examining the growing tensions between ministers and the civil servants responsible for advising them and implementing their policies; and he wants a similar body to look at Civil Service reform.

The Liaison Committee back him, but the prime minister doesn't.

We know this because David Cameron made it clear at a session with the Liaison Committee that he thought a commission would be unhelpful.

What this leads us to is the uncomfortable question of exactly who has the authority to set up a parliamentary commission?

You would imagine that the clue is in the title and parliament can decide…. But the government controls the Commons, up to a point.

The Banking Commission, remember, was set up as an emergency response to the Libor scandal, over the fixing of key interest rates.

That brought the issue of banking standards to a head, and Andrew Tyrie was called in to head a powerful committee, which yomped its way through an intensive evidence-gathering exercise, and produced some highly detailed recommendations.

And then it used its influential membership in the Lords to get those recommendations into the Banking Bill, rather discomforting ministers as they discovered they could not muster a majority against the commission in crucial Lords report stage debates.

That's why the government is not keen on having any more commissions.

The prospect of uncongenial reform proposals being made by a commission and then, perhaps, forced into law in the Lords, does not enthuse ministers.

Mr Jenkin's proposed motion may force this issue... if the Backbench Business Committee allows him to get to the wicket.

He produced evidence that this proposed motion was within the Commons' rules and that the costs could be contained within existing budgets.

But the committee members would still have to screw their courage to the sticking place and be prepared to put down a motion that ministers don't like.

Will they do it?

At the meeting on Tuesday Mr Jenkin was hit by a flanking attack when one of the MPs he'd bought along for support, the Conservative ex-minister, Nick Herbert, suggested that there should be a general debate on the Civil Service first, to see if there was a mood in favour of a commission, and then think about putting down a motion to create one.

Mr Herbert was not sure Mr Jenkin's motion (which went so far as to specify the MPs who would sit on the Commission and detail their remit) was the right way forward, and criticised the politics of "tapping shoulders in the Lobby."

He gave the committee a compromise option, but one which might only postpone the moment when they would have to decide whether they dared to allow a motion to be debated.

Given the array of powerful backbench figures who support setting up a new commission on the Civil Service, there would certainly be a show of strength in favour of creating it….

Since the last elections to Backbench Business Committee (which, as an experimental institution, is re-elected more frequently than other Commons committees) it has mostly been purged of hard-core Tory awkward squaddies like Phillip Hollobone and Peter Bone.

Its current membership is more mainstream and less ready to pick a fight.

And with rumours that both the government and opposition front benches might fancy clipping their wings, by ending their ability to put down voteable motions for debate, they might feel this is a moment for caution.

Others might feel there's not much point in having the right to table voteable motions, if they never dare to do it.

Because next week is Budget week, they don't have time to allocate to the Jenkin motion - but they do have time the week after, so that test of nerves will come at their next meeting.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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