The Role of Backbench MPs
Back Bench MPs play a central role in the carrying out the Functions of Parliament
Crucial to the ability of MPs and peers to carry out their functions is the concept of parliamentary privilege. This means that, within the confines of Parliament, they may say what they like, without being subject to outside influence. This includes immunity from being sued for libel. It does not mean that they cannot be prosecuted for criminal activity; several MPs and peers were jailed, for example, following revelations in 2009 that they had made false claims for parliamentary expenses. The role of parliamentary privilege is to ensure that MPs and peers enjoy their historic right to freedom of speech.
Some commentators have suggested that backbench MPs are playing an increasingly significant role within Parliament, especially in scrutinising government activity and holding the executive to account. There is some evidence in support of this claim:
The creation of the Backbench Business Committee in 2010, which is allowed to choose the topic for debate on 35 days in each parliamentary session. Some of these subjects are chosen in response to e-petitions signed by members of the public; 100,000 signatures are required to qualify. This has led to the holding of debates on some subjects that might not otherwise have been chosen. Some of these take place in Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of the Houses of Parliament, in order to ease the burden on the Commons chamber. Examples of such debates include one in 2015 that led to the introduction of Harvey's law, which obliges the Highways Agency to notify the owners of pets who are killed on the roads. The Backbench Business Committee responds to proposals that command cross-party support, and so there is an incentive for MPs to work together in requesting a debate
· A rise in the number of backbench rebellions against government measures, even if the average number of MPs involved in particular rebellions has declined.
· An increase in the use of 'urgent questions' — a device which, subject to the approval of the Speaker of the House, allows an MP to raise an important matter requiring an immediate answer from a government minister. A study conducted during the coalition government found that Speaker John Bercow allowed a total of 3547 urgent questions in 2009-13, while his predecessor, Michael Martin (2000-09) presided over only 1234 in a much longer period.
There are important limits on the influence of backbenchers:
· MPs can use various methods to draw attention to issues in which they are interested, but this does not mean that they will succeed in getting any action taken. One example of this is an adjournment debate. After the official business of the House is over, there is an opportunity to raise an issue and a minister will reply. Another option for backbenchers is the 10-minute rule. This allows MPs to speak for 10 minutes on their chosen subject before the beginning of official business on certain days. However, in both cases, the only result is likely to be an airing of the MP's concern in debate.
· Public bill committees give MPs an opportunity to propose amendments to legislation, and each clause of a bill is scrutinised. However, the government has a majority on these committees and often it will use its position of strength to introduce its own amendments, rather than listening to proposals from opposition MPs.
· The power of patronage and ties of party loyalty, reinforced by the party whips, remain important factors in the Commons.
Backbench members of the House of Lords are usually established figures in their own fields, and many are retired politicians. The promise of a government post cannot therefore influence them as much as it might a backbench MP, and so they are likely to act independently. The growing prominence of cross-benchers who have no party affiliation has already been noted. For almost any conceivable area of public life or interest, there will be peers with experience and expertise who can contribute to debates in particular areas. Current examples include Professor Lord Hennessy, one of Britain's leading experts on constitutional matters, and Baroness Greenfield in the field of science and technology. A full list of cross-benchers can be found on the following website: www.crossbenchpeers.org.ukirole.html
It is normal for the government to enjoy the support of a majority of MPs in the Commons. In the past, this has been because the governing party has won an overall majority of the available seats at a general election (for example, 326 seats in a House of 650 members). In 2010, no single party won such an overall majority and so the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition which could command such a majority jointly. In 2015 the Conservative won the election with a majority of 17.
· Patronage is an important factor. Most MPs hope, one day, to be promoted to ministerial office. To achieve this they need to demonstrate to the prime minister (who appoints all ministers) that they are loyal party members.
· The government whips have a number of methods by which they can persuade
their own party's MPs to support the government, even if they have reservations.
· In the legislative committees (which review bills at the Committee Stage) that consider possible amendments to legislation, the government side is always granted a majority of its own MPs.
· The government controls most of the timetable of the Commons. This makes it possible for it to cut short (even avoid) debates which might embarrass it. For example, the Government was criticised for giving too little time to debate the 'Brexit Bill 2017'
Factors which will determine their success at controlling the Commons will include the size of their majority and the unity of their party- e.g Tony Blair only lost one vote in the Commons in 10 years mainly because of the size of the majorities he had. Since 2015 two Chancellors of the Exchequer have backed down in the face of backbench pressure from their own side- George Osbourne over the pan to scrap Tax Credits which were first delayed in the Lords and Philip Hammond over the plan to increase National Insurance for the self employed