Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

MPs back Commons reform proposals

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Commons reform debate: From BBC Democracy Live

MPs have backed a series of reforms aimed at beefing up the ability of backbenchers to create new laws and hold the government to account.

Proposals backed include a creating a backbench committee to set a timetable for Commons business.

A bid by the Labour and Tory front benches to restrict the committee to setting a timetable for just 15 days per session was rejected by MPs.

The move could change the role of ordinary backbench MPs in Parliament.

The reforms were drawn up by Labour MP and chairman of the public administration committee Tony Wright in the wake of last year's expenses scandal.

They are aimed at improving the standing of ordinary constituency MPs without government jobs, who currently have limited opportunities to influence legislation and hold ministers to account.

Measures agreed after Thursday's debate include beefing up the power of select committees by allowing their chairman to be selected by a secret ballot rather than by party bosses

New rules forcing committee chairman to stand down or allowing them to resign if necessary, were also voted through by MPs.

'Too restrictive'

MPs also agreed to back proposals ensuring the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - the key watchdog that scrutinises government spending - is always an opposition MP (to ensure the government is held properly to account), and to eject any member of a committee who does not attend at least 60% of meetings.

But they rejected an amendment put forward by the Conservative leadership and supported by the government, to restrict a new backbench committee to timetabling just 15 days' business per session.

Lib Dem frontbencher David Heath said it was "too restrictive" and it was opposed by members of Tony Wright's cross-party reform committee.

Under alternative plans passed without a vote, the new backbench business committee will be set up in time for the next Parliament and will control a wide range of non-ministerial debates and motions.

During the debate shadow Commons leader Sir George Young said it meant MPs would "never again be forced to plead for more time from the government in order to debate its own business".

He said the reforms represented MPs' best opportunity for decades to make Parliament "more effective, more accountable and more relevant to people outside".

But Mr Heath pointed to the "collusion" between the front benches on the issue of the backbench business committee, and Labour MP Martin Salter said, if the Conservative amendment had gone through, the new committee would have been "flimsier".

A separate full house business committee was also backed by MPs to cover the timetable for government and backbench matters - it will eventually include the new backbench business committee - but will not be set up until some time during the next Parliament.

Commons leader Harriet Harman said the "substantial reforms" would give more power to backbenchers to hold the government to account.

MPs also approved a process for electing deputy speakers - which have been chosen by party whips in the past.

But there was some anger among MPs that they were not allowed to vote on whether future Commons Speakers should be elected by secret ballot.

Last year, Speaker John Bercow was elected by secret ballot - Ms Harman insisted that the issue had "already been addressed" and the rules had already been changed.



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