Times sketch writer Ann Treneman talks to Natascha Engel MP

Women’s Parliamentary Radio
March 8th 2011

“Face to Face Encounters”: Times sketch writer Ann Treneman talks to Natascha Engel MP who is Chair of the new Backbench Business Committee

So what are those “usual channels” that govern the House of Commons? Ann Treneman, sketch writer of the Times, talks to Natascha Engel MP who chairs the new Backbench Business Committee which was set up on the 15th June 2010.

This is the first Business Committee of any kind to be established by the House and Ann Treneman, who watches and reports on the debates in the Chamber from the lofty heights of the “Lobby” is more qualified than most to comment on whether or not it is helping to modernise the Commons and transfer power to the ordinary backbench MPs.

Ann told Natascha: “The tone of the debates are slightly different, they are less “yarboo and me you” they are much more thoughtful and you feel that people are heading towards the same goals, which is amazing in Parliament really!”

In this special interview, a series Ann is conducting on Reform of the Commons in her “Face to Face Encounters” series for http://www.wpradio.co.uk, Natscha told Ann as they sat in the lower library of the Press Gallery in the Commons:

• “People used to talk about the dark forces of the whips offices, and that really has changed. The Backbench Business Committee has made a massive difference to how we work in Parliament. People have to take responsibility for what is being debated and there are no whips to ask anymore and that really has made a big difference.”

• “People refer to the “usual channels “ in hushed tones that really is the whips offices and all the civil servants who work around that. It’s not as murky and dark as I thought it was, it is all about timetabling like at school and it is nothing more complicated than that!”

• “It is really very, very, different, the person who controls the time usually controls the agenda. It is an enormously powerful tool. There was civil war happening out in the streets during the Miners Strike, but it was never debated on the floor of the House, because it was in the interests of both sides not to have it happen. We have scheduled debates on the Big Society, on the Middle East and North Africa, and after we have scheduled it the Government has scheduled the same debate as it is more appropriate to be in Government time. We can really raise the profile of something and embarrass the Government into doing things.”

• “We are given 35 days a year, that is about one day a week, but it is down to Government to decide when that day happens, so the next debate we have is 10th March. We wanted to give backbenchers ownership over their own time so we meet in public and that is really, really important. It is not just eight of us sitting in a room together.”

• “It is all drop in and Ad Hoc and it is televised – so far nothing terrible has happened but I think it is really important that we meet in public. We go into private session afterwards and then say which debate has the greatest merit. We could be more open in saying why we have chosen one debate over another. “

• “Geoffrey Robinson MP scheduled one of the first debates on “Contaminated Blood” about the 1970s scandal, and the compensation package. He had to write the motion, put it down on the order paper, and find Tellers for the debate. He had to get organised and he said how uplifting that was and he had been the Paymaster General, a very serious minister. “

• “It is actually the longer serving members who are finding the way that the Backbench Business Committee works is really making a difference to the life of Parliament, while the new ones are using it as part of their campaigns. There is an interesting difference between their attitudes to the Committee.”

• “Most of the time actually ministers ultimately do welcome the debates that we schedule. It might be a pain to deal with things, but if we schedule it they have to deal with it, and make a statement and have a policy position, it actually helps them. They say how grown up the debates have been.”

• “What I thought was lacking here, you were either a backbencher or frontbencher, and you either became a Minister or sat on a Select Committee and the backbenchers were somewhere where you languished. I hope that in years to come that the Backbench Business Committee will be a forum for holding government to account in a way that is exciting. One of the things I find exciting is that when we have a debate and there is one in Westminster Hall too, there is a real buzz and a real excitement in the air and that is really good. Backbenchers can see the role of the “backbenchers” having a role in itself. Your hands aren’t tied by collective responsibility – it is really exciting.”

Strangely if you listen to the podcast broadcast on http://www.wpradio.co.uk “Face to Face Encounters” series you will find Ann agreed with Natascha most of the time!

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