Ned Simons
GET UPDATES FROM Ned:

Ministers And Labour Accused Of Attempting 'Devious' Stitch-Up To Silence Rebellious MPs

Posted: 12/03/2012 18:07 Updated: 12/03/2012 19:03

House Of Commons

Ministers and the Labour leadership have been accused of attempting a "devious" stitch-up designed to silence rebellious MPs by subtly changing the way topics debated in parliament are chosen.

Some of the most headline-grabbing Commons debates since the election have been picked by the backbench business committee.

These have included whether prisoners should be allowed to vote, whether circuses should be banned from using wild animals and whether there should be a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU - topics both the Labour and coalition front benches would rather not have had in the news.

The current members of the committee, picked from all three main parties and chaired by Labour MP Natascha Engel, are notoriously independent minded and were chosen by a vote of the whole House.

However in future, the Labour members will be chosen by a vote of just Labour MPs, the Conservative members will be chosen by a vote of just Tory MPs and the Lib Dem member will be picked by a vote of just Lib Dems.

This has raised fears that the party leaderships' will be able to force their MPs to vote for members they think are less likely to pick debates they would rather not have to deal with.

David Heath, the Lib Dem deputy leader of the House of Commons, said the change would actually ensure coalition MPs could not gang up together and vote Labour MPs onto the committee that the Labour backbenchers did not actually want.

"It is wrong that the choice of opposition MPs on a committee could be decided by votes of those on the government benches," he said.

"The motion before us does not in any way affect the committee's power or its role."

And Heath said he had "absolute confidence" that the people elected by party groups would be "every bit independent" as those currently in place.

But Tory MP Peter Bone said the move was one of the coalition's "clearest and most obvious breaches of its claim to put parliament first" and was an attempt to replace the current members, including himself, with "more pliable" MPs.

He condemned the rule change as "devious, undemocratic and a disgrace to this government".

"It's absolutely outrageous, it is an attempt by the executive to ignore parliament and to impose its will on the House."

Engel dismissed the suggestion that the rules of election needed to be changed to ensure the committee was not overly partisan. "This is something that isn't broken, I don't understand why the government is tryinG to fix it," she said.

"We are not voting on party lines on the committee. People are very independent minded. This is about how we best represent backbenchers as a whole," she said.

FOLLOW UK POLITICS