Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report

3 Private Members' Bills

The current arrangements

42. We have received several submissions expressing concern about private Members' bills—mainly that too few of them are passed, and that Members who wish to debate or vote on them have to attend on Fridays, when they often have duties in their constituencies.

43. The statistics on the success of private Members' bills are readily available: in the five sessions since the 1997 election, only 32 received Royal Assent out of 542 introduced.[47] (The figures for the previous Parliament, 1992-97, were 88 out of 583.)[48]

44. The existing procedures (which have not altered substantially since Private Members' Bills were reinstated, following the Second World War, in 1948-49) can be summarised quite briefly:

—  thirteen Fridays are available each session for private Members' bills and, subject to the two provisions below, they are dealt with in the order in which they have been put down for these days;

—  priority in presenting bills, and therefore for putting them down for second reading, is established by a ballot, at which 20 Members are chosen at random; other private Members' bills may not be presented and set down for second reading until the ballot bills have been;

—  on the last six private Members' bill days, bills which have progressed furthest have priority, except that new report stages take priority over those which have already started;[49]

—  as on other days of the week, business in progress at the moment of interruption (2.30 pm on Fridays) stands adjourned unless a Member obtains a closure. To be effective, a closure motion which is the subject of a division requires one hundred Members voting in favour, and closure motions also require the assent of the Chair, which is unlikely to be forthcoming on a second reading unless the debate has lasted for most of the Friday concerned;

—  bills not reached by 2.30 pm can make progress only if there is no objection.

45. The effect of these provisions is that the first seven ballot bills are usually put down for the first seven Fridays and can therefore, if necessary, be guaranteed a full day's debate and a vote on second reading (if closure is moved and carried). Other bills are unlikely to be granted a closure, and can therefore proceed only if unopposed. Bills then pass through committee stage (normally in standing committee) and return to the floor of the House for report stage. At this stage, unlike second reading, amendments can be moved, and if there is sufficient opposition to the bill, closures will be necessary on each group of amendments. To defeat a bill at this stage, therefore, the opponents need to table enough amendments to form, say, four groups;[50] with closures, this will take up more than the available time on one Friday and then other bills which have not yet started report stage will take precedence.

46. A further hurdle for private Members' bills involving expenditure of public funds is that they may require a Money Resolution, which can be moved for only by the Government. In practice, however, this is not an obstacle as Mr Douglas Millar, the Clerk Assistant, told us that it has been the practice for many years for the Government to supply a Money Resolution for any private Member's bill which had received a second reading.[51]

47. We last examined the subject of private Members' bills in 1995, when we did not recommend any procedural changes, but urged the Government to make its views clear on each private Member's bill at second reading.[52]

48. The system which we have described appears to produce very few successful private Members' bills. However, some bills which are not themselves successful lead to Government legislation;[53] and some of the unsuccessful bills, especially ten-minute rule bills, are envisaged mainly as a vehicle for a short debate rather than as a serious attempt at legislation, a view reinforced by the fact that far from all of them are printed.[54]

49. Similarly, information about how bills are defeated can be misleading. Very few bills are actually defeated in the sense of being negatived at second reading. Most fail because they are either 'talked out' at 2.30 pm on a Friday or are called after that time and are objected to. However, this does not mean that all that is required is more private Members' bill time; many bills are objected to by the Government and it is likely that they would still be opposed if more time were available; if many more bills received a second reading, they might well be talked out at report stage (resulting in more work for standing committees but no greater output). Another point to be borne in mind is that any procedures which made private Members' bills easier to pass could allow the Government to produce more "hand-out" bills; these are usually fairly uncontroversial, but there is the risk that the Government could use private Members' time to pass more contentious bills through the House if this were made easier.

Drafting assistance

50. Since 1971, the top ten Members in the ballot can claim up to £200 for drafting assistance with their bills.[55] This figure has not been changed; if it had been uprated,[56] it should be about £1700 now.[57] But even this money would not buy much drafting time, and it is not clear what it would achieve. Many Members receive help from outside bodies with their bills, and the Public Bill Office can also draft a bill which states the Member's proposals sufficiently clearly for a second reading debate.[58] The Government told us that private Members' bills, whatever their origins, frequently require "almost complete rewriting" in committee, and point out that this has a considerable effect on the scarce resource of Parliamentary draftsmen.[59] We therefore do not recommend that the Government should be obliged to provide drafting help before second reading, as work would be wasted for those bills which do not pass this stage;[60] bills which are acceptable in principle do not usually fail because of defective drafting. We do believe, however, that the Government should be ready to provide drafting help for a private Member's bill as soon as it receives a second reading. In addition, to assist Members who wish to employ outside drafting assistance, the £200 grant should be updated and become index-linked.

Government approach to private Members' bills

51. The Leader told us in his written evidence that the Government spends considerable time considering its policy on private Members' bills, and is sometimes hampered in this if there is only a short interval between printing and second reading.[61] Members who wish the Government to support their bills should bear in mind the need to get them printed in good time before second reading.

Carry-over of bills to next session

52. The temporary standing order relating to carry-over, made on 29 October 2002, is not restricted to Government bills, but the necessary motion has to be made by a Minister. Suggestions have been made that private Members' bills should be carried over.[62] However, the Chairman of Ways and Means pointed out that such bills (assuming that they would be given priority) would pre-empt the time available for the ballot bills,[63] and we therefore do not recommend the use of carry-over motions for private Members' bills.

Other times of the week

53. Members raised with us the possibility of transferring the consideration of private Members' bills in the House from Fridays to Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. The Leader of the House pointed out that about 22 Tuesdays or Wednesdays would be required to replace the 13 Fridays.[64] We referred above (paragraph 38) to problems with holding debates on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings and do not recommend this at the moment.

Proposals for procedural change

54. The Hansard Society and several Members made suggestions for changes in procedure, usually involving the establishment of a Committee to consider the relative merits of Private Members' Bills and allocate time to them (with provision for the questions to be put at the end of that time, as with programming of Government bills).[65] Such a system exists in the Canadian House of Commons: the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs decides which items of private Members' business (bills or motions) is to be designated as 'votable' and entitled to a vote on second reading after a total of 2¾ hours' debate, or 'non-votable' with an hour's debate and no vote.[66] The Clerk of the House told us that the system had caused a serious rift in procedural relations between the political parties.[67]

55. Baroness Gardner of Parkes wrote to us[68] enclosing remarks that she made in the House of Lords on 26 June 2003,[69] pointing out that Private Members' Bills passed by the House of Lords go to the back of the queue when they reach the House of Commons. Of the 42 such bills passed by the Lords between 1997-98 and 2001-02, five received Royal Assent (and a sixth was taken up by the Government).[70] There does not appear to be a way to grant higher priority to Lords' bills other than by displacing the ballot bills, though it would, of course, be possible for a Member to reintroduce a Lords' Bill in the Commons as a ballot bill in the following session.

47   Ev 35 Back

48   Information from Sessional Returns. For successful Private Members' Bills since 1945, see House of Commons Information Office Factsheet L3. Back

49   The exact order is: Lords Amendments, third readings, report stages not already entered upon, adjourned proceedings on report, bills in progress in committee (of the whole House), bills appointed for committee, and second readings. No distinction is made between new second reading debates and adjourned debates on second reading (this also applies to third readings) (SO No 14(5)). Back

50   Whether this is possible depends on the scope of the bill. Back

51   Q 167 Back

52   Fifth Report, Session 1994-95, Private Members' Bills, HC 38, para 34 Back

53   The High Hedges Bill in the current session has been withdrawn and similar provisions inserted by Government amendments to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. Back

54   In session 2001-02, 68 ten-minute rule bills were introduced, of which only 35 were printed. Back

55   Resolution, 29 November 1971. Back

56   Uprating was supported by Mr Forth (Q 425). Back

57   Figure calculated by the Hansard Society (Ev 143). Back

58   Qq 180-1 (Clerk of the House) Back

59   Ev 117; see also Q 180 (Clerk of the House) Back

60   Qq 480, 483 (Mr Hain) Back

61   Ev 116-17; see also Q 479 Back

62   Hansard Society (Ev 134) Back

63   Ev 137 Back

64   Q 484 Back

65   Ev 143-4 (Hansard Society), Ev 71 (Mr Dismore) Back

66   Parliament of Canada, Private Members' Business: Practical Guide, January 2001, from Back

67   Ev 36 paras 17-18; Q 172 Back

68   Letter not reported Back

69   HL Deb c 441 Back

70   Ev 35. The bill taken up by the Government was the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill [Lords] in 2001-02. This also received Royal Assent. Back

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