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'Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 8, 15, 22 and 29 January; 5 and 26 February; 5, 12, 19 and 26 March; 23 and 30 April; and 7 May.'.
It is a great pleasure, at long last, to get to this debate. I was rather surprised by the abrupt manner in which the Government moved their motion, which it has been clear for a considerable length of time that they do not want to discuss. Now that they have eventually been forced to discuss the matter, it has been moved formally. That is an extraordinary abrogation of their responsibility.
Getting this motion to the Floor of the House has taken an enormous amount of time and effort. It was originally listed on the Order Paper on 23 November 2009. On 30 November 2009, my amendment was on the Order Paper, and since that day the motion has been listed at the end of business every day with no chance of debate; it has been objected to by Members across the House each and every day.
Why on earth have Members had to object every evening to force this lame-duck Government to debate something so important to Parliament? What we have on the Order Paper today is an alteration to Standing Orders, particularly to Standing Order No. 14. I shall briefly remind the House what that Standing Order is about-the allocation of time in the House. Principally, it refers to the time that the Government have to organise business. Paragraph (1) says:
"Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting."
So except in relation to the other business referred to by two parts of Standing Order No. 14, the Government always control business in the House. That is why we have not been able to debate this motion before.
Standing Order No. 14(2) relates to Opposition days. That has no particular bearing on private Members' business except in one respect. It says:
"two Friday sittings shall be deemed equivalent to a single sitting".
In other words, a Friday is looked on as a half day. In theory, business on Fridays starts at 9.30 am. However, in effect, right at the beginning of the day there is always a motion that the House should sit in private; on occasion I have been responsible for that myself. That involves a Division, which takes up 20 minutes, so we
are probably talking about only four and a half hours of business on a Friday. It is that four and a half hours, mentioned in the Government's motion and in my amendment, that I want to discuss today.
The Standing Order protects Parliament and Members of the House by giving 13 Fridays for private Members' business. There is no dispute about that; Standing Order No. 14(4) states:
"Private Members' bills shall have precedence over government business on thirteen Fridays in each session to be appointed by the House."
There are no ifs, buts or ands: 13 Fridays in each Session are to be appointed for that purpose by the House. The problem is that at the moment the House does not have the power to do that; only the Government can bring those 13 days to this House.
There is no mention of applying a pro rata principle to those 13 days because there may be a general election in a particular Session.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I understand that the hon. Gentleman was elected in 2005, as was I, so he may not remember that it has been standard practice, during parliamentary terms that run to a fifth Session, to pro-rata or reduce the number of days for private Members' Bills. Motions with a similar effect were agreed by the House in both 1991-92 and 1996-97, having been proposed by the then Conservative Administrations. Does the hon. Gentleman want to comment on the fact that that has historically been the case since that time?
Mr. Bone: I anticipated that that would be the only reasoned objection put forward by the Government. Of course, to say that precedent is the reason why we should do everything the same is to make a pretty hopeless argument; according to that principle, there would be no point in our turning up at all. The hon. Lady has failed to mention the fact that Parliament's situation is totally different now from what it was a year or so ago. Parliament has fallen in the esteem of this country, and one of the reasons for that is the all-powerful Executive. The hon. Lady talked about private Members' business in previous years. I was going to talk about that later, but it seems appropriate to mention it now.
The House of Commons Library has produced a helpful booklet called "The Success of Private Members' Bills", which discusses the number of private Members' Bills that have gone through the House and actually become law. As the House will be aware, in the House of Commons there are three ways in which a private Member may get a Bill into law. One is through the ballot, another is by presentation under Standing Order No. 57, and the last is through the ten-minute rule.
In the period that the hon. Lady referred to, under the last Conservative Government-I am not trying to make a party political point here, but she did refer to it-49 private Members' Bills became law. So far, according to the Library, just eight have become law in this Parliament. That indicates that the Executive are exerting more and more control to get less and less private Members' business through the House. In fact, since the 2005-06 Session no presentation Bills and no ten-minute Bills
have become law, whereas under the Conservative Government seven presentation Bills and seven ten-minute Bills became law. That shows that over that period there has been a dramatic decline in the level of success of private Members' Bills in this House.
That is because the Executive have become increasingly powerful, increasingly dominant and increasingly determined to get their own way, which is one of the things that people have objected to. Many people have said that Parliament is not relevant any more because the Executive just steamroller through what they want. Those statistics are a clear indication of that tendency.
One way to redress the balance is to have more time in Parliament for private Members' business: time has to be provided for it. I have already argued that the Standing Order says that 13 Fridays must be provided per Session for such business, which, as I have also argued, equates to six and a half normal days' debate. However, the motion before us, quite unnecessarily, reduces the number of days available in this Session for private Members' Bills. My point is that there is no need to do that.
My amendment would restore the 13 days that the Standing Order says the Government have to provide. It does nothing more than that; it just provides the 13 days, which are all Fridays. It does not adopt the Wright report suggestion of moving some private Members' days to Wednesdays. I have not suggested that any of the sitting Fridays should be in the spring recess-or, for that matter, in the anticipated Easter recess. Of course the Government have not told us when the Easter recess will be, and I am looking to the Deputy Leader of the House to see whether she wants to intervene and enlighten us.
Barbara Keeley indicated dissent.
Mr. Bone: The Government are deliberately and unnecessarily restricting the voice of individual Members of this House in speaking and getting legislation on to the statute book. As far back as 1949, private Members' Bills went through this House. In that year ballot Bill No. 21 got on to the statute book. So the situation has not always been what we have become accustomed to in the last few years-that only the first couple of Bills have any chance. In 1949 Major Simon Ramsay got the Slaughter of Animals (Scotland) Bill into law, and he came 21st in the ballot.
I know, however, that this Government believe that everything started in 1997, so let us see whether we can find anything in that era that was low down in the ballot but still got on to the statute book. Interestingly, a Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) got on to the statute book, even though it was No. 19 in the ballot. That cannot be done if the House does not provide time for debate. That was in the 1998-99 Session, so it was in the era since "history" began. In 1999-2000 the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas)-No. 20 in the ballot-got the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill on to the statute book.
What we have today is complete chaos, and an unprecedented situation. The Government have refused to announce the days on which private Members' Bills will be heard. On 16 December, we therefore had the ridiculous spectacle of the Members presenting their
Bills having no idea on what dates the Second Reading of their private Members' Bills would be allowed to take place. That is unprecedented, and a complete rejection of Parliament by this Executive, who think they can always get their way.
Barbara Keeley: The Members who presented their Bills may have had some idea, because they had seen the dates in the motion tabled by the Leader of the House day after day after day. Those dates were, with I think one exception, the ones that they took forward for their Bills.
Mr. Bone: The hon. Lady is right-and that was the behind-the-scenes skulduggery. That was the Executive exerting power over Members, saying "You will take these dates," even though this House had not agreed to that.
One Member-the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is in his place-opted to take the next available date, and he was very sensible to do so. If my amendment is approved, his Bill is printed tonight and he lets the Table Office know that he wants to reinstate it, he will have Friday to debate it. So it is not quite correct for the hon. Lady to give the impression that this was a done deal. Yes, other Members were put under pressure. Through that procedure, which is very unfortunate, Members who have chosen their dates cannot move them back. In other words, if my amendment is accepted, Members who have opted for a later date cannot move back to an earlier one.
I have given some thought to that issue, and it seems clear that under Standing Order. No. 57, on presentation of Bills, it is possible for Members to bring very similar Bills that are already known to this House to the back of the Chair. They could then fill the dates that will become available if my amendment is passed.
My amendment does not remove any of the dates that the Government have provided, so people who are satisfied with the date they have can stick to it. However, those who want an earlier date would have an opportunity to take one.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Just to make the situation clear to those who will read this debate, my hon. Friend is suggesting that three spare Fridays in January-before the first one that the Government have proposed-are available, along with two in March. Is it not fair to say that the Government could easily have tabled a motion to suspend the rule, and taken a vote on it and on my hon. Friend's amendment, at any stage since Parliament returned for the new Session?
Mr. Bone: Indeed; I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention.
Let me address this issue in a little depth. It has not been sprung on the Government. They proposed this change in the Standing Orders-the motion before us-on 23 November.
A number of hon. Members, including me, have outlined the problem that the motion causes. On 26 November, I raised the matter in business questions, pointing out that on that very day the ballot for private Members' Bills was taking place, although nobody knew what dates had been allocated, and that the number of
days allocated was set to decrease from 13 to eight. I argued that, in effect, the number had decreased to six because some of the dates that the Government had chosen were so late that clearly the general election would be upon us before they were reached.
On 10 December, the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, brought up the issue in business questions when he asked why we were not having a debate on it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who speaks for the Liberals on business of the House matters and who is also in his place, has also raised this question. He has also raised the issue of the Wright Committee report, which has a number of things to say about the allocation of time for private Members' Bills. I might touch on that issue later, if I have time to do so. At the same business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) brought that matter to the House's attention. I must pass on his apologies for not being here today. He would like to be participating in this debate, but the Government have clearly organised the business so that this debate is occurring at the exact time when he is leading a debate on immigration in Westminster Hall. I hope that he will have an opportunity to participate in this debate later.
I have also raised a couple of points of order on this issue; on 16 December, I pointed out that with the exception of that in respect of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the Second Reading dates that were announced were not confirmed. I asked how Members were to know that they would be able to debate their private Members' business on the given day. I also took the opportunity-there seemed to be no other way of bringing this to the House's attention in any form of debate-to raise the matter in the Adjournment debate on 16 December. I was hoping that that would provide the Deputy Leader of the House with the chance to argue the Government's case on this matter, but again they did not take the opportunity to make a defence of their reason for cutting down the voice of Back Benchers. Today, when they had an opportunity to comment on it at the beginning of this debate, all we heard was "I beg to move". The situation is ludicrous. There is no defence for it and the Government should be ashamed. They should withdraw their motion, but I doubt whether they will do so.
Some people must be wondering whether I have some hidden motive, whether I am secretly hoping to get a Bill through or whether I am down the list on the ballot-I am not in the top 20. They might be wondering whether this is a political thing and whether the Tory party wants to get something through. That is hardly the case because only three of the first 12 private Members who came up in the ballot are Conservatives. There is nothing political about this; this is about Parliament having the opportunity to discuss private Members' Bills.
I am attracted to one or two Bills. I am attracted to the anti-slavery Bill put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and to his work on tackling human trafficking, but that is not the issue here; the issue here is the time available. I am also attracted to a couple of the proposals relating to the Lisbon treaty.
That leads on nicely to why we must have ample time for debate. There are two reasons to introduce a private Member's Bill. The first is that a Member wishes to change the law. There have been numerous cases where worthy causes have been taken up and put on the statute book, but that can be done only when time is available. Time needs to be available for Second Reading, for the Committee stage and for Third Reading. I am afraid that if this motion is passed today, nobody will get any of their Bills on to the statute book.
Barbara Keeley: As the hon. Gentleman seems to feel so strongly about this allocation of time, can he tell us whether he is implicitly criticising the two previous Conservative Leaders of the House of Commons, who also reduced the number of sitting days in their fifth Sessions? In the 1996-97 Session, the number of sitting days to discuss these matters was also reduced to eight.
Mr. Bone: I am certainly not criticising any past Executive or any past political party. This is not about whether there is a Labour Leader of the House or a Conservative one; it is about the power of the Executive to stop private Members getting a say and getting their business through-that is the issue here.
Barbara Keeley: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me what the difference is between reducing, on a pro rata basis, the number of days for considering private Members' Bills to eight in the 1996-97 Session, as proposed by the previous Conservative Leader of the House, and this motion. I see no difference.
Mr. Bone: I do not wish to criticise people who were in Parliament when I was not if I have no idea about what the situation was at the time. However, as I have said, a lot more private Bills got through under the Conservative Government; the relevant figure is 49. In 1996-97-the period during which the Deputy Leader of the House claims the time available was shortened-14 balloted private Members' Bills got on to the statute book. Whatever arrangements were in place then, there was plenty of time for private Members to get their business through and for Bills to obtain Royal Assent. That just will not happen under the current arrangement. I have outlined the figures, which show that the situation has been hopeless under this Government-I believe that two private Members' Bills got through last year.
Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend has dealt with the Deputy Leader of the House's point in a very fair way. What we have not heard from those on the Government Front Bench, either in an intervention or in a speech, is that the issue is whether 8, 15 and 22 January and 19 and 26 March could usefully be provided for the consideration of private Members' Bills. Perhaps it would be worth my observing that having listened to her I find that she is part of a Government-again, I am not being party political-who have claimed that the historic negatives should no longer rule. Most of their claims have not related to something that did not or did happen in the past; they have said that they have looked at new things. What my hon. Friend is suggesting is a new thing and she has not produced a reason why those five days should not be made available.
Mr. Bone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, with which I agree entirely. The Government would lose nothing by accepting my amendment, which would merely increase the amount of time that private Members would have available to them to bring business to this House. There are two reasons why private Members bring Bills to this House. As I have discussed, one is to get them into law. I am sure that some of the private Members' Bills that have been proposed by Labour Back Benchers have much merit, but I am worried that those Members will not have enough time to get the Bills into law and that this House will not have an opportunity to discuss them fully.
The other reason why private Members' Bills come before this House is so that an issue can be debated and the Government must respond on a substantive motion. We hold useful debates in Westminster Hall-I have referred to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is leading one at this moment-and very useful Adjournment debates, but they are not on motions that could become law. In addition, such debates are short and the half-hour debates tend just to have the relevant Minister and the Back Bencher speaking, so no real debate takes place. By comparison, when a private Member's Bill is considered there is a proper debate in this Chamber and everybody takes part.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend wholeheartedly, and he is doing a tremendous job, as ever, of defending the interests of Back-Bench MPs. Would he agree that one such private Member's Bill that is tabled for discussion in the next few weeks is that promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill? That is an issue about which many of our constituents are concerned. If the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) does not succeed today, the chances of that important issue being debated will probably be lost.
Mr. Bone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I will not be led down the path of arguing the merits or otherwise of being in this horrendous European Union. It would be wrong of me to do that. However, he is quite right to point out the problem about the debate. He talked about the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell). It is listed provisionally for Second Reading on 26 February. There is no problem with that, except for the fact that it is listed as motion 4 on that day and will never be reached.
More interestingly, and to be non-party political, let us take another Bill as an example: the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill, which also has much merit and is promoted by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). It is also listed on 26 February; it is motion 3. Again, that will not be debated, or at least is unlikely to be reached.
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