Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents


5  Private Members' bills

Problems with private Members' bill procedure

55. Dissatisfaction with the arrangements for the consideration of private Members' business is longstanding. Our predecessors considered the matter in 1995,[48] and again in 2003,[49] and the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons also looked at private Members' bills during its consideration of sitting hours in 2005.[50] None of those reports resulted in any significant change to the arrangements. Pressure for change has, however, continued to grow, and a considerable number of Members urged us to take the opportunity of this present inquiry to look at the issue again. Responding to our consultation paper, Chris Bryant summed up the problems with private Members' bills as follows:

The present system of private Members' bills is fundamentally flawed. It is capricious in that it relies on a ballot for the top places on Fridays and is dependent on Friday attendance. It is whimsical as bills can fall simply because they have been talked out on a Friday morning or because the bill before them in the queue was talked out. It leaves too much control in the hands of the government and the whips who decide both whether to allow a committee stage for a bill that has passed through second reading and who gets a ten minute rule bill slot. It is also nearly always a nugatory exercise as out of the hundred or so bills commenced every year barely a handful make it onto the statute book and the vast majority lapse at the end of the parliamentary session. Hours are wasted and resources are devoted to drafting and printing bills that everyone knows are going nowhere.[51]

56. Dissatisfaction is based on the problem that it is, critics say, too easy for a private Members' bill which enjoys majority support in the House to be stymied by a very small number of opponents. There are two, interlinked, reasons why that is that case: first, the time allocated for private Members' business is limited; second, by long practice enshrined in the standing orders of the House, that time is given on a Friday, a day which is generally devoted by Members to constituency business. What this means in practice is that supporters of a particular private Members' bill need to secure the attendance of at least 100 of their colleagues in the House on a Friday to enable passage of a "closure" motion to bring a debate to an end. Furthermore, as was recently demonstrated in the case of the Daylight Saving Bill, even this may not be sufficient to secure the passage of a bill at later stages of scrutiny.

57. We have some sympathy with those who argue that the public cannot understand how a small handful of Members can frustrate the will of the majority in such a manner (although it is worth noting that the Government whips sometimes orchestrate the opposition to private Members' bills). After careful consideration, however, we have concluded that this present report is not the right place in which to make detailed recommendations about private Members' bill procedure. The rules and practices affecting how private Members' bills are considered are not straightforward and are closely interlinked. The Leader of the House was right to suggest that, as the Modernisation Committee's inquiry concluded, it would be wrong for private Members' bill procedure to be altered as by-product of recommendations on sitting hours.[52] A comprehensive overhaul of the rules and procedures for private Members' bills requires, in our opinion, a full dedicated inquiry. We intend to carry out that work shortly, with a view to making recommendations which could be implemented from the 2013-14 session.

Moving consideration of private Members' bills to an earlier weekday evening

58. There is nevertheless one important respect in which reform of the way in which the House considers private Members' bills is not merely a potential side effect of sitting hours reform, but is crucially dependent upon it, and that is the day of the Parliamentary week on which private Members' bills are considered. The problems regarding private Members' bills which Members have complained to us about are, as we have seen, intimately bound up with the question of sitting hours, because they are so closely connected with the ability and willingness of Members to attend debates and votes in the House on the day they are taken.

59. We have therefore given careful consideration to the proposition of moving consideration of private Members' bills from their current Friday slot in the parliamentary week to a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening. This option found much support amongst Members who regard Fridays as an important day on which to undertake constituency work, and who are reluctant (or recognise the reluctance of colleagues) to forgo a day with their constituents to secure the passage of a Bill which, because of the nature of the rest of proceedings on private Members' bills, is unlikely ever to become law.

60. There are two main arguments against this reform. The first is that increased attendance of Members for votes on private Members' bills would cut both ways.[53] Whilst under current procedures the difficulty of ensuring attendance enables a small number of Members to block passage of a Bill, at the same time it also shields bills—at least those for which debating time is available—from too much attention from the whips. Whilst it is true that no private Members' bill is likely to become law without at least tacit support from Government, a determined and well-supported Member can pilot a piece of legislation through the House by the private Members' route under current procedures where, if it were whipped business, it would be likely to be crushed by a Government majority at an early stage. A move to an earlier weekday evening would, we foresee, be likely to cause a substantial change in the whole nature of private Members' business, taking control largely out of the hands of private Members and into those of the whips. We note that our predecessors on the Modernisation Committee, considering this issue in 2005, reached a similar conclusion.[54]

61. The second argument made against a change to a weekday evening for private Members' bills is that it would run counter to the whole thrust of recent sitting hours reforms, which has been to reduce late-night sittings. Especially when considered alongside the reason adduced above—that private Members' bills taken at a time when all Members could expect to be present would thereby be likely to become whipped business—it is apparent that the House would be creating a day of business in the Chamber lasting some eleven hours, potentially finishing at 10.30 pm or later. As both the House's trade unions and the Clerk as Chief Executive of the House Service told us, such a change would also have adverse consequences for the staffing of the House (where many of those involved in the later sitting would also be required early the next day, breaking legal working time limits) and probably additional expenditure.[55] In particular, a move to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening would have knock-on effects affecting earlier sittings on the following day. It is not apparent to us that such reform would be conducive to the effective working either of the House or of individual Members.

62. These arguments apply with less force to a move to Thursday evenings than to a move to Tuesday or Wednesday, particularly if the House were to accept our proposition that it meet an hour earlier on Thursdays. A three-hour sitting on Thursday evenings, following the conclusion of the main business at around 5.30 pm, would allow Members to attend debates on private Members' bills without having to forgo vital time in their constituencies on a Friday; the business would normally be completed by around 8.30 pm, without resulting in a late-night sitting, and without requiring House staff to return the following day after a long Chamber sitting. Since those who do not have a direct interest in the business being considered on any particular private Member's bill debate would be likely to return to their constituencies following the end of the main business on a Thursday, the arguments concerning the transfer of control to the whips would be less likely to apply.

PROCEDURAL CONSEQUENCES

63. The practical consequences of a move away from Fridays which we have set out above are perhaps the paramount consideration for Members; but in coming to a decision about whether private Members' bills should be moved away from Fridays the House should be aware that there would also be procedural consequences. The most important and most evident of those is that on a Friday, debate on private Members' bills continues for five hours. A five-hour debate following the end of main business on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday would be impractical. Three hours is the longest that we consider could reasonably be allocated to debate starting at that time. This has significant consequences for the allocation of time for debate. For example, under current arrangements experience has shown that a closure motion is likely to be accepted by the Chair after around four to four and a half hours on second reading of a private Members' bill, i.e. a full, or near a full, day's debate. Would a three-hour sitting be adequate time to complete a debate on second reading of a private Member's bill? If it was not, would it be appropriate for a bill which does not clear its second reading in three hours to go to the "back of the queue" for debate on a future day, as at present? Similarly, would it be right for a bill which does not clear a later stage of scrutiny—consideration or third reading—in one three-hour sitting to go to the back of the queue?

64. Consideration also needs to be given to what total amount of time to allocate to debate on private Members' bills. At present, PMBs are considered for around five hours on thirteen Fridays each session, giving a total of around 65 hours' consideration. That would translate to 22 three-hour sittings on an earlier weekday evening, per session. We would not expect any less time than at present to be allocated to consideration of private Members' bills, but should there in fact be more? Should PMBs be considered only at 22 evening sittings per session, giving roughly the same amount of time as at present, or at a three-hour evening sitting every sitting week?

65. These questions need careful consideration which we have not been able to give them in this inquiry. Indeed we have not considered it appropriate to do so in the absence of a clear indication from the House itself of whether it would be willing to contemplate a move away from Fridays on to an earlier weekday evening for the consideration of private Members' bills. For that reason, our recommendation is that the House be invited to consider whether, subject to further inquiry by this Committee into the procedural and other consequences, it would prefer to leave consideration of private Members' bills on a Friday or to move them to an earlier weekday evening. We propose that the House be invited to indicate its preference by voting on a motion on the following lines:

That this House believes that the option of moving debate on private Members' bills from Fridays to a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening merits further consideration; and invites the Procedure Committee to examine and report further on the consequences of such a move as part of its forthcoming inquiry into private Members' bills.

Our proposal of this motion does not indicate that we are expressing a preference either for or against such a move, merely that we wish to proceed on the basis of a clear steer from the House itself on whether that is the direction in which it wishes to go.


48   Fifth Report of Session 1994-95, Private Members' Bills, HC 38. Back

49   Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedures for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker, HC 333. Back

50   First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Session 2004-05, Sitting Hours, HC 88. Back

51   Ev w61-2 Back

52   Ev w58 , referring to HC (2004-05) 88, para 12.  Back

53   Ev w58, Q 286 Back

54   HC (2004-05) 88 , para 15 Back

55   Q 156, Q 197, Q 212, Ev w54-55 Back


 
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Prepared 20 June 2012