Private Members' bills: Government response and revised proposals - Procedure Committee Contents

Appendix: Government Response to the Procedure Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14, Private Members' bills


The Government welcomes the Committee's inquiry into private Members' bills and notes the range of options suggested in its Report for amending the House's procedures in this area.

The Government agrees that the procedures governing private Members' bills may be difficult for outsiders to understand and that there is scope for increased clarity. Some of the problems identified arise from the unrealistic expectations that the media, outside organisations and - as the Committee notes - sometimes Members themselves, promote in relation to individual bills. Given the limited amount of time available for private Members' bills, it is unrealistic to expect that there will be opportunities for more than a handful of bills out of the 100 or so private Members' bills introduced each session to be debated and voted upon. As the Committee notes, it is right that bills introduced by backbenchers are properly scrutinised: there should be a high bar for all legislative proposals before they become law.

As the Committee observes, attendance by Members on a Friday is variable. It is the responsibility of Members themselves to make the most of the opportunities afforded by private Members' bills. If Members choose subjects that can attract widespread support on a Friday it is possible to make legislative progress. Private Members' bills that are narrowly focussed, uncontroversial and do not involve expenditure generally have a greater chance of reaching the statute book, and Members may regard this option as a better use of their, and the House's, legislative time.

The Government believes that it is in the interests of clarity and transparency that procedures on a Friday are kept broadly in line with those applying to other days. The House's procedures should not be complicated further. A clearer distinction between serious legislative proposals and more declaratory bills would be welcome, and in this context the Committee's advocacy of some form of pre-legislative scrutiny is welcome. The Government bears overall responsibility for the statute book, and therefore must seek to ensure that all legislation is both technically sound and workable.

The responses to the Committee's recommendations set out below are based upon the above considerations. The House will want to take account of all these factors before reaching decisions on the wide range of options that have been advanced.

Timing of debate

We recommend that thirteen Fridays a year continue to be appointed for consideration of private Members' bills. (Paragraph 24)

The Government agrees that thirteen Fridays per session should be devoted to the consideration of private Members' bills. The adherence to Fridays is consistent with the views of the Committee, as endorsed by votes in the House in July 2012. In the case of unusually long sessions, for example at the start of a Parliament, further consideration will be given as to how and when extra days are provided, as was done in the long 2010-12 session.

Choice of bills to be debated in private Members' time

We recommend that the House be invited to decide between retention of the ballot for the selection of bills to be brought forward for debate in private Members' time, and the introduction of a procedure for the collection of supporters to determine precedence for debate in that time. (Paragraph 31)

The Government believes that the current ballot is the better approach. It is fair to all Members, easy to understand and totally transparent. Any procedure involving the collection of supporters would favour members of large political parties at the expense of minority party members. It would lead to intensive lobbying of all Members for their one permitted signature of support, rather than the focus being on those twenty successful in the ballot. This would entail a great deal of wasted effort on the part of outside organisations and needlessly occupy the time of Members. The current ballot system is efficient, empowers backbench MPs and gives them all an equal chance of success.

Timetabling of private Members' bills

We recommend that the House be invited to decide whether it should be possible to programme private Members' bills. If it decides in favour of the principle of programming private Members' bills, we recommend that it be offered the choice between the two means of programming bills which we set out [in paragraphs 35-49]. (Paragraph 50)

The Government does not believe that it is necessary to introduce programming for private Members' bills as proposed by the Committee. To a large extent, Members already have the power to programme their bills: they choose the dates for second reading; the timing and frequency of days in committee; and the date for report and third reading. They can, if their bills are sufficiently popular with other Members, force votes on the bill by use of the closure. The requirement for 100 Members to attend on a Friday to support a bill is important in ensuring that it is difficult for poorly supported bills to achieve success; it also encourages Members to treat Friday as a proper Parliamentary day and not leave legislative scrutiny to a handful of Members. The present dissatisfaction arises from, as the Committee describes it, "the collective unwillingness of the House as a whole to attend on Friday".

Programming is designed to ensure that government legislation is able to be properly scrutinised by the opposition and works best on the basis of negotiation between political parties. The introduction of programming for private Members' bills would make it easier for poorly supported bills to be passed, without proper scrutiny. Equally, programming would provide another procedural tool for Members to use, not only to promote their own bill, but to disadvantage other bills, to which they are opposed and against which they may be competing for time. To preclude such tactics and facilitate proper scrutiny, governments might decide, as a matter of course, to use the payroll vote to defeat any programme motions.

The evidence indicates that it is possible for Members to secure the successful passage of Private Members' Bills in the Commons. The Houses reaches a decision on most bills that that are first on the Order Paper for second reading. Only a minority are "talked out", an outcome that can be avoided by the successful deployment of a closure motion. It is up to Members to choose subjects for bills on which they can secure widespread and active support, if they want to secure their passage.

Third reading

We recommend that the House be invited to decide whether third reading of a private Member's bill should be taken on a day other than a Friday; and if so, which of the two alternative means we propose of taking such a vote it favours. (Paragraph 53)

The Government strongly believes that the debate and vote on third reading should not be divorced from other proceedings on the bill by moving them from a Friday. It is right that those who attend on a Friday in order to help a bill through report stage should have the opportunity of voting it through if necessary at third reading. It would be a disincentive for Members to attend on a Friday if they knew that the bill they supported might subsequently be defeated on a different day when a far greater number of Members would be there to vote.

Speech limits

Acceptance of our proposals for the programming of private Members' bills would enable the Chair to invoke the powers granted by Standing Order No. 47 to impose speech limits during debate on such bills. (Paragraph 59)

The Speaker is able to impose time limits on speeches under Standing Order No.47 if he so chooses.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

We recommend that there should be sufficient flexibility in the timing of the ballot and the presentation of the ballot bills—or the votes on leave to bring in bills—to enable the House authorities to publish those bills in draft, and the promoter of each bill to collect any comments and take them into account before finalising the text of the bill and getting it printed before second reading. We consider that that period should be at least four weeks. (Paragraph 61)

The Government is very supportive of pre-legislative scrutiny and believes that it should not be the preserve of government bills only. It is also important that the distribution of sitting Fridays throughout the session provides Members with a realistic chance of getting a bill through both Houses. There is currently sufficient time between the ballot in the second week of the session and the first sitting Fridays, usually in July, for those Members who wish to conduct some form of consultation on, or scrutiny of, their ballot bills prior to second reading. For those introducing ten minute rule or presentation bills, there is an almost unlimited opportunity to do so: there is nothing to prevent Members beginning consultation on the content of their proposed bills in the session prior to introduction. The House may wish to consider establishing dedicated pages on its website for conducting consultation, public readings or pre-legislative scrutiny on private Members' bills.

Listing of bills on the Order Paper

We consider that what appears on the Order Paper should be only actual bills which a private Member desires that the House should debate. (Paragraph 66)

We recommend that the order for second reading of a bill not appear on the Order Paper until the Speaker is satisfied that the promoter of the bill has made available for online publication an exposure draft of an actual Bill. (Paragraph 67)

This recommendation would alter only what appears on the Order Paper under "future business". We do not recommend any alteration to the rules for determining priority for debate on a private Member's Friday. The Public Bill Office would continue to maintain a list of bills set down for particular days, and a bill set down before another which was published as an exposure draft before it would regain its place ahead of that bill once it was published as an exposure draft itself. (Paragraph 68)

We recognise a danger that the result of this recommendation would not be the removal from the Order Paper of bills which are unlikely ever to be debated, but rather the publication online of exposure drafts of more bills which will never make progress. This would not be a good use of the resources of the Public Bill Office, which would be likely to bear the brunt of Members' requests to draft bills. If the evidence were to show that this was happening, we would consider the matter further. (Paragraph 69)

The Government agrees with the Committee that the listing of private Members' bills on the Order Paper could give a clearer indication to the reader as to which are serious legislative propositions with a chance of being debated. It should be made clear which bills have been printed, whether in draft or as for introduction. The Government agrees, in line with the Committee's recommendation and our response on pre-legislative scrutiny, that only bills that have been published (whether in draft or in final form) should be listed on the Order Paper as real bills.

However, the Committee's proposal for a shadow list of unpublished bills to be maintained in private, with the prospect of bills that are then published in draft suddenly "queue-jumping" bills already on the Order Paper, risks uncertainty and reducing transparency. It would be more transparent if those bills that were not published were listed on the Order Paper in italics, with a suitable rubric of explanation. To prevent Members causing unpublished bills to sit there for months, with no intention to print a bill, a deadline of, say, four weeks could be introduced, after which a bill not published in draft would be removed from the Order Paper and be incapable of being revived. This would help to "de-clutter" the Order Paper, although there are risks of Members simply requiring more draft bills to be produced. The Government agrees that such an outcome, should it transpire, would warrant further consideration.

We further recommend that Future Business list private Members' bills only when they have been set down for a day on which private Member's bills have precedence. (Paragraph 70)


Ten minute rule bills

We recommend that the expectation be removed that a bill will be immediately brought in if leave is granted after a motion is passed under the ten minute rule. (Paragraph 72)

The Government agrees with the Committee that the passing of a ten minute rule motion should not necessarily lead to the publication of a bill, or just the listing of a bill title on the Order Paper. The Committee's proposal goes some way in this direction, but may not provide complete transparency. For example, it may seem perplexing to the outsider for a Member to announce the supporters of a bill when no bill is subsequently presented and no further action is taken.

It may be more helpful to make an even clearer distinction between serious legislative proposals and declaratory or preliminary motions. This could be done by giving Members the choice of seeking leave to introduce a ten minute rule bill, as now, or of moving an alternative motion which carried with it no implication of the imminent publication of a bill. This might be called a "pre-legislative motion", or similar. There would be no need to permit the ten minute speech to oppose such a motion, as no legislative action would follow in the session, although Members might want to use this vehicle to launch some form of pre-legislative scrutiny. This refinement of procedure, when combined with our proposals relating to the Order Paper, above, would improve transparency by ensuring that only genuine legislative proposals remained on the Order Paper.

Flooding the Order Paper with bills

We recommend that the possibility of a monopoly of the limited opportunities for debate of private Members' bills by a single Member be reduced by providing that a private Member may present only a single bill on any one day. (Paragraph 76)

The Government agrees with this recommendation, but notes that this would have only a limited impact on the problem identified by the Committee. The House may wish to consider going further. One of the causes of dissatisfaction with the current rules, as the Committee notes, is that there are large numbers of bills listed on the Order Paper with practically no chance of being debated. To avoid the possibility of Members using the private Members' bill procedure to promote what amount to an alternative manifesto, it would be possible to limit the number of bills each Member may introduce in any one session, or to place restrictions on the number of bills a Member may have on the Order Paper at any one time. Such limits would serve both to increase the value of legislative opportunities and be less misleading than the current Order Paper, which contains large numbers of bills which have no realistic chance of making progress.

Declaring the Government position on a bill

We recommend that the Government be required to make a written Ministerial statement on any private Member's bill which has been printed, before the day on which the Bill is first set down on the effective Order Paper for second reading. (Paragraph 77)

It is the practice of the House for Members in charge of an item of business to be given the opportunity to move it, and in doing so invite other Members to support it. Other Members, including Ministers, may then respond to the arguments made in expressing their views. The early publication of a Government view via a written statement would run counter to this fundamental principle and serve to pre-empt the debate. Indeed, the premature expression of a view from Government on bills may have the effect of discouraging attendance on a Friday and serve to devalue both the debate and the day itself.

For all private Members bills that are debated, Ministers stand ready to express a view. The Government is not expected to publish statements in respect of other business which does not succeed in finding time on the floor of the House, such as early day motions. Those Members making serious attempts to get bills through the House would have the opportunity of obtaining a view from the Government during the process of consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny, as discussed in response to the recommendation on this subject.

Deadline for printing of bills

We recommend that the deadline for printing a bill—that is, producing a fully drafted piece of legislation, in place of a "long title"—be brought forward to the Wednesday of the week prior to the day of second reading. (Paragraph 78)

The Government agrees with the thrust of this recommendation. A longer period of time would assist Government and Members in reaching a considered view on a bill prior to second reading. For the sake of consistency and clarity, it may be preferable to align the publication deadline with that for an application for Queen's or Prince of Wales's Consent; namely, fourteen days prior to the date of second reading.

Money and ways and means resolutions

We recommend that the Government be required to make a written Ministerial statement on the reasons for the delay if a money or ways and means resolution, where required, has not been put to the House within three weeks of a bill being given a second reading. (Paragraph 80)

It is the responsibility of the Member in charge of the bill to make a request to Government to table any money or ways and means motions that may be required. It is the practice of the Government to accede to such requests. There are opportunities to hold Ministers to account for any delays in tabling such motions, for example through parliamentary questions. The Committee has not produced any clear evidence to suggest that current arrangements are not working or that a new rule is needed.

Motion for the House to sit in private

We recommend that a motion 'That the House sit in private' no longer be permitted to be moved on a private Member's Friday. (Paragraph 83)

The Government believes that it is in the interests of clarity that the rules of the House governing the powers of Members should, as far possible, apply equally to all sitting days. The Committee may wish to consider further whether it is necessary to keep this rule or to provide for a sitting in private by another means.

Public bill committees on private Members' bills

We recommend that the requirement be abolished for a motion to be tabled by the Government before a public bill committee in respect of a private Member's bill may be nominated while proceedings in another public bill committee on a private Member's bill are still active. (Paragraph 84)

The Committee has not presented any evidence to suggest that this requirement is a problem. Whilst it is, as the Committee notes, the Government's normal practice to provide this motion upon request, the requirement provides a safeguard which could be useful in certain circumstances. For example, if the House were to pass a large number of bills on one Friday it may prove logistically difficult for the Government and the Committee of Selection to provide the necessary Members to enable large numbers of public bill committees to meet simultaneously. For this reason the Government disagrees with this recommendation.

Name of private Members' bills

We recommend that, in the Standing Orders and elsewhere where reference is made to them, the term "private Members' bills" be replaced with "backbench bills". (Paragraph 85)

This is a matter for the House.

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