The initiation, scrutiny and passage of private Members' bills goes to the heart of the function of the House of Commons as a legislative assembly. The ability of any Member to bring forward a legislative proposition, and to have it debated, is the clearest indication that so far as legislation is concerned the House is not a mere sausage machine, churning out endless bills introduced, timetabled, amended and whipped through by the Executive. Yet over a period of many years the House and its members have allowed this important aspect of its procedures to be devalued and degraded.
The weight of evidence which we have received demonstrates a clear desire across the House for change to private Member's bill procedures. In this report we consider the various purposes for which private Members' bills may be used; we look in detail at the reasons for the problems which are inherent in private Member's bill procedures as they currently operate; and we put forward options for reform which we consider retain the best of the existing system whilst reviving the procedures as a means of securing debate, scrutiny and decision on genuinely backbench legislative propositions.
Purposes of private Members' bills
There are broadly four main reasons why a private Member's bill may be brought forward:
- as a chance simply to raise an issue or to "fly a kite";
- to start a campaign for a change in the law;
- to make small and uncontroversial changes to the law supported by the Government;
- as a genuine attempt at legislative change initiated by a backbench Member of Parliament.
All these purposes have a place in private Member's bill procedures. The picture emerging from the evidence we took, however, is one of a significant imbalance amongst them. What has been largely missing from the private Member's bill procedures have been genuinely backbench propositions, not initiated by Government, being brought through all their stages and becoming law.
Problems with private Member's bill procedures
The fundamental problem with the private Member's bill procedures as they currently operate is that it is too easy for a small number of Members to prevent a bill from progressing without giving the House as a whole the chance to come to a decision on it. The difficulty of achieving legislative changeor rather, the ease with which legislative change can be resisted undermines the effectiveness of both kite-flying and campaigns for legislative change, and tilts the balance away from backbenchers and towards the Government in the choice of bills brought forward. Private Member's bill procedures disenfranchise Members who may wish to support a bill being promoted by a colleague and are misleading to the public and to the interest groups who seek to use it to advance legislative change. The lack of transparency in the private Member's bill process engenders confusion and unrealistic expectations, and facilitates a situation whereby the Government is able to delay or frustrate progress on a private Members' bill without ever defeating it in a vote. The result is not only a waste of the imagination and good ideas of Members of Parliament, but a missed opportunity for engagement with the public and civil society.
Objects of reform
It is not our intention to facilitate the passage of bills into law through the private Members' route. Rather, we consider that reform should have two objects:
- to increase the transparency of the process so that interested partiesboth inside and outside the Houseunderstand what is happening; and
- to ensure that the process is a genuine opportunity for debate, scrutiny and, if it is the will of the House, passage of a backbench legislative proposition.
Proposals for reform
Timing of debate
We recommend that private Members' bills continue to be debated on thirteen Fridays each session.
Choice of bills to be debated in private Members' time
We recognise the merits of the ballot as a means of determining precedence for debate in private Members' bill time; but also that it has been argued that the ballot cannot be sure to select the bills which are most deserving of being given the chance of debate and decision. 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. Under such a procedure precedence would be given to the bills attracting the highest number of signatories, subject to a minimum level of cross-party support.
Timetabling of private Members' bills
Implemented well, timetabling enables appropriate debate and discussion of a bill whilst preventing the delay of a bill's passage by procedural tactics or filibustering. We wish to achieve this outcome in the private Member's bill process. 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 this report. The first would make programming available to all private Members' bills. The second would make it available to only a limited number of bills in each Session. We suggest two means of choosing the bills to which it would apply: either on a "first come, first served" basis on private Members' Fridays, or by initial consideration and a vote in a 'ten minute rule' slot, when the whole House could be present. In all cases a proposed programme motion would have to be signed by at least 20 Members from each side of the House before it could be moved, as well as having to be approved by the House itself.
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. We offer two possible means of making such a decision: either after a single short speech in favour, followed if necessary by one in opposition, taken at the time of a ten minute rule slot on a Tuesday or Wednesday; or after an hour's debate taking place following conclusion of the main business on a day other than a Friday.
We recommend that there should be sufficient flexibility in the timing of the ballot and the presentation of the ballot billsor votes on leave to bring in billsto 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. It would be for the promoter of the bill to decide whether to subject the bill to such consultation.
Printing of private Members' bills and listing on the Order Paper
We recommend that a bill not appear on the Order Paper (including in "Future Business") until the Speaker is satisfied that the promoter of the bill has made available for online publication an exposure draft of an actual bill. We also recommend that the deadline for printing a private Member's bill be brought forward to the Wednesday of the week before the Friday on which second reading is scheduled.
The "Future Business" section of the Order Paper would list only bills set down for days on which private Members' bills had precedence.
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. Instead, if leave is granted, the Chair will ask the question "Who will prepare the bill?", and the Member in charge will name the supporters of the bill, as now, but instead of then presenting the bill will simply resume his or her seat. It will still be possible for a Member to present a bill if desired, but that step will not be required as it is now, and could be taken at a later stage instead of immediately after obtaining leave.
Flooding the Order Paper with bills
We recommend that the possibility of 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.
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. The WMS would be "tagged" on the Order Paper next to the entry for each bill.
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.
- that a motion 'That the House sit in private' no longer be permitted to be moved on a private Member's Friday;
- that the requirement for a motion to be tabled by the Government before more than one public bill committee can be nominated in respect of a private Member's bill be abolished; and
- that the term "private Members' bills" be replaced with "backbench bills".