Private Members' bills - Procedure Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. 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.[1] Ben Gummer, giving evidence to us, summed up what the private Members' bill procedures can offer:

You are rediscovering the nature of Parliament and what we are supposed to be doing here, and the decisions that you make here could influence the estimation of Parliament in our constituents' minds, which, at the moment, could not be much lower. […] The life of this place is pretty limited beyond the big set-piece debates that we have, Government versus Opposition, the circus: that opportunity where we can come together and debate issues, not necessarily along party lines; to bring forward ideas that might not be in a Government agenda; to be able to explore ideas. Some of the big legislative moments in Parliament's history, whether on abortion or slavery or a whole series of other things, originated in private Members' bills. If we could have more of that, I think that would be beneficial, not just for democracy but also for Parliament, and I completely agree that we should not leave it to Government or come to a default position where only Government is legislating on virtually everything.[2]

2. Yet over a period of many years the House and its members have allowed this aspect of its procedures—which is important in both practical and symbolic terms—to be devalued and degraded to the point at which it can now barely be said that it functions independently of the Executive. In the 2012-13 Session of Parliament, ten supposedly "private Members'" bills reached the statute book. No fewer than nine of those were Government hand-out bills—that is, pieces of legislation prepared by Government which it had not been able to find time for in its own legislative programme, so instead persuaded backbenchers to take through in time which the Standing Orders provide is for non-Government business. Meanwhile other, genuinely backbench, bills were "talked out" by Government ministers, or backbenchers who may have been acting at the Government's behest, and the House denied the opportunity even to come to a decision on them.[3]

3. There are a wide variety of reasons why this has been allowed to become the case. Some are the result of executive action;[4] some are the consequence of changing patterns of the work of a Member of Parliament;[5] some are down to the failure of backbenchers themselves to appreciate the value of the private Member's bill procedure and to understand how to make the most of it.[6] The weight of evidence which we have received—both in the course of this inquiry but also prior to it, especially during our inquiry earlier in this Parliament into sitting hours—demonstrates a clear desire across the House for change to this aspect of its procedures.

4. This report is the result of very careful consideration of the many facets of this issue which we have considered over the course of the inquiry. For some, there has been an assumption that the root of the problem lies in the practice of considering private Members' bills on Fridays, days which the overwhelming majority of Members now devote to work in their constituencies.[7] Others have suggested that the key lies in some form of timetabling of private Members' bills.[8] 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.

5. We are grateful to all those who submitted evidence to our inquiry, both written and oral. We also wish to record our appreciation to the Clerks in the Department of Chamber and Committee Services who have given us technical advice on the operation of the procedures and on the likely consequences of the changes we have discussed.

1   Q 105 (Charlie Elphicke), 110 (Charlie Elphicke), 146 Back

2   Q 105 Back

3   Official Report, 6 July 2012, col1263; 7 Sep 2012, col 565; 19 Oct 2012, col 663; Q 91 (Rebecca Harris), 107, 137 (Martin Horwood), 154, 163, 168, 179, 187. Back

4   See paras 14 and 15 below. Back

5   Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2012-13, Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar, HC 330, para 6. Back

6   See para 18 below. Back

7   Ev P 67, 2012-13 (Lighter Later Campaign); P 71, 2012-13 (Which?); P 73, 2012-13 (Joan Walley MP); P 74, 2012-13 (Steve Brine MP); P 14, 2012-13 (Caroline Lucas MP). Back

8   P 50, 2012-13 (Professor Michael Rush, Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Exeter), para 5; Q 109 (Thomas Docherty); Q 113 (Charlie Elphicke); Q 148 (Chris Bryant); Q 319. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 2 September 2013