Private Members' bills - Procedure Committee Contents


3  Ensuring the process is an opportunity for private Members

Timing of debate

22. In our report on sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar,[32] we considered the arguments for moving consideration of private Members' bills away from Fridays to an earlier weekday evening. We said:

59. We have […] 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. 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.

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. 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.

23. Noting that these arguments did not apply with the same force to a move to Thursday evenings, we went on to say that we did not wish to rule out a move away from Fridays, but that further work would be needed on the procedural consequences before a firm proposition could be brought to the House. We proposed therefore to test the willingness of the House in principle to make the move by putting forward a motion for debate. Our intention was to bring such a motion forward in September 2012, subsequent to the debate on sitting hours which took place in July; but it was pre-empted by a motion tabled by Dame Joan Ruddock at the time of the sitting hours debate which, despite the then Chair's request that it not be moved so that a separate debate could be held later,[33] was moved and defeated.[34]

24. We have considered the question of the timing of consideration of private Members' bills again in the light of the decision of the House on Dame Joan's motion and of our further consideration of private Member's bill procedures. Dame Joan's motion referred only to Tuesday evenings, ignoring both Wednesday evenings and the possibility which we canvassed in our report of considering private Members' bills on a Thursday evening, and was brought forward before we had had the opportunity to undertake the detailed consideration of the procedural consequences which was necessary for a fully informed decision to be made. Nevertheless the vote on that motion failed to demonstrate a clear desire on the part of the House to move away from Fridays for consideration of private Members' bills. Furthermore, we consider that the arguments which we set out against such a move in our report on sitting hours continue to have force.[35] As we set out below, we consider that there may be merit in holding some whipped votes on private Members' bills at a time when the whole House is likely to be present. We do not, however, believe that the interests either of Members or of the private Member's bill process itself would be well served by moving it in its entirety to a Tuesday, Wednesday or even Thursday evening. Instead, we set out below alternative means of solving the problems posed by the difficulty of securing the attendance of Members on Fridays, whilst leaving the detailed debate and scrutiny of private Members' bills on those days. We recommend that thirteen Fridays a year continue to be appointed for consideration of private Members' bills.

Choice of bills to be debated in private Members' time

25. The current, and longstanding, means of determining which private Members' bills have precedence is the ballot. The ballot has much to commend it: it is fair, in that every Member has an equal chance of success; it is not susceptible to manipulation by the party whips; and it is well-established and well-understood.[36]

26. We heard an argument that the deficiency of the ballot is that it cannot be sure to select the bills which are most deserving of being given the chance of debate and decision. It was suggested in evidence that, as an alternative to the ballot, selection of the bills to be brought forward in private Members' time might be by the collection of signatures in support of them.[37]

27. Under such a procedure, the private Member's bill process would start with backbench Members attracting support from fellow Members for the legislative proposition which they wished to bring before the House. They would do so by collecting signatories, or supporters, for a bill which they intended to introduce. Supporters would be backbench Members. No Member would be permitted to be a supporter of more than one bill. To minimise the potential for manipulation by the party whips, and to avoid the use of the procedure for overtly partisan measures, at least ten of a bill's supporters would need to be drawn from each side of the House.[38] Instead of the ballot, precedence for the introduction of private Members' bills would be accorded to the bills which had attracted the greatest number of signatures.

28. The process of attracting supporters for a bill would be likely to begin well before the start of a new session. Indeed the bills for which Members would attempt to attract supporters could be expected often to be ones which had already been widely discussed inside and outside the House. A Member who had put in the necessary work with outside interest groups, with the Government, and with the public, and could show that their bill was necessary, had been effectively drafted and took account of the views of interested parties and the Government, would be in a much better position to demonstrate to their colleagues that it was worthy of their support and of being piloted through the private Members' bill procedure.[39]

29. This procedure could not be expected to work in the first session of a Parliament, following a general election, when there would not have been the opportunity for Members to gather support for their bill in advance of the new session. In the first session of a new Parliament, the existing ballot system for private Members' bills would operate.

30. The disadvantage of this alternative system is that even the requirement for cross-party support for a bill does not completely eliminate the risk that it will be captured by the whips. The random nature of the ballot gives every Member an equal chance of the opportunity to bring forward a bill and, with the front benches not expected to enter, leaves the choice of bill in the hands of those individual private Members who have been successful.

31. 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.

Timetabling of private Members' bills

32. Timetabling—or programming—is now an established feature of the House's consideration of legislation. Although its operation is far from perfect,[40] the principle of programming is widely (if not universally) accepted across the House. Implemented well—in particular, with appropriate consultation across the House on the timetable for a bill—it enables appropriate debate and discussion of a bill whilst preventing the delay of a bill's passage by procedural tactics or filibustering.

33. It is this outcome which we wish to achieve in the private Member's bill process. Particularly at report stage, though to a lesser degree also at second reading, passage of a bill can be frustrated not by the will of the House expressed through a division, but by a small number of Members—sometimes a single Member—simply talking for long enough that there is no opportunity for the House to take a decision. There are a number of adverse consequences. The ability of a small group of Members to defeat a bill discourages Members from attending on a Friday to secure the passage even of a well-supported bill. Filibustering—that is, talking at length to ensure that a bill runs out of time, which can be done without formally breaching the rules of the House—skews debate and prevents proper scrutiny and discussion by discouraging supporters of a bill from contributing to debate.[41] And the inability to bring a bill to a decision brings the House and its procedures into disrepute in the eyes of the public.[42]

34. We have accordingly considered means of enabling appropriate timetabling of private Members' bills. We have identified two possible solutions, which we invite the House to decide between.

TIMETABLING—OPTION 1

35. Under the first option, Friday sittings would be arranged so as to allow a guaranteed debate and vote on two bills on each of the first seven ("second reading") private Members' Fridays. Each bill would be timetabled for two and three quarter hours, after which the question on second reading (preceded by that on any reasoned amendment, if selected) would be put.

36. Two and three quarter hours is likely to be entirely adequate for the second reading debate of a private Member's bill. By convention, second reading of a Government bill takes one day. A full day's debate would be six to six and a half hours; but once statements, urgent questions and any other preliminary business have been disposed of, is usually significantly less than that. Furthermore, private Members' bills, which may not have as their main purpose the authorisation of public expenditure, or the creation of a new tax, a tax increase or similar kind of charge, by their nature tend to be shorter and address less weighty and controversial matters than Government bills.

37. This proposal would require a modest rearrangement of Friday sittings. Currently, the House sits at 9.30 am on a Friday, with the moment of interruption at 2.30 pm and a finish at around 3.00 pm after the half-hour adjournment debate. If the House were to sit at 9.00 am, and the final half-hour adjournment debate were to be abolished on a Friday, it would be possible to hold two debates of two-and-three-quarter-hours each, with one or (less commonly) two votes after each, and finish at around the same time as at present. If a Ministerial statement were made at 11.00 am on a Friday—which is unusual[43]—then the time taken for the statement would be added to the end of the debate, and there would be a later finish time. If debate on either of the first two bills were to be concluded in less than two and three quarter hours, debate could take place on a third (and possibly further) bills. These bills too would be subject to a maximum of two and three quarter hours' debate, after which the question on second reading would be put, but if debate on such a bill were still continuing at 3.00 pm it would be interrupted and resumed at a later sitting, if the bill were reached again.

38. A bill which passed its second reading would then be committed, as usual.

39. On its return to the floor of the House for consideration on one of the six "later stages" Fridays, the promoter of the bill would be able to move, immediately before consideration of the bill, a programme motion providing for debate to be concluded after a set period of time. The motion could also provide for internal "knives" bringing debate on particular parts of the bill to a conclusion. The programme motion would be debateable for up to 45 minutes, and amendable. Before it could be moved, it would have to be signed by at least 20 Members from each side of the House; and it would need to provide for a reasonable time for debate which commanded the support of the House in a vote, if necessary.

40. The ability to move a programme motion would apply to any bill reaching the floor of the House for consideration, and the programme motion could set any amount of time for debate the promoter considered would command the support of the House. Thus if debate on the first bill on any given Friday concluded, a programme motion could be moved in respect of the next bill on the Order Paper, and so on. If debate on any such programmed bill could not be concluded before the moment of interruption on any given Friday, the bill could be set down for debate on a later Friday and, if reached, brought to a conclusion after the remaining programmed time had elapsed.

TIMETABLING—OPTION 2

41. The second option would apply programming to only a limited number of bills in each session. We have considered two possible means of selecting the bills to which programming would apply.

"First come, first served"

42. One means of selecting which bills would be subject to programming would be to apply it only to the first bill set down for debate on any particular Friday. At second reading, the question on that bill would be put automatically, without the need for closure, after a maximum of a full Friday's debate (debate might, of course, conclude earlier than that). At report stage, the promoter of the bill appearing first on the Order Paper on a given Friday would have the option to table a programme motion which could provide for a maximum of not less than a full day's debate on the bill (disregarding, in this case, any time taken by a Ministerial statement). The programme motion would be debateable for up to 45 minutes, and amendable. Before it could be moved, it would have to be signed by at least 20 Members from each side of the House; and it would have to be approved by the whole House, on a division if necessary.

Initial consideration and vote in 'ten minute rule' slot

43. Alternatively, we have considered a procedure whereby the whole House could consider and vote on whether a private Member's bill should be programmed. Towards the end of the session prior to that in which the bills were to be presented, a number of proposed bills would be subject to a short debate and vote, one at a time, on a motion for leave to bring it in, taken at the time currently used for ten minute rule bills. The Member promoting the bill would make a short speech, followed by the opportunity for a single short speech opposing it. The proposed bill and a programme motion which would apply to it, providing for a timetabled second reading debate, a maximum number of sittings in committee and a timetabled report stage, would then be subject to a single vote in which all Members could participate.

44. Taking place in the ten minute rule slot, such a vote (if necessary—the bill and programme motion could pass without a vote) would enable the whole House to endorse (or not) the proposed bill and the timetable for it.[44] Making both the bill and the timetable for it subject to a single vote would encourage the Member in charge to put forward not only a bill which is likely to command support across the House, but also a reasonable timetable for its debate and scrutiny. There would be certain minimum requirements for the timetable. The minimum time for second reading should be three hours' debate, and for report stage one day. A supplementary programme motion moved on the day of report stage could provide for internal knives taking account of the selection and grouping of amendments. If necessary, a further supplementary programme motion could be moved and taken forthwith on consideration of Lords Amendments, providing for a minimum of one hour's debate.

45. Following the vote on a motion to bring the bill in, further proceedings on these programmed bills would then take place on private Members' Fridays and in public bill committees as at present. Each bill would need to pass second reading, on which there could be a vote (at the end of the time for debate set by the programme motion), and would then go into committee. Once reported from committee, the bill would have a report stage on the floor of the House which would, again, be brought to a conclusion in accordance with the programme motion.

46. These votes, taken at the rate of one per day in the place of ten minute rule motions, would continue to take place until either the desired number of bills to be programmed had been agreed, or no further eligible bills were brought forward. We suggest that a maximum of five programmed bills should be allowed for. That would leave at least two full sitting Fridays for the debate of other private Members' bills at second reading, and at least one later-stages Friday for the consideration of any Lords Amendments to programmed private Members' bills not disposed of earlier.

47. The advantage of such a procedure would be that the Government, using its majority in the House, would have the chance to defeat a bill to which it is opposed in principle at an early stage, preventing the House from wasting time debating it. The endorsement of the whole House at this stage, on the other hand, would provide a powerful legitimisation of the programming of the bill, demonstrating that this was a bill which should be brought to a decision and not killed off by procedural tactics or filibustering by a small number of opponents.

48. There remains the question of how the bills to be subject to these votes would themselves be selected. The procedure would work particularly well in conjunction with our suggestion of the advance collection of signatures in support of bills. Bills would be put to the House one by one in order of the number of signatures they had collected, continuing down the list until either the desired number of programmed bills had been given leave to be brought in, or no more eligible bills remained. Alternatively, if the ballot were to be relied upon, Members successful in the ballot who wished their bill to be subject to programming could, again, put their bills, one by one, to the House for leave to bring them in. An adverse vote at this stage would amount to refusal of leave to bring the bill in, meaning that the bill could not be taken any further; so Members not wishing to risk an adverse vote could opt out and instead simply put their bill down for debate without programming.

49. Under this option, other bills could be debated on private Members' Fridays without being timetabled, if proceedings on timetabled bills concluded before the moment of interruption. Those bills—which would be those coming lower in the ballot, or which had not been brought forward through the initial vote at the time of ten minute rule motions—would continue to be susceptible to being "talked out" if sufficient time had not been available for debate.

50. 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 here.

Third reading

51. As we have already discussed, one of the problems with the private Members' bill procedure is that their position in the Parliamentary week discourages Members from attending for debates and votes. Theoretically, a private Member's bill could pass on a vote of 18 Members in favour to 17 against. Whilst, as we said at the start of this chapter, we do not consider that it would be in the interests either of Members or of the private Member's bill process itself for the process to be moved in its entirety to a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening, there is an argument for enabling the House to make a final decision on a bill at a time when all Members are able to be present. That could be done by providing for the debate and vote on third reading of a private Member's bill to take place not on a Friday, but earlier in the week.

52. We have, once again, two possible means of effecting such a proposal. The first is to provide for the third reading vote to take place on a Tuesday or Wednesday at the time which would normally be devoted to a ten minute rule motion. In place of the usual third reading debate, the promoter of the bill would speak for a maximum of ten minutes, followed as necessary by a short speech from any opponent of the bill and—again, as necessary—a vote. The alternative would be to provide for a longer debate—say, an hour, which is the maximum time normally provided for third reading of a programmed Government bill—which could take place following conclusion of the main business on any convenient day.

53. 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.

Enabling the House to come to a decision on our proposals

54. We have proposed that the House be invited to come to a decision on:

  • the means of choosing which bills may be brought forward for debate in private Members' time;
  • whether private Members' bills should be able to be programmed, and if so by which of the means we have proposed;
  • 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.

The House may, of course, decide that it prefers to make no change to the existing procedures, and vote against all the proposals we have put forward.

55. A decision, or decisions, in favour of change would necessitate a two-stage process. After initial debate on our report, we invite the House to come to a decision in principle on how it wishes to proceed in respect of each of the proposals we have brought forward. We would then take the result of those decisions and, as appropriate, prepare the standing order changes necessary to put them into effect. Those changes would then need to return to the House for final decision.

56. The motions to be put to the House in the first instance, then, would be as follows:

PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS (MEANS OF CHOOSING)

That this House favours the retention of the ballot as the means of choosing which bills are given precedence for debate in private Members' time.

To which an amendment may be moved to leave out "the retention of the ballot" and insert "a procedure for the collection of supporters".

PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS (PROGRAMMING)

That this House considers that it should be possible to programme private Members' bills.

PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS (PROGRAMMING) (NO. 2)

That this House considers that programming should be available to any private Member's bill, in accordance with the option set out in paragraphs 35 to 40 of the Procedure Committee's report.

PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS (PROGRAMMING) (NO. 3)

That this House considers that programming should be available to only a limited number of private Members' bills in a Session, and favours the 'first come, first served' means of programming private Members' bills set out in paragraph 42 of the Procedure Committee's report.

To which an amendment may be moved to leave out from "favours" to the end of the question and insert "the means of programming by initial consideration and vote in a ten minute rule slot set out in paragraphs 43 to 49 of the Procedure Committee's report."

Motions No. 2 and No. 3 would fall if the first motion on programming were negatived, and No. 3 would fall if No. 2 were agreed to.

PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS (THIRD READING)

That this House considers that the question on third reading of a private Member's bill should be put 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.

To which an amendment may be moved to leave out from "after" to the end of the question and insert "an hour's debate taking place following conclusion of the main business on a day other than a Friday."

Members wishing to leave third reading on a Friday would vote against both the amendment and the main motion.

Speech limits

57. We have considered the use of the Chair's power to set limits on speeches (under Standing Order No. 47) as a means of dealing with the problem of filibustering on private Members' bills. The Chair does not currently use these powers in respect of speeches on private Members' bills, because those debates are open-ended and there is no fixed amount of time to divide between those wishing to speak. The result, as we have seen, is a freedom for Members to speak at excessive length in an attempt to talk a bill out, and the perverse consequence that supporters of a bill feel constrained from expressing their support in the House.

58. In so far as debate remains non-time-limited, we do not consider that a change in the Chair's approach would be appropriate. That is because a decision to impose time limits in such circumstances would risk engaging the Chair not just in ensuring compliance with the rules of the House, but in securing the passage of legislation, which is not properly the Chair's role.[45]

59. In this context, the introduction of programming for a private Members' bills at second reading, report stage and (as necessary) consideration of Lords Amendments would have two particular advantages. First, it would of course make filibustering tactics less effective, since where a programme motion was in place the House would be required to reach a decision. Secondly, programming would allot a fixed time for debate, and therefore make it appropriate for the Chair to impose speech limits where necessary to enable all those who had indicated a desire to speak to do so.[46] 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.


32   HC (2012-13) 330 Back

33   HC Deb, 11 July 2012, col 339. Back

34   Votes and Proceedings, 11 July 2012, p 239. Back

35   Q 319 Back

36   Q 20 (Dr Fox) Back

37   Q 78, 140, 144 Back

38   Q 352 Back

39   Q 20  Back

40   Procedure Committee, Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar, paras 67-73. Back

41   Q 68, 70 Back

42   Q 186 Back

43   The most recent examples of Ministerial statements made on Fridays are 12 June 2009, 18 March 2011, 22 March 2012, 2 November 2012 and 18 January 2013. Back

44   Q 19, 20, 55 (Rebecca Harris) Back

45   Q 263 Back

46   Q 82 (Rebecca Harris) Back


 
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