Procedure CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Parliament First APPG (P 101, 2012–13)

Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) should have an important place in the parliamentary process since no government should have an exclusive right to initiate legislation. Yet the opportunity for Backbenchers successfully to sponsor bills in the Commons has been progressively restricted over recent decades as the Executive has increasingly asserted its quasi-monopoly over legislation through a combination of Departmental hostility, obstructionism by the Whips, and the operation of rules designed to squeeze out non-government initiatives. This is not healthy either for Members’ capacity to represent the public’s call for reforms or for Parliament’s role of keeping the Executive accountable. Major changes are now needed.

At present too many PMBs are strangled by artificial procedures intended to limit their effectiveness and keep such bills subservient to the will of government. The main devices used to this effect are:

PMBs are confined to Fridays when most MPs have left to return to their constituencies (especially now that most Thursdays are taken up with BBBC debates and government business has often ended by 7pm on Wednesdays),

If a motion that “the House do now sit in private” is moved at the start of a PMB Friday sitting and if fewer than 40 MPs vote for it, then the bill is deferred to the next PMB sitting day, which may wreck its chances,

Only 13 Friday sittings are made available for PMBs in each session, even though there are many other Fridays when the House is not sitting at all,

Given that PMBs are restricted to just 65 hours over the whole of the session and that speeches are not time-limited by the Speaker, they are highly vulnerable to filibustering since, unlike government bills, they are not timetabled,

Closure motions to bring debate to an end before 2.30pm or to defeat filibustering require at least 100 MPs to vote in favour of the motion, which is an arbitrarily high number on a Friday, especially when most MPs will regard spending hours at Westminster waiting for a vote on a Friday (which may well be lost anyway) an unjustifiable use of their time away from their constituency,

Standing Orders prescribe arbitrarily that, even if a PMB survives second reading, only one public bill committee to consider PMBs may operate at any one time, unless the government nominates a second public bill committee to sit simultaneously,

At report stage (if that is reached), a PMB can be easily talked out by the tabling of a few amendments,

The net effect of all these artificial constraints is that it is almost impossible for a PMB to succeed unless it has the complete support of the government.

These drawbacks indicate the need for a series of reforms if PMBs are to have a serious role in Parliament and in particular to be freed from strangulation by the Executive. We would advocate the following changes:

1.On timing, PMBs could be moved from Fridays and switched instead to Tuesday or Wednesday evenings after 7pm, Wednesday mornings, or Thursday afternoons after 5pm, in whatever combination might be decided by the BBBC (with spill-over from one stage to the next permitted, as with government bills). Alternatively, or in conjunction, if some PMB second readings were still held on Fridays, the system of deferred divisions could operate so that the vote was taken after PMQs on Wednesday at 12.30pm.

2.On location, the convention that only one public bill committee should be sitting at any one time on PMBs should be lifted, and PMBs could then be allotted to Westminster Hall for their committee and report stages. The combination of these first two reforms could raise the number of hours available for PMBs over a session to at least 100.

3.Timetabling should be introduced automatically for all PMBs, with 3 hours allotted for second reading, 3 hours for report stage (or, if that is not sufficient, committal to a special Report Committee for a maximum for 20 hours, with any Member permitted to attend and speak), and 1 hour for third reading. We also believe that Backbench speeches on PMBs should be restricted to no more than 10 minutes, and preferably 6–8 minutes.

4.On resources, the assistance provided for Members to draft their bill should be increased from the £200 fixed in 1971 to £500–£1,000 today. It could also be used to hold sessions to consult experts in the field as well as to take evidence from the public.

We believe this set of reforms would inject new life into PMBs, would engage the interest and involvement of the public much more in the parliamentary process, and would enable a whole range of issues currently sidelined by the government of the day to be seriously considered for legislation. Of course the government would retain the right and the capacity to oppose any such bill through its command of a majority in the House, but it would have to use argument and persuasion to do so rather than as at present resorting to underhand and artificial procedural devices.

23 January 2013

Prepared 28th August 2013