The Procedure Committee has reviewed private Members’ bill (PMB) procedure, taking into account the two reports on the subject produced by the Committee in the 2010–15 Parliament and the experience of the PMB process in the 2015–16 Session.
The Committee in the last Parliament undertook an exhaustive review of the process: following discussions with Government on its initial findings, the predecessor Committee recommended that a convention be established that there should be a vote on second reading of a PMB following a full day’s debate. The Government did not find time for this recommendation to be debated before the end of the last Parliament. This Committee has therefore examined the matter afresh in order to propose workable solutions.
In the absence of any such solutions, it seems less likely that the present arrangements for considering backbench legislation on sitting Fridays will regain the waning confidence of Members, still less of the public: priority time for backbench legislation might as a consequence be moved to midweek days, or might face abolition. In either case the present opportunities for backbenchers to initiate legislation would be compromised. This would be very unfortunate: we regard as crucial the right of backbenchers to have meaningful and substantive opportunities to initiate legislation, although we consider that such proposals should be subject to high standards of scrutiny.
The Committee has identified two fundamental problems with the present process: (a) a lack of transparency over the procedures and their use for political campaigning as opposed to genuine legislative change, and (b) the use of delaying tactics to frustrate genuine debate and decision on measures. While the PMB process can engender serious and measured debate on significant issues, this is increasingly the exception rather than the rule. On several occasions during this session alone, delaying tactics have been used to starve bills of parliamentary time, to the frustration of those who took a genuine interest in the progress of the legislation. This reflects very badly on the House’s image: it is, in the words of one Member, “a problem which it is in everybody’s interest to solve”.
The answer lies in measures which will encourage substantial and well-prepared legislative proposals to be brought forward for priority consideration on Fridays. If sitting Fridays are to continue as days on which private Members’ bills have precedence, then the system for assigning priority to bills must ensure that the bills to be debated are those which engage the active interest of a substantial number of Members. If Members stay away from the House in large numbers on sitting Fridays, then the resulting vacuum is inevitably filled by those prepared to use tactical measures to obstruct the progress of less well-supported proposals.
The Committee therefore proposes incremental changes to the existing system, aimed at retaining the sitting Friday but introducing a new element to the selection of bills. The Committee recommends that the total number of bills selected for priority consideration be reduced from 20 to 14. Of those 14 slots, up to four are to be filled by bills to be chosen on their merits by the Backbench Business Committee on the basis of substantial evidence both of preparation and prior scrutiny and of broad support for such measures inside and outside the House. These bills will be given priority; the remaining slots will then be filled by bills presented by Members chosen through the ballot, as at present.
The Committee proposes that Standing Orders be changed to ensure that, for the first seven sitting Fridays of a session, debate on the second reading of a bill which has lasted the whole sitting should be concluded with a vote. This provision would provide the certainty necessary for the Chair to introduce speech limits in such debates, if required.
The Committee restates a number of recommendations for technical change made by the Committee in the last Parliament. These amendments to the process are intended to make the process more comprehensible, for example by ensuring that only those bills which have actually been printed are routinely listed on the Order Paper.
The Committee also recommends that private Members’ bills should in future be called ‘backbench bills’.
The Committee makes no recommendation, for the present, on changes to sitting hours or on moving PMBs to another day of the week. The Committee will shortly survey the views of Members on the overall sitting hours of the House and will bring forward proposals which will allow the House to give its view on the hours on which it should sit.
Should the Committee’s recommendations for private Members’ bills not be implemented, or fail to achieve their objectives for sitting Fridays, then it is highly likely that the question of the scheduling of such bills will have to be revisited. To move consideration of bills to days when the Government can rely on its supporters to vote in more substantial numbers is not, however, a step to be undertaken lightly.
The Committee seeks early implementation of those measures which require administrative action only. For measures which require changes to Standing Orders, or an expression of opinion by the House, it expects the Government to provide an early opportunity, in Government time, for the House to debate and come to a decision on these proposals. This would allow the substantive changes on the selection of bills to be piloted from the start of the 2017–18 Session.
15 April 2016