Private Members' bills: observations on the Government response Contents


1.Our report on Private Members’ bills was published on 18 April 2016,1 and launched on the floor of the House with a statement from the Chair.2 In that report—which built on the substantial work undertaken by our predecessor Committee in the 2010–15 Parliament3—we recognised the continuing dissatisfaction, both inside and outside the House, with the process for consideration of legislation proposed by backbenchers. We set out a number of measured and realistic reforms, with the primary aims of increasing transparency and restoring public and parliamentary confidence to a process which too often appears to be broken and discredited.

2.Our key proposal was to supplement the ballot system for selecting Members to present bills with a scheme that would encourage better preparation of draft legislation of the type likely to merit serious consideration by the House. Under this scheme, the Backbench Business Committee would have the responsibility of considering bids from backbenchers for bills to be debated at second reading in no more than the first four backbench legislative opportunities in each session. The merits of each draft bill presented to that Committee would be considered, and it would not be obliged to recommend any bill for a priority legislative slot in a session if it considered that no bill merited such treatment.

3.We also recommended that Standing Orders should be amended to provide for a guaranteed vote on Second Reading of any bill which is the first order of the day on the first seven sitting Fridays in a session.

4.We recommended procedural and technical reforms designed to address a further fundamental problem that we identified: namely that present procedures lack transparency and are often used for political campaigning rather than genuine legislative change. Too often the lack of transparency lowers the reputation of the House in the eyes of the public, as campaigns masquerading as legislative proposals are presented in a way which deceives the public as to the chances of achieving the change in legislation which is ostensibly proposed.

5.The present system is constructed in a way which encourages the presentation of loosely-drafted bills, full of measures inviting unintended consequences, which do not necessarily merit further consideration. While the private Member’s bill procedure may well be used to advance causes which will prompt the Government to subsequent action, we consider that the process should be used for well-thought-out proposals which are drafted and introduced with the intention of reaching the statute book.

6.The task of preventing unsatisfactory bills from making further progress, on those days when they are set down for debate, falls to backbenchers who make full use of the procedural opportunities available to them to ensure that such bills do not make further progress.4 Some bills can be so poorly drafted and thought out that, despite our reluctance to condone the practice of talking at length to halt the progress of a bill, they necessitate this kind of intervention. However, it should not fall to backbenchers to ensure that unsatisfactory bills do not advance further. It would, in truth, be a more honest and transparent reflection of the forces at work if the task of ensuring that such bills did not progress further fell to the Government.

7.The system which we have recommended should still allow Members to take their chances in the ballot, but will actually encourage serious legislators on the backbenches to bring forward mature legislative proposals which may have taken a year or more to prepare.

8.We received a response to our April 2016 report on 13 June 2016 from the administration led by the former Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron MP. It is published as an appendix to this report. The response accepted some of our predecessor Committee’s second-order recommendations which we endorsed, in particular those aimed at increasing transparency and understanding of the system. It also accepted a number of our subsidiary recommendations relating to the information about private Members’ bills published in the House’s Future Business paper and on the Parliament website.

1 Third Report of Session 2015–16, Private Members’ bills, HC 684

2 HC Deb, 18 April 2016, cols 667–669

3 Second Report of Session 2013–14, Private Members’ bills, HC 188 (September 2013) and Fifth Report, Session 2013–14, Private Members’ bills: Government response and revised proposals, HC 1171 (March 2014)

4 Bills which do not fall to be debated are prevented from progressing further by a formal objection, usually lodged by a Government Whip, at 2.30 pm on a Friday.

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14 October 2016