Last month the House of Commons Procedure Committee published a report on the private members’ bill process in which a number of proposals for reform were put forward. The committee’s chair, Charles Walker, offers an overview and argues that the alternative to reform is that more members will abandon the existing process and backbench legislation, as we know it, will cease.
Procedure Committees past and present have examined the private members’ bill (PMB) process and found it gravely wanting. It is becoming more and more evident that parliamentary and public confidence in the process is waning. The current process misleads the general public, often falsely raises expectations about legislative action, and operates under procedures which are too easily gamed to prevent genuine legislative proposals from proceeding. The Procedure Committee undertook its latest inquiry into PMBs in light of experience of the process in this session and increasing dissatisfaction with the House’s procedures for PMBs, building on the work of the predecessor committee in the last parliament.
We identified two fundamental problems with the present process. Our chief concern is the lack of transparency: the process is impenetrable to the general public and too often brings parliament into disrepute. Our second concern is that it is now extremely difficult for a genuine PMB to reach the statute book—increasingly, not because the House as a whole has decided that a bill should not progress, but because a small number of members opposed to a measure can effectively veto it.
Evidence we heard suggests that the public is baffled by the process. Colleagues are frequently lobbied by constituents and others with requests to be present at Westminster on a sitting Friday to support a bill which has little (if any) chance of being debated, let alone reaching the statute book.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a committee member in the last parliament, admitted to us that on occasion he rather enjoyed talking at length to block bills but readily acknowledged that ‘it doesn’t make parliament look great’ and said: ‘I think that it is a problem which is in everybody’s interest to solve.’
Our report suggested a small number of sensible and measured reforms which, if agreed by the House, will increase transparency in the process and result in better legislative proposals. We recommend that, on the first seven Fridays, the first bill on the order paper should get a guaranteed vote on second reading following a full day’s debate. In our view, this is a reasonable step to ensure that the House has the chance to decide whether bills which are the first order of business on the first seven sitting Fridays should progress to more detailed examination in committee. Under this proposal, it will not be possible to ‘talk out’ these bills, and the Speaker will be able to impose time limits on backbench speeches where necessary.
We identified that the number of members chosen by the ballot to introduce PMBs is too high. Members who are drawn at low positions in the ballot face an unappealing session trying to make progress with a bill which has little chance of success. We recommend reducing the number of bills in the ballot from 20 to 14. This would mean that the percentage (though not the quantum) of bills which had a chance of making progress would be greater, which we believe would result in greater transparency and understanding of the likely outcome for ballot bills. Fourteen bills in the ballot allows every member who is successful to have either the first or second slots on one of the first seven Fridays (Fridays where second readings take precedence). However, members could still choose to gamble on one of the last six days if they wished, if that seemed preferable to following a bill likely to be debated for a full day.
One criticism of the ballot system is the way in which it encourages legislation to be considered for introduction only after a Member has secured a ballot slot. This system tends to discourage the measured preparation of legislation for introduction and can instead result in a rush by government and outside interests to lobby successful members to take up pre-prepared legislation, and can also, quite simply, result in bad legislative proposals conjured up in a short amount of time after success in the ballot. Our proposal is that certain bills should be prioritised on merit: we suggest up to four bills should be decided on by the Backbench Business Committee (BBCom). This will encourage better preparation of legislation, on the basis of a sound case which can command widespread support across the House. Bills decided on by BBCom would have their second readings debated in the first four backbench legislative opportunities in each session. We hope that this will mean that individual members or groups of members with a good legislative proposition can invest a great deal of time (perhaps upwards of a year) to work on that proposition—talking to ministers and other members, and building coalitions in and outside parliament. BBCom will be able to decide whether enough work underpins that proposition and whether it deserves one of the slots. Of course, the committee could decide in a certain year that no bills are worthy of one of those sought-after slots. In other sessions, it might decide that four bills are worthy of being taken forward.
We also made a number of other recommendations in our report, including the creation of a system to enable members to demonstrate cross-party support for a private member’s bill by having names of additional supporters published on the order paper on the day that the bill’s second reading is set down as an order of the day. While this would have no procedural effect, it may make the political cost of ending the bill’s progress more apparent to those who oppose it. We also made recommendations to clarify the status of bills – we suggest that bills which have not been published should be clearly identified in the Future Business section of the order paper. We also endorse a number of technical recommendations made by our predecessors: for instance, replacing the term ‘private members’ bills’ with the more easily understood ‘backbench bills’, dropping the expectation that a member who has got leave to bring in a bill following a Ten Minute Rule motion should immediately present the bill, and requiring that PMBs should be listed on the order paper only when they have been set down for a day on which PMBs have precedence.
There have been calls for the thirteen sitting Fridays devoted to PMBs to be abolished. While this is not a change we can advocate at present, it is clear that, unreformed, there can be little future for a process which can be so visibly susceptible to sabotage. In our recommendations, we have tried to strike a balance, offering a number of genuinely implementable reforms which will increase transparency and will begin to restore some public and parliamentary confidence to the process.
The Leader of the House has promised a considered response. Colleagues will be looking to the government to provide an early opportunity to vote on our proposals so that they may be adopted for the 2017-18 Session. The alternative, I fear, is that colleagues will abandon the Friday process in even greater numbers and backbench legislation, as we know it, will cease.
The Procedure Committee’s full report on private members’ bills can be read here.
About the author
Charles Walker OBE MP is the Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee. He is a member of the Constitution Unit Council.