Anyone who tuned into Parliament after the Prime Minister’s Statement on the G7 this week would have seen a succession of MPs introducing their private members’ Bills to the Commons. The list of Bills is wide-ranging and reflects the personality and interests of each individual MP, but the system can be almost impenetrable to casual observers.
First the good part. Private members’ Bills (PMBs) are a chance for individual MPs to put forward legislation that would otherwise be overlooked by the Government as part of its agenda in the Queen’s Speech. There are some incredibly important issues put forward, from Sajid Javid’s Bill on raising the legal marriage age from 16 to 18, to Liam Fox’s Bill on meeting the needs of those people with Down syndrome.
There are three ways in which an MP can get a PMB slot – the best chance is through the ballot, where twenty names are drawn out of a hat by the Deputy Speaker, and the first seven of these get guaranteed debating time in the chamber on a sitting Friday. If an MP isn’t successful in the ballot, then they can apply for a ‘ten minute rule’ slot or a leave to introduce a presentation Bill – more on these later.
Generally speaking, MPs can choose one of two options for their PMBs; either they choose a partisan or political issue and raise as much noise as possible and see their Bill go down in a blaze of glory, or secondly, to introduce something important which usually has cross-party support.
Most MPs choose the latter route, although the chances of success are limited – in the last session just seven PMBs sponsored by MPs received Royal Assent, and in some sessions there have been even fewer.
So how can PMBs be considered bad? The public often expects that when something is called a Bill then it has a legitimate chance of success, and many MPs, particularly with non-ballot Bills, talk up the opportunity as if it has a real chance of becoming law. Nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed some take the opportunity to place ‘dummy’ Bills on the order paper, but never introduce them. Dozens are introduced by different routes every year, and few ever receive Royal Assent. In the last twenty years, for example, only seven Bills introduced under the ‘ten-minute rule’ have been successful, and these on the most uncontroversial of topics.
This brings me onto my final point – the rules themselves are somewhat farcical. If an MP is unsuccessful in the ballot, then you must either obtain a ‘ten minute rule’ Bill slot (controlled by the whips) or a presentation Bill slot. Anyone who watched the excellent BBC TV series ‘Inside the Commons’ a few years ago will recall two Conservative MPs and one Labour MP queueing outside the Public Bill Office for 48 hours in a sleeping bag, then taking all the available positions, preventing any other MP from introducing one.
Even worse, when it comes to debating the Bills in the chamber, a small group of MPs can frustrate the best of intentions by filibustering the debate and preventing progress, as infamously exemplified by the Conservative MP Christopher Chope blocking Bills on upskirting and female genital mutilation.
PMBs in principle are a good way to secure debate on legislation that wouldn’t otherwise be considered, but the system desperately needs reform. There need to be fewer Bills, with greater scrutiny and guaranteed votes, to ensure that the system functions well and the public continues to have faith in it. That way we will see more of the genuinely important Bills, and fewer from those who are trying to game the system.
Chris White leads SEC Newgate's Public Affairs team