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Back-Bench Legislative Proposals

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

21. What consideration has been given to improving the chances of proposals for legislation from Back-Bench Members getting time for debate. (102888)

Following the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, the House recently approved major changes to the legislative process. Some of those changes came into effect from the beginning of the Session and others will come into effect in January, but they did not cover private Members’ Bills. The Modernisation Committee looked at aspects of private Members’ Bill procedure in a report in 2005 and recommended no changes. It considered but rejected the idea of moving private Members’ Bill time to Wednesday evenings, concluding that

“This would fundamentally change the character of the proceedings, with the intrusion of whipping into time which has so far been at the…disposal of backbenchers”.

I thank the Leader of the House for his detailed answer on the practicalities and the practice, but may I ask him about the principle? I was surprised to learn that, in each of the nine years since the Government came to power, fewer than five private Members’ Bills have gone on to the statute book each year, whereas in the previous nine years the average was 14 a year. Given that the public are keen that MPs can be themselves in this place and put forward their own ideas and not merely pass Government legislation, will he look again at whether we can go back to that system, when Members had much more chance of success in getting their proposals on to the statute book?

I shall certainly do that, because I want to see as many proposals reaching the statute book as have consensus. Bills should not be delayed or blocked for procedural and non-substantive reasons. I do not know exactly why there is such a disparity; I have certainly been encouraging ministerial colleagues to give a fair wind rather than a difficult wind to proposals for private Members’ Bills. I must add that there are a number of private Members’ Bills that hit the buffers initially, but whose ideas later find their way into substantive Government legislation.

The Leader of the House knows that one way in which Back-Bench Members can trigger legislation is by way of motions that propose particular courses of action. Will he consider ways of reinstating the process whereby Back Benchers could table substantive motions for debate on the Floor of the House?

A twin inquiry by the Modernisation Committee is about to be announced into strengthening the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time in the House, which includes such motions. I could never quite understand why the House agreed to abandon the old process. That was a Jopling recommendation under the previous Administration. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise, it is much more difficult to reinstate such measures than to prevent them from going in the first place, but I am certainly happy to look at the matter.

As with Government legislation, not all private Members’ Bills are meritorious. Some do not command widespread support, but some do and an example is the Sustainable Communities Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), which I understand is to be taken forward by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). Is there any scope for using the new Public Bill Committee structure to provide an initial assessment of a Bill and to make a requisition on the Government for time for its completion, thus making it mainstream business rather than putting it into the ghetto of the Friday morning private Members’ slot?

I accept that that is certainly an idea that needs to be considered, but we could not introduce such a change without very serious study. As I have already explained, when the Modernisation Committee last considered the matter, it pointed to the disadvantages of what the hon. Gentleman describes—I would not—as a Friday morning ghetto, but also noted many advantages. One of those is that, by definition, it is not whipped, whereas if we brought private Members’ Bills to an earlier part of the week and made them subject to programme motions, they would then be whipped.