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Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills)

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 23 February 2012

I beg to move,

That Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 6 and 13 July, 7 and 14 September, 19 and 26 October and 2, 9 and 30 November 2012 and 18 and 25 January, 1 February and 1 March 2013.

Apparently I was coherent and compelling in the previous debate, as we won the vote; let us hope that I am as lucky this time. The motion gives precedence to private Members’ Bills over Government business on the Fridays set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in the business statement on 9 February. I do not intend to detain the House for too long on this issue. Standing Orders set out that there should be 13 such Fridays per Session. Members are aware of the dates set aside in the next Session, and I have received no representations about the unsuitability of any of them.

I am aware that some thought is being given to the timing and process of the private Members’ Bill system by the Procedure Committee. It is, however, quite right that we should proceed on the basis of the present position until we have received alternative proposals from the Committee and the House has decided whether to agree to them. The House might be able to have that wider debate at a future date, but today’s motion is simply to give effect to the dates as provided for in the Standing Orders. No amendments to the motion have been tabled, so it is a simple choice: does the House want 13 Fridays devoted to private Members’ Bills or not?

I am glad to have the opportunity to debate this matter, as the Government were intent on putting it through without debate. The Deputy Leader of the House has just said he regards this motion as provisional, which rather concerns me. I was hoping to congratulate the Government on having endorsed the principle that the traditional 13 Friday sittings for private Members’ Bills would have precedence in the next Session. The hon. Gentleman has told us that that is what he is doing, but that it could be subject to change later on. When he responds to this short debate, I hope he can assure us that if there is any recommendation for change, it would apply only to subsequent Sessions rather than to the next Session, whose Fridays have been allocated for private Members’ business in the motion.

It is important that we have had this much notice of the allotted Fridays, which should enable greater attendance than has been evident on some Fridays in this past long Session. The minimum notice given by the Deputy Leader of the House is five months and the maximum is more than 12 months. It should be possible for Members of all parties to arrange their diaries to make their constituency business subordinate to the business in the Chamber of the House of Commons on these Fridays. As I say, this debate provides an opportunity to remind colleagues of the importance of putting these dates in their dairies. Then, if they have been successful in the private Members’ ballot, they can avoid being embarrassed because they have committed themselves to some other activity on one of the key Fridays.

That said, I hope that the Government can be deemed to have endorsed the principle that they support Friday sittings, and the previous debate showed that they believe in in principle. I hope that these Friday sittings will definitely happen during the next Session and that this motion is not in any way provisional.

I am grateful to speak in this short debate. I would like to congratulate the Government on putting down so early the days allotted for private Members, so that we can put them in our diaries and be pretty sure that the debates are going to happen on those dates. I accept, of course, that they are provisional, but this is a very good guide.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why, if the Government can do that, they cannot allocate the 25 Backbench Business Committee days in the same manner in advance, which would be most useful to us? I entirely agree with the opening comments of the Deputy Leader of the House: he was very coherent and persuasive in the earlier debate, albeit in arguing a case that was completely hopeless. On reflection on the figures, he might realise that the number of Members voting for the motion was less than half. In fact, there were massive abstentions, which most people would regard as a warning shot or perhaps as a defeat for the Government.

I welcome the publication of the suggested 13 sitting Fridays for private Members’ Bills, but I must add that I think it discourteous to the House for the Government to publish the calendar and circulate it widely before a motion has been passed on the Floor of the House. I understand that the calendar was published several weeks before today’s debate and, ultimately, the decision.

The timing of some of the Fridays is different from that in previous years. For example, I think that this is the first occasion on which both Fridays during the September sitting have been devoted to private Members’ Bills, and I should be interested to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House why those two dates have been chosen. I am not sure whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, but presumably there is at least a modicum of reasoning behind it, and I should like to know what that reasoning is.

I should also like the Deputy Leader to reassure me that the Government have no intention of doing in the next Session what they did in the present Session, when they blocked the progress of at least two private Members’ Bills by failing to move in a timely manner the money motion attached to them. I refer, of course, to the Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and the Daylight Saving Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). The latter attracted huge support from Members on both sides of the House, and more progress would have been made on it—indeed, it could well have completed its passage through the House—had the Government not delayed the moving of its money motion by nine months.

I hope that, in seeking the House’s approval of the proposed dates, the Deputy Leader of the House will place on record his intention of ensuring that the timetable is realistic, and that the Government will not try to muck about with money motions as they have done during the current Session.

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker.

This has been a wonderful opportunity for a short debate about the dates of private Members’ Bills. We are always happy to have a debate when the House demands one. Equally, we are always happy for there not to be a debate when the House agrees to something without objection. That always strikes me as a sensible use of time in the House, which, as we have already heard in previous debates, is at a premium.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for making clear the value of being given the earliest possible notice of dates when they are available to us. We always try to accommodate the House as best we can by providing early notice, and that goes for the printed calendar as well. That too is provisional, but it helps Members to identify how the timetable fits in with their personal and political arrangements. They can then notify us if there are difficulties, although on this occasion no one has mentioned any problems with the dates that have been allocated.

This is provisional in the sense that any decision by the House can be rescinded by the House. Not so long ago, the House was invited to rescind a motion that it had passed only two days earlier. I cannot say whether at any time in the next year the House may wish to rescind the dates that it has chosen for private Members’ Bills, but I hope that it will not do so, because it makes sense for us to be able to plan.

We are also in the hands of the Select Committees, including the Procedure Committee, which examines the proposals for private Members’ Bills. I have no idea what the Committee will say, and it would be improper if I did. If it produces recommendations and they are put to the House, the Government will of course respond, and the House will determine whether there is to be a change. Again, that would not be a matter for me, as a Minister, to determine.

As for the question of whether adequate time is provided by the procedures governing private Members’ Bills, we are bound by a Standing Order of the House, but within what that Standing Order sets out, we try to provide the days that seem to us to be most suitable. The Fridays in September have been included because it has been suggested that it would be helpful for Back Benchers to be able to make progress with their legislation then, but if the House were to recommend otherwise, we would obviously pay attention to that view.

The arrangements for money resolutions and the like are normally determined on a Bill-by-Bill basis with both the Member responsible for the Bill and the Minister who would have an interest in it. There is not a Government position on that. That often involves complex negotiation, because we all want good private Members’ legislation that the House can support where appropriate, while also ensuring proper scrutiny. That is our intention, and the intention of the House.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House address the issue of why we can publish the private Member’s days but we cannot publish the Backbench business days?

The answer to that is simple. Private Member’s Bills are dealt with on Fridays so they do not compete for time with Government legislation. As we know, Government legislation does not always run in a straight trajectory, not least because we are dealing with two Houses of Parliament, and there are therefore variables. We do not want to give people a firm calendar on which they then make their arrangements only for them subsequently to find that it has been changed at late notice.

The hon. Gentleman has a point in respect of whether the Backbench Business Committee, the Government and others who have an interest should consider whether there might be a way of accommodating fixed-point debates, as it were, on matters that there is a relevant time to discuss. We should address that question in the context of the review of the operation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Sadly, we are not yet at a point where we can decide with certainty and long in advance which day in the legislative week will be given over to what activity of the House, because there are too many imponderables. As a Government business manager, I would love to know well in advance the position in respect of every Bill before the House, but I listen to what both Houses say and respond accordingly. We all must accept that that means that there will be uncertainties in the future programme. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 6 and 13 July, 7 and 14 September, 19 and 26 October and 2, 9 and 30 November 2012 and 18 and 25 January, 1 February and 1 March 2013.