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Private Members’ Bills

Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the publication of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Private Members’ Bills, HC188.

Thank you for calling me to make a short presentation on the Procedure Committee’s report, Mr Speaker. I thank members of the Committee for their forbearance; we all worked extremely hard to produce the report. Some are more enthusiastic about its content than others, but it is a testament to the collective will of the Committee that we have produced something in this vexed area that we can somewhat unite behind.

The right to move Back-Bench legislation is a great privilege that I and many other colleagues value enormously. We need to ensure that that privilege is exercised robustly, and with force and purpose. The Government, of course, have the absolute right to stop any proposed legislation that they feel they cannot live with getting on to the statute book. That is the reality of government and the report does not try to challenge it. However, the current system for private Members’ Bills borders on the dishonest. Many people are losing confidence in the system, and I believe it is right to reform it.

I would go further than the hon. Gentleman and indeed the report, although it contains some useful comments. The present system is not just a farce; it is completely and utterly dishonest. It wastes Members’ time and misleads the public about what we do on a Friday. May I suggest that he avoids the concept of “Back-Bench legislation”? When the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) was on the Front Bench as Secretary of State for Wales, she introduced good legislation. In his terms, she would have been Front Bench, not Back Bench.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I thank him for putting his views so forcefully. He gave excellent evidence to the Committee and I will come on to the points he raises and try to address them.

Some 90% of the Bills now reaching statute that are marked as Back-Bench Bills or private Members’ Bills are, in reality, Government hand-out Bills. Not all Government hand-out Bills are to be despised, but there has to be a better balance.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and the Committee for their first-class work. I have two reservations about the report, however, that I would like briefly to put to him. As one who was fortunate enough to see two private Members’ Bills enacted thanks to the support of colleagues in all parts of the House, will he explain to me why the recommendation is still for such Bills to be debated on a Friday, the worst possible day for being quorate? With regard to the end of the report—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—does the hon. Gentleman not agree that to call Acts “Back-Bench Acts” reduces the importance of legislation that has as much support as any Government legislation in both Houses once it has received Royal Assent?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those observations. First, we are sticking with Fridays because a year ago the House took a view that it wanted Back-Bench business to remain on Fridays. It would not be for the Committee to suggest moving such Bills from Fridays 12 months after the House decided not to go down that route.

As for calling the business Back-Bench Bills as opposed to private Members’ Bills, that is again entirely for the House to decide. These are just recommendations; we are not going to force them on the House or demand that it adopt them. It is entirely for the House to come to a view on the many recommendations in the report, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will put his arguments forcefully at that moment.

May I say what an excellent job the Chairman does of chairing the Procedure Committee? However, given the number of people in the Chamber to hear his eloquent remarks, does he not think that it would be helpful if the Government found sufficient time at the earliest opportunity for the whole report to be debated at some length?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that the Leader of the House is positively chomping at the bit to find time for the report to be debated, because he is a great reformer and is entirely reform-minded. Indeed, I feel that I am presenting these reforms today with his support, which is extremely exciting and very welcome.

Before any chomping starts, does my hon. Friend agree that although most private Members’ Bills are Government sponsored, as he mentioned, that is the choice of the private Member?

My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point, but if private Members felt that they had a genuine chance of getting their own legislation on to the statute book or that the Government would at least give it a proper hearing, we might begin to redress the balance.

I thank the Chairman for giving way and congratulate him on his efforts in keeping the Committee working on this project. Does he agree that it is an opportunity to move the balance of power in the constitution away from the Executive and towards the democratically elected legislature? We should look at the attendance last Thursday—not only was the Chamber full, but the Gallery was too—to see that where there is an opportunity for the will of the House to confront the will of the Executive, people will turn up.

That is very much the flavour of this moment in time. I thank my hon. Friend for making that observation, but if hon. Members are happy that 90% of private Members’ Bills are in fact Government handout Bills, there is a good argument for returning the 13 Fridays back to the Executive, because they seem to have no trouble filling them.

We have come up with a number of recommendations that may or may not find support with the House. The first suggestion relates to how Bills are selected for debate. The current ballot system has much to commend it. Those entering have an equal chance of success and it is not susceptible to manipulation. However, the ballot is totally random and does not discriminate between Members with serious intent to engage with the process of private Members’ legislation and those with a passing interest—such as myself, at times in my past—and a willingness to sign their name in the book because it seems like a good idea at the time, as they are directed towards it in a Division Lobby by the Whips. Therefore, we ask the House to consider a system whereby the responsibility is placed on Members to gather support for their legislative initiatives.

Those Bills with the greatest number of signatures drawn from across the House would take precedence. Members would be allowed to support only one Bill with their signatures—this is very important—so once they had signed their signature away, they could not give it to anyone else, unless they withdrew it from the Bill that they had already said they would support. The process of attracting support would start well before the date of presentation and demonstrate the seriousness of intent behind the Member’s proposed legislation. It is hoped that those participating would cast their net wide in seeking support and, of course, include Ministers and Whitehall at an early stage.

I signed the report and very much support the idea behind it, but does my hon. Friend not agree that that mechanism risks encouraging populism behind Bills, rather than encouraging Bills that are worthy but obscure?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is much to commend the current ballot system, but it is incumbent on the Committee to put a series of proposals before the House so that it can come to its own view, because the House is populated by extremely wise people who have a lot of knowledge and wisdom to impart in this area. It will be for the House to reflect on what it wishes to do.

I have been able to read the Procedure Committee’s report since it was issued this morning, and I greatly welcome it. Were it to be implemented, it would result in a sea change in the attitude of Members on both sides of the House to private Members’ legislation, and their behaviour would change as a consequence. However, achieving such a change in behaviour is not so much about the method of selecting the Bills in the first place as about providing, through timetabling, a process by which decisions can be made. At the moment, any Bill that is even remotely contentious ends up being kicked into touch as a result of the activities of the Whips. This creates a dishonesty that verges on farce, and leads to institutional disingenuity by those in the Whips Office—of all persuasions—and therefore by Government Departments. I also very much welcome the Committee’s proposal for the Government to have to state their attitude to a Bill on First Reading. The Leader of the House suggested in his evidence to the Committee that the Government spent a great deal of time forming a view of such Bills. If that is the case, things have obviously changed since 2010. Also, we must be able to come to conclusions on Bills, whether on a Friday or on any other day.

The right hon. Gentleman has made some useful observations. In preparation for this afternoon’s debate, I wrote a very long, tedious and laborious speech, but I do not think that I shall have time to make it. Instead, I shall demonstrate the clear thinking of the moderately informed by answering each of the points that he has just raised.

First, in my view and the view of most members of the Committee, timetabling is an outstanding idea. We have come up with a number of suggestions to facilitate its introduction, in which either some or all of the private Members’ Bills drawn in the ballot would be timetabled. They would get a vote at the end of the Second Reading debate, and there would be a facility on Report to table a timetable motion that could be debated for 45 minutes and voted on if the House so wished.

The House really needs to give serious consideration to our suggestions on timetabling. It is incumbent on every colleague here to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and others spend more time with their constituents on Fridays. As much as I enjoy listening to my hon. Friend on Fridays, I believe that on occasions his time on those days could be better spent in his constituency, where he would be welcomed with open arms. I know that you will be concerned about my mentioning my hon. Friend in this way, Mr Speaker, but I spoke to him in the Tea Room this morning and he told me, in his rounded Yorkshire vowels, that he thought the report was a load of rubbish and “cobblers”. However, we need to ensure that colleagues have an incentive to turn up on Fridays, whether they are for or against a particular Bill, and that they at least have a chance to make their views heard. If a Bill has a timetable motion, one can then impose time limits on speeches.

I want to refer the hon. Gentleman back to the answer that he gave to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would not be right to reconsider the moving of the debates on private Members’ Bills to the middle of the week because Parliament had already discussed that proposal and rejected it. Perhaps he is crediting Parliament with a little too much consistency. If we were to put that question to the House again, I think that it would attract a huge amount of support. Holding the debates and votes midweek, rather than on Fridays, would give real status to private Members’ Bills. It would also give us a better chance of ensuring that they are not talked out.

Any motions that we table are amendable, and if there is a desire in the House to consider a day other than Friday for such debates, the House may do so. It is not incumbent on the Procedure Committee to tell anyone to behave in a particular way. We have come up with a set of suggestions, and the House is free to accept them, amend them or throw them out as it sees fit.

I may have missed it, but does my hon. Friend’s excellent report deal anywhere with the issue of one single Member shouting out “Object”, effectively killing or pushing into the very long grass a Bill that might have widespread public support? Did my hon. Friend and his colleagues look at that issue; does he have any thoughts on it?

It is to be hoped that our recommendations will ensure that when someone secures a position through the ballot or whatever other system the House chooses, that person will get a chance to put their legislation before the House and let it decide on its merits or otherwise without having it talked out or ruined by a single individual or a small minority. If, however, my hon. Friend has found a deficiency in our report, please point it out to me, the Clerk and others, because we hope to bring these recommendations forward in the not too distant future and we want to make sure that what is put before the House has been properly tested.

I thank my hon. Friend for this very good report, although there are a couple of things in it with which I do not agree. Some of the most controversial legislation has gone through this House as private Members’ Bills, so trying to restrict Second Reading through a timetable for fewer than three hours would, I think, be damaging. I have in mind issues such as the legalisation on homosexuality, abortion and similar issues. A greater move is being made to have one Member present or address one Bill on one day, but I am slightly concerned because I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) saying that when Parliament sits, constituents can expect their MP, if the MP so chooses, to be in Parliament. I think that point should not be dismissed lightly.

As my hon. Friend says, two and three quarter hours—one of the suggestions for timetabling on Second Reading—does not sound a lot, but we have to remind ourselves that most private Members’ Bills, if not all, are fairly straightforward. I appreciate that that is not the case on every occasion, but they are often straightforward and short. Government Bills, which are usually enormously complex and run to hundreds of pages, get six and half hours, which is often truncated by urgent questions and statements. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) says, but that is why we have options in the report. One suggestion is for timetabling to be limited to one Bill on a Friday. Again, it is for her and others to argue for and against the system they favour, which can then be put to the vote.

The report is much to be welcomed. Could we summarise the hon. Gentleman’s and the Committee’s views thus: “Here is a package of proposals to make sure we reach a view and decide on private Members’ Bills in the future, so that they do not get kicked into touch, but we are not against revisiting the time of the week or the week of the month in which such Bills are looked at if the first set of proposals does not achieve the sort of objectives that I hope we would all want”?

The right hon. Gentleman has nailed that with great perspicacity; that is exactly what the report says. As I have now said on about four occasions in this rather long speech, it is for the House to come to a view on our recommendations and to amend them as it sees fit.

I want to make one important point about Third Reading before taking any further interventions. One of the most important parts of our report is the suggestion to remove the vote on Third Reading from the Friday proceedings and put it on a mid-week prime-time slot. That will serve two purposes. First, it will allow the Government to take a view and if they want to kill a Bill, they can stand up at the Dispatch Box and explain why they want to kill it and whip accordingly. It also means that the whole House—or those present, which will be almost the whole House perhaps on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday—can come to a view on that. If it is passed, it will pass with the will and support of the House.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him and his Committee on putting together an excellent report, whose effect would be to empower Parliament and, by extension, voters. I think it is absolutely right that if a motion is to be defeated, it should be defeated as a result of a Division—the collective will of the House, rather than the procedural trickery of one or two people who are particularly good at it. I would like to add my voice to the concerns expressed about Friday sittings, if only on the basis that Friday is fine for people whose constituencies, my own included, are relatively close to Westminster, but exclusive when it comes to people representing seats miles away from London, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for whom giving up a Friday is a very big deal.

My hon. Friend has made a very good point, which has also been made by a few other Members today. I must stress that it will be for the House to reach a view.

It worries me—and this came up in evidence—that a Government, of whatever colour, shape or creation, will occasionally say to a Member who promotes a private Member’s Bill “We are 100% behind your Bill—we think it is a great idea which will go far, and we are all there for you”, while, behind closed doors, geeing up a number of colleagues to run it into the sand and kill it off. I think that that is pretty outrageous and pretty shabby. It is not peculiar to this Government or to previous Governments; it is something that all Governments do. Governments enjoy exercising power. I do not propose to take that power away, and I do not think that my Committee does either. We merely wish to see it exercised openly and honestly, and for that reason I feel that this is a good report.

Some Members have expressed concern about our suggestion that private Members’ Bills should be called Back-Bench Bills in future. I think that “Back Bencher” is a term worthy not of derision but of great pride, and I therefore do not share their concern; but, as I have said, if they cannot live with it, there will be a chance for a decision to be made on the Floor of the House on what we should call what we hope will be an improved, refined and enhanced process.

I thank you for your patience and forbearance, Mr. Speaker.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the publication of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Private Members’ Bills, HC 188.