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Reform of Standing Orders

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 21 April 2016

The Government have implemented significant change to Standing Orders since the beginning of this Session. On 22 October 2015, the House voted to approve new Standing Orders to implement English votes for English laws, delivering on a key Government commitment by giving England and Wales more control over decisions by which they alone are affected. Standing Orders undergo frequent revision. The Procedure Committee, the Clerks and the Government monitor their use to ensure that they reflect how business in the House is conducted in practice.

The Procedure Committee, on which I sit, published a report this week on private Members’ Bills, calling for amendment to the Standing Orders because the present procedure has been brought into total disrepute due to the frequency with which Bills are talked out. Does the Leader of the House agree that the procedure is in total disrepute, or does he think that filibustering is democratic?

In this case, he is a she. We debated this last week in Westminster Hall, as the hon. Lady will be aware, as she participated in the debate. It would be remiss of me to answer before the Government published their response to the Procedure Committee’s report. We will publish our response in due course.

The Deputy Leader of the House referred to English votes for English laws. It is clear that we will not make the Government see sense on the fundamental wrongness of that measure. The Government will not budge on what they want to achieve, but does the Minister not appreciate that the way this is being done is unworkable? It has managed to make this House’s procedures even more intractable. They made a significant change to the constitution of the House on a Wednesday afternoon as if it were a minor change to the spelling in the Standing Orders. Will she tell us when the issue of the Standing Orders will be brought back before the House, so that at least if the Government are going to do the wrong thing, they do it right?

The Government implemented their manifesto commitment, which referred to the Standing Orders of the House, in this process. I think the procedures are perfectly workable, and I pay tribute to the Clerks and the Speaker for applying them appropriately.

My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House referred to the excellent report on private Members’ Bills by the Procedure Committee, on which I sit. When will the Government bring forward a response, and when can Members have a debate and take a decision on reforming private Members’ Bills?

My hon. Friend should be aware that it is usual for the Government to respond within two months of a report being published, and we intend to stick to that timetable.

I wonder whether the Government will, in retrospect, look at private Members’ Bills in a dispassionate way. In 1987, the late Enoch Powell wanted to introduce a Bill—and nearly got it through—to ban all stem cell research. I discovered on the morning that I could move the writ for Brecon and Radnor, and I spoke for nearly the whole day. Every time I hear on the BBC about stem cell research saving people’s lives, I know that that filibuster was not a bad thing at all.

The hon. Gentleman talks about filibusters, but I am sure that if he really had been filibustering, the Speaker of the day would have brought him to order. He nevertheless found a way at that time to use a device so that business that he felt was inappropriate did not make its way through the House.

Pete Wishart. No? I thought the hon. Gentleman wished to intercede on this matter, but apparently not. No doubt we will hear him speak with force and eloquence at the appropriate time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made clear this week, we welcome and support the Procedure Committee’s recommendations for changes to the private Members’ Bills procedures. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has said, the majority of Members of this House, as well as interested members of the public, will be disappointed to hear that the Government have not yet committed to providing time to debate these proposals, because Bills on far too many issues that people care about, such as hospital parking charges for carers or cheaper cancer drugs, have been talked out by the filibusterers. Will the Government follow the Procedure Committee recommendations and allow us to debate this matter on the Floor of the House?

As I have just said, the Government will respond in due course, within the expected time. I argued in the debate last week that private Members’ Bills can provide an important means of raising issues. They used to be the only way a Back Bencher could get a debate on any particular matter. We now have many more ways to raise these issues. Important pieces of legislation have both gone through this House as private Members’ Bills, and have, as private Members’ Bills, been stopped in highly appropriate ways that are allowed by the procedures of the House.