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Private Members’ Bills

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the Procedure Committee’s second report of this Session on Private Members’ Bills and if he will provide time for that report to be debated.

The Procedure Committee published its report last Tuesday, 18 October. In my evidence to the Committee last Wednesday, 19 October, I said that the Government were considering the report and intended to respond in detail within the normal two-month timeframe. I am happy to confirm that commitment to the House today.

I thank the Leader of the House for his answer. Too often on Fridays, when we have private Members’ Bills, this House bleeds. It bleeds credibility and it bleeds standing. The Government are well aware of that fact. The Procedure Committee has been trying for the past three years to bring its concerns to the attention of the House and to gain Government support for some of our modest recommendations to restore some credibility and some faith in the process.

Our recommendations—the Committee’s recommendations —would not necessarily mean that what happened this past Friday would not happen again, but they would demonstrate to the public that we in this place, Back Benchers, take legislation seriously and we take Back-Bench legislation seriously. The truth is that, without the will on behalf of the Government to change Fridays, we will still have too many days when we leave this place downcast and somewhat ashamed at the proceedings that have gone on before us.

We have a listening and concerned Leader of the House. I hope that he will receive our recommendations in a positive way and accept some small part of them, particularly that part that would allow the Backbench Business Committee to assign up to the first four private Members’ Bill slots to Members. That would encourage serious legislators in this place to invest time and energy, working with one another for a year or more, to come up with a legislative proposition that, if it did not command the support of the House, would at least demand the attention of the House when it was brought before it.

My hon. Friend has provided a succinct summary of some of the key recommendations of his Committee’s report. He has campaigned strongly and honourably for procedural changes to try to enhance the status of Friday debates on private Members’ Bills. I gave him an undertaking in an evidence session with his Committee last week that the Government would look seriously at his Committee’s most recent report. Clearly, we will need both to consider his recommendations and to have collective discussion in the Government before publishing our response, but that we will do.

I thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for his urgent question. I well remember as a new Member coming in here on a Friday when there was a debate on a private Member’s Bill on daylight saving and Members took so long to talk it out that it was dark by the time we left the Chamber.

One of the recommendations is that the Backbench Business Committee should decide which Bills are worthy of going forward. May I ask the Leader of the House whether the Committee will be expanded on a cross-party basis? It currently has two members from the Opposition, five from the Government party and one from the Scottish National party. The smaller parties are not represented at all.

Does it not appear that the Government would be in control of which Bills are picked? Therefore, will the Committee’s terms of reference and the objectives have to change? Will the Leader of the House have to provide extra time for these Bills, or will they eat into other House business that is currently protected such as Opposition days and Backbench Business debates? When the Bills are picked by the Committee, will they become part of days devoted to Backbench Business debates? If the Government say that they support a Bill, rather than talk it out as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), did last Friday, can they not set up a Bill Committee to go through the clauses and amend the measure, just as we do for other legislation? Alternatively, they can come clean and say that they do not support the Bill.

Will the Leader of the House have to look at changing the right of a Member to present a Bill under a ten-minute rule motion and at the procedure for doing so? Finally, he kindly said that he will report back to the House within two months—is that before or after Christmas?

Our intention is to publish the Government’s response within the two-month timeframe that has been long established under the conventions of the House. We will respond in detail to the proposals from the Procedure Committee. I am always willing to look with an open mind at proposals, whether from the hon. Lady or from other hon. Members, for changes to our procedures that command significant and, ideally, cross-party support. I do not intend this to be in any way a rejection of what she said, but sometimes proposals are made that, when examined more closely, turn out to have the support of a minority of Members, who feel strongly, but which do not command widespread support.

To respond to another point that the hon. Lady made, it remains the case, as it always has, that if a promoter of a private Member’s Bill has sufficient support among colleagues in all parts of the House to deal with closure motions or insist on a Second Reading, they can do so. Their ability to do so would reflect a genuine surge of support for their Bill from the House as a whole.

As someone who has probably had the privilege of listening to more Friday debates than any other serving Member, I support the vehemence of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), if not all the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. I hope that the Leader of the House is prepared to allow a fuller debate in which different ideas can be put forward, because we have really got to change the present arrangements.

I am happy to discuss further with my right hon. Friend his particular experience as a former Chairman of Ways and Means. I will consider the request for time to be made available, although I would gently say that time is available in the House for debates that is not within the gift of the Government but within the gift of Back Benchers.

I do not think that we have ever witnessed such a depressing and dispiriting spectacle as the one we saw on Friday. A Government Minister got to his feet to talk out a private Member’s Bill. It was not political knockabout or a party political issue: it was a private Member’s Bill designed sensitively to try to ensure that generations of gay men were pardoned for crimes that no longer exist.

The public could not hold the way in which we conduct business in the House in more contempt. On Friday, they were proved right, and every single fear about the way in which we conduct business was justified. I totally support the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) in his attempt to ensure that we do something about the appalling way in which we deal with private Members’ Bills. It is the one opportunity that we have as Back Benchers to engage in the legislative process and to ensure that we get things on the statute book. We cannot continue to do things as we did on Friday, so I appeal to the Leader of the House to look at the report, treat it seriously and introduce solid plans so that we never, ever get the disgrace of Friday on the Floor of the House again.

I repeat the undertaking that I have given once this afternoon that the Government will indeed consider the report from the Procedure Committee very carefully and publish our response to it. As regards last Friday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), was speaking at 2.30 pm, having spoken for 26 minutes. During that time he took seven interventions, including at least two from the Scottish National party Benches, and refused four SNP requests to give way. I would have hoped that, on reflection after the weekend, the hon. Gentleman and his party would be willing to welcome the fact that the Government’s chosen course of moving an amendment to a Government Bill ensures that the legislative change that the hon. Gentleman and I both want to see will come into effect more swiftly and with many fewer risks that somebody convicted of an offence against a child would receive a pardon than would be the case if we had gone ahead with his hon. Friend’s Bill.

Order. I intend to terminate exchanges on the urgent question 30 minutes after they started. I would like to accommodate all colleagues, but extreme brevity is required. We will be led in this exercise by Mrs Cheryl Gillan.

The Leader of the House and I entered the House at the same time in 1992 and we spent an awful lot of time in this Chamber, often sitting through the night. Friday is a good constituency day for many Members of Parliament. Would the Leader of the House look at the possibility of debating private Members’ Bills on other days of the week or even in the evenings when Members are here?

As my right hon. Friend knows, that subject has been raised many times. The views and interests of Members vary a great deal on the issue that she has addressed to us.

The Chair and members of the Procedure Committee are to be congratulated on putting forward what I believe are, taken together, a set of good proposals that point the way forward. Will the Leader of the House, who has a reputation as being a reasonable man, acknowledge that the current procedures as they now operate bring this House into disrepute? Does he accept that this short report—the main body of it is only 18 pages long—provides a way forward, and will he undertake to look at it quickly and arrive at what we hope will be a favourable decision as quickly as possible?

We will certainly consider the report as quickly as we can, but equally we want to make sure that we have given serious and proper consideration to the various proposals that the Committee has made. It is important that legislation, whether it stems from Government or from a private Member’s Bill, is thoroughly scrutinised in the House of Commons and enjoys a clear majority of support across the House. It would be wrong for legislation that lacked that support or that scrutiny to hit the statute book.

You will remember, Mr Speaker, that, before I was fortunate to be in government, I was a regular attender on Fridays. Who knows, now that I am back on the Back Benches, I may well become so again. From my observations it seems to me that the real problem with Fridays is that many colleagues profess support for measures, but do not consider them important enough to bother appearing here in this House of Commons when it is sitting. That is the problem, and Members have it within their own power to deal with that by turning up here and supporting measures that they feel command the support of the House.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Last Friday a closure motion was moved, but only 57 Members were present to vote in its support.

I am surprised by what sounds like complacency from the Leader of the House. He knows that one of the reasons that Members cannot always be here is constituency obligations. When we know that his own Minister is going to talk out a Bill, that devalues this place. More than 130,000 people signed a petition when my National Health Service Bill was talked out earlier this year, so can he demonstrate greater seriousness and greater urgency in tackling this massive area of reputational damage to this House?

I said that we would consider seriously the proposals from the Committee. The hon. Lady needs to reflect on why her Bill failed to get the support of the majority of MPs.

Does the Leader of the House agree that if people are particularly unhappy about a Bill not getting through on a Friday, they should make the effort to turn up to support it, because if at least 100 people turn up to support the first Bill that is taken, it will go through despite any opposition or attempt to block it? Does he agree that it is not too much to expect any Bill that goes through this House to have the support of 100 MPs?

I do not always agree with my hon. Friend, but on this occasion he makes a very reasonable point.

The thing is that tens of thousands of people were watching the debate last Friday as though it really were a matter of life and death for them, because it was about their own sense of shame, how society had treated them, and whether they would have a possibility of real exoneration. For all the fine words that we hear about 100 Members and all the rest of it, the truth is that last Friday brought the House into disrepute. I have no beef with the Minister; the problem is that the system encourages Ministers to do that week after week. The system is bust and it needs mending.

I repeat that as a result of the course that the Government have chosen, Turing’s law will now be enacted within weeks as part of a Government Bill, together with safeguards to ensure that anyone who is not supposed to receive a disregard or pardon will not be able to secure it by subterfuge.

I fully support my hon. Friend the Chair of the Procedure Committee. Will the Leader of the House respond to the question he has been asked as to whether he accepts that the existing arrangements bring this House into disrepute? I believe that they do.

We will respond in full to the Committee’s report. Over the years, many criticisms of the private Members’ Bill procedure have been made from different quarters. I will take seriously the proposals the Committee has made. However, we also need to ensure that under our procedures, legislation does not reach the statute book, perhaps even creating criminal offences affecting our constituents, unless there is clear demonstrable support within Parliament among a majority of Members for it to be enacted.

Does the Leader of the House understand that the people watching the unedifying carryings-on in this place when private Members’ Bills, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), are talked out, feel appalled and completely disfranchised? Does he truly think that his Government are acting in good faith in letting this situation continue any longer?

As I said, no complaints were made last Friday about filibustering. The Minister took a very large number of interventions during the course of his remarks, as is his normal courteous practice when speaking from the Dispatch Box. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), the promoter of the Bill debated last Friday, was told by the Government about a month ahead of the Second Reading debate that they would not be able to support it as he had at that time envisaged it.

May I urge my right hon. Friend, when he schedules the debate on the Procedure Committee’s report, to provide sufficient time to allow a full discussion of all the aspects of the private Members’ Bill procedure, because part of the problem seems to be that not every Member of this House fully understands what the procedure is?

It is a good bit of advice to all Members of the House, recently arrived or more senior, to be thoroughly cognisant of its procedures and to do additional homework from time to time.

As this weekend, yet again, we are plunged needlessly into winter darkness, what happened to the Daylight Saving Bill is a very good example of the Leader of the House being wrong when he says that if a Bill has overwhelming support it can proceed. That Bill did proceed, but the Government killed it by not implementing its provisions. Will he fully accept the recommendations of the Committee in order to restore public confidence and the reputation of this House?

That is obviously a matter for other Ministers, and I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks to their attention. However, there was, I recall, very strong opposition in certain parts of the United Kingdom, particularly from Scotland and Northern Ireland, to the daylight saving measure that he supported.

I voted for the closure motion on Friday. The problem was that there were not enough Members here; that is the reason the Bill did not proceed. However, there are occasions when a Bill does get to Committee and can pass this House on Second Reading but is blocked by the lack of provision of a money resolution. That needs reforming. We need to debate this as soon as possible, because there are areas that do need reform.

The issue of money resolutions was mentioned in the Procedure Committee’s report, so the Government will respond on it in due course.

Instead of listening, it seems that the Leader of the House is hiding behind excuses about the closure motion not being supported, complacency about filibustering, and the fact that the Minister spoke for 26 minutes. The Minister treated this place, and the viewing public, with contempt. Will the Leader of the House commit to his Government not treating this place with contempt?

I completely reject the aspersions that the hon. Gentleman casts on the Minister, who handled last Friday’s business in a thoroughly reasonable and courteous fashion. The hon. Gentleman might ask himself why, if he and his colleagues genuinely wanted the Bill to reach the statute book, it was published only a couple of days before the Second Reading debate.

As a veteran of sitting through talk-outs and the sleep-out, I have seen all sides of the private Members’ Bill process. Does the Leader of the House agree that while there may be merit in the Backbench Business Committee being able to schedule Bills that have widespread support, it must still remain difficult to get it debated, and the key reform is that people should show up to debates?

Is not the real reason there is a bankruptcy of confidence in the private Members’ Bill system that the Government can always kill a Bill by using methods that are sometimes hidden and sometimes open? We need a shaft of sunlight on this system so that we can restore some confidence. Let us have a debate on it.

The convention for many years, under successive Governments, has been that the Government make their view on private Members’ Bills plain during the course of a Second Reading debate. I return to the point that a private Member’s Bill that enjoys genuine majority support within the House has a decent chance of success.

This Friday, I will have the opportunity to present my Bill, which has all-party support and has been properly scrutinised before getting to this place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should not have a lottery to get serious legislation on to the statute book, but require the case to be argued before a Committee before we get to that stage?

In the light of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, I would be genuinely interested in whether my hon. Friend’s suggestion represents the view of the House as a whole, or whether more Members feel that they might lose out through the abolition of the lottery, which very many Back-Bench Members in all parts of the House prize as a great annual occasion.

When I was briefly Deputy Leader of the House, I had responsibility for private Members’ Bills. I found that, in practice, it was not Ministers in other Departments who were opposed to them, but officials in the Cabinet Office who did not want to devote the time to the briefings. The right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to be a reforming Leader of the House and to improve on the performance of his recent successors—will he take it?

We shall consider all the recommendations of the Committee and respond within the timescale that the House usually expects.

As I am someone who, in the previous Parliament, had the privilege of bringing a private Member’s Bill through this place, I hope that the Leader of the House will give serious consideration to reforms to the system. When I listened to coverage of the day’s proceedings on Friday night, my toes curled with embarrassment at the shabby treatment of the Turing Bill.

As someone who has also managed to get a private Member’s Bill on to the statute book, I understand my hon. Friend’s sense of pride. I reiterate that the Government, and the Minister in particular, have nothing to apologise for in the way that Friday’s business was handled. The fact that we now have an amendment tabled in the name of a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords means, most assuredly, that the Turing Bill will be on the statute book much more quickly than if we had resorted to the private Members’ Bill route.

In too many places the Standing Orders of this House give power to the Government at the expense of Parliament. Will the Leader of the House admit that he will not make changes to the private Members’ Bill process because he does not want the Government to cede any power?

I point out to the hon. Lady that, through such measures as the creation of the Backbench Business Committee and the provision for the direct election of Select Committee Chairs, we now have a Parliament—a legislature—that is more powerful, less deferential and more outspoken than at any time during my 24 years of service.

Will the Leader of the House remind the Procedure Committee that there are, in fact, 52 Fridays in any year; that Members can attend all 13 private Members’ Bill Fridays and still have 39 constituency Fridays; and that, given that they involve creating laws of the land and that there are 650 Members, asking 100 Members to turn up to support any Bill really is not too much to ask?

A constituent wrote to me after last Friday’s filibustering to say, “How on earth can this happen in this day and age?” If the Leader of the House responds positively to the report, will that not at least do something to improve the reputation of this House?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was one of the 57 who voted in favour of the closure motion, or whether he was elsewhere at the time. Anyone who read the Minister’s speech on Friday in Hansard, or his subsequent article in PinkNews, will understand and sympathise with the arguments that he posed and will welcome the Government’s proposed legislation to give effect to the Turing Bill.

Is it not the case that the Government accepted the Sharkey amendment simply because my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) won a raffle? Does he agree that the Procedure Committee’s report brings us closer to the Scottish Parliament system, whereby a Bill that can demonstrate genuine cross-party support can continue to progress through the legislative process, or does he think that that is not the best way to proceed?

The reason we are introducing this legislation is that it was a Conservative manifesto commitment.

SNP Members regard Friday as an extremely important opportunity to work in our constituencies. It is, therefore, not only frustrating for us, but incredibly disrespectful to our constituents, when private Members’ Bills are talked out. Will the Government look seriously at the report’s recommendations, in particular those that tackle the issue of filibustering?

No complaint was made about filibustering during the debate on Friday. Members on both sides of the House took part, and my hon. Friend the Minister spoke for a perfectly reasonable length of time and took seven different interventions during the course of his speech. The hon. Lady ought to reflect on that and welcome what the Government have done, which is provide a better, surer course of action than that proposed by her party.

May I correct the Leader of the House? In my speech I explicitly said that if the Bill was deliberately talked out by the Government, what should have been one of the brightest days in this Parliament’s history would become one of its darkest. May I therefore invite him to withdraw the suggestion that no complaints were made during the debate? Will the Leader of the House also confirm that several of the interventions that the Minister took were specifically from Back Benchers pleading with him to sit down, stop filibustering and give the democratic, elected Chamber the chance to make a decision?

Given that the Leader of the House is convinced that if a Member cannot get 100 Members in here to support a Bill, it does not deserve to go through, will he tell us how many Members were in this Chamber last night when the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill was given its Second Reading?

Order. That last point has absolutely nothing to do with the Procedure Committee report. I am sure that the coming off of the topic was entirely inadvertent on the part of the hon. Gentleman, and it therefore requires no reply.

We will respond to the report in due course. The problem with the Bill that was debated last Friday is that it was flawed, in that it would have made it possible for people who are living today to receive a blanket pardon, even if they have been properly convicted of offences against minors or offences involving non-consensual sex. That is why the Government consistently took the view that the disregard procedure needed to be followed, and why we have taken swift action to provide for such a scheme though proposed Government legislation to give effect to the Turing Bill.