Private Members’ Bills: “almost – not entirely – pointless”

Isabel Hardman, Assistant Editor of The Spectator, described Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) in these terms when giving evidence earlier in the month to the Commons Procedure Committee’s enquiry into the how PMBs are managed in Parliament. The Committee chair seemed broadly to agree with her assessment, noting that “the system is so corrupt now and such a sham that it is a sort of cruel fiction perpetrated on our constituents.” He was, however, at pains to emphasise that the Committee believes that there is room for reform of the present process.

The Chair added that about 98 percent of those PMBs that become law are actually Government handout Bills: ie while not formally part of the Government’s legislative programme, they receive full Departmental support and the necessary Parliamentary time to ensure they reach the statute book. Such Bills might be thought of as PMBs in name only.

Two current PMBs illustrate the problem well. Mike Wood MP is the sponsoring member for The Riot Compensation Bill. It is listed as a PMB but it is in reality a Government handout Bill which represents the Home Office’s preferred statutory reform to arrangements by which police authorities provide compensation to property owners following a riot. The Bill has received adequate time in the Commons and it was unamended at its Committee stage on 14 January and will be reported to the House on 5 February. It is clear it is going to become law.

In contrast, the Negligence and Damages Bill sponsored by Andy McDonald MP is one of the 2 per cent minority, ie a conventional PMB. It is listed for second reading today (22 January) but appearing as the ninth PMB on the order paper it stands no chance of being debated, never mind proceeding any further. While that outcome might be welcomed by some – given that the Bill seeks to relax certain tests for liability in tort for psychiatric injuries and to reform the law on fatal accident compensation – the difference in the way these two Bills are being handled is particularly noticeable. [At an earlier stage, on 4 December, the Riot Compensation Bill passed its second reading but the Negligence and Damages Bill, seventh on the order paper that same day, unsurprisingly failed to secure a debate about its substance.]

The Committee will take further evidence on the limitations of the PMB procedure until 19 February.  Its terms of reference draw it right into (a) the tensions between those MPs who might wish to talk out a PMB and those who support it and (b) into how the Government might handle PMBs that have the support of the House but are at odds with its own programme? So this is going to be a controversial enquiry, but its recommendations could have the potential to shake up radically the process by which backbenchers seek to initiate legislative change.

About the Author

akAlistair Kinley is BLM’s Director of Policy & Government Affairs.

Alistair is responsible for BLM’s engagement with government departments and regulators on policy and public affairs issues and consultations affecting the firm and its customers. He coordinated BLM’s market-facing activities in connection with the Insurance Act 2015 and the consultations which preceded its publication and introduction in Parliament.

He is a member of the Civil Justice Council (CJC), a regular speaker and experienced commentator on legal and procedural reforms and was a contributing editor to the Law Society’s Litigation Funding Handbook (September 2014).

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