Private Members’ Bills: “present procedures are misleading to the general public”

Oh how times have changed. Half a century ago, legislative change initiated by Private Members’ Bills had a profound impact across British society, such as, for example: the Abortion Act 1967, the Sexual Offences Act 1967, the Adoption Act 1964 and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Today paints a very different picture.

In mid-June 2016 the Government issued a lukewarm response to the House of Commons Procedure Committee’s report on problems with the present procedures for Private Members’ Bills. Committee Chair, Charles Walker MP, described the Government response as deeply disappointing, adding that “It utterly fails to engage with the main message of the Procedure Committee’s report on Private Members’ Bills: namely that present procedures are misleading to the general public and are too easily gamed to prevent genuine legislative proposals from proceeding.”

It seems clear that the Procedure Committee was hoping for a much more supportive response from the Government to help tackle two fundamental problems it had identified with the present process, being: (a) a lack of transparency over the procedures and their use for political campaigning as opposed to genuine legislative change and (b) the use of delaying tactics to frustrate genuine debate and decision on measures.

The Committee argued that the existing procedures associated with PMBs, with arcane rules and game-playing tactics (such as filibustering or talking out particular proposals), brought the House into disrepute and were ripe for change. Mr Walker reflected that the Committee’s report “was well thought out and offered measured and proportionate solutions to issues which cause enormous reputational damage to the House and to the legislative process.” He regretted that “The Government has itself consistently failed to offer any constructive proposals to address a process which is manifestly failing. The purpose of private Members’ bills is to serve the interest of the backbench Member of Parliament, not the Government Whips’ Office.”

In its recent response, the Government acknowledged that it is an important principle that PMBs, like all other legislation introduced before the House, should command sufficient support amongst MPs if they are to become law. The Government took the view that many of the problems identified by the Committee emanate from a lack of explicit Parliamentary support for the subject matter of individual PMBs [as opposed to the tactical manoeuvring identified by the Committee and allowed for under current procedures].

The Government rejected the proposal that the number of PMBs given priority for debate via a ballot system should be reduced from 20 to 14. In addition, the Government believes there is insubstantial evidence that the majority of MPs would endorse a supplementary ballot system to prioritise up to four PMBs, although the Government conceded that the Backbench Business Committee might wish to allocate time for a general debate in the House to consider that recommendation further. Whether that is realistically likely – given the real pressures on Parliamentary scheduling at the present time and in the future – is far from clear.

Change is never guaranteed or indeed welcomed in Parliament and the way other modernising recommendations have fallen at the first hurdle does not create an air of optimism here. So it would appear that another opportunity for reform of previously valuable legislative procedures – which have facilitated debate on issues of wider public interest than, say, Government programmes – may have been lost for the time being.

About the Author

Jef Mitchell is a consultant at BLM and former Chief Claims Officer at the Ministry of Defence where he regularly briefed Ministers on claims issues and risk management. He now helps to lead the firm’s Policy and Government Affairs work with Alistair Kinley preparing submissions and supporting evidence for consultations and reform proposals, in addition to liaising with government departments and regulators on key issues and consultations affecting the firm and its clients. Jef is also an accredited mediator.

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