The Committee took evidence from a wide range of witnesses, including Members of Parliament, senior staff in the House of Commons, and interest groups outside the House. It found that the procedures for conceiving and scrutinising private Members’ bills are confusing, misleading and opaque, and make it too easy for a small number of Members to prevent a bill from progressing without giving the House as a whole the chance to come to a decision on it.
Chair of the Committee
Commenting on the report, Committee Chair Charles Walker MP said,
“The initiation, scrutiny and passage of private Members’ bills goes to the heart of the function of the House of Commons as a legislative assembly. The ability of any Member to bring forward a legislative proposition, and to have it debated, is the clearest indication that so far as legislation is concerned the House is not a mere sausage machine, churning out endless bills introduced, timetabled, amended and whipped through by the Executive.
"Yet over a period of many years the House and its members have allowed this important aspect of its procedures to be devalued and degraded. The weight of evidence which we have received demonstrates a clear desire across the House for change.”
Several recommendations are put forward in the report, the aims of which are to increase transparency and make the processes more amenable to debate and scrutiny and—if Parliament wills it—changes to legislation. Perhaps the most important of these is the introduction of timetabling, or programming, for private Members’ bills.
The current system allows a small number of opponents to filibuster and so prevent a bill from being voted on. This can be done even when a bill has overwhelming support. Filibustering also has the effect of preventing proper scrutiny, by discouraging supporters from speaking at all. To solve this, the Committee proposes two options for the introduction of programming and invites the House to vote on them.
Another recommendation concerns the way that private Members’ bills are chosen. This is currently done by ballot, but the Committee recommends that the House should decide whether it wants to retain the current system or change to a new one, in which backbenchers would garner support for their bills by collecting signatories.
Those bills with the most signatures would be offered to the House for a vote in “prime time”, on a Tuesday or Wednesday. If successful, they would then be subject to detailed debate and scrutiny on private Members’ Fridays.
A vote earlier in the Parliamentary week could also be offered at third reading, to give the whole House the opportunity to approve or reject a private Member’s bill once detailed scrutiny is complete.
The Committee also recommends that the Government should make clear its position on each bill. This would greatly enhance transparency, not least by making clear which bills are genuine backbench proposals and which are “handout” bills—draft legislation put forward by the Government but sponsored by backbenchers as private Members’ bills.
Other recommendations to improve the transparency and comprehensibility of the system include the introduction of an opportunity for the pre-legislative scrutiny of private Members’ bills; reform of the listing of such bills on the Order Paper; the abolition of the vote for the House to sit in private on a private Members’ Friday; and replacement of the term “private Members’ bills” by “backbench bills”.
Committee Chair Charles Walker said,
“As one of our witnesses reminded us, not every happy thought which occurs to a Member of Parliament deserves to reach the statute book. But those Members who bring up a substantive legislative proposition for debate and scrutiny deserve to have their bill properly considered and put to a decision by the House.
"The reforms of the private Members’ bill process put forward in this report are not intended to make it easier for a private Member’s bill to become law. What they are intended to do is to ensure that serious legislative propositions are treated seriously.
"The private Members’ bill procedures are important to the House in both practical and symbolic terms. They help to demonstrate that it is an independent legislature. It is time to ensure that they are enabled to do just that.”
Image: Parliamentary Copyright