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House of Lords Podcast: private members' bills

7 July 2022

Did you know that it’s not just the government that can propose new laws in Parliament?

This month we are looking at how members campaign for change via private members’ bills. These are bills that can be introduced by any member of the House of Lords, who is not a government minister, to change the law.

Amy and Matt speak to Lord Farmer, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and Lord Wills about their bills, covering subjects from child benefit to preventing suicide to creating an advocate for the victims of major incidents. They each explain what they are trying to achieve with their proposed law, and why they have put them forward.

We also speak to Alasdair in the House of Lords Legislation Office and Ed in the Lords Library about the process for putting forward a bill, why they tend to be shorter than government bills, and how they can be about more than getting on the statute books.

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Transcript

Matt:
Hello and welcome to the House of Lords Podcast

Amy:

This month we are exploring private members’ bills. We’ll hear about how they are put forward, and hear from members about why they are tabling a bill in this session of Parliament.

Matt:

Hello and welcome to our July episode. As Amy said, we’re looking at Private Members’ Bills this month. These are bills that are put forward by an individual member of the Lords – or the Commons - rather than a member of the government.

Amy:

First up we’re speaking to Alasdair who works in the House of Lords legislation office. Then we’ll hear from some members who are putting forward their own bills this session on topics from child benefit to preventing suicide and an advocate for the victims of major incidents.

Matt:

Here’s Alasdair to explain how private members’ bills work and his role in the legislation office.

Alasdair:

Hi, I'm Alasdair, I've worked in the House of Lords for about four years now, during which I've worked in a range of roles. So, I've worked first of all on the Bribery Act 2010 Select Committee, secondly, as national Parliament representative to the European Union, as a clerk to the Communications and Digital Select Committee, and then currently as a clerk in the legislation office.

Amy:

Alasdair, welcome to the podcast. First up, could you tell us a bit more about what your role is in the legislation office?

Alasdair:

Absolutely, and thank you so much for having me on. In a sentence, I say my role is supporting the House's function as a legislative chamber, and I'll illustrate this using a popular legend where during a tour of NASA Headquarters in 1961, John F Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors, and supposedly Kennedy asked him, 'Why are you working so late?' And the janitor said, 'Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon.'

So, the legislation office is like the janitor in that we're both fulfilling our individual parts of the overall corporate objective to scrutinise and pass legislation. So, to break this down a little bit, I prepare and advise on procedural briefs for the Deputy Speaker who oversees bill proceedings in the chamber or grand committee. I work on amendments to bills. And so, a member comes in to legislation office and says, 'I'd like to amend this bill to do this particular thing,' and then I work with them to come up with a form of words, and the placement in the bill.

I also work on the messages between the Houses. So, every time a House does their stages of a particular bill, it goes to the other House and it comes back again and there might be further amendments, and it goes into ping pong, and that can result in quite intensive messages going between the Houses, so I oversee that process. And the reason I'm here today: private members' bills. I help to draft and advise on private members' bills, including managing the process leading up to and delivering the ballot, which is how private members' bills are chosen at the start of the session.

Amy:

And as you said, you are responsible for the process around private members' bills. So how does a member put forward a bill?

Alasdair:

Yeah, so there are three ways. First of all, just mentioned, there's the ballot. So, in order to enter this, a member must submit a short and a long title. So a short title would be something like the Energy Bill, and then the long title would be a longer explanation of what this does, so 'a bill to make provision for X, Y, and Z' and we tend to have just over 100 entries for this each session.

Second, members can present bills after all the ballot bills have been published. So after they've all been published, a member will come in and they'll say, 'I'd like to introduce this particular bill,' then I'd help them draft that. And then we provide a brief for that member to present the bill in the chamber. And they can do this, although we have a queue, but they can roughly do this at any point in the session after all the ballot bills have been published.

And then finally, there's private members' bills that come over from the House of Commons, and these are taken up by a particular peer who may have a particular interest in the topic that's come over.

Amy:

So in terms of the ballot, then, is it literally a case of whichever members want to put forward a bill will sort of put their name in the hat and then however many we have are drawn out?

Alasdair:

Yes, exactly. It's a red box rather than a hat. At the start each session, the ballot's conducted, and this determines the order that the top 25 bills are drawn in. So there'll be the red box, it'll have, say, 100 or so entries in it, little pieces of paper, and then I will draw out each of these. And that will determine the top 25. And the first of these ballots took place in the 2015 to 2016 session. Before this, the ballot didn't exist. It was just a presentation process where a member would stand up and present.

And this year I did this in front of around 1000 school children who were studying politics. So it was slightly nerve-wracking being in front of... And I couldn't see any of them as well, so I have no idea what their reaction was. They might have been bored stiff watching me draw one bill after bill. Hopefully it was a good engagement session for them and it was a really good opportunity to communicate the work of the public bill office to people outside it, and it was a good opportunity for inclusion as well.

And then after the ballot has taken place, private members' bills are introduced at a rate of two per day, starting the week after the ballot until the top 25 has been introduced. And then after this, private members' bills are just introduced in the normal way on a first come, first serve basis.

Matt:

Are private members' bills managed in the same way in both Houses? How does that work?

Alasdair:

So I would preface this by saying I'm not an authority on Commons bill procedure, so if you want actual authoritative advice, I'm not the person to go to.

Matt:

Very clerk-y answer!

Alasdair:

Yes, thank you. Please go to my Commons counterpart! But nonetheless, I've got enough understanding to answer this question. So I'd, first of all, say that the main difference is political rather than procedural. There's not that many procedural differences, although I will start and outline a few, and then I'll talk about the political differences.

So in the commons, there's 13 sitting Fridays in each session when private members' bills can be debated, and these days are agreed in the form of a motion tabled by the government at the start of each session. Whereas in the Lords, there's no particular constraints, and it's basically at the discretion of the government when any private members' bills are debated.

Second, MPs also have a ballot and can present them in a similar way as it's done in the Lords, but they also have 10-minute rule bills where an MP gets a chance to speak for 10 minutes about a bill they'd like to introduce.

And the form of the ballots differ. So in the Commons, members don't actually need a bill or even a title as we do to enter the ballot. So this means that the Commons get about 500 entries and 20 are drawn out by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Deputy Speaker, in the Commons. There's a ceremony involving the Clerk Assistant who's the second most senior official in the House of Commons who wears white gloves, and there's a glass bowl with numbered balls. So there's much more extravagance to it than me and my simple red box that we have in the Lords. They even broadcast the spectacle in the Commons, so even more pressure on the poor clerk drawing them out.

And then in the Commons, until the pandemic, MPs used to queue in person to give notice after ballot bills had been introduced, which led to some particularly enthusiastic members camping out overnight to be first. This isn't the case anymore, but they now take notice by email on a first come, first served basis, which, if you ask me, is more boring than the previous system.

And then the political differences between private members' bills in the Commons and the Lords. Private members' bills in the Commons tend to be handout bills from the government. So because they don't have to enter a title or the contents of a bill, it will literally just be a run of names. This gives the government the opportunity to approach supportive members and give them a bill to use their slot for.

Generally because the government has a majority in the House of Commons, private members' bills, when introduced in the Commons, basically won't progress without government support. So therefore, if a private members' bill gets through the Commons, there's a pretty good chance that it'll end up getting royal assent. Last session, I think it was 13 Commons starting private members' bills became law.

However, it's a bit of a different story in the Lords. Our process is different and, because the government doesn't have a majority in the Lords, handout bills don't really exist in the Lords. This also means that far fewer Lords private members' bills end up becoming law. So I think since 1983, 58 Lords private members' bills become law.

And also interestingly, the number of Lords private members' bills that have gained royal assent, so have become law, has declined over time. So now on average there's maybe one or two every five years since about 2001. Whereas before this, there was consistently at least one private members' bill in the Lords that gained royal assent, often more. For example, in 1996 to 97, there were seven Lords starting private members' bills that became law.

Matt:

Alasdair, you mentioned earlier about drafting private members' bills, and I imagine that some come fully formed. Would that be the sense and you are sort of drafting the others? I suppose my question here is, it's quite clear that private members' bills are often quite short? Who decides?

Alasdair:

Yes. Well ultimately, it's the member who decides, and you're right that we have quite a big variety of length of bills. So we've had a couple of whoppers this session where there was Lord Bird’s Future Generations Bill and Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb's Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill. So these are big bills that have a very large scope and aim to do a large variety of things. Whereas on the other hand, you might get something that just has a very particular purpose. Trying to think of some, I think there was one to do with-

Matt:

Lord Farmer's got his one about child benefit.

Alasdair:

Yeah, exactly.

Matt:

One operational clause.

Alasdair:

Exactly. Yes. On the other end of the spectrum, you'll have something with one operational clause. So I can't remember how many the other two that I just mentioned have, but it's probably 30 or possibly even more clauses. I'd say there're generally incentives for members to try and keep the bills short. First of all, they're possibly more likely to be accepted by the government, although as just outlined, this is a pretty long shot anyway.

Second of all, members have limited drafting resources compared to the government. The government has the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, and they have a department and potentially multiple bill teams in a department or multiple departments. So the government just has the resources to draft long, complex bills. Whereas if it's a member, as you suggested earlier, it might literally just be me drafting it, and this is one of many competing priorities. So yeah, there's a big difference there in terms of resources.

Thirds, they might just want to raise the profile of a specific issue because Lords starting private members' bills receive royal ascent so rarely that's probably not the main purpose behind them. The main purpose is really to try and raise the profile of an issue. This is particularly the case if a bill's been successful in the ballot and it's got a pretty good chance of getting a second reading. And second reading is where the general debate of the bill takes place. so that's a particularly good opportunity to raise the profile of an issue. A good example of a recent one that has gained lots of attention would be the Assisted Dying Bill, Baroness Meacher, which received quite a lot of press coverage and things whenever it gets a second reading.

Fourthly, it's good because it places less demands on the legislative timetable. And therefore, if a private members' bill gets amendments, this can place pressure because it requires time to actually debate those amendments. So if you've got a short bill, it's possibly less likely to draw amendments and therefore it's possibly more likely to get through the House at a faster pace.

Matt:

Fantastic advice, Alasdair, hoping some of our members are listening to take onboard. Alasdair, you mentioned there about the benefits of private members' bills and profile raising. Are there any examples of where perhaps a private members' bills influenced the government and their proposals have come back in a government bill?

Alasdair:

Yes, absolutely. And generally it can be quite hard to track the influence because it's hard to connect cause A with effect B, but there are certain circumstances, primarily when the government introduces a bill later on that is related to the private members' bill. And in those instances, it's much easier to attract cause A to effect B.

So two examples would be Lord Storey's private members' bill, which he introduced a few years ago, which has made its way into legislation, which would outlaw essay farms. Another more recent one was Lord Cashman's private members' bill, which made its way into the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would provide posthumous pardons to those convicted of historic homosexual crimes.

Matt:

Alasdair, thank you for joining us today on the podcast.

Alasdair:

It's my pleasure. Thank you all for having me. I've had a really good time and enjoyed talking about private members' bills.

Amy:

Next up we’re looking at children and families. On the day of release of this episode, this bill is having its main debate in the Lords as well. Here is Matt speaking to Lord Farmer, a conservative member, about his bill to vary child benefit.

­­­­­ Lord Farmer:

I'm Lord Farmer, Michael Farmer, Conservative backbencher in the House of Lords. I'm introducing my private members' bill, which is entitled, 'Front-loading Child Benefit in the early years to facilitate greater child care choice.' - that's the long and intentional title.

Matt:

Lord Farmer, thank you for joining us on the podcast. We're here to talk about your private members' bill, the Front-loaded Child Benefit bill, which has received first reading ahead of a more formal debate at second reading. Could you tell us a bit about it please?

Lord Farmer:

Yes. Well, I guess the first question should be, really, why is it necessary? The Front-loaded Child Benefit bill is deliberately simple and merely provides the legislative lever around which the government of the day can build detailed policy. The rationale behind it is to increase choice for parents in how they look after their children in the early years, when many want to care for their child themselves, they face often considerable and increasingly insurmountable sacrifice of income to do that. So a new baby also costs a lot of money in terms of food, clothing, extra housing, childcare for those who want or have to return to work. So front-loading child benefit would help reduce these expenses. Currently the law only permits the same flat rate of child benefits throughout childhood, which does not fit financial realities of many families. Its relative simplicity still has significant administrative advantages.

However, it's an iconic benefit. It was first introduced more than three quarters of a century ago. And in similarly hard-pushed times for the national and family finances, it now needs further reform. It has changed very little despite massive shifts in parents' working patterns, especially mothers, both parents typically work through necessity, if not choice. And the quantum leaps we've made in digital delivery of state support mean this benefit can and should be delivered in a more sophisticated way. This bill actually does not carry specific fiscal costs, but simply provides an enabling lever for government. In the long run it is cost neutral because, over their first 18 years, a child would receive the same total amount of child benefit as they would through a flat rate.

Matt:

And what would be the implications for this?

Lord Farmer:

There would however, be a cash flow implication, an initial budget shock you might say, during a transitional phase-in stage of this reform, when new cohorts of children receive the higher payment and there are no compensating savings elsewhere, although it also answers the constant policy challenge of how to help parents with high childcare costs, costing the policy would be complicated by the need to take into account inflation and future up-raising.

But underlining this, this bill does not tie the government's hands in any policy decision, such as by what amount child benefit varies or after how many years, it's simply a lever. It's an optional lever for the government to have. I mean, the government might want to make eligibility for higher rates of child benefit in the early years, conditional. In other words, attending perhaps parenting education classes, or it could be a clear, measurable objective criteria such as school attendance records of previous children, or even officially-recorded indicators of neglect.

Matt:

Thank you, Lord Farmer, for that introduction to your bill, what's quite striking in listening to you set out what your bill seeks to achieve, is that when you look at the actual bill itself, it's one substantive clause. Did you deliberately set it up to as simple as that, could it have been a longer bill? Did you deliberately set it to be one substantial clause?

Lord Farmer:

Well I think in the House of Lords, one learns what is workable and what isn't with the government. One as a private members' bill, it's important to actually work with the grain of government, work with the grain of politics today and the old expression, 'keep it simple stupid' is actually a good piece of advice here. We are giving the government a lever, which it doesn't have at the moment. The child benefit bill is a flat rate, which has been in place since, as I said 1977 when it was established. So it needs an upgrading here. We're giving the government a lever for them to use. The government of a day of either party, they can choose whether to load it up front and on what conditionality. So it's simple in order to hopefully make it pass for the government to accept it, et cetera. I mean problems with legislative time and ministers' time, these need to be addressed when one's working on a private members' bill.

Matt:

It's really interesting to hear about you take an issue and you craft a bill to try and navigate the choppy waters of Parliament, if I can put it that way.

Lord Farmer:

Well, that's right.

Matt:

What you mentioned the government there. Do you anticipate a favorable response from a government? What's your sense at the moment?

Lord Farmer:

This is actually a treasury bill because it has treasury implications. And I mentioned about the cash flow. So actually if it passes the Lords, it has to be taken through the Commons. And as it's a treasury bill, it would have to be taken through by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, currently Lucy Frazer, MP, as it's treated as a money bill. So really only if the government sponsors it in the Commons, will it go forward. So obviously I now have to bring it to the attention of the treasury. I have to meet the treasury minister. And when in the second reading in the Lord's, the minister will be responding - the Lords minister - the treasury spokesman will be re responding to it, giving some idea of whether the government's going to support it. My argument would be, it's a no brainer. We're giving you a free gift. It shouldn't take much legislation. Just go for it.

Matt:

Let's see if a government take you up with your generosity, Lord Farmer. Parliament watchers will be aware that you regularly speak on issues about support for families and this time last year, you put forward a debate on reforming child maintenance. Can you tell us a little bit about where your interest and your campaigning on this area came from?

Lord Farmer:

I've been in the Lords since 2014 when the Prime Minister of the day - well, I think he was the leader of the opposition - asked me why was I interested? What was my thing in politics? I said, 'my thing was families'. And I've just been concerned about the breakdown of family life in this country. We have one of the worst records in the OECD for family breakdown. Since I've been in the Lords, I've been challenging each department of government, what are they doing to strengthen families. I and my advisor have been pushing family hubs, which now are becoming government policy. Money has been put forward for it, and they're being established. It's part of the Conservative manifesto. I've also conducted two reviews for the Ministry of Justice on how to strengthen prisoners' family relationships in order to reduce recidivism - re-offending - and intergenerational crime.

Just to give you three figures there, the Ministry of Justice's own figure was that prisoners who received family visits were 39% less likely to re-offend than those who didn't have family visits. And the re-offending rate when I did my review for the men's estate in 2017 was 43%, the intergenerational transmission of crime, in other words if you've got one parent in jail, you have a 60% chance of ending up in jail yourself. And in fact for females, it's even a little bit higher than males, which is surprising. And then I did a review for the Ministry of Justice for the female estate, which we actually covered the whole area of when a woman enters the criminal justice system to parole on the other side and release. So, that's been my big area. Why? I do it well, it's in my heart and my head. And I have a... I suppose a concern of the social repercussions of family breakdown.

Matt:

Lord Farmer. Thank you very much for joining us on the podcast today.

Lord Farmer:

It's a pleasure, Matt. Thanks for your encouragement.

Matt:

Now we’re going to two quite different bills. Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is a crossbench member of the House of Lords. She has tabled a bill this session to require Ofcom to do more on content that promotes suicide or self harm. Amy spoke to her to find out more about her bill and why she has put it forward.

Baroness Finlay:

I'm Ilora Finlay. I'm Baroness Finlay of Llandaff. I'm an independent, Crossbench peer and I've been in the House of Lords since 2001. I also am one of the group of deputy speakers in the Lords.

Amy:

Baroness Finlay, thank you for joining us on the podcast. Your private member's bill, the Ofcom (Duty Regarding Prevention of Serious Self-Harm and Suicide) Bill was introduced in the House of Lords at the start of June. And it's due to be debated later in the session. First up, could you tell us a little bit about the bill?

Baroness Finlay:

Well, thank you very much for asking me. The bill has come about because of the horrific stories of things that have happened when young people have been tempted through some of these online algorithms and these different platforms into suicide-goading sites and self-harm-goading sites. And that would include serious eating disorders where there's almost a voyeuristic view to some of the people on the platform. And of course, there've been some tragedies.

There've been kids, young people, who've experimented with ligatures and have ended up with serious brain damage or dead. And we know about the epidemic of eating disorders that there is. And we know about the enormous amount of self-harm. And resorting to self-harm rather than resorting to mental health support is really sad. The trouble is that there is no way of getting a handle on controlling these sites at the moment. They are often hosted from abroad, they're on different platforms, and it's really complicated to know where you draw the line of criminality. So what I want is Ofcom as the regulator to really look into this, look into it in depth and see where they can put in mechanisms to control this and to make some of these terrible sites the thing of the past.

Amy:

And so part of this bill would be to set up a unit that would look at those platforms that you mentioned. How do you see that unit working in practice?

Baroness Finlay:

Well, I called it a unit in the bill because you have to call it something. I mean, I think that it would probably end up being a lead person rather than a whole collection of staff in Ofcom, but a lead person with some people from Ofcom but consulting with those groups outside who are very concerned about this: mental health groups, Samaritans, suicide prevention groups, and so on, who also have experience of the young people themselves and young people who have been on the receiving end of some of this have a great deal to offer. And I hope that would become a consultative group that Ofcom could refer back to. And I know, from one charity, that there are a lot of young people who are very keen to contribute to trying to do something about this.

Amy:

Has there been anything done so far on this issue?

Baroness Finlay:

Well, we had an attempt by Baroness Kidron with a very, very well written private members' bill to do something about age assurance. So this is an age verification process. This is using much more sophisticated IT tools to assure that the person watching is the age that they think they are. Now, with all of the tools that are available, just through mobile phones, face recognition, ways that you log on and so on, it should all be possible to do that. But that bill, again, hasn't gone through.

Amy:

And outside of the Lords, your career has been in medicine.

Baroness Finlay:

Yes.

Amy:

In fact, listeners can actually watch a new interview with you about your work in palliative care on the parliament website and YouTube in a couple of weeks' time. I got a little preview of that earlier this week. I highly recommend watching it.

Baroness Finlay:

Thank you.

Amy:

Is it your medical background that inspired you to introduce this bill?

Baroness Finlay:

Yes. I think in large part, it is my medical background, but it's also just an awareness of the mushrooming of some of these sites, which are really very, very nasty and the mushrooming of the algorithms that lead people into these and the fact that there are no controls for them at all. And there seems to date to be no way of saying that if, you've goaded somebody to serious self-harm or to kill themselves through one of these websites, there's no way of tracing you even. And there seems to be no line of criminal activity. So we know that sometimes young people are goaded into suicide on camera and it's just terrible.

Amy:

Thank you for explaining that. Going back to the influences, what are some of the broader influences for you?

Baroness Finlay:

Well, I've been quite involved in talking to young people, school children about how the House of Lords works, about what we do, about things that concern them. And it's through those conversations as well, that I've become aware that some know very well how to put security settings on their IT equipment, but it's quite sophisticated. And there are others who live in much more difficult circumstances where perhaps there aren't even adult controls on a device that they're using, let alone any other settings. And so it's awarness of the vulnerability of particularly a whole tranche of young people in our society who are already living in difficult circumstances. They may already be living in homes that are really pushed, where their lives are a little bit chaotic and it's hard for them to get the support that they would need to even know where to begin to put on such controls.

I know schools are trying to teach kids about it, but if they don't have their own device and it's not sophisticated, then it's really difficult for them. So I think it's been that awareness as well, through some of the work I've done with Peers in Schools that's influenced me. And I think also just as I've got older, being aware of how vulnerable life is and how precious life is. Nobody's got the ticket to immortality and every life is of worth. And it's really tragic if it's eroded by someone being pushed into self-harm, if it's eroded by their mental health being undermined, and if they even get pushed to thinking that suicide is the answer to their problems, because it doesn't help anybody and it lives on. The damage lives on in those left behind. And of course, I've seen that through medicine as well. So the catastrophic effect of bereavement through suicide and how hard it is for everybody and the nightmare for parents to go in and find their child dead is just terrible.

Amy:

And it's been said that private member's bills often will drive the conversation forward and influence policy. Are there any other avenues that you are pursuing to get this change made?

Baroness Finlay:

Oh yes. I mean, we've got the Online Safety Bill coming to us. And what was interesting is that this was in the Law Commission report. It was recommended, but it wasn't incorporated in the Online Safety Bill. And I think we need to amend the Online Safety Bill to try to include this. That may actually overtake the need from my private member's bill. But I think we go at it from both angles.

Amy:

Baroness Finlay, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been really interesting hearing about your private member's bill.

Baroness Finlay:

Thank you very much. Thanks for speaking to me.

Amy:

And next up, Matt spoke to Labour member Lord Wills about his Public Advocate Bill, and the history of it.

Lord Wills:

I'm Michael Wills. I'm a member of the House of Lords, where I've been since 2010, and in 2009 I was a minister in the Ministry of Justice, and that was the genesis of my private members' bill.

Amy:

Lord Wills, thank you for joining us on the podcast. Your private members' bill, the Public Advocate Bill, was just introduced to the House of Lords. So it's now available for members to read before it's debated later in the session. First up, could you tell us a little bit about the bill?

Lord Wills:

Well, this has its origin in the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. And after that, there was renewed political momentum about trying to give the bereaved families what they've been campaigning for, for 20 years, which was basically to find out what had happened. And I was at that point the minister, among other things, for data protection. And it became clear to me that there were very big obstacles, in regulatory terms, in the families being able to get access to everything that they needed to find out the truth of what happened to their loved ones.

So I devised the Hillsborough Panel, which was a way of getting around these regulations, and for the panel to see everything that was relevant to this disaster. And it was successful. The panel was very successful, and it went a very long way eventually to finding out the truth and giving these heroic families what they wanted.

And as the panel made progress, it seemed to me that the work they were doing was so important and would be important in other big public disasters like Hillsborough, which had happened before Hillsborough and since Hillsborough, for example the Grenfell fire, and sadly will go on happening.

So the Independent Public Advocate Bill is an attempt to provide mechanisms primarily for the families of the victims, to give them agency in the process, not to replace inquests, not to replace lawyers, but to give the families a new sense of agency and particularly in finding out the truth.

Amy:

And so how would the advocate actually work in practice?

Lord Wills:

Well, it's a relatively complicated mechanism because it's designed not to cost money or very much money. It's meant to be very quick and efficient, and it's meant to integrate with existing processes, coroners, inquests, and so on. So to do all that is, it's quite a lot of nuts and bolts basically, but essentially it would give the families the ability to require the services of a public advocate, who would be someone, probably a lawyer, but not necessarily, but someone with some sort of expertise in this area, who would not be there all the time, who would only be summoned when one of these big public disasters happened. And they would have the ability to set up a panel like the Hillsborough Panel, to get at the truth of what happened.

And primarily, why it's so important is that if you leave it to the existing mechanisms over and over again, you find that those in power close ranks and stop the truth coming out. And we've seen it. We've seen it with the police over many years, we've seen it, for example, with the NHS. When people in power feel threatened, and they always feel threatened when there's big a public disaster like this, they close up, and they've got the power and the families have no power. This bill is designed to redress that balance.

Matt:

Is this the first time you've tabled the bill? And to what extent do you think the private members' bill are a more effective way of getting the government to do what you want rather than, say, a debate in the House?

Lord Wills:

Well, I certainly think they're more important than a debate. The reason is quite simply that debates come and go and go away, and they haven't got any traction. I remember a health secretary in the early years of the Blair government, she was doing something quite unpopular. And we were getting hundreds of letters in, and I just remember her saying, 'Well, people write a letter. They never go to the post box.' - That's how long ago it was, stamp on an envelope - 'the second time.' In other words, it just passes.

A private members' bill is different because there's a process. First of all, it goes to a first reading and then second reading; it probably doesn't go beyond that, but it's a way of giving profile to an issue. So the first time I introduced it was in 2016, and it got a fantastic response in the House of Lords.

I mean, cross-party, there was universal support. There were brilliant speeches. Lord Wood produced an analogy that I hadn't thought of about: Aberfan, which is a terrible disaster in 1966, where exactly the same sort of problems that had been experienced by the Hillsborough family. David Blunkett made a great speech. And then the victims commissioner made a wonderful supportive speech from the conservative benches. You know, there was a great deal of support for this.

And I think largely as a result of that, and because there was such cross-party support, I managed to get an audience in Number 10, which isn't always easy for a Labour peer. And they picked it up. And Theresa May, who had been fantastic as Home Secretary in making sure that the Hillsborough Panel went through, and she, I don't think she ever got enough credit for this, put it in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2017.

And despite the fact that that election didn't go as she'd hoped, and it was a very difficult time for her as Prime Minister, it still made it into the Queen's Speech. And that was a really big moment because I did think then it was on its way. Sadly politics since 2017 has been very turbulent, and people have been focused on much more pressing things. There's been another election, which was basically a Brexit election. You know, the turmoil in the Labour Party, and all that sort of thing. So it's sort of has fallen a bit by the wayside, really.

I don't think officials were wildly keen on it. They were very good about involving me as they went out to consultation, but they weren't convinced in the same way that a lot of politicians were. So there was a real risk that despite all the campaigning - Maria Eagle has been great in the House of Commons, it's brought up regularly by her - there's a risk that it's just going to fall by the wayside, even though it's I imagine still Conservative Party policy.

The reason I introduced it again was to try and raise its profile. And when we get to second reading, probably towards the end of the year, I hope we can build the same kind of cross-party constituency that we did in 2016, with support from all sides of the House. And I hope that will make the government, sort of re-sensitise them to the importance of this.

You know, they've got lots of contentious legislation to get through. This is just an open goal. Everyone agrees that it's valuable; they think it's an invaluable way of providing support to families who have faced these terrible tragedies, and everyone will support it. It will pretty much sail through the House of Lords; it's dead easy. And it's something that will get a lot of traction politically, and give the government a lot of credit for introducing it.

It's baffling in some ways why the government isn't leaping on these things. You know, Theresa May has been very supportive of it publicly in the House of Commons. I think in this recent Queen's speech, she mentioned it again. So we've already got this broad, bipartisan consensus behind it, but the government still hasn't shown itself terribly willing to make it a priority. And I hope this private members' bill will do it in 2022 as it did six years ago.

Matt:

Can I ask your experience, because when you first introduced the bill a few years ago, there was no ballot, I don't think, for a private members' bill, so could you tell us a bit about your experience of that? Any nerves?

Lord Wills:

Absolutely great because I got in this year. It was not great last year where I failed.

Matt:

So you put it in last year and it went down lower.

Lord Wills:

I did. And I can absolutely understand the reason why it's done, but you know everyone's got their pet measures and honestly I looked at a lot of the ones that succeeded last year. What I thought was a really important and invaluable part of our constitutional infrastructure was booted out by the luck of a ballot for bills that I thought were not as worthy. And then you realize that those 25 who succeeded last year would've thought exactly the same about my bill. That's the ballot.

Amy:

Although private members' bills are in a single member's name, is there often a lot of engaging other members to support the cause you are driving?

Lord Wills:

Well, ideally, if you do it properly, definitely. You have to, because you have to make sure that you get the right sort of turnout on the day. I think it was a Friday, and you know members aren't always around on Fridays. So you have to do a lot of lobbying, and certainly in 2016 I wrote to everyone I could possibly think of.

I hadn't realized that Stuart would have this expertise in this area, but I wrote to him. I'd known him as a friend since Labour government days, but actually he's Lord Wood of Anfield, so, brilliant that I got him involved, and he gave this brilliant speech, David Blunkett was, I think Hillsborough was in his constituency when he was an MP, and obviously Home Secretary as well.

So mobilizing support across the house, Tom McNally gave a really good speech on this, but all of these people I asked, because unless you ask, you can't guarantee people will just turn up, unless it's something really important to them, and this is quite a technical bill in the end. Although the subject matter is very emotive. It is quite a technical bill, and so people need to be lobbied, and I will be doing it again.

Amy:

Lord Wills, thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Lord Wills:

It's my pleasure.

Matt:

Finally, we’re speaking to one of our Lords Library researchers about the bills. Here’s Ed to tell us more.

Ed:

Hi, my name's Ed. I'm a researcher in the House of Lords Library, and I work on briefings for debates and legislation in the House of Lords.

Amy:

Ed, welcome to the podcast. You've been doing some research into private members' bills in the House of Lords. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about their history?

Ed:

Private members' bills are, in many ways, a legacy from the days before a coherent sense of government time had developed, the idea that the elected government should have the time it needs to secure its legislative agenda. The government now holds greater control over the time available in Parliament than it did in the past. However, private members' bills remain a means by which members of both Houses are able to introduce bills.

Amy:

Are private members' bills unique to the UK Parliament?

Ed:

They're not unique to the UK Parliament, no. For example, private members' bills are actually quite common in Commonwealth countries that have taken on a similar parliamentary system to that in Westminster. So if you take the New Zealand parliament, for instance, members can introduce private members' bills in a similar way to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the UK. There are also similar procedures in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Matt:

Amy mentioned, Ed, your research on private members' bills. Can you tell us about any particular trends in the themes or the members' approaches that you've spotted in that research?

Ed:

In terms of themes, there aren't any restrictions on what private members' bills can be about. But for practical reasons, private members' bills tend to be on non-controversial subjects. This is because private members' bills normally face more obstacles to getting through both Houses and achieving royal assent than government bills do. That means that a bill which is able to get cross-party and government support is more likely to succeed. There's another trend, which is that they tend to be shorter. This, again, is a practical consideration. Members are less likely to amend a bill if it is tightly focused.

Matt:

You mentioned obstacles there. It sounds like the bar's pretty high here on private members' bills and particularly with government taking so much of Parliament's time, if I can put it that way. What's the success rate of private members' bills?

Ed:

Well, it is only a minority of private members' bills that receive royal assent and become an Act of Parliament. So the figures are, in the last Parliamentary session, there are only 13 private members' bills that received royal assent. All of these bills started in the House of Commons. So when you look at the Lord's private members' bills, these are even less likely to receive royal assent. Since the 2010 general election, only four private members' bills first introduced in the Lords received royal assent. If you compare it to the House of Commons over the same period, the total was 78.

Matt:

So if you are a peer in the House of Lords and you've got a burning issue you want to raise, why would you choose to go through a private member's bill route, given the obstacles? What are some of the reasons here for tabling a private member's bill?

Ed:

Well, the first reason is that even if the bill doesn't get royal assent, if it has had second reading, the member has had the opportunity for a debate to take place about what's proposed in the bill. What's interesting about the House of Lords when you compare it to the House of Commons is there are potentially more opportunities for private members' bills to be debated here. This is because there are fewer constraints on the business that can take place on sitting Fridays than the Lords, and there are more sitting Fridays available for private members' bills. There's also a further aspect of private members' bills, which is what the Hansard Society describes as a prod to get the government to change its policy. So, often you can find in government legislation proposals that started as a private member's bill and may have been introduced over multiple sessions. So, there's a notable example in the 2010-2015 Parliament where there were several private members' bills to establish a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, which of course the government later introduced in legislation and took place in 2016.

Matt:

Are there any particularly notable issues that have been subject to successful private members' bills? Which Lord's ones have got royal assent?

Ed:

Well, the last private members' bill introduced in the Lord's that received royal assent was the bill to amend the Children Act 1989. This was in order to enable the courts to make interim care orders in child cases relating to female genital mutilation. That bill received royal assent in 2019 and was introduced by Lord Berkeley of Knighton, a crossbench member. But private members' bills can be on a variety of different subjects, so we've had private members' bills about changes to the rules on membership of the House of Lords, for example. I've mentioned about private members' bills tending to be uncontroversial. There are actually some notable exceptions over the last hundred years. In the 1960s, there were a number of private members' bills on quite controversial topics at the time, such as the abolition of the death penalty, the legalization of abortion, and legislation to enable the partial legalization of homosexuality.

Matt:

Well, thank you very much, Ed. For listeners who would like to read Ed's research into private members' bills, check out lordslibrary.parliament.uk, where you should be able to find all of our research.

Amy:

And that’s it for this episode of the podcast. In our next episode we’ll be finding out more about Hansard. See you then.