Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin MP, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Associate Director at Bellenden Public Affairs.
The absurdities of the Private Members’ Bill system can be neatly summed up by watching the last sitting day in every session when these bills are considered. This year, the day fell on 11th March. Forty bills were down for their Second Reading debate over a five hour period, although ‘only’ 33 were actually considered, and just two with any form of debate.
The usual Private Members’ Bill (PMB) specialists were out in force, and Philip Hollobone opened the day’s debate with the following speech: “I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on promoting the Bill. As you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, it is no easy task to get a Private Members’ Bill on to the Order Paper. It involved quite a few days and evenings sitting and sleeping in the corridor upstairs to ensure that this Bill was selected for one of the 13 sitting Fridays.”
Set aside if you can the images of Messrs Bone and Hollobone tucked up in their sleeping bags outside the Public Bill Office, a sight I confess I’ve seen on at least one occasion (what would Mrs Bone say?) and consider instead why MPs should have to resort to this practice in order to obtain debating time? The current system plays into the hands of a small number of motivated MPs without any consideration of the merit of what is being debated.
Any member of the public who turned up to watch the debate that day in the gallery would have seen a farce. They might have been expecting to see a debate on the Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the UK) Bill. Instead, what they got was a carefully considered and planned filibuster, during which little effort was made to examine the merits of the two-clause bill before the House. The reason? The usual suspects – Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and David Nuttall – were filibustering, with collusion from the Government, to eat up the debating time available and prevent Caroline Lucas’ National Health Service Bill making any progress.
Their efforts were successful. Philip Hollobone spoke for one hour and 22 mins, Sir Edward Leigh for 36 minutes, Philip Davies for just under an hour and David Nuttall for 43 minutes. By the time a vote had been taken, it was 2.15pm, allowing just 15 minutes for debate on the Lucas bill, insufficient time for it to make progress and objective achieved. The remaining 32 PMBs were all objected to by the whips in what has been termed ‘the slaughter of the innocents’.
As a former special adviser to both the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House for the whole of the last Parliament, I colluded with a fair few of these practices over the years. For the Government, the priority is always to avoid defeat and embarrassment, and if that means working the system to prevent that happening, then so be it. Yet such a system is neither transparent, nor allows fair debate, and it’s time it changed.
Charles Walker, the excellent Chair of the Procedure Committee, this week issued a report saying that the Government was in the ‘last-chance saloon’ with regards to reforming the PMB system. Whilst Charles and I have not always agreed with each other in the past, I have genuine respect for someone who is a true champion in balancing the rights of the legislature and the executive. He suggested a number of solutions:
- The first seven bills in the ballot should be guaranteed a vote, eliminating the problem of filibustering.
- The Backbench Business Committee should choose up to four bills to be given the first four slots, on the basis that they have had substantial cross party support and spend up to a year developing their proposals.
- Reducing the number of Bills in the ballot from 20 to 14 to ensure better and more thorough scrutiny.
- MPs may only have one bill up for debate on any one day (on 11th May, for example, Christopher Chope had five bills scheduled for debate).
- Remove dummy bills, where only a name, not a substantive bill exists, from the Order Paper.
These proposals are both modest and fair. MPs should not be allowed to place ‘dummy’ bills on the order paper, but then never introduce them. They should not have more than one bill up for debate on any one day, although I’d prefer it if each MP was restricted to one presentation bill per session. PMB slots should be slightly restricted, but the House should be open to advancing those with widespread support. The Coalition Government introduced more bills for pre-legislative scrutiny than any previous Government, and PMBs would be improved if they were subjected to the same process and scrutinised by a select committee.
I would also reform Ten Minute Rule bills. Ostensibly, these allow the Commons to give leave to an MP to introduce a bill if he wins a vote after making a ten minute speech. They are useful in that they allow MPs to raise issues that would otherwise not find time for debate, but we should not con the public into believing that these ‘bills’ have a chance of law. Thirty-nine Ten Minute Rule bills were introduced in the 2013-14 session and none became law. Indeed, no ten minute rule bill has become law since 2006, and the number should either be heavily cut, or the link with introducing legislation should be removed.
The real challenge for Government will be whether they accept the guaranteed vote on Second Reading. It’s an attractive idea, but the whips will no doubt be wary of having to summon the party in on a Friday, cancelling hundreds of pre-arranged constituency events, to vote down a bill that it does not agree with, or which commits to too much financial expenditure. A compromise could be to allow a guaranteed vote to the four bills which have gone through pre-legislative scrutiny and been approved by the Backbench Business Committee.
Reports suggest that Government is ‘sympathetic’. I hope that this sentiment is reflected in all parts of Government, for the current system is unsustainable, unbalanced and undemocratic. If we want people to trust Parliament, we have to be transparent and accountable about the way it works, and that’s why I hope that the time for reform has finally come.