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Committee rails against "handouts and talked out" private Members' bills

18 October 2016

The Procedure Committee publish a further report on private Members' bills (PMBs), following an unsatisfactory Government response to their April 2016 report.

Process appears "broken and discredited"

The Committee argues that the private Members' bills process appears "broken and discredited", with dissatisfaction mounting both inside the House of Commons and outside. An online petition this year calling for an end to the practice of "talking a bill to death" received more than 50,000 signatures. In this report, the Committee seeks to increase transparency and restore public and parliamentary confidence in the process.

Main recommendations

The Committee's main recommendations, detailed in the report, are:

  • The Backbench Business Committee should select up to four bills in each session to take priority, based on their merit and level of cross-party support, with ballot bills making up the remainder of slots. This would allow MPs to develop and build support for mature legislative proposals with a real chance of becoming law.
  • The House should explicitly authorise the Speaker and his deputies to impose time limits on speeches on sitting Fridays. Though this is technically allowed, by convention the power is rarely exercised, enabling a small contingent of MPs or Ministers to talk-out a bill rather than allowing it to be debated meaningfully and voted on – a strategy often referred to as 'filibustering'.
  • The total number of bills to be given priority on Fridays, whether by the new route above or through the ballot, should be reduced from 20 to 14. Since the final six slots have only a small chance of being reached, scrapping them would make the process more transparent and comprehensible.

The Procedure Committee had previously published a report recommending changes to the private Members' bill system in April this year, following up on reports from its predecessor committee in 2013 and 2014. The Government dismissed the truly reforming elements of the report, and Ministers now risk appearing as agents of delay and obstacles to change.

Chair's comments:

Mr Charles Walker MP, Chair of the Procedure Committee, said:

"The private Members' bill process as it stands is too often an exercise in futility that manifestly misleads the public. The Government is defending procedures and practices which would not have looked out of date in the nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth.

It is rare for a truly backbench bill to make it past its initial debate, let alone pass into law; they're either handout bills or talked-out bills.

Private Members' bills are the only method for backbench MPs to initiate legislation, but they are no longer taken seriously due to the Government's refusal so far to make any changes which would risk power leaving their hands for those of backbench legislators.

The current ballot system actively works against those who aspire to be serious-minded and thoughtful backbench legislators. The chance to propose law needs to be more than purely a game of chance, as is currently the case." 

Further information

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