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What does the future hold for the Private Members' Bill?

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Lord Steel was among MPs debating how to reinvigorate Private Members' Bills

By Henry Tribe
Producer, BBC Parliament

Private Members' Bills are the way backbench MPs can get their ideas into law - most famously legalising abortion, decriminalising homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty in the 1960s. Since then there's been a fairly steady decline in their fortunes - but efforts are under way to raise their status again.

Private Members' Bills should provide backbench MPs with their golden opportunity to get new laws on to the statute book, but the number of them receiving Royal Assent has largely been in decline in recent years.

Their "golden age" in the 1960s was made possible with the support of the government of the day, but ultimately it was individual backbench MPs who steered these sometimes controversial Acts into law.

Private Members' Bills
In non election years there have generally been more than 100 bills presented each year since 1983
The highest number to become law in a single year was 1996-97 when 22 bills were successful
In 2008/9 just five out of 110 Private Members' Bills were successful.
Three bills that look like becoming law this year are ones on sports ground safety, one on allowing grandchildren to inherit even if their parents had forfeited their inheritance and one on dealing with shipwrecks.
Source: Hansard Society

These days they are more likely to deal with less momentous issues such as the regulation of private car parks or high hedges - and they have little chance of becoming law unless the government decides to adopt the proposal.

The Hansard Society, which has as its goal greater public engagement with politics, wants to reform and revive Private Members' Bills and is recommending a number of changes in a report by Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox published this week.

The report's launch was accompanied by a panel debate with MPs with a keen interest in the subject.

Lord David Steel was the then Liberal MP whose Private Members' Bill created the 1967 Abortion Act. He told the panel that in the 1960s there were a number of "big issues that the government would not touch" and so there was a vital role to be played by these types of bills.

'Haphazard system'

Nowadays issues seen as "socially controversial" tend to be included in government bills with MPs or peers left to have a free vote. By doing it this way parties can avoid having to take an official stance on them.

The Hansard Society report says Private Members' Bills now often tend to focus on an area of special interest or can be quite technical in nature.

Doing away with Fridays would be a mistake
Christopher Chope MP

At the moment there is a ballot of 400 or so MPs who want the chance to bring forward a bill, with 20 MPs' names pulled out of the hat. The higher up the list the MP - who may not have a bill in mind - comes, the greater the chance their bill will get a good House of Commons airing.

But, because one or two determined MPs can always talk out a bill, even for those at the top of the ballot there is still only a small chance of it becoming law - just 60 out of 1,096 did so in the decade to 2008.

Lord Steel is critical of the current system for choosing which bills are selected each year for debate, saying it was nothing more than a raffle: "I think a system as haphazard as that really is quite difficult to defend."

The Hansard Society report proposes moving away from Friday as being the day of business for Private Members' Bills, to shorter slots on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

They say Fridays have become problematic because many MPs are away on constituency business, leaving only a hardcore few to take part.

This hardcore includes the Tory backbench MP Christopher Chope who has submitted a range of Private Members' Bill outside of the ballot system.

Younger generation

By his own admission, Mr Chope currently has "20 or 30" Private Members' Bills listed for debate in this parliamentary session. He insists other MPs are missing out on lively debates and that "doing away with Fridays would be a mistake".

But chairwoman of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel, is critical of the increased use of Friday sittings in the Commons and says that new MPs want to spend more time in their constituencies.

A report on the 2010 Private Members' Bill ballot

"It's expected that you'll be back in your constituency on a Friday for a lot of the younger generation of MPs and there's a real divide in how you regard the role of an MP by how many years you have been in the House," she told the meeting.

Chris Bryant is shadow minister for political and constitutional reform and one of the biggest critics on the way Private Members' Bills currently operate.

He told the panel that he thought Private Members' Bills were important, but the system should be improved so that the important ones could still get through. He described Fridays as "capricious" and said they were too often filled with MPs "talking out" bills, leaving the general public and many other MPs frustrated.

A number of changes have been proposed by the Hansard Society including allowing Bills to be carried over from one parliamentary session to the next, setting time limits on speeches during Private Members' Bills debates and increasing the financial resources available to MPs to draft their bill.

But even if all these proposals for reform of the system are taken on, the fact will always remain that only Private Members' Bills with government support are likely to ever see the light of day.




SEE ALSO
Private members' bills
28 May 09 |  Institution guides
Dashing MPs' Bill dreams
12 Feb 11 |  Today
Changing the law
11 Jun 10 |  Politics

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