Charles Walker outlines proposals to reform the private Members’ Bills process

Charles Walker outlines proposals to reform the private Members’ Bills process to enable well-prepared and well-supported backbench MPs’ Bills to be seriously debated and scrutinised in the House of Commons.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

I am presenting the third report of the Procedure Committee 2015-16. On private Members’ Bills, the Government are in the last-chance saloon. I adore this place, and I adore taking part in debates, but for so many good, hard-working and committed people here, Fridays are becoming no-go zones. The private Member’s Bill process is in total disrepute, and I hope that we can bring it back from the edge in the months ahead. If we cannot, I see a world where private Members’ Bills as we know them cease to exist. People in this place are doing so much good work in their constituencies and on legislative matters that they will not be willing to give their time for something that many would say—indeed, as tens of thousands of people are now saying in petitions—is broken.

Let me bring the House’s attention to our report. The current system is designed to fail. We do not recommend getting rid of the ballot system in its entirety, but at the start of each Parliament it creates a scenario in which people put their name into a lottery and if they are lucky—or, indeed, unlucky—their name is drawn out and they are bombarded with worthy causes to take forward as legislation. That is for Opposition Members. Government Back Benchers are bombarded by bright and good ideas from the Whips, and they are seen as another avenue for the Government to get their legislation on the books.

That means that either we have handout Bills, which are worthy but boring, or we have Back-Bench Bills proposed by Opposition Members, a lot of which, to be fair, are frankly ill thought through and perhaps do not deserve to become law. That is how the system is structured and what it creates. Our key recommendation is to give the Backbench Business Committee a role in how private Members’ Bills are conducted in this place.

Our report suggests that up to four Bills—the first four Fridays—should be decided by the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that will mean that groups of Members, or individual Members with a good legislative proposition, can invest a great deal of time—perhaps upwards of a year—working on that proposition, talking to Ministers and respected Members in this place, and building coalitions in and outside Parliament. They can then take that legislative idea before the Backbench Business Committee and say, “This is our work. This is what underpins our legislative idea. It is not a flight of fancy. It has real support in this place and out in the wider community.” The Committee will decide whether a great deal of work underpins that proposition and whether it deserves to be heard in Parliament. That is for the first four Bills. The Committee could decide in one year that no Bills are worthy of one of those sought-after slots, but in other Sessions it might decide that four Bills are worthy of being taken forward.

We recommend that, on the first seven Fridays, the first private Member’s Bill on the Order Paper gets a guaranteed vote on Second Reading. That is important because a lot of people do not turn up, thinking, ​understandably and with demonstrable proof, that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), while opining often on things of importance that matter to him, might fail to express himself in a measured period of time—to put it generously—but instead orate for vast acres of time. I am afraid that a lot of people, as much as they love him and other hon. Members who specialise in boring the House to tears, find better things to do with their time.

Our proposals, however, would provide protections even for my hon. Friend—I do not want to ruin his Fridays. If a Bill, when it came out of Committee and on to Report, still did not meet with his approval, he could do what he does best. I am hoping, however, that if we allow the first seven Bills at least to get to Committee, the sponsors will have a significant amount of time in which to talk to Ministers, build support and perhaps iron out some of the problems that would otherwise lead the Bill to be talked out.

We suggest reducing the number of Bills in the ballot from 20 to 14 to ensure better and more thorough scrutiny. Of those 14, four, potentially, could be assigned by the Backbench Business Committee and a further 10 through the ballot, but if the Committee decided that nothing was worthy of being introduced by it to the House, there would be 14 in the ballot. There is a proposal to change the name from “private Members’ Bills” to “Back-Bench Bills” but there are people in the House who might not like that, and we cannot force anything on the House; all this can be contested in debate.

We recommend changing the system whereby Members have dozens of presentation Bills on the Order Paper on a Friday to one in which a Member has only one a day. We want to remove the dummy Bills from the Order Paper. I am sure this will find favour with a lot of colleagues. If we remove them, we will not be asked to turn up to Parliament on a Friday to vote on a Bill that is 18th on the Order Paper and has no chance of seeing the light of day. Our report also refers to the possibility of taking a private Member’s Bill or two on a Thursday, but again that is just a suggestion.

We say that not every happy thought that occurs to a Member should become law—that would not be a good thing—but we think that serious legislative propositions should have the chance of progressing. I read closely the speech by the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) last week in Westminster Hall, and I apologise to everyone in the House for not having resolved this matter in the last Parliament. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I have to be held accountable for the lack of progress, but I conclude my brief speech by saying that the Government are in the last-chance saloon, and if they do not act now, there are other people in this place who will be less understanding than me, and the change they will bring forward will make the Government’s eyes water, and rightly so.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) says he adores the House, and we adore him—more certainly than we do the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—not least because he is quite right: the private Members’ Bills system is, frankly, bust. It is not only open to abuse but is regularly abused. It misleads the public and wastes the House’s time, so we stand four-square with the Committee and ​will do everything we can to support him. I take just one tiny exception to his report. He says this should start in 2017-18. What is wrong with now? Why can the Government not give us time to debate these changes before the next Session of Parliament so that we can do it in May?

Mr Walker

That is an ideal suggestion, and I look to the Government to be revolutionary in their approach to our report and to take it forward as quickly as possible. I am sure Deputy Leader of the House will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con)

I shall aim to be brief. In saying that the first Bill on the Order Paper should be guaranteed a vote, my hon. Friend failed to mention that the first Bill on the Order Paper can already be guaranteed a vote. All it requires is for 100 MPs to turn up to support it. As we saw with the overseas aid Bill—the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill—the European Union (Referendum) Bill and the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill, if a matter is important enough to hon. Members, plenty of them turn up to debate it. Does my hon. Friend not agree that if a Bill cannot muster the support of 100 MPs out of 650, it clearly does not have the support that others might claim it has?

Mr Walker

I say to my hon. Friend—I love him dearly—that his determined efforts and those of a few of his colleagues, including Labour colleagues in previous Parliaments when Labour were in government, have almost destroyed people’s faith in this place and in the process. People are simply not turning up because, too often, they spend a lot of time listening to my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] As I said, we are not trying to ruin my hon. Friend’s sport because we are not recommending a guaranteed vote on Report. What these Bills need is a bit of space on Second Reading to get approved at that stage so that negotiations can take place with the Government before the Bills go into Committee and there is a chance of some output. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend will not wind me up with his barracking because I love him too much to rise to the bait.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)v

As a member of the Procedure Committee, I pay tribute to the skilful work of its Chair, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), in piloting this report through. Those of us from Scotland are familiar with the far more robust procedure for Members’ Bills in the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps that provides an example of the process that the hon. Gentleman threatens if the Government are not willing to give ground on the proposals in our report. I echo the comments of the shadow Leader of the House on the importance of the Government providing time at a very early opportunity to debate, consider and implement these proposals. If that fails, perhaps we could look to the Backbench Business Committee to give us some time.

Mr Walker

I hope the Government are listening to these exchanges because the mood is darkening, and quite rightly so, not just in the Chamber, but out there among those whom we represent. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), ​along with all members of the Committee and the Clerks, for their hard work in bringing forward a sensible report. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is so agitated by it because he knows it is sensible and reasonable, and he will find it difficult to oppose it.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)

One problem with private Members’ Bills is that pressure groups raise the expectations of the public that every private Member’s Bill stands a really good chance of becoming law. Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is incumbent on us all to make sure that the procedures for private Members’ Bills are more widely and better understood?

Mr Walker

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In communicating with constituents, we too often demur from telling them how it is. I suspect that on occasions that is because we are embarrassed about what happens on Fridays.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab)

I would not go as far as to say that I adore the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), but I certainly hold him in high regard. Any criticisms were not directed at either him or his Committee. Does he agree that this issue now needs to be resolved, and speedily? We need some means of testing the will of the House. The options set out in the report, and options proposed by me and other right hon. and hon. Members, could be put before the House so that people can vote on how they want to proceed.

Mr Walker

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fantastic point. If the Government find time to debate the report, which I sincerely hope they will, there would be opportunities for Members to table their own amendments to the report. I hope that this will be a vehicle for change in this place and for improving a fairly bankrupt private Member’s Bill procedure.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab)

I commend the report and the Chairman, who has been a superb leader of the Procedure Committee in recent years. Does he feel as I do that the process misleads the public and brings the House into disrepute, and that if the Government fail to act now—this is our second report on this issue—the problem will get ever-deeper and the public will lose even more faith in the processes of this House?

Mr Walker

I agree with the hon. Lady, who worked tirelessly on the report, and who has been involved in this process for a number of years. We are selling our constituents a false prospectus as private Members’ Bills Fridays are currently constructed, and they will not forgive us lightly for that.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)v

I commend my hon. Friend for his chairmanship of the Committee, but I think that he is being extremely unfair on our hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because our hon. Friend and others are the ones who actually turn up on Fridays to scrutinise draft legislation. Is it not the case that in any given year there are 52 Fridays, and the House sits on only 13 of them? The myth has built up that every Friday is a constituency Friday, as an excuse for Members not to be here, but the bald truth is that only one person per constituency is entitled to ​represent his or her constituents in this House, and that is their Member of Parliament. The Members who should be condemned are those who do not turn up on Fridays, not those who do.

Mr Walker

I have been so generous in my appraisal of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley! He often does very important work, but on occasion he does not, in my view. The truth of the matter is that people are not coming here because they have lost faith in Fridays, and they are bored with listening to my hon. Friend.

As you know, Mr Speaker, and as the Deputy Speakers know, if we have a guaranteed vote on Second Reading of the first seven days of private Members’ Bills, you could put a time limit on speeches—and what a happy occasion that will be for the ears of some in this place.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent chairing of the Committee, and for producing the report. Does he agree that, if implemented, the report will increase the transparency and credibility of the private Members’ Bills process, and will therefore increase our standing in the eyes of the general public whom we serve?

Mr Walker

I can tell the hon. Gentleman—who also serves on the Committee—that incrementally it will, but we have a lot of ground to recover in this place. As I have said to him, and as he knows, if we do not succeed in implementing the report, there is no guarantee that the House will tolerate private Members’ Bills remaining on Fridays. They could well end up being dealt with on another night of the week.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)

As a Member who has been present on Fridays since being elected, I have seen both the good and the bad in terms of Friday debates, and I therefore welcome the report. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need less focus on individuals, and that there is already a procedure that could bring debates to an end? How does he think that the Backbench Business Committee will be able to define the level of cross-party support, given the comments that have been made about pressure groups and the impression that is given that Bills that have no chance are going to get through? How can there be a definitive ability to work out which Bills have enough genuine support to take those prime slots?

Mr Walker

I have been involved in a successful private Member’s Bill, the Bill that became the Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Act 2013, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), and which attacked discrimination in the area of mental health. In partnership with Lord Stevenson, my hon. Friend spent an enormous amount of time—over a year—building up a coalition of support across the Benches, talking to private secretaries and Ministers, and to well informed pressure groups which are well respected by Members on both sides of the House. By the time the Bill appeared on the Floor of the House, a great deal of the hard work—the groundwork —had been done. That, I hope, is what members of the ​Backbench Business Committee will be looking for when assessing whether a Bill warrants one of those coveted first four spots.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he and his Committee have put into the report. I was grateful for the chance to give evidence to the Committee during its preparation.

It seems to me that, provided that we allow filibustering to be the means by which the Government defeat legislation in 2016, the reputation of the House will simply become lower and lower. If the substantive changes are to be made in 2017-18, or even in 2016-17, the onus is now on the Government to provide a debate in Government time so that these issues can be discussed and further suggestions can be made. Filibustering Friday must end, and we must have change now.

Mr Walker

I am delighted that the mood of the House is more ambitious than that of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee; the House is to be commended for that. If we can bring forward these recommendations earlier, that would be a truly fantastic thing. We need to restore faith in Fridays so that people attending on Fridays have a chance to put their point of view and so that people watching Fridays with interest have a chance to hear a diversity of voices in this place from both sides of the argument. I do not want to see poorly drafted legislation getting on to the statute book, however. As I keep saying, the protections that we are proposing will not protect Bills on Report. If they are not up to scratch by Report, they can be dealt with by a variety of means.

Julie Cooper (Burnley) (Lab)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for this incredibly impressive piece of work, and I support many of the recommendations in it. I welcome the fact that it looks as though it will at last bring to an end the sport that takes place on private Member’s Bill Fridays, when on many occasions there is no serious attempt to have a proper debate on issues that concern or distress the wider public. It brings the whole of Parliament into disrepute when serious issues are the subject of sport in this House.

Mr Walker

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Debate in this place should never be a sport; it should be about contesting the issues, arguments and propositions before the House. I agree with her sentiments, and I hope that we are beginning to travel in the right direction.

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

I congratulate the Procedure Committee on its report and wish it more success than previous attempts at achieving reform. We have a tired, discredited system that really does us no credit at all. Much of this short debate has focused on the benefits of Fridays, and I note that the report does not talk about the sitting hours of the House. May I urge the Committee to look at that question as a matter of urgency, because I believe that some of the answers might lie in having different sitting times for private Members’ Bills?

Mr Walker

The Procedure Committee has deliberately steered away from looking at the sitting times of the House, but during the last Parliament, we pledged to conduct a survey of Members’ views on sitting hours at ​the end of the first year of every new Parliament and to bring forward a neutral motion that Members could then amend. I hope that will provide the hon. Gentleman with some comfort. He will get an opportunity at some stage in the near future to look at the sitting hours of the House, at which point I imagine that everything will be up for debate.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)

I should like to assure the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that, as a new Member and a London Member, I did make an effort to turn up on Fridays early in the Session. However, I am afraid that I now have to write back to my constituents to explain that my time is better spent in my constituency. I welcome the report from the Procedure Committee, and I hope that it will give people more confidence in Back-Bench business. Given the Chair of the Committee’s experience of previous attempts at parliamentary reform, does he agree that the risk now is that perfect will be seen as the enemy of good, and that we need to build as much consensus as possible for at least some reform, if not perfect reform?

Mr Walker

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I really hope that the Government are listening to him. Let us try to build some consensus and find a way forward. I do not think that we are going to come up with a perfect solution, simply for the reason that every happy thought that occurs to Back-Bencher should not become law, as I said earlier. However, I would just say that in my time in this House, serving under two different Governments, I have observed that the people who specialise in talking out Bills are very good at talking out Opposition Back-Bench Bills but they seem to go missing in action when it comes to a Government handout Bill. That applies to Members on both sides of the House.

Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)

I also welcome the report from the Procedure Committee and I strongly agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). We had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall in my name on this subject last week, in which it was made clear that there is a desire for change right across the House. I would have liked a slightly bolder proposal involving moving private Members’ Bills away from sitting Fridays. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction. I should also like to echo the plea from the Chair of the Committee and others for the Government to act quickly on this. Does he agree that we need to move quickly in order to restore the reputation of Parliament?

Mr Walker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. For the sake of Members on both sides of the House, I must stress that it is important to recognise that the Procedure Committee cannot impose anything on the House. Our recommendations will be subject to debate and a vote. [Interruption.] I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, as a procedural expert, would be aware of that, but he clearly is not. All our recommendations will be subject to a vote on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have the chance to carry the day for his side of the argument, just as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) will have the chance to carry the day for his point of view.

| Hansard