Private Members’ Bills — [Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 13th April 2016.

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Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:30 am, 13th April 2016

The point is that that does not happen. My understanding is that under Standing Order No. 42 the Chair can direct a Member to discontinue their speech, but between 1945 and 1999 that was used on only 21 occasions, so that parliamentary procedure is used rarely. I also think there are better ways of organising our time. As I have said, if we moved the debates to a Tuesday or Wednesday, we could have a fuller debate, and all Members could be there. This is about a package of measures, not just a single measure.

We should guarantee the vote on Second Reading and, thirdly, if a private Member’s Bill is agreed on Second Reading, we should guarantee time for it to be considered in Committee. Those are not difficult things to do, but if the measures are too revolutionary to bring in at once in this place, we could even introduce them as a pilot and see how they go. They would be easy ways to improve the way we debate and vote on private Members’ Bills.

The reason I was keen to debate this issue today is not solely the extensive negative publicity that the current process has generated in the media in recent months—and we have all seen such negative publicity, which reflects badly on Parliament. There was a more personal reason. I was sitting in the Chamber on a private Members’ Bill Friday a few weeks ago, as hon. Members talked out a Bill, and I looked up and saw a group of school students in the Gallery. As a student of parliamentary oratory—I take an interest in it—I have to acknowledge the extensive skill involved in talking out the Bill. It was a masterclass in filibustering. However, to the group of school pupils in the Public Gallery the speeches must have been as boring as the process was mystifying. I remember thinking, “Is this the impression we want to give those young people of our Parliament? Is this really a positive image of politics and politicians?” I was, frankly, embarrassed to be in the Chamber that day.

We are sent here by our constituents to try to make a positive difference to their lives. They have a right to expect our discussions to be honest, realistic and serious. It is dishonest to the public to maintain the illusion that Friday’s private Members’ Bill debates are proper legislative process. Members bring forward private Members’ Bills on serious and important issues. It is about time we debated them and voted on them as such. The last report of the Procedure Committee said of reform of programming:

“This is an idea whose time has not yet come.”

After what we have seen in recent months, I believe that that time has come.