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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:52 am on 13th April 2016.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden 9:52 am, 13th April 2016

I congratulate Jeff Smith on finding an opportunity to raise this important matter, which is of concern not only to all parliamentarians but to those who watch our affairs. It is right that private Members should have the opportunity to initiate legislation, but we have to consider the terms on which that can best be done. They should be aware that they will always have doughty opponents—those Members who feel that private Members’ Bills must face a severer test than supposedly Government-tested legislation, and, of course, the Government of the day themselves.

The only point of dissent I felt with the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington was with his faint reference to the will of a Conservative Government. I appreciate that that is mostly what is seen in action at the moment, but the Lord High Executioner of private Members’ Bills is a Government Whip and we must recognise that that is the reality. A Member whose Bill is flying in the face of the policy of the Government of the day will have a very hard task. However, that is not to say that over a period of time a good idea sown in a private Member’s Bill may not be taken up and eventually gather support and become the law of the land.

We recognise that there are different types of Bills: there is the off-the-shelf Bill that is fairly innocuous in itself and gives a private Member the opportunity—the prestige, if you like—of having piloted a Bill through Parliament, and there are the new ideas that will vary in their attractiveness to colleagues and the public. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington about the absurdities of Fridays, which do no good to Parliament’s image and are wearisome even for those who are here. I think I can make the claim, for what it is worth, that no other Member of this House has presided over as many Friday debates as I have, and it is a disgrace that we can find no better way of dealing with things.

As the hon. Gentleman said, false expectations are raised among the public. However, I would add the rider that, where campaign groups get involved, they should know through the people they employ as parliamentary officers when a Bill has a real chance of being debated and when it does not. They stoke up representations. Numbers of people wrote to me about the National Health Service Bill, which has been referred to, and it was nonsense to suppose that it would get serious attention, regardless of its merits or demerits. We take a lot of time to lower the expectations that have been falsely raised.

Everyone who has spoken so far has, I think, recognised that Fridays have become ever more precious to Members as constituency days; so what fresh approach could we take? I do not pretend to present a completely thought-through package, but I offer some thoughts. The first question to ask ourselves is how many private Members’ Bills it is reasonable to suppose might be brought forward in any one Session of Parliament. Bills produced by the various means now available are accumulating all the time, and that is going to ridiculous lengths; we end up, at the end of a Session, with 50, 60 or 70 Bills. That is obvious nonsense. It is more than any Government produce in a Queen’s Speech.

We should also look at the means by which the Bills can be born. The ten-minute rule Bill should be subject to particular scrutiny, because many Members who have the opportunity of a slot to persuade the House to let them introduce a Bill have not got as far as drafting it. Yet the impression is created among the public that there is a Bill in existence. That cannot be right. Certain other Parliaments, many of which function according to systems that closely resemble ours at Westminster, find slots in prime time that allow a Member to raise an issue but not necessarily to produce a Bill as a result. However, they can at least get prime time in which to reflect a matter of concern.

Another alternative, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned, is to think about Tuesday evenings; and I think I rather favour that. However, just as we have talked about whether Members want to be here on Fridays, we should recognise that quite a lot do not want to be here on a Tuesday evening—something that is reflected in the fact that we have advanced our sitting time to 11.30 with a finish time of 7. I am afraid that has been turbo-charged by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority rule under which colleagues who, in its view, live sufficiently close do not have taxpayer-supported accommodation close to Westminster—so they go home. That is unfortunate, but it is the truth of the matter. One can be bowled down in the Member’s cloakroom by people who are rushing to catch a train after a 7 o’clock vote. They would have no appetite to be here on a Tuesday evening.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that if a Bill could be guaranteed a three-hour slot at that time there should be a deferred Division. The whole House could then participate in Second Reading at some time. That might create a situation, depending on the number of Bills, as to how much time it will take to fill in the pink slip on the deferred Division—but it would mean the view of the House could be better reflected. I would say that only one Bill should be dealt with per Tuesday evening, so that a Bill—even if it is an off-the-shelf Bill that takes five minutes to go through—cannot be on the Order Paper as a means of holding up consideration of a second Bill. We should decide what is a reasonable number of Bills, and consider the number of Tuesday evenings that there will be in a Session. We could consider adding Wednesday evenings if we wanted to further multiply these opportunities.

If Bills get the chance of a Second Reading, should one have only one Committee channel for them, or should there be a second Committee channel? That is another option to consider. We then come to the more complicated business of Report and Third Reading. The hon. Gentleman hinted that the Backbench Business Committee might have some role in this. That is an elected Committee. A Member could appear before it as the promoter of a Bill that has got a Second Reading and negotiate to get time provided for Report. Third Reading, again, could be subject to a deferred Division.

We should think about the venue. Westminster Hall Chamber is now sufficiently mature. That matter is separate from the subject matter of this debate, but as part of any review of the use of this Chamber, we should consider whether there is a means by which there could be a proper ventilation of private Members’ Bills here, rather than necessarily in the main Chamber. I agree that time limits on speeches could, in the context of a more general reform, become a more common approach if demand is there.

Those are my thoughts. I hope they are helpful in considering the way forward. They are not perfectly rounded or anything of that kind. I add one final caution, if I may: when we use the term “will of the House”, we must be careful to recognise that that should be the will of the whole House, not just the will of 40 Members who have managed to get something through at the present time. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington is right to raise this matter. The public are now viewing our proceedings on a Friday, wondering what the heck we are all about at that time, and we have to do better by them.