It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, and I commend my hon. Friend Jeff Smith for securing the debate. Like him, I have attended several sitting Fridays since I came to this place. I have to say that on two of those occasions, I had two very different experiences. One was what I consider to be Parliament at its best and the other was what I consider to be Parliament at its worst.
The first, which was referred to by my hon. Friend, was the Assisted Dying Bill, on which we had a full debate. Many Members contributed and we had a clear outcome. The second occasion, which has also been referred to, was when two Bills were debated: the Off-patent Drugs Bill and the NHS (Charitable Trusts Etc) Bill. Both were worthy matters for debate, but events were manipulated so that the Off-patent Drugs Bill was talked out.
The particularly frustrating aspect of that for me was that the first Bill, on NHS charitable trusts, was uncontroversial, but several Back Benchers used and abused the system to ensure that the second Bill was talked out. The charitable trusts Bill had a particular application to Great Ormond Street hospital and the legacy of J. M. Barrie, so that gave Members the perfect opportunity to talk at length about his work and, of course, Peter Pan. However, such was the garrulous nature of proceedings that the words “Peter Pan” were mentioned more times in the debate than they were in the original book—if that does not damage the reputation of Parliament, I do not know what does. Certainly by the end of the debate I was ready for a man in green to fly me away from the Chamber.
Most of all, the situation disappoints, frustrates and angers the many members of the public who will rightly feel that to some Members, the playing of parlour games is more important than proper debate and scrutiny of legislation that could change people’s lives. Of course, it is a matter for Members if they wish to attract the obloquy that follows if a well-intentioned Bill is defeated, but is that really what their time in Parliament should be remembered for? Is democracy not about engaging with the issues, trying to persuade others of the case and then testing that with a vote?
The nub of the issue is that we have a dishonest process. The 2013 report from the Procedure Committee identified the central issues, to which my hon. Friend referred. The report correctly stated that the overwhelming majority of private Members’ Bills fail because of a lack of time, but one only has to read the numerous press reports about parliamentary recess lengths to understand that the public will not be too sympathetic to the idea that we do not have enough time to discuss legislation. Even now, 60 private Members’ Bills appear on the latest Order Paper, despite the fact that there are no sitting Fridays currently scheduled for the rest of this Session. None of them have any chance of passing into law, so why are they there? It just gives people a false impression and does this place no credit at all.
If the Government of the day do not wish to see private Members’ Bills pass, they have the majority to ensure that they do not, and they should have the courage to say so. I am sure that most members of the public would prefer a straightforward response from the Government, rather than the games that are currently being played, which do us no credit at all.