I beg to move,
That this House has considered the procedure for debating and voting on Private Members’ Bills.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the good number of MPs who are present and who have expressed an interest in speaking. I also thank the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who will be wrapping up for the Government and the Opposition respectively.
A debate on parliamentary procedure would not normally generate much interest outside this estate, but the level of interest may be rather different this morning, because many members of the public have become disillusioned with some of the things that we do in Parliament, and no more so than with the charade of those Fridays when we discuss private Members’ Bills.
Some of the most progressive legislation by Parliament in recent decades has come through private Members’ Bills: the suspension and then abolition of the death penalty, the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 and the Abortion Act 1967—all the result of private Members’ Bills advanced by Back Benchers and given time by the Government. Between 1997 and 2015, however, across four Parliaments, of the 1,977 private Members’ Bills introduced, only 103 became law. Since many of those were Government handout Bills, the number of private Members’ Bills with which an individual Back-Bench Member was able to make a difference to law and society by bringing forward a Bill was tiny.
That is no surprise when we see what happens to private Members’ Bills under the existing system; when a small number of MPs are present in Parliament to discuss Bills because MPs know there is only a very small chance of them being enacted; when Bills are talked out by an even smaller number of usually Conservative Members, whose only aim is to stop them being voted on; when serious Bills about serious issues are not given serious consideration or the chance to become law; and when most private Members’ Bills do not get discussed at all and those that do rarely get a Second Reading vote. The system is broken.
The procedure for debating and voting on private Members’ Bills is dishonest and misleading. It is an expensive and frustrating waste of time. What happens on Fridays in this place not only brings Parliament into disrepute, but feeds the cynicism that increasing numbers of people feel about politics and politicians. It does us no good service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a really important issue, which I have personal experience of, with my High Cost Credit Bill in the previous Parliament. Does he agree that sorting the system out will contribute significantly to rebalancing the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, and that one of the practical issues we need to look at is how to prioritise private Members’ Bills according to their degree of support, as well as the possibility of using Tuesday evenings, to avoid conflict with constituency work on Fridays?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come to some of those issues shortly. He is right, which is why tackling the matter is important, as he says.
I will try to be brief, because a lot of Members who want to have a say are present, some of them with extensive experience of this issue, and because my suggestion is quite simple: if we want to do something in this place, let us do it properly. If we are going to allow a system in which Members may bring forward Bills, we should have a system that allows those Bills to be debated properly and voted on.
The Procedure Committee is looking at this issue, and I hope our debate will help to inform its deliberations. In its current review, the Committee has taken evidence from a whole range of people: the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, Back-Bench Members, parliamentary officials, journalists, charities and the Hansard Society. When the Committee reports, I hope that this time the Government will act on the findings, because as hon. Members might know, the Procedure Committee also discussed the issue in the last Parliament. The Committee accepted that the system was flawed and came up with some proposals for change, so that private Members’ Bills would at least be put to a vote at the end of Second Reading—not as much of a change as I would have liked, but progress nevertheless. It was disappointing, however, that the Government found no time to debate or endorse the Committee’s proposals in the last Parliament.
I hope that the Procedure Committee will have more success this time around. Last time, the Government rejected the first proposal and did not even respond to the second proposal, so perhaps this will be third time lucky. I also hope that better progress will be made in this Parliament, because it is now widely agreed that the system is flawed. I do not often quote a Conservative MP, but I completely agree with what the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), said:
“In their current form private members’ bills are a cruel deception that we play on our electorate.”
I agree, because the existing system gives a false promise to the public—that the procedure for private Members’ Bills will result in meaningful legislation and make a difference to their lives.
I do not want to get too bogged down today in talking about the technicalities of parliamentary procedure. We could talk for a long time about process—I will make a couple of suggestions about that—but other hon. Members present also have suggestions, and I look forward to hearing them. What is more important is the wider principle: the false hope that the process gives members of the public, who think that they might be directly affected by what is being debated, and the impact not only on constituents, but on the reputation of Parliament, as the existing system fails the public.
My hon. Friend is making many good points. Does he agree that it is not just about the Government’s ability to stop legislation on Fridays, but that the existing system is discriminatory against non-London or south-east hon. and right hon. Members, who find it more difficult to attend the Commons on Fridays?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As a fellow Mancunian MP, I could not agree more.
The system gives false hope to people who want to see action on issues that matter to them: people, for example, who think it is a good idea for children to be taught first aid at school or carers who have to pay high car-parking charges when they visit hospital—the subjects of two Bills that were talked out on Fridays in recent months. Let me quote two people who were particularly frustrated. Jonathan Ellis of the British Red Cross said:
“It is very frustrating that the emergency first aid Bill was ‘talked out’ as we had cross-party support from MPs, over 14,000 members of the public and a number of other organisations. Filibustering denied the opportunity for a democratic vote on this uncontroversial issue and ultimately denied school children the opportunity to learn first aid.”
Ellie Rose of Macmillan Cancer Support said:
“It’s not fair that many cancer patients and their carers pay extortionate hospital car parking charges in order to access life-saving treatment. An important opportunity was lost to vote on an issue that could have made a significant difference to hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.”
We have all heard similar complaints and we have probably all had representations from our constituents. I have spoken to people who have tuned in to watch debates on issues that they had a personal interest in and that they thought Parliament was being given a chance to make a change on—a change that might have improved their lives or the lives of people they know, only to see a debate ruined by filibustering—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
How could I not give way to an hon. Gentleman with such experience of the subject?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If the Bills to which he has just referred were so important, why did they not attract sufficient numbers of MPs to be able to close the debate through the use of Standing Order No. 36?
Simply because the debates were on a Friday—I will come to that. If the hon. Gentleman is so convinced of the arguments against those Bills, we should have had a proper debate on a day in Parliament when lots of people are present. We could debate the issue and vote on it, rather than talking it out.
I am on the Select Committee on Procedure and have had a private Member’s Bill, and I have quite a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that we are almost victims of our own misfortune, as it were, in that we have transferred sitting Fridays, on which we are sent to Westminster to represent our constituents and constituencies, to be constituency days? My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) is absolutely right that if issues are important, we should be able to say to our constituents, “I will not be at the opening of the school or the fête”—whatever it might happen to be—“because I am discharging my duties as a Member of Parliament on a sitting Friday,” of which we only ever have 13 in a year.
The hon. Gentleman has identified an important point, and I will come to sitting Fridays shortly. In some cases I have had hundreds of emails from constituents urging me to turn up on a Friday for a private Member’s Bill—sometimes because charities or other organisations have mobilised them—and we are doing a disservice to those organisations and constituents, and to ourselves, by allowing expectations to be raised that a debate in Parliament will lead to a Bill being passed.
Expectation management is important, both for charities, in managing the expectations of those who are emailing us, and for us, in the way that we respond. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to a certain extent that extends to the ten-minute rule Bill procedure? I had emails from constituents who wanted me to vote on a Representation of the People ten-minute rule Bill because they genuinely thought there would be a debate in this place that would change the voting system of the United Kingdom, but that was not going to happen. I do not think that is necessarily the constituents’ fault. The charities have to take a bit of responsibility for managing the expectations of the people they ask to write to us.
I agree with that important point. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether it is due to lack of knowledge or wilful misreading of parliamentary procedure. I like to think it is the former, but that indicates that we need to be much more open and clear about not just private Members’ Bills but a whole range of other parliamentary procedures, as the hon. Gentleman rightly indicated.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it ridiculous to expect people outside this place to know the minutiae of procedure? Those of us who are in our first term are still struggling to come to terms with it and, when we have 27 Bills on a list and we are getting emails about No. 17, that brings the House into disrepute. The responsibility is on us, not on the charities or constituents.
That is a good point, and if the responsibility is with us, our responsibility is to change the system to make it understandable for the public.
When people write to us about these Bills, they think they are something that will make a difference, but we know as parliamentarians, once we have learnt the rules—some of us are still learning them—that it is not going to happen. A case in point is the NHS reinstatement Bill. Many constituents wrote to me and implored me to attend the debate because they thought it was an opportunity to change Government policy on the NHS, an issue of huge importance to many of our constituents. I was interested to hear the debate on the Bill. I thought there were flaws in it, but I understood the sentiment behind it and I was hoping to hear a debate in which the issues were explored. However, on the day, as a result of filibustering, the Bill was left with around 20 minutes at the end of the sitting.
Seventeen minutes at the end of the session. That was hardly enough time for the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to introduce the Bill properly. There was no chance to vote on it and now it is lost in the parliamentary wilderness. There is a fundamental dishonesty in a system that allows people to believe that a private Member’s Bill will make a difference, when we parliamentarians know that the system will not allow that.
On the day we were in the Chamber for that, one Member took up one hour and 20 minutes speaking on the first private Member’s Bill. The general public think that there is a speech time limit, and that may be something we should really consider, because one hour and 20 minutes of chuntering on, as Mr Speaker would say, is ridiculous. That gave no time for the NHS Bill that everyone was desperate to have debated.
That is absolutely right, and I will come to time limits shortly.
We have two key problems. The first, which is widely acknowledged, is of Bills being talked out. Other hon. Members may want to speak about their experience of that. I have no doubt that Members who indulge in that practice will say in their defence, “We are working within the rules.” If that is the case, we must change the rules.
It is not just about MPs talking Bills out, however. The second problem is that it is very difficult for a private Member’s Bill to make any progress without the Government’s support. If a Bill gets a Second Reading, even if the will of the House is clear, there is no guarantee that it will get parliamentary time to enable it to make progress. Back-Bench Members from all parties find it incredibly difficult to make a difference unless they have Government support and co-operation. It is therefore dishonest to pretend that Members can bring in a Bill without at least tacit Government support. Those are the two key problems, but we could introduce a combination of measures to tackle them and allow a culture change in this place in which private Members’ Bills are taken seriously and given proper consideration. They relate both to when private Members’ Bills are taken and how they are dealt with.
The key question, which has already been identified, is whether private Members’ Bills should be confined to Fridays, because when they are, it is almost inevitable that they will not receive the consideration they are due. I am a new MP who came in last year, but from speaking to long-serving colleagues it seems there has been an increasing expectation in recent years that hon. Members should spend more time in their constituencies being available to their constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As a Member in this House since 2001, I have put a high premium on being accessible to constituents on a Friday, as well as during as much of the rest of the week as I can, as I am sure that he does. Does he agree that the suggestion that private Members’ Bills should perhaps be discussed on a Tuesday evening would be at least a step in the right direction, rather than giving them the graveyard slot of a Friday, which massively inconveniences those of us who put a premium on Fridays and who live a considerable distance from Westminster?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is quite correct that Members should be able to spend some time on a weekday in constituencies, visiting schools and businesses, doing advice surgeries and meeting residents, and it is sensible to allow one weekday a week for that. There should not necessarily be the need, therefore, to attend Parliament on a Friday. If we were to move consideration of private Members’ Bills to another day, that would give all Members the opportunity both to take part in debates that consider those Bills seriously and to have time in their constituencies.
There are options. We could take private Members’ Bills on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening or morning, or we could use some Back-Bench business time. I think it is recognised that that time is not heavily subscribed, so we could use some of it more effectively to deal with private Members’ Bills on days when all Members are around Parliament. In addition, we should ensure that private Members’ Bills are properly programmed, with sufficient time to discuss each one that comes forward.
It is not just about when, but about how we deal with the business. Here are three things we could do. First, there is no reason not to have time limits on speeches in debates on private Members’ Bills. We have them regularly in other debates, so why should we not have them in those? Secondly, we could bring in rules to guarantee a vote on a private Member’s Bill on Second reading.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. As he knows, the Procedure Committee is undertaking an inquiry into this matter and in our evidence gathering it has transpired that on a sitting Friday the Chair can indeed impose a time limit—there is nothing to stop them doing that. Without questioning the Chair’s decision, the fact that they have not used that power is a question for the Chair, but the residual power is there for them to respond if they so wished.
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.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We are actually running short of time, so we can do one of two things. One would be for those who wish to speak not to intervene on others. My aim is that the Front-Bench speeches should begin at 10.35. I am loth to impose a time limit, but if I did it would be roughly three minutes, if everyone who wants to speak is to get in. That is my guidance on how long speeches should take to enable everyone to have their chance, and I ask hon. Members to use their discretion. If I impose a time limit, each intervention will take up a minute and encroach on others’ time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (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.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing this debate? It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst).
Members of the public who are following this might think it is a self-regarding, inward-looking debate about what we do as the House of Commons. That is perhaps understandable, but I argue that this debate actually strikes at the heart of our role as elected Members of this House. Erroneously, we are considered to be legislators, but the reality is that we are not legislators at all. Back-Bench Members of Parliament have little or no control over legislation and the progress of it in this House.
As the right hon. Gentleman just said, all Governments —I have served under Conservative Governments, Labour Governments and coalition Governments—take control of the legislative process. It is perfectly natural for Governments to want to use the time available in this House to their benefit, but that ignores the role of Back-Bench MPs altogether. The Government, in my view, hold far too many cards.
In my hon. Friend’s opening speech, he talked about some of the successful private Members’ Bills in the late 1960s. They were mostly social reform measures. He referred to them, so I will not repeat that, but the important thing about those Bills was that they were all Government handout Bills, mainly associated with Roy Jenkins.
I want to say a word about a solution to this problem that would put more power in the hands of Members of Parliament and take power away from the Government in controlling the process, but first I want to talk about the role of the Procedure Committee, to which reference has already been made. I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who chairs that Committee, but I detect a singular lack of will on the part of that Committee to resolve this issue. I do not want to criticise any members of that Committee, and certainly not the Chair; but this issue has been outstanding and urgent for a long time, and yet the Committee has failed to come up with a solution.
There are several members of the Procedure Committee here. We are putting a lot of effort into the current investigation and did so on the previous one. A very comprehensive report was produced at the end of the last Parliament, and then the Government did not make time for debate. It is important to have that on record.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point, very briefly?
I cannot give way without responding to the first intervention. I will give way in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman exercises a little bit of patience.
My criticism is not of the work that is being done, but of the lack of will there seems to be to bring the matter to a conclusion, not necessarily on the part of the Procedure Committee or of this House. My argument is that Members of this House have to take control of this issue and determine what they want to do. It is as simple as that. No amount of effort on the part of the Procedure Committee can, in itself, bring about that solution.
I am truly grateful. I think I am right in saying that I am the only Member here who served on the Procedure Committee in the previous Parliament. That Committee did amend its proposals to try to meet the wishes of the Government. To be fair, it tried to do all it could to reach an agreement.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I simply observe that we are no further forward on the issue. Despite the frequent and lengthy deliberations of the Procedure Committee and everybody else, we are still in the position that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington described, whereby the public look askance at what we do on a Friday in this House. Frankly, we need to do something about that. My argument is that no Committee of this House seems to have the will or the drive to bring the matter to a conclusion. We, as Members of this House, have to take control of this issue and determine a course of action that will resolve the problems.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden and I have been looking at this problem in parallel, from different points of view. We have, between us, some of the solutions to the problem. I thank the Clerks in the House of Commons for their advice. I have been working to try to bring a solution. Certainly in terms of when private Members’ Bills are considered, there is a solution, in principle. We could amend Standing Order No. 14. Unless we reduce the number of Bills, we would need to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings—26 of each—for a three-hour period to make up the necessary time. There are other consequential amendments, but with time being at a premium, I will not go through them. For example, we would need to amend Standing Order No. 12 so that the House would not sit on Fridays unless otherwise ordered to do so, and we would have to repeal Standing Order No. 19 altogether.
The right hon. Gentleman and I, between us, have some of the solutions, but other issues would need to be resolved. How would we timetable? I certainly would not be averse to the Backbench Business Committee taking control of the timetable. One thing that has not been mentioned yet is that any Back-Bench Member who had a serious prospect of bringing legislation to a conclusion would need advice about the drafting of private Members’ Bills. We all think that we could sit down and draft a perfect Bill. In reality, having been a Minister responsible for legislation in the past, I know that that is not the case. Any of us, in order to do that properly, would need advance advice from parliamentary draftsmen, to ensure we had a competent Bill.
If the House wants to control this issue, it is in our hands. One way forward might be for Mr Speaker to establish an advisory committee as to how to deal with private Members’ Bills. If he was minded to do so, I would certainly be happy to be part of that, and I am sure other Members would also. This issue can be resolved if we, as a House, have a will to resolve it.
We can see the interest in this issue from the attendance today, and we are not going to have a lot of time to air our thoughts. The Procedure Committee is looking into the matter for the third time, yet nothing appears to have changed. Personally, I have experienced the problems with private Members’ Bills on two occasions. One was with the Off-patent Drugs Bill, on which every Member who spoke did so in support. The responding Minister then stood up and said, “I will speak for 27 minutes and this will be finished.” The other occasion was with the recent National Health Service Bill, which has been referred to. That got 17 minutes of debate after four and a half long hours on the previous Bill. People have written to me asking me to speak on a Bill that is 17th down the list and will never be aired. We are being disingenuous, and the system brings us into disrepute.
There are things to be said for timetabling private Members’ Bills on a different day, because for all of us who live outwith a commutable distance, Friday is our time in the constituency. We cannot do a surgery on a Monday morning before coming to the House, and we cannot attend meetings in the evenings. Therefore, this is a big deal. Members must give up time to attend on a Friday, and the fact that it is such a farce, with Bills not coming to a vote and perhaps not even a debate, means that most Members simply do not attend. After they have attended a few Fridays, that is it—it is over.
We are often given the impression by the Chair that it cannot set time limits, yet when I attended the excellent debate on the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill, a time limit was set. Filibustering was not used and the Bill came to a vote. It was a really honest debate and the public response to it was incredible. The Bills that are looking for time tend to be on social reform issues and things that everyone would benefit from, which ought not to be controversial, and I feel that the procedure is partly about the Executive keeping Parliament under control.
In the Scottish Parliament, every Member has the option of two private Members’ Bills in an entire Parliament, and they must get support from a minimum of 18 other signatories from at least half the parties. Once that has happened, a Bill is given time and there are time limits on speeches, and it must be brought to a vote. The Non-Government Bills Unit provides the support to bring it through. Private Members’ Bills that come purely from a Back Bencher therefore result in legislation. I think we all recognise the many different things that could be done, but the time is now to actually do something.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (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.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing the debate. However, I have to say that I think it is slightly premature, given that, as has been referred to, the Procedure Committee is looking into the matter. It has conducted a number of evidence sessions and will shortly be issuing a report, about which I cannot talk this morning for obvious reasons.
However, I want to put a couple of things on record very briefly—I am conscious of the fact that others want to speak. My first point—I speak as a northern Member of Parliament who represents a northern constituency, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is a frequent attender on Fridays—is that if a private Member’s Bill reaches the statute book, it affects my constituents in just the same way as a Government Bill. I therefore regard it as my job to give that Bill the same level of scrutiny as I would any other Bill.
Is the difference not that if we have a Government Bill, we know we will get to vote? If we come here on a Friday for a private Member’s Bill, we probably will not.
The answer to that lies in Standing Order No. 36. The hon. Lady referred in her speech to the assisted dying debate. Because there were so many Members in the House that day, there was no need to have closure motions, because the parties agreed that it would go through. It was the will of the House that there should be a vote, so a vote took place on the merits of the Bill. The important thing about that Bill was that, just as in the case of the Bills that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington referred to, such as on the abolition of the death penalty and abortion, it was on a matter of conscience, on which Members have a free vote. To put it another way, the Government are neutral on such matters. As has been said a number of times this morning, no Back-Bench Member should expect their Bill to get through the House unless it has the support of the Government, or at least their tacit silent agreement to stand aside.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that although those are matters of conscience, the problem with the current procedures is that we are prevented from having the opportunity to exercise our conscience?
Well, there was a vote on the Assisted Dying Bill. As far as I am aware, when any Bill on a matter of conscience has come before the House, it has generally been given a vote. However, I make no apologies for using the procedures of the House to oppose a Bill in any way that I can.
I am conscious of the fact that my three minutes have already gone, Ms Vaz—although I have taken a couple of interventions—so I will just say this: those who want to change the procedures of the House should be careful what they wish for. Anyone who thinks that simply changing the procedures will make it easier to get private Members’ Bills through is frankly kidding themselves. The reality is that if the time for consideration of private Members’ Bills is moved to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, the Government will use their majority and a three-line Whip will be imposed on Government Members. Any Bill that the Government oppose will be voted down—that is the reality of the situation. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and I am pleased that his contribution was relatively brief.
I am a relatively new Member of Parliament, and when I started, the documentary “Inside the Commons” was being filmed. When I watched it and saw the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) filibustering, I thought, “It’s editing and artistic licence. They’re showing Parliament in a particular way, but surely that’s not really how it conducts its business.” But I witnessed it at first hand at the Committee stage of a private Member’s Bill, the NHS (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill. The hon. Member for Bury North took up the whole two hours of the first session talking about the difficulties of starting at 9 o’clock in the morning and people’s perceived travel problems getting to the Committee, and the Committee stage was talked out. The hon. Member for North East Somerset gave us all manner of information about his dietary habits. We all know that he loves Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.
I served on the Committee, but the Bill was abandoned by its supporters. We would have been happy to debate it day and night, but its supporters decided to give up on it.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would have been happy to carry on debating it day and night, but the fact is that no meaningful debate was allowed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing the debate, because it is vital to do something about the charade on Friday mornings. I was present when the Hospital Parking Charges (Exemption for Carers) Bill was shamefully talked out. That was an absolute disgrace, and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) deserves an honourable mention for his part in not allowing that Bill to make progress. I was also present for the Compulsory Emergency First Aid Education (State-funded Secondary Schools) Bill. That was outrageous. I had been encouraged by constituents to be there, and as many hon. Members have said, we give up our Fridays to attend. I am a northern MP, and I give up time in my constituency to take part in discussing Bills that go absolutely nowhere.
This afternoon, I will present a petition to No. 10 Downing Street on the Criminal Driving (Justice for Victims) Bill. It is a private Member’s Bill and has no chance of being heard, so we must resort to presenting a petition with 20,000 signatures.
Three more hon. Members—Margaret Ferrier, Nick Thomas-Symonds and Julie Cooper—have written in asking to speak. After that, two more Members want to speak. I aim to start the wind ups at 10.35 am.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on bringing forward this important debate.
For me as a new Member, the past year has been a steep learning curve. I have had to become educated in not only the rules and procedures of the House, but the unspoken courtesies and quirks. Tradition is evidently important, and it is not hard to see why. The parliamentary estate is impressive and rich in historical significance, and it perpetuates tradition and keeps some of that history alive. However, there are signs that the House is unafraid of moving with the times. The widespread availability of live and on-demand video feeds show not the willingness to do that but an earnestness to make the process of democracy more transparent. The example of ParliamentLive.tv is apt, as it is a wonderful illustration of how an emerging technology can wonderfully complement the existing Hansard without replacing it.
Coming to this place with a fresh perspective, I have also found myself growing frustrated with some of the more time-honoured traditions. The most frustrating procedure has been that for debating and voting on private Member’s Bills. My chagrin seems to be shared by the wider public, because social media has recently become alight with talk of Bills being talked out, and the word “filibuster” seems to be used more frequently.
There seems to be greater public awareness of the democratic process. In Scotland particularly, it seems that the Westminster system is observed by the public in almost forensic detail like never before. The independence referendum had the wonderful effect of engaging many people who had come to feel disfranchised from politics but who now tune in regularly to parliamentary proceedings at Westminster. Comparisons are also being made with the Scottish Parliament, from which important lessons can be learned. The private Member’s Bill system in Edinburgh could be adopted and adapted for this place.
Some private Members’ Bills have led to wonderful moments of consensus recently. Video footage of the successful passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, with unanimous support from the parties, went viral. The public gallery, which was filled with people whose lives would be made profoundly different by the legislation, erupted with joy. However, in this place, I am disappointed that some Bills have been the victim of what can only be described as party political pursuits.
Would the hon. Lady say that the fact that statutory instruments are now being used with gay abandon—that was criticised by Lord Judge this morning—is part of a wider pattern that includes the cutting of Short money and the Trade Union Bill? It is part of a wider pattern of an attack on democracy?
I take the hon. Lady’s important point, and I am sure the Minister will respond to it.
As a sponsor of the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, I was eager to hear it debated and scrutinised, and for the House to be given the opportunity to vote on it. The measures in the Bill had widespread public support, and for it to be talked out was an affront to democracy. Similar legislation has been passed in other European countries, such as France and Italy, and the Bill warranted fuller discussion by the House. So too did the NHS reinstatement Bill. No time limits were imposed on speakers during the debate, and one speaker alone was able to orate for more than one hour and 20 minutes.
The system is clearly in need of reform, and I propose that time limits should become a regular part of the discussion of private Members’ Bills. There also needs to be proper timetabling to ensure a more equitable method of dealing with Second Reading debates. There must also be the presumption of a Division on Second Reading. It is incredibly frustrating to take time away from my constituency on a Friday for an important debate, only to be denied a vote. That may not be a problem for some Members with constituencies in closer proximity to Westminster, but the logistics mean that Members based in Scotland must sacrifice an entire day in their constituency.
I hope that careful consideration will be given to the points I have raised. Reform of the current system will not only lead to a fairer process but create one that is much more accessible to the electorate.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing such an important debate.
As a new Member, I was delighted to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills in June 2015 and to introduce the Off-patent Drugs Bill, the central aim of which was to bring about more consistent access to drugs for which new indications had been found. That Bill was talked out on 6 November, as hon. Members have said. Since then, I have been delighted to work on a cross-party basis with the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences to make progress in obtaining pledges from the Government and achieving legislative change through a different private Member’s Bill.
None the less, the events of 6 November 2015 did a great deal of damage to Parliament’s reputation. It is simple to see why, if one looks at what happened that day. Parliament starts at 9.30 on Fridays, and the first Bill under discussion was the NHS (Charitable Trusts Etc.) Bill, a laudable but simple Bill to allow Great Ormond Street hospital to continue to benefit from J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” royalties. The exchanges on that day sum up the issue. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who introduced the Bill, said:
“The Bill is purely about 16 NHS charities and their move to independence, and about Great Ormond Street.”
Madam Deputy Speaker responded that
“the hon. Lady is right to point out that the Bill is narrow.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 1257.]
Yet it took from 9.30 am until 1.8 pm to discuss that Bill. So uncontroversial was it that there was not even a Division. My Bill was then discussed, and things proceeded very quickly until just after 2 o’clock, when the Minister for Community and Social Care got to his feet and said:
“In the time available before half-past 2—and I make it very clear that I will talk until then, because that is the procedure here”.—[Official Report, 6 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 1304.]
There is no doubt about it: the Government were deliberately talking out the Bill.
I believe in the private Member’s Bill system. It is very useful, because we have an Executive fused into our legislature and the Executive dominate parliamentary business. This procedure gives Back Benchers an opportunity to make a difference. Also, there were social changes in the 20th century that were regarded as being better brought about by this route than by Government business. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) pointed out, the 1960s changes came about because the Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, Roy Jenkins, either tacitly or overtly supported the Bills. Therein lies a double problem: first, there is the Executive dominance of the system, but secondly, there is the filibustering. The fact that the Executive exercise their dominance in that non-transparent, arcane way is equally a problem. The time has come for reform.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for raising this very important subject, and grateful just to have a few minutes in which to speak. It is ironical that when my name was selected and I was given the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, five hours were available, but some Members took the opportunity to speak for more than 90 minutes on that occasion, with the deliberate aim of talking out the Bill, and the Minister who responded talked to the very last minute, half-past 2, so that there could be no possibility of a vote.
I chose a very serious subject that mattered to a lot of people in this country. I was trying to help, in a small way, the carers who give so much to so many, and 1 million carers and their families would have benefited had my private Member’s Bill progressed. However, from the outset that was not to be. There was no pretence even of serious debate on the Government Benches. The opportunity was taken by three Members—the same three Members, I note, who regularly attend private Member’s Bill debates on a Friday, so I have to ask the question: do they feel so strongly about every private Member’s Bill? That was hugely disrespectful to the public who watched the proceedings. It brings Parliament into tremendous disrepute. Hundreds of people contacted me. They just could not believe it. They did not understand the system. How can the great British democratic system behave in this fashion, sometimes week after week?
The point has been made that if a private Member’s Bill is introduced and is against the will of the Government, it cannot hope to succeed. I accept that; we live in a democracy. But should not we have the opportunity of a democratic vote? What is happening is dishonest. Members from across the parties gave their support to my Bill privately. I spoke with Conservative Members, Scottish National party Members, Liberal Democrats and the representative of the Green party, and they all said, “This is a fantastic Bill and we would like to see it implemented,” but they, more experienced Members than I, had seen how the system works. Some of them were not able to be here on a Friday, and quite understandably. How could I expect an SNP Member to stay and have a long journey afterwards, knowing full well that the Bill would be talked out?
It is particularly dishonest when Government Members pledge support for carers to their constituents and out in the wider community—that is fine; they are entitled to their opinion—but then come into Parliament and deliberately deny the public the knowledge that they are not delivering on that pledge. If the Government did not want the Bill to proceed—they clearly did not—let us be honest about it. Let us have a vote. Let the Government say, “We do not support carers,” which was what really happened on the day. If there is a will to sort this, we can do it.
I think the hon. Lady needs to be careful. Just because not enough MPs chose to come to support her Bill in Parliament does not mean they do not support carers. She has to be careful about differentiating between her Bill and the issue of carers.
That was how it appeared to the wider public, and many people were tuned in, watching the debate. Carers and their families were watching the debate. But there is a will to sort this. Time is pressing; I could talk about this issue for a very long time, but I will not. We can change this situation. If there is a will to do it, we can restrict the length of speeches. We can look at the days on which the debates are held so that Members from across the country can attend more easily. And we can ensure that every private Member’s Bill comes to an honest democratic vote.
Before we hear from the Front Benchers, let me thank all hon. Members who have spoken. We have had nine speakers, and every one has been very good with their time.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on initiating this important debate. It has been said by many hon. Members that private Members’ Bills perpetrate a deception on the public. We need to think hard about how to address that, because we know that people are becoming increasingly disengaged from politics and this system does nothing to remedy that; in fact, it simply adds to it. There is no silver bullet to restore trust, faith and engagement with this place, but we could do something about this issue to help to address that problem. Addressing the outmoded, outdated, convoluted and obfuscatory way in which private Members’ Bills are dealt with in this place could restore a little bit of faith in the Westminster parliamentary system.
Like my colleagues, I cannot help but look at this system through the prism of the Scottish Parliament. We look at it as new MPs, admittedly, but with utter bewilderment because it makes no sense, and perhaps—I throw this out just as a suggestion—that partly explains why the people of Scotland feel much greater affinity with, and ownership of, the Scottish Parliament than they do with this place. Like the rest of the UK, the people of Scotland are very detached and disengaged from what happens in this place. There is much that this system can learn from the Scottish Parliament if it is serious about addressing the disengagement that constituents feel.
We have talked a lot today about the NHS reinstatement Bill—the National Health Service Bill. Like my colleagues and, I suspect, the hundreds of thousands of people across the UK who are concerned about that Bill and the wider issue, I watched what happened in the debate. There is no point in blaming it on procedure and saying, “That is how it works.” We looked at the response to the debate and what we saw was what very much appeared to be contempt and disregard for the very important issue that that private Member’s Bill was trying to address. What that tells those of us who were frustrated on that day and what it tells the public is that there is little or no opportunity for MPs or groups of MPs to introduce a meaningful debate on something that does not have the support of the Government, so I ask: where is the balance between the Parliament and the Executive? We watched the debate that day on the NHS reinstatement Bill with utter despair, because we know that all it takes is three or four MPs to filibuster, chunter, ramble and obfuscate in order to throw the entire issue that the private Member’s Bill is trying to tackle into chaos—into the long grass.
Will the hon. Lady not accept that if any Member in the Chamber attempts to behave in the way that she has just described, the Member would be immediately brought to order by the Chair and told to get back to the topic under debate?
I sincerely wish that the hon. Gentleman were correct. When I watched what happened that day—admittedly, as a new MP with fresh eyes and all the rest of it—I said to myself and a couple of my colleagues, “If this is the mother of Parliaments, God help the others.” The hon. Gentleman was present in the Chamber that day and I know that he knows that there was a clear attempt to talk out the NHS reinstatement Bill. That is evidenced by the fact that 17 minutes were allocated to the debate of that Bill, and 17 minutes is not even a proper debate.
I am a London MP so I do not have the Scotland problem, but even I have found the situation frustrating. On one of those frustrating Fridays, I went into a TV studio with a Conservative Member and explained what had happened. He sort of said, “You should have known better. That’s our hit squad. We send them every Friday.” For us, as new MPs, the honeymoon should not be over yet, but we are continually being frustrated on Fridays.
I understand exactly the hon. Lady’s point. I am afraid that the honeymoon was over very quickly in terms of parliamentary procedure because what we see, and what we saw on that day, are shenanigans and parliamentary games, which do this place and our constituents no credit. It matters in the wider sense because the public do not understand the outdated procedures of this place. And why should they understand? I have been here for almost a year and I do not understand. I do not know what is going on because it makes no sense.
I know we are under time pressure, but I will leave hon. Members with this thought: this place is detached from the people it seeks to represent and we have to be very careful because this place is in danger, if we are not already quite there, of becoming an absurd and grotesque carbuncle on the face of the UK. If we seek to represent people, we must take it seriously. We must treat serious debates that aim to do serious things with the respect that they deserve. Our constituents deserve better.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing this important debate. I thank all my colleagues who have spoken passionately on this procedural subject. In particular, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on their contributions. It has been valuable to hear the experiences of those who have tried to introduce their own Bills and who took part in the lottery that we were all excited about at the beginning of the Session, only to find that it is a cruel joke not only on the public, but on us as individuals starting our adventures in Parliament.
It is clear to the majority of us that the current system for debating and voting on private Members’ Bills is undemocratic. It looks outdated to the public and it needs to change. Individual MPs currently have virtually no chance of influencing legislative change. This place has nothing to fear from the duly elected representatives from all parts of this nation raising important issues that are a high priority for constituents or large sections of society.
As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) mentioned, other parliamentary systems make specific provision for individual Members to be able to create, generate or better influence change to legislation, and now we have the opportunity to do that ourselves. Since the election, Bill after Bill that could have saved lives and money, and helped those who most need it has been blocked. That is not only damaging to those pieces of legislation that have not passed into law; it is hugely damaging to our democracy, because they were blocked by filibuster and were not even voted on.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there is currently an e-petition called “Reform the rules on filibustering or ‘talking a Bill to death’”? It has 50,000-plus signatures. This has gone beyond an anoraky issue of constitutional reform.
I am well aware of that. It just shows the importance of the issue to members of the public. I would urge anybody who is tuning into Parliament TV today to sign up. Maybe we will have a private Member’s Bill on private Members’ Bills at some point.
I do not want to echo comments that have already been made too much, but it is really not fair that one Member of this House can block legislation from being voted on and possibly becoming law. We never hear a defence of the filibuster rule. We hear objections to changes to the procedures and we hear Members justifying their actions by working within the rules, but very rarely do we have an outright defence of the system. That is because it is unjustifiable for one or two MPs to deny the representatives of the rest of the country a voice on important and potentially life-saving legislation.
Very often—we have heard examples of this—it is a Government Minister who does the filibustering and not some rogue Back Bencher, which often seems to be the general impression. An Education Minister blocked the Bill that would have made it compulsory for children to be taught emergency first aid at school, and the Minister for Community and Social Care talked out a Bill to allow the NHS access to low-cost medical treatments for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and Parkinson’s. The same Minister prevented a Bill from passing that would have exempted carers from paying hospital parking charges.
I have much sympathy with what the shadow Minister and her colleagues have been saying, but we all have to accept, whether we like it or not, that it is a misnomer to talk about private Members, because none of us is. We are all part of a party machine. If the Government of the day, irrespective of what stripe they are, do not support a Bill—irrespective of how we change the Standing Orders and whether we sit on a Tuesday, Saturday or Thursday—and do not want it to go ahead, it will not go ahead.
The important thing is that we should at least have the opportunity to vote on these things, which we do not have at the moment. If we are going to run a Parliament and say to people, “We’re here to influence change. We can properly represent you,” and then be denied that, it is the time for change.
As long as the Government are able to veto private Members’ Bills before they are voted on, the only Bills that will be allowed to pass are the ones that the Government are in favour of, but if the Government are in favour of them, they could just as easily introduce the legislation themselves. Why do they not just do away with the nonsense—that is how it is viewed at the moment—of private Members’ Bills?
Other speakers have said that it would not be right to allow the small number of Members who turn up on a Friday to decide the laws of the country, but I think that the current system for private Members’ Bills actively discourages Members from being here on a Friday because, as there are no time limits on debates, it is impossible to know which legislation will be reached and debated, let alone what will be voted on. Most MPs, including me, would rather spend an extra day in our constituencies than stay in Westminster on the off-chance that their Bill will reach a meaningful discussion or even a vote.
I made clear my position on the need for reform, but we have to be careful. If we are going to say that private Members’ Bills should have the same degree of scrutiny as all measures brought before the House, Members will have to commit to rather more time at Westminster than there has been an appetite demonstrated for in recent years.
I am particularly concerned about the time we have to discuss this. We have changed the system. In the previous Session, there was a change so that petitions that reach 100,000 signatures can be debated in the House of Commons. We can make meaningful changes when we really want to. Although many people will be pleased that debates can take place, what they really want to see is change. Our legislative process is long overdue an upgrade. Is it not time that we put an end to this cruel joke that we are playing on the public?
Hon. Members have suggested several different changes to the way that we debate and vote on private Members’ Bills, and I hope they will be heard fully. The suggestions are an improvement because the processes are based on the reality of the system as it operates today, rather than a notional way, as has been suggested by Conservative Members, that is just not based in fact or reality.
I await the Procedure Committee’s forthcoming report and recommendations because we are open to further suggestions. The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested that perhaps this debate is in some way premature. I would say entirely the opposite: this is a very timely debate. We do not want yet another report that does not get anywhere; we would like some commitment to change, which will hopefully change things for society for the better.
To challenge the point about private Members’ Bills always being about matters of conscience, I am not clear where there is a matter of conscience in higher education information or the fitness of homes for human habitation. Private Members’ Bills are not always about matters of conscience. I support the comments of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford): some of them are about social reform matters and are important to many people.
The most important thing is that the Procedure Committee and the Government should recognise that the current system does not work and needs to change. The Procedure Committee’s second report said that it would not be putting its proposals to the House and that, instead:
“This is an idea whose time has not yet come.”
Following the passion Members have shown today, I entirely disagree with that statement. This is entirely the idea’s time, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will commit today to allowing the whole House at least to debate and vote on the Committee’s proposals once they have been published.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing this debate. I also welcome hon. Members who have participated, particularly those who have shepherded, or have tried to shepherd, a private Member’s Bill through Parliament—or, indeed, who have supported their hon. Friends in trying to do so. It is noticeable that most Members here today, although not exclusively, are from the 2015 intake, and it is encouraging to see so many hon. Members who have an interest in parliamentary procedure and who want to use this place to get things done.
It is an important principle that a Member of Parliament can initiate legislation and that it is not left to the Government. There are three ways to achieve that in this House. There are ballot Bills and the private Member’s Bill process, with ballot Bills having priority on sitting Fridays, which are dedicated to private Members’ Bills. We have ten-minute rule Bills, where at least a debate is guaranteed on the principle of the Bill, and we also have presentation Bills, which are probably the ones that have the least chance of getting a debate because ballot Bills have priority on sitting Fridays. However, each route has seen success in securing an Act of Parliament, so it has been possible to use each of those routes to get a change in the law.
Members should not measure success on their particular issue only by achieving an Act of Parliament. I happen to have secured an Act of Parliament in the first Session of the last Parliament, from 2010 to 2012, so I have been through the process of having to organise a debate and a Committee and having to find a Member of the House of Lords who is prepared to take the Bill through, and it is not a light undertaking. Indeed—dare I say it?—I am sure that hon. Members who were successful in the ballot, even if they were drawn below No. 7, will have been inundated with phone calls and emails before they even knew that they had been successful in the ballot, which shows that there are organisations out there that are keen to use this process to secure legislation.
My hon. Friend’s words of encouragement are to be taken on board. May I give her an example? In a series of successive Sessions, I introduced a Bill to outlaw drug driving, which was eventually implemented by the Government.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that hon. Members should think about the outcome of what they are trying to do. Using their Bill as a device might not always result in an individual Act of Parliament but, as he says, such Bills often result in change.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) mentioned her Bill. Carers UK has supplied written evidence to the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry, and it is fully aware of how to use private Members’ Bills. Carers UK rightly encouraged people to come along to support the Bill, but it is happy that it secured a change in ministerial guidance, which was committed to on the Floor of the House that day. Even though the Minister said directly that the Government would not support that Bill, he said that they would support some of the Bill’s outcomes through a change in guidance.
I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on being successful in getting a private Member’s Bill through Parliament but, as a generality, does she agree that, in all seriousness, we are not legislators?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. He has been a Minister, and he can use that experience in his role as a Member of Parliament. I believe that we can, if we wish, make a serious contribution to the progress of any law going through this House.
Traditionally, private Members’ Bills have been used to raise smaller issues, as well as big, significant issues of conscience, which have already been mentioned. The private Members’ Bills that have been successful have either changed an outcome in Government policy in due course or have made a modest and sensible change to the law with which people agree. In this Session, six such Bills have passed through the House of Commons, of which three have received Royal Assent and three are in the Lords.
It is important to say that, although the Government do not, and should not, have a monopoly on legislation, they have a mandate to legislate, whereas private Members’ Bills do not necessarily have an elected mandate from the country. As a consequence, I support the fact that we should encourage people to write to us if they want to support particular legislation, and I will shortly address expectation management and the role that each of us can play.
It can be difficult to get legislation through if the Government are opposed to it, but it has happened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) succeeded with the Autism Act 2009. She secured a closure against the wishes of the then Labour Government by getting a sufficient number of Members to come and support the Bill—those Members were not just from the Conservative party. She then managed to make progress through the House. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) knows that such Bills are in the control of hon. Members because we can get closure motions. There were several such closures in the previous Parliament, including on the Daylight Saving Bill, several on European Union (Referendum) Bills, on the Affordable Homes Bill, on the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill and on the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill. Members were ready in case a closure motion was needed on the Live Music Bill. There was an unsuccessful attempt to move a closure on the Tenancies (Reform) Bill, when not enough people were here. I understand that constituency days are important, but if Members genuinely believe that a piece of legislation should make progress, it is within their power to make that happen.
Several hon. Members rose—
I only have two more minutes before the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington sums up.
On public perception, use and abuse, people have thrown about the word “filibuster.” I recognise that it is generic, but it is for the Chair to keep order in debate, and the Chairs do respond to filibustering. MPs and organisations need to be clear with their constituents, and with the people who contact them, about expectations. We have talked about the National Health Service Bill, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) presented on 1 July 2015. On that day, when she was asked, she said that Second Reading would be on 11 March 2016. There was zero chance of that Bill ever becoming law, and it was actually quite unlikely to get a debate. We have to remember that, historically, such Bills were the only way that Back Benchers could get debates in the House. We now have more opportunities, through the Backbench Business Committee, debates on petitions and a lot more Westminster Hall debates. In a way, we have other opportunities to raise issues, rather than just through legislation.
Having a dedicated day for private Members’ Bills matters. In the last Parliament, the House voted not to sit on Tuesday evenings, and I have heard it suggested that the House should sit on Wednesday evenings. There may be an opportunity for the House to reconsider its sitting hours, which I am sure the Procedure Committee is considering. There have been six written submissions to the current inquiry and five oral sessions, in which MPs, Clerks and journalists have contributed, and members of the Procedure Committee are here today. The Government look forward with eager anticipation to the publication of the Committee’s report, and there may be an opportunity to debate it in due course—it is open to any Select Committee to try to secure such a debate on a report.
This has been an interesting and full debate, and I encourage Members to recognise that they can help to shape legislation—it is not just about the Government. The Government have the mandate, but people can work together on other issues. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, 11 September 2015 was one of the most powerful days that I have been in Parliament, and I was pleased with the outcome. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity for each and every Member, and a majority of Members came along and expressed their view decisively.
I do not have much time, so I will be brief in thanking all the Members who have contributed to this debate. We have had a respectful, interesting and mature debate, which is more than we usually get on Fridays. There is a consensus that there is deep frustration with the system on both sides of the House. The system is broken and change is needed. We have had some good suggestions, and I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for their suggestions about ways forward. I hope that the Procedure Committee and, more importantly, the Government will listen to those suggestions and take them on board, because one thing is clear: the longer we continue with the current system, the more the reputation of Parliament will be damaged. The time has come for change.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the procedure for debating and voting on Private Members’ Bills.