Calling time on private members' bills?

Charles Walker
Image caption Procedure Committee chair Charles Walker outlines his proposals with Tory MP Philip Davies looking on

Has the Commons private members' bill system now reached peak weirdness?

Are we about to see the end of the Friday filibuster, and backbench MPs droning bills to death, while their supporters seethe with impotent fury?

The publication this week of sweeping proposals to reform the system by which individual MPs can bring in legislation, and the warm response, not least from Labour's shadow leader of the Commons, Chris Bryant, suggests change is on the way.

Charles Walker, chair of the Commons Procedure Committee has long argued that the existing system, with its arcane rule, and chronic game-playing, brings the House into disrepute; people watching on TV as bills they support are "talked out" are infuriated and mystified.

More recently a couple of ministers have found themselves on the receiving end of some rough treatment in the Chamber when they have given unwelcome bills the coup de grace, by continuing to talk until time runs out.

Mr Walker's committee's recommendations, published this week, would create a route by which a bill with broad backbench support could be brought before the Commons, and proposes a series of rule changes which would block some, at least, of the game-playing - and they might just have enough support in the Commons to be enacted.

The Procedure Committee proposes:

  • The number of bills which are given priority for debate via the ballot should be reduced from 20 to 14
  • They would be re-named "backbench bills"
  • The first seven bills on the list should be guaranteed to have a vote at the end of a full day's debate - which would imply time-limiting of speeches
  • The first four bills should be selected by the Backbench Business Committee - who would choose them on the basis of broad support and prior preparation and scrutiny
  • The quirk in the rules which allows backbenchers to present "alternative Queen's speeches" by putting down dozens of bills, some of which get debated late in the Parliamentary year, should be ended. Individual backbenchers would be allowed to put down just one bill per day. (Bad news for Friday regulars Peter Bone and Chris Chope.)

All this looks rather tekky and in-house, but it could amount to a substantial opening-up of the process.

The key element is the creation of a mechanism to establish which backbench bills have substantial cross-party support, and give them a second reading debate.

There are, of course, no guarantees that they will pass that stage, and the government could always whip its MPs to oppose them. But there will be a debate and opponents will have to explain their position. The point about this change is that it would allow cross-party initiatives to develop a bill, consult, redraft and build support - as compared to the current practice where bills are hawked around the MPs whose names come out of the hat in the annual private members' bill ballot, by an assortment of pressure groups and parliamentary enthusiasts. (The next ballot is on 26 May). The downside for many MPs is that they may find themselves whipped to attend Friday sittings rather more often.

But once the Commons has a process which establishes that a particular backbench bill is worthy of a debate, and a vote, then it follows that speeches can be time limited, so that the debate comes to an orderly end at the end of the appointed time.

And then if Bills are to be killed, they have to be done so in a vote, in the light of day. So these recommendations could amount to a major opening-up of the Commons. And, incidentally, it would still be possible for opponents to "talk out" bills at the later report stage of debate, although it would be harder work to do so, because they would have to put down amendments and speak to them, which makes keeping a long speech within the rules of order a rather more difficult task.

What happens at the moment?

Take a look at how the system works now. Any MP can bring in any bill they fancy, at any time, but the key is getting time to have the bill debated.

At the moment the system works like this: in an annual ballot (lottery, really) 20 MPs get the right to bring in a bill during a Friday sitting of the Commons. The first seven of them are guaranteed a second reading debate, because their bills will have the top spot on the agenda. MPs further down the list will only have a chance of being debated if there is time left over after the first bill on the agenda has been dealt with. And the snag is that, under the current rules, there is no time limit on speeches and no guarantee of a vote at the end of a debate.

This gives a powerful weapon to opponents of a private member's bill. If they talk for long enough, they can use up all the available debating timeā€¦and if, when the close of the debate is reached at 2.30pm, no vote had been held, the bill goes to the back of the queue for further debate, and is, essentially, never seen again.

This is known in the trade as "talking out." The long speeches have to be in order - which as in Radio 4's Just a Minute, means that the speakers have to avoid hesitation, deviation and repetition (alright, you can get away with minor hesitation). You have to be an adept parliamentarian to carry it off without incurring the wrath of the Chair, or at least a very clever one. (I once sat through an interminable speech by the then Labour MP Andrew Dismore, who would re-read whole sections of his oration when he spotted that the occupant of the Chair had changed, and that the new Deputy Speaker who'd just taken over would not have heard some of his previous pages.)

The way to break through this process (it's not properly a filibuster unless the Chair rules it out of order) is to have 100 MPs support a motion to bring the issue to a vote - a closure motion. And it's a rare private member's bill that attracts that many Hon Members to foresake the delights of their constituency Fridays.

It can happen, and did, when Rob Marris topped the 2015 private members' bill ballot, and brought in his Assisted Dying Bill - and saw it decisively voted down, rather than blocked by procedural means.

The question now is whether the government will allow the recommendations to be debated. Mr Walker is still scarred by the end of parliament shenanigans last March, by which his committee's recommendations on electing the Speaker were used to attempt a last-gasp coup aimed at John Bercow; and indeed the way other modernising recommendations on reform of report stage proceedings have never made it to the wicket.

But if the government does not schedule a debate - and the Commons agenda is not exactly groaning with crucial business at the moment - there are ways in which pressure might be exerted. How about the Backbench Business Committee? The rules don't allow it to schedule debates on the Commons' Standing Orders, but it could hold a debate on a motion calling on the government to make time.