Most of the legislation that Parliament passes is introduced and backed by the government. But for thirteen Fridays in each parliamentary session, backbenchers steer the agenda.
For those days, Private Members’ Bills have precedence over government business. In practice, very few of these become law. There just isn’t enough time for them to be debated.
First, they need to be approved after being introduced (first reading), debated in general (second reading), debated in detail and possibly amended (committee stage and then report stage), debated in general again (third reading), then go through the same journey in the other House…and sometimes passed between the two Houses until they both agree.
They also need the support of a majority of the House, with at least a hundred MPs voting, which is a tall ask on a Friday – when many MPs quite reasonably use Fridays as an opportunity to return to their constituencies. And, as in a recent high-profile case, these backbench bills can be postponed by a single MP shouting ‘Object!’.
When it was announced during The Queen’s Speech in 2017 that this would be a two-year parliamentary session (instead of the usual one year), some might have thought this would make it easier for backbench proposals to traverse the peril-fraught journey to becoming law.
But as the months have gone by, the list of those that are yet to make progress on those Fridays has turned into a backbench bill graveyard – as we’ll now see.
David Hanson’s House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill would abolish the bizarre by-elections that see aristocrats elect 90 of their own to fill spots in the Lords reserved specifically for those (almost always men) who have inherited a title from a parent (almost always their father). And Christine Jardine’s House of Peers Bill would replace the name House of Lords the ‘House of Peers’.
Both of these continue a long tradition of tinkering around the edges when it comes to reform the second chamber. Frank Field’s House of Lords (Abolition and Replacement) Bill is more ambitious – in its aim to replace the unelected Lords with an elected Senate. The Society has long-supported a smaller second chamber, fully and directly elected using the Single Transferable Vote.
Votes at 16
As I wrote recently, there was hope that 16- and 17-year-olds living overseas might join those in Scotland and, soon, Wales in being able to vote – through an amendment to Glyn Davies’ backbench Overseas Electors Bill. Unfortunately, the amendment did not pass at committee stage.
Jim McMahon introduced a Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill in November last year, and Peter Kyle had introduced a Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill a few months earlier. Both would have enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds, and both managed to attract more than the 100 MPs needed for them to progress, but unfortunately, in both instances the Deputy Speaker did not allow them to put to a vote, citing too little debate time.
As each backbench bill Friday passes, they find themselves kicked further and further down the list, unlikely to make much progress before the parliamentary session finishes.
One bill that did manage to garner some cross-party support and progress from second reading to committee stage, was Afzal Khan’s Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. This proposes retaining the number of MPs at 650, rather than cutting it to 600.
As we’ve warned, without a corresponding cut in the size of the government ‘payroll’ vote, the planned cut in MPs risks reducing the power of backbenchers to scrutinise the executive.
Khan’s public bill committee is now soon to undertake an absurd 17th sitting, as the government refuses to grant it a resolution that will allow it to progress to further stages for further debate.
Motor voter registration
Finally, Jo Stevens’ Automatic Electoral Registration (No. 2) Bill would introduce something the Society has supported for a while now – a way to make it easier for people to register to vote.
It proposes, as is used in some parts of the US, a system that would allow government bodies like the NHS, the DVLA, HMRC and others to share data that would enable people to register to vote when they interact with these bodies, to encourage a more complete electoral register.
With much of government time being taken up by Brexit-related issues for the foreseeable future, perhaps the time has come for a review in how it might be made easier for backbenchers to contribute to policymaking.
This Halloween, it would be great to see some of these sound private member’s bills come back from the dead…