Another anorak’s guide to parliament: backbench bills

Second post of the day for political anoraks… and possibly rather useful for new, and not so new MPs. I had a very interesting chat today with a clerk in the Public Bills Office and, after nearly seven years in this place, found out all sorts of things I didn’t know about Private Members’ Bills. So – for those of you who need to know, and those of you who just have a bizarre and rather sad fascination with such stuff…. The 2012 equivalent of a 15 year old William Hague reading Hansard with a torch under the bedcovers. (Yes Rida, I mean you!)

There are three ways in which backbenchers can introduce a Private Members’ Bill. Well, two, but one has a faststream as well as a normal route, so that makes three. Imagine it’s May 9th 2012 and we’ve just had the Queen’s Speech: we don’t know it’s then, but it’s rumoured it will be, and it’s also rumoured that Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, will announce this at tomorrow’s Business Statement.

After the Queen’s Speech, which signals the start of the new parliamentary session, backbenchers (which also includes all shadow frontbenchers except the Shadow Cabinet) are invited to put their names in for the Private Members’ Bill ballot. Twenty names are drawn out – I think about two weeks after the Queen’s Speech – and if you’re one of the lucky 20 MPs all hell breaks loose as you get bombarded with suggestions from campaign groups, charities, lobbyists, who all want you to promote their favoured bill. There will also be some pressure on MPs to pick up a bill which didn’t make it through the current session, eg the Daylight Savings Bill, and have another go at getting it into law.

Six weeks after the Queen’s Speech – so June 20th – those 20 MPs will introduce their bills in the Commons as Presentation Bills. There won’t be any debate or speeches, they just announce the bills.

The Government will also announce at some point the dates of 13 sitting Fridays in the parliamentary session. The first 7 of these are where the 20 lucky MPs get their bills listed. So no. 1 in the ballot is listed first on the first Friday, no.2 first on the second Friday, no. 3 first on the third Friday, and so on until no. 7 on the seventh Friday. No. 8 is listed second on the first Friday, no. 9 is listed second on the second Friday, and so on again, with no. 15 being third on the first Friday, etc, etc. We’d often get to debate the third bill on a Friday but it’s not guaranteed (see my previous blogposts about filibustering). I asked if no. 15 could instead ask to go first on the eighth Friday, but apparently not, it’s just the first seven that are reserved for the ‘ballot’ bills.

As soon as these 20 MPs have bagsied their slots, it’s open season for other MPs to table Presentation Bills too. I’ve never done one, but it’s very straightforward. You give notice the day before, it’s listed on the next day’s Order Paper and you stand by the Speakers Chair at the alloted time and the name of the bill is read out. That’s it. John Mann MP did a whole raft of them this week, each one calling for a different government department to be moved to a different UK city; Defra was going to come to Bristol (which I’d rather welcome. Jim Paice might not!)

This is the silly bit… Obviously competition is fierce to get in first with a Presentation Bill if you weren’t successful in the ballot, because if you are an early bird, your bill gets to be no. 1 or no. 2 on one of the remaining six sitting Fridays. So you have to be first at the Public Bills Office on June 21st. And this means that if you’re Christopher Chope, you turn up at midday the day before and you take up residence in the room opposite the Public Bills office, a Dickensian place which is virtually in the rooftops of the Palace of Westminster. And you sleep there, ready to arise at the crack of dawn and present your great legislative plans to the no doubt ecstatic clerk.

If you’re Bob Russell, the Lib Dem, you do the same when tabling opens for Early Day Motions. Bob always wants EDM no. 1, on the grounds it attracts more attention, and so he sleeps outside the Table Office the night before to grab his slot.

Chope – who has been doing this Presentation Bill lark for a few years now – is then at liberty to table as many bills as he wants. This explains the mystery of why he has so many bills on the Order Paper. He could, if he was so inclined, take up all the remaining no.1, 2 and 3 slots and no-one else would get a look in. (Well, they’d be no.4 and we rarely if ever get to the fourth bill on a Friday). If you think Chope might not have too many bills up his sleeve (which would be a bit silly of you) you could of course turn up at that room by the Public Bills office and spend the night there with him, in the hope of being second at the clerk’s door. Some might think that no legislative measure is quite so important that it’s worth putting yourself through that experience….

The third way of introducing a bill as a backbencher is a Ten Minute Rule Bill. These are introduced on the floor of the Commons on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; you do a ten minute speech, sometimes someone makes a speech objecting to it and pushes it to a vote, but usually not, and then it goes off to be listed on a sitting Friday too far down the agenda to do very much more with it. You get to choose which of the Fridays you want, though it doesn’t make much difference.

MPs like Ten Minute Rule Bills though as they’re a great way of drawing attention to an issue during prime parliamentary time, and you can then take the issue up in other ways. To get a Ten Minute Rule Bill slot you basically have to ask the whip if you can have one; they’re sort of divvied up between the parties… and then you have to present yourself at the Public Bills office and lay claim to the date you’ve been told is yours. In theory you could be gazumped by someone from your own party, but it doesn’t happen as far as I know. Would be very unsporting behaviour.

I’m hoping to do a Ten Minute Rule Bill on food waste in March if all goes according to plan. It’s too late in the session to do much with it after that first ten minute speech but I’m hoping that it will lay the foundations for tabling amendments to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which I hope/ expect will be in this year’s Queen’s Speech. If it’s not, I may have to resort to spending the night with Chope…




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  • Quietzaple  On February 2, 2012 at 3:58 am

    Chope obviously seeking refuge from unresolved crisis: try speaking roughly to him and Lots of pepper: if he wants beating refer him to his local Labour Party.

  • Ciaran Rehill  On February 3, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    The Protection of Freedom Bill has been diluted to the nth degree – as for laws, how about anonymity for men in rape cases and a minimum 10 year sentence for wimmin who make false accusations (10% plus in Derbyshire last year. FOI request, a few hours ago).

    • kerrymccarthy  On February 6, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Any credibility that comment might have had has been totally scuppered by your use of the word “wimmin”. Rather a giveaway.

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