Previous SectionIndexHome Page

23 Jan 2001 : Column 832

Business of the House

5.39 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I beg to move,

The motion is necessary to enable paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 14 to function properly. That provision states:

The motion to appoint those days has been on the Order Paper for some time. Clearly, some right hon. and hon. Members want to debate the matter. It is an important principle that private Members have time on the Floor of the House specifically for their business. The dates allocated by the motion are designed to give private Members' Fridays a similar pattern to those in preceding Sessions: seven Fridays for Second Readings, followed by a gap and a more leisurely series of dates for remaining stages.

It is important that that time is available. Although private Members' Bills can be derided as ineffective, a surprising number are enacted each year. In the years between 1964 and 1993, 10 to 15 private Members' Bills, on average, were passed each Session. Twenty-one such Bills were passed in 1996-97, when some were given Government time, and even in recent years, six or seven private Members' Bills have reached the statute book each Session.

Private Members' Bills have tidied up the statute book. The Lord Chancellor (Terms of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974 made it possible for the post of Lord Chancellor to be held by a Catholic. Private Members' Bills have dealt with matters that affect small groups. The Motorcycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976 permits Sikhs to wear turbans, rather than helmets. When we drive past a gaggle of riding school children all securely helmeted, we see the results of the Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990. Private Members' Bills have extended the effectiveness of the House. The National Audit Office owes its existence to the National Audit Act 1983-- a private Member's Bill.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way. Will he explain to the House why there are not more dates earlier, when they might not be damaged by an election, and more dates later, which would not be available if the most likely election date, early May, materialised?

Mr. Tipping: I have learned one thing during my time in the House: never to speculate on the date of an election. There is every possibility that the House could sit for another year and more.

There is an honourable tradition whereby private Members' Bills have been used to force Governments to

23 Jan 2001 : Column 833

face social issues that they would rather duck. The book "How Parliament Works" notes:

Even when they are defeated, private Members' Bills can have huge influence. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill may have been defeated in the 1993-94 Session, but the Government were forced to introduce their own Disability Discrimination Bill in the next Session. I am sure that hon. Members can think of further examples.

There have been calls for private Members' Bills to be given a better chance of success. The motion allocates a mere 13 Fridays. Perhaps, some say, the procedure should be relaxed to counterbalance such a limited time. The Procedure Committee considered the matter in 1994-95 and commented at paragraph 18 that

It concluded that

Our motion tonight simply allocates the time required by Standing Orders.

In the past, some private Members' Bills have been taken through all their stages on a single day. Now hon. Members tend to insist that no Bill should be passed without debate. Given the limited time, that reduces the chances of success. Some may argue that the chances of success are so small that it is pointless for the House to approve the motion. However, private Members' Bills and the time allocated to them offer unrivalled opportunities for procedural training and tactics. We all know the need to have our supporters present and correct at 9.30 am and to have sufficient numbers to secure a closure.

However important private Members' Bills are in themselves, and however great the procedural amusement they provide, the key reason why the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 should be implemented remains that Standing Orders allocate the time to private Members and they should be given it. I invite the House to agree to the motion, which will put the Standing Orders into effect.

5.45 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It is a pleasure to listen to the Parliamentary Secretary opening the debate on a matter that is clearly important to Back Benchers. Private Members' Bills are peculiarly their province. As the hon. Gentleman said, the motion has been on the Order Paper for some time. It is clear from the presence of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends that they have some anxieties and concerns about the way in which the matter is being presented, about which we shall hear more presently.

I shall not get involved in discussion of the number of days allocated. Those who want to raise their concerns will do so. In view of the fact that the motion has consistently been objected to since it first appeared on the

23 Jan 2001 : Column 834

Order Paper, it is unfortunate that we have not had an earlier opportunity to debate it, so that Back Benchers could express their views. One has the impression that the Government hoped that by reintroducing the motion time and again, the objections would simply go away. [Interruption.] I hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It was apparent that the issue would not go away, as there were matters that needed to be discussed.

On one matter, I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that, historically, the purpose of private Members' Bills was to enable Back Benchers to bring before the House matters that would require a considerable degree of unanimity in order to reach the statute book. I was fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman present an expose of the reasons for that, with which I heartily concurred.

I hope that I will not be considered to be out of order if I gently point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that having adhered to that policy in respect of the Hunting Bill when it was a private Member's Bill--the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill--and seen it consigned to oblivion by the House for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman articulated, the Government, for reasons which remain incomprehensible, saw fit to reintroduce it in Government time, when every argument that the hon. Gentleman has just advanced would militate against that. I found that telling. Perhaps at the end of the debate, the Parliamentary Secretary will amplify his remarks. A better justification for not proceeding as the Government did after the failure of a private Member's Bill would be difficult to find.

I am happy to listen carefully to the objections that are likely to be raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends to the number of days allocated and to other matters connected with private Members' Bills and the business of the House.

5.48 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) pointed out, we have finally got the motion on the Floor of the House, where it belongs, and we have an opportunity to debate it. However, I wonder whether it is too late.

The Government seem to have taken the attitude that such matters are entitled to be nodded through by the House, without proper debate or consideration, and they are learning the hard way that that simply is not the case. When the Government say, "We believe that a certain number of days should be allocated to this or that", they should not assume that the House will acquiesce.

As the debate is entitled "Business of the House", the House should debate it. It is only slightly to the credit of the Minister that he has been brought to the House kicking and screaming, at the last minute, reluctantly to present the matter to the House, when it is far too late to do anything about it.

That is important because the matter was first presented to the House before Christmas. It should have been dealt with then, as there was time for those who opposed it to say why we felt that it was inadequate or inappropriate. We are now at a late date in January. We are asked to agree that the private Member's Bill cycle, to which the Minister alluded, should start very soon, on 2 February,

23 Jan 2001 : Column 835

and that only two days will be allocated in February. The Government care so little about private Members' Bills that we are then to go away for a month before resuming the process on 9 March.

I presume that the Committee of Selection will sit on the Wednesday after the first of the two Fridays, so 14 February would be the first day available for Committee proceedings. Therefore, even if a private Member's Bill were to get a Second Reading in the House on one of the first two Fridays and to get through Committee in one sitting, the first day on which it could possibly come back to the Floor for Report or Third Reading would be 9 March.

Hon. Members who have gone through the private Member's Bill process know that it is not always to their delight or advantage, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) would agree. The Government have taken so long to seek to resolve the matter on the Floor of the House that they have put private Members' Bills in jeopardy. They have taken so long because there may be an election.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say, in his bland way, that we must not discuss whether there is going to be an election. The entire country assumes that there will be an election in April or May. That makes it incumbent on the Government to make more proper provision for private Members' Bills than appears in the motion.

Next Section

IndexHome Page