Publications / Guides

What is a Ballot Bill?

13 Dec 2019
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Sarah Davies, Clerk Assistant in the House of Commons, with one of the numbered ballot balls drawn in the PMB ballot on 9 January 2020. (© House of Commons / Jessica Taylor)

At the start of a new parliamentary Session backbench MPs can enter the PMB ballot. The 20 MPs whose names are drawn may introduce a Bill of their choice. Ballot Bills have the best chance of becoming law because they have priority over other PMBs when time is allocated for debates.

Last updated: 4 May 2022 MPs who wish to enter the ballot do so by signing their name against a number in the PMB Ballot Book.

MPs do not need to provide any details of their proposed bill at this stage: they do not need a title for the bill, and they do not need to specify the subject area or what they are seeking to achieve.

The Private Members’ Bill ballot is usually drawn on the second Thursday of each Session (there have been exceptions: for example, in both the 2010-12 and 2015-16 Sessions the ballot was moved to the third Thursday of the Session). The date and time of the ballot is usually highlighted in advance in the Future Business Paper, and the details will be confirmed on the Order Paper for the requisite day. The ballot is public and is usually live-streamed on Parliamentlive TV. It may also be broadcast live on BBC Parliament.

The principal Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, presides over the ballot, aided by the Clerk Assistant. Balls with numbers corresponding to the Members' names in the Ballot Book are placed in a bowl.

The names of 20 MPs are drawn in reverse order and announced immediately.

The 20 MPs whose names are drawn in the ballot have the opportunity to introduce a PMB of their choice during the Session. Those drawn highest in the ballot have the best chance of getting their bill onto the statute book.

The Public Bill Office in the House of Commons provides drafting support to all 20 MPs. A sum of £200 - fixed in 1971 and never revised - is also made available to those MPs who occupy the top 10 places in the ballot. The money is provided to assist with drafting costs but in practice is rarely drawn upon. To ensure the quality of legislation, the government may also provide drafting resources through the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for bills which are deemed likely to pass.

Some MPs, rather than generating their own legislative proposals, may instead choose to adopt a government 'handout' bill. These bills generally make technical changes or discrete additions to existing laws. They are bills that the government may have been unable to find time for in its own legislative programme, or which for political reasons it does not wish to steer through Parliament itself. Such legislation is handed to an MP (or Peer) by ministers to take through as a PMB. As handout bills have government support, they have a higher-than-average chance of becoming law.

All 20 MPs must formally present their bills on a subsequent Wednesday which is allocated for presentation of PMBs; this is usually the fifth Wednesday of the Session. At presentation (or First Reading) stage, only the short and long-title of the bill is required.

Each of the 20 MPs must choose one of the allocated PMB Friday sittings for the Second Reading of their bill. MPs can postpone their allocated Second Reading day, but they may not bring their Second Reading forward to an earlier day.

Hansard Society (2022), Guide to Private Members' Bills, (Hansard Society: London)