Publications / Reports

Enhancing the role of backbench MPs: Proposals for reform of Private Members' Bills

4 Apr 2011
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Carolyn Harris MP in the House of Commons Chamber, 15 December 2021. (© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor)

Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) provide an important opportunity for backbench MPs to initiate legislative proposals and to respond to issues of public interest and concern. But in a system that enshrines the dominance of the executive a range of procedural obstacles inhibit the effectiveness of the PMB system. This report sets out how the system could be reformed.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Alex Brazier , Parliamentary Specialist , Global Partners Governance
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Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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Parliamentary Specialist , Global Partners Governance

Alex Brazier

Alex Brazier
Parliamentary Specialist , Global Partners Governance

Alex was Senior Research Fellow on the Society's Parliament and Government Programme and subsequently Director of the Programme until 2008. Previously, he was a Committee Specialist for a House of Commons Select Committee and also worked in the House of Commons Library.  He s a specialist in parliamentary procedure and reform, including legislative process and financial scrutiny, parliamentary committees, and parliamentary and constitutional reform. He now works internationally on parliamentary strengthening programmes for Global Partners Governance.

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Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) should provide an important opportunity for backbench MPs to initiate legislative proposals as well as policy debate, to check the executive, and to respond to issues of public interest and concern. In recent decades, however, the number of PMBs receiving Royal Assent has largely been in decline. Executive control of the timetable has strangled many, and procedural vulnerability has thwarted others, including many that enjoyed broad parliamentary support and commanded public interest.

There are several key problems with the PMB system:

  • Friday sitting times cause difficulties in relation to the attendance of Members;

  • the procedural mechanisms facilitate filibustering rather than effective debate and scrutiny;

  • the existence of low yet complex procedural and voting thresholds enable even limited opposition to thwart popular bills; and

  • the resources made available to Members to develop and promote PMBs are limited.

The report's authors - Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox - with MPs Natascha Engel, Chris Bryant and Christopher Chope at the launch of the report "Enhancing the role of backbench MPs", April 2011. (© Hansard Society)
The report's authors - Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox - with MPs Natascha Engel, Chris Bryant and Christopher Chope at the launch of the report "Enhancing the role of backbench MPs", April 2011
  1. PMB sitting times should be reformed: the key to management of PMB time should be to maximise opportunities for debate as flexibly as possible. We propose PMB time should be increased from the current 65 hours to perhaps 80 hours to be allocated by the Backbench Business Committee in, for example, any combination of the following:

    • on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings;

    • on Wednesday mornings for up to two hours;

    • on Thursday afternoons or evenings (including in Westminster Hall); and

    • on Fridays (on a limited basis and for second reading only)

  2. Each stage should be able to accumulate over more than one sitting if required, as is the case with government bills, in order to maximise use of time and build flexibility into the system.

  3. Timetabling should be introduced through an automatic guillotine applied to each stage of a PMB on the floor of the House: three hours for Second Reading; three hours each for consideration of a bill reported back from a Public Bill Committee and from a Report Committee (see below); and one hour for Third Reading.

  4. Time for consideration of PMBs should be allocated according to a fixed order of priority to eliminate the opportunity for Members to speculatively ‘game the system’ by laying down a PMB on a non-sitting day.

  5. Carry-over motions could be applied to a small number of well-supported bills to ensure they are not lost at the end of each session.

  6. The House should reach a settled view on the value of time limits on speeches during PMB debates.

  7. The Public Bill Committee (PBC) stage should be reformed by removing the government’s current power to decide whether more than one PBC for PMBs should exist at any one time. Where appropriate, PBCs might also hold public-evidence hearings.

  8. A PMB Report Committee should be established to take report stage off the floor of the House.

  9. The resources available to help those Members who top the PMB ballot to draft their bill should be uprated (from the current £200 agreed in 1971).

Brazier, A. & Fox, R. (2011), Enhancing the role of backbench MPs: Proposals for reform of Private Members' Bills, (Hansard Society: London)