When the personal goes public: Private Members' Bill

Some of our laws have their origins in private members’ bills, usually introduced by backbench members of parliament—driven by individuals and their personal passions, rather than party manifestos. Here we take a look at some notable examples of this quirky law-making process.

  • Last updated Jul 4, 2019 9:25:53 AM
  • Emma Finamore
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A private members’ bill (PMB) in the UK parliament is a type of public bill that can be introduced by either members of the House of Commons or House of Lords, who are not ministers. These are laws suggested by an MP that are not part of the government's planned programme of legislation. The bills are not listed by party manifestos, and they rarely become law. But of course, there are always exceptions.

These bills can also be used to create publicity for a cause or issue, and can actually affect legislation indirectly. There are three methods by which a PMB may be be introduced:

Ballot

Under this method, members who apply are drawn from a ballot and, if successful, are given parliamentary time for their bill. MPs who are successful in the ballot often have a higher chance of seeing their legislation passed, as greater parliamentary time is given to ballots than other methods of passing a PMB such as under the ‘10 Minute Rule’. It’s normal for the first seven ballot bills to get one day's debate each.

10 Minute Rule

This method of introducing a PMB takes its name from the fact that it involves a backbencher speaking for up to 10 minutes in order to advance a piece of legislation. The 10 Minute Rule can be used to generate publicity for a particular issue. In fact, they’re often used merely as an opportunity to criticise legislation rather than pass a bill.

Presentation

Under this method, any MP may introduce a PMB if they have previously given an indication that they intend to do so. Members then formally introduce the bill but do not speak to support it. It’s rare for a PMB to succeed by this method.

The current system of PMBs has been criticised for being easily susceptible to filibustering—a political procedure during which one or more members of parliament debate over a proposed piece of legislation so as to delay or entirely prevent a decision being made on the proposal. Under Commons procedure, a series of such bills are read out at the end of business without debate, and pass to the next stage only if no MP present verbally objects. If they do, the bill has to be presented again for second reading

And as the bills are debated on Fridays, attendance at debates is often poor: most Members of Parliament return to their constituencies that day.

Last year, one of the fiercest critics of PMBs was in the spotlight when he halted a private members’ bill aiming to outlaw upskirting—the practice of taking photos up a person’s skirt without their permission. Sir Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, came to public attention after he shouted “object!” to a Liberal Democrat MP’s proposal to ban upskirting. In the face of angry backlash to his actions from the public and his fellow Tory MPs, Chope said his opposition was “about who controls the House of Commons on Fridays and that’s where I am coming from”.

He told the Bournemouth Echo: “The government has been hijacking time that is rightfully that of backbenchers. This is about who controls the House of Commons on Fridays and that’s where I am coming from.

“The government is abusing parliamentary time for its own ends and in a democracy this is not acceptable. The government cannot just bring in what it wants on the nod. We don’t quite live in the Putin era yet.” Chope also pointed out that he supports banning upskirting, but not via a private members’ bill.

But there was still hope for the bill. Theresa May said she was "disappointed" and vowed that the government would take on the job of pushing the law change through parliament. She said it was necessary, describing upskirting as a "hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed". The upskirting campaign secured government backing in July and the Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill was put before parliament days later.

Chope used the same parliamentary tactic to halt a planned law making it easier to protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM). The Tory backbencher shouted “object!” when the bill was presented to the Commons for its second reading.

He’s also objected to a number of high profile bills, including one which would have pardoned war hero Alan Turing of his conviction of homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, and in 2014 he repeatedly blocked a bill that would ban the use of wild animals in circus performances.

In October 2015, Chope joined fellow Conservative MPs in filibustering against a private member’s bill that would have placed restrictions on hospital parking charges for carers. 

Here are some more notable Private Members Bills.

Smoke-free cars

Labour MP for Stockton North Alex Cunningham, wanted to make it an offence to smoke in a car when children are present. While accepting it's a private space, he believed leaving it up to individual discretion is not good enough and a ban would have "tremendous" health benefits. Cunningham is also backed by medical organisations.

In 2015 the bill became law: motorists have been reminded that they face a £50 from this Thursday if anyone under the age of 18 in their vehicle is exposed to tobacco smoke. 

Huge gold coins

Conservative MP Mark Lancaster's Coinage (Measurement) Bill—now Act—paved the way for the Royal Mint to be allowed to strike a 22-carat gold, one kilogram coin to commemorate the 2012 London Olympics. Before that, producing coins outside regulation weights was illegal.

If you want to get your hands on a mega-coin, 60 of them designed by eminent sculptor Sir Anthony Caro—worth a whopping £100,000 each—are being made.

Cheque please

Liberal Democrat David Ward made it his mission to save the humble cheque after the Payments Council—a banking industry body—had announced it would be scrapped in 2018.

As it turned out, he wasn't the only one determined to keep the cheque alive and after widespread criticism from charities and other MPs, the council relented and said it would stay "as long as customers need them".

Standing room 

Standing on the terraces at football grounds was banned following the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, but in 2010 Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster tried to open up the possibility of standing to return to UK stadiums. His Safe Standing (Football Stadia) Bill 2010-12 would have allow clubs to build limited standing areas and set the safety criteria that those must meet. The Premier League said it was against the idea.

Unfortunately for Foster, his bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session, so it made no further progress. 

Tax Freedom Day

Conservative MP Philip Hollobone is an enthusiastic proponent of PMBs and one of his standout moments came in 2011, with his Taxation Freedom Day Bill. This, in theory at least, would be a celebration of the first day of the year on which a country and its citizens have earned enough to cover their annual tax burden. Last year, according to the Adam Smith Institute, it fell on May 29.

By recognising the day, Hollobone argued, it would "provide some transparency for the British taxpayer about the burden of taxation on them and on the national economy".

His argument failed to gain the enthusiasm of his fellow MPs, however, and the bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session.

Start them young 

A private member's bill to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote was introduced in 2017. The Representation of the People (Young People's Enfranchisement) Bill, proposed by the Labour MP Jim McMahon, also aimed to improve political education in schools.

“At 16 you are liable to pay direct taxation for the first time,” explained McMahon at the time. “And if you are paying direct tax then you ought to have a say in the government that spends it on your behalf—simple as that.”

It was the reduction in age that will grab headlines and energise the campaign, but the majority of his bill’s text, he said, focused on the creation of a “proper system of citizenship and political education in schools.” 

The bill was first presented in July 2017, and had its second reading debate the following November for an hour and a half—deputy speaker Eleanor Laing ruled that this was not long enough for her to allow it to be put to a vote.

The second reading will now continue on a date to be announced.

No "fake" degrees

If you get a BA—Bachelor of Arts degree—from Oxford or Cambridge, you are entitled to a complimentary MA—Master of the Arts—several years after graduating, without doing any more work. 

Then-Labour MP Chris Leslie wanted to outlaw this quirk with his Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill in 2010, arguing it is "quite unfair" because more than 60% of employers aren’t aware of the automatic degree "upgrade". 

He said at the time that even the most "battle-hardened defenders of elitism had to admit that the total and utter lack of merit behind this apparently great award is quite unfair".

But the then-universities minister David Willetts said there was no evidence of any harm being done and he was supportive of the universities’ tradition. The Bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session. This means the Bill will make no further progress.

Fewer betting shops

Labour's Joan Ruddock says betting shops are "proliferating, squeezing out diversity and attracting anti-social behaviour". She has led calls from MPs to set a cap on the number a particular street can have.

“Local people should be given more power to stand up to the number of betting shops in areas like Deptford,” she said, referencing her own constituency in South London. I am seeking to change the planning class of betting shops and allow councils to place a cap on the number of them in an area. 

To do this, her bill proposed the removal of bookmakers from the planning class grouping them with banks, building societies and other professional and financial services, and the placing of them in their own class for planning purposes. The same recommendation was made by shopping guru Mary Portas in a government-commissioned report.

The Association of British Bookmakers said its businesses offer a "fun leisure product", and bring much needed investment to the High Street.

Ruddock’s bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session, which means it made no further progress.

Lessons in abstinence

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries raised eyebrows (and tempers) in 2011 with a private members' bill calling for teenage girls to be given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence. 

Her Sex Education (Required Content) Bill aimed to introduce these classes for girls aged 13 to 16: compulsory lessons in school about "the benefits of abstinence". 

When the bill was first proposed, Dorries said it would counter the fact that society was "saturated in sex". Teenagers should be taught that it was as "cool" to say no to sex as to know how to put a condom on their boyfriend, she said.

"The answer to ending our constant struggle with the incredibly high rate of teenage sexual activity and underage pregnancies lies in teaching our girls and boys about the option of abstinence, the ability to 'just say no', as part of their compulsory sex education," she said.

"Peer pressure is a key contributor to early sexual activity in our country. Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: 'Now go and try this for yourself.’ "

The bill angered feminists, humanists and pro-choice activists alike who demonstrated outside parliament on the day it was scheduled for second reading. The bill was eventually withdrawn before it got a hearing.

 

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