What is the Private Members Ballot and why is it so important to backbenchers?

In the last Parliament (2017-2019) only four private bills made it through Parliament and received Royal Assent. This compares to 63 public bills, which are usually introduced by the Government.

https://politicsteaching.com/2020/01/08/what-is-meant-by-the-elective-dictatorship-and-why-does-it-exist/

The Government dominates the legislative agenda and very little time is available for backbenchers to try to pass legislation. However, hope is offered through the the Backbench Ballot which takes place each year. Backbench MPs enter a ballot (lottery) and 20 Backbench MPs win the chance to earn priceless parliamentary time for a bill o their choice. Of these 20, the first seven drawn are pretty much guaranteed time to put forward their bill on Friday Mornings, which are usually reserved for backbench business.

This years draw took place on 9th January and resulted in the following MPs being drawn:

  1. Labour MP, Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale)
  2. Labour MP, Darren Jones (Bristol North West)
  3. Labour MP, Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North)
  4. Conservative MP, Laura Trott (Sevenoaks)
  5. Conservative MP, Chris Loder (West Dorset)
  6. Labour MP, Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree)
  7. Conservative MP, Philip Dunne (Ludlow)
  8. Conservative MP, Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)
  9. Conservative MP, Mr Mark Francois, (Rayleigh and Wickford)
  10. Conservative MP, Dr Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge)
  11. Conservative MP, Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden)
  12. SNP MP, Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire)
  13. SNP MP, Peter Grant (Glenrothes)
  14. Labour MP, Alex Cunningham (Stockton North)
  15. Labour MP, Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham)
  16. Conservative MP, Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
  17. Conservative MP, Bill Wiggin ( North Herefordshire)
  18. Labout MP, Kate Osamor (Edmonton)
  19. Conservative MP, Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness)
  20. SNP MP, Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North Wes

Whilst these MPs will have the chance to put forward their bills, it is still unlikely that they will become law. This is for a number of reasons:

Filibustering – A filibuster is a tactic that can be used to prevent a vote on a bill by continuing to talk so there is not time left for a vote. It is also commonly called ‘talking out’ a bill. The modern record for the length of a filibuster is held by Labour MP Andrew Dismore. In 2005 he held the floor for 3 hours and 17 minutes, although he did take interventions from other MPs during this time. A famous filibusterer is Jacob Rees-Mogg who is renowned for his wide use of the English language in his speeches. One example of Mogg filibustering can be seen below:

Other recentexamples of filibusters include:

In October 2016 Labour MP Julie Cooper was attempting to pass a bill to exempt carers from paying hospital car park charges – it was filibustered by Conservative MP Philip Davies.

In October 2017 a Labour bill to reduce the voting age to 16 was filibustered by numerous Conservatives. The MP proposing the bill, Jim McMahon, reacted angrily to the tactics used by the Conservatives:

Difficulty of Cloture Motions – Under parliamentary rules a filibuster can be stopped by a cloture motion. This is a motion to bring a debate to a close and requires a simple majority. However, there is a further hurdle to overcome – a cloture motion needs the support of over 100 MPs. On a normal parliamentary day, this might not be an issue. However, Private Members bills are normally consider on a Friday, when most MPs are absent from Parliament and can be found in their constituencies. This makes achieving a cloture motion is almost impossible.

This is the kind of image viewers on BBC Parliament might see on a Friday in the the chamber.

With these challenges, the best hope a backbencher has to get his bill passed is to win the support of the government for their agenda. For example, in 2017 Labour MP Chris Bryant used his Private Members Ballot slot to make assault on emergency workers a particular criminal offence punishable by up to 12 months in prison (as opposed to six months on a non-emergency worker). This was something the government was quick to support, the bill even passed third reading without a division (vote), showing its popularity.

An even more famous example is the abolition of the Death Penalty. The Death Penalty was abolished in Britain by 1965. For such a significant piece of legislation it is perhaps surprising to think that it was a Private Members Bill. It was first introduced by Labour MP Sydney Silverman. A Free Vote (where whips do not direct their party members) and it passed the House of Commons by 200 to 98 before passing the House of Lords by 204 to 104. It was clear that the public mood had turned against the Death Penalty and MPs reflected this mood.

So, 20 MPs will be excitedly preparing Private Member Bills to make the most of their chance in the parliamentary limelight. Most will fail, however, with a bit of luck and some prominent people behind it, these MPs stand their best chance of making their legislative mark in the House of Commons.

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