Why are Private Members Bills unlikely to become Acts of Parliament?

A Private Members Bill is a parliamentary bill which, rather than being introduced by the Government, is introduced by a Backbench MP. It is unusual for these bills to become law because they do not automatically have the support of the Government who, under First Past the Post, normally have a significant majority in Parliament.

Parliamentary SessionBills receiving Royal AssentGovernment BillsHybrid BillsPrivate BillsPrivate Members Bill
2015-20163826156
2016-20173924168
2017-201972521415
2019-201943100
2019-20215850107
2021-20221010000
Totals22116551536
Bills given Royal Assent in the UK Parliament since the 2015 General Election

Since the 2015 General Election 221 bills have gained Royal Assent and become Acts of Parliament. Of these:

76.9% have been bills introduced by the Government (Government Bills).

6.7% have been Private Bills.

16.2% have been Private Members Bills.

Within the category of Private Members Bills there are four-subcategories. Each have varying chances of becoming law.

  1. Bills introduced by Ordinary Presentation

A bill presented under Ordinary Presentation is one which is presented without debate in the House of Commons. Instead, the bill will simply be listed on the Order Paper. An example of these bills is shown on a section of the Order Paper below:

Conservative MP Christopher Chope is a prolific introducer of Private Members Bills.

It is extremely rare for a Bill presented by Ordinary Presentation to become a law. Instead, they are normally a way for an MP to bring attention to an issue. By listing a bill for debate, they can draw media attention and that of their constituents towards that issue. A Backbench MP who is well-known for doing this is Conservative MP Christopher Chope. Since the 2015 General Election he has introduced 119 Private Members Bills, none of which have become law. However, he clearly point his constituents to his incessant activity in the chamber and that he is advocating for the interests that he believes that the they care about.

Since the 2015 General Election six bills have received Royal Assent after being introduced by Ordinary Presentation. However, one of these were extremely important and somewhat unusual:

The ‘Benn Act’ would not normally have been possible, but the Government lost control of the parliamentary agenda.

European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 – This Private Members Bill became commonly known as the Benn Act after Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who introduced it. This Bill was introduced at the height of the Brexit Crisis in 2019. This bill was passed after the opposition had used Standing Order 24 to wrestle control of the parliamentary agenda away from the Government. The Act forced the Prime Minister to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 deadline.

2. Bills presented from the Ballot

The best way for an MP to secure the chance to put forward a Private Members Bill is by winning one of the seven Private Members Ballot slots available in the yearly Private Members Bill ballot. Each year a ballot takes place in which all Backbench MPs can enter. Twenty lotto balls are drawn out and those twenty MPs have priority for on the 13 Friday’s set aside for Backbench Bills in each parliamentary year. Of these twenty, the first seven are each guaranteed a full day’s debate for their proposed bill. As such, these seven slots are highly sought after. In 2021 the following MPs were drawn for these seven slots and are listed below with the bills they put forward:

  1. Mark Jenkinson, Conservative, Workington: Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill
  2. Barry Gardiner, Labour, Brent North: Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill
  3. Carolyn Harris, Labour, Swansea East: Menopause (Support and Services) Bill
  4. Dr Liam Fox, Conservative, North Somerset: Down Syndrome Bill
  5. Sajid Javid*, Conservative, Bromsgrove: Bill not entered.
  6. Kevin Brennan, Labour, Cardiff West: Copyright (Rights and Remuneration of Musicians, Etc.) Bill
  7. Jeff Smith, Labour, Manchester Withington: Medical Cannabis (Access) Bill

* At the time of the ballot Sajid Javid was a Backbench MP but has since been made Secretary of State for Health.

Of these bills, it is likely that only Mark Jenkinson and Liam Fox’s bill will become Acts of Parliament (as of 26.12.21). However, Carolyn Harris withdrew her bill after the Government agreed to reduce the cost of the Hormone Replacement Therapy Process meaning she achieved a success on this issue.

Official portrait of Mark Jenkinson MP crop 2.jpg
Mark Jenkinson, who only became an MP in 2019, won the Backbench Ballot in 2021.

Since 2015 there have been 25 Ballot Bills that have become laws. Notably, of these, 17 have been introduced by Conservative MPs. This indicates that PMBs are more likely to pass if they have been introduced by a Government backbencher. Often, Government Whips will try to encourage the winners in the ballot to push forward bills that are already in the Government’s preference.

3. Lords Private Members Bills

Private Members Bills can also be introduced by a Lords Backbencher. Since 2015 only one Private Members Bill introduced in the Lords has become an Act of Parliament. This was the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Act 2019 which made it easier to prosecute cases of Female Genital Mutilation.

4. Ten Minute Rule Motion

Beyond these options, one of the best chances an MP might have to push forward a bill is through submitting a Ten Minute Rule motion.

Fife Labour accused of playing politics over Woodmill campus by their own  former MP | Dunfermline Press
Former Labour MP Thomas Docherty once slept in an office to secure 10 Minute Rule slots.

Ten-Minute rule slots are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. Famously, in the series Inside the Commons Labour MP Tommy Docherty was seen conspiring with some opposition backbenchers to ensure he grabbed the best slots. He even slept in the office next door to the bill office the night before it opened!

If successful in securing a slot an MP outlines their proposed bill for ten minutes, often talking hurriedly to ensure they cover as much content as they can. An example of this can be seen below:

Pete Wishart’s 10 Minute Rule Bill called for Cabinet Appointments to be ratified by Parliament,

Following this another MP can, if they wish, set out their opposition to bill for ten minutes. A division on the bill will then take place. Most ten-minute rule bills are rejected at first reading. This is because they very rarely have government support. Even if they pass First Reading, Ten Minute Rule Bills are extremely unlikely to pass through the House and become laws.

Since the 2015 there have been 363 Private Members Bills introduced under the Ten Minute Rule. Of these, just 4 (1.1%) have received Royal Assent and become laws.

Even if a bill passes first reading and is scheduled for second reading, there is no guarantee it will ever be debated again. This is because all but 27 days of the parliamentary agenda are controlled by the government under Standing Order 14 and if they do not actively support a bill, it is unlikely to be found the time for further progression.

Whilst Ten Minute Rule bills are very unlikely to become laws they are a popular mechanism amongst MPs to bring attention to issues in their constituency, or to national issues which they believe need more focus.

Since stepping down as PM Theresa May has become an effective Backbench MP.

A good example of this can be seen in Theresa May (who won the Spectator Magazine’s ‘Backbencher of the Year’ award in 2021). In 2020 May introduced the Death by Dangerous Driving (Sentencing) Bill under the Ten Minute Rule Motion. In bringing forward this bill she mentioned cases from our own constituency. These included the very sad case of a 19 year old female who was killed at the hands of a driver under the influence of both drink and drugs. He served just four years in prison. Following introduction of the bill, national debate was ignited surrounding the issue. Most people agreed that sentencing for dangerous drivers was too lenient. Therefore, following this, this the Government included May’s proposals in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. This will increase the penalties for dangerous driving, including by raising the maximum penalty for causing a death whilst under the influence of drink and drugs to fourteen years.

This is a good example that a Ten Minute Rule bill does not have to become law itself to have an impact on public policy.

Why are Private Members Bills unlikely to become Acts of Parliament?

There are a number of reasons why Private Members Bills are unlikely to become Acts of Parliament:

  1. Lack of Time

Under House of Commons Standing Order 14 “government business shall have precedence at every sitting”. This means that the Government controls most of the Parliamentary time available. Just 35 days in a parliamentary sessions are put aside for Backbench Business. This means there are limited opportunities for a bill to be put forward.

2. Lack of Government Support

The main parliamentary aim of the Government is to fulfil their legislative agenda and their manifesto promises. They are not usually keen on supporting Opposition bills, even if they are introduced by an Opposition Backbencher. Under First Past the Post Government’s normally have a significant majority and therefore Government support, at least to a significant degree, is required for any bill to pass.

3. The role of Government Whips

At times, Government Whips can lean on their backbenchers to put forward bills that are actually part of the Government’s agenda and although they may technically still be Backbench Bills, in reality they are usurped by the Government. With the enormous power or patronage that the whips have and the prestige that comes from having a Private Members Bill become a law, it takes a hardened MP to reject the advances of the Government whips.

A good example of this can be seen in a bill put forward by Tim Loughton in 2019. This bill would equalise the right to Civil Partnerships between heterosexual and homosexual couples. This was a response to the judicial review Supreme Court case of R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for International Development which forced the government to adopt this legislation. Notably, though, Loughton was a good choice by the government to introduce this legislation as he had previously sought to change the law in this area a number of times.

4. Objections from other Backbench MPs

If a bill is down for debate but there is not time for it to be debated (this happens a often) the name of the bill will be read out by the Speaker. If no MP objects, the bill can pass to Second Reading without any debate. If the bill is entirely uncontroversial the bill might be allowed to pass to the next stage. However, often, opposition backbench MPs will object to a bill being put forward without any debate. By simply shouting ‘object’ an opposition MP can kill a bill in its tracks.

This famously and controversially happened in the case of the Voyeurism (Offences) Act (2019). This bill sought to criminalise a loophole in the law that meant that so-called upskirting (taking a photo up somebody’s skirt) was somehow not a crime. When this issue was bought up as a Private Members Bill the Conservative MP Christopher Chope objected:

Chope was widely criticised for this action. However, he tried to explain that he was not objecting in regards to the issue of the bill itself. He said that he was objecting to the fact that the bill was being pushed through second reading without a debate. Chope said that “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.”

5. Filibustering

Although more familiar in US Politics, filibustering is also a tactic used to prevent Private Members Bills passing. Filibustering is the process of talking out a bill in order to take up the time needed in order to hold a vote. A famous example of filibustering occurred when, as a backbencher, Jacob Rees-Mogg filibustered an agricultural bill by reciting poetry:

In another even more controversial example a bill that would have pardoned those convicted for historical ‘crimes’ of homosexual acts was filibustered by a Government Minister, Sam Gyimah.

So, why do MPs bother putting forward Private Members Bills?

With these hurdles, it is easy to question why MPs even bother putting forward Private Members Bills. However, there are reasons that make them worthwhile:

  1. Publicity

Putting forward a Private Members Bill can bring publicity both to an issue and to an MP themselves. It is a useful way for them to show their constituents that they are working hard in their interests. They will report on their bill in their constituency newsletters and this will doubtless appease their constituents.

2. Prestige

If an MP can get a Private Members Bill passed, however unlikely, they will forever cement a legacy in Parliament. Few parliamentarians achieve this, but the chance to make a positive difference in an issue that they are passionate about is too good an opportunity to turn down.

3. Pressure

Bringing up an issue can put pressure on the Government to either support the bill or to adopt it as policy. This can be seen in Carolyn Harris’ ballot bill in 2021 where the introduction and publicity surrounding it led to the government making their own concessions on the issue. In fact, in most cases, the most realistic chance that an MP has to get a bill turned into an Act is winning the support of the Government.

4. Scrutiny of the Government

Backbench Bills are a chance to scrutinise Government policies. Just like Government Whips may attempt to lean on an MP to put forward a Government policy, Opposition Whips may lean on an MP to put forward a bill that is implicitly critical of Government policy.

So, despite rarely passing without Government support, Private Members Bills still play an important role in the parliamentary process.

1 thought on “Why are Private Members Bills unlikely to become Acts of Parliament?

  1. Pingback: Is the House of Lords more effective at scrutinising legislation than the House of Commons? | Politics Teaching

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