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. 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. So what is it and why is important?
What is the Backbench Ballot?
Backbench MPs can enter a yearly ballot (lottery) to secure twenty available slots to put forward a bill of their choice. Of these twenty bills, the first seven are pretty much guaranteed to be able to put forward their bill in the time allotted, which is usually on a Friday Morning when time is put side for backbench business.
Who was drawn in the most recent backbench ballot?
The most recent backbench ballot was drawn on the 16th November 2023:
The top seven slots were awarded to:
- Julie Elliott (Labour, Sunderland Central)
- Chris Elmore (Labour, Ogmore)
- Laurence Robertson (Conservative, Tewkesbury)
- Wayne David (Labour, Caerphilly)
- Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour (Co-op), Brighton, Kemptown)
- Selaine Saxby (Conservative, North Devon)
- John Spellar (Labour, Warley)
Liz Truss was 18th, but it is less likely to be able to be awarded the time to put forward her bill.
Why are Backbench bills unlikely to become Acts of Parliament?
There are other mechanisms via which MPs can put forward a bill. These are:
- Through the 10 Minute Rule Motion
- By Ordinary Presentation
However, they rarely 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 recent examples 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.
2. 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.
3. Lack of Time – The government controls the agenda in Parliament and can choose not to allocate enough time for Private Members Bills. This is why the top7 slots in the Private Members Ballot are so sorely sought after.
4. Lack of a majority – If the Bill is an Opposition Bill it is particularly unlikely to get the majority in needs in Parliament.
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. Similarly, Theresa May’s Backbench Bill in 2021 on Dangerous Driving was taken on by the government as part of their Police, Crime an Sentencing Bill.
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.
Why is winning a ballot slot so sought after?
Almost all backbench MPs will try their luck at enter the ballot. This is because it is the best chance of getting a Private Members Bill passed. In the 2021-22 parliamentary session there were 13 Private Members Bills passed. 11 of these were Ballot bills. Between 2019 and 2021 all 7 Private Members Bills that passed were ballot bills. As such, this shows why winning the chance to put forward a bill in the ballot it so sought after. Most will still 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.
The Backbench Ballot is one of the only realistic mechanisms through which most MPs are able to themselves bring about a legislative change in the UK. Traditionally, backbench bills struggle to be allocated time by the government. However, Ballot Bills (at least the first seven) are guaranteed the time to at least have a chance of passage.
Private Members Bill – A type of Parliamentary Bill which is presented by ordinary MPs. These bills are unlikely to pass because the government does not allocate very much parliamentary time to them.
Backbench Ballot – A draw held at the start of each parliamentary law which allows up to 30 MPs to potentially introduce a Private Members Bill. Places in this draw are highly sort after as it is seen to be one of the only ways that a Backbench MP can have a bill seriously considered.
Filibuster – The process whereby an MP, or a group of MPs, keep talking about a bill in order to stop it going to a vote.
Cloture Motion – The ability to bring a matter to a close in Parliament via a vote of a certain number of MPs.