A Private Members’ Bill is a proposal for a new law that does not come from the Government (like the majority of proposed legislation) but from backbench MPs. Private Members’ Bills are often used to raise awareness of an issue and are rarely passed straight into law. However, they can lead to new laws indirectly. That’s why they have become a tried-and-tested route for campaigners to push for new legislation. Read on for an explanation of the different kinds of Private Members’ Bills.
There are several ways that a Private Members’ Bill can progress through Westminster to become law. One way is for the Government to take it up for themselves and make it law as a Government-led proposal. This is what happened with the ‘Big Ask’ campaign. The group introduced a Private Members’ Bill in 2005, which eventually led to the Government-supported Climate Change Act 2008.
There are three (main) types of Private Members’ Bill: the Presentation Bill, the Ten Minute Rule Bill and the Ballot Bill. The CEE Bill started life as a Presentation Bill. This was a first step into Parliament. It allowed us to gain support inside and outside Westminster, familiarise MPs and Peers with the Bill and develop our counter arguments in response to any objections. To read more about what happened with the Presentation Bill in the first phase of the campaign, see this blog.
With the start of a new parliamentary session in May 2021, Caroline Lucas reintroduced the CEE Bill on 21 June, again as a Presentation Bill. This means we keep a foothold in parliament and can continue to build support for the campaign. However, just like in the first phase of the campaign, it is unlikely that the Bill will be debated as a Presentation Bill. That's why Caroline is also seeking to obtain an upcoming slot in summer/autumn 2021 to introduce the Bill as a Ten Minute Rule Bill. With this type of Bill, the MP sponsoring the Bill (in our case, Caroline Lucas) has ten minutes—known as the “first reading”—in the House of Commons to make the case for it. An opposing MP (if there is one) is then also given ten minutes to outline arguments against the proposal. That’s why it was important that we build support for the campaign before taking this step. We can now anticipate what that counter case will look like. And second, the campaign now has enough momentum behind it to withstand a critique in Parliament: campaigns that begin life as a Ten Minute Rule Bill risk falling at this first hurdle.
The next phase would be to introduce the CEE Bill as a Ballot Bill. Ballot Bills are introduced by MPs (and Peers) who are randomly drawn by lot. These Private Members’ Bills are the most likely to become law in their own right, as they are prioritised on the parliamentary timetable. We haven’t pursued a Ballot Bill yet as we need to make sure that we have enough MPs on side first. Ballot Bills are much more likely to get onto the next rung up the ladder to becoming law—the “second reading”—than Presentation or Ten Minute Rule Bills. During the second reading, MPs decide whether the Bill can progress onto the next stage—”committee stage”—and are often vulnerable to opposition. It’s therefore critical to have support of close to 50% of MPs before taking this route. Without that level of support, a Ballot Bill risks being knocked back with nowhere else to go for the entire parliamentary session.
All the time we are ‘on the books’ in Parliament using the mechanisms available to us, we raise the profile of the Bill among MPs and Peers and apply pressure on the Government, making it ever more likely that it takes up the Bill itself.
So if your MP says that “it’s just a Private Members’ Bill and won’t lead to anything,” it’s important to remember that using this kind of parliamentary mechanism is a strategic step in a well-trodden campaign path to success. We know that Westminster processes are complex and unclear, but when it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple: the more MPs that support the CEE Bill, the more likely it is to become law—one way or another.
For a helpful explanation of Private Members’ Bills more generally, take a look at the Hansard Society site
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