Sunday, 1 July 2012

Staying up (late) for a Private Member's Bill

Staying up for a Private Member's Bill by Ben Gummer

If nothing else, the job of your MP is to vote on legislation on your behalf. That is what representative democracy is all about. Almost everything we do is focused on public bills - voting on the legislation that the government wants to see enacted.

But there is also a special kind of proposed law called a private member's bill - a piece of possible legislation put forward by an individual backbench MP. These ideas are discussed every Friday when parliament is sitting, which is the day when almost all MPs have returned to their constituencies. So there are not many people around when they are debated in the chamber of the House.

That does not mean that they are not important. Some very big legislation - like the 1967 Abortion Act - started life as a private member's bill. Many of them are of pretty niche but nonetheless significant interest - often 'tidying-up' ideas that the government wants to see happen but does not want to expend precious time debating elsewhere in the week. So for instance, my neighbour, Thérèse Coffey, had a bill passed last year concerning who pays for the salvage of shipwrecks, whilst my predecessor, Chris Mole, got changes made to the law on collecting by the British Library to ensure that they captured internet records as well as journals and books.

As there is only limited time, you cannot just propose a law and hope to have it debated. You have to win a place in a ballot held at the beginning of each session. Failing that, there is one other way, however, to get space on a Friday to have a bill debated: to put your name down on a given day. Demand for this is normally quite high, so people queue. Not for twenty minutes but for a day - a full 24 hours. It is, if you like, a test of endurance to see how badly you want your bill put before the House.

My idea was one I've wanted to see happen for some time: a cap on the debt that a government can run up, hopefully making sure we can never get into this mess again. Having failed in the draw, I knew I had to queue. I found out the day I had to present my proposal and the day before made my way to the corridor, in a distant upper corridor of the Houses of Parliament, where the clerks work who organize these things. On arriving at the clerk's office, I was shown a book-lined room, with a table and enough space for a couple of sleeping bags on the floor. There I made camp: lunch, laptop and a good supply of chocolate bars.

Soon I was joined by some fellow queuers: Charlie Ephicke, who wants to make the Port of Dover in his constituency the property of the local community; Thomas Docherty, a very nice Labour MP who had a whole series of bills on water and energy charges; Matt Hancock - my near-neighbour in Suffolk - whose bill was on horse racing; and Caroline Lucas, parliament's only Green MP.

For twelve or so hours it was all good fun: we chatted and gossiped and got some work done. But past midnight we'd had enough and came to a gentlemanly agreement to take turns saving each others' spaces. So I was able to turn in until the morning, returning in time to present my bill - as first in the queue - to the clerk at ten AM. The result is that yours truly has will be presenting his proposed law on 9th November.

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