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Need to Know: The Private Members' Bill Ballot

20 June 2017

As a new session commences with an unusually dramatic Queen's Speech, away from the drama of the main political stage, MPs new and old will be busy scheming how best to make a mark on the House – and the law of the land – over the coming extended Parliamentary period.

With the Government announcing a bumper two-year Parliamentary session, greater attention than usual could be focused upon the Private Member's Bill Ballot, the normally-annual procedure permitting 20 MPs to make an attempt at creating a new law of their choice.

For those who won a coveted Private Members’ Bill ballot slot, their efforts will be focused on overseeing the passage of their own pet piece of legislation as it runs the gauntlet of both an uninterested ministerial cadre, and bolshie backbenchers bent on sabotage.

Place near the top, and if you catch the imagination of the powers that be, the necessary strings will be pulled to secure passage. But fall further down the rankings, or come up against the wrath of ministers and irate backbenchers, and you face the ignominy of indefinite deferral - a Parliamentary shorthand for death.

An openness to being “talked out” despite securing time to move has frustrated many PMBs in the past, and is frequently linked to certain Conservative MPs with a penchant for procedurally-informed awkwardness.

An intriguing reflection of the quixotic British legislature and its procedural traditions, the consideration of Ballot Bills brings excitement and frustration in almost equal measure for both participants and public affairs professionals hoping to engage.

Based on luck of the draw, winners stand a genuine chance of changing the law, but face significant hurdles both in terms of support and, conversely, a simple lack of opposition.

Previously perceived as one of the curiosities of Parliament, this quintessentially British system could face an unwelcome intrusion from reality this year, as an expansion in available time means it will no longer be possible to simply rely on the inevitable expiry of a Bill's chances after less than a calendar year.

Meanwhile, with Parliament divided and a majority elusive, the Government could easily face defeat on a Bill in the face of a popular approach.

Traditionally, where the Government fails to get behind a Bill, it remains unlikely to pass – a reason why some MPs chosen in the ballot take their pick from a roster of viable new laws on approved subjects, allowing them greater confidence that their efforts will be rewarded.

Under the 2017 Parliamentary mathematics, the Bill Ballot list could provide scope for some of the Government's more experimental proposals, offered to Parliament without the drama and baggage accompanying a fragile administration's attempt to pass a Public Bill.

What's more, the reasoning behind the bumper session - a lack of time for essential Brexit legislation - might reasonably be expected to provoke a rethink of the way Business is handled on sitting Fridays.

The Hansard Society has previously hit out at the PMB system, issuing a report that attacked “the excessive control of time by the Executive” and the way in which procedure seemed to “facilitate filibustering”.

The Society also suggested that MPs lacked the resources they needed to push their PMBs higher up the agenda and get them through – all of which meant fewer were being passed than previously.

Regardless, for now, the Bills remain an important campaigning tool, their appearance on the schedule provoking much-needed media interest and persuading new Parliamentary backers.

Meanwhile, lawyerly attention devoted to drafting and defining the scope of intended changes is also useful in proffering future proposals.

And indeed, the persistence of a plucky MP who battles the odds for their cause could just be what it takes to catch Cabinet eyes…

Stay in the know with DeHavilland

The 2017 Bill Ballot is scheduled to take place on Thursday 29 June.

We'll be producing a special briefing highlighting the PMB process and providing an update on MPs' choices for their 2017 ballot bills, keeping you in the know about the proposals with a plum position for Parliamentary progress. To ensure you get the briefing, plus key updates and analysis on every major development, take a trial today.

The DeHavilland Editorial Team

DeHavilland's Editorial Team is dedicated to bringing clients informative and timely political information in a format that suits their needs.