How Private Members’ legislation institutionalised ‘the free stuff’

Chris Game

One incidental phenomenon of this extraordinary period in our lives is all the free stuff around, and not just for NHS hero(in)es or frontline workers. For us septuagenarian social distancers there are almost limitless free games, films, ebooks, magazines, video stuff, educational goodies, hot drinks, pizzas – and rhubarb complex. No, me neither.

It took me back a few years – memory-jogged by a recent report from the ‘neo-localist’ think tank, Localis, of which more shortly – to the heyday of ‘free stuff’ in the local government world. Which in turn took me back, coinciding with MPs’ so-called return to work, to Parliament and a sometimes overlooked sphere of that work that every so often genuinely enhances public life – considerably more than most Question Times, in-person or virtual.

I’m talking Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) – the means by which non-ministerial MPs and Peers can attempt to get their names into the statute books. Or – much more usually – a one-line Hansard mention. I jest not – of the 386 PMBs introduced in the extended 2017-19 Parliamentary session, just 15 received Royal Assent.

Like everything else about our Parliament – fabric, functioning, and obviously electoral system – the whole PMB thing is decades overdue for overhaul and reform. Yet, almost despite itself, it regularly does produce seriously worthwhile law.

And there was one decade in which it excelled, creating a shelf of legislation that remains today hugely worthwhile – abolition of capital punishment, reform of law on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, theatre censorship, Sunday entertainment – and that was just the headline stuff.

The 1960s, of course – as I was discovering a genuine interest in politics, had university essays to write, and became fascinated by this way of handling ‘conscience legislation’ – which is probably why I still pay sporadic attention to what goes on.

I admit, though, I had little idea of how the show-off Presentation Bill procedure had mushroomed of late. The Hansard Society counted 147 of them in that extended last session – except that there weren’t, in any physical sense. For all you need do is, well, present your proposed Bill’s title – handfuls at a time, if you feel really shouty – to a sparsely occupied Friday Commons.

This still infant session is already set to leave that 147 total standing. Imagine that Thursday a fortnight ago, first day back at school, as the shoutiest boys (you can’t imagine women MPs bothering with this stuff, can you?) presented their holiday homework. Arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone managed 15 Bills, but his supposed mate, Sir Christopher Chope, left him almost wimpering with his (I think) 41.

Thankfully, you don’t even get to air what’s bothering you, because there’s no speech, no debate, and the things are frequently not even printed. Yes, there are occasional, vital exceptions – like the recent EU (Withdrawal) Bills sponsored by Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn that sought to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the absence of the Withdrawal Bill’s ratification.

But exceptions they were. If you have a serious cause, a genuine knowledge of the subject and the deficiencies of the present legislation, plus ideally access to ‘expert’ advice and parliamentary drafting skills, then you don’t shout, but try a Ten-Minute Rule Bill and/or chance your luck in the Private Members’ Bill ballot.

It’s a big parliamentary happening, at the start of each session. Most eligible MPs enter, their anonymised numbers inscribed on ping-pongy balls and pulled out of, obviously, a goldfish bowl for total transparency. The first 20 names then get, in reverse order, a guaranteed Friday slot in the parliamentary timetable to introduce and hopefully progress their chosen Bill.

Of the 15 PMBs passed in the last session nine were these Ballot Bills. Most focus on a specific need, injustice or population group, like the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, introduced by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who came 8th in the 2017 ballot, and which has finally came into operation last month.

Labelled ‘Jack’s Law’, after Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy led the campaign for the Bill, it authorises a minimum of two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for the several thousand employed parents each year who lose a child under the age of 18 or have a stillbirth from the 24th week of pregnancy.

The difficulty in taking on an obdurate Government on a politically big issue is sadly illustrated by SNP MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, 7th in the 2016 ballot. She tried embarrassing the Government, already five years after signing the Council of Europe’s wide-ranging Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women, into actually ratifying it into UK law, instead of merely agreeing how jolly important it was and blocking it in the EU Council.

Three years later: surprise! Shamefully, still unratified. However, with the Counting Dead Women project estimating at least 16 domestic abuse killings during the first three weeks of lockdown, Home Secretary Priti Patel is reportedly considering setting up a new cross-government taskforce on domestic abuse. So that’s sorted, then.

Apologies for the extended diversion. I do realise that at least the climax to an INLOGOV blog should ideally be both local governmenty and positive – and this one is, courtesy of Chris White, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington from 2010 to 2017.

With beginner’s luck, White came third in the 2010 Private Members’ Ballot, and used it outstandingly, to introduce the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. Working ‘with the grain’ of both central and local government progressive thinking, it required councils and other public bodies to pay regard to ‘social impact’ – social, economic and environmental well-being – when making procurement decisions.

Some councils needed no convincing, but others did. Yet, really quite rapidly, social value advanced – from campaign slogan, through the development of Social Value Strategies, to statutory requirement, to an almost universally recognised consideration in dealing with both public and frequently private sectors.

The Localis think tank argues – not for the first time, but in greater depth – that the Government should now go further. Councils should be required to produce publicly available Community Value Charters defining where social value offers would be best targeted, thereby aiding both commissioners and potentially bidding contractors.

Thanks significantly to Chris White, as the publication reminds us, we’ve come a long way from councillors and officers on the procurement side of a negotiating table asking, slightly self-consciously: “What about all the free stuff – sorry, the additional economic, environmental and social value?” – and bidders frantically guessing what might be required to seal the deal.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.