The Use and Abuse of Private Members Bills

The latest dispatch from Kim Lane Scheppele on Paul Krugman’s blog is now in. It raises a very interesting point which I didn’t notice when looking through the Hungarian Parliament’s website. Most of the important constitutional measures proposed in Hungary, and other measures too, came in the form of private members bills. These are bills that are proposed by members who are not part of the government. This seemed strange to me – in the UK, using a private members bill offers little to no advantage for a government trying to legislate. But in Hungary, private members bills are much easier to get into law. So I thought it was time to have a little comparison.

United Kingdom:

In the British parliament, there are three ways for an MP to propose a private members bill. Firstly, MPs are subject to a ballot every session – the 20 MPs who win that ballot get the opportunity to propose as many private members bills as they wish. If MPs are the first outside the Public Bill Office three weeks before the so-called ten minute rule bill debate may also introduce a bill where they have ten minutes to argue their case after Question Time and another member has a similar amount of time to argue against it – it then must be voted on to be eligible for further debate. Members say which particular Friday (and it nearly always is a Friday) they want their bill to be debated on and it simply depends on the Leader of the House, a government minister, as to whether the House of Commons actually sits on that day. If so, the order paper for that day is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis so putting down a bill for debate early is crucial to getting a chance to make law, though ten-minute rule bills have lower priority. There are precisely five hours of debating time on any given Friday and if a bill does not pass its reading that day, it may be lost. Private members bills are subject to the same quorum constraints (40 MPs on any vote) as normal bills with the added disadvantage that most MPs aren’t in Westminster on Fridays – they’re in their constituencies. Not only that, but bills can be talked out since ordinary members can’t propose programme motions to limit debate. If the debate is still ongoing when the five-hour limit is up, the House adjourns and another day is unlikely to be found for it to continue its stage. The Speaker may force a member to sit down if he or she is abusing his or her speaking opportunities but that’s a very rare event. Any private members bill must pass all stages, including a public bill committee where it could be amended or consideration dragged out, before passing the House.

In the Lords, peers may propose any number of private members bills whenever they like and the Usual Channels (read: the Lords party leaders and whips) will select which Friday the bills get put down for debate. In the Lords there are no real quorum restraints (three peers is the quorum) and since it’s the House of Lords programme motions and time allocation motions are not permitted anyway. There are the same five hours for debate on any bill with the same potential for talking out a bill. It is entirely possible that peers may move the motion that ‘the question be now put’ which stops any filibusterers in their tracks but it’s a very controversial procedure and peers don’t like to use it. It must follow all the normal rules of public bills, including the fact that any public bill that hasn’t been passed by the end of the session dies.

Sometimes, uncontroversial private members bills can be given government time if they support it which is a great help to any private members bill.

Canada: MPs can propose Private Members’ Bills in Canada easily, and each day in the chamber is one hour of debate on a Private Members’ Bill. At introduction, a member may make a brief explanatory statement on the bill. Twenty of these bills are given ‘priority’ for discussion by the subcommittee on Private Members’ Business and after that one hour of debate the bill must be voted on. The bill is then sent to committee as are all public bills and is considered for up to sixty days (though the House can extend that by another thirty if the committee wishes). When the bill comes back from committee (where it could be killed or amended). The bill is then given two hours on separate days (extendable to five hours on the second day) for a combined report and third reading, though it should be noted that after the first hour the bill becomes very low priority and has to work its way back up the list.

Senators can also propose Private Senators’ Bills and they follow a similar process, going through all the normal stages. It is, again, very difficult to pass a private senator’s bill. Again, time allocation motions cannot be moved for private senator’s bills.

Private Members’ Bills are exempt from the end-of-session culling that all government bills must undergo.

United States: All bills are private members bills, in effect, so no rules constrain them in a different way to normal. All bills must go through committee and sub-committee as well as being voted through on the floor of the chambers.

Australia: MHRs may propose Private Members’ Bills any day and may make a five minute statement on it in support of the bill. The Second Reading will be allocated to a Private Members’ day by the Selection Committee. If it’s given a second reading, the bill is given priority over other private members’ business. They can be referred to a Standing or Select Committee for an advisory report, but this is very rare. It then must proceed through consideration in detail and third reading. Time is set aside on Mondays for debates on committee business and private members’ business, with the order of business decided by the Selection Committee which does not often select private members business. Because there is only 2 hours and fifteen minutes set aside for this and committee business can be quite heavy, it is very unlikely a bill will pass a stage in that time.

Senators may also propose Private Senators’ Bills and Private Members’ Bills in the Senate, which have to go through the usual stages of second reading, committee of the whole Senate, and third reading. They can, in theory, be the subject of an advisory report by Senate Standing Committees but that is an unlikely event. Private Members’/Senators’ Bills are exempt from rules which cut off consideration of bills towards the end of the sitting period (usually a month or two of sittings divided by another few months of recess) if they haven’t been debated in a previous sitting period. Time is not routinely set aside for consideration of private members’/senators’ business, so it is very unlikely that such bills will be debated.

Sessions in Australia coincide exactly with parliaments, so the sessional culling is not usually an issue, but the potential is there for business to be resumed from the stage it was at before the end of the session. Not that Private Members’/Senators’ Bills are likely to pass in any case, but still.

New Zealand: Any member may propose a Members’ Bill but there is a ballot for its introduction, with eight bills getting introduced on a day in which Members’ Business takes precedence. On the third sitting day after introduction, a Members’ Bill is put down for first reading debate. All Members’ Bills will be referred to a Select Committee and have to follow the usual full debates in second reading, committee of the whole house, and third reading.

Bills fail at the end of the session, but all sessions are always the length of parliaments these days. Very few Members’ bills go through to receive Royal Assent.

France: Propositions de loi, as they are called, are the equivalent of private members’ bills. They follow the usual legislative procedure – tabling, debate in Standing or ad-hoc Committee, general debate, consideration of clauses and amendments, final debate. There is one sitting per month where business is determined by the assembly as demanded by the Constitution and hence members’ bills can be debated. The government can, of course, let these bills have government time, but it’s rare. If a bill fails, it must wait a year before it can be reintroduced. In the Senate, members bills have to go through a similar process.

Germany: A member may introduce a bill when it is signed by 5% of the members of the Bundestag. These bills follow most of the usual processes, but members’ bills don’t have to be submitted for comment to the Bundesrat (which can take six weeks). It still must go through all three readings and committee, and if it requires the Bundesrat’s consent it must also be presented to and passed by them.

Sweden: Members’ bills can only be introduced by members during fifteen days in January, though members can introduce as many as they please. These have to follow the usual process of committee, commission of inquiry, and parliamentary approval, but it’s much more common to simply write motions, sometimes in connection with government bills, rather than full legislative bills of their own.

Italy: A bill may only be introduced with the support of ten members or the head of a political grouping. All bills must go through the same procedure, including committee although these bills are frequently adjourned until the end of a legislative session. If a bill fails, it must wait a period of time before it can be reintroduced.

In the Senate, each Senator may put his or her name to only six private members’ bills a year, and all bills must once again go through all stages including committee.

Hungary: From my reading of the Standing Orders, a member’s bill on introduction must be assigned to a committee which can potentially kill the bill (they can’t do this with government bills). If the committee refuses to consider it, a vote on proposal of a faction leader can force it onto the order paper anyway. The bill must then proceed through general debate and the consideration in detail.

But bear in mind that it’s not rare that governments abuse private members bills, but it’s usually to a much lesser degree than the Hungarian case. Sometimes, the UK government has ‘handout’ bills which it can give to its members, but this is on a very small scale, on minor subjects, and usually it’s either to avoid being held accountable for it or to give its members something to do. Germany’s government also sometimes introduces some of its bills through its own members if they are urgent (since members’ bills don’t have to be submitted to the Bundesrat for comment first). Other countries may also do this, but these are the two I know of.

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