The workings of our Parliament, with her roots buried deep in history, are incomprehensively mysterious and must seem utterly bizarre to most sane people. And nothing is more mysterious than the process by which MPs can take forward a Private Member’s Bill. Let me outline how I ended up sponsoring a Bill to give UK citizens overseas a ‘Vote for Life’ through the PMB process - and where I’ve reached with it - making yesterday a very special day for me
It began as a sort of raffle prize, as so much in life does. At the beginning of every new Parliamentary session, MPs put their names into a hat (well sort of) and they are drawn out. My name came out at No 8. It is the only the first 20 names drawn that have any realistic chance of progress. It meant that I quickly needed to decide on what new law I wanted to try to introduce to the statute book. Not as easy as it seems. The Government (and other parties) make suggestions to the ‘lucky’ MPs. Unfortunately none of the early ideas appealed, so I eventually decided on an bill I had supported previously but which failed - to give ‘Votes for Life’ to British citizens living abroad. Not everyone agrees with me about this. And to begin with, the Government weren’t that keen either, which was disappointing, since it had been a manifesto commitment. I knew that without Gov’t support the chances of success are almost non-existent, leaving me to put in a huge amount of work for nothing.
There are 7 Fridays in this Parliamentary session when PMBs are considered. Those drawn 1-7 in the ballot are debated first on these days and those drawn 8-14 are considered second. I was second on yesterday, Feb 23rd. following a bill to introduce ‘presumed consent’ to the Organ Donation System in England. The debating sessions begin at 9.30am and end at 2.30pm. Any debate that is not concluded by 2.30 means the bill being debated falls. End of story. Dustbin of history.
The first debate yesterday concluded without division at 12.30, at which time I introduced my Overseas Electors Bill. I limited my opening speech to around ten minutes, and suggested to others they truncate their speeches in order that a division would be reached. Some of my colleagues withdrew their requests to speak for same reason. It was all going reasonably OK, until a small group of Labour MPs made clear they intended to ‘talk out’ the debate. Unlike most other debates, there is no time limit on speeches in PMBs. We were treated to a nonsensical rambling speech from a Labour MP, lasting getting on for an hour, with multiple spurious interventions. Very disappointing, after all the work I, and others had put in.
But there is also an obscure mechanism by which this opposition behaviour can be countered. At 2.26, a colleague of mine, with my agreement, raised a Point of Order that “The Question be now put” in order to try to force a division. There then followed a shouting contest of “Ayes” and “No’s” which we Ayes won had the better of, and after some hesitation the Speaker called DIVISION. We then began preparing for the vote. The rule is that the side seeking the ‘Closure Motion’ has to secure 100 votes in favour of ‘the question being put’. And if we achieved that threshold we would have to vote on the issue itself. We had done much work beforehand in preparation for this circumstance and there were well over 100 MPs in agreement, present on this Friday. This is not usual!! This came as such a surprise to the Labour MPs, who were causing the problem that their tactics fell apart quite spectacularly. For the first time in my 8 year Westminster career, the opposers failed to appoint any tellers and the division was cancelled. Which meant that I was able to claim a Second Reading for my Bill. Like needing a six off the last ball of a 20/20 game, and watching the boundary fielder catch it but then drop it over the rope.
It now moves forward into Committee, which will go through the Bill line-by-line. Probably in the autumn. Next week I will have to put together a committee. It will have to be cross party. I hope Mike Gapes (Labour) will agree to serve, and the impressive Layla Moran (Lib Dem). I’ll need maybe 11 or 13. After that my Bill will return to the floor of the House for Report and Third Reading - before moving down the corridor to the House of Lords. You can see there are a few more hurdles to clear, but yesterday, we cleared the most dangerous hurdle of all. I really do think it will now happen. Dreamworld.