Private Members' Bills can prove their worth as a parliamentary ice-breaker

Private Members' Bills came into the spotlight earlier this summer after Sir Christopher Chope infamously blocked proposed legislation to outlaw upskirting, but as we head into recess it is worth considering what their use means for the work of public affairs consultants.

The industry needs to accurately represent the merits of private members’ bills to clients, says Naomi Harris
The industry needs to accurately represent the merits of private members’ bills to clients, says Naomi Harris

This time last year Number 10 took the decision that Parliament should sit for two years ‘to give MPs enough time to consider the laws required to make Britain ready for Brexit’.

In June there were a total of 275 Bills before Parliament, ranging from the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill to the Youth (Services and Provisions) Bill.

To put this number into context – in 2014-15, the session immediately prior to the referendum, Parliament considered 195 Bills; and a decade ago in the 2007-08 session, Parliament considered 160 Bills.

You might then think that the Public Affairs industry faces an unprecedentedly busy legislative agenda as a result of the Government’s decision. And you would be right, in terms of the volume of Bills on the books, but take a closer look at the list and it is interesting that it is Private Members' Bills that are inflating the total.

A straw poll of 20 Bills before Parliament found: five sponsored by a Lord; nine introduced by a Ten Minute Rule; one introduced via the Ballot; three introduced by Ordinary Presentation; and just two Government Bills.

This suggests that the public affairs industry has been encouraged to be more creative as a consequence of Brexit.

The Government simply does not have the bandwidth to develop policy from its earliest stages and so consultants are responding by looking for alternative means to get issues on to, or moved up, the agenda.

The question now posed is how many of these campaign issues are to be ultimately addressed via the statute book.

Readers will know that only a small number of Private Members' Bills are successful, but it is worth drawing attention to the fact that of the 342 that received Royal Assent between 1983 and July 2017, only a tiny proportion (4 per cent) were a Ten Minute Rule Bill.

So while the industry has more Bills than ever to pore over, the chances are slim for the vast majority for those on the list becoming law in their current guise.

This is truer still when you consider that the Private Members' Bills up until 2017 did not have the EU Withdrawal Bill, and its ability to suck up parliamentary attention, to contend with.

What is the point, then, of a Private Members' Bill?

If the point is to get the Private Members' Bill into law, those campaigning for it are likely to be disappointed, but if the point is to raise the profile of the campaign and to potentially get a discussion on policy to a standard that the Government feels able to pick it up and to develop it, then Private Members' Bills can be a useful vehicle.

My concern, as we enter the final weeks before summer recess, is that the industry needs to accurately represent the merits of Private Members' Bills to clients.

One thing the industry doesn’t need is consultants playing fast and loose with client trust or raising expectation that will be difficult to meet.

Naomi Harris is chief operating officer at Newington

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