Private Member's Bill

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A Private Member's Bill is a proposed law introduced by a member of parliament, whether from the government or the opposition side, to that legislature or parliament. In most parliaments within the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, the overwhelming majority of Bills introduced are proposed by members of the Cabinet. However some parliamentary time is often set aside so that backbenchers may introduce Bills also.

In reality, few backbench Private Member's Bills make it to enactment. In some cases, controversial measures that a government does not want to take responsibility for may be introduced by backbenchers, with the government secretly backing the measure and ensuring its passage. The Abortion Act, 1967 was enacted in the United Kingdom through this means. The Act itself was introduced by a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, David Steel, but was enacted through the support that came from Harold Wilson's Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins.

The United Kingdom parliament has a long history of enacting Private Member's Bills. In contrast Oireachtas Éireann (Ireland's two chamber parliament) rarely passes Private Members Bills, with the overwhelming number of Bills being passed all being introduced by members of the Irish government.

In the United Kingdom parliament, there are twenty private member's bills debated in each session. Who is allowed to table a bill is decided by ballot in advance. Private member's bills can sometimes become the cause for much anxiety and shenannigans as outside individuals or organisations seek to influence members who are able to table bills.

There are two principal routes for influencing UK law:

  • Lobbying a government department or minister.
  • Lobbying a member of parliament who has a private members bill coming up.

The UK Parliamentary procedure for a Private Member's Bill

The first reading of a private member's bill decides if it will be heard again and debated further. This stage is really just a formality, introducing the bill as business. At second reading, the 'white paper' is debated at length and votes are cast as to whether it will proceed to committee stage. If again successful, the 'white paper' is reviewed by an expert committee which includes government lawyers and a 'draft bill' is drawn up which is the first form of the text of the proposed law. A report is made on the bill which is an opportunity for members not on the committee to make amendments. The third reading is then debated in the House of Commons, and if successful 'passed to the other house' (the House of Lords) which may, in turn, make amendments. Often, a bill may pass back and forth between the houses many times, amendments being made on each occasion. If both houses finally agree, the bill goes on to the final stage, Royal Assent, and listed in Hansard (the official record of the proceedings of parliament) after which it is entered on the statute books as an Act of Parliament and becomes law.

The normal method of blocking a bill is to amend it so many times that the end of the parliamentary session is reached before the bill is passed whereupon any bill is normally abandoned.

Private members bills may also originate in the House of Lords in which case 'the other house' is the House of Commons.

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