To the bitter end: Lessons learned from a private member’s bill

A Tory backbencher looks back at the successes – and ultimate failure – of her bid to get a law passed through parliament.

By Harriett Baldwin MP

My private member's bill, the legislation (territorial extent) bill, was killed off at third reading by 20 coalition ministers summoned by the whips.

Despite ultimate failure, I did learn an awful lot about parliament in the process and I succeeded in getting a written ministerial statement on the West Lothian Commission from the government.

Here's what I learned:

1. Choose a topic that was in your manifesto, but doesn't seem to be high priority for the government. In my case, I decided to choose the thorny constitutional issue of the West Lothian Question. It was a Conservative manifesto pledge, but in the coalition programme for government it was downgraded to "we will establish a Commission to look into the West Lothian Question". As a passionate Unionist I have been keen to see a proper debate on this issue and it has often been a matter for discussion, both amongst my Westminster colleagues and in and around my West Worcestershire constituency.

2. Get the experts on side. In my case, I was able to speak to a range of Conservative parliamentarians who had thought extensively about the issue. I used their advice to frame the bill and also got very helpful advice from the clerks of the House of Commons. I also received a range of thoughts from legal brains outside parliament.

3. Most private member's bills don't get past second reading. I was lucky, because I drew number seven in the ballot – and therefore got to the top of the day's business on day seven. That meant it was first in the queue on that Friday. Still, I knew the bill would be opposed by ministers. I feared the government would ask me to withdraw my bill, or prevent it from going any further by abstaining when it came to a vote.

4. There was a risk that opponents and even the government minister could simply use the time to speak at length and use up the entire five-hour session. You need 40 members for the chamber to be quorate, including the chair. Therefore, sometimes abstaining prevents a bill getting past the critical second reading stage. I was worried about this happening, but was lucky in that Chris Bryant, the opposition spokesman, also had a private member's bill on the order paper. I think that meant that he had not encouraged his side to come in and "talk it out".

Fortunately, 19 colleagues and two tellers supported my bill and 17 opponents voted against and two tellers. The government whips were trying to get people to abstain, but
the House was just quorate and second reading was passed.

5. For the committee stage, when the bill gets sent upstairs and MPs go through the legislation line by line, it's important to try and build in a majority if possible. I had to assemble a committee of 16 with a good balance of political parties which would be approved by the committee of selection. This meant nine government and seven opposition MPs.

In the opposition party quotient I found a Labour supporter of my bill. I also asked opposition members who would be unlikely to attend, and a Liberal Democrat who was supportive from an English constituency. I had to include in the government number the minister, who was opposed, so the numbers were always likely to be quite tight, but I did manage to have an inbuilt majority. Nevertheless, the whips did manage to get to one of my supporters.

6. Get an experienced chair at committee stage. I was able to invite Roger Gale, who is very experienced, to chair.

7. Start doing your own whipping. Having won all the votes in committee against the government minister, the bill returned to the floor of the House for report and third reading. It had been unamended in committee as the government had failed to table any of the amendments they promised at second reading. By now, I had a long list of supporters who were going to stay in London on a Friday to support the bill.

8. Keep your cards close to your chest. I did not even let supporters know how many votes I had lined up.

9. It's hard to 'talk out' at report stage. The chair only selected a very narrow group of the amendments Labour had tabled. Hence even the most ardent debater was unable to sustain much debate on this topic and we moved to third reading without a vote.

10. It's just as difficult to 'talk out' at third reading. Again, the chair keeps things on a much tighter rein. But when it came to voting, the whips had done their job and ordered 20 ministers from their desk to march through the lobbies to defeat the bill 40-24. I rather think if I had had more than 40 supporters still in the chamber, the whips
would have found a few more ministers. What was clear was that despite our best efforts, the whips were always going to get their way. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing the fuller detail on the remit of the government commission. It is something which may well have been kicked into the long grass, had I not persisted with my bill to the bitter end.

Harriett Baldwin was elected as the Conservative MP for West Worcestershire in the 2010 general election

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