When a bill debate isn’t a bill debate

Last December, there was a flurry of excitement among Twitter followers of the UK’s Electoral Reform Society as the ERS urged its followers to watch the UK House of Commons debate a bill on proportional representation. This was picked up by Fair Votes Canada, who retweeted the ERS tweets and urged Canadians to follow this exciting bill debate.

There was only one problem: there was no bill debate on proportional representation.

What was transpiring in the UK House of Commons was a procedure known commonly as an 10-Minute Rule Bill, which is also rather misleading. It’s actually called a motion under Standing Order No. 23 (the “Ten Minute Rule”). Let me explain.

In the UK House of Commons, there aren’t many opportunities for backbenchers to present their own bills to the House. This is also the case in the Canadian House of Commons, but procedures in the UK are even more restricted. In the UK, private Members’ bills are debated only on 13 Fridays per session. In both Canada and the UK, there is a ballot at the start of a session to determine the order of precedence in which backbench MPs will be able to present their private Member’s bill or motion. In the UK House of Commons, about 400 Members put their names into the ballot, and 20 names are drawn out. These Members have the opportunity of presenting their Bills first, and therefore of putting them down for second reading on the Fridays allocated. Normally, the first seven ballot bills are most likely to get a day’s debate. Consequently, if you don’t draw a good position in the ballot, you won’t get the chance to present your bill. These ballot bills have the best chance of becoming law, as they get priority for the limited amount of debating time available.

There are other ways a British MP can at least get a bit of floor time for a pet project, so to speak. One of these is the 10-Minute Rule. What happens under this rule is that a backbench MP is allowed to make his or her case to the House for a new bill. They have up to 10 minutes to plead their case — hence the name “10-Minute Rule bill”. Once they have made their case in favour of their bill, another MP will have up to 10 minutes to argue why this particular bill should not be introduced. The matter is then put to the House to decide. If the House agrees, then the Member is given leave to actually produce said bill.

That is what the Electoral Society was tweeting about last week, except their tweets were rather misleading. It was not a “debate on a bill on proportional representation”, but a debate (so-to-speak) on the motion of whether the MP in question would be granted leave (allowed) to bring forward such a bill. The vote that ensued was not on a bill on proportional representation — because there was no bill yet — but on letting the MP bring forward the bill.

Another motion under Standing Order No. 23 occurred today (January 13, 2016). This time, the MP was seeking leave to introduce a bill for a national anthem for England. This time, MPs supported the proposal, and so the MP has leave to actually produce said bill. Whether or not he will remains to be seen.

The thing about 10-Minute Rule motion bills is that they rarely actually result in bills, and almost never become law. They are usually used by an MP to sound out the House on a topic, to get a sense of whether or not the House might be receptive to an actual bill on the topic being put forward, should the MP score a lucky draw in the next ballot. In the case of the proposal for a bill on adopting a proportional voting system, the House voted overwhelmingly against (27 in favour, 164 against) granting leave to the MP to bring forward his bill. The proposal for a bill calling for an English national anthem, however, was supported by the House. Because of that, the bill is considered to have had its first reading (been introduced). Despite this, and despite the fact that second reading theoretically will take place on March 4, it is doubtful that any further progress will be made. The reason why is simply because it is very unlikely that said bill will be called for Second Reading debate. Second reading debates on Private Members’ bills occur, as stated above, on 13 Fridays during the course of the parliamentary session, and that time goes to ballot bills first. This would not have been a ballot bill, therefore it would not have be allocated any time for debate.

Of course, the Government would be free at any time to call the bill for debate, but the likelihood of that happening is slim to none.

A lot of the confusion surrounding these so-called “Ten-Minute rule bills” is caused by the media. The BBC’s coverage is quite misleading when it states:

Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins believes England needs its own anthem and presented his case in the House of Commons as a ten minute rule motion.

His English National Anthem Bill was adopted by the House.

The idea will be debated again at a second reading on 4 March.

His bill was not adopted by the House — it was deemed introduced. Adopted — to me at least — would mean the bill 1) actually existed in print form and 2) had gone through all the legislative stages and passed third reading by the Commons. This is not what happened. Coverage by non-British media isn’t any better. Canada’s Globe and Mail decided to pick an AP article which makes it seem like a certainty that second reading debate will actually happen on March 4. I’m fairly certain it won’t.

All of that being said, it was somewhat surprising that MPs forced recorded division on the motion for a proportional representation bill. The majority of Ten Minute Rule motions are not objected to, and are allowed to proceed at this stage. This is because MPs have not yet had time to review the bill’s content because there is no actual bill yet. And while it’s very rare for a bill introduced under Standing Order 23 to succeed, it does happen occasionally. Since 1983-84, there have been 11 private Members’ bills introduced under the 10-Minute rule which have actually gone all the way and become law. However, the last time that occurred was in the 2001-02 parliamentary session. So while it isn’t impossible that we may actually see a bill calling for an English national anthem become law, the odds are stacked against it. However, today’s motion stirred a lot of debate on Twitter and elsewhere, and that in many ways is the real purpose of such motions – to bring attention to an idea and to get people talking.


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