Fabians Women’s Network mentoring scheme in Parliament

Participants write about a packed day that included talks by leading MPs, debates in the Houses and committee rooms, and a tour. The highlight, it seems, was the practical ‘Dragons’ Den’-style Private Members’ Bill session.

Malcolm Wicks on Private Members’ Bills, by Vicki Butler
As a mentee on the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring scheme, I was lucky enough to take part in a Parliamentary day on 13 September. The day provided a fascinating insight to the inner workings of Parliament, with a number of Labour MPs and former Ministers sharing their experiences with us throughout the day.

For me, the highlight was Malcolm Wicks MP’s session on Private Members’ Bills, which are bills introduced by MPs and Lords who aren’t government ministers.

By talking through the passage of his own successful Private Members’ Bill, the Carers Act 1995, mentees received a detailed breakdown of what is needed for a Private Members’ Bill to pass.

And it’s not easy. First of all MPs need to win a ballot to table a Private Members’ Bill, and even if an MP is one of the 20 to be chosen, they’re only in with a shot of getting their bill passed if it falls within the top eight due to way parliamentary time is allocated.

Lucky enough to be allocated a high position in the ballot results, Wicks talked through the battle he faced for parliamentary time for the Carers Bill, and highlighted how just one or two unsupportive MPs can ‘kill’ a bill on its first or second reading.

He also focused on how important it is to cross party support for a Private Members’ Bill if it is to have any chance of becoming law, adding that for this reason it is often more effective if a Bill focuses on a non-political issue.

It was inspiring to hear the effort Wicks went to in order to push through his important bill, which was one of the first pieces of legislation to recognise the needs of carers rather than just the needs of those cared for.

The fact that such a Bill was passed through the Private Members’ Bill process highlights how important this parliamentary function is, particularly given that many other historic pieces of legislation were Private Members’ Bills, such as those ending capital punishment (1965) and legalising abortion (1967).

It is a pity then that it remains incredibly difficult for a Private Members’ Bill to become law, given that it only takes a couple of MPs to block a bill, and that they are only granted parliamentary time on Friday mornings, when many MPs return to their constituencies. As many have already suggested, it’s high time that the process is reformed, ensuring that backbenchers have a great influence on law making.

Presenting a Private Members’ Bill, by Sarah Hutchinson
This portion of the day was one of the most rewarding parts. It punctuated the day, starting with us deciding in our groups first thing which of our ideas was going to be selected. In my group, my idea of requiring utility companies to resurface the full width of the road when they carry out repair works, coupled with an incentive to encourage them to undertake work at the same time as other companies was selected. We had half an hour in our groups of four to prepare a presentation – quite a challenge given that I knew most about the topic and I knew really rather little! We tried to incorporate Malcolm Wicks’s tips – keeping the proposal small and practical, and highlighting the benefits it would bring. We’d barely finished preparing when I was called on to begin the session. I fluffed my speech a little, but the rest of my group compensated fully! Then Hilary began to grill us on the practicalities and relevance of the idea, and I was surprised and pleased to find that I could answer his questions, to a level that apparently satisfied him!

The benefits of going first then paid off, as we were able to concentrate on the great ideas being proposed by the other groups – allowing community radio to accept advertising, giving local authorities the power to veto betting shop applications, and appointing an independent guardian to young people rescued from trafficking. The exercise was challenging and nerve-racking, but it was a thrill to find out that we were all capable of doing it. Getting to hear the passion with which the rest of the group spoke about the issues that mattered to them was also a real privilege.