A private member's bill in a parliamentary system of government is a bill (proposed law) introduced into a legislature by a legislator who is not acting on behalf of the executive branch. The designation "private member's bill" is used in most Westminster System jurisdictions, in which a "private member" is any member of parliament (MP) who is not a member of the cabinet (executive). Other labels may be used for the concept in other parliamentary systems; for example, the label member's bill is used in the Scottish Parliament and in the New Zealand Parliament. In presidential systems with a separation of the executive from the legislature, the concept does not arise since the executive cannot initiate legislation, and bills are introduced by individual legislators (or sometimes by popular initiative).
In the Westminster System, most bills are "government bills" introduced by the executive, with private members' bills the exception; however, some time is set aside in the schedule for reading such bills. They may be introduced by non-ministerial MPs from government-supporting parties (backbenchers), by members of opposition parties (frontbencher or backbencher), or by independents or crossbenchers. The United Kingdom parliament has a long history of enacting private members' bills. In contrast, the Oireachtas (parliament) of the Republic of Ireland rarely passes private members' bills, with the overwhelming number of bills being passed being introduced by members of the cabinet.
A private member's bill is not to be confused with a private bill, which is a bill that only affects an individual citizen or group.
Private member's bill by country
In Australia, a draft bill is prepared by Parliamentary Counsel, acting under instructions from the private member. After community consultation, the member introduces the bill into the Parliament.
Only 16 private members' bills or private senators' bills introduced into the Australian Parliament since 1901 have been passed into law. Of these, nine have been initiated by senators and seven by members. A larger number have passed one house but not the other. An even larger number did not pass the house in which they were introduced and thus lapsed.
Among the most notable of the successful bills was the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1924, which introduced compulsory voting for federal elections. This was introduced by Senator for Tasmania Herbert Payne of the Nationalist Party on 16 July 1924, passed by the Senate on 23 July, passed by the House of Representatives on 24 July – both times with little debate – and given Royal Assent on 31 July. Despite much public debate ever since on the issue of compulsory voting, the legislation has never been repealed.
Another very notable private member's bill was the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996, which deprived the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island legislatures of the power to make laws permitting euthanasia. This was introduced by Kevin Andrews, Member for Menzies, after the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly had passed such a law, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. Although Andrews was a member of the Liberal Party, members and senators were allowed a conscience vote on the issue, and each side of the debate was supported by members and senators from all political parties.
A private member's bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, legalised same-sex marriage throughout Australia on 9 December 2017. It was introduced by Dean Smith, Senator for Western Australia.
Notable also was the private member's bill introduced by Alan Corbett in the New South Wales Legislative Council to amend the Crimes Act of 1900. The first successfully enacted (or indeed introduced) bill in over 100 years to address the protection of children from abuse and excessive physical chastisement. It received very wide support from New South Wales organisations related to child health and welfare and was backed by several prominent members of the medical profession, particularly in the paediatric field, notably Dr. John Yu, CEO of Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney (who had been honoured by the Australian Government with the prestigious Australian of the Year award in 1996). Its initial aims were to limit physical chastisement by banning the use of implements (belts, sticks, hairbrushes, etc.), ban the use of force above the shoulders (thus preventing neck, head, brain and facial injuries), and require that any physical force applied leave only trivial and short-lived signs such as redness (that is, no bruising, swelling, welts, cuts, grazes, internal injuries, emotional trauma, etc.); with the exception of the clause banning the use of implements (which was dropped to gain essential support from the state Labor Government for the bill), it was passed intact and became law in 2001.
In Canada, a private member's bill (French: projet de loi émanant d'un député) is a bill introduced in the House of Commons by a member of parliament who is not a cabinet minister. A private member's bill follows the same legislative process as a government bill, but the time allocated for its consideration is restricted. Private Members' Bills may be considered only during one of the daily Private Members' Hours. Under rules established in 1986, 20 items of private members' business are selected at random to receive priority in debate. Six of these items are chosen by a committee to be votable and must come to a vote in the House. Prior to the 1986 rules, private members' bills and motions could be "talked out", meaning that all the time allocated to private members' bills could be used up introducing or debating bills without them ever being voted on, as each bill must be voted on after the second hour of debate. (The ramifications of the 1986 rules were discussed in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, 1988, Vol 11, No. 3.) Even under the new rules, very few private member's bills become law. But passage is more likely in minority government situations. The vast majority of private members' bills that actually do become law are for the purpose of changing the name of the riding represented by the MP introducing the bill.
When an election is called, all bills that have not been passed die on the order paper (that is, they are removed from the agenda of Parliament, and must be re-introduced in the new session of Parliament after an election). In the House of Commons (but not in the Senate), private members' bills remain on the order paper when Parliament is prorogued.
Notable private members bills have been the following:
In the 98 years from 4 May 1910 to 7 September 2008, 229 private member's bills passed.
- One of the bills passed under the old (pre-1986) rules was a 1964 private member's bill to rename "Trans-Canada Airlines" to "Air Canada", introduced by then-rookie MP Jean Chrétien. Chrétien got his bill voted on by convincing the other MPs scheduled to speak during Private Member's Hour to skip their speech and instead request an immediate vote on the bill.
The new rules took effect in 1986. In the 24 years between 5 November 1984 and 7 September 2008, 81 private member's bills passed. Passage was (and is) more likely during the periods of minority governments in Canada. The ramifications of the 1986 rules and new probability of success of private members bills were discussed in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, 1988, Vol 11, No. 3.
- NDP MP Lynn McDonald succeeded in getting her private member's bill, the "Non-smokers' Health Act" (aka Bill C-204), passed in 1986, (given Royal Assent on 28 June 1988) restricting smoking in federally regulated workplaces and on airplanes, trains and ships. The bill was passed in a free vote of the House of Commons despite being voted against by all members of the federal cabinet, including the Minister of Health.
Of the 300 or so Private Members' Bills introduced in the 14th Lok Sabha, barely 4% were discussed; 96% lapsed without even a single debate in the House. Till date, Parliament has passed 15 Private Members' Bills. Five of these were passed in 1956 alone and After 47 years of passing the last bill, the Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Bill, 1968 that became an Act on 9 August 1970; Rajya Sabha has passed the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 on April 24, 2015, which was introduced in the lower house, Lok Sabha on 26 February 2016.
In New Zealand, a member's bill is one that is introduced by a member of Parliament who is not a minister. There can be a maximum of eight members' bills on the Order Paper awaiting their first reading at any one time. When a slot opens up, a ballot is held to select a new members' bill for introduction; each MP can submit only one member's bill at a time to the ballot. Every second Wednesday is reserved for debating member's bills, although certain government business may necessitate that business takes priority.
Notable legislation passed as a result of a member's bill includes:
- Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 – allowed adult adoptees to access information about their birth parents
- Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 – decriminalised homosexual acts between men
- Prostitution Reform Act 2003 – decriminalised prostitution
- Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 – removed "reasonable force" legal defence for assault of children by parents
- Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013 – legalised same-sex marriage
In the Parliament of Norway, any member may submit a Private Member's Bill (Norwegian: representantforslag lovvedtak). The other method of initiating legislation is by a "Proposition to the Storting" from the Government.
In the United Kingdom House of Commons, there are several routes to introducing private members' bills. In each session, twenty backbench MPs are selected by ballot to introduce a bill. These bills are given priority for debate and generally offer the best chance of success. Additional bills may be introduced via the Ten Minute Rule, although this is usually used just to raise an issue rather than legislate on it, or through presentation without debate under Standing Order 57. Neither Ten Minute Rule or presentation bills are likely to get time to be debated, so only non-controversial bills have any chance of success. Private members' bills from the Lords may also be adopted by an MP to complete their journey through Parliament.
Private member's bills can sometimes become the cause for much anxiety and shenanigans, as outside individuals or organisations seek to influence members who have been selected in the ballot.
There are two principal routes for influencing UK law:
- Lobbying a government department or minister.
- Lobbying a member of parliament who has a private member's bill coming up.
Only a small proportion of private members' bills are enacted. This is generally because of lack of time – a controversial private member's bill can be "talked out". In some cases, measures that a government does not want to take responsibility for may be introduced by backbenchers, with the government secretly or openly backing the measure and ensuring its passage. They are sometimes known as "handouts" or "whips' bills". The Abortion Act 1967 was enacted in the United Kingdom through this means: with the Bill itself being introduced by a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, David Steel; through the support from Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins the Bill was given enough government time to allow a full debate.
Other private member's bills to have been enacted include the Adoption Act 1964, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, the Charter Trustees Act 1985, the Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996, the Knives Act 1997, the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1997, the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2003 the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.
In principle, private members' bills follow much the same parliamentary stages as any other bill. In practice, the procedural barriers to passage are much greater.
Time is allocated for private members' bills on 13 Fridays a year in the House of Commons. Five hours of time are available each day, and several private members' bills are scheduled for each session.
Unlike Government bills, debates are not timetabled and there is no guarantee that the debate will finish within the time available. MPs opposed to a private member's bill, including Government ministers and whips, will routinely attempt to talk out the bill, stopping further progress by preventing a vote. The bill's proponent can force a vote only with the support of at least a hundred members (and a majority of those voting). As many MPs return to their constituencies on Thursday night, this has the practical effect of blocking all private members' bills without solid support.
It is quite possible for the first bill to take up all five hours, preventing any other bill on the agenda from being debated. Any bill not debated may receive second reading without debate at the end of the session, but a single shout of "object!" will delay consideration to a future date; Government and opposition whips routinely block contentious private members' bills in this way. Another date for second reading will also be set for bills which have been talked out. This is a formality; the bill will be put to the bottom of the order paper, will likely be objected to on each future occasion and has no practical chance of success.
Even if second reading is passed, a bill is likely to need the support of the government to become law. The bill will be referred to standing committee, which may make amendments. The amended version of the bill will then return to the Commons. To become law, it must also successfully negotiate report stage and third reading, as well as the House of Lords. Contentious bills are likely to run out of parliamentary time unless the government allocates some; any pending private members' bills lapse at the end of each parliamentary session.
Private members' bills may also originate in the House of Lords. To become law, these bills must be adopted by an MP and passed in the same way as a Commons originated bill.