Fifty years ago Private Members’ Bills were an important channel by which MPs, if they were lucky enough in the draw, had the opportunity to pilot legislation through Parliament of some real local or even national significance. This small, but valuable, window of opportunity has now been closed by the steady encroachment of the Executive over the years into this territory which has effectively rendered the function of these Bills meaningless. Today was a good example of the anti-democratic arrogance which has reduced these bills to a pointless facade. I had the good fortune to win a place in the ballot at no. 2 out of the 20 randomly selected and out of the approx. 450 applications originally made. Unfortunately, however, the Deputy Speaker decided arbitrarily, and without precedent or rationale when subsequently questioned, that the order in the first 20 would be reversed. I was therefore now no.19. This is crucial because if you’re in the first 7, you get priority in the allocation of scarce time on Fridays, when Private Members’ Bills are traditionally taken, and therefore a serious chance of your Bill getting enough Parliamentary time to secure second reading. If you’re no.19, not a chance.
My Bill (of which more anon. in a subsequent blog) would have ended tax avoidance both by having the tax returns of the top 250 among the wealthiest individuals and the largest companies published on public record and by having banks report both to Companies House and HMRC the information they collect under money-laundering regulations the real trading address of a company, who its directors and beneficial owners really are, and where they’re located. HMRC would then be empowered to access a company’s bank account data, thus enabling the tax abuse currently costing the country at least £35bn a year to be effectively addressed.
So what happened? There was one bill in front of mine, promoted by a new Tory MP: its subject was deep-sea mining! It was a hand-out bill, i.e. the Tory MP, rejecting all the requests from charities and others to promote one of their good causes, but wishing to have her name on the Statute Book by promoting a successful bill, asked the government for any bill which they might be keen to put forward and which therefore they would not oppose. The bill should therefore have taken no more than 1 hour out of the 5 hours available on a Friday. But the Tory MP and 3 of her colleagues (the usual suspects who are members of the regular Tory back-bench filibuster squad) spun it out for 3 hours and then the Minister winding up the debate, which was unopposed and therefore should have taken perhaps 10 minutes, took more than another hour. By the time I was called, therefore, there was only just over 1 hour left, too little to have sufficient debate to secure second reading – which of course was the objective of the whole filibuster exercise. I spoke for 20 minutes, and then Jacob Rees-Mogg, the amiable Tory toff who has stepped straight out of the eighteenth century, talked the bill out.