When I was first elected Parliament sat on most Fridays, on some there was Government business and others were given over to Private members bills. Constituency duties were therefore, largely confined to weekends.
Things have changed, we now only sit on 13 Fridays per year and they are all taken up with private members bills.
Constituency Fridays have become a habit. Weekends are no less busy, but there are things you can do on a Friday that you just can’t do at the weekend, such as visiting schools, most business premises, or most public services and officials. Consequently, MPs have become quite jealous about protecting their productive Fridays in their constituencies.
How does this square with private members bills?
First, to be successful in piloting a bill through Parliament you need to be lucky because the order is determined by ballot. Second, you need to choose a bill that is of very limited scope and almost wholly uncontroversial. This is because your enemy is the limited time available to you. Very rarely will your opponents need to vote against your bill, they just have to take up the available time.
Unlike the US Senate however, we do not tolerate a filibuster. Scrutiny of your bill must be proper and pertinent. Mr Speaker will order members to resume their seats if they are tedious, repetitious, stray from the point, or read speeches verbatim. If however, your bill has wide implications and is controversial you are multiplying the opportunities for your opponents to legitimately opine at length without difficulty.
There have been demands for reform and to make more time available, but the current system has suited Governments of all persuasions. Back-bencher’s bills have bees in their bonnets and happy thoughts that usually come with a large price tag or any number of complicated implications. It is convenient for ministers to rely on a small number of Friday devotees to ‘talk them out’.
Campaigners write to their MP to demand their attendance on a particular Friday to support a bill listed for that day. It is a ‘big ask’ because several bills are listed each sitting Friday and unless the bill is first in the order there is little chance of it being reached, so your time will have been wasted.
Even if you support a bill passionately, its enemy is the time available, so you would be foolish indeed if you went along and took up any of that precious time yourself. Actually, the best way to support a bill is to shut up, or to stay away.
Of course, a very few controversial private members bills have succeeded, but that is only when they have been backed by the Government.
There’s the lesson: complicated, controversial, or expensive legislation needs to take place in government time when it will have lengthy and thorough treatment by both Government and Opposition, not just an interested few on a Friday.
Sometimes however, something will turn out to be surprisingly uncontroversial: last Friday the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill passed its second reading in good time and unopposed