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How to work across both Houses

4 min read

Tips on navigating the legislative waters between the Commons and Lords, from Kevin Hollinrake MP and Lord Knight for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit

Many new MPs immerse themselves quickly in their work in the Commons. There are few reasons to wander up to the mysterious world of the Lords. They may see it as an irrelevant living museum of political relics that add little value to the cut and thrust of the Commons, where the real work of government is done.

The Lords is much more than that. There is a wealth of experience and expertise, and a willingness to help Parliamentarians of all parties make good law.

Every session a few lucky MPs win the lottery of the Private Members’ Bills ballot. They have to decide on what new law they want to put their name to, how it will play in their constituency, and whether the government will block it. But most importantly they need to navigate the legislative process through both Houses of Parliament.

The choppy waters of Private Members’ Bills debates on a Friday in the Commons are tricky. It just takes one or two awkward opponents to derail their place in history, but the Lords is no walk in the park either.

The government of the day never has a majority in the Lords and so the legislation needs a champion who can negotiate with the opposition, the crossbenchers, and with the government to safely land the bill on to the statute books.

The Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018 will come into effect in April this year. It will mean that parents and primary carers who suffer the loss of a child will be entitled to at least two weeks’ parental bereavement leave from their employer.

This was legislation started by Kevin Hollinrake MP after the 2017 election. It built on several years of campaigning and had the huge advantage of a Conservative manifesto commitment.

Most Private Members’ Bills are unsuccessful. Indeed, most MPs use them as an opportunity to raise an issue rather than a genuine attempt to legislate.

Success comes with compromise and respect across Houses and parties

If you do want to get an act on the statute books, the key is to engage with the relevant department’s ministers by using all the Parliamentary channels at your disposal – informal meetings, tearoom surgeries, written and oral questions, main chamber, adjournment and Westminster Hall debates. Realistically, you will only be able to move from bill to act if you get the government on side.

MP Will Quince had first championed the Parental Bereavement Act in the 2015 Parliament and Kevin was only too happy to help take it forward when he was lucky enough to get a high draw in the ballot.

The government and MPs on both sides of the House were incredibly supportive, so the Commons journey was fairly uncomplicated.

Having guided it through the Commons, Kevin then looked to the Labour benches in the Lords for his  sponsor on the red benches.

Lord Knight had been campaigning on the issue for a number of years and was the obvious choice. Jim’s previous work on trying to get this legal change meant he knew who would support him and where the problems may lie.

Happily, Jim was quickly able to confirm opposition support, from both the Labour and Lib Dem benches. The bill came with government support and so success in the Lords was relatively straightforward.

The biggest challenge was that there was not time back in the Commons if the bill was amended, and he therefore had to persuade the Lords that the bill was perfect already. Any amendments and the whole thing may have been completely lost.

Some thought it needed to go further. Various pressure groups pushed for amendments and created an appetite for further improvements. However, after a few private discussions, pragmaticism prevailed and it passed unamended.

From the outside, Parliament looks like it is all about the theatre and the dividing lines of the Commons. Even with a big government majority, it is about much more than that.

Success comes with compromise and respect across Houses and across parties. We are proud of what we achieved on our bill and the cooperation that made it possible. We look forward to our bill being implemented and to helping others navigate the legislative waters during this session.

Kevin Hollinrake is Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, and Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer

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