Private Members Bills in general – and #LBBill in particular
Having been banging on all over twitter about the #LBBill, it seems time to write something more substantial about what it can be, how it would work and the plan to make it law. I want to stress at the outset that we are in the very early stages of work on the Bill, nothing is set in stone and all voices and contributions about it are valuable. These are just my thoughts.
Anyone within virtual earshot of my twitter account for the past months will know I’ve been supporting the #JusticeforLB campaign, run by the indefatigable Sara Ryan and George Julian to call for justice in the wake of the avoidable death of Sara’s son Connor in an NHS institution. Words like tragedy and scandal don’t even come close to what happened to Connor – but then you remember that over four in ten people with learning disabilities die prematurely and suddenly his death doesn’t seem so much of a ‘never event’ after all.
The #107days campaign which Sara and George created in the lead up to the anniversary of Connor’s death saw an outpouring of creativity, passion and anger which feels like a watershed moment in the movement for disability rights in the UK. Reading through the days again, the most encouraging thing for me is the way in which disabled people, parents, family members and their allies have come together in one place to ask for them same thing – rights and justice for all the dudes. In fifteen years of campaigning on disability issues I’ve never known anything like it.
And then at the end of #107days Mark Neary (whose case with his son Steven against the London Borough of Hillingdon will go down in history as the point when the Mental Capacity Act fulfilled its promise to empower disabled people and families) came up with a brilliant idea. Mark said: ‘I suggest we start with the fundamental principle that a learning disabled person should be living in their own home, whether that be with their family, on their own with support, in a small group home. It should be their choice. Anyone (especially the State) that thinks otherwise has to prove their case before a court.’
Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? And better still, it is entirely in agreement with one of the fundamental rights contained in Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – Article 19, the right to independent living. The CRPD has been ‘ratified’ by the UK, which means the government has made a binding commitment in international law to follow it. But in our system, ratification does not give disabled people an enforceable right to independent living – because for rights in international treaties to become real here, they have to be ‘incorporated’ into our law through an Act of Parliament. As an aside, that is the point of the Human Rights Act 1998 – to incorporate most of the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights into English law and bring those rights home.
So it was Mark’s idea which inspired the proposal for a Private Member’s Bill – a draft law which would be adopted by a backbench MP (not a spokesperson for the government or the opposition) and which could then be introduced to Parliament and become law if it gains enough support. The idea has acquired its own hashtag – #LBBill – please follow it on twitter for all updates.
So what is a Private Member’s Bill? There is a helpful guide on the Parliament website. In essence, Parliament allows 20 backbench MPs every year to introduce a Bill to propose a change in the law. These Bills will be given at least one Parliamentary debate – whether they proceed any further depends on what support they have from other MPs and in particular from the government. The MPs who get to present Bills are chosen by a ballot – names out of a hat. In reality, only those MPs who are drawn in the top four or five slots have any chance of getting their Bills through, as the others will not get enough Parliamentary time.
So once we have our Bill (see next post for more on its possible content), our job will be to try to get as many backbench MPs as possible to commit to taking it on if they are chosen at the top of the ballot. That’s where the thousands of people supporting #JusticeforLB will play a vital role – to persuade each MP that this is the issue that should matter to them.
The chances of any old Private Members’ Bill getting through Parliament are slim – but this isn’t any old Bill, it’s a Bill for Connor and all the dudes. If there’s a way that the law can be changed through the strength of feeling of the community, why shouldn’t it be us that achieves this?
More to follow in my next post about what changes to the law the Bill might try to make.
PS – just re-read the first line of Mr Justice Peter Jackson’s superb judgment in Neary v Hillingdon; ‘In this case a local authority accepted a young man with disabilities into respite care for a few days at the request of his father and then kept him there for a year. The question is whether this was lawful’. File under ‘Questions to which the answer is absolutely not…’