A Ten Minute Rule bill is, strictly speaking, not a bill. It is a motion to seek the houses permission to introduce a bill. Every Tuesday and Wednesday from the seventh week of a Commons session a member (usually a backbencher) introduces possible new legislation in a speech lasting no more than 10 minutes right at the start of the main business of the day.
If the idea is opposed, an MP may argue against introducing a bill for 10 minutes – there will be no other intervention. On rare occasions there is a vote, most often leave is given to produce a bill unopposed (MPs are very rarely against the opportunity to get more information about something). But even if the motion is successful and a bill can be presented, parliamentary time is in the gift of the government – even if it reaches first and second reading it may not progress beyond that.
Ten Minute Rule bill slots are highly prized among backbenchers – other than Private Members bills this is the only way for a backbencher to propose legislation, and it happens in parliamentary prime viewing time, straight after Question Time and before what can often be a major debate. An MP can get this prize by being the first person to ask for it in the Public Bill Office 15 days before.
A few, but not many, of these will then progress through the bill stages as normal and become law. In practice these are likely to be bills suggested to a friendly MP by a government department – others tidy up problems in existing law or clarify existing rights. But that’s not to say a major change can’t start in this way – the death penalty was abolished and homosexuality was legalised by Ten Minute Rule bills.
What to expect
As you’ve likely gleaned from this short description the real purpose of a Ten Minute Rule bill is to bring the attention of the house (and by extension, the media and the public) to an issue and gauge opinion. David Davis MP clearly wants the commons to consider free speech at university – but why him and why now?
Though clearly committed to free speech and the idea of liberty, Davis has not been at the forefront of campaigns and rhetoric around universities. With many Ten Minute Rule bills it feels like another step in a long campaign: for instance last year saw Stella Creasy introduce a Ten Minute Rule bill on equal pay – something she has been campaigning about for years. His sudden interest is not out of character, but it is not exactly expected.
There have long been rumours – and indeed threats – of planned legislation from the Department for Education on free speech on campus. Though an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that instances of free speech being denied were “not widespread” and did not find “the wholesale censorship of debate in universities” that media coverage has suggested, it is also an issue that ministers seem to keep wanting to return to.
Appetite for “culture wars” action tends to burn hot but quickly – many were incensed by perceptions that statues were being torn down and streets renamed, but few members of the public cite the issue as a primary concern most of the time. Though university-bashing appears populist it is not especially popular – it does far more to energise activists than to win votes.
My reading would be that a group of MPs including Davis want to use the debate to force the hand of government – to use popular pressure to force ministers to do something they have long threatened. More will likely emerge over the coming days. Arguably, the pandemic restrictions have meant that the last intervention on the topic – the guidelines introduced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the behest of Chris Skidmore – has not yet had time to bed in.
Students’ Unions have already expressed a willingness to address concerns. There’s clearly no ongoing crisis. Let’s hope that Tuesday demonstrates that – compared to the genuine hardship caused by the pandemic and by Brexit – the mood of the nation is not there for fantasy politics.