Wera Hobhouse: Ministers would act if they were serious about stopping arch-dinosaur Christopher Chope
The Government could take action if they really wanted to stop MPs from repeatedly obstructing popular legislation, writes Wera Hobhouse
Once again, Tory arch-dinosaur Christopher Chope reared his head last Friday afternoon to do what he has become infamous for: callously blocking yet another private Members’ bill protecting the vulnerable. In this case, the bill he blocked sought to protect potential victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). It would have given judges and courts more authority to protect girls who are at risk of FGM.
On the same day that Chope blocked my Private Members’ Bill making ‘upskirting’ a specific criminal offence last year, he also blocked a bill seeking free parking for carers at hospitals, and another making it illegal to harm police dogs.
It really beggars belief that anyone could be so out of touch with reality.
I am pleased that these examples have helped shine a spotlight on the little-known topic of private Members’ bills. For every ‘FGM’ or ‘upskirting’ media storm, there’s a mountain of other equally important bills that never see the light of day.
The current government is simply not allowing Private Members’ Bills through. This system is not working, as Parliament’s Procedure Committee found in its recent report. It points out two fundamental problems. First, the lack of transparency over procedures and their use for political campaigning as opposed to genuine legislative change. Second, the use of delaying tactics – filibustering - to frustrate genuine debate and to block decisions.
Private Members’ Bills currently have precedence on Fridays. For most MPs, Fridays are precious days to be spent in their constituencies: running surgeries, seeking to understand local issues, helping their constituents and holding meetings with key stakeholders.
Chope is one of a clique of long-serving male Tory MPs sitting on huge majorities in true-blue constituencies. With no incentive to meet constituents on Fridays, these esteemed gentlemen can sit back in Westminster doing their bit to obstruct democracy.
Government ministers can disassociate themselves from Chope, express their outrage, and say that they will talk to him, but the fact of the matter is that whilst the government are struggling for numbers in crucial votes, no serious action will be taken against him.
It is obviously positive that the government have taken the FGM bill on themselves. But once again, this was only because the monumental embarrassment caused by the subsequent media storm forced their hand.
If they were truly serious about ensuring dinosaur MPs can’t repeatedly obstruct legislation that has overwhelming support, then they would act.
With all of this Parliament’s bandwidth being consumed by the slow-motion Brexit car crash, it has never been more important for backbenchers to work cross-party to support progressive legislation like upskirting and FGM.
Indeed, the Procedure Committee acknowledges this by recommending that Private Member’s Bills should be renamed ‘backbench bills’.
Wera Hobhouse is Liberal Democrat MP for Bath