MPs can act to end the reign of the Bill Killer
Ultimitely, the House decides on its procedures, not the government. If there is the political will, the Commons can overhaul private members’ bills and neutralise the pantomime villain Sir Christopher Chope, writes Tony Grew
Sir Christopher Chope has become something of a pantomime villain in recent months. The Bill Killer has angered his colleagues by objecting to several pieces of legalisation introduced by backbench MPs that were seen as very important, on up-skirting and more recently on FGM. There have been significant levels of pearl-clutching about his dastardly behaviour, but will any good come of it?
Members of the procedure committee may be moved to take action and properly reform Friday business. Alison Thewliss warned on social media that Sir Christopher has “had his fun”. Chris Elmore suggested his call for a review of standing orders to make them gender neutral could be widened to “review archaic rules” that allow one MP to scupper a bill. The committee chair Charles Walker, after Sir Christopher’s latest act of Commons sabotage, declared that the whole private members’ bill process brings the House into disrepute and called for a meeting with the leader of the House to ensure Fridays “sell this place, not bring it down”.
Acting in the role of concerned bystander to all this is the government. There is zero political risk in cabinet ministers taking to Twitter and the media to say how terrible Sir Christopher Chope is, a bad egg who seems to have a penchant for attacking bills designed to protect women. Hand-wringing is very 2019, but in fact there are concrete proposals to reform private members’ bills, and there have been since the procedure committee proposed them in 2016.
The procedure committee said the House should “explicitly authorise the Speaker and his deputies to impose time limits on speeches on sitting Fridays”. This was to tackle the behaviour of another Friday warrior, Philip Davies, who has been known to talk out a bill.
There were other proposals on reform of the ballot process, a guaranteed vote on second reading and prioritising bills by merit. At the time of their report Charles Walker said the government “is defending procedures and practices which would not have looked out of date in the nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth”.
Why would the government do such a thing? Perhaps because it works to their advantage. In the case of up-skirting and FGM, ministers can ride to the rescue, give the bill government time and backing and take credit for it when it becomes law.
Wera Hobhouse doesn’t appear to exist in the minds of whoever sends tweets on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. They were keen to inform their 383,000 Twitter followers that the up-skirting legislation had received Royal Assent, tagging celebrities Dermot O’Leary, Laura Whitmore, Holly Willoughby, and of course junior minister Lucy Frazer. The member for Bath wasn’t mentioned. The government had rescued the damsel from evil Sir Christopher, and it wasn’t minded to share the credit.
What a perversion of private members’ bills that is – taking them from the backbencher who was lucky enough to win a spot on the ballot then airbrushing them out. Passing a bill through parliament is a huge achievement for a backbencher. For the government, it’s their job.
Here we come to the crux of the situation. No bill can proceed to the statute book if the government does not want it to. They don’t have to oppose it outright. Perhaps a useful backbencher will kill it, by talking it out or shouting object. Perhaps the government will forget to give it a money resolution. The system as it stands suits the government and that’s why it continues. Perhaps there will now be a change of heart on the Treasury bench. Perhaps the government will bring forward standing orders to change private members’ bill procedure.
In 2016 the procedure committee said ministers have been “dodging the serious issues raised by an increasingly discredited legislative process and failing to meet its responsibilities to the House”. Chris Grayling, at the time Leader of the House, said that private members’ bills are “complex” but there remains “little evidence that PMBs, that have support across the House, would benefit from having time limitations on their debate”. Warm words. Nothing changed.
However, in 2019 there is cause for hope. The Commons approved plans for proxy voting. The obstacles laid out in its way and the objections raised by more traditionally minded MPs were overcome. Ultimately, the House and not the government decides on its procedures. If there is the political will, MPs might be able to change Friday business forever, but they will need clear and simple changes that are easily understood. Too often proposals for change have been too ambitious. A few changes to standing orders could bring an end to the reign of the Bill Killer.
On several occasions in recent weeks, the wrong results of an EVEL division have been announced. We know this because at a moment when nobody is watching, the deputy Speaker on duty has to inform the House of the mistake. One vote result had to be corrected twice. The Commons Votes app has proved popular with Commons watchers, but it can also be unreliable. Some people got over excited when it appeared whip Andrew Stephenson voted for the Cooper amendment. It was John Stevenson. It’s fair to say that an app which mixes up Nigel Dodds and Anneliese Dodds needs some work.
There is a row brewing over the MoD car park. Gavin Williamson has objected to it “being turned into a building site” as part of the restoration and renewal programme. The defence secretary’s assertion that this wasn’t to do with him not wanting to have to park somewhere else, but that there are “extremely compelling security reasons” for his refusal, set tongues wagging in Parliament. Was it a nuclear bunker? A secret base for the SAS? One MP privately speculated it might be a holding area for aliens, akin to Area 51 in Nevada. No-one would notice aliens walking around parliament, he reckoned.