"The upskirting bill should & will pass - but Sir Christopher Chope's intervention was about something else..."

Home Affairs
Sunday, June 17, 2018

Misunderstanding - both wilful and otherwise - means that Sir Christopher Chope is being wrongly blamed for blocking popular legislation on upskirting and animal rights.


It is understandable that some members of the public have misunderstood what Sir Christopher did. It is unforgivable that elected MPs, and Government Ministers, are pretending that they aren’t responsible, and couldn’t do anything to help.


Sitting Fridays are never dull in Parliament. Arcane procedure, filibusters, Points of Order, and nerve biting tension as the clock ticks towards 2:30pm are the hallmarks of Private Members’ Day. As an example of the madness, there were 27 different Bills before the House last Friday.


Clearly, these were never all going to be debated. The ‘moment of interruption’ on a Sitting Friday is 2:30pm. After then, remaining Bills can only progress if no-one objects to them.


This is well known by MPs, and particularly the Whips. Every Sitting Friday sees Government (and Opposition) Whips crowd round the Speaker’s chair, shouting ‘Object!’ as soon as a Bill is announced. In this way, the Government has an absolute block on any Private Members Bill it doesn’t support and which hasn’t been debated.


Indeed, so keen are these Whips to shout their objections, they often manage to get it out before the Bill is formally announced and moved. Who is the prime victims of these Whips? Well, last Friday there were 9 Bills - 1/3rd of the total - in the name of Sir Christopher Chope himself (he has some 45 Bills before the House).


If anyone, then, has the right to complain about the Whips instinctively blocking anything they don’t like, it is Sir Christopher.


But, what about the Bills the Government were supporting?


The Whips did not shout ‘Object!’, and it is doubtful anyone else would have done if Sir Christopher had not. They, unlike all the other Bills before the House, would have passed unimpeded, and sailed straight into Committee without debate.


Sir Christopher, rightly or wrongly, does not believe that is the best way of changing the laws of the land.


It seems most people disagree. Theresa May was “disappointed”, and Tory MPs talked (both publicly and on a private WhatsApp group) about their shame, and the need to force Sir Christopher into retirement.


But why? These Bills, allegedly, have Government support.


If they do, then the Government are far from powerless. Every day of the week, except one Friday a month, the Government are in control of Parliamentary scheduling.


Often, they give Wednesday afternoons to the Opposition for their debates, but this is still just a custom and in the gift of the Leader of the House. It is at Andrea Leadsom’s door that the critics should be pounding.


The Voyeurism (Offences) Bill, as Wera Hobhouse’s upskirting law is properly known, was introduced to the House over three months ago. For three months, the Government have not once thought to supporting by giving it Government time.


Despite knowing that most Bills on Fridays are blocked - despite their own Whips being the primary source of this blockage - they have had their cake and eaten it. They have claimed their ‘support’ for the Bill, and yet left it at the mercy of Sitting Fridays. And, when it was blocked, they threw up their arms as if powerless.


Pleasingly, someone seems to have now explained Parliamentary procedure to them. Victoria Atkins has announced that the Government will be allocating time for it.


But why is this a last resort? 21 Bills have already cleared both Houses since June 2017, and are now Acts. Of these, four relate to Northern Ireland, and were rushed through. Of the remaining 17 Bills - all Government Bills - a quick look at their progress through Parliament suggests that a Bill with Government backing can clear both Houses within 7 months. Shorter, less contentious, Bills can become law within 5 months.


The leading Private Members Bill - Kevin Hollinrake’s Parental Bereavement Bill - is only just staring its progress in the Lords at the end of this month. It will have taken just shy of 12 months to go from the Commons to 2nd Reading in the Lords.


If Sir Christopher had not blocked the Voyeurism Bill on Friday then, upskirting would likely not have been banned until September 2019, at the earliest.


If the Government supported - truly supported - the Bill, it could be law by Christmas.