Ross Ewing is a Senior Parliamentary Assistant in the House of Commons.
So here we are again. Christopher Chope has single-handedly blocked a Bill that has widespread support across the country. The Christchurch MP yesterday shouted “object” to a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) designed to protect children at risk of suffering female genital mutilation (FGM). Cue the Twitter storm of Conservative backbench MPs and Cabinet Ministers lining up to put on record how outraged they are by Chope’s objection, and the subsequent delay to the passage of this Bill.
Of course, his behaviour is not new. Everyone will have known for some time that Chope was going to object to this Bill passing seamlessly through its Second Reading in the Commons – including the ministers who were quick to communicate their horror at what took place on a quiet Friday in the Commons.
Let me make this clear. FGM is a despicable criminal practice that has no place in society. The law of the land should come down extremely hard on those that carry out this sickening practice, and every effort must be made to prevent it being carried out in the first place.
Campaigners on this issue deserve our respect too. They have brought this issue to the front pages, and they have made our lawmakers sit up and take notice. It is quite right that a proactive and free-thinking MP such as Zac Goldsmith shoud be the man who brought this piece of legislation forward.
Backbenchers such as Goldsmith only have so much power in our legislative process. PMBs are curious things that very few MPs really engage with. The green benches are usually sparsely attended on a Friday morning, when PMBs are being debated – and most MPs seem to think that there is very little point in speaking on or supporting a PMB when there are so many opportunities for legislation to fall.
There are of course some regular attenders on Fridays. Peter Bone usually has a long list of proposed Bills which seem never to get debated, are always objected to by his own party whips, and appear usually designed to clog up the system of PMBs anyway.
Chope is another one of those regulars. His intentions for PMB Fridays are akin to those of Bone. Chope doesn’t believe that PMBs are a suitable vehicle for legislation to be brought forward, especially on contentious issues or topics about which a great deal of scrutiny is required in order to ensure that the Bill has its desired effect. Hence his objection yesterday – though, curiously, he doesn’t often object to PMBs proposed by his like-minded colleagues.
But although I think he was wrong to object to this Bill, I struggle to disagree on his broader point. Objections to PMBs are a matter of routine by party whips and, even when Bills pass, the Government often won’t bring forward money resolutions to coincide with them. This effectively ends the progress of the Bill in question.
Furthermore, Chope has a history of this sort of activity, and everyone involved in politics knows that. Readers of this site will remember that he recently blocked a Bill that would criminalise the act of ‘upskirting’. The uproar over his objection caused the Government to act and bring forward legislation themselves.
It was the sensible thing to do at the time – and it would be the sensible thing to do now for this Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill.
Were the Government so committed to bringing forward this legislation, then Ministers could do it easily themselves. After all, the past few weeks have seen very little Government business brought forward. The Government appears to be paralysed in Parliament, due to ongoing Brexit wrangling: fear of destabilising defeats looms over every vote.
So instead, we have enjoyed various ‘general debates’ on anti-social behaviour, sport in the UK and other topics. Next week, MPs will spend government time in the Chamber on ‘tributes to the Clerk of the House’, followed by another general debate on connecting communities through charities and volunteers. Important topics though these are, these debates will achieve very little.
In short, the Government has the power themselves to make this important change in the law a reality. Ministers also have the power to alter the rules that govern PMBs, so that these are more effective, and prevent a lone MP, such as Chope, from delaying the progress of an important Bill. Were Ministers to take up this Bill, it would achieve cross-party support, and the measure would gain the necessary clout to make it onto the statute book. What else has the Commons got to debate at the moment anyway?