Sir Christopher Chope: Why I blocked the FGM Bill in Parliament
We do not make laws in our country by presidential decree or ministerial fiat. We give this responsibility to our elected Members of Parliament. Indeed, the EU’s erosion of Parliament’s ability to decide the laws of the United Kingdom was one of the major catalysts for Brexit.
Almost all proposals for legislation come from the government. Every government bill must be considered at its Second Reading which, by convention, entails a debate of up to one day. This principle should also apply to debates on Private Members Bills (PMBs) which take precedence over government business on at least thirteen Fridays each session.
The case for PMBs to be debated and scrutinised further is even stronger than for government bills because PMBs do not normally have an explanatory note, a cost benefit analysis or regulatory impact assessment and may not have been subject to any public consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny.
All governments try to frustrate the progress of PMBs they don’t like. In the current session, the progress of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, despite receiving overwhelming support at Second Reading, has stalled. The Government has refused to bring forward a motion they alone can introduce for a Money Resolution - something the House of Commons must agree if a new bill proposes to spend public money on projects not previously authorised by an Act of Parliament.
This session, the government has decided that PMBs it supports should be ‘nodded through’ without debate at the Second Reading stage - thereby leapfrogging other bills which took precedence under the annual ballot which decides the priority for PMBs. Fortunately, however, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons give a veto over bills having a Second Reading without debate by shouting ‘object’. I exercise this veto consistently.
The sponsors of most bills to which I have objected have understood the importance of requiring debate at a Second Reading. Indeed, last Friday the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill and the Rivers Authority and Land Drainage Bill were debated and approved at Second Reading and will now go to Committee.
Supporters of two other government-approved bills which I blocked on similar grounds have chosen to vilify me, using social media to orchestrate a campaign of intimidation against my family and staff. Following my suggestion in a letter to this newspaper, the Government decided to replicate the first of these, the Voyeurism Bill, as its own bill. It has now been enacted with my full support.
Maria Miller, who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, said during the report stage of the Voyeurism Bill, ‘If he had not objected the Bill would have gone through on the nod and the amendments we are debating today would not have been possible’. She then went on to complain about current procedures which she said had left me ‘open to hostile attack for acting to ensure that this new law is subject to appropriate levels of scrutiny’.
The second such example is the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill. I condemn female genital mutilation as vehemently as anyone but this does not mean that the legislation should not be debated. Whether or not the measure is proportionate has been questioned by both anti-FGM campaigners and the British Medical Journal. If the Government wants the measure to be enacted it can take the same course it did with Voyeurism. I hope that it will.
The spectacle of Cabinet Ministers who have their eyes set on the Conservative Party leadership competing with each other to virtue signal and pander to those intent on suppressing debate is not attractive.
I fear for the future of my party as a champion of free speech and open debate. The Private Members Bill process faces sustained challenges from single issue pressure groups, each of which wants their own bill to take priority. One way of ensuring that this does not come at the expense of proper scrutiny would be to give top priority each session to the PMBs which attracted greatest support among MPs. Yet this recommendation from the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member, has so far been rejected by the Government.