I ‘ve had a stack of emails complaining about my neighbouring MP, Sir Christopher Chope, who objected to a bill last Friday, which would have afforded greater protection to girls at risk of genital mutilation.
Readers of this column might recall that in June of last year there was a not dissimilar row when he objected to a bill to create a specific sexual offence of ‘up-skirting’.
The short answer to any email is that Sir Christopher is not accountable to me, he is accountable to the voters of Christchurch, of whom he is the elected representative.
On each parliamentary sitting Friday a number of bills are listed for debate (with the order determined by ballot). In the time available it is rare for more than two bills to have been debated. At the end of the sitting however, those bills listed, but not reached on that day can be given a second reading (the first stage in the legislative process before they proceed to detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary committee) ‘on the nod’ unless an MP shouts “object”.
When I was a member of the Government whips office it was the responsibility of the whip on duty to make that objection to every bill listed, on the basic principle that, whatever the merits of any particular bill, no bill should proceed without having been debated.
I am not privy to why the whips have discontinued this function, leaving it instead to Sir Christopher.
Sir Christopher turned out have done us all a favour on up-skirting last year: Such was the furore surrounding his cry of ‘object’, that the Government adopted the provisions of the bill as an amendment to one of its own bills. With the result that up-skirting became a criminal sexual offence much sooner that it would have done had it remained a private member’s bill.
The lesson here is simple: important measures should form part of the Government’s legislative programme, benefiting from the Government’s whip and its parliamentary time, rather than being left to the vagaries of private members legislation on a very few thinly attended Fridays.
It will be interesting to see if the Government now similarly adopts and expedites the provisions of the FGM bill.
As to any question of a shortage of parliamentary time: there is no such thing; rather, there is a shortage of the will to make that time available.
When I was first elected, Parliament had a 5 day week: we sat most Fridays, on some there would be government business and on others private members bills.
Now, in effect, we have a three day week: overwhelmingly Thursdays are given over to worthy but thinly attended back-bench debates, and there are only 13 sitting Fridays per year.
Many members return to their constituencies on a Wednesday evening.
One thing that can certainly be said of Sir Christopher is that he attends assiduously, including Fridays