In the USA, the technique of filibuster is used primarily to frustrate the Government and slow down the passage of Bills so that changes can be made to the content or the Bill lost altogether. High School students are taught about the technique as part of their education, as the technique is seen as a way of bringing the overbearing Government to heel. Here in the UK, even amongst people who have an interest in democracy, there appears to be little understanding of what a filibuster is. That may be about to change as the Government has used the technique on at least two of the last four successive Fridays to block backbench Bills from being voted on and passing to the next stage in their legislative journey. As a result the journey is in effect ended before the detail of the Bill can be explored in Parliament. The reason why we should be concerned about this is that a filibuster takes the power inherent in Parliament as a whole and hands it to the few men and women willing to stand up and speak without ceasing.
On Friday 30th Philip Davies who has used the technique many times before spoke out or filibustered a Bill which he felt was not a good one, it was intended to grant free parking to carers in the carparks of NHS Hospitals. It is not clear if Philip was acting entirely on his own or if the Government was supportive of his action. It is certainly clear that this Bill would not have been one the Government would have wished to see on the statute book.
On Friday 6th November the Minister for Care and Support, Alistair Burt the Minister for Care and Support used a filibuster in a very brazen manner, declaring from the outset that he would speak until the time allocated to debate and vote on the Bill had passed. This Bill was designed to ensure that the NHS uses drugs that are outside of their patent to cut costs to the NHS.
Finally on Friday 20th November another Government Minister, Sam Gyimah who is Parliamentary Under Secretary for Childcare and Education was one of several Conservative MPs including Philip Davies who talked out the bill proposed by Teresa Pearce who is MP for Erith and Thamesmead. The Bill would have allowed for the teaching of First Aid in Schools as part of the national curriculum. A change that some believe would save a significant number of lives each year.
Speaking after the Bill was lost Ms Pearce said “We really have to look at the way private member’s bills are done. Either we just forget them altogether because it is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. Or we need to stop this nonsense when just one or two people can actually usurp the will of the chamber.”
The idea that any single MP or indeed the Government should prevent MPs voting on a Bill which they believe is important is something all of us should feel concerned about. These three private members Bills were all formed after the proposing MPs won a prize to have their legislation considered by Parliament. These MPs then invested time and energy to draft the Bill and get support from amongst colleagues. Had they passed on the three Fridays concerned, they would have been far from formed legislation, but they would have at least been allowed to be looked at in Committees. However the use of filibuster means that this will not happen. A lost opportunity and a waste of time and abuse of process.
Following the first of these filibusters, Dr Alex Langford set up a Parliamentary Petition to call on the Government to “Reform the rules on filibustering or ‘talking a bill to death’.” by early November this petition had around 7,000 signatures. It now has 27,000 signatures. Assuming it reaches 100,000 the Government will be forced to consider a debate on this topic. Let us at least get it up to that first step.