So much of what our broadcasters and newspapers show us of Parliament focuses on either childish behaviour at Prime Minister Questions (now becoming Prime Minister ignoring questions) or the contrast between the full chamber when things matters to MPs such as their own pay and conditions and the empty chamber when matters seem a great deal more important to society at large such as mental health provision. In terms of the Committees that are a regular feature of life in Westminster, it is rare for one of these to be given much publicity unless it features the antics of Rupert Murdoch or Camilla Batmanghelidjh. However one Committee that sat yesterday is worthy of note in my opinion because it was debating how Parliament itself behaves and deals with Private Members Bills. These should be a vital element of our Parliament. As the Committee reflected, it was Private Members Bills that ensured that our Parliament ultimately ended the death penalty, reformed homosexual legislation and legalised abortion along with many other issues that the Government of the day was to frightened or too resistant to deal with. The problem is that the current Government just like its recent predecessors has chosen to use other Parliamentary rules and techniques to block all Private Members Bills unless they are one of the vast number that are Government sponsored and satisfy the Executive. As Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne who chaired this committee stated:
“The problem we have is that, in my view—this view is shared—the system is so corrupt now and such a sham that it is a sort of cruel fiction perpetrated on our constituents. We heard from Clerks a few minutes ago that the overwhelming majority of private Members’ Bills that reach the statute book now are handout Bills—about 98% of them are. And even with those genuine private Members’ Bills that the Government pretend to welcome and say are a great idea, they line up some of the Friday morning/afternoon specialists to destroy them. I just think that in this modern age—of course all ages are modern, so that is irrelevant—I do not think with a straight face that I can continue to give the process credibility, because it is just incredible.”
What Charles referred to as Friday specialists are people like Philip Davies, David Nuttall and Christopher Chope who use filibusters on a regular basis, relishing in the attention this obstruction grants them. Since May 2014 these pro’s along with two Government Ministers, Alistair Burt who I once believed to be a reputable Parliamentarian but has now shown himself to be willing to limit democracy and Sam Gyimah have used filibuster to block bills on providing subsidised parking for carers on NHS property, offering first aid training to children in our Schools and to ensure the NHS uses cheap, unbranded drugs when the drug companies no longer have a protective patent in place. Charles Walker went on to state:
“A recent private Member’s Bill was talked out, and one of the individuals responsible was hailed by a table of Whips in the Tea Room as a great man. I just want you to know that many colleagues in this place find that sort of behaviour simply disgusting. It turns their stomach, it really does. I want that on the record.”
Another member of the Committee was Patricia Gibson, SNP MP for North Ayrshire and Arran. Patricia said:
“Given everything that has been said today, I think we would all agree that engagement and trust in Westminster politics has never been lower. I certainly cannot think of a time when people have been so detached and disengaged from politics in Westminster. If I look at the list in front of me, a lot of private Members’ Bills are on things that we might call bread and butter issues—issues that really matter to people. I am thinking in particular of the recent emergency first aid education Bill, which was talked out. I make no bones about it: I did not attend that debate, but I know that on the face of it, the Bill made eminent sense to a lot of people. Why would it not go through? The fact that it was talked out feeds the lack of engagement with and the lack of understanding about what goes on in this place and the antiquated procedures. Do you not think that unless we have some kind of meaningful reform of this process, it is yet another nail in the coffin—a threat to democracy when people stop caring about what happens here?”
It seems to me having read through the entire transcript of the Committee that there is a common views from both the Press and Parliament that the current system does not work and much worse, that few of us understand why and how it operates. My personal view is that we need to have a Parliament in which backbench MPs can propose legislation without the Government using that process to get their own laws in through the back door, and that these backbench laws can be heard and voted on, again without the executive putting up voices to talk them out. That is why I have signed this petition and I would urge others to do the same.