Debating Private Members’ Bills

Sir Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch, has attracted widespread criticism for his action last Friday in blocking a Private Member’s Bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation.  In the Commons, Private Members’ Bills that have not been allocated time for debate, or run out of time, are listed at the end of a Friday sitting and if any MP shouts ‘object’ to a Bill, it cannot proceed.  Sir Christopher has a practice of variously (though not always) objecting to Bills that have not been debated.

As the BBC reported ‘Sir Christopher argued his aim was to stop badly thought-out legislation.  He said he had not been objecting to the substance of the issue, but wanted to see all legislation properly debated.’  I have sympathy with that argument.  However, it depends what is meant by ‘properly debated’.  I can understand if a Bill has not been debated at all.  But that does not apply in this case.  This was a Bill – the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [HL] 2017-19 – that had already been debated and passed by the House of Lords (hence the HL in the title).  Among those who spoke in support on Second Reading were two leading lawyers – former Supreme Court Justice Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws – and it was supported by the Government.  The minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, said:

‘I turn to the Bill, which seeks to amend a small and, we believe, unintentional gap in the law. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, there has been an oversight.  He explained that the purpose of the Bill is to amend Section 8(4) of the Children Act 1989 to bring proceedings for FGMPOs within the definition of “family proceedings” for the purpose of the 1989 Act.  The effect of bringing FGMPO proceedings within this definition would be that a number of powers under the Children Act 1989 would be opened up to the family courts in those proceedings, such as the power to make a care or supervision order.

The Government are pleased to be able to support the Bill at Second Reading. There are a few minor and technical amendments that we believe are appropriate and we will of course discuss them with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and other interested noble Lords before the Bill returns to your Lordships’ House for its next stage.’

Some amendments were agreed at committee stage and the Bill was passed by the House.

The Bill thus does not fall in the category of a Private Member’s Bill that would have gone through Parliament undebated, had it not been for Sir Christopher’s objection.  The Bill was debated, without any constraints on proceedings, in the Lords.  Given that, I would argue that any objection in the Commons should have been on grounds of principle and not process.  As far as I am aware, no parliamentarian has any objection of principle.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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