I’ve had lots of e-mails about my Labour colleague Jim McMahon’s Votes at 16 Private Members Bill. I know many constituents watched the debate on the television and one 17 year old constituent, came to Parliament to watch the debate from the gallery. I also know that a lot of people were concerned that MPs did not vote on the Bill. We may have the opportunity to debate the Bill again on the 1st December, but that isn’t guaranteed.
Most Bills that go through Parliament come from the Government and almost all of the Bills that become law, come from the Government because they have a majority (normally) and can order their MPs to vote down anything they don’t like. At the start of each Parliament, a small number of MPs are drawn at random and invited to bring forward a Bill of their own. These are called Private Members Bills. They are timetabled for debate on a Friday. Most MPs will be working in their constituencies on a Friday, holding advice surgeries, meetings and doing visits. If there is a particular Bill they are interested in then they will be in Parliament on that particular Friday.
However, there are a number of Conservative MPs who stay in Parliament on most Fridays whose sole mission is to stop Private Members Bills succeeding. Their tactic is talking. Talking about the wine list in their favourite clubs, allowing long interruptions from their colleagues who talk in endless circles. Talking on and on. There are very few restrictions for how long an MP can speak for, or on the number of interventions (where you interrupt a speech to ask a question or make a point). The sitting must finish at 2.30pm and so they talk and talk with the deliberate intention of running down the clock. Very often they succeed and a vote does not take place at all. This cabal of Tory MPs have “talked out” a whole variety of good Bills including transposing all EU workers’ rights legislation into UK law in advance of Brexit and allowing the use of off-patent medicines to treat terminal illnesses.
So on the day of the Votes at 16 Bill, those Tory MPs and some more of their colleagues began playing these games from the start of the day during an earlier debate and we ran out of time. Because there were still many MPs who wanted to speak in the debate and hadn’t been able to, no vote took place. It will come back on 1st December – but again with no guarantees about whether it will be debated or a vote will be held.
This all demeans a serious debate about a serious issue. It undermines Parliament and makes it look ridiculous. If the Tories do not want to vote against a Bill then they should let it pass. If they do not, they should be clear and vote against it.
We need to overhaul the system so that good Bills and political reforms are not blocked by a small group of people who appear to have nothing better to do on a Friday than play wrecking tactics and talk for a very, very long time.
A piece of crumbling masonry fell off Parliament the other week and smashed someone’s car. Thank goodness no-one was in it at the time. But I cannot think of a better metaphor for how Parliament’s archaic procedures are unfit for a 21st century legislature. Whilst everyone agrees that the building needs renovation, it’s clear that the procedures do too.