Last Friday, the one word “object” uttered by Sir Christopher Chope proved to be far more controversial than he realised. Admittedly, he said it repeatedly that afternoon, but in blocking my Private Members Bill to make upskirting a specific criminal offence, he ended up in a political row with him on one side and pretty much everyone else on the other.
Many people simply couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a specific offence already, and even more were completely bewildered as to why anyone would vote against a bill to make it one. I am sure having a self-proclaimed “fetish for parliamentary procedure” is not what first came to people’s minds.
I first decided to put forward a Private Members Bill on upskirting to mark International Women’s Day. It was my first as a new member of Parliament and I wanted to do something that counted. Having already questioned ministers on the crime of upskirting, I thought by calling to reform the law, it would raise the issue at the very least, and if passed, would truly make a difference to women and girls.
I reached out to some brilliant women who had been campaigning on the issue, and began working with Gina Martin and her lawyer Ryan Whelan on the campaign they had begun the summer before. Gina had first-hand experience of the vile practice and since then has been determined to do something about it. Gina’s story was the first of many horrifying stories I’ve heard since I introduced my bill. These accounts are so important if we are to end the mentality of some that upskirting is harmless or seen as a joke.
The next stage was to build cross party consensus behind the bill. We had to prove that there was a gap in the law, and that cases were going unprosecuted because of it. I met with ministers, put pressure on the government and the Prime Minister with questions in the chamber, and so the campaign started to gain momentum.
The second reading of my bill was set for May, but the Ministry of Justice asked me to push it back whilst we worked on the details. As often happens in politics, it was left until the last minute. I only found out the bill had official government backing last Wednesday. Credit where credit is due, I know Lucy Frazer and Victoria Atkins were pushing incredibly hard for the government to support the bill.
The good news did not last long. The following day we found out that none other than the honourable member for the Jurassic Coast, Sir Christopher Chope, was planning to object to the bill. I lobbied his peers, they lobbied him, I even cornered him and tried to change his mind, but all to no avail. The sad reality is that Chope is sitting on a majority of 25,000, and with no governmental ambitions, feels secure in doing whatever he pleases without fear of retribution. He will block any Private Members Bill on principle, regardless of the bill’s content and merit. On the same day as upskirting, he blocked a bill to make it illegal to stab police dogs, to give carers free parking at hospitals, and has previously blocked a pardon for Alan Turing. The list goes on. True to his word he objected and was subsequently vilified for exactly what he’s been doing for the last 20 years. For a long time he has deliberately restrained progress in this country, and my sympathy for him is limited at best.
Yesterday my bill, which has been adopted by the government, was passed by the House to proceed to the Second Reading Committee. This means the second reading will be much earlier than expected, Tuesday 2 July. This type of legislative journey is very rare and reserved for legislation that is deemed uncontroversial. The decision to move so quickly is testament to how widely the bill is supported, both in Westminster, and across the country. I was glad to see no-one objected yesterday and now that sufficient progress has been made by the government, I have withdrawn my own bill.
The public dislike bickering politicians scoring party political points, and we all do it sometimes, it’s the nature of the beast. It may go unnoticed, but politicians often also get together and work cross-party to try and get things through that we all agree with. Case and point, my bill was sponsored by members from five parties. These efforts get canned on a regular basis by those with prehistoric views such as Chope, and the Conservative leadership have allowed their backbenchers to do this for far too long.
In a time where the government is preoccupied with Brexit, backbench MPs need the power to work together to introduce progressive legislation and move the country forward, without the political dinosaurs of the past getting in the way. Maybe, just maybe, upskirting will be their meteorite.
Wera Hobhouse is the Lib Dem MP for Bath