The Blog

We Need to Stop Filibustering - The Politial Equivalent of a Team Taking the Ball to the Corner Flag for Ninety Minutes

If the Government of the day do not wish to see a Private Members Bill passed, then they should have the courage to say so. We owe it to the public to ensure that important matters are debated on their merits and not subjected to the parlour games that discredit us all.

It's fair to say that parliamentary procedure is not something that has historically excited the minds of many outside of the Westminster bubble, so for over 50,000 people to have signed a petition calling for reform of the rules on 'sitting Fridays,' something has to be seriously amiss.

Fridays are typically kept free for MPs to hold surgeries and carry out a range of other activities in their constituencies. However, thirteen Fridays every year are designated as 'sitting Fridays' and are appointed for the consideration of Private Members Bills, which give non-Government MPs the opportunity to bring forward a piece of legislation.

Allocating only thirteen days to the huge number of Bills brought forward means that many are not considered at all, while others receive only minutes of debate before the time runs out. Most are never voted upon, let alone passed into law. Indeed there are currently over 60 of these Bills, sitting on the order paper each week, destined to wither and die as there are no sitting Fridays left in the current session in which to consider them.

The ire of the public has been directed primarily at the 'filibustering' of Bills, where MPs speak at length to run down the clock, preventing a vote from taking place and ensuring that the Bill can proceed no further. It is the political equivalent of a football team taking the ball to the corner flag for the whole ninety minutes.

Having attended several sitting Fridays since I came to this place I have to say that on two of those occasions I had two very different experiences. One was what I consider to be Parliament at its best and the other Parliament at its worst.

The first was the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill which saw many thoughtful passionate and impressive contributions on both sides and a clear outcome.

The second occasion was when I attended a sitting Friday when two Bills were debated- the Off Patent Drugs Bill and the NHS (Charitable Trusts Etc) Bill. Both were worthy matters for debate, but events were manipulated so that the Off Patent Drug Bill was talked out.

The particularly frustrating aspect of this for me was that the NHS charitable trusts Bill was uncontroversial and straightforward but was used and abused by a number of backbenchers to ensure that the second Bill was talked out.

The Charitable Trusts Bill had a particular application to Great Ormond Street Hospital and the legacy of JM Barrie, so this gave members the perfect opportunity to talk at length about his work and of course Peter Pan. The words 'Peter Pan' were actually mentioned more times in the debate than they were in the original book, so by the end of it I would have been delighted if somebody dressed in green could have flown me away from the chamber. Unlike the boy who never grew up, I felt myself age several years during the hours I spent in the chamber listening to drivel.

The reputation of the whole of Parliament suffers when the public see potentially beneficial laws being stopped because a small group of members on the Conservative benches decide that they don't want it to be passed.

But not only does it damage the reputation of Parliament it also wastes the time of a large number of people. It doesn't just waste the time spent by those MPs who have worked to have a Bill presented in the first place, or their colleagues who have been cajoled and persuaded to attend the chamber on a Friday when they would normally be in their constituency. It also wastes the time of the charities and other organisations have given a huge amount of time providing support on the technical aspects of a Bill, or working to raise awareness and gain support.

But most of all it disappoints, frustrates and angers the many members of the public who will rightly feel that to some MPs, the playing of political games is more important than proper debate and scrutiny of legislation that could change people's lives. We saw that most recently with the NHS reinstatement Bill which every MP will have had 100's of emails on, for a Bill that had zero chance of passing.

Surely even the most hardened filibusterer did not when they first entered Parliament feel an overwhelming desire to talk at length about everything and nothing to stop legislation passing. Isn't democracy about engaging with the arguments, trying to persuade others of your case and then testing the strength of that with a vote?

This is the nub of the issue, we have a dishonest process whereby the Government do not want to be seen to be openly opposing a Private Members Bill, so instead use technicalities to stop it ever becoming law. I would rather have a system where Private Members Bills were given a realistic chance of being passed on their merits and they were debated and voted upon on that same basis.

If the Government of the day do not wish to see a Private Members Bill passed, then they should have the courage to say so. We owe it to the public to ensure that important matters are debated on their merits and not subjected to the parlour games that discredit us all.