May’s government has quietly crushed reforms that would end a vile ritual by MPs

Tracy Keeling

Theresa May’s government has quietly crushed reforms of one of parliament’s most abused practices. The Conservatives sneaked out the rejection on 12 January, while the unfolding crisis in the NHS consumed the British public’s attention.

The government refused to accept changes to Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) drawn up by parliament’s Procedure Committee. The revisions would have prevented rogue MPs from ranting on for hours during parliamentary discussions in order to derail proposed bills.

This practice is known as filibustering. And a number of Tory MPs have used it to thwart the advance of important legislation. So the government’s refusal to crack down on its usage gives these MPs the green light to continue in their anti-democratic ways.

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No meaningful discussion

Most recently, Conservative MPs filibustered to block a parliamentary debate on post-Brexit workers’ rights. Great Grimsby MP Melanie Onn designed the law to protect these rights after Britain leaves the EU. But on 13 January, the date set for its hearing, Tory MPs spoke for so long in a previous debate that Onn’s bill didn’t get a look in. The prior debate was on digital radio services, which stretched to four hours.

Onn commented:

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By talking out the bill, the Tories have shown their true colours. They say that maternity pay, parental leave, and paid leave are all safe in their hands.

But when given the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, they instead blocked the protection of those rights in UK law, and have let down working people

Prior to that, Conservative MPs used filibustering to block changes to benefit sanctions and stop the NHS Reinstatement bill being discussed. This bill would “fully restore the NHS as an accountable public service”. The practice has also been used to try and prevent a domestic violence law being carried, and to attempt to stop blanket gay pardons.

Additionally, filibustering has managed to block votes on life-saving education in schools, free hospital parking for carers, and legislation to outlaw ‘revenge evictions’ by rogue landlords.

Some MPs have gained notoriety for regularly engaging in the practice. Such as Shipley MP Phillip Davies. His filibustering caught the attention of comedian Russell Howard in 2015, who subsequently branded Davies a “w*nker”.

The system is broken for a reason

Filibustering occurs during PMBs sessions. As The Mirror explained, PMBs are laws which backbench MPs propose. These are selected each year in a lottery. If a proposed law is still under discussion by 2.30pm on its scheduled day, or has not been addressed yet, no votes are cast. And there is no time limit on the interjections MPs can make. So those who talk for lengthy periods can push bills past the 2.30pm deadline.

Yet the government rejected the committee’s suggestion to set time limits. And it dismissed the committee’s suggestion to reduce the number of PMBs to give important ones priority.

Tory MP Charles Walker drew up the reforms, and spoke to The Mirror about the government’s decision. He said:

We were very narrow in our final recommendations, we just wanted to try something to improve the current situation, but even that was rejected.

When asked why the government came to its conclusion, he said: “They don’t want to lose control.” And Walker has a point. Because although individual MPs are the face of filibustering, they may not always be its initiators.

The government’s decision, therefore, allows it to maintain its grip on parliamentary business. So filibustering may be bad for democracy, but it’s seemingly very helpful for those who are pulling the strings.

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Featured image via US Embassy London/Flickr

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