Friday filibusters and mug poetry

15th November, 2010 3:39 pm

Jacob Rees MoggBy Kerry McCarthy / @KerryMP

Another Friday, another filibuster. Another example of parliamentary procedure at its most farcical.

On a number of allotted Fridays each year the commons sits to hear Private Members’ business, i.e. Bills presented by MPs who have been fortunate enough to come in the top ten or twelve of the Private Members’ Bills ballot. Lobbyists and campaign groups are poised ready for action when the ballot results are announced, eager to find an MP willing to promote their cause. And so it was that Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, found himself in Parliament on Friday presenting the Sustainable Livestock Bill, which had been heavily promoted by Friends of the Earth as part of its excellent Fix the Food Chain campaign. By coincidence, second on the list was Rob’s Stoke -on-Trent neighbour, Joan Walley, with her Public Bodies (Sustainable Food) Bill, which was supported by Sustain. Supporters of these campaigns had been lobbying their MPs, urging them to forgo constituency duties for once and be in Parliament on the Friday to support the bills. Even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Levi Roots were wheeled out in support at an event in the commons the night before.

I, for one, didn’t need much persuading. I’d called a debate on the environmental impact of the livestock sector in Westminster Hall a few years earlier, and was thrilled that issue was no longer the preserve of ‘mad vegans’ like myself. (I’m projecting there; it’s very apparent when I stand up in Defra questions that the government front bench is thinking ‘here’s the mad vegan again’. They roll their eyes when I raise topics like Nocton Dairy farm, with its plans for 8,100 cows to be kept in an industrialised bunker virtually all year round, which Jim Paice, the Defra Minister can’t see a problem with. Check out the Not in my Cuppa campaign for more details).

Since the election that there’s been a real shift of emphasis in Defra. The farmers have taken over, and the emphasis is once again on the producers, not the consumers of food. So the government was never going to look favourably upon a bill which imposes requirements on farmers to move towards more sustainable farming methods. The “greenest government ever” turned out to be not that interested in preventing the alarming rate of destruction of the rainforest by developers producing soy and grain to feed Western livestock. Or the significant production of greenhouse gases from agriculture, and the livestock sector in particular.

On Friday the aim of the bill’s supporters were simple. We wanted to get it through Second Reading and into committee. Further down the line we’d face the hurdle of whether the government would block the bill when it came back to the commons, but on Friday we simply wanted to debate the issues and then put it to the vote. We were confident we had a majority of those present, with even some support on the Tory benches from Zac Goldsmith and Jo ‘brother of Boris’ Johnson.

But on Fridays it doesn’t quite work like that. Business starts at 9.30am, and continues until 2.30pm. If you don’t like a bill you could take the conventional route of rallying opposition and voting it down, but that doesn’t happen. Instead we have the usual suspects, loathed and feared by the Tory whips in equal measure but also damned useful to them on occasions like this, who basically come along to talk. And talk. And talk. The opposite rules to Just a Minute apply; the more hesitation, deviation and repetition they can work into their speeches without being pulled up by the Speaker, the better. Christopher Chope devotes much of his parliamentary career to this art. David Nuttall, a new boy from Bury North, seems to have decided to take it up as a hobby. Phillip Davies, scourge of ‘political correctness gone mad’ is another. (And yes, we did it too when we were in government, Andrew Dismore being the acknowledged expert on boring for England on any topic with barely a moment’s notice).

There’s no point trying to have a reasoned debate. The Tory, Tony Baldry, disingenuously accused supporters of the bill of a lack of interest because none of them spoke in its favour; even Rob Flello had only managed ten minutes. He knew, as we all did, that time was of the essence. Every minute we spoke, every intervention we made to challenge or correct the patent nonsense spewing from the mouths of the bill’s opponents was a gift to them, another minute they didn’t have to fill. So we sat there, fuming while Jacob Rees-Mogg read out lines of poetry from a mug he’d possessed in childhood, and told us all about the superiority of Somerset eggs and a pig called the Empress of Blandings who lived on potatoes and won prizes. (Tony Baldry had told us earlier he owned two sows called ‘affectionately’ Hazel and Harriet, which Hazel and Harriet would no doubt regard as a lovely gesture). And then the Mogg moved on to Bazalgette and the sewage system, and the battles of Agincourt and Crecy, and the fact that he didn’t much care for Thai chicken because it was too spicy…

Our only chance to stop this farce was to move a closure motion: that the issue had been fully debated and that ‘the question be now put’. But that’s at the discretion of the Speaker, and the Deputy, Nigel Evans, made it clear he wouldn’t allow a closure motion until the front benches had spoken. And then Chope got up to speak, and we were told he had to be allowed a fair crack at it… So it was close to 2pm by the time the closure motion was put, and sadly by then many of the MPs who had stayed in Westminster to support the bill had drifted off to their constituencies. We couldn’t muster the 100 MPs we needed to halt the debate and to have a vote on the actual bill (which we’d have won), so the debate resumed. The Mogg managed to stroll across the finishing line, still talking, at 2.30pm, which effectively killed the bill.

This is the second Private Members’ Bill Friday in a row this has happened. John McDonnell’s trade union rights bill was given the same treatment a fortnight or so ago. MPs aren’t at all happy. Joan Walley, who didn’t even get a chance to introduce her Bill, was furious. We need reform. Word has it that the Speaker is sympathetic (after all, he has to listen to Nuttall and Chope drone on, week after week) and there’s clearly also a role for the new Backbench Business Committee, whose job it is to assert the right of backbenchers to be heard in parliament. One suggestion is to move PMBs Fridays to a Wednesday evening, or Tuesday morning, when more MPs will be around. I don’t see why simple time limits can’t be introduced. Parliament has to realise how ridiculous it looks to the outside world, and how disappointed and frustrated our constituents are when they see us playing silly games and reading out mug poetry (Mogg poetry?) when we’re meant to be making laws and running the country. It’s time to put our House in order.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]

Latest

  • Comment Internal fighting must not distract us from reconnecting with working people

    Internal fighting must not distract us from reconnecting with working people

    Labour faces a crisis. Boundary changes and internal disputes are bad enough but the clearest challenge is surely the lack of belief in us as a movement by swathes of our traditional voters. At a time of huge political volatility – look at the demise of Lib Dems and the rise of the SNP – the last thing we can afford is the continuing discontent among our core voters that has been exposed in the referendum result. The lack of […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Europe Featured Let’s unite behind Jeremy and turn our fire on the Tories

    Let’s unite behind Jeremy and turn our fire on the Tories

    Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been amongst those today seeking to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the EU Referendum result. But the reality is the blame lies squarely on David Cameron’s shoulders, which is why he was quite right to resign. To be absolutely clear, YouGov polling shows that 68% of Labour voters voted Remain, but only 43% Tory voters voted Remain. David Cameron failed to convince a majority of Tory voters. We also need to be clear that Jeremy […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Kezia Dugale: Labour will not support another Independence Referendum

    Kezia Dugale: Labour will not support another Independence Referendum

    Kezia Dugdale has said Scottish Labour would not support another independence referendum in the face of the referendum result, saying Scotland does not need “more turmoil, more upheaval and more economic chaos”. The Scottish Labour leader said the unresolved questions from the 2014 vote were still unanswered and repeating the independence referendum would bring instability. Dugdale said the Leave verdict would damage the economy in Scotland, adding that devolved administrations must have a voice in the Brexit negotiation process. “This […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Unions Union leaders back Corbyn against “indulgence” of leadership challenge

    Union leaders back Corbyn against “indulgence” of leadership challenge

    Twelve major trade union leaders have backed Jeremy Corbyn against any leadership challenge following the letter of no confidence lodged against the current leader this morning. The union bosses say the a “manufactured leadership row” is the last thing the party needs in the current crisis, saying it would be an unnecessary indulgence. The letter, from the biggest unions in the UK, demands Labour is a “source of national stability and unity” in the face of Conservative turmoil. They say that, instead of […]

    Read more →
  • News Unions “The last thing Labour needs is a leadership row” – Unions’ statement backing Corbyn

    “The last thing Labour needs is a leadership row” – Unions’ statement backing Corbyn

    The below is a statement from union leaders backing Jeremy Corbyn to continue as Labour leader. The Prime Minister’s resignation has triggered a Tory leadership crisis. At the very time we need politicians to come together for the common good, the Tory party is plunging into a period of argument and infighting. In the absence of a government that puts the people first Labour must unite as a source of national stability and unity. It should focus on speaking up for jobs […]

    Read more →
x

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends










Submit