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.

Latest

  • Featured News Unions Len McCluskey hits out at Labour MPs: Stop the sniping and get behind Corbyn

    Len McCluskey hits out at Labour MPs: Stop the sniping and get behind Corbyn

    Unite boss Len McCluskey tonight attacked “disloyal” Labour MPs who oppose Jeremy Corbyn and urged them to focus their fire on the Tory Party. The union General Secretary claimed that Corbyn reflected the views “of most Labour supporters” on many of the 500 occasions on which he broke the party whip. And he said his message for “the plotters” is clear: “stop the sniping, stop the scheming, get behind Jeremy Corbyn and start taking the fight to the Tories.” Speaking […]

    Read more →
  • News Trade Union Action Week Unions Wales Tories ready to offer concessions on Trade Union Bill after Labour fight

    Tories ready to offer concessions on Trade Union Bill after Labour fight

    Labour peers and Welsh Assembly Members could be on course to secure a major victory in the fight against the Tories’ Trade Union Bill, as a leaked ministerial letter reveals there are areas where the Government are preparing to climbdown. The letter, written by Business minister Nick Boles, accepts that elements of the bill “will be defeated”, following cross-party agreement in the House of Lords to curb certain aspects. Boles writes that the thresholds provision, which would see strike action banned if it […]

    Read more →
  • News Former Defence minister hits out at unilateralist “myths” over Trident

    Former Defence minister hits out at unilateralist “myths” over Trident

    Former Defence minister Kevan Jones has taken aim at the “myths” promoted by unilateralists following an acrimonious discussion of Trident among Labour MPs. Jones attacked the claim by Diane Abbott, the Shadow International Development Secretary, that the cost of replacing Trident could fund NHS Accident and Emergency Services for several decades and implies she has trivialised the issue by suggesting disarmament would lead to a £100bn windfall for the Treasury. Writing for LabourList, Jones said: “Diane has cited many of […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured The debate around Trident renewal has been dominated by myths for too long

    The debate around Trident renewal has been dominated by myths for too long

    Last week, writing for LabourList, the Shadow International Development Secretary, Diane Abbott, said that the decision on replacing the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent needs debating properly. I couldn’t agree more. For far too long, the debate surrounding the replacement of the four Vanguard-class of submarines that currently provide the UK’s deterrent has been dominated by myths rather than fact. This needs addressing, and I would urge anyone with an interest in nuclear security (and I would say that’s everyone) to […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour’s Trident differences could be “impossible to reconcile”, says Burnham

    Labour’s Trident differences could be “impossible to reconcile”, says Burnham

    Labour’s differences on Trident renewal may be “impossible to reconcile”, according to Andy Burnham. The Shadow Home Secretary appeared to suggest that the party may have to settle for not having an official position on the policy, as it finds “some way of accommodating” both nuclear unilateralists and multilateralists. He also dismissed the idea of a “halfway house” compromise. Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, the former leadership candidate, who made clear that he is a supporter of renewing the […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit