The defender of upskirters strikes again

meme by Sadie Parker

One could almost sense an epic eye roll and audible sigh rippling across the land, when news broke that the government was pulling a vote on banning MPs accused of violent and sexual offences from the parliamentary estate, due to objections by Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) and Philip Davies (Shipley). What could be more sensible than safeguarding potential victims from predators? Besides, this is a reform that has been in motion for a couple of years now. 

In June 2023, the House of Commons Commission’s report on risk-based exclusion of MPs, resulting from a consultation launched in November 2022, was presented in the House of Commons by the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt. Chope was one of those who objected, accusing the Commission of scope creep. As a result of objections by him and others, the report was re-drafted and re-released in December 2023 to widespread approval. Alas, Chope and Davies are back on the war-path and tossing grenades of dissent again.

Chope has form when it comes to obstructionism for obstructionism’s sake. Together with former colleague Peter Bone, the disgraced ex-MP for Wellingborough, and the aforementioned Davies, he regularly objects to bills and motions. Indeed, one of his hobbies is to kill off private members’ bills (PMBs) on their second reading on a Friday afternoon, or motions put forward in the ‘business without debate’ segment at the close of the parliamentary day, by shouting “object”. He will do this even if there is strong public and parliamentarian support for them. Some of his most notorious cases of blocking reforming legislation include:

25 July 2012 Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill

Lord Sharkey, a Liberal Democrat peer, wrote a private member’s bill calling for a posthumous royal pardon for Enigma code-breaker and all-round computer genius Alan Turing (1912-1954). Turing’s work is estimated to have knocked two years off of the duration of World War 2 (1939-1945), but he was forced by the government to undergo the cruel treatment of chemical castration in 1952 for ‘gross indecency’, as a homosexual act was considered in law at that time. A Royal Pardon was eventually granted on December 24, 2013, and later inspired ‘Turing’s Law’, an amnesty provision in the Police and Crime Act 2017 to pardon all men cautioned or convicted of previously outlawed homosexual acts. (There was no equivalent legal offence for women, as Queen Victoria did not believe there was such a thing as a lesbian, so it never entered the statute book.)

30 October 2015 Hospital Parking Charges (Exemption for Carers) Bill

Introduced by Julie Cooper, then Labour MP for Burnley, the Bill set out a proposed exemption to hospital parking charges for carers. At that time, hospitals had discretionary powers to grant exemptions to parking charges. Conservative MPs Chope and Davies succeeded in filibustering the debate to prevent a vote on its second reading. This killed the bill.

15 June 2018 Voyeurism (Offences) Bill

A PMB to make upskirting – the taking of surreptitious, sexually intrusive images – a specific criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison was introduced by the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse after a campaign by Gina Martin. Police had declined to prosecute a man Martin accused of taking underskirt pictures of her on his phone at a music festival. Ironically, Chope’s objection caused such a furore, that the government got behind the Bill and it became law in 2019.

15 June 2018 Animal Welfare Services Bill

Known popularly as Finn’s Law after a police dog stabbed by a criminal trying to escape, this PMB was introduced by Conservative MP Sir Oliver Heald. It aimed to make it a specific offence to attack police or prison officer dogs or police horses. Again, there was uproar and the government decided to back the measure, closing what campaigners said was a loophole in existing legislation. Finn’s law gained Royal Assent in 2019.

16 July 2018 Use of Chamber (Women MPs of the World Conference) Motion

The Women MPs of the World Conference was jointly organised by the government’s equalities office, along with the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, and the British Council and the proposal was to use the Commons chamber as one of the venues. Chope objected on the grounds that some of the delegates might not be MPs. Equalities minister of the day, Penny Mordaunt, was seen making a bee-line for Chope after the proceedings and having a sharp word with him. The motion was eventually passed and the event held in the following November was heralded as a success.

8 Feb 2019 Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill

Chope shouted “object” to the second reading of a Bill protecting children from female genital mutilation (FGM), which would have allowed the courts to make interim care orders under the Children Act, in cases where children are believed to be at risk of FGM. Co-drafted by then Conservative MP for Richmond Park Zac Goldsmith and crossbench peer Michael Berkeley, the bill had already cleared the House of Lords when Chope blocked its progress on second reading in the House of Commons. He accused MPs of “virtue-signalling rather than looking at the substance” of the bill. This forced the government, which had previously not lent its support to the initiative, to get behind it, and the bill received Royal Assent in March 2019.

26 February 2024 Pet Abduction Bill

Chope has now also held up the hugely popular and long-time-coming Pet Abduction Bill, introduced as a PMB by Conservative MP Anna Firth (Southend West) in December 2023. Regular West Country Voices readers may remember our coverage of then Liberal Democrat Wiltshire PPC candidate Liz Webster’s campaign for a law against pet theft in 2021. Chope’s tactic for slowing down the bill was to bring an amendment to exclude cats until another new law requiring them to be microchipped has come into effect. Although his amendment is unlikely to pass (because the bill has government backing), it does slow the bill’s progress, as the amendment has to be debated. The date for that debate is set for April 19, so if Rishi Sunak calls a general election for May 2, then the Bill will fall since parliament is typically dissolved five weeks before the country goes to the polls.

Why does Chope do it?

Chope has objected to hundreds of Bills, but he does seem to have it in for women, minorities, and even pets in particular. So why does he do it? He has argued at various times that, even if he agrees with the substance of the issue (as he claimed to do on the FGM Bill), he does it on a point of principle. He claims there are far too many bills presented in proportion to the time available for debate and scrutiny. Naturally, he objects to the process of waving through ‘on the nod’ (without a vote) bills that, in his view, have not received sufficient scrutiny, or would lead to a badly thought-out piece of legislation. In particular, he objects to bills being brought before Parliament on a Friday when there is not enough time for a full discussion as debate ends at 2.30 pm on that day and many MPs are in any case away on constituency business.

Chope is being disingenuous, the rascal…

There might be some sympathy for this view if Chope himself did not abuse the system so abominably. Chope does not systematically object to all PMBs. He has in the past been happy to wave through PMBs on the nod put forward by his chums, especially by his old mucker Bone. Furthermore, Chope is himself prolific when it comes to presenting PMBs forward. He chokes up the system with dozens of his own PMBs every year. 

Of the 168 PMBs going through parliament at present, 27 of them were initiated by Chope. That’s quite a modest tally for him. In 2017, Chope and Bone made headline news for abusing the system by proposing 73 bills between them. To put this in context, the next most prolific PMB writer is the SNP’s Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) with 17. Not all of Chope’s proposals are frivolous. Most of us would back his Domestic Energy (Value Added Tax) Bill that proposes to abolish VAT on fuel used for domestic energy purposes, for example. After all, that was one of the Brexit benefits specifically promised to us by Boris Johnson and which he reneged on once he became prime minister. 

However, clogging up the system is an act of arrogance and egotism. Since 2010, the proportion of PMBs that pass in each parliament has ranged from 2.5 per cent (2019-21) to 6.9 per cent (2012-13). None of Chope’s are likely to succeed this year, but he does it to force the debate within his party. It is doubtful whether most of us would think this is what precious parliamentary time should be used for. Surely there are other ways for MPs to bring issues to the attention of their own parties?

Will Chope mend his ways if there is a change of government at the next election? Unlikely. This is a man who once referred to House of Commons dining room staff as ‘servants’. His sense of privilege and entitlement is ingrained. Plus, he is in one of the safest seats in the country, with a majority of 24,617 over his next nearest challenger (Mike Cox of the Liberal Democrats in 2019, and soon to be in 2024 too). Chope will probably be re-elected, albeit on fewer votes. We will all have to put up with this climate-sceptic, Brexit-loving, anti-vaxxer MP continuing to raise specious objections to bills that might otherwise do some good.