by Rebekah Tyler
Christchurch MP Christopher Chope has made national headlines twice recently when objecting to seemingly non-negotiable bills in parliament. In June of last year, Chope was the sole objector to a private member’s bill proposing to make upskirting, (taking a photo or video up a skirt or dress) a specific criminal offence. In February, the Tory MP halted a bill proposing an amendment to the Children Act, aiming to further protect girls from Female Genital Mutilation.
Both instances have understandably drawn shock and anger from the public, as well as from campaigners in favour of the bills. The upskirting bill campaign came as a result of Gina Martin, who after becoming the victim of upskirting at a festival found that police were unable to prosecute in the case. Martin was understandably upset at Chope’s objection and told Sky News “It’s shameful, it’s annoying. It’s not the end of the road but I’m very angry.” Similarly, in the FGM case, Nimco Ali, a survivor of FGM and campaigner, posted a series of texts exchanged with the Conservative MP before the reading of the bill, in which she pleaded with Chope for his support. After the events, Ali tweeted “The idea that I a Survivor have to beg a member of Parliament to help protect girls is painful. But I did it and to get the replies I did has broken my heart.”
The importance of these bills to many people is profound; both for real-life victims of upskirting and FGM, and those who may be at risk in the near future, his actions are devastating.
Chope’s reasoning for objection was that he doesn’t agree with private member’s bills in general and believes that any bill should be given thorough debate before being passed. On facing criticisms even from within his own party, Chope told The Daily Telegraph “It is a pity they are indulging in virtue-signalling rather than looking at the substance.”
This raises the question of whether in a working democracy everything should have to go through the same level of procedure and debate; surely matters such as upskirting and FGM shouldn’t require the same critique as ambiguous areas such as security and social care? By suggesting that these bills should be properly debated before being passed, Chope is making the absurd claim that there is another rational viewpoint, where upskirting and FGM aren’t necessarily abhorrent in a black and white sense.
Even if Christopher Chope’s reasoning is accepted, there is a glaring contradiction to his own argument; Chope has private member’s bills of his own. In fact, he has a lot of them. Chope’s local newspaper to his constituency The Bournemouth Echo, reported in 2017 on how Chope and his colleague Peter Bone proposed 73 pieces of legislation between them to be debated as private member’s bills, going as far as sleeping in the houses of parliament for two nights to ensure that they would be at the front of the queue to introduce the bills, and in doing so preventing other MPs from successfully filing bills due to a limited number of slots. Chope’s bills include calls to privatise the BBC and Channel 4, and to end the working time regulations introduced in 1998.
Christopher Chope is only against private member’s bills when they aren’t his own. He claims to hold strong principles surrounding procedure and yet ignores those same principles when it benefits him. Why does he not deem matters such as upskirting and FGM as having the same importance as his own bills?
We must remember, of course, that private member’s bills don’t often directly affect legislation and only a small number of them are generally passed. The impact of private member’s bills is generally indirect, as they can raise publicity around an issue which in turn impacts further legislation. However, in the incident of the upskirting bill justice minister Lucy Frazer had pledged beforehand that the government would back the bill, meaning that without Chope’s objection upskirting would have stood a very good chance of being criminalised without delay. Even the Prime Minister herself was dissatisfied with Chope’s actions, stating “Upskirting is an invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed … I want to see these measures pass through parliament – with government support – soon.”
With disdain from those within his own party as well as those outside it, Christopher Chope’s actions have not helped win him popularity within parliament. But the MP has represented Christchurch in parliament since 1997. It is one of the safest conservative seats in the country and he secured just under 70% of the vote share within his constituency in the most recent general election. This all means that his job is pretty secure. He has survived earlier scandals unscathed such as the 2009 expenses scandal, which revealed Chope claimed £881 of tax payer’s money on repairing a sofa, as well as £10,377 on fixing his roof. Chope’s job security allows him to play the game of politics by his own rules.
In blocking these private member’s bills, Christopher Chope has demonstrated the power he holds within Westminster. Despite widespread media attention and public outcry, the actions of one backbencher have resulted in two bills of high importance being pushed to the side, their futures indefinite. It does not seem right that one MP should be able to make such impactful decisions on their own when those decisions have the capacity to subject ordinary citizens to danger and distress. Mr Chope’s complaints are with the procedure of private member’s bills; perhaps he is right in some sense that the procedural side of them is floored. However, if the procedure needs an overview to ensure full screening and debate, there should also be barriers put in place to prevent MPs like Chope from singlehandedly halting crucial bills.