Christopher Chope, upskirting and Parliamentary games

Picture of Gina Martin, a young white woman wearing a pink blouse with white dots and a pair of earrings with a large orange triangle and circle hanging from them.Yesterday a bill was expected to go through Parliament to ban ‘upskirting’ — the taking of pictures under someone’s clothing, usually a woman’s skirt, without their consent — and the bill, a private member’s bill, had the support of MPs from all the main parties and the support of the government, but was blocked by a single MP who shouted “object” before it could be debated. It was put back until July, when it could be debated again or could be blocked again using the same mechanism. Also yesterday, another Tory MP noted for using tricks to block PMBs, Phillip Davies, talked out a bill known as Seni’s Law after Olaseni Lewis, known as Seni, who died after he was restrained by 11 police officers at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in south-east London; the bill would have required police officers to wear body cameras when carrying out restraint and automatically trigger an independent investigation when somebody died after restraint. This bill will be debated again on 6th July, though more of the same trickery cannot be ruled out (if it runs out of parliamentary time, it will not be voted on and will not pass). Theresa May has said she wants to see the bill, or one like it, pass as soon as possible and Victoria Atkins, minister for women, has said the government will allocate time for the bill. (More: Paul Bernal (a guest post which explores the human rights angle of the upskirting issue), Labour MP Jess Phillips, Nina Childish from 2015.)

Why did Chope object? According to the BBC, he is one of a group of Tory backbenchers who routinely object to “what they see as well-meaning but flabby legislation” being passed on a Friday afternoon when only a small number of MPs are in the House — only about 30 MPs (out of more than 600) were present for the debate yesterday. They believe bills should be properly debated before new laws are passed, especially those which create new offences for which, as in this case, people could be sent to prison for breaking. Gina Martin, who started the campaign to make upskirting illegal, said that Chope had told her that he was not really sure what the term meant; I find that difficult to believe given that (a) he could have just asked someone and (b) the bill would have described in detail what was to be banned, rather than using a colloquialism.

Insisting on proper parliamentary scrutiny of PMBs is a noble enough cause on the face of it, but we have to ask what Chope and his friends have ever done to make sure they are scrutinised properly rather than just block them as the BBC reports that they have been doing for at least the last 20 years. Has they ever tried to get their fellow MPs, Tories or otherwise, to show up and scrutinise them, as is their job, rather than go home? As some of them (including Chope) are barristers, do they read the bills and check them for weaknesses and loopholes? Have they raised the issue of why private members’ bills are relegated to Friday afternoons when there are only a couple of dozen MPs in the chamber, when it is known that there will be MPs who will block them on principle, rather than at a time when it is well attended? Why do MPs think PMBs are so unimportant that fewer than a tenth of MPs turn up to debate them? And is it really only Tories that care that bills be properly scrutinised, or is it that they only care to block bills they don’t like? Chope himself has sponsored 47 PMBs himself, the most recent being a bill to introduce “co-payments” (i.e. payments by patients) for NHS treatments; this was objected to in May and its second reading was supposed to have taken place yesterday. So it appears his objections are at least partly party-political.

Picture of R Kelly, a Black man with a shaven head wearing a black shirt (open to reveal his chest) with handwritten letters on it in white, black trousers, and holiding a stick in his hand with a cycle mirror near the end.Despite the noise being made by Tories in response to Chope’s objection, it has to be remembered that the Tories are heavily linked to tabloid newspapers and magazines that make money out of invasive stories. Not everyone who takes an up-skirt picture is a pervert in a dirty mac; some of them are professional paparazzi who then sell the pictures; a favourite of theirs is to take a picture of a woman in a short skirt getting out of a car, when if she is not careful, she will expose her underwear. It is quite likely that many Tories do not like the idea of restrictions on the ability of these companies, which provide valuable propaganda for and funding to the Tory party, to publish stories and make money in response to pressure from ‘prudish’ or ‘humourless’ people, or on the ‘right’ of men to “act like men” or young men to “act like lads”. There has also been a clueless remark on Twitter by a lawyer who claimed that if women took more care about the way they dress, they would not find themselves “in jeopardy”. Well, short skirts have been common in western society, on and off, since the 1920s. Whether we like them or not, they’re no invitation to look at, let alone take pictures of, what they cover. But with the aid of a selfie stick (a 21st century version of R Kelly’s walking stick and cycle mirror apparatus from the early 90s), even women in long skirts are vulnerable to this.

Coming on the back of my previous article about Tory Islamophobia and their failure to keep bigots out, I feel that this behaviour reflects the viciousness and contempt for justice that is endemic in the Tory party and has been for decades. Essentially, they treat Parliament as an extension of the games they played at boarding school (which both Chope and Philip Davies attended) and any appeal to social justice is seen as a little bit like an 11-year-old boy pleading “it’s not fair” (the appropriate response to which is to repeat it back to them in a mock whining tone). Why would anyone want it to remain legal to take a picture of a woman’s underwear (or sanitary/incontinence pad) without her consent, or for there not to be accountability for deaths by restraint of mentally ill people, or for landlords to be able to evict tenants for complaining about conditions? If there are concerns about scrutiny, there are constructive ways of achieving this rather than using trickery to stop a bill even being considered. And we must ask the people who run local Conservative party associations why they keep selecting candidates who, as MPs, treat the legislative process like a game — we do not know who runs these organisations and there is no accountability for them.

The procedures must be reformed. One or two men should not be able to dominate the process of debating PMBs such that they run out of time if they do not like them (and if they go against those men’s personal interests — Chope and Davies are both private landlords — their abilities should be further restricted). Concerns about inadequate scrutiny or attendance should have to be raised with the Speaker, or there should have to be a threshold to uphold an objection, and that threshold should be in double figures, at least. Normal organisations have quoracy rules to ensure that a handful of members of a representative body cannot pass policy; this should also be the case with Parliament, which would make the justifications for filibustering and objecting redundant. And finally, PMBs should be treated with the seriousness they deserve, and given appropriate debating time if enough MPs register their support, not relegated to Friday afternoon when everyone wants to go home, as the concerns that drive them are often very serious ones where human life or suffering is at stake. They deserve more than schoolboy games and a mock-pitying whine.

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