Brexit paralysis continues in the House of Commons and seems likely to continue for a further fortnight. Key votes in the Commons this week on Thursday are unlikely to yield a Valentine's Day defeat for Theresa May.
Both sides of the chamber are reluctantly giving the PM and her negotiating team another two weeks to continue talks in Brussels to resolve the deadlock over the Irish backstop and attempt to find a workable solution which is acceptable to both a majority of MPs in the House of Commons and to the European Union. Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable has definitely not given up hope of MPs voting to take back control of the process if the deadlock cannot be broken soon. "Wresting control of the parliamentary timetable from government and making time to legislate so that Britain does not leave the EU without an agreement can be done, and it must now be done".
MPs are being denied their half term recess next week due to pressure on parliamentary time to get all Brexit legislation through in time for the 29th March. It hasn’t escaped some keen parliamentary observers though that the House of Commons business is incredibly light at present. On Wednesday 6th February the Commons rose more than four hours early at 3.27pm having only commenced at 11.30.
Much of the Brexit legislation that needs to be passed by 29th March however comes in the form of 'Statutory Instruments' (SIs) which are being discussed behind the scenes in Westminster on the Committee Corridor rather than the floor of the House of Commons. We learned this week from Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom that of the 600 SIs needed 411 have now been laid, so 189 remain to be debated and approved. This is probably the real reason that many MPs have had to cancel their half term breaks next week.
Another reform that is required to our parliamentary system has been flagged up yet again - the Private Members' Bill system is no longer fit for purpose. Sitting Fridays for the House of Commons are infrequent and usually dedicated to these private members bills. A quirk
to the system is that any MP can block the progression of a Bill that was not debated in the session to stop it from progressing on another Friday by merely shouting out “object” at the appropriate time. Backbench Tory MP for Christchurch, Sir Christopher Chope frequently blocks PMBs in this way and did this yet again on Friday 8th February to block a Bill which would ban Female Genital Mutilation.
The PMB system is an important and vital part of our democratic system, giving a chance for backbenchers to bring forward legislation. Some notable Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs have introduced PMBs over the years that have been hugely important not least David Steel's Abortion Act 1967 & in 2015 Michael Moore introduced the 'International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act' enshrining the UK's 0.7% of national income to be spent on international aid.
Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse introduced the Bill to ban up skirting which was initially blocked by Chope and had to be introduced by the Government in Government time and has this week received royal assent as the Voyeurism Offences Act. She was the first to raise this issue of blocking PMBs in an Urgent Question on Monday. The exchange on this in Hansard can be read here and given the criticism from the Conservative benches for Sir Christopher’s behaviour it is clear many of his colleagues “object” to his antics.