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House of Commons Hansard
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18 June 2018
Volume 643

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the Government plan to legislate on making upskirting a specific sexual offence.

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I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the urgent question asked by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) because she and Gina Martin have campaigned tirelessly for upskirting to become a criminal offence. I am delighted to have met both of them on a number of occasions to discuss how we can progress this important legislation, and to have worked with them to support the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill—the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill. I welcome Gina Martin to the House today. We will continue to build on their efforts to ensure that this activity becomes a criminal offence because upskirting is an invasion of privacy, and a humiliating and distressing experience. The Lord Chancellor and I were disappointed when the private Member’s Bill did not make progress on Friday.

Although there are existing offences that can be used to punish upskirting in some circumstances, there is a gap in the law. The offences of outraging public decency or voyeurism may be used to capture upskirting. However, the public order offence is limited, as the offence needs to take place in a public place and two people need to be present. Conversely, the voyeurism offence needs to be a private act and must take place in a place where one would expect privacy. There may be activities, such as photographs taken in schools, that are not caught by either provision. This law will close that loophole, and ensure there is no doubt that this activity is criminal and will not be tolerated. For the most serious sexual offences, we will ensure that the offender is also placed on the sex offenders register.

Upskirting is an invasion of privacy that leaves victims feeling humiliated, so we will bring legislation before the House in Government time to ensure that this practice becomes an offence. We will introduce the Bill in the House of Commons on Thursday, with a Second Reading before the recess. The leadership of the hon. Member for Bath and the outstanding campaign of Gina Martin have shown how it is possible for individuals to make a difference. I am looking forward to working with colleagues from across the House to progress this matter and make upskirting an offence.

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I thank the Minister for her response and for the fantastic teamwork on this issue so far. Does she share my appreciation of the Prime Minister saying on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday that the practice of upskirting is “invasive”, “degrading” and “offensive”, and that she will take the Bill that was blocked and put it through in Government time? Will the Minister join me in congratulating Gina Martin and her lawyer, Ryan Whelan, on their fantastic work in bringing the issue to the point we have reached today?

My Bill remains on the books and will be reached again on Friday 6 July. Will the Minister provide me with a full timetable of the Government’s planned programme for their proposed Bill? The Bill must, of course, travel through the Commons and the Lords to become law. If the Government do not introduce the legislation until the end of July, the changes will not be in place soon enough for the summer and further potential victims will be left vulnerable to this vile practice.

It is a shame that we have to be here today because of the objection of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) to the Bill on Friday. The private Member’s Bill system must be modernised, but that is a matter for a different day. The Government must bring about this important change to the law, making upskirting a specific offence as soon as possible. Will they ensure that the Bill has the full support of all their Members?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and I agree with the Prime Minister that upskirting should be an offence and should be prosecuted; having spoken to Gina, I understand the humiliation it causes. Our priority is that it should become an offence as soon as possible. We will introduce the Bill on Thursday. I understand that it has considerable support across the House, and I welcome that cross-party support.

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I very much welcome my hon. and learned Friend the Minister’s announcement today; she is to be commended for the rapid and collegiate way in which she has dealt with this issue. I encourage her to look more widely at some of the other offences that particularly affect women, such as the posting of explicit images online, commonly known as revenge pornography. Many of us have campaigned for a long time for such activities also to be recognised as sexual offences and be dealt with accordingly.

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My right hon. Friend makes some important points and I know that the Women and Equalities Committee, which she chairs, does an immense amount of work ensuring that women can take their place in society and are protected. A number of issues could be raised. There is clearly a gap in the law when it comes to one of them, but it can be put on the statute book quickly and easily. We are ensuring that that is done as soon as possible.

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I begin by congratulating the campaigners, especially Gina Martin, who has shone a spotlight on this important issue, as has the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). I welcome the Government’s decision finally to bring forward the legislation, but I must put on the record that the delays in getting to this point were totally unnecessary and have caused needless suffering. The Government should not have waited to act until almost a year after Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary first wrote demanding this new legislation. They should not have been relying on a private Member’s Bill that was likely to be scuppered by the disgusting behaviour of their own MPs. But better late than never.

Although we welcome the Government’s decision to introduce this legislation, I would like the Minister to clarify a number of issues. Given the broad parliamentary consensus on this matter, can it not be addressed within a day or a week—before the summer, at least? That is when women will most go to festivals, where this disgraceful practice is far too common. What will the Minister do to ensure that her own MPs vote in favour, given the disgraceful opposition from the Tory Back Benches last Friday?

Will the law cover the act of distribution as well as the taking of the image? Will the legislation guarantee that the victims of upskirting will be granted automatic anonymity in any criminal cases? Finally, given that we must do all we can to prevent the suffering and harassment of women online, will the Government now reconsider last week’s disappointing decision to refuse to extend anonymity to the victims of so-called revenge porn?

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The Government have a priority: to ensure that this legislation gets on to the statute book as soon as possible. On the Government side of the House, we are not bothered about the vehicle for that; the public are not concerned about that. The priority is to ensure that the legislation goes on to the statute book. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) recognised, the Government have made a commitment to introducing a Bill as swiftly as possible and we will be doing so on Thursday.

The Government have taken a number of measures to ensure that women are protected. On domestic violence, we have ensured that coercive control is recognised as a matter of domestic violence and we have increased the penalties for stalking. Members on the Government Benches do want to protect women.

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I assure the Minister that from the multiple conversations I have had, every single Back Bencher on the Government Benches, bar an unfortunate very small minority, support the Government bringing this forward as a criminal offence. We welcome it almost unanimously. Does she believe that making this a criminal offence is an extremely welcome step forward in tackling some of the sexist attitudes remaining in our society that underpin violence against women and girls?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. I have not heard one Government Member say that they think that as a matter of principle this issue should not become law. I agree that this very important proposed legislation needs to be put through Parliament.

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The Scottish National party deplores what happened on Friday in this House. It illustrates how the archaic rules of the House can sometimes be used to prevent the proper debate of important private Members’ Bills. Something needs to be done about it.

I welcome today’s announcement, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and Gina Martin on their campaigning on this issue. Upskirting is already a criminal offence in Scotland and has been since 2010. Will the Minister, in framing the new law for England and Wales, look at sections 9(4)(a) and 9(4)(b) of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, which in 2010 were brought in to make upskirting an offence in Scotland; and will she consult the expertise of my former colleagues in the sexual offences special prosecution unit at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland, given that they have some seven or eight years’ experience of prosecuting this crime?

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I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her comments. We have looked very closely at the Scottish legislation. There is a slight difference between the legislation in Scotland and in England. There is no public order offence in Scotland, so there was a bigger gap in Scotland than there was here. We have, however, looked very closely at that legislation. Our proposed legislation is not identical, but it is modelled very closely on the Scottish legislation.

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I am delighted to welcome Gina and Ryan as guests today in the Gallery. Does the Minister agree that the upskirting campaign led by the extraordinary Gina Martin, supported by her lawyer and fellow Aberdonian Ryan Whelan, is worthy of the praise of this House? We owe Gina so much for her courage in raising this issue and fighting for change. That should be put on the record, because we need to make sure that this practice is truly and well outlawed.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Gina Martin and her lawyer Ryan are both in the House today. They should be commended for the work they have done to ensure that this becomes law. They have done an immense job in highlighting the issue and ensuring the legislation is put on the statute book.

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The hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) has succeeded in uniting the nation where the Procedure Committee has failed for two years: namely, on the need to update the private Members’ Bill process. Has the Minister spoken to the Leader of the House about when we might do that as well?

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There was an issue in relation to Friday, but I would like to remind hon. Members across the House of the important role private Members’ Bills play in our parliamentary system. A number of private Members’ Bills have passed or are passing through the House at the moment that will improve the lives of the public considerably: the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill from the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed). Such Bills play an important role and we should recognise that.

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I very much support the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill—commonly known as the upskirting Bill—introduced by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), not least because I have been helping a very brave woman called Emily Hunt to get justice. Emily was the victim of a very serious voyeurism abuse, and I have already been in discussions with the Solicitor General about how we can ensure that the upskirting Bill helps Emily, too. If the Government are bringing forward a Bill, will the Minister look at Emily’s case to make sure that the legislation also covers the serious voyeurism abuse that she suffered?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am aware of the issue in relation to Emily Hunt’s case. I have discussed that matter with the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, who responded recently to an Adjournment debate on this secured by an Opposition Member. The issue is an important one. What this Bill does is tackle a specific issue, which we should get on to the statute book as soon as possible.

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Has the Minister given some thought to how this potential Bill and then Act will be enforced? With the newspapers saying that only 5% of burglaries and robberies are being tackled by police, how does one expect that the law on these sorts of acts will be enforced by the police, who are so stretched? Will she have a resource implication chapter in her Bill?

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It is comforting to know, as I mentioned, that there are already offences on the statute book whereby it is possible sometimes for this offence to be caught. Indeed, there have been prosecutions in recent years under the public order offences legislation; people have been prosecuted for this type of activity.

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I attended several constituency events on Saturday and a number of people came up to me and expressed their utter concern and disappointment at what happened to the Bill of the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on Friday. I welcome what my hon. and learned Friend has said at the Dispatch Box today about bringing the legislation forward quickly. The need for the legislation is a product of what has happened with technology in recent years. Will she continue to look at what is going on with technology to make sure that we keep ahead of these types of offences in future?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) did. We are looking at a very broad area in relation to sexual offences, technology, the internet and the use of photography. These are all important issues that we are currently looking at, but this is a specific offence that we would like to get on the statute book as soon as possible.

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I thank the Minister for her direct engagement with me on this issue and commend her for the very swift action. This is a devolved issue, but it is one that should unite all parties in Northern Ireland. Will she commit to meeting me, so that the work being undertaken can be shared and we are then able to bring that forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly as soon as possible?

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I thank the hon. Lady and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the legislation, so that we can work together to ensure that as many women as possible are protected.

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On Friday evening, I was at a constituency event, and Councillor Guy Jackson of Blaby District Council was aghast at how an arcane procedure of this House stopped what would have been a very important piece of legislation. Can I say on behalf of Councillor Guy Jackson and my constituents in South Leicestershire how welcome it is to have the Minister at the Dispatch Box today making the proposals that she is?

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I thank my hon. Friend very much. I am pleased that we are able to bring in this legislation as soon as possible.

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If this whole sorry episode has highlighted one thing, it is that we need to urgently rethink the way we deal with private Members’ Bills, so will the Minister support an urgent debate on the procedures used over private Members’ Bills?

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As I mentioned, private Members’ Bills play an important role in this House. That is not a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but the hon. Lady’s points have been heard.

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In the meantime and until my hon. and learned Friend’s Bill becomes law, will she vigorously exploit every opportunity afforded by the common law to see that these offences are prosecuted?

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My right hon. Friend, as always, makes an interesting and important point, but I assure him that the CPS is already prosecuting these offences under the legislation that exists. What we are doing is ensuring that there is not a gap in the law so that some cases do not fall through a loophole.

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I thank Gina Martin for the campaign and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), whose private Member’s Bill should have gone through on Friday, and I welcome today’s announcement. I know from having worked as a psychologist in forensic services that individuals who perpetrate this type of crime are sexually perverted and often go on to commit contact offences. It is extremely important, therefore, that there is legislation to ensure that the appropriate risk assessments and multi-agency protection arrangements are in place right at the start of their cases.

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I reiterate the point made at the beginning about the importance of cross-party working; this is a cross-party issue that I hope has the support of the House. The hon. Lady raises a specific and important point. The way the Government have expanded the private Member’s Bill will ensure that perpetrators of the most serious sex offences will go on the sex offenders register. This will further protect women and ensure that others are not victims in the future.

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Having attended the Chamber on Friday and having been prepared to back the Bill, I was disappointed that it was not put forward. I want to correct any assertion that there is a party political divide on this. Many people on the Government Benches would have supported the Bill and intend to do so. May I congratulate the Minister, therefore, on her announcement today and on bringing this forward? The sooner this is on the statute book, the sooner women will be protected from this vile practice.

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I thank my hon. Friend for coming on Friday to support the Bill and for her support going forward.

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Upskirting is not caused by technology; it is caused by sexist and misogynistic attitudes, which need to be driven out. Will the Minister please encourage her colleagues to bring forward compulsory personal, social and health education and sex and relationships education as soon as possible?

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The hon. Lady is right that this technology facilitates and increases the opportunities for people to harm women. She raises an important issue that is not in my portfolio, but I thank her for bringing it to the House’s attention.

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I, too, was in Parliament on Friday—one of the few actually in the Chamber when the Bill was objected to—and, as others have said, the view of the House on both sides of the Chamber was made perfectly plain at the time. I warmly welcome the Minister’s personal assurance that the Bill will be brought through as quickly as possible, but will she confirm that there will be sufficient time not only on Second Reading but in Committee to ensure that the Bill is debated thoroughly and on the statute book as quickly as possible?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is something that I would wish to see.

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Upskirting is an example of digital technology and criminality moving faster than the law. Legislation to tackle the criminal misuse of digital technologies and services includes at least 30 statutes and measures. Does not the Minister agree that a review into the sheer complexity of the legislation on digital crime is urgently required?

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The hon. Lady points out that technology leads to more sexual acts being disseminated, and there are economic issues relating to digital technology. As I said earlier about the matters that fall within my portfolio, the Ministry of Justice is looking at this matter as it relates to sex and criminal offences, but I reiterate that the Bill deals with a specific issue that we think needs to be tackled and can be tackled immediately.

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As one of the Members present in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) objected, I shared the fury that many, including I, expressed vocally at the time, so I was pleased to hear the Minister announce that a Government Bill will come forward and that the CPS will still be encouraged to authorise charges under the existing law. Can she reassure me that the Bill, while rightly plugging this hole in the law, will still provide for those who commit offences against children to be charged with the more serious offence of making an indecent image of a child—the correct charge—which brings with it a higher prison sentence?

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There is already a panoply of offences on the statute book to protect children and women. The Bill will add to the portfolio available to the CPS to bring the most appropriate punishment for offenders. As I mentioned earlier, there is also the ability to put people on the sex offenders register when that is appropriate.

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One of my constituents, Leah, summed it up best when she said that this abhorrent act could happen to any woman, regardless of age, class, race or sexual orientation. Will the Minister please ensure that the new legislation on upskirting will grant anonymity in any criminal case to protect the women who suffer from this disgusting practice?

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I should point out that, while the legislation will largely protect women, it is not solely about women. It is about photographing up people’s clothes, and it will apply to men as well as women. It will also protect children.

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Residents of Kettering back the legislation, and I will gladly support it. Does the Minister agree that legislation is improved when it is given parliamentary time, and that the advantage of the Government’s introducing the Bill is that a full debate on the issue will be guaranteed on Second Reading?

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I think that there is a role for private Members’ Bills and for the procedure, but I am pleased that the House will have an opportunity to scrutinise this legislation fully.

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I think that today, at least, the whole House is in agreement that the upskirting offence should be on the statute book. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) does not deign to be among us today as we discuss it. Does the Minister agree that the blocking of important legislation to protect women by a long-serving knight of the realm does nothing to enhance the reputation of this Parliament or its procedures?

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As I have mentioned—

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Order. I would just say very gently to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) that I understand the anger in the House about this matter, but I must ask him whether he gave the hon. Member for Christchurch notice of what was a personal attack. Did he do so?

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No, Sir.

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I am sorry, but Members really must observe the courtesies in this place, whatever the strength of feeling. To make a personal attack on another Member without giving prior notification, and to do it in the guise of putting a question to a Minister who is not responsible for that matter, is not the right thing to do. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s sincerity, and the circumstances, but we really must try to observe proper procedures. I hope the Minister will not mind if I say that she is answering the questions very fully and we are grateful to her for that, but this is not one that she needs to answer.

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I welcome the Minister’s response. I also welcome her statement that she will look very carefully at the experience we have had in Scotland in relation to the law that we have had since 2010. Does she agree that the overwhelming reaction to Friday’s business sends a clear message from this place that such behaviour will not be tolerated, and that perpetrators will be properly punished by facing up to two years in prison?

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My hon. Friend has made an important point. I should mention again Gina Martin’s tremendous campaign, which brought this matter to the attention of the public. It is not just laws that are passed that dictate how people act; it is also people’s knowledge of the laws and sending a signal about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This behaviour is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.

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Part of the reason why the Bill was blocked last Friday was that the House had not had an opportunity to debate it fully. Following her welcome announcement, will the Minister tell us how many hours of debate she thinks will be required for Members to arrive at the conclusion that the taking of photographs underneath, mainly, women’s clothes by perverts is a bad thing?

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As I have mentioned, we will introduce the legislation on Thursday, and Second Reading will take place before the summer recess. The allocation of time will be dealt with in the usual way.

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I welcome the Government’s response to this issue because it has caused an outcry among people throughout the United Kingdom, and many of my constituents have written asking me to support the Bill. However, notwithstanding the actions of one Member—and others who have acted similarly—the fact that private Members’ Bills are stymied by means of objection is not a new issue. Does the Minister agree that we need to review the procedures of the House, so that the will of the majority of the House, who support good legislation and measures to stop the abuse of women, is recognised and they can see their legislation passed, against the wishes of some people who wish to stop that?

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What I am pleased about is that the Government have ensured that this legislation can be brought forward in Government time so that it can be passed and upskirting becomes a criminal offence.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you have heard, I very much support the upskirting Bill, not least because of the work I have been doing with Emily Hunt.

Mr Speaker, you have always tried to ensure people outside this place better understand our procedures inside here and I ask you to do so again today. It has been stated in a number of places that my speech on the first Bill on Friday in some way blocked the progress of the upskirting Bill, which was the eighth Bill for consideration on Friday. Given that the Government on Friday had made it clear that they were going to talk out the second Bill for consideration, that of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—a Bill which, incidentally, I also support—and given that, to the best of my knowledge, in the history of the House of Commons the eighth Bill for consideration has never been reached for debate on a Friday, can you confirm to people, with the authority and independence of your position, that it is a matter of fact, not opinion, that my actions on Friday had no impact on the upskirting Bill in any way, shape or form, that even if I had not spoken at all on Friday that particular Bill would not have been reached for debate before 2.30 pm anyway, and that it was always going to be reliant on being nodded through at the end of the day, something that I certainly did not oppose? I hope you can set the record straight, Mr Speaker, and help those people outside the House to better understand the facts of what happens inside the House.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. As a matter of fact, I can confirm that if the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill had completed its passage on Friday afternoon before 2.30 pm, the next business would have been the second Bill on the Order Paper, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). Moreover, I can confirm that the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill was the eighth Bill on the Order Paper. For clarification and wider understanding outside the House, it is perhaps worth me emphasising that it was the eighth Bill because other Bills were put down over recent months by other Members, quite properly, before the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) brought her important Bill forward. I am advised—I have consulted specialist advisers who have in turn consulted their scholarly craniums—that nobody can recall an instance of the eighth Bill on a private Members Bill Friday being reached for debate.

People feel very strongly about what happened on Friday, and I completely understand that and have every respect, as I sought to indicate earlier, for the person who has brought forward the upskirting Bill, and the public-spirited Gina Martin who has campaigned so strongly for it.

Needless to say, the Chair is absolutely no obstacle to such a progressive measure. It is important, however, in public debate to distinguish between fact and opinion, and simply as a matter of fact—incontrovertible fact—the hon. Gentleman is in no way whatsoever responsible for the failure of the eighth Bill to be debated.

I should say to colleagues that the process whereby after the moment of interruption—2.30 pm on Friday—the objection of a single Member is enough to block for the time being a Bill being read a Second time may well not please many people inside and outside the House, and it is certainly not my role to defend the Standing Orders of the House from criticism that people may wish to express of them.

The Procedure Committee, under the outstanding chairmanship of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), has indeed devoted much effort in recent years to suggested improvements to the private Members’ Bill regime, but its proposals have not been put to the House. I myself have spoken regularly around the country of my personal belief that the private Members’ Bill procedure should be changed, and I treated of the matter in a lecture in Speaker’s House in October last year. The fact is, however, that proposals for change have not been put to the House, and it is not within the power of the Speaker to put them to the House.

I should point out, in fairness and for accuracy, so that no one is misled, that the rule about a single objection applies similarly to any other business before the House after the moment of interruption. Under Standing Order No. 9(6),

“no opposed business shall be taken”

after the moment of interruption.

I hope that colleagues will accept that I have said what I have said in a very low-key way simply because I think it is quite important, in a highly charged atmosphere, to put the facts on the record. The House can then proceed in relation to the procedure or in relation to a particular Bill as it thinks fit. Thank you—[Interruption.] Well, that is very good of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who has chuntered his enthusiasm from a sedentary position. I am extremely grateful to him; I mean that genuinely.