26 February 2019 – today’s press releases

Lib Dems join Amnesty International UK in fight against NI abortion laws Cable: Housebuilders must not pinch their profits from the public purse PM in the process of creating a double cliff-edge Govt’s no deal papers shows PM driving UK to a cliff edge Labour fail to oppose Govt’s controversial knife crime orders Lib Dems […]

  • Lib Dems join Amnesty International UK in fight against NI abortion laws
  • Cable: Housebuilders must not pinch their profits from the public purse
  • PM in the process of creating a double cliff-edge
  • Govt’s no deal papers shows PM driving UK to a cliff edge
  • Labour fail to oppose Govt’s controversial knife crime orders

Lib Dems join Amnesty International UK in fight against NI abortion laws

Today, Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine will join women impacted by NI abortion law along with Amnesty International UK, other MPs, and other service providers and activists to hand in a petition to decriminalise abortion.

Ms Jardine will be one of 28 women, the number who travel from NI to England each week for an abortion, walking with suitcases to the Northern Ireland Office. The suitcases will be filled with 62,000 signatures calling on Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to decriminalise abortion.

Ms Jardine said:

We cannot allow the women of Northern Ireland to continue to be denied the same human rights as those of us in the rest of the UK, and indeed across Europe, an injustice which has been criticised by the United Nations.

The collapse of devolution in Northern Ireland is no excuse for ignoring the voices of women who have been raped, are expecting a child with a fatal foetal abnormality or because they just cannot be pregnant, and have sought an abortion.

Today the Liberal Democrats are standing alongside Amnesty and colleagues from across the political divide to give those women a voice.

It’s time the Government listened to them and to the 62,000 people who have signed the petition, who are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said:

62,000 people are calling on the Northern Ireland Secretary of State to decriminalise abortion. They recognise the grave harm caused by the existing law and want change.

All eyes are firmly on the Secretary of State to see how she’ll respond. For too long our demands for equality have been ignored and our rights sacrificed for political expediency.

The time for change is now. Northern Ireland cannot be left behind as the only part of the UK and Ireland with a near total ban on abortion. It’s 2019 – time we had laws that respect and value women’s lives.

Cable: Housebuilders must not pinch their profits from the public purse

Responding to the announcements that Persimmon’s profits have topped £1 billion as it is under scrutiny over its continued involvement in the Help to Buy scheme, Leader of the Liberal Democrats Vince Cable said:

Far from benefiting first time buyers, the major effect of Help to Buy is to drive up demand while having no effect on supply. Prices go up and buyers are forced off the housing ladder. The result is not help for those who need it, but a boost to the profits of big developers.

Liberal Democrats have set out how government could be delivering 300,000 homes a year over the next decade, by creating a British Housing Company as a dedicated, not-for-profit body to build on land acquired compulsorily without profits from land scarcity.

The fact that Persimmon’s profits have topped £1 billion at the taxpayer’s expense is a scandal. The Government must act to stop Help to Buy, rather than allowing big housebuilders to pinch their profits from the public purse.

PM in the process of creating a double cliff-edge

Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons today, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said:

It is a positive step that the Prime Minister has ensured MPs will have the chance to put off No-Deal Brexit.

However, rather than ending the uncertainty, the PM has instead created a potential double cliff edge that businesses will need to plan for.

The consensus in the House of Commons is becoming increasingly clear; her deal will not get through, No-Deal will not get through. As Liberal Democrats have been saying for months, the only way to end the impasse is to give the public the final say through a people’s vote and an option to stay in the EU.

Govt’s no deal papers shows PM driving UK to a cliff edge

Responding to the Government’s release of their papers on the ‘Implications for business and trade of a no deal exit on 29 March 2019’, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson Tom Brake said:

The assessments made of the UK’s preparedness for a no deal makes sobering reading. With nearly a third of critical projects off track and the UK economy set to shrink by up to 9%, the Prime Minister must rule out no deal at any time and in all circumstances.

The only reason no deal is still on the table is because Theresa May has been trying to frighten MPs into supporting her already defeated deal. Now we know MPs will be able to vote down no deal in March, it becomes even clearer what a waste of time and money this tactic has been.

These papers are a tragic reminder of how Theresa May’s scaremongering has driven the country to a cliff edge. The only real alternative is to offer the public a final say, with the option to stay in the EU.

Labour fail to oppose Govt’s controversial knife crime orders

Tonight the Conservative Government’s controversial ‘ASBO-style’ knife crime prevention orders were passed 145-84, with 63 Liberal Democrat peers voting against the Government compared to just 17 peers from Labour.

Responding to the vote, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson in the Lords Brian Paddick said:

Tonight the Labour Party failed to oppose the Government’s controversial knife crime prevention orders.

ASBOs didn’t work to tackle anti-social behaviour, and these new knife ASBOs won’t work to tackle knife crime. They will unnecessarily criminalise children as young as 12, put more young people in prison on pointless short-term sentences, and waste valuable police time and resources.

Also commenting on the vote, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey said:

The Liberal Democrats demand better for the victims of knife crime and their families.

We will oppose these proposals in the Commons and demand a real solution: more community police officers and a proper public health approach to tackle the shocking rise in violent crime.

Tom Harwood: The threat to free speech at universities is not a myth

Durham Students Union is looking into ways of shutting down a new pro-life group on campus. This group is entirely unaffiliated with the students union.

Tom Harwood is a reporter for Guido Fawkes. He was a student at Durham University.

Last week, Durham Students Union released a statement saying that they are looking into ways of shutting down a new pro-life group on campus. What is worse is that this group is entirely unaffiliated with the students union.

“Following the emergence of the pro-life group on campus, I just wanted to confirm that this group is not in any way affiliated to Durham Students’ Union.

I will always advocate for women to have choice when it comes to accessing abortion services, and I strongly believe that these services should be free, safe and accessible. Groups such as this may claim to not be about ‘shaming or blaming’, but the nature of the group inherently promotes a blaming and shaming culture.

We are looking into whether anything can be done but in the meantime I’m sending lots of love and support to anyone impacted by what they’ve seen from the group (and I’m sorry Durham is like this)”

The Students’ Union has taken a step from precluding societies it disagrees with from affiliating to it, to attempting to crack down on the freedom of association of students unrelated to SU activities. I wish I could say I was shocked, or that this was atypical of university culture as a whole.

Sadly this is just a small example of a much, much bigger issue, a nationwide chilling of the freedom to speak and associate at the very places that should be the most open to hearing and discussing different viewpoints and ideas. And it’s all being driven by a wholly unrepresentative class of far left student activists.

Some people on the Left are quick to mock the idea that our universities are becoming increasingly ideologically monochrome, that challenging ideas are being suppressed, or there is a chilling effect on free speech.

They pretend it’s a figment of right-wing imagination, an attempt to discredit left-wing institutions, an invented moral panic. But they’re wrong.

Of course if you’re on the Left and your worldview aligns exactly with that of the academic and student union establishment, you’re less likely to think that free speech is under threat. But if you are interested in discussing different points of view, if you are up for debate, if you believe in challenging yourself as much as challenging others, then you should be worried.

It’s not just pro-life societies have been banned in many universities. Societies focusing on men’s issues have been shot down – and that’s nothing compared to the attitude towards pro Brexit activism. Lincoln Students’ Union even suspended its own Conservative society, after they raised concerns about the SU policy on free speech. On top of this, disagreeable, but unarguably important speakers that students themselves have invited to speak have been banned, and no platformed, by students’ unions. Germaine Greer, ‘Tommy Robinson’, Peter Tatchell to name but a few.

Perhaps more importantly than the visible headline-grabbing examples of intolerance, is the atmosphere. It’s the worry that in seminars students hold back from proper debate and discussion. It’s the reality that students submit arguments they disagree with but appeal to professorial biases in order to have an easier time.

It’s time to worry for universities when just 12 per cent of academics support right wing parties, compared to 50 per cent of the general population.

University lecturers have to take more care to understand their biases, and combat repressive groupthink. To challenge people to challenge their own views and preconceptions. And perhaps most of all, more of the silent apolitical majority of students need to stand up to their self-appointed, unrepresentative representatives.

Stella Creasy & Debbie Abrahams: A referendum got us here. Now let a Citizens’ Assembly – and more direct democracy – take us forward.

We want to learn from what other Parliaments have done when faced with difficult choices. Such an assembly would report back within ten weeks.

Stella Creasy is the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow. Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. As Parliament enters the No deal, Prime Minister’s deal, Norway, Canada, People’s Vote, extend Article 50 merry-go-round once more, we hope to convince readers of ConservativeHome there may be a better approach. Specifically, of the lessons that Ireland’s abortion debate offers – and about the role that a Citizen’s Assembly played in informing their parliament’s decision-making, and which could now save us all from delirium.

Concerns that there is an inbuilt advantage to any one political party, social class or indeed region, have dogged our representative democracy for decades. They have led to many suggested solutions – whether these be electoral reform, boundary reviews or even mandatory deselections.

Direct democracy through referendums on hot topics such as Europe and voting reform was supposed to improve democratic engagement – yet lofty ambitions of echoing Athenian state ideals, in which every one of its 30,000 citizens could speak and vote, lie in tatters following the reality of the reaction of many to the Brexit vote and its legitimacy. 

Less well-known is that alongside its big debating forums, Athens also had a panel of 500 citizens, chosen by drawing lots, to oversee the everyday affairs of the city. Sortition – the practice of random selection to put people into such positions of power – wasn’t just used in ancient Greece. Italian republics such as Venice and Florence also used it instead of elections to choose those who ran these city states. It is the same process our court system still uses to select a jury.

For the avoidance of doubt, we are not proposing solving Brexit by randomly selecting members of the public to replace the current crop of MPs – though faced with prevarication in Westminster, some may feel that the suggesiton is tempting. Instead, we want to learn from what other Parliaments have done when faced with difficult choices and stubborn politicians. This is why we have tabled Amendment H, calling for a Citizen’s Assembly to be convened on Brexit which would report back within ten weeks with its recommendations on how to end the current impasse.

Sortition is at the heart of the authority of a modern Citizen’s Assembly. As with Athens, a civic lottery would be held to identify a long list of thousands of people. Then, controlling for geography and demography – as well as checking there is no innate bias to either remain or leave – a panel would be drawn from this of 250 people who reflect the dynamics of British society. Unlike MPs elected to represent their communities, these people would not be there to be the decision makers, but to give their opinions and help to inform debate. They would be multiple fresh pair of eyes. With expert help, the panel would then be asked to identify what their priorities and perspectives are regarding the quagmire around the EU withdrawal act.

Unlike public meetings or BBC Question Time audiences, where those who can be bothered to turn up or have the confidence to speak dominate, sortition is a scientifically robust process that means a citizen’s assembly is a truly randomly selected jury. Elected representatives and political employees would be excluded, thus even removing the spectre of a CCHQ or Labour regional plant trying to skew the outcome – no doubt to everyone’s relief.

All the evidence given from all sides of the debate, questions asked and deliberations undertaken would be made public. Participants would remain anonymous during the process itself, so that they can deliberate freely without being hunted down on Twitter.

MPs, not the panel, would retain the final say on whether to accept their priorities. Through reasoned and open format, this is a process that could stop the many bad habits Westminster can encourage – from hiding party political advantage behind virtue-signalling or kicking the can down the road for fear of opinion polls.

Ireland, Canada, Australia, Iceland, Poland and the Netherlands have all used citizens’ assemblies recently to adjudicate on a wide range of issues: from climate change, nuclear waste disposal and presidential term limits – and then inform the decisions that elected representatives made on all of these. Faced with the prospect of more of the same shambles for weeks on end in Westminster, we believe that Parliament should take a leaf out of their book. We are asking MPs to sign our amendment to the Prime Minister’s motion not in order to force a vote on whether to run one, but to show the Speaker that we wish for parliamentary time to consider these techniques.

Never has dēmokratia, the idea that the people hold power, been so tested in Britain. It was one form of direct democracy – that of referendums – that has led us to this point. Now is the time to ask if another – sortition and a citizens assembly- can offer lessons that might lead us forward. Aeschines argued the value of open debate and deliberation was that “truth is strong enough to overcome all human sophistries.” The truth is if we want to restore democracy in the minds of the people, we have to look not just how we deal with Brexit but how we deal with the British public.

David Shiels: Technological solutions. A greater role for the Assembly. How May could yet win over the DUP.

Rather than going over the heads of the Unionist parties, the Government needs to find a way to address their concerns.

Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.

It is not a happy time for the relationship between the Conservative Party and the DUP. The latter’s decision to abstain on a number of amendments to the Finance Bill and to vote for one Labour amendment on Monday was intended to send a ‘political message’ to the Government. The DUP has stopped short of formally withdrawing from the Confidence and Supply arrangement, but has arguably broken it. The party’s MPs make no secret of their desire to see a change in the Government’s direction – hence the declaration that the agreement is between parties, rather than between leaders. At a time when many Conservative MPs are in a rebellious mood, DUP MPs may feel that they have some leeway in terms of their commitments under that agreement anyway.

While the DUP’s opposition to the existing Withdrawal Agreement at Westminster is steadfast, the party is coming under increasing criticism for its attitude towards Brexit in Northern Ireland. Business leaders there have taken the almost unprecedented step of coming out against the party on a major policy issue, indicating their support for the Withdrawal Agreement. Importantly, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has also come out in support of the Agreement, whereas it had stopped short of taking a Remain position during the referendum in 2016. This is particularly significant, given the perception that many Unionist farmers privately supported Brexit.

After many months of saying as little as possible about specific arrangements for Northern Ireland, the Government also seems to have found its voice. Karen Bradley’s speech in Belfast on Monday – her first major intervention on Brexit – was a robust defence of the Agreement, and a signal that the Government is prepared to bypass the DUP and appeal directly to public opinion. If anything, the DUP is likely to harden its opposition to the Agreement in the coming weeks, but there is a growing sense that the party has been caught on the back foot over the issue. The Ulster Unionist Party leader, Robin Swann, has accused the DUP of being ‘asleep at the wheel’, and has suggested that the party has ‘failed in their primary duty to protect the integrity of the Union and its people.’

Meanwhile, the pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland have put forward a convincing case in favour of special treatment for the region. Although Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats at Westminster, the party has claimed that they are standing up for their constituents where it matters – in Dublin and in Brussels. The Government’s preparedness to breach the DUP’s ‘red lines’ over the backstop helps Sinn Fein to make their point, which is that Northern Ireland’s MPs have little influence anyway.

At the same time, there are many other voices in academia, the media and business who argue that the DUP has been inconsistent in its opposition to special treatment for Northern Ireland – pointing to different rules on abortion, same sex marriage and a range of other issues. The argument that ‘Northern Ireland is different anyway’ is persuasive. By seeking to make any GB-NI checks as unobtrusive as possible, the EU has persuaded many that it has gone some way to meeting Unionist concerns. The view that the backstop offers Northern Ireland the ‘best of both worlds’ is widely held and, according to reported comments by the Prime Minister, the EU is concerned that the arrangements would give Northern Ireland a competitive advantage.

The Irish Government also insists that it is not seeking to open up the question of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom – even though Unionists believe the backstop threatens to undermine Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain within the United Kingdom. The latter’s objections to the backstop also revolve around the democratic and constitutional implications of Northern Ireland potentially being subject to EU rules in the longer-term, without the ability to amend or refuse them. This point has been hard to get across to audiences in Great Britain and there is a feeling that the party had taken for granted that its objections to the backstop would be understood.

There remains, of course, a possibility that the DUP’s opposition will see off the backstop, either now by helping to defeat the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament or at a later date, during the negotiations on the future relationship. Although the party is unhappy with things as they stand, its persistence has at least ensured that some of the more objectionable aspects of the EU’s February proposal have been removed. There may yet be some way that the Government can secure further assurances for Northern Ireland, either in terms of beefed-up commitments to find a technological solution for the border, or by securing a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly as a democratic lock on the backstop. For the DUP, there remains the ‘nuclear option’ of triggering a confidence vote in the Government, or coming as near as they can to doing so in order to persuade Conservative MPs to change their leader.

It may be that the DUP will be proven right in the end – that influence at Westminster does matter and that Unionist objections to the backstop cannot be overridden. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Theresa May or any other Prime Minister could secure any fundamental changes to the backstop. Rather than going over the heads of the DUP and the other Unionist parties, the Government needs to find a way to address their concerns and bring them along as far as possible. This is necessary not just to deliver the Agreement through Parliament, but also because any deal that is seen as a defeat for Unionism will make it harder to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. At this stage, too, DUP MPs need to think about what sort of arrangements they can live with, rather than re-opening the whole negotiation. They have grounds for complaint against the backstop as it stands, which remains objectionable from a Unionist point of view. But the alternative of No Deal would be extremely hard to defend in Northern Ireland, given the short-term consequences of such an outcome.