Richard Holden: Presence matters

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Quebec Tea Rooms, Quebec, Co. Durham

Every MP’s office has them – numbering from a few dozen to a couple of hundred: they are ‘the regulars.’ Mrs B is one of them. In the 20 months or so since I’ve been elected, she’s been in contact more than 20 times. However, despite her regular emails about a diverse range of issues, both local and national, we’ve never actually met – until now.

She is one of four local people who pop down to the Quebec Tearooms for a chat. The “QT” as the locals call it is a lovely café and gift shop in the middle of a terrace in one of the hamlets that dot the Wear Valley, the central rural band of villages that separate the town of Consett in the north of my constituency, from the smaller towns of Crook and Willington in the south. Today, the QT is the 23rd stop out of 60 or so on my two-week summer surgery constituency tour.

Interacting by email, letter, or even telephone and zoom feels impersonal and remote. Sitting with someone in the flesh is different. It takes the edge off, and those small elements that remind both constituent and MP that the other person is human. The last few days have re-enforced to me just how important those chats and conversations in person are.

Last week also saw Kwasi Kwarteng visit The Grey Horse pub and the Consett Ale Works brewery attached to it in Consett. For constituencies ‘out of the way’ like mine – a four and a half drive from Westminster on a clear run – these visits by Ministers really cut through. If you feel that for decades you’ve been ‘ignored’, and then having someone visit, talk to you, and listen, it really makes a difference. They also show that your MP can get a hearing at the top table in Westminster.

For 2019 intake MPs, being in Parliament itself has been a bizarre experience. Those chats with ministers in corridors, the Commons tearoom, or the voting lobby have been far fewer. The place has been a shadow of the parliaments that those elected in previous years have known. Without a doubt that has not helped the collegiate interaction which makes you feel part of a team with a common goal.

Much less commented on has been the fact that the coronavirus restrictions have also reduced the presence of staff in Parliament. I didn’t meet my office manager in person for four months after their appointment, and not being in the same place as your team means things take longer, and you don’t develop that almost sixth sense of understanding and interaction that oils the wheels of any office.

Moreover, the relationships built up between staff from different MPs offices – where they share tips, information, and knowledge – have also been curtailed. The ebb and flow of conversation does not happen via a relatively formalised setting on zoom as it does in the lunch que or while sharing a coffee or a pint.

The return of Parliament in September will remove much of this sub-optimal working. I hope that other workplaces follow suit too, because one thing is clear from Covid: presence matters. While experienced staff can usually work quite well from distance – fulfilling tasks that have been performed before and managing clear objectives and workloads – that’s often not the same for people starting out. Learning and development for young staff best takes place when they’re cheek-by-jowl with more senior members of the team.

With so many people likely to be changing jobs too – given that the pandemic has turbo-charged long-standing economic trends away from certain sectors – being in the ‘new job’, with all the pressures and differences that entails, presence will matter too. Parliament has finally given a clear signal of its direction of travel. Government and the civil service should do the same and expect business to follow.

If not, we’ll all be poorer, but the impact will be felt most by those who’ve already been impacted most by the Covid-19 restrictions – those just starting out. Rather than retreat to the comfort and convenience of video calls from spare bedrooms in nice houses, the senior managers from our civil services to our businesses need to give get back to the workplace. The next generation need to be able to learn as much as possible from the experience of others and that’s done best when they’re in the same room.

The Electoral Commission has a new chairman – but do we really need it?

28 Jun

Over the weekend, the nation was introduced to John Pullinger, the new chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph.

Two interesting things came out of the piece. First, Pullinger admitted that the EC had been wrong to pursue Darren Grimes over alleged offences in the Brexit referendum. Second, that the EC plans to have an “independent discussion” with the Scottish Parliament about another independence referendum. Pullinger framed this discussion as being something that “helps” Scotland with its “democracy”.

While Pullinger’s apology to Grimes was a start in improving the electoral watchdog, as was his promise the EC must “do better”, it still hasn’t quelled concerns over its future direction. For one, Grimes himself pointed out himself that no one from the watchdog had said sorry personally – and that “all of those unable to understand the law they’re there to protect are still employed by the taxpayer”.

Pullinger’s words on Scotland, too, will merely convince the Government that the EC will continue to meddle in areas outside its remit. The Prime Minister has said he would reject a request for an “irresponsible and reckless” second referendum – yet the EC’s “independent discussion” idea seems to challenge that.

The Government’s cynicism over the EC is already well known. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative Party, said last year that if the EC fails to change and “do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.” And a week ago, it was revealed that Boris Johnson plans to remove its power to prosecute lawbreaking, in what is surely a small step towards greater action against the EC.

Opponents of Johnson have suggested his dislike of the EC is to do with its investigation into how refurbishments of his Downing Street flat were paid for. In general, any time the Government talks about electoral reform – relating to the EC or otherwise – it is accused of having ulterior motives. The Labour Party, ever desperate for its next insult to hurl at the Conservatives, has said “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog”.

Yet, as I wrote in April this year, the EC has rarely given a good impression of its “independence” – and thus deserves the scrutiny it now receives. One paper found in 2018 that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, and its needless pursuit of Grimes – Pullinger now admits “what happened to him should not have happened” – and other cases have been completely over the top, and perceived as ideologically motivated.

Perhaps one of the ways the EC can “do better” is by tackling some of the every day issues we are seeing in elections. The news has been filled with dreadful stories about the Batley and Spen by-election, in which Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was chased and heckled; campaigners have been “followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted by a group of young men”; fake Labour leaflets have been distributed; and there have even been arrests (one for possession of an offensive weapon). Are these matters not more pressing for a body concerned with helping democracy?

As former head of the UK Statistics Authority until 2019, Pullinger will no doubt bring an interesting skill set to his role – and he has even acknowledged why people might have felt the organisation has been impartial. But for many people, it is simply too late, given the chaotic history of this Blairite entity. The test – of whether we need this body – has failed, many will think. And so, even with the best of intentions, Pullinger’s words on the Scottish referendum will only push the EC further to the brink.

Maya Forstater: One’s sex can’t change. The story of my fight to ensure this view is judged “worthy of respect”.

14 Jun

Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and gender, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Maya Forstater, an independent researcher, writer and adviser.

Last week, I won a landmark Employment Tribunal case where my belief that sex is real, immutable and important was found to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The case concerned freedom of speech and belief, and how far employers can constrain these rights when it comes to talking about sex and gender.

The test of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society” is meant to be a low bar, ruling out only the extremist views of literal nazis and violent revolutionaries. The first tribunal found that my belief fell into this category. The appeal judge disagreed.

The judgment states clearly that no one has the right to harass others at work and, importantly, protects everyone from discrimination based on their belief or lack of belief. This means it protects people like me who think that the words “male” and “female” relate to sperm and eggs and the bodies built to deliver them. It also protects those who believe in innate-but-fluid gendered identities, and who prioritise  “gender expression” over anatomy.

The judgment sets a precedent that should encourage Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to stop the practice of Whitehall Departments and other public bodies bending the knee to the gender lobby by pledging their allegiance to Stonewall.

My story starts in 2018. While working for an international development think tank, I had begun tweeting and writing, in my own time, about sex and gender, during the government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Some staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. took exception and this set off an escalating process. The organisation panicked, my tweets were compiled, diversity and inclusion consultants were drafted in to assess them, and even though I was not found to have broken any rules or policies, the senior leadership conceded to the will of the offended that I should be cast out. Ultimately, I lost my job.

My belief that sex is real should be utterly unremarkable. This is what the law says, after all.

But it has taken me over two years and £120,000 in crowd-funded legal fees to get this far. I still need to return to the Employment Tribunal for it to decide whether I was discriminated against in practice.

Despite telling my employer that I would use any preferred pronouns that people wanted and would always act with usual professional politeness, I have been put through a two-year nightmare, had my career destroyed and been painted as an extremist “transphobe”  too dangerous to associate with.

Along the way, I have also been investigated by the Scout Association (where I was a Cub Scout Leader) after a bearded man I had never met reported my use of the pronoun “he” instead of “they” for that person  on Twitter. The Scout Association dragged me through a complaint process over 18 months. I was told to apologise to the man who had called me “transphobic”, a “TERF” and “scum”, and who had said that I would leave young people dead and was unfit to be a Scout leader.

Indeed, the Scout Association partially agreed. The fact that I had taken my employer to tribunal, and judgment of the first judge, were taken as evidence that I might not be fit to be a Scout Leader.

Another set of doors that were slammed in my face were legal. My employment tribunal case was turned away by two law firms (one that dropped it just a few days before I was due to launch the crowdfunding campaign). The Solicitors Regulation Authority responded to my complaint by saying that it did not breach its code “if a firm declined to act because the client’s views conflicted with its own principles and values, as long as these were not discriminatory”.

I have been turned down for jobs at other think tanks and universities, and all but erased from history in the sector where I worked. This has happened even as my inbox fills up with messages from former colleagues, professional networks and eminent professors saying that they agree with me but cannot say so publicly for fear for their own careers.

It is not that I have said anything extreme to warrant this, or that I have been a uniquely unlucky target.  The new organisation I have co-founded, Sex Matters, has heard from dozens of people, in a wide variety of sectors, who have been investigated and subject to workplace discipline for such crimes as liking tweets, defending J.K. Rowling or questioning workplace policies. Meanwhile, thousands  more people are afraid to speak up.

The Kafkaesque nightmare we find ourselves in reflects the capture of the levers of policy- and decision-making by a small but influential group of LGBT+ lobbying organisations.

This is institutionalised through the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme. It covers 25 per cent of the UK workforce  and includes  organisations ranging from the Government Legal Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority to the BBC and Ofcom, as well as almost all universities, major private sector employers and voluntary organisations from Citizen’s Advice to Save the Children. Stonewall’s prescriptions are delivered by a churning cast of “account managers”: young men and women fresh out of university in shiny suits and directional haircuts assess the policies of major organisations, and tell them what to do and say when employees dissent.

Every day we receive emails from people within Stonewalled organisations who say they fear for their jobs.  They talk of the  “Stonewall Stasi”: internal “LGBTQI+ Allies” groups who are empowered to thought-police their colleagues. As part of the Stonewall scheme the groups undertake “reverse mentoring”, where a young cadre-member will re-educate senior management. They write policies on micro-aggressions and pronouns (which of course it would be a micro-aggression to question) and set up ever more intricate tripwires of language with which to set off new rounds of complaints.

Straight “allies” often outnumber homosexuals and transsexuals in these groups. Many of those who write to us and say they are afraid are gays and lesbians who have found themselves on the wrong side of Stonewall’s new sexless world.

My win is a step towards stopping this madness. It clarifies that there is legal  protection against discrimination and harassment for people who do not subscribe to the dogma that “trans women are women; trans men are men”, that “demisexual” is a sexual orientation, or that men can be lesbians. It protects those who refuse to call themselves “cis”, do not feel the need to put pronouns in their email signature or wear a rainbow lanyard.

It also provides protection for those who aren’t involved in political debates on sex and gender at all, but who know that sometimes sex matters. This includes elderly women on hospital wards, religious women asking for a female health-care professional and children in school who don’t want a gender-confused teenager of the opposite sex in their showers.

None of this justifies or requires hostility or harassment of people with a transgender identity. But we do not have to remake all of reality for them, and nor should complaints processes be used to harass, bully and victimise others.

No one else should have to go through the nightmare I and my family have been put through. The government should withdraw all government departments from the Stonewall Scheme, and produce simple, straightforward guidance on single-sex services, and on freedom of belief as provided for by law.

Amanda Milling: The Boundary Review will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every vote counts the same

8 Jun

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Our democracy allows eligible voters up and down the country the chance to have their voice heard by voting for a representative they believe will best make decisions on their behalf.

But crucially it gives everyone eligible to vote, 18 and over, an equal vote and an equal say. Or, at least, it should do.

However, the constituency boundaries as they presently stand fail to ensure that a vote counts the same in one area as it does in another, even just a few miles away.

This is because the present constituency boundaries are based on data that is already 20 years old. Without the changes to the boundaries, by the time of the next election this data would be a quarter of a century out of date and by the time the next government conducted a review and implementing boundary change, the information will be more than three decades out of date.

At the moment some constituencies have twice as many electors as others. Bristol, having over 100,000, whist the smallest, Stoke-on-Trent Central – has a little over 55,000. It is also true that after the 2017 election, our party would have won a significantly greater number of seats if constituency sizes were equalised and updated, removing the unfair bias in the outdated system.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that the status quo is neither fair, nor sustainable.

The Boundary Review that is being undertaken by the independent and judge-led Boundary Commissions, with extensive public consultation, is looking to reset all of this.

This review isn’t about the party building a power base in any part of the country, nor to make it harder for opposition parties to make gains, but about ensuring that Parliamentary boundaries are equally sized and based on up to date figures.

By making sure we have Parliamentary boundaries which finally take account of the huge population change which has taken place in parts of the country, we are ensuring that each constituent will know that their vote counts the same as their neighbour’s. It also delivers on our promise at the 2019 General Election to strengthen our democracy by ensuring every vote counts the same.

I know that for some this review could bring unexpected change. Representing a seat is a unique privilege, and often a very personal one. I have represented Cannock Chase for six years and still feel pride in the community each time my train from London pulls into the station.

Each of us who are MPs will know like the back of our hands every community hall and summer fête. We will see families in the supermarket who we have supported and we will have listened to campaign groups on whose behalf we have spoken out in the House of Commons.

No one wants to lose any constituent who they have been privileged to represent and who has been part of their community.

MPs are rightly proud, and fiercely defensive of their own patch where they have canvassed doors and worked hard for years, so the thought of change at a local level will raise concerns, even if we can all broadly agree to the concept of the changes.

Equally, for long-standing Conservative associations built on boundaries that have been in place for decades it will require some adjustment. Associations take pride in their area, in their membership, and many still operate active ward associations.

But I am confident that our hardworking and committed association officers have what it takes to adapt — and we are committed to supporting them along the way.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have seen fantastic examples of associations being at the forefront of adapting and improving, working together on events and fundraising. I have joined scores of Zoom quizzes, welcomed colleagues as guest speakers and met hundreds of members and activists at Q&As. And we will continue to adapt.

For some these proposed changes will be challenging and that’s why we will be listening and working with colleagues in Parliament and across the party to hear any of the concerns people may have.

As the consultation period begins on these initial proposals we need to come together to collectively work out how we can make the proposals work.  We will make formal submissions in response to the Boundary Commissions initial proposals. MPs, associations, organisations and individuals will also all be able to make representations during the consultation phases. I have no doubt there will be changes from the initial proposals as additional local concerns and counter proposals are taken into account.

These equal and updated boundaries are sensible and necessary. They are the consequence of a manifesto which was written with fairness and uniting the whole country written into every pledge. They make sure everyone’s vote from Cumbria to Canterbury, Dover to Darlington carries equal weight at a General Election.

The Conservative Party will now collectively engage with the independent Boundary Commissions’ extensive consultation process, to ensure all parts of the United Kingdom are fairly represented in the UK Parliament.

Benedict Rogers: 32 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s human rights abuses continue. Here’s how the UK responds.

4 Jun

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

Thirty-two years ago today, the true character of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was on full display. Peaceful protesters whose only “crime” was to appeal for democracy were gunned down as tanks rolled across Tiananmen Square and soldiers hunted students in back alleys and universities throughout China. British diplomatic cables reveal the death toll was at least 10,000.

The character of the protesters was on display too, symbolised by “Tank Man”, the brave, unarmed man who stood in front of the tanks, temporarily halting their advance and producing an iconic image.

Three decades on, the regime’s character has not changed. Its tactics have become more sophisticated, weaponising financial influence, economic coercion, technology and multilateral institutions, but it remains the same inhumane, brutal, corrupt, repressive and mendacious regime. What has changed is that it is no longer a danger solely to its own people, but to freedom itself. Last month I spoke in a webinar on the question: “China: Friend or Foe?”. My answer is that it is absolutely essential to distinguish between China as a country and a people, and the CCP regime.

Having spent much of my adult life in and around China for almost 30 years, living there, travelling there over 40 times and graduating with a Master’s in China Studies, I am a friend of China. I speak out for human rights because I want the peoples of China to be free, to comment online or go to a place of worship or criticise a leader without fear of jail and torture.

With decent governance, China deserves to take its place on the world stage as a great nation. So in this sense, like the Prime Minister, I am “fervently Sinophile”. But key to this is the intentions and conduct of the CCP regime – and whether we like it or not, it has made it abundantly clear that it is a foe of everything we believe in: democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the international rules-based order.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a sense that as China opened up economically, it might liberalise politically. From my own visits to China, I witnessed some space opening. Of course the regime was always repressive, but nevertheless, within certain limits there were civil society activists, human rights defenders, citizen journalists and religious believers who could do things that would have been impossible under Chairman Mao. Just over ten years ago, I met Chinese human rights lawyers in a restaurant in Beijing. They talked about their courageous work defending the rights of religious adherents and their hopes that this space that had opened might further expand.

Those hopes of reform have vanished over the past decade under Xi Jinping. Reverting to a cult of personality not seen since Mao, he has ended term limits, seeks to be president for life, added “Xi Jinping Thought” to the constitution and cracked down on all dissent. Those lawyers I met have either been jailed, disappeared or disbarred. That “space”, albeit limited, for dissent, religious practice, legal defence or independent media has evaporated.

On the question of “friend or foe”, let’s not be naïve. In his first speech to the Politburo in 2013, Xi is clear about his ambitions, to build “a socialism that is superior to capitalism” and “have the dominant position.” In a key policy communique – with the Orwellian title Document No. 9 – the regime details its enmity to constitutional multi-party democracy, judicial independence, “universal” human rights, civil society and an independent media, categorised among the seven “don’t speaks”.

And look at the regime’s behaviour.

At home it is committing atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs, recognised by the US Administration, the Canadian, Dutch Parliaments and UK Parliaments and legal experts as genocide. This includes the incarceration of a million Uyghurs in concentration camps, forced sterilisation, slave labour, sexual violence, torture, forced organ harvesting and religious persecution. Today, the Uyghur Tribunal – chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic – opens. It should not be forgotten that two years ago, the China Tribunal investigating forced organ harvesting concluded that the regime is committing crimes against humanity and is “a criminal state”.

But while the Uyghurs are rightly receiving more attention, let us not ignore intensifying repression in Tibet, a crackdown on Christians which is the worst since the Cultural Revolution, and persecution of Falun Gong.

Let us also remember, as we mark the 24th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, this regime’s flagrant breach of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Beijing pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law and autonomy under “one country, two systems” for the first 50 years of Chinese sovereignty, until 2047. Less than halfway through, Xi’s regime has torn up that promise and rapidly dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms. Almost all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders are either on trial, in jail or in exile, and the regime continues to destroy what remains of media and academic freedom.

Hong Kong used to be the only place in China where the June 4 massacre could be commemorated publicly. This year, anyone who does so faces several years in jail. Add to the list the regime’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever the truth about the Wuhan laboratory leak theory – which should be investigated – the regime’s initial response was to suppress the truth and not the virus, silence whistleblowers and threaten those calling for an inquiry. Its irresponsible cover-up caused death and devastation for millions around the world.

Its bellicose “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, attempts to intimidate critics well beyond its borders (including myself), sanctions against Western Parliamentarians, academics and think-tanks, intellectual property theft and threats to academic freedoms in our universities hardly render this regime a friend. Its aggression towards Taiwan and adventurism in the South China Sea complete the catalogue of dangers.

So what do we do?

First, completely review our China policy. Stop naively pursuing “cakeism” and totally recalibrate. Recognise that this is a regime that is committing genocide and crimes against humanity, shows total disregard for international law and threatens our freedoms and the rules-based order, and should be sanctioned. The imposition of “Magnitsky” sanctions by the UK in March is a welcome start, but more is needed. Chen Quangguo, the Party Secretary in Xinjiang, architect of intensified repression against the Uyghurs, should be added to the list, along with enterprises complicit with atrocities and the surveillance state.

We should review CCP influence in our universities, and the activities of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Confucius Institutes and joint research programmes involving potentially sensitive national security projects. The Government should study Civitas’ alarming new report Inadvertently Arming China, along with Jo Johnson’s, and ask why we have a Chinese military weapons scientist at the heart of a research programme at Cambridge?

Second, build alliances to face this challenge together. When countries act alone, Beijing can play them off against each other. Let’s build a global democratic alliance. We should stand with our friends in Australia and work with President Biden to develop his proposed “Summit of Democracies”. We should pursue the Prime Minister’s “D10” alliance. At the G7 in Cornwall next week, effort should be invested not only in strong joint statements but on a longer-term coordinated policy plan.

Third, keep the memory of June 4 1989 alive. In China the history books have been wiped clean – many Chinese born since 1989 do not even know about it. So it’s up to us to ensure that the truth is never forgotten – and that the regime is one day held to account for its crimes.

Finally, never let this debate be hijacked by any anti-China narrative, for that would be both morally wrong and counter-productive. The regime wants the Party and the country to be one and the same, and we must not be fooled by that. As disgusting, disgraceful anti-Chinese racism is sadly on the rise we should actively counter it, but never allow Beijing to suggest that criticism of the CCP’s conduct equates to racism.

The people of China – those who stood and fell 32 years ago for freedom, took to the streets for democracy in Hong Kong more recently, and languish in concentration camps, torture chambers and slave-labour production lines today – are our friends. We owe it to them, and ourselves, to stand up to the regime that has declared itself our common foe.

Steve Baker: The UK almost certainly needs an Electoral Integrity Bill. The question is whether it goes far enough.

3 Jun

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

It is easy for people living in small, stable communities to wonder why the Electoral Integrity Bill is needed at all. For those campaigning in urban areas, the answer will be obvious.

I am certain votes are being cast which ought not to be cast, votes which ought to be cast are being cast by those who ought not to be casting them, votes are being cast in particular ways as a result of treating and intimidation and, for various reasons, prosecutions are not forthcoming.

The Government is absolutely right to propose no party campaigners should handle postal votes. I know of cases where a person has turned up at a polling station several times with a clutch of postal votes in their hand. I have received accounts of candidates visiting electors’ homes, demanding postal votes are completed in front of them and then taking them away. I know these are not isolated incidents. We cannot assume voters enjoy secrecy and freedom when marking a ballot paper at home.

Our current electoral system has not caught up with population growth and the realities of modern life. Our procedures have become somewhat quaint, a point which struck me when I looked at the rules for candidates entering polling stations to check for personation. While I know many of my constituents, I do not know a sufficient number that I can go into every polling station and have any chance of spotting personation.

Those opposing the need to have photo ID when voting at a polling station say the number of people prosecuted for personation is low. I would agree. But the reason it is low is because all too often no prosecution is made despite overwhelming evidence being presented to the authorities.

Far from saying the provisions in the Election Integrity Bill are unwarranted, I would say they do not go far enough.

When Individual Voter Registration was introduced, I was pleased that, at last, it would not be possible for people to register more than once in a constituency. I quickly became wise to the fact it was still possible for people to vote more than once. In the 2017 election, an opposition activist was registered twice in a small street at different addresses. He voted at one address in person, and at the other with a postal vote. This was not a mere slip-up. He did the same at the General Election a few weeks later.

In urban areas, where there is a high churn of registrations, and where people live in houses of multiple occupation, it is not easy to determine who is entitled to be on the electoral roll and who isn’t. At one address in my constituency, a small three-bed Edwardian terraced house has 12 adults registered to vote. Either this is house is grossly over-occupied, or people are registered who have no right to do so. It just so happens that all those 12 voters regularly vote at election time.

I know of landlords who register to vote at properties they own, but where they do not reside. We have found foreign nationals on the electoral roll living legally in the United Kingdom, but who are neither nationals of the UK or the Commonwealth, nor EU citizens. Nevertheless, they are on our register to vote.

My election agent found out the hard way that if you want to object to a person’s name being on the electoral roll, your name is disclosed to the person to whom the objection is being made. Surely it should be possible to challenge an entry on the roll without disclosing who has made the complaint so long as there are reasonable grounds to do so?

I know the law allows people to register legally at more than one address, and that it is legal to vote in different elections on the same day. But the time has come to put a mark by people’s names showing which address is their principal residence, and therefore entitling them to vote at parliamentary elections, and which is a secondary address which will allow voting in local elections only.

The law is often very clear, but what is not clear is that appropriate importance is always attributed to each and every vote and to prosecuting offences. I am clear that when one vote is stolen, or otherwise corrupted away, it is not just a pencil mark on a piece of paper but the inheritance of a tradition of liberty and equality fought for at great cost and handed down over centuries.

If we fail to understand the magnitude of the corruption of even a single vote, we are a politically bankrupt nation.

Here is a link to Steve Baker’s recent speech on the Electoral Integrity Bill.

Garvan Walshe: Lukashenko’s air piracy. By way of western response, sanctions are only a start. Here’s what we need to do next.

27 May

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

Alexander Lukashenko has stopped pretending he’s anything better than a gangster. Roman Protasevich was paraded on TV after his kidnapping with visible bruises. The message is clear: we grabbed him, we tortured him – and we don’t care what you think. He might as well have taken out that AK–47 he’s fond of carrying ,and screamed: “what are you going to do about it, punk?”

But what, indeed, are we going to do about it? International opinion is coalescing around a set of economic sanctions, and the US, EU, UK and other diplomats are working out the details. It could usefully be accompanied by a coordinated expulsion of Belarussian diplomats by all NATO members, just as Russian diplomats were expelled following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. This is the minimum that can be expected, and will provide a modest deterrent against other small regimes contemplating something similar.

It is nowhere near enough.

While twentieth century dictatorships consolidated power by cutting themselves off from the democratic world, in the twenty first they exploit globalisation to corrupt democracies. They think we’re too greedy, fond of a quiet life, or exhausted after 20 years fighting Islamist terrorism to impose costs on dictators.

Mention of the latter pre-9/11 suggests a parallel today. Just as in the case of Al-Qaeda, which had bombed a US barracks in Saudi Arabia, attacked the USS Cole destroyer, and whose precursor made the first attempt to level the World Trade Center in 1996, we have ignored warnings about a significantly greater threat to peace and security, because facing the truth was inconvenient.

We made the mistake of hoping that tit-for-tat reprisals against Islamist attacks would be sufficient, when we needed to work out how to marginalise and sideline the full spectrum of Islamist activity. After 20 years of trial, and (considerable) error, we’ve settled on a combination of measures, from military strikes through humanitarian aid, counter-extremism prevention, and education progammes at the soft end. We came to understand that we had to neutralise the Islamists’ strategic aim to build theocratic dictatorships, and not merely blunt their tactics.

Lukashenko, Putin and Xi Jinping want to destabilise and weaken the West by undermining the system of international norms we’ve built up since 1945. They take advantage of our naivety. We made the mistake of letting countries without democratic politics and rule of law into the system by pretending to ourselves that the economic integration would be to make them liberal. This exposed our societies to infiltration by emboldened autocracies instead.

They have put a former German Chancellor and a Scottish First Minister on their payroll, have gained access to critical nuclear and telecommunications infrastructure, and broadcast their propaganda and disinformation on our airwaves. They use the openness of our free market system against us, by operating through front organisations (The gory details of the Russian element to this can be found in Catherine Belton’s excellent Putin’s People). The well-known abuse of social media platforms with fake accounts are just an extension of this technique. Lukashenko’s abuse of counter-terrorism protocols to dupe the Ryanair flight into landing, and then seizing Protasevich, is from the same playbook.

Our mistake was to extend the deeper elements Western of international cooperation, which relied on a sense of shared interest in keeping the system together, to countries that want not merely to free-ride on that system, but actually pull it apart.

This now needs to be reconfigured to deal separately with trusted and untrusted states. Trusted states can be kept within the system, but untrusted states need to be let in only on more sceptical terms. The automatic snap-back sanctions in the JCPOA Iran Deal are an example of mechanisms that could be used. The China Research Group proposed taking a similar stance in its Defending Democracy in a new world report (in which I was involved). Flows of foreign investment, support for think tanks, universities, and other forms of influence need to be brought under heavier scrutiny. Real “beneficial owners” need to be identified, and intelligence capability be built so this goes beyond a box-ticking compliance exercise. Media backed, directly or indirectly, by regimes that restrict media freedom should be denied broadcast licenses.

We need to consider whether we have adequate intelligence capability to keep tabs on influence by twenty-first century autocracies, and to protect our citizens and residents from their extraterritorial operations. One wonders whether Greek security services, for example, had any idea of the Belarussian KGB’s plot to kidnap Protasevich. Protecting democratic opponents of these regimes ought now become a priority for Western security agencies.

Belarus’s air piracy should be a wake-up call for the Western alliance. Just like twenty-first century terrorism, twenty-first century authoritarianism doesn’t stay within its own borders. Keeping it out of ours and those of our allies has become a matter of highest importance.

Robert Jenrick: What we are going to give a warm welcome to Hong Kongers

19 Apr

Robert Jenrick is Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Newark.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom launched a new, dedicated immigration route for British National Overseas (BNO) status holders and their descendants, reflecting our historic and moral commitment to those people of Hong Kong who have chosen to retain their ties to the UK. It’s an unprecedented scheme and there is no other visa in the world of this nature.

We are a champion of freedom and democracy, and will live up to our responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong, so that these families will come to find the UK a place they can call home.

It is an honour that many are choosing to relocate, and I have made it the mission of my department to guarantee that all BNO status holders and their families have the very best start as soon as they arrive here.

To those coming to the United Kingdom, on behalf of the whole country let me be among the first to wish you the very warmest of welcomes.

Our message is clear – that the UK government and the British people are here to welcome you with open arms, and we will endeavour to help you as much as possible to settle in and build a prosperous, happy life in your new home.

You have so much to offer our nation at this critical point in our island’s history. Our children will thrive studying alongside one another, our businesses will benefit from new talent, and our communities will be enriched by new neighbours and friendships.

While uprooting your family and beginning a new life on the other side of the world is a daunting prospect, I have no doubt that you are going to feel very much at home.

We are doing everything in our power to ensure your success and happiness here, with support to help you find a home, schools for your children, jobs and opportunity.

The UK has a long and proud history of embracing those who arrive on our shores seeking the rights and freedoms denied to them in their homeland.

And while the UK and Hong Kong may be many miles apart and different in many ways, the fundamental principles that underpin life here will already be more than familiar to you. After all, for more than a century we flourished together as free societies and dynamic economies under the rule of law where people can express themselves and achieve their full potential.

To those coming to the UK or already here, I hope the support we are providing makes your move as successful as it can be for yourself, for your family, and for this wonderful country that we now share.

Last week, we announced an initial £43 million package to help new arrivals find a home, a school place for their children, employment or a route to set up a business.

We are creating 12 welcome hubs right across the UK to give BNO status holders the practical help when needed. There will be support for everything from learning English to transferring professional qualifications.

We’re also creating educational resources for schools so that they can teach young people about our historic connection and commitment to Hong Kong and its people.

And we’ve created a comprehensive welcome pack to help BNO families navigate the move, including information on how to access public services, register to vote and open a bank account. It also points out how to access libraries and leisure centres, and promotes the UK’s rich cultural, arts and music events – all translated into Cantonese.

Last week, I met with four Hong Kong families who have recently arrived in the UK and heard their hopes and fears as they start their new lives. Their profound sense of optimism about the future, and an embracing of their newfound freedoms, reaffirmed my belief that this migration will serve to enrich our country immensely.

We will continue to work closely with civil society campaigners, and special credit must go to Dr Krish Kandiah, the founder of UKHK.org who has dedicated so much of his time and energy to this cause.

All of us have important roles to play in making Hong Kongers feel welcome, and to support their integration into British society. I am confident that we will step up to the moment and embrace this golden opportunity, and work together in the name of mutual understanding, freedom and cultural enrichment.

Graham Allen: It’s time to review our democracy on a sustainable all-party basis

6 Jan

Graham Allen is Convener of The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy and was MP for Nottingham North 1987-2017.

Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Regardless of political affiliation, all of those of us who call ourselves democrats worry about keeping that system viable-the best “worst” it can be. Our democracy feels fragile and poorly maintained. If it is to have a strong long-term future it now needs some serious love and attention. The Government’s election promise to create a Commission on Constitution, Democracy and Rights presents the perfect opportunity to do just that, in an overarching way or in bite size pieces as is happening on Judicial Review, Human Rights and English devolution.

If we want to renew UK democracy then people of good will from all political backgrounds have to come up with some persuasive ideas and arguments. Above all these must remake an effective partnership between a jaundiced public and a political class that sometime struggles to know what to do next to reconnect with them. However in a sometimes depressing picture of national and international democracy there is a growing glimmer of hope – and oddly it has a pedigree going back to ancient Greece .

One unremarked item has been that all the four main UK-wide parties actually agreed in their last election manifestos on the need for a review of our democracy, be it by a commission, a citizens’ convention, or assembly. The optimism here for democrats of all persuasions is based upon the recognition that elections alone are not enough and like the ancient Greeks using deliberative democracy to re-engage citizens thoughtfully with their politics is an important way to restore trust and participation. This would not only halt the decline of faith in UK democracy but also take it to its next evolution, a cultural development as significant as was “Votes for All”.

It is time to review our democracy on a sustainable all-party basis, and make it strong enough to transcend the complacency, elitism and populism that threaten its very existence. Government and Parliament will of course have the central role. By agreeing in advance each step of the way (including an impartial governing board) they will be completely confident that deliberation is a welcome improvement of our democracy not a threatening alternative to it. Citizens and elected representatives who have hitherto felt powerless can work with government to play our part as sensible and constructive partners. The moment has come. As Hillel is reputed to have said “If not now, when? If not me, who?”.

So what is deliberative democracy? It is tasty and nourishing slow-cooked politics, the antithesis of our present fast food McPolitics. Deliberation is where a microcosm of the nation, region or locality propose recommendations for consideration by legislatures. In essence a group of 80 or so citizens, transparently and scientifically selected by IPSOS-Mori or suchlike come together to conduct, in the words of deliberative democracy guru James Fishkin, “democracy in good conditions”.

They are properly fed and watered, travel costs paid, even a small honorarium of thanks and a decent hotel for however many weekend days it takes them. Perhaps most importantly citizens don’t bring the baggage and prejudices of political parties with them. A point is made to discuss issues respectfully and with good manners with the seven or eight people on your table, a mind opening counterpoint to the yah-boo of the House of Commons chamber and the distortion of political and anti-social media spinners.

The amazing thing is that deliberative democracy is actually working and gaining traction in the UK and across the globe. The record shows that deliberators “everyday people“ like us are – with balanced briefing and professional facilitation – perfectly able to take forward issues which are found to be intractable to usual political processes. “Give us your toughest problem “ is the challenge from deliberators.

Scores of democratic deliberations are now underway or successfully completed for example on abortion in Ireland, nuclear power in South Korea, energy policy in Texas, social care in Northern Ireland, waste recycling in South Australia, the UK Parliament’s own Climate Change Assembly and three UK-government sponsored local deliberations in Dudley, Cambridge and Test Valley which are spawning many others.

Finally deliberators hand their finished gift to their elected representatives to do their part, the consideration and decision. Hitherto these representatives that we elect have been hamstrung by whips, tribal party loyalties, electoral short termism, lobbying and campaigning money to the extent that they are often unable to progress issues. I know since I was one for 30 years.

Hence, far from feeling squeezed out or undermined, representatives actually welcome the new democratic dyno-rod of deliberation to unblock our constipated political processes. They see that renewing a mutually respectful pre-legislative partnership with citizens strengthens them get the job done that we elected them and the rest of our parliament to do,

In the UK, the independent Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy with senior all party support has been working out how to use deliberative processes to enable citizens to help review our UK democratic institutions and to discuss with Government the political endgame to deliver change. Our proposal has been sent to the PM and Michael Gove for consideration.

We will continue to work with HMG and across the political spectrum to create an effective and inclusive review. An agenda for Citizen’s deliberation agreed by HMG might include the second chamber, devolution, clarifying “who does what” in our politics and much else. The joint ambition is to go beyond the “40 white guys in Philadelphia” model and, using traditional and the latest on-line techniques, back up our groups of 80 citizens by engaging with potentially millions of founding mothers and fathers in a UK national conversation on improving our democracy.

This independent process means that these initial recommendations will be citizens’ proposals not yours or mine or those of our favourite pressure group. They will ultimately be respectfully handed to HMG’s Review and to our elected representative for the final consideration and decision that their electoral mandate deserves. Pericles remarked “We are unique in considering the man who takes no part in public affairs not to be apolitical, but useless”. It is time for you and I to stop being a useless spectator and play our part on the democratic pitch while we still have it.

We are right to test and question this new-fangled deliberative democracy but you will be pleased to discover that much like elections, it’s rediscovered twin, deliberation is a process adapted from the ancients. It is not politics like we used to do, it is politics that every civilised society should aspire to do.

Before any further public announcement about reviews of  UK democracy we will continue our work with the Government on how to give everybody a meaningful stake in their democratic future. We can look at the growing number of successful examples of deliberation from home and abroad or maybe, just ask the Greeks.

David Lidington: We have left the EU and there is no turning back. Here’s what our new relationship with Europe should look like.

29 Dec

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

Ursula von der Leyen’s tone was elegiac, Boris Johnson’s conciliatory. Their first public statements announcing that a deal had been agreed marked a significant shift in tone. Both leaders looked to a future in which the United Kingdom and the European Union could move beyond the fractious quarrels of the last four years and forge a new partnership in the months and years ahead.

The Commission President quoted T.S Eliot’s line that “…to make an end is to make a beginning”, while the Prime Minister spoke of how the United Kingdom would continue to be “culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically” attached to Europe. The following day, Michael Gove said that the deal would be “the start of a special relationship” between this country and the EU.

This isn’t about rejoining the EU. Even for someone like me – unrepentant at having campaigned to Remain back in 2016 – the prospect of revisiting in reverse all the agonies and divisions of the last four years is profoundly unappealing, as is the prospect of EU membership without the rebates or opt-outs we once enjoyed. The challenge for our country and for our fellow European democracies now is to work out new ways of working together to uphold values and defend interests that we share.

Every European country wants to address the climate emergency, disrupt and defeat terrorism and organised crime and resist efforts by Russia to subvert democratic values and institutions in our continent. We all want to see political stability in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa – and know from hard experience that civil war, ethnic conflict and corrupt or ineffective governance allow criminal networks and extremist doctrines to thrive.

The incoming US President values alliances and international institutions, but will also expect European allies not only to spend more on defence and security (where the UK is indeed setting an example) but to show political leadership in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and in Africa, and to contribute support in the Indo-Pacific region, which Joe Biden, like his recent predecessors, will see as the chief focus of United States strategic interest.

Our country remains a European power but one which, like France, also has global interests and a global outlook. We should not see a strategic partnership with the Member States of the EU and the EU institutionally as an alternative to “Global Britain” but as an important aspect of it.

It will take time for bruises to heal, but I’ve been struck by how, even during difficult, sometimes acrimonious divorce talks with the EU, the Prime Minister boosted Britain’s military contribution to the French-led counter-terrorist action in the Sahel and how, announcing the merger of the Foreign Office and DfID, he cited the Western Balkans and Ukraine as places where important interests were at stake.

On key global issues – climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, Israel/Palestine – the Johnson government has chosen a position closer to the European mainstream than to the White House. The E3 of Britain, France and Germany has continued to work in partnership on geo-political challenges.

Over the next ten years, a United Kingdom outside the EU will need to renew and strengthen both its bilateral relationships with other European countries and its partnership with the EU collectively.

With national governments, this partly about finding a substitute for the regular contact between British Ministers and officials and their counterparts that for nearly 50 years, has taken place at and in the margins of Council of Ministers meetings. It wasn’t only the formal Council that mattered, but the breakfast, lunch or coffee with an opposite number from another country – or even just the quiet word in a corner about some issue.

Since we left the EU on 31 January this year, there’ve not been those same regular opportunities to get to know and do business with other European governments. We’ll need alternatives. It is good that the Government has signalled its intention to strengthen our diplomatic presence across Europe – but we should also consider formalising arrangements for annual summits and joint ministerial meetings with different European countries, as we already do with France.

The UK will also need over time to develop a strategic partnership with the EU as an institution. This is partly because we shall want to discuss issues that under the EU treaties fall to the Union collectively to decide and partly too because the reality is that even the big EU members spend a lot of effort trying to shape a common EU policy approach. The UK will need to operate at both national government and EU level just as the Americans, Swiss and Norwegians already do.

This is to a large extent already envisaged in the Free Trade Agreement, through the Partnership Council and its various sub-committees established to manage and monitor how the deal is implemented. As we go forward, UK policymakers will need to understand the debates within Member States and EU institutions on subjects like data transfer and privacy, and try from outside the tent to influence the outcome in a way that protects our interests.

The same is true about climate, a top-level priority for the Johnson government especially with the COP 26 summit scheduled for 2021. Should the UK’s planned emissions trading scheme be more or less the same as the EU’s? Will the UK’s requirements for green finance be accepted in the rest of Europe? Understanding each other’s positions and, where possible, working together on the global stage should work to our mutual advantage.

NATO will remain the cornerstone of Europe’s collective defence. The EU should not try to supplant or duplicate NATO’s work. Equally, NATO cannot do everything. There are both functional and geographical limits to NATO’s mission. In an age of hybrid conflict, not just military power but economic leverage (including sanctions), information, development spending and anti-corruption work – things that are more an EU than a NATO responsibility -also matter. Truth is, we shall need to work both bilaterally with individual governments and with the different international institutions.

Above all, we need to focus on the strategic picture. Throughout the world democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under pressure. Russia and China are increasingly assertive about the merits of their very different systems of government. The idea of a rules-based international order, fundamental to both our freedom and our prosperity, is being challenged. Criminal and extremist networks operate across national borders and are as internet-savvy as any legitimate business. Outside the EU, the United Kingdom’s interests impel us to find a new model of partnership with our closest neighbours and allies in Europe while at the same time reaching out to like-minded countries worldwide. Now is the time for the world’s democracies, in Europe and beyond, to stand together.