Alec Shelbrooke: We’re levelling up this country – and that’s got to include equal constituencies

13 Jul

Alec Shelbrooke is MP for Elmet & Rothwell.

When my colleagues and I walked back into the House of Commons after the General Election last year, it was after being entrusted by the British public to level this country up and get things done.

And, despite challenges faced by Covid-19, we are delivering on those promises. This Government is approaching the current short-term challenges with a long-term view in mind – just as the Chancellor did last week with one of the largest and most comprehensive plans in the world, not just to protect current jobs but to create new jobs for the future as we begin to rebuild.

Now we must now take that same approach to our Parliamentary boundaries, and this week MPs will have their final vote on the long-awaited Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Our constituencies are in desperate need of levelling up – and voters deserve more equal representation. In fact, they voted for it; we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries in our 2019 manifesto.

It can’t be right that Bristol West with 99,253 voters and Arfon with only 42,215 voters have the same amount of representation on the green benches after the 2019 election. Although perfect equality between constituencies cannot be achieved – which is why this Bill retains a leeway of +/- five per cent to make geographical allowances and community ties – a difference of over double is undeniably too big.

It also can’t be right that our youngest voters were born after our last constituency refresh. The country has certainly changed since the early 2000s and our Parliament needs to reflect that change. This delay is particularly stark when you realise that the boundaries are meant to be refreshed every five years – although this Bill will relax it to a more feasible eight years.

As with our plan for jobs, we need to vote for the short-term and the long-term. This Bill has been a decade in the making and rightly goes further than ever before to address the root of the problem. Namely: why has this Bill been a decade in the making?

Well, if you asked me what part of my constituency I’d like to stop representing, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Nor would my colleagues – even those who are only in their first year of representing their communities.

Any MP will agree that the idea of losing some of their constituency and sometimes entire communities that they represent is heartbreaking. I’ve spent over ten years knocking on every door getting to know constituents across Elmet and Rothwell and every street is important to me. Asking MPs to vote for major losses can be a big ask.

So, to ensure that this delay is prevented in the future, we have to include a long-term plan.

Which is why this Bill ensures that when the recommendations of the impartial, independent Boundaries Commission are made, they will be automatically implemented to save years of delay occurring again in the future – something Keir Starmer’s Labour Party wants to block from happening.

In many ways it’s hardly surprising – Labour has a long history of opposing boundary updates to try and gerrymander elections. It was the Labour Government of 1969 ahead of the 1970 general election which intentionally blocked the independent Boundary Commissions’ changes by refusing to implement their proposals; resulting in the 1970 election being fought on 1953 boundary data.

It took a Conservative Government then to implement those delayed boundaries later in 1970. In 1982, the Labour Party attempted to obstruct the Boundary Commission’s new boundaries through the courts ahead of the 1984 General Election – afraid it would hurt their chances – though ultimately unsuccessfully.

Both incidents illustrate why there needs to be greater certainty that the independent recommendations of the Boundary Commission are actually implemented, without being susceptible to political delay tactics.

The Boundary Commission will always be acting at the behest of Parliament to ensure accountability, but it is right that we delegate this responsibility to them to politically neutralise constituency changes, allowing MPs to instead engage with the consultation process so that local voices are heard.

Additionally, the question of boundary changes is not just political, it is personal. Which part of Holborn and St Pancras would Sir Keir Starmer vote to keep, or to lose? For MPs the consequences of the boundary review will be personal to each one of us, and voters must not be given another twenty-year delay before the next refresh or, indeed, before this one.

Last year, we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, strengthening our democracy and making sure that every vote counts the same. Now we need to get it done.

Alec Shelbrooke: We’re levelling up this country – and that’s got to include equal constituencies

13 Jul

Alec Shelbrooke is MP for Elmet & Rothwell.

When my colleagues and I walked back into the House of Commons after the General Election last year, it was after being entrusted by the British public to level this country up and get things done.

And, despite challenges faced by Covid-19, we are delivering on those promises. This Government is approaching the current short-term challenges with a long-term view in mind – just as the Chancellor did last week with one of the largest and most comprehensive plans in the world, not just to protect current jobs but to create new jobs for the future as we begin to rebuild.

Now we must now take that same approach to our Parliamentary boundaries, and this week MPs will have their final vote on the long-awaited Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Our constituencies are in desperate need of levelling up – and voters deserve more equal representation. In fact, they voted for it; we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries in our 2019 manifesto.

It can’t be right that Bristol West with 99,253 voters and Arfon with only 42,215 voters have the same amount of representation on the green benches after the 2019 election. Although perfect equality between constituencies cannot be achieved – which is why this Bill retains a leeway of +/- five per cent to make geographical allowances and community ties – a difference of over double is undeniably too big.

It also can’t be right that our youngest voters were born after our last constituency refresh. The country has certainly changed since the early 2000s and our Parliament needs to reflect that change. This delay is particularly stark when you realise that the boundaries are meant to be refreshed every five years – although this Bill will relax it to a more feasible eight years.

As with our plan for jobs, we need to vote for the short-term and the long-term. This Bill has been a decade in the making and rightly goes further than ever before to address the root of the problem. Namely: why has this Bill been a decade in the making?

Well, if you asked me what part of my constituency I’d like to stop representing, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Nor would my colleagues – even those who are only in their first year of representing their communities.

Any MP will agree that the idea of losing some of their constituency and sometimes entire communities that they represent is heartbreaking. I’ve spent over ten years knocking on every door getting to know constituents across Elmet and Rothwell and every street is important to me. Asking MPs to vote for major losses can be a big ask.

So, to ensure that this delay is prevented in the future, we have to include a long-term plan.

Which is why this Bill ensures that when the recommendations of the impartial, independent Boundaries Commission are made, they will be automatically implemented to save years of delay occurring again in the future – something Keir Starmer’s Labour Party wants to block from happening.

In many ways it’s hardly surprising – Labour has a long history of opposing boundary updates to try and gerrymander elections. It was the Labour Government of 1969 ahead of the 1970 general election which intentionally blocked the independent Boundary Commissions’ changes by refusing to implement their proposals; resulting in the 1970 election being fought on 1953 boundary data.

It took a Conservative Government then to implement those delayed boundaries later in 1970. In 1982, the Labour Party attempted to obstruct the Boundary Commission’s new boundaries through the courts ahead of the 1984 General Election – afraid it would hurt their chances – though ultimately unsuccessfully.

Both incidents illustrate why there needs to be greater certainty that the independent recommendations of the Boundary Commission are actually implemented, without being susceptible to political delay tactics.

The Boundary Commission will always be acting at the behest of Parliament to ensure accountability, but it is right that we delegate this responsibility to them to politically neutralise constituency changes, allowing MPs to instead engage with the consultation process so that local voices are heard.

Additionally, the question of boundary changes is not just political, it is personal. Which part of Holborn and St Pancras would Sir Keir Starmer vote to keep, or to lose? For MPs the consequences of the boundary review will be personal to each one of us, and voters must not be given another twenty-year delay before the next refresh or, indeed, before this one.

Last year, we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, strengthening our democracy and making sure that every vote counts the same. Now we need to get it done.

Jonathan Djanogly: Parliament should be able to scrutinise new trade deals properly. But the current arrangements are simply unfit for purpose.

29 Jun

Jonathan Djanogly is a former Minister, and is MP for Huntingdon.

Did we come through the Brexit process only for the UK Parliament to have less scrutiny over new free trade agreements than we had during our membership of the European Union?

This is the question that Parliament is going to have to address through the Trade Bill, currently making its way to report stage in the House of Commons.

In fact, it seems to be surprising most people that, seemingly contrary to what was proposed in the Queen’s Speech, the Trade Bill does not actually address future trade agreements at all.

Rather, it provides a low scrutiny mechanism, using Statutory Instruments (SIs), for existing EU free trade agreements (FTAs) to be ‘rolled over’ to the U.K. However, given that we have left the EU, it can be questioned as to whether any EU deals with such third countries should now be dealt with as new trade agreements.

For instance, the U.K /Japan proposed FTA is now being treated as a new agreement, and will not replicate the FTA that the EU agreed with it. Likewise, countries such as Canada seem to be waiting to see what the EU agrees with the UK, before agreeing their own new deals with the UK.

In effect, it is arguable that the Bill, which was perfectly rational when its second reading was initially heard in January 2018, may now simply have missed the boat, in terms of the future relevancy of EU trade deals that we have thus far failed to adopt.

It is also somewhat annoying, to those of us that have been following the generation of this bill for the last three or more years, that most of the sensible amendments offered by the then Secretary of State, Liam Fox, have not been re-incorporated into the current bill now before the House.

Agreement that the SI regime should only last for three years rather than five, and that the Government should have to produce reports for Parliament to explain their proposals at least 10 days before the SIs are heard, are surely not contentious. Accordingly, I have re-tabled the last Government’s own amendments for debate.

There then arises the question as to how we are going to deal with future FTAs with countries and organisations, such as the US, China and the EU. On this the Bill is quiet, despite Fox agreeing to consult on a new scrutiny process in 2018.

For the last 40 odd years, the EU has been negotiating our trade deals. As part of the EU scrutiny process, a vote needs to be taken by the EU Parliament on the draft FTA prior to its signature.

Most other countries have similar approval arrangements. In fact, some go further and allow the legislators to get involved in the provisions of the deal. So, for instance, the U.S. Senate can amend draft trade agreements.

In practice, a parliament holding the threat of a veto means that it is very rarely used. This is because the executive will have good reason to look for consensus on its negotiating mandate, as well as carrying legislators along during negotiations through regular disclosure and discussion.

A wise executive would naturally wish to avoid an unnecessary parliamentary bust up just before signing an FTA. Of course, this is where it all went wrong with the TTIP negotiations between the US – EU. Here, both the US Congress and the EU Parliament were disclosing information to their respective elected representatives, that was not being provided to UK parliamentarians.

As a result, and with the inevitable leaks, the whole debate surrounding thousands of lines of deal negotiations got reduced to accusations of selling the NHS and Brits being forced to eat American chlorinated chicken. One might have thought that the UK government had learnt its lesson from the TTIP experience.

The point to be addressed in the Trade Bill is not whether individual issues, such as food standards, environmental regulations, public services or digital services provision or consultation with the devolved authorities are good or bad things in themselves.

Rather, it is the need for the Bill to provide a statutory framework that requires government to take early stage consultation and ongoing soundings through the course of FTA negotiations. This is in order that business and citizens feel they are being listened to with similar rights to their counterparts in the country with whom we are negotiating. Then, before signing, MPs should get to vote on the deal, as will be the case with the counter-party.

In effect, I would argue that current UK practice on scrutinising trade deals is neither democratic nor practically fit for purpose. Moreover, I would go further to point out that our poor scrutiny process is going to be undermined, in any event, by other countries’ more modern scrutiny practices.

The Government suggest that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRAG) process, allowing a short delay mechanism before ratification (ie after the signing) of FTAs, is adequate. This is the same CRAG process that was implemented by Labour in 2010 at a time when the U.K. benefited from the EU Parliament veto. By the way it’s also the same process that was described in 2019 by the Lords Constitution Committee as ‘anachronistic and inadequate’.

Secondly, the Government suggests that the Trade Select Committee could be utilised to provide scrutiny for proposed new FTAs. Let us here, firstly, assume that the Trade department and therefore its committee is going to survive a rumoured merger with the Foreign Office. Even so, and despite negotiations with the US and now Japan having already started, no such arrangements with the trade committee have yet been agreed. We know this from an on the record June letter sent from the chair of the committee to Truss.

Of course, the Trade Committee will not have jurisdiction to look at the proposed EU FTA and, following the post- Brexit demise of Bill Cash’s European Standing Committee B, it has not yet been made clear who or how any proposed EU deal will be scrutinised.

I am not suggesting that MPs should be able to impede Government negotiations on FTA’s, and nor am I saying that MPs should be able to amend draft FTAs. However, we need legislation that provides for Parliament to approve FTAs, on a yes or no basis, before they are signed. I have tabled an amendment to the Trade Bill to that effect, and I look forward to the debate.

Richard Fuller: Parliament should vote to put a time limit on migrant detention

29 Jun

Richard Fuller is MP for North East Bedfordshire.

Where does today’s Conservative parliamentary party stand on issues of individual liberty? This is a largely unanswered question – hidden behind the general dysfunction of the last Parliament and our current focus on tackling Covid-19 and the economics of “levelling up”.

An upcoming amendment to place a time limit for immigration detention will be an opportunity to gauge the Party’s willingness to respect the liberties of the most excluded in our society. Why is this important? Because one of the greatest assets of Global Britain is the integrity of our legal system and due process. Indefinite detention should not sully that reputation.

Under the last Labour government, Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre in my constituency, imprisoned the children of undocumented migrants. David Cameron put a stop to that.

My exposure to the injustice faced by the women detained there and to the general futility of immigration detention led me to support calls for reform of the system. Bluntly, immigration detention is unjust, ineffective and costly.

Successive Conservative immigration ministers have chipped away at the shortcomings of the detention estate – limiting the detention of pregnant women, reducing the overall numbers detained and cracking down on abuse. Yet one signal change – a time limit on detention – has yet to be made.

Our immigration system depends on robust enforcement to enable those with no right to remain in the UK to be returned, but this can and should be achieved without the use of unlimited immigration detention.

The latest Home Office figures show that, just in the last year, over 6,000 people were detained for more than 28 days, and 475 for more than six months. Immigration detention can and does sometimes run into years.

The National Audit Office reported recently that, in 2019, 62 per cent of non-British citizens leaving immigration detention were not removed from the UK or voluntarily repatriated; but released into the community. This is because the Home Office detains in all manner of circumstances, including when people have a right to be in the UK – as we saw with the Windrush Generation – or where for various reasons, removal is not possible. Immigration detention is ineffective.

Set that astonishingly high failure rate against the costs of detention, and the waste of this system is laid bare. It costs over £34,000 per person per year to detain someone, almost £90 million in the last year.

Additionally, in the year ending March 2019 the Government paid over £8 million to migrants in compensation for unlawful immigration detention, and the huge costs of settling unlawful detention claims are not known. Immigration detention is costly.

Many of the women I have met have experienced torture, including sexual violence, and many have been trafficked. The Government has done much to combat trafficking and modern slavery, but our success is hollow if the most vulnerable victims of these horrific practices are themselves detained indefinitely. As Global Britain reasserts its place in the world, we should be conscious of those impediments to our role as a global leader promoting freedom under the law.

Conservative MPs have the opportunity to do that right now by supporting an amendment to the Immigration Bill for consideration at the Report Stage. The amendment introduces a 28-day time limit and early judicial oversight of continuing detention. It is a small step that will enhance our immigration enforcement by putting in place a rigorous system to ensure that the Immigration Service operates promptly and efficiently; and it will create an equitable system in keeping with our traditions of justice stretching back to the Magna Carta.