Friday, 23 May 2014

How to engage with the Political Process

A few notes from a workshop about the British Political System.

How is Legislation Made?
A good initial resource can be found at the UK Parliament Website here and describes how legislation moves from being an item on the governments agenda, through Green/White consultation papers to being a formal Bill submitted to the House of Commons. In particular, BFTF notes that :

"The UK's European Union commitments can lead to new legislation. Campaigning by special interest groups, private citizens or other politicians - often through the media - may raise the profile of particular causes or problems. More widely, the media's reporting on issues, government and Parliament all inform and influence Britain's political agenda."

"No matter where a policy idea originates, it normally won't get far without the backing of a government minister. This is because ministers are in a position to champion an idea to government colleagues."

"Even a minister's backing, however, isn't enough to guarantee an idea will find its way to Parliament and become a law. Ministers normally - where time allows - shape and inform their proposals by consulting with experts, interest groups and people likely to be affected by the plans..."

For a short period in 1834,
 the House of Commons banned MP's from wearing trousers.

Challenging Legislation
In order of increasing "height" challenges could go to the County Courts, High Court of Justice, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and then, ultimately, the European Court of Human Rights.

The British Electoral System
Incredibly, there has not been an election since 1935 in which a single party has managed to get a majority of the vote! Even in the famous 1983 Conservative "landslide" where the Tories won 61% of the Parliamentary seats, and they did it with just 42% of the popular vote.

Why voting matters
In May 2002, the BNP won 3 seats in Burnley, one of which was only by FOUR VOTES !
2014 Local Elections : Kingstanding (Birmingham) Conservatives beat Labout by 32 votes (out of a total of 4421 votes)
2014 Local Elections : Shard End (Birmingham): Labour beat UKIP by just 37 votes (out of a total of 4606 votes)

Think Tanks
Conservative : Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Policy Exchange
Labour : Fabian Society, IPPR, Compass
Lib Dem : Centre Forum

Not hard to figure out which party the Centre for Policy Studies supports

The left leaning IPPR also wears its Euro heart on its sleeve

What do MPs do?
Parliament : Engage with Ministers and Government, debate and vote on laws, sit on select committees.
Constituency : Weekly surgery, attend functions, address constituent concerns
Party : Election canvassing, party fundraising.

How do I know what my MP is doing?
Check them out on :

Contacting your MP
Write a letter (typically viewed as representing the views of 80 constituents who could not be bothered to write).
Meet them in surgery (better if you can do this as a group).
Ask them to forward a concern to a Minister (you should get a response eventually)
Ask them to sign an "Early Day Motion".
Ask them to ask a question in Commons (e.g. at PMQs) [BFTF had never considered this one!].
Ask for publicity for a cause/issue through the 10 Minute Rule Bill.

Why local party associations are powerful
It takes tens of thousands of voters to vote in an MP - but it takes just a couple of hundred votes in the local party association to choose who the candidate is.....
Incidentally, worth reading this article on the expense and work required to become a PCC.

The picture of the legislative process in the House of Commons and the House of Lords that we see in the media is, sadly, a cartoonish, soundbite ridden, sensationalised version of what actually goes on.

Sometimes only a few dozen seconds are given to coverage of a debate. BFTF can't explain how to make a omelette in that time, so it seems unlikely that a complex discussion can be distilled down to such a short timeframe!

Fortunately, modern technology offers us a way of bypassing the media and listening dorectly to what our lawmakers are saying, often at great length, detail and passion.

You can listen to them on the Parliament Channel - perhaps the most unexpected delight of the digital television revolution. Indeed I am listening to it in the background even as I write this!

And one can read about what has been said in Hansard, the written record of the debates in Parliament.

Below you can find a little information on two debates that BFTF has seen. The first relates to a House of Lords debate on Christians in the Middle East; the second relates to a Select Committee hearing regarding the HMRC (i.e. Revenue and Customs)

House of Lords debate on "Christians in the Middle East" from 9th December 2011.

You can read the full account of the motion here, hopefully you will find it as thought provoking as BFTF did.

But, if you are someone who is a bit pressed for time, below are a few of the comments from the Most Rev Rowan Williams, Lord Sacks and Lord Ahmad.

The Archbishop of Canterbury - Opening Comments
. . at the present moment, the position of Christians in the region is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The flow of Christian refugees from Iraq in the wake of constant threat and attack has left a dramatically depleted Christian population there, and perhaps I can say in passing how very glad and grateful I was to have stood alongside the Grand Mufti of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo at a press conference here in London some three years ago joining in condemnation of attacks on Christians in Iraq. Similar senior voices from al-Azhar have been heard more recently in condemnation of anti-Christian outrages in Egypt itself . .

. . . No one is seeking a privileged position for Christians in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say-I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely-is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East. Their presence challenges the assumption that the Arab world and the Muslim world are just one and the same thing, which is arguably good for Arabs and Muslims alike. They demonstrate that a predominantly Muslim polity can accommodate, positively and gratefully, non-Muslims as fellow citizens, partners in an enterprise that is not exclusively determined by religious loyalties even when rooted in specific religious principles. . .

. . .One of their real grievances is what they experience as the twofold undermining of their identity that comes from a new generation of Muslim enthusiasts treating them as pawns of the West and, on the other hand, from a western political rhetoric that either ignores them totally or thoughtlessly puts them at risk by casting military conflict in religious terms. Talk of crusading comes to mind. . .

Lord Sachs
. .It was Martin Luther King who said:"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends". . .

. . .We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation. In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt. .

. . . we make a great intellectual mistake in the West when we assume that democracy is, in and of itself, a step towards freedom. Usually, that is the case, but sometimes it is not. As Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it may merely mean the "tyranny of the majority". That is why the most salient words in the current situation are those of Lord Acton, in his great essay on the history of freedom, who said: "The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities". . .

. . . religions that begin by killing their opponents end by killing their fellow believers. In the age of the Crusades, Christians fought Muslims. Between the Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Christians fought Christians-Catholic against Protestant. Today, in the Middle East and elsewhere, radical Islamists fight those whom they regard as the greater and lesser Satan, but earlier this week we mourned the death of 55 Shia worshippers at a mosque in Kabul and another 28 Shia who were killed in a terror attack in Iraq. Today, the majority of victims of Islamist violence are Muslim, and shall we not shed tears for them, too? The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life. None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God. . .

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Closing Comments)
My Lords, I am deeply grateful for a debate that in both variety and quality has not disappointed expectations. Wider points have emerged, and I shall touch on one or two. . .

. . .The definition of religious liberty, we have been reminded, is not always a simple matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter pointed out that we are speaking not simply of the liberty to worship but a liberty of conscience - a mental liberty. That includes asking some difficult questions about the rights of conversion, which many noble Lords have raised in their contributions today. . .

. . .I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, quote the late Lord Acton on the test of liberty being the treatment of minorities. It was the same Lord Acton who observed that a coherent doctrine of religious liberty was at the foundation of all serious talk about political liberties. We have a number of issues there worth taking up and holding in our minds. . .

. . .We have also been reminded by a number of noble Lords about the significance of education and adequate communication in this field. Points have been made about the poisonous effect of certain kinds of school textbook, for example. . .

So there you go. BFTF was surprised that there does not appear to be any Muslim Imam in the House of Lords to represent the Muslim community and, perhaps more importantly, Muslim thinking. So BFTF sent an email to the local MP asking why this was the case.

Select Committee Hearing on the HMRC
Moving on, quickly and briefly, to the second debate that BFTF heard which was oral evidence submitted to the Public Accounts Committee's session on Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Standard Report with Antony Inglese, General Council and solicitor, and Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, from Monday 7 November.

You can read the full transcript here.

BFTF just wanted to bring you the beginning of the hearing, when Antony Inglese (from HMRC) got an absolute mauling from committee member Richard Bacon:

Antony Inglese (AI): There are conventions in Parliament about what can be answered on legal privilege-Ministers, for example. There are various ramifications of the legal privilege point. At the moment, there is a judicial review being brought against HMRC.

Richard Bacon (RB): Oh, really? Can you give us the case number, please?

AI: We have had the pre-action protocol letter by a pressure group and we are now looking at our response.

RB: Are there any proceedings?

AI: Proceedings are imminent.

RB: What is the answer to my question?

AI: The way judicial review works-

RB: What is the answer to my question, Mr Inglese? Are there any proceedings?

AI: For the purposes of the sub judice rule, we have had a letter before action-

RB: Yes, I understand that you have had a letter before action. Once again, what is the answer to my question: are there any proceedings before the courts?

AI: Proceedings are imminent.

RB: Are there any proceedings before the courts now? Yes or no?

AI: At this moment, no.

It's cracking stuff and great to see HMRC being held to account.

So, dear reader, there you go. The tools are there to hold your elected representatives to account and to praise them when they do the right thing.

Image Sources
Wikipedia (and here)

NB: Edited to improve readability in 2019