Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lobbying and Transparency Bill

A few months ago the Coalition Gov't brought forward a bill to fulfill its promise to control lobbyists and introduce more transparency into government. I thought there were major improvements needed, and I arranged meetings with the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley who is responsible for taking this Bill through Parliament. Today we reached the stage where the House of Commons were  considering amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those we overturn will be sent back to the Lords for more consideration before coming back to the Commons. This process in known as 'ping-pong'. This post lays out where we are and how we got there. I have written it because there has been a orchestrated campaign pressurising MPs to abandon the Bill. Though its written as my take on it, I accept that its also written from a Coalition Gov't standpoint.

Its important for democracy that campaigning in elections is transparent and properly accounted for. Fundamentally, this Bill contains reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the political system. The measures in the Bill do not affect organisations who do not seek directly to influence the outcome of elections.

During its passage through the Commons, the Gov't made many concesions to meet the concerns of MPs on all sides. The bill sent to the Lords was much changed. In addition, during passage through the Lords Government made amendments which address the concerns raised about the potential impact of the Bill and existing rules on non-party campaigning at elections. These changes have been welcomed by charities and other groups.

Fundamental to the amendments was the raising of the registration rates to £20,000 for England and £10,000 in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will effectively exempt most campaigning groups and charities who are either small or undertake limited political campaigning from the requirement to register as a third party, and the associated reporting requirements that entails.

Other key Government amendments to which the House agreed were:

• Increasing the spending limits in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the levels originally set out in the Bill, giving an uplift of £20,000 to each nation.

• Removing all burdens from low-spending participants in a campaigning coalition by allowing larger campaigners to provide a single report on their behalf.

• Removing the requirement for a return, or a nil return, in relation to spending returns, donations reports and statement of accounts, if a recognised third party has not spent above the registration threshold.

• A review of the effects of the provisions of Part 2 to report following the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, to ensure the regulatory system remains effective and proportionate.

• Reducing the length of the 2014/2015 regulated period for non-party campaigning. It will now commence the day after the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014.

• An exemption for the costs of translating material from and into Welsh, and for campaign costs relating to disability and security.

My view is that the Lobbying and Transparency Bill is now much better than it was, and that a lot of my concerns have been met. On balance I am now willing to support it. The Bill does not prevent third parties from campaigning, but it does require that they be upfront about their spending, and not be allowed to overwhelm and outspend candidates and parties.

It remains the case that there remain some constituents that disagree with me, and I'm sorry about that, particularly bearing in mind the work I've put in. I do have to add that some of the tactics employed by an organisation named 38 Degrees have been extremely non transparent and have not been at all helpful to anyone. I sense that the Bill has now reached its final form, and will go as it is foward to Royal Assent.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hayley's Suicide and the Policy Context.

I wrote this yesterday, hoping a national newspaper would pick up on it. I the event, the Telegraph ran an article and rang me for quotes. I thought it was quite a decent article so thought I'd post it.

'Let sick Brits die like Hayley'. So read the headline in The Sun a few days ago, referring of course to the suicide of the soap opera character Hayley Cropper in ITV's Coronation Street. What was meant by this, of course, is that Parliament should legalise what is being called 'assisted dying' - the phrase that has become code for assisted suicide. 

There have been concerns expressed over copycat suicides. I share these concerns. However, I am also worried that Hayley's suicide is being depicted as a response to terminal illness. That risks sending a message to people who really are terminally ill that to take your own life might be 'the decent thing to do'. At a time when we have an ageing population and rising health care costs, is this really a message we want to send? 

 The 'Corrie' storyline is about an act of suicide. Predictably, however, the campaigners are jumping on the bandwagon to try and bolster their own agenda, which is legalisation of assisted suicide. Law-making is a serious business. It has to be, because laws have consequences. They can bring benefits, but they can also do harm. It's one thing to say you like the idea of 'assisted dying' but, if you are talking about legislating for it, you have to consider the practicalities. And it is here where the campaigning falls flat. 

Take, for example, Lord Falconer's 'Assisted Dying Bill', now before the House of Lords. It sets out various criteria that a request for physician-assisted suicide should meet. But nowhere does it specify any steps that a doctor who is faced with such a request must take in order to be satisfied that those criteria have been met. Don't worry about that, we are told, it will all be decided by other people at a later date if Parliament agrees to legalise assisted suicide. I'm sorry, but this just won't do. When I buy a used car, I want to see the MoT certificate and the service history before I pay up, not after. 

We are not talking about tax law or planning law or traffic regulations here. We are talking about a law with (literally) life-or-death consequences. For such a law the safeguards debate cannot be by-passed. If the supporters of assisted suicide are so sure that their ideas can be put into practice without causing harm, let them come out and show us their safety system upfront. If Parliament were ever to consider passing such a law, it would need to be very tightly drawn. What has been served up to us so far is about as watertight as a colander. 

It's also about time that all the euphemisms were jettisoned and the campaigners start using plain language about what they are proposing. MSP Margo MacDonald, who has introduced a bill of this kind into the Scottish parliament, is refreshingly upfront about what she wants to legalise: her bill is titled the 'Assisted Suicide (Scotland)' Bill. Yet south of the border Lord Falconer hides behind the term 'assisted dying' and describes the lethal drugs that he wants doctors to be able to supply to patients as 'medicines'. In legislation with such potentially serious consequences we need clarity and transparency, not language bubble-wrapped to disguise its real meaning. 

And it's about time too that the campaigners summoned up the courage to bring their proposals to the elected House rather than, as has been the case up to now, to the House of Lords. Most of the debate over the last 10 years has been in the Upper House. A year ago Richard Ottaway MP secured a debate in the House on one aspect of this subject - prosecuting policy in cases of assisted suicide. Richard and I take different views on whether the law should be changed, but I supported his action and I participated, along with many others, in what was a very worthwhile debate. It is the Commons where any future bill should first be considered. 

This is a complex and difficult subject on which we need open and informed public debate. But that isn't what is happening. What we are getting is spin and sensationalism, not rational discussion. So let's have an end to the euphemistic language and asking Parliament to sign blank cheques. If the campaigners want Parliament to take them seriously, let them say what they mean in plain language and tell us how it will work. Only in that way can we take informed decisions.

A Politically Correct Christmas Poem

First time I have visited my blog for many weeks. I did post this in draft. Forgot about it, until visited now to post the article I wrote on last night's Corrie suicide story. I heard this read by Rod Liddle at the Spectator Christmas Carol service. Rod gave me a copy afterwards. Thought I may as well post it.

T'was the night before Christmas and Santa's a wreck... How to live in a world that's politically correct? His workers no longer would answer to "Elves". "Vertically Challenged" they were calling themselves. And labour conditions at the North pole Were alleged by the union to stifle the soul. 

Four reindeer had vanished, without much propriety, Released to the wilds by the Humane Society. And equal employment had made it quite clear That Santa had better not use just reindeer. So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid Were replaced with four pigs, and you know that looked stupid! 

The runners had been removed from his sleigh; The ruts were termed dangerous by the E.P.A. And people had started to call for the cops When they heard sled noises on their rooftops. Smoke from his pipe had his workers quite frightened. His fur trimmed red suit was called "Unenlightened." 

And to show toy the strangeness of life's ebbs and flows, Rudolf was suing over unauthorised use of his nose And had gone on the One Show in front of the nation, Demanding millions in over-due compensation. So, half of the reindeer were gone; and his wife, Who suddenly said she'd enough of this life, 

Joined a self-help group, packed, and left in a whiz, Demanding from now on her title was Ms. And as for the gifts, why, he'd never had a notion That making a choice could cause so much commotion. Nothing of leather, nothing of fur, Which mean nothing for him. And nothing for her. 

Nothing that night be construed to pollute. Nothing to aim, Nothing to shoot. Nothing that clamored or made lots of noise. Nothing for just girls, or just for the boys. Nothing that claimed to be gender specific. Nothing that's warlike or non-pacifistic. 

No candy or sweets...they were bad for the tooth. Nothing that seemed to embellish the truth. And fairy tales, while not yet forbidden, Were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden. For they raised the hackles of those psychological Who claimed the only good gift was one ecological. 

No baseball, no football...someone could get hurt; Besides, playing sports exposed kids to dirt. Dolls were said to be sexist, and should be passe; And Nintendo would rot your entire brain away. So Santa just stood there, disheveled, perplexed; He just could not figure out what to do next. 

He tried to be merry, tried to be gay, Hut you've got to be careful with that word today. His sack was quite empty, limp to the ground; Nothing fully acceptable was to be found. Something special was needed, a gift that he might Give to all without angering the left or the right. 

A gift that would satisfy, with no indecision, Each group of people, every religion; Every ethnicity, every hue, Everyone, everywhere...even you. So here is that gift, it's price beyond worth... May you and your loved ones, enjoy peace on Earth.