What is the point of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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Britain will go to the polls on 8 June following the spectacular failure of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to justify it’s existence.

I know I’m a little late to the party with this article (planning a wedding while working a full-time job makes blogging a little difficult), but it’s clear the Coalition Government’s flagship electoral reform is of little practical use.

Prior to 2011, the Queen could dissolve Parliament at any time simply upon the request of the Prime Minister, allowing the government of the day to opt for an early election if the polls appear to be in their favour – or to force a second election if the first resulted in an unstable hung parliament.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was first introduced to Parliament in July 2010 by the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as part of a package of constitutional reforms championed by the Liberal Democrats, including a referendum on changing the voting system to Alternative Vote, reducing the number of MPs and making constituency sizes more equal. At the time, Mr Clegg said:

The coalition government is determined to put power where it belongs – with people. You will decide how you want to elect your MPs.

By making constituencies more equal in size, the value of your vote will no longer depend on where you live, and with fewer MPs the cost of politics will be cut.

And, by setting the date that parliament will dissolve, our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election – that’s a true first in British politics.

The Alternative Vote system was roundly rejected by the electorate and, partly as a result, the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support for reducing the number of MPs and redrawing the electoral boundaries. Fixed-term Parliaments, setting 5-year Parliaments in stone unless the incumbent government loses a vote of no confidence and cannot regain the confidence of the House within 14 days or a two-thirds majority of all MPs vote for an early election, was the only meaningful constitutional reform to make it onto the statute book.

The Act was meant to provide stability, almost guaranteeing a five-year timetable for governments to carry out their manifesto promises, whilst stopping Prime Ministers from holding an early election for political gain. To (mis)quote Captain Blackadder:

Blackadder

In the current Parliament, 434 MPs were required to vote in favour of an election. The two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, hold 330 and 229 seats, respectively, or 559 MPs in total. The 2010 election resulted in 564 MPs for the top two parties. In 2005 they had 568 of the then 659 MPs, 579 MPs in 2001 and in 1997 the Government and Main Opposition accounted for a combined total of 583 MPs.

It would take an Opposition in an extreme state of dysfunction and disarray to refuse the electorate the opportunity to vote them into power and, when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was first called upon to stop what appeared to be a clear attempt by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to capitalise upon an almost-constant 20-point poll lead over a disunited Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, it failed miserably.

Even the desperate state Labour presently finds itself in was not enough to persuade more than a handful of it’s MPs to vote against an election, with the motion passing by 522 to 13. The only real opposition came from the Scottish National Party, who decided to abstain (which is, in reality, no different to voting against an election when the motion requires a positive vote from two-thirds of members to succeed).

Granted, the present political reality was not envisaged when the legislation was drawn up seven years ago; Britain is leaving the EU, the country is bitterly divided and the Prime Minister has a weak majority and no personal mandate from the electorate, having been anointed without so much as a vote of her own party members following the resignation of her predecessor.

That notwithstanding, if the decision to go to the country were so easy for MPs to take in such turbulent circumstances, it is incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario in which any bid for an early election would fail, calling the fundamental point of the Act into serious question.

Like it or not, we are heading for the polls on 8 June – and one of the first acts of the new government, whichever flag they fly under, should be to reform or scrap a pointless and redundant Fixed-term Parliaments Act!

#CC16: 9 Days to Christmas

Video

From Catalan to Latin to yet another foreign language: civil service speak!

This 1982 clip from the cast of the brilliant Yes, Minister shows Humphrey Appleby at his best as he baffles his minister with what most others would consider was a very simple communication.

It’s shorter than most of the videos in my Countdown to Christmas, but every second is worth savouring!

Proposed Medway Constituency boundary changes published

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The Boundary Commission’s proposals for new parliamentary constituencies, which will be put before MPs in 2018, have been published – and the changes for Medway are largely underwhelming.

In fact, if you live within one of Medway’s 22 wards, the chances of the constituency you live in changing is less than five per cent, with only Lordswood & Capstone moving. However, all three constituencies covering the Medway Towns could see changes, with only Gillingham & Rainham containing exclusively Medway constituents.

Under the Boundary Commission proposals published today, Lordswood & Capstone ward would cease to be a part of Chatham & Aylesford, and instead be represented by Gillingham & Rainham.

Gillingham & Rainham constituency would then consist of nine council wards, rather than the present eight, including Gillingham North, Gillingham South, Hempstead & Wigmore, Lordswood & Capstone, Rainham Central, Rainham North, Rainham South, Twydall and Watling.

The Boundary Commission also propose increasing the size of Rochester & Strood, by adding the Gravesham Borough Council ward of Higham to the present constituency. The Medway Council wards comprising Rochester & Strood are Cuxton & Halling, Peninsula, River, Rochester East, Rochester South & Horsted, Rochester West, Strood North, Strood Rural and Strood South.

The biggest change, though, is reserved for Chatham & Aylesford. Although the only change for Medway residents is the loss of Lordswood & Capstone to Gillingham & Rainham, the constituency has gained four wards from Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council.

The new constituency of Chatham & The Mallings would then include Chatham Central, Luton & Wayfield, Princes Park and Walderslade wards from Medway, and Aylesford North & Walderslade, Aylesford South, Burham & Wouldham, Ditton, East Malling, Kings Hill, Larkfield North, Larkfield South, Snodland East & Ham Hill, Snodland West & Holborough Lakes, Wateringbury and West Malling & Leybourne from Tonbridge & Malling.

Parliamentary constituencies are being redrawn under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, with the independent Boundary Commission for England tasked with reducing the number of constituencies in England from 533 to 501. Overall, the number of Members of Parliament in the UK is being reduced from 650 to 600 as a way of cutting the salary, pension, staffing and expenses costs of the House of Commons, while the number of voters in each constituency is being averaged out to 74,769 plus or minus five per cent.

A previous review was carried out under the coalition government, but was vetoed by the Liberal Democrats despite earlier pledging their support in exchange for a referendum on changing the voting system.

At present, the proposals are in the very early stages, and will now open up for consultation with local residents. The Boundary Commission will be holding a public hearing over the proposals at Maidstone’s KCC Council Chambers on 3 and 4 November.

What will be the electoral effect?

All three Medway constituencies were won quite comfortably by the Conservatives in May 2015, so would these changes have made any difference to the results? To find out, I created a projection model for each constituency, which uses both the general and local election results from 2015, to produce comparisons.

Continue reading

Rehman Chishti MP calls for inquiry over The Sun’s Gillingham FC hospitality claims

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The Sun is reporting today that Gillingham & Rainham MP Rehman Chishti could be in trouble for failing to declare his visits to Gillingham FC on time.

Mr Chishti, who also represents Rainham Central Ward on Medway Council, declared seven free tickets to the MEMS Priestfield Stadium between February and December 2015, donated by Gillingham Football Club and worth a total of £900.

The Sun claim that failing to log all of these visits until 1 March 2016 was a breach of the Parliamentary Rules.

Although he did not comment to The Sun, Mr Chishti did tell KentOnline that:

I am a proud and passionate supporter of my local team and try to attend home matches when I can to cheer on the team.

I had declared all information to the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests in relation to my attendance at matches and hospitality received by the club in the last year.

The Sun newspaper has raised a point with regards to the timing in making these declarations on the Register of Interests.

I have asked the Parliamentary Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests to look into this and clarify this as an urgent matter.

On 1 March, Mr Chishti declared that he had received hospitality for the following matches:

Gillingham v Sheffield United
7 February 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Notts County
3 May 2015 – though logged in the Register as 2 May 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Wigan Athletic
22 August 2015
Two director’s box tickets with hospitality, total value £200

Gillingham v Doncaster Rovers
5 September 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Blackpool
12 September 2015
Two director’s box tickets with hospitality, total value £200

Gillingham v Bury
14 November 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

Gillingham v Burton Albion
12 December 2015
Director’s box ticket with hospitality, total value £100

It is well known that I have not always seen eye-to-eye with Mr Chishti and on matters of policy, but I must point out that he has done nothing wrong in accepting this hospitality, and I fully commend the club for making the local Member of Parliament welcome at the stadium.

However, the question mark arises over the timing of the declaration. The Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members states that:

The House requires new Members, within one month of their election, to register all their current financial interests, and any registrable benefits (other than earnings) received in the 12 months before their election. After that, Members are required to register within 28 days any change in those registrable interests. Such a change includes both the acquisition of a new interest and the ceasing of any registered interest, for example because an employment has ceased or because a holding has reduced in value or been sold.

Chapter 1 Paragraph 2

In terms of hospitality:

Members must register, subject to the paragraphs below, any gifts, benefits or hospitality with a value of over £300 which they receive from a UK source. They must also register multiple benefits from the same source if these have a value of more than £300 in a calendar year.

Chapter 1 Paragraph 22

On a literal interpretation of the rules, it appears as though Mr Chishti has fallen foul of the requirement to declare the hospitality when the value exceeded £300 (such deadline appearing to be 18 September 2015 for the initial declaration, with 8 January 2016 appearing to be the deadline for the final update).

Having now laid out the facts, though, my question is just how much time do the journalists at The Sun have to trawl through the Register to uncover what is (essentially) a minor discrepancy? And, in the long run, does it really matter to anyone in the constituency if this declaration was a little late?

The strict anti-corruption rules are established to stop a (hypothetical) Member of Parliament from receiving a (hypothetical) sum of, say, £5,000.00 from a (hypothetical) green energy company and then voting to block a (hypothetical) coal-powered generator being built. They are not, to my knowledge, in force to prevent a Member of Parliament watching his local football club play on a Saturday afternoon, even if such a ticket is provided free-of-charge by that club.

For interest, I trawled through Hansard from 7 February 2015 to date, and could only find two references to Gillingham Football Club amongst Mr Chishti’s many contributions, being:

Will the Minister welcome the initiative that has been set up in my constituency with support from DWP and the local Gillingham football club, along with Medway Watersports, to provide young people with skills and positive experiences to assist them in securing employment or further training?

9 March 2015

And:

Will the Minister welcome the new apprentice teaching sports assistants coach programme put on by Gillingham football club in my constituency, which is working with primary schools to get more sports coaches into primary schools?

15 June 2015

All very complementary, but not really a material benefit to my beloved Gillingham FC – and certainly not worth £900 of free tickets (says I tongue-in-cheek and certainly not suggesting that Mr Chishti in any way accepted free tickets for any corrupt or otherwise inappropriate reason).

In summary, Mr Chishti does appear to have fallen foul of the rules (as I read them) – although it is worth reiterating that he has written to the Registrar for urgent clarification – and may, indeed, deserve a slight slap on the wrist for doing so.

However, once the matter has been clarified, and any such slap-on-the-wrist has been administered, Mr Chishti must be left to enjoy his (correctly-declared) football at the greatest team in Kent in peace, while commentators can go back to focusing on more important matters, such as discovering where he stands in the EU Referendum debate or supporting his Bills to improve services for people with a mental illness.

Yes, Farage has the support of UKIP voters, but that wasn’t Carswell’s point

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UKIP have countered Douglas Carswell’s opinion that the party may not be able to move beyond its base with Nigel Farage at the helm by claiming that voters are satisfied with the leader.

The Member of Parliament for Clacton, and UKIP’s only representative in the House of Commons despite winning four million votes in May’s general election, said in an interview with BBC Essex (see tweet, below) that, while it wasn’t for him to decide who the leader was, “we all need to think very carefully as to whether or not we can build beyond the base that we’ve now got”.

Whilst affirming his commitment to UKIP, Carswell took issue with the party’s response to the resounding loss in the Oldham West and Royton by-election earlier this month.

Let’s not do what we did the day after the Oldham by-election and blame the voter, let’s not pretend it’s all due to postal ballots. You know they had postal ballots here in Clacton too and I don’t remember anyone blaming postal ballots then.

If you are in the business of doing democracy for a living you need to accept the democratic verdict, and the punter didn’t take what we had to offer.

Carswell also added that without a change of direction, “you can come second and you can carry on coming second and you can be an ‘also ran”.

The party’s chairman, Steve Crowther, responded to the MP’s criticism by claiming that the majority of UKIP voters are satisfied with Nigel Farage, while the party leader himself hit back saying “he has been saying this privately for some months,” insisting that the party is very united. Members, elected representatives and supporters of the party have also taken to defending Farage on social media.

Others, however, have agreed with their MP’s opinion or, at least, defended his right to express it.

The point that many of those UKIP supporters fiercely firing off angry tweets have missed is that Douglas Carswell was only stating an opinion, formed from many years’ experience in politics, and himself admitted that it was not up to him to decide who the leader of the party should be.

Any party which seeks to be credible must accept that mature and sensible debate as to the leadership and direction of that party is an integral ingredient in democratic discourse. Angrily shouting down your party’s only MP, even if only on social media, because you disagree with him or you think that his views may hinder your electoral success, is only ever seen on the outside as as an attempt to quash internal debate – and, ultimately, supports the assertion that the party is only looking to appease its core support, rather than build itself into a credible, winning force.

UKIP is too often seen as a one-man band, even referred to openly as “Nigel’s party”, which betrays the numerous talented politicians and coveted “People’s Army” which provide the backbone of the party. To many within UKIP, Farage is seen as an almost Godly figure, whilst to many outside the party, he is seen as incredibly divisive. It is easy to see why someone might think it difficult to move the party from being “also-rans” to “winners” with a polarising leader at the helm.

That said, I do not wish to see either Farage or UKIP tarnished by current events – there is, after all, a referendum looming which, I believe, would not be taking place had it not been for Farage and UKIP. However, sooner or later the party must face up to the fact that it needs an internal debate as to who can take the party forward and how. Only the party membership can decide whether that is Farage or someone new, but, either way, they must realise that there is more to politics than their own wishes. Yes, Farage is popular and has many, many fans (myself included), but having fans among the converted will not necessarily result in winning elections and being able to put your policies into practice.

Until then, supporters must realise that there are differing opinions within the party – and respect when they are expressed, even if they do not agree with them. The new politics promised by UKIP cannot be seen in publicly insulting and attempting to drown out any voice of dissent – especially when it comes from the only voice representing their four million voters in the House of Commons.