Sunday, March 18, 2018

Votes for Expats

Over the next few months, A View from Rural Wales will be commenting from time to time on the contentious issue of votes for British citizens living abroad. This is because I am sponsoring a Private Member’s Bill, and trying to put on the Statute Book the right for any British citizen living overseas to vote in a British General Election. On Feb 23rd, MPs agreed a Second Reading of my bill and it will go into Committee for detailed debate - probably after the summer recess. I’ve never had as much grateful support for something I’ve done as an MP.
Reason I’m commenting today is that as working my way through stacks of mail (always overwhelmed and usual Sunday/late night work) I came upon a copy of The Times Leading Article of 28th April 2016, giving 100% support to my case. At the time, The Times wanted ex-pats to be given the right to vote in the EU Referendum. I agreed with The Times and others who were calling for that. I think the Govt might have also liked that but it was said to be logistically not possible. The arguments are just as valid today. Here are a few extracts from The Times Leader;
“The 15-year cut-off is arbitrary. The Govt has admitted as much and has committed itself to repealing it.”
“There is a moral duty to repeal it too. The first law granting voting rights to non-resident Britons, passed in 1995, applied only to those who had been abroad for five years or fewer. Margaret increased it to 20 years in 1989. Tony Blair cut it back to 15 years in 2000. Parliament was never able to settle on a natural cut-off date because none existed......the appropriate basis for voting rights is citizenship.”
“Harry Shindler agrees. Now 95, he fought to liberate Italy from fascism. He has lived there since 1982, and has been fighting for the right to vote since 2011.”
“There is no suggestion that those in Mr Shindler’s position have ceased to be British citizens. Britain is their country and they clearly have a right to a say in its future.”
The Govt may fear a Commons vote that would split the Tory Party but that is no reason not to do the right thing.”
When we discussed my Overseas Voters Bill at Second Reading, a handful of Labour MPs tried to kill it off. I don’t really know why. Luckily for me, I think the entire Conservative and Liberal Democrat voice was supportive. We are all on Harry Shindler’s side. He came over from Italy to meet me before the debate. An irony is that Harry is probably the oldest longest serving Labour supporter in the world.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

What’s to be done with prisoners.

When it comes to criminal justice, I’ve often been dismissed by friends as a bit of a ‘leftie’ or even a ‘pinko’. I don’t accept this as fair. I simply want a criminal justice system that works best and reduces the overall level of crime. My usual approach Is not to adopt a ‘kneejerk’ instinctive response to any problem or challenge, but to try to study the available evidence first. As a general rule, this seems a good course to follow before settling on an opinion. This may seem obvious, but my experience is that it’s most certainly not.
First time I encountered my supposed ‘leftiness’’ was when considering the death penalty when I was a teenager. I was fundamentally opposed - barbaric and ineffective. The state doing what it condemned in its citizens. Today it may be the majority view. Certainly wasn’t then.
Anyway, on to today. The Welsh Affairs Committee is looking at aspects of incarceration in Wales, including implications access for prisoners to use the Welsh Language. Today we spent most of the day at Berwyn, the new prison being built at Wrexham. Not spent much time in prisons but I’d visited the old victorian prison at Shrewsbury a couple of times when Gerry Hendry was the Governor a few years back. Always remember the trap door through which the condemned prisoner was ‘dropped’ after being condemned to death. The prison is closed now. The reason I was interested was because Governor Hendry was committed to rehabilitation. I agreed with him that the route to reducing crime was reducing reoffending. He explained how it worked successfully. I thought he was a very good man.
Today, at Berwyn, I learned about how the new prison is being built around the concept of rehabilitation. The staff, from the Governor down, treat the prisoners as equals (in the sense of all being human beings). There’s a big effort to make it seem unlike a prison, with interaction across the entire estate based on normality - as near to live outside as possible within a prison. (You might say the opposite of the shameful behaviour of MPs at PMQs!) And there’s a successful strategy of not making it seem as if there are 2100 prisoners there. The prison is split into 3 blocks of 700, and each of those blocks split up into 11 of what are termed ‘communities’.
Sadly, there remains antipathy towards the prison by some in the Wrexham area, I’m told local media coverage is negative. Despite the massive boost to economic activity in the area. Very strangely, the N Wales Police and Crime Commissioner is anti. No idea why.
I was seriously impressed by most aspects of Berwyn. The one aspect I’m not convinced about is shared cells. The Governor told us this presents no problems at all. In fact he said he thought it was a positive. I’m just not convinced about that. But then I’ve always been a ‘loner’. Personally, I would hate it. Berwyn is a major benefit to North Wales, and to the British prison estate. Have to fix the shortage of space to park cars though.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Tough Negotiations Ahead

I sense that the Prime Minister has moved debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU on today, following the interventions over recent days by former prime ministers, who would have been better engaged playing golf or something else useful. They just devalue their own currency. Be different perhaps if either had left in high esteem.
Anyway, the Blair/Major influence, linked as it was with the EU negotiating positions, seems to be yesterday’s news already. If it ever was news (with the people that is, as opposed to remain commentators).
Our Prime Minister was clear today. The UK is leaving the EU, leaving the single market and leaving the customs union. There will be no ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And no border of any sort between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - even if there will be some form of technology checks at the border, (as Boris suggested last week to much contrived hilarity). I don’t think any of this is open to discussion. The alternative is ‘No Deal’ and no-one wants that. It looks to me like those who don’t accept the referendum result just trying it on.
Now to the stuff up for negotiation. And there’s plenty of scope for debate - room for ‘give and take’.
Firstly, our Prime Minister is right to  acknowledge that the UK cannot have all she wants. We know there will be reduced market access. We need to keep it to a manageable minimum. We know there will be a cost in retaining close alignment in various regulatory bodies, where it suits both sides. We know it makes sense to stay aligned to EU standards and regulations unless there is a very good reason not to. We know it makes sense to avoid introducing any new barriers to trade unless it’s vital to do so. We anticipate that on the day after Brexit, terms of trade will not change much.
Many people I meet want to talk Brexit - and usually to say something about the “mess we are in”. Well I do not buy that - at all. I was not keen on the holding of an In/Out EU Referendum. Too big of a question to answer In or Out. But its what happened. In the end (and it was near the end) I voted Leave. I thought the plague of catastrophes promised by the Remain side was total self defeating drivel, which it was. I did not believe it. But I did think we would be engaged in years of uncertainty. Leaving the EU is a big deal. Actually, the uncertainty and “mess” is rather less than I thought it would be. What I hadn’t expected was the refusal of so many to accept the decision of the people. And the way so many seek to give succour to the other side of the negotiation table when the future of our country is at stake. But the Prime Minister has played a canny hand, refusing to be driven by the media’s thirst for something/anything to feed its pursuit of headlines. She is doing all she can to protect the British interest. She is playing a blinder.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

My reading at St David’s Day Service in Chapel of St Mary Undercroft

Y Darllediad Cyntaf.  Effesiaid 4: 1-7; 11-13.

Yr wyf fi, felly, sy’n garcharor er mwyn yr Arglwydd, yn eich annog i fyw yn deilwng o’r always a gawsoch. Byddwch yn ostyngedig ac addfwyn ym mhob peth, ac yn amyneddgar, gan oddef eich gilydd mewn cariad. Ymrowch i gadw, a rhymyn tangnefedd, yr undod y mae’r Ysbryd yn ei roi. Un corff syth, ac un Ysbryd, un union fel mai un yw’r gobaith sy’n ymhlyg yn eich galwad; un Arglwydd, un ffydd, un bedydd, un Duw a Thad i bawb, yr hwn sydd goruwch pawb, a thrwy bawb, ac ym mhawb. Ond i bob un ohonom rhoddwyd gras, ei ran o rodd Crist. A dyma’i roddion: rhai I fod yn apostolion, rhai yn broffwydi, rhai yn efengylwyr, rhai yn fugeiliaid ac yn athrawon, i gymhwyso’r saint i waith gweinidogaeth, i adeiladu corff Crist. Felly y cyrhaeddwn oll hyd at yr undod a berthyn i’r ffydd ac i adnabyddiaeth o Fab Duw. Y nod yw dynoliaeth lawn dwf, a’r mesur yw’r aeddfedryydd sy’n perthyn I gyflawnder Crist.

Monday, February 26, 2018

My Speech to launch Overseas Electors Bill.

On Friday I secured a Second Reading for my Overseas Electors Bill. Later this year it will be considered ‘in committee’ when it will be possible to amend it, but only to a limited extent. My job this week is to recommend 18 MPs who will serve on the Committee, probably meeting after the summer recess.
Here is my speech, with most of the interventions not included.

“I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
I wish to say at the start, as an organ donation ‘activist’ for more than 25 years how excellent I thought the earlier debate today was. Although I did not agree with much that was said, I thought the quality of the debate showed the UK Parliament at its best.
My Bill is about extending the ability of British citizens to participate in British democracy, of which we have seen such an excellent example earlier today.
Let me set the scene by outlining the most relevant statistics. Firstly, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are 4.9 million British citizens of voting age, who have lived in the UK at some point in their lives, but are now living overseas. Secondly, only an estimated 1.4 million of these 4.9 million British citizens of voting age are eligible to vote in UK elections, because a British citizen who has lived overseas for more than 15 years is not allowed to vote in a UK election. And thirdly, as at June 2017, only 285,000 of those 1.4 million British citizens actually registered to vote. The difficulty in registering is an issue in need of addressing, but outside the scope of my bill.
I thank colleagues from both sides of the House, who have contacted me in support of the Bill. I have received good advice from the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and my hon Friend, the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Several other hon Members have also written to offer their support.
This debate has so many aspects to it, that I could speak for a very long time, but I want to give as many Members as possible the chance to contribute, and I hope that the debate will reach a conclusion so I will not make a long speech.
The three aspects of the debate I want to concentrate on are firstly, fairness to British citizens who live overseas for a variety of reasons, but want to remain part of our democratic process, and are much offended when their vote is removed after 15 years, as it is currently. Secondly, great benefit flows to the UK through the ‘soft power’ exercised by British citizens across the world, retaining a close involvement in the affairs of this country, and the promotion of British interests in the country to which they have moved. The last thing we should do is reduce their involvement in British democracy. And the third aspect centres around why it is appropriate to revisit an issue - the restriction of overseas UK citizens ability to vote - that Parliament has considered previously. What has changed.
Firstly, fairness. Many British citizens who have moved overseas have a legitimate ongoing interest in the UK’s public affairs and politics. Many spent all of their working lives in the UK, paying their taxes and National Insurance, and continue to have a direct interest in their pension rights, and many other matters - particularly in the future of their families in the UK. Many moved overseas to work. Many of those would not have had much choice. And many will return home to the UK on their retirement. Our ambition should be to extend the franchise to every British citizen who has a legitimate interest in, and an enthusiasm for being part of our democracy.
At this point, I would like to mention a British gentleman named Harry Shindler, who came over from his home in Italy to talk to me about this Bill. Harry Shindler is an incredible man. He is 97 yrs old, and is the longest serving member of the Labour Party. He remains an activist. He came to the UK to discuss my bill with me because the one act he wants to undertake before he dies is to vote again in a British General Election. That is typical of how important it is to some British people who live overseas.
Before I move on I’d like to make one point I think relevant here. I need to emphasise how many people - unknown to me - have written to me from overseas just to thank me for bringing forward this  Bill. Their level of appreciation is great, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election. Because they are British citizens. Other Members will surely have received similar communications.
My second general point is the importance of the Bill in promoting British ‘soft power’ across the world. We live in an increasingly interdependent world. The success and influence of Britishcitizens overseas become ever more important, particularly as we leave the European Union. British citizens who are actively involved in civic society, in business and diplomatic activity in the countries in which they now live

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill.

For 3 hours yesterday I sat in on a Private Members Bill, the aim of which is to give the state the power to utilise parts of our dead bodies, without our express permission or that of our next of kin. While I am not in support of this at all, it was a good enjoyable debate. I did not participate in this debate because I wanted to conclude it as quickly as possible, to allow enough time for my Overseas Electors Bill which followed it. And I don’t think its a change which will do much actual harm. It’s just that it will not do what the proponents of Presumed Consent claim it will. There is simply no evidence whatsoever to suggest that it will.
For 25 yrs I have been a champion of Organ Donation. No greater gift can we as human beings give. I have advocated changes that will increase the number of organs available, and there are several. And I have always said I would support presumed consent, despite concerns about the principle of the state greatly expanding its power, if there was evidence that it would work. It won’t.
Now let consider what we should do. Firstly we should increase the availability of IC beds (Intensive Care). The bodies from which organs are taken are usually ‘brain dead’ and being kept alive artificially while preparations are made for donation. Spain offers us the best international example. I’m told there are three times as many IC beds available in Spanish hospitals (pro rata) No-one mentioned that in yesterday’s three hour debate.
Secondly we should greatly increase the number of SNODS (Specialist Nurses in Organ Donation). We know the refusal rate of next of kin to consent to donation means a great many organs are ‘wasted’. And we know the refusal rates drop dramatically when SNODS are involved. Again, I’m told that Spain has vastly more SNODS than the UK has (pro rata). What should happen in that the next of kin of every potential donor should be asked by a Specialist Nurse, trained to work in what is always a very traumatic circumstance. In Spain, people do not carry donor cards. The Spanish Government has a policy where everyone is asked. Everyone is considered to be a potential donor, not just a card carrier.
 In yesterday’s debate there were references to Spain being an ‘Opt out’ country. This was irritating. It’s not. It is true that Presumed Consent was legislated for in 1979, but it did not increase donation at all. Other changes which made the difference were made in 1989, ten years later. Presumed Consent mat remain on the statute book but it’s not acted on, and hasn’t been since 1989.
Another concern I have is the impact that the state taking over the right to decide on donation of our body parts will have on live donation. Until there was public debate, generated by the Welsh Government moving to a system of presumed consent, there was an exponential increase in number of live donors, particularly important to those in need of a new kidney. Over the last three years that number has started to fall significantly. Impossible to know if there is a connection, but it’s always been part of my opposition to presumed consent that “When the state takes over responsibility, the people tend to leave it to the state” - as has happened over recent decades in respect of social care.
The final step Govt should take is to finance campaigns promoting “Tell your next of kin your wishes”. This is the one area where the debate about presumed consent could be useful. The publicity surrounding it, despite being hugely misleading, generates discussion. It may be that it will lead to greater awareness amongst families. In the end, this is why I don’t think this Bill if it becomes an act will do harm. And why I may be very opposed to it, but will maybe abstain. No way could I ever vote for it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

How Private Member’s Bills work.

The workings of our Parliament, with her roots buried deep in history, are incomprehensively mysterious and must seem utterly bizarre to most sane people. And nothing is more mysterious than the process by which MPs can take forward a Private Member’s Bill. Let me outline how I ended up sponsoring a Bill to give UK citizens overseas a ‘Vote for Life’ through the PMB process - and where I’ve reached with it -  making yesterday a very special day for me
It began as a sort of raffle prize, as so much in life does. At the beginning of every new Parliamentary session, MPs put their names into a hat (well sort of) and they are drawn out. My name came out at No 8. It is the only the first 20 names drawn that have any realistic chance of progress. It meant that I quickly needed to decide on what new law I wanted to try to introduce to the statute book. Not as easy as it seems. The Government (and other parties) make suggestions to the ‘lucky’ MPs. Unfortunately none of the early ideas appealed, so I eventually decided on an bill I had supported previously but which failed - to give ‘Votes for Life’ to British citizens living abroad. Not everyone agrees with me about this. And to begin with, the Government weren’t that keen either, which was disappointing, since it had been a manifesto commitment.  I knew that without Gov’t support the chances of success are almost non-existent, leaving me to put in a huge amount of work for nothing.
There are 7 Fridays in this Parliamentary session when PMBs are considered. Those drawn 1-7 in the ballot are debated first on these days and those drawn 8-14 are considered second. I was second on yesterday, Feb 23rd. following a bill to introduce ‘presumed consent’ to the Organ Donation System in England. The debating sessions begin at 9.30am and end at 2.30pm. Any debate that is not concluded by 2.30 means the bill being debated falls. End of story. Dustbin of history.
The first debate yesterday concluded without division at 12.30, at which time I introduced my Overseas Electors Bill. I limited my opening speech to around ten minutes, and suggested to others they truncate their speeches in order that a division would be reached. Some of my colleagues withdrew their requests to speak for same reason. It was all going reasonably OK, until a small group of Labour MPs made clear they intended to ‘talk out’ the debate. Unlike most other debates, there is no time limit on speeches in PMBs. We were treated to a nonsensical rambling speech from a Labour MP, lasting getting on for an hour, with multiple spurious interventions. Very disappointing, after all the work I, and others had put in.
But there is also an obscure mechanism by which this opposition behaviour can be countered. At 2.26, a colleague of mine, with my agreement, raised a Point of Order that “The Question be now put” in order to try to force a division. There then followed a shouting contest of “Ayes” and “No’s” which we Ayes won had the better of, and after some hesitation the Speaker called DIVISION. We then began preparing for the vote. The rule is that the side seeking the ‘Closure Motion’ has to secure 100 votes in favour of ‘the question being put’. And if we achieved that threshold we would have to vote on the issue itself. We had done much work beforehand in preparation for this circumstance and  there were well over 100 MPs in agreement, present on this Friday.  This is not usual!! This came as such a surprise to the Labour MPs, who were causing the problem that their tactics fell apart quite spectacularly. For the first time in my 8 year Westminster career, the opposers failed to appoint any tellers and the division was cancelled. Which meant that I was able to claim a Second Reading for my Bill. Like needing a six off the last ball of a 20/20 game, and watching the boundary fielder catch it but then drop it over the rope.
It now moves forward into Committee, which will go through the Bill line-by-line. Probably in the autumn. Next week I will have to put together a committee. It will have to be cross party. I hope Mike Gapes (Labour) will agree to serve, and the impressive Layla Moran (Lib Dem). I’ll need maybe 11 or 13. After that my Bill will return to the floor of the House for Report and Third Reading - before moving down the corridor to the House of Lords. You can see there are a few more hurdles to clear, but yesterday, we cleared the most dangerous hurdle of all. I really do think it will now happen. Dreamworld.