Saturday, 27 March 2010

Time for a new and better crop of MPs

Any individual who is over 18, a British, Commonwealth or Irish citizen and not in prison can stand for Parliament. Most are selected by the big political parties. There is no intelligence test or entrance exam to enter Parliament in order to represent constituents. But a recent House of Commons vote suggests there should be - even if it were just a backbone or integrity test. Neither of these qualities has been particularly apparent during the MPs' expenses scandal. But this is to digress from the vote in hand. It concerned control orders. This style of house arrest detention, made popular by the apartheid regime in South Africa, has been operating in Britain since 2005. It was the scheme devised by the government following a Law Lords ruling that detaining people without trial indefinitely was illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights. Control orders involve individuals being detained in houses or flats and being allowed out only for specified periods of time - and then only to move within a defined geographical area. The individuals have to check in with a security company a number of times during the day and night. Internet access is banned. The families of the individuals concerned also effectively end up being subject to these restrictions on daily life. All these restraints can be imposed on the basis of secret evidence that neither the individual concerned nor their lawyers have been able to see, let alone contest in a court of law. A campaign against control orders and the encroachment of the secret state on the justice system has been gaining momentum over recent months. Several MPs have been involved in the work of the Campaign Against Secret Evidence. One initiative saw Diane Abbott MP put down an early day motion (number 439) stating that "this house believes the use of secret evidence in courts is fundamentally wrong; notes that secret evidence is evidence held by the Home Office against an individual that neither the individual, nor their legal representation, may see; further notes that in recent cases secret evidence has been used to detain individuals in prison for up to three years without charge or trial; further notes that these individuals may also be put under a control order or severe bail conditions." In other words, control orders were wrong and had to go. The signatories included Labour MPs Ann Cryer and Bill Etherington. Unbelievably, though, both voted earlier this month to renew the control orders regime of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for another year. The control order regime was duly renewed. The Liberal Democrats voted against, while the Conservatives - with the honourable exception of David Davis, who voted against - abstained. What the control order incident and the expenses saga prove is the need to have MPs of independent mind and integrity representing the public come the next election. Two MPs who did speak out against the renewal of the control order regime were Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Both have resisted all the anti-terror legislation. Corbyn and McDonnell now make the same arguments against control orders and other anti-terror legislation as they did previously when more and more liberties were being taken in the name of security during the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is solid, principled individuals such as these two who are needed to represent people in Parliament. Another who voted against control orders was Labour MP Alan Simpson, who is standing down at the next election. Simpson once said that there are many in Parliament who, if told by the whips to vote for slaughter of the first born, would duly oblige. He is not wrong. As a general election approaches, the concern is that it will not be independent-minded, principled people who enter Parliament, but more lobby fodder prepared to toe the party line. The control order debate is but the latest example of the dire need for MPs who possess both their own mind a moral compass. The common good of the electorate will not be served by replacing the current crop of MPs with another batch who have won their place simply by doing as they are told. There's a crying need for independents and, perhaps most importantly, independently minded people among those who stand and win in the coming election

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