“What price, democracy?” The Case for Early Day Motions (Revisited)
Last week, we asked our supporters to write to their MPs to support Early Day Motion (EDM) 86, which highlights the effects of legalised assisted suicide in the U.S. state of Washington. Often, we are told by RTL members that their MPs tell them that they do not support EDMs, as they see them as too costly, and pointless insofar as they do not lead to any practical legislative change. In response to this, our founder Phyllis Bowman wrote the following on her blog back in 2011, to help people explain to their elected representatives why EDMs are a parliamentary tool worth using, and why supporting individual EDMs is a worthwhile thing to do. So that more people will have the benefit of Phyllis’s wisdom, we reproduce it here:
I am pretty tolerant when it comes to MPs and their problems. For example, I think many MPs had a pretty raw deal when the Daily Telegraph ran its campaign on parliamentary expenses, the obvious aim being to promote the paper’s circulation and its advertising revenue. And some of the MPs for whom I had the most sympathy included those whose objectives I disliked intensely. However, more on that another time…
The reason I mention it now is because there are other aspects of MPs’ work which frankly make me almost go ballistic. One is receiving letters from MPs (or copies of letters from MPs to constituents) saying why they refuse to sign Early Day Motions: “…they are very costly and they quote figures amounting to anything from £100,000 per EDM to over a £1,000,000 for the whole year… EDMs are not debated… the system is abused and some EDMs are ludicrous…”
These replies are coming from new MPs who, in fact, often show very little understanding of the processes of Parliament and how to use them.
In forty years, I have never known of anybody asking an MP to table an EDM who imagined it would be debated. Parliament’s own website makes this clear, and explains some aspects of using them:
“EDMs are used for reasons such as publicising the views of individual MPs, drawing attention to specific events or campaigns, and demonstrating the extent of Parliamentary support for a particular cause or point of view…. although there is very little prospect of EDMs being debated, many attract a great deal of public interest and frequently receive media coverage.”
Moreover, the parliamentary website gives a clear indication of the cost of EDMs which bear no relation to the exorbitant figures quoted by MPs. Under ‘Frequently Asked Questions: Business’, it states:
What is the average cost of an Early Day Motion (EDM)? £290 (estimated figure for 2005-06).
The unavoidable fact is that EDMs are one of the few ways in which back-benchers can openly and affectively criticise what is happening in Parliament, and ensure that it is on the public record. This, on some occasions, can be displeasing to Ministers and to the Government itself. Hence our present problems and difficulties with a number of new Conservative MPs, who have been persuaded by Whips to refuse to sign all EDMs, generally quoting the cost.
One must ask “What price democracy… £290…??”
However, the MPs invariably write very friendly letters, assuring us that they will write to the Minister on behalf of the correspondent asking him/her to explain!
Frankly, most letters to Ministers and the replies are pretty useless. They not only keep any given issue “under wraps” (away from public scrutiny), but they also keep the MPs’ views and intentions out of sight of constituents. In any case, usually the response is written by a Civil Servant whose very duty it is to defend the status quo and the Minister! Moreover, on the subject of costs – think of the tens of thousands it must cost to have civil servants writing fatuous replies to provide smoke screens!
What About Parliamentary Questions?
Shortly after the last General election, I had the idea of returning to a tactic we used some years ago to good effect.
A number of MPs, of different parties, were asked to put their names into the ballot to table Parliamentary Questions (PQs) to the Secretary of State For Health (Andrew Lansley, see right) on the policy of distributing the morning after pill to under-age girls – which has seen such an increase in Sexually Transmitted Infections among adolescents. Other MPs were prepared to be in the House when Question Time came, so that we could have a meaningful debate with relevant facts and figures recorded in Hansard.
However, we fell at the first fence – not one of our MPs had their names pulled out of the ballot!
And it is through the Ballot that most other procedures are open to back-bench MPs… Private Members’ Bills… Oral PQs… Adjournment Debates… Westminster Hall debates… Ten-Minute Rule Bills… Almost the only exceptions are Early Day Motions and Written PQs. The latter can be very useful – but they are not open to debate, and neither do they have the impact of EDMs which can be used to educate parliamentary colleagues on any given issue, as well as informing public discourse.
As Parliament’s own website makes clear, many EDMs attract a great deal of public interest and frequently receive media coverage. One example concerned the occasion when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) first published his Guidelines for people involved in a friend/relative’s assisted suicide. Quite clearly, the Guidelines changed (de facto) the law. Immediately after publication, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe (then, still in Parliament – see below), tabled an EDM which resulted in front-page banner headlines supported by other leaders of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPLG) such as Jim Dobbin MP. It accused the DPP of seeking to undermine the sovereignty of Parliament, and launched the All-Party Group’s campaign – and that resulted in the DPP back-peddling somewhat (although not entirely). No letter of protest to a Minister, or even to the Prime Minister, would have had such a result.
One of the Most Successful EDMs of all Time
To be truthful, Margaret Thatcher was never my favourite politician. However, whatever her failings may have been, she was far better than some of those who have followed her. For one thing, she had an enormous respect for Parliamentary Democracy. When she was Prime Minister, I know for a fact that she would bring EDMs which she thought to be important, to the attention of her Government Ministers.
In addition, she tabled what must have been one of the most successful EDMs of all time when she was Leader of the Conservatives opposing James Callaghan’s government. Her EDM simply said that the House had lost confidence in the Government, and called for it to resign. Virtually every Conservative MP, as well as some MPs of other Parties, signed the Motion. The EDM received tremendous publicity and Margaret Thatcher (confident of her support) took the next step. She tabled a Formal Motion of ‘No Confidence’ which was debated. James Callaghan lost the vote, and his Government had to resign, leading to the General Election of 1979 which Margaret Thatcher won with an overwhelming majority.
Some MPs may dislike Margaret Thatcher – but most have a respect for her. The fact that she recognised EDMs as a major plank in Parliamentary Democracy may make some of them at least think again. As has been discussed, ask MPs who quote the costs when they refuse to sign EDMs – “What price democracy?” And how much do they think it costs the nation to have civil servants writing replies to MPs letters to obscure the facts?