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Jonathan Sheppard: Scrapping Early Day Motions would make democracy a little cheaper and a little more effective

Jonathan Shephard Jonathan Sheppard is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who is editor of ToryRadio.com. He has also just set up the website Scrap EDMs.

At the last local elections I threw my hat into the ring and fought a spirited campaign in a Labour held Division of Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire. The thing that saddened me the most was the disenchantment so many people expressed with anyone involved in the political process. There was the underlying feeling that anyone involved in the political process, be they a councillor or MP must be on the take and corrupt.

I believe in Parliament. I believe most politicians get involved to make a difference although there can be disagreements about the end game. The expenses saga hurt, because MPs were forced to do something that with hindsight they really should have sorted out themselves. It doesn’t matter that what was going on was ‘within the rules’. The rules were wrong.

I then had a think about what other reforms could be introduced, but this time without being forced to, but because MPs wanted to show us the public, that they were capable of improving the political system.
Whilst there are undoubtedly many other issues that MPs should be concerned with, I chose one area where I thought MPs could agree to make a reform to make democracy a little cheaper and a little more effective. That area is the issue of Early Day Motions.

Early Day Motions are supposedly a method by which a backbench MP can raise an issue of concern in order to get publicity and influence Government. The objective is for the motion to be debated at the earliest possible opportunity (hence early day) and MPs encourage their colleagues to sign up to the various motions tabled.

For me there are several issues.  Firstly they cost upwards of £500,000 a year to print these things. Secondly, I do not believe they are as influential as some MPs think. Finally there are clearly better ways to generate publicity. 

What to do? Well I set up a website at the cost of £8.99 and emailed all MPs asking whether they would support a campaign to scrap these motions, as I argued they were costly and ineffective. I was pleasantly surprised at how many MPs actually took the time to respond. People such as Fiona MacTaggart who commented:

“I spend a huge amount of time telling my constituents that EDMs are a kind of con, they are not debated, people think that if you sign one it means something. Politics is harder and more serious than just adding your name to a slogan or policy position, it requires properly researching and raising issues with ministers, winning allies deciding priorities, and EDMs make it all look very simple in a way which is genuinely misleading."

She is right. They don’t get debated. Of course there are MPs who think they are superb, Lib Dem MP Bob Russell being one of them He tabled an EDM on the Gurkhas and believes that was instrumental in the change in Government policy. Interestingly, Phil Woolas was involved in the Gurkhas decision and responded to the Scrap EDMs campaign email. He commented:

“In practice, Ministers pay more attention to letters from MPs and personal lobbying, than they do to EDMs. I think they also raise false expectations by the public who think (not unreasonably) that an EDM is a Motion to the House when of course it is not.”

Again I have to agree. Bob doesn’t seem to think there is anything wrong in congratulatory EDMs – such as praising a football team for getting promoted, or indeed ones expressing regret, such as the one extending condolences to Rick Stein when his dog died. Sorry, but how are either of those motions for debate, meant to influence Government, or worth circa £300* of taxpayers money to table? (*figure from the cost of printing over a year divided by number of motions tabled)

Of course MPs will argue it allows them to judge the opinion of their colleagues and helps them get publicity. Hang on. But my website has done that, and done it better. It has shown which MPs support my campaign. The debate has also indicated those who do not. It has published their comments (EDMs don’t do that). Furthermore it has received national coverage. All for the price of a domain name.

If all those MPs who refuse to sign Early Day Motions can generate publicity and support campaign, can't others?

Kelvin Hopkins MP rightly pointed out that democracy costs money. He commented:

“As to cost, democracy has a price. We could abolish Parliament and save £400m per year, but then we would be living in a dictatorship with no opportunity for democratic debate or dissent.”

Yes, democracy does have a cost, and if EDMs were effective in achieving their aims I wouldn’t mind so much. The issue is they are both costly and ineffective, and frankly I’m surprised MPs themselves haven’t come up with a much better alternative before now.

A few suggestions from MPs themselves include:

  • Have a new mechanism whereby MPs can raise an issue, and if it attracts a certain level of support to be determined by MPs themselves then a Minister has to respond (akin to a Westminster Hall debate)
  • Any future mechanism needs to be done solely electronic. I can’t for one moment imagine the public go out and get the hard copies of EDMs that are printed yet they make up vast  majority of the current cost.
  • Think about limiting the number that an individual can table. That would remove the more frivolous ones, and may actually mean ministers take them much more seriously.

I could talk about MPs who sign a motion supporting one cause and then vote in completely the opposite way also goes to show how ineffective they are, but that's another story.

There are numerous reforms that could actually enhance the role of the backbencher, and I hope Parliament has the guts to embrace some of them.  I believe scrapping EDMs and putting something better in place can not only enhance democracy, but it can do it cheaper.


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