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First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here http://www.southleedslife.com/author/hilary-benn-mp/

It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find myself recently discussing with a senior clergyman and some parliamentary colleagues the way politics is debated and MPs are sometimes treated. What got the discussion started was Brexit and the way it has polarised opinion within political parties and across the country. Those who voted leave can't understand why it's taking so long, and anyone who tries to point out that it is slightly complicated can be attacked for being a mutineer, a traitor or worse. And those who voted remain are really angry at all those who say that Brexit will be wonderful when they think it will be an utter disaster.

It's understandable that with strong feelings on both sides debate can be forthright, but there is a huge difference between that and the sort of social media abuse now regularly directed at people in public life about all sorts of issues.

I have looked back at some of the comments directed at me in the past couple of years and it is astonishing how personal and offensive some people can be. But when you compare my experience with what many women MPs have gone through - vicious, violent and sexualised abuse - it seems almost mild by comparison.

So why do some people think this in an acceptable way to behave?

I suspect that most of those who do this online feel - wrongly - that they can 'hide' behind their Twitter handle. I also reckon that almost all of them would never dream of saying in person what they say online. It's the modern day equivalent of shouting something rude through the letter box and running away.

I tested out my theory a few years ago when I got a particularly horrible letter from a man I didn't know.  For some reason he had put his telephone number on it so I rang him up. I told him who I was and referred to his letter. I could tell by his voice that he had never expected in a million years that this might happen. I didn't mention the abuse but addressed the substance of his complaint. He was as good as gold and even thanked me for calling him.

My father had another way of dealing with this problem. When he got an exceptionally offensive letter he would write back to the address and say "Dear Mr Smith,  I feel obliged to point out that someone has clearly stolen your headed letter paper and is sending grossly abusive letters pretending to be you." He said it usually worked to bring it to an end!

Don't get me wrong. This is not a plea for politicians, local or national, to be treated with kid gloves or to be afforded respect automatically. Not at all. Fair criticism is part of the job and it helps us to do it better. But that is not the same as vile abuse of those who serve the public.

When I was growing up my Mum used to read to us 'The Water Babies' by the Rev Charles Kingsley. It had a mysterious quality about it - something to do with the illustrations and it being set under water. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. She was a rather stern person but she was trying to teach the characters an important lesson about how to behave in life.  Treat others as you would wish to be treated.  

So in that spirit, can I take this opportunity to wish you all and everyone at South Leeds Life a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - December 2017

First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here http://www.southleedslife.com/author/hilary-benn-mp/ It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find...

I have been contacted by a number of constituents about the Government's EU Withdrawal Bill.

As you know, this Bill is not about whether we leave the EU - that was decided by the referendum and Parliament's vote to trigger Article 50 earlier this year. The Bill is instead about Parliament's role in the withdrawal process and how we ensure that our legal system is maintained and that vital rights and protections are safeguarded as we leave the EU. It is therefore crucial that the Government gets this important legislation right.

Unfortunately, I do not think the Government's Bill is fit for purpose as it currently stands. It would put huge and unaccountable power into the hands of Government ministers, weaken Parliament’s role in major decisions, and put crucial rights and protections at risk. It would also undermine and introduce restrictions on the devolved administrations rather than lead to the wider devolution of power we need to see. I am therefore supporting amendments aimed at removing the worst aspects of the Bill, and improving it, as it progresses through Parliament.

In the face of a potential defeat in the House of Commons, the Government announced just prior to the Bill's Committee stage that it will bring forward a separate Bill to allow Parliament to scrutinise and approve the final withdrawal deal with the EU. While this is certainly a change of heart by the Government – which I called for and welcome - it must go even further and confirm that Parliament will still get a meaningful vote if there is no deal to approve.

To date, I have voted for amendments to protect workers' rights, safeguard environmental and animal welfare standards, legislate for strong transitional arrangements and to bring the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law.  Disappointingly, the Government rejected these amendments and they were defeated.  However, I will continue to press these issues as the Bill progresses.

I intend to support further amendments as the Bill continues its Committee stage that seek to restrict the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers in the Bill and ensure that devolved governments are not sidelined.  I will also be trying to ensure that Parliament has the power to set the "exit day" in the Bill. This would give Parliament control over the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements – which are hugely important to business - and the ability to start the clock on the ‘sunset’ clauses of powers given to ministers in the Bill.

I hope the Government will listen carefully to the points that have been raised about its Bill, both inside and outside of Parliament, and will make the improvements that in my view are necessary.

Some people have also written to me about the analysis that the government has undertaken of different sectors of the economy and Brexit which was the subject of a resolution in the House of Commons on 1 November. Parliament voted to instruct ministers to hand over these assessments to the Brexit Select Committee, which I chair. However, when we received two volumes of material recently we learned that the Government had “sought not to include commercially, market and negotiation sensitive information.” I wrote to David Davis, the Brexit secretary, to say that giving us edited material was both contrary to the instruction given to the Government in the motion and to the clear expectations that I set out on behalf of the Committee. We have therefore called David Davis to appear before us on 6 December.

What lies behind this issue of upholding the decisions of the House of Commons is an absolutely fundamental question. The Government has made certain choices about the type Brexit it wishes to pursue – in particular leaving the customs union and single market – and therefore Parliament and the public are entitled to see the basis on which the Government made those choices, including its assessments of the economic impact of those decisions. This is all about transparency.

 

Hilary Benn MP for Leeds Central

EU Withdrawal Bill

I have been contacted by a number of constituents about the Government's EU Withdrawal Bill. As you know, this Bill is not about whether we leave the EU - that...

Commenting on the news that the European Commission has told the Government that a British city cannot hold the title of European Capital of Culture in 2023, Hilary Benn said:

This is a terrible blow to Leeds’ great bid for 2023 which has gathered so much support from across the city. It is also inexplicable given that in the past Bergen and Istanbul have both been awarded the title even though neither Turkey nor Norway are members of the European Union.

The European Commission must now explain why it has decided to engage in blatant discrimination against the bid from Leeds.” 

Leeds' Bid for European Capital of Culture 2023

Commenting on the news that the European Commission has told the Government that a British city cannot hold the title of European Capital of Culture in 2023, Hilary Benn said:...

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