MPs back ban on wild animals in circuses

No 10 humiliated after granting MPs a free vote midway through the debate.

It's been an extraordinary afternoon in the Commons, where MPs have been debating Tory MP Mark Pritchard's backbench motion banning the use of wild animals in circuses. The government opposes a ban on the grounds that it could face a face a legal challenge under the EU services directive and David Cameron imposed a three-line whip on the vote earlier today.

But remarkably, midway through the debate, the government performed a U-turn and agreed to give MPs a free vote. Given that 199 members have signed an Early Day Motion supporting a ban there's now a strong chance of the bill passing.

In his extraordinary opening speech, Pritchard accused Downing Street and the whips of "bullying" him and revealed that he was offered a job in return for calling off the debate.

He said:

It has been in interesting last few days. If I offered to amend my motion or drop my motion or not call a vote on this motion... I was offered reward, an incentive. It was a pretty trivial job as most of the ones I have had until at least probably 30 minutes from now are.It has been in interesting last few days.

But I was offered incentive and reward on Monday, then it was ratcheted up to last night when I was threatened. I had a call from the prime minister's office directly, and I was told unless I withdraw this motion, that the prime minister himself said that he would look upon it very dimly indeed.

Well I have a message for the whips and for the prime minister of our country, and I didn't pick a fight with the prime minister of our country, but I have a message: I may just be a little council house lad from a very poor background, but that background gives me a backbone, it gives me a thick skin and I am not going to be kowtowed by the whips on an issue that I feel passionately about. We need a generation of politicians with spine, not jelly."

Why the government chose to impose a three-line whip remains a mystery. A vote in favour of a ban would not have compelled it to introduce legislation. As for Pritchard, the secretary of the 1922 committee, he may have just written his own political suicide note but he has won the respect of all sides of the House this evening.

Update: MPs have just voted in favour of a ban. The government has been defeated as well as discredited.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.