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What's the DUP's price in a hung parliament?

The DUP's manifesto reveals what the party will ask for in exchange for its votes.

The DUP launched their manifesto on Tuesday and it reads like a party that has its eye on the possibilities that could come from this election. Polling figures suggest neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party are likely to come out of the election with a majority. This leaves a space for a smaller party to step into the breach, giving them an unusual opportunity to influence government policy. The DUP ruled out taking part in a formal coalition deal, however they can still take part in a deal with an incoming government. Nigel Dodds has predicted that the most likely deal would involve supporting a minority government on a vote by vote basis. The DUP are choosing to keep their options open, willing to support either Labour or the Conservatives. This manifesto shows they are willing and may yet prove vital to an incoming government, particularly if a minority government emerges from the election.

It’s with this possibility in mind that the manifesto sets out what the DUP want to see in the budget. This includes decreasing the deficit with the aim of eliminating it, but also protecting front line services such as schools and health services. They have already avoided introducing the bedroom tax and have committed to supporting the abolition of the charge for the rest of the UK. They will also support more aggressive pursuit of tax evaders. They will refuse to support increasing VAT. All of this suggests that the DUP really is every bit as willing to strike a deal with Labour as with the Tories, despite being seen as a more natural companion to the Conservative party. Further economic proposals also fall within areas that could come to fruition under a Labour government such as an increased minimum wage and increasing government provision for childcare, although the DUP go further than Labour and recommend linking it to household income as a percentage. The DUP have also laid out what they would like in economic terms for Northern Ireland. These include the British government assisting in encouraging FDI in Northern Ireland and increased infrastructure investment.

However the DUP also have a number of policies that would suit a deal with the Conservative Party. They intend to support a referendum on EU membership which they have already worked extensively on. Both major parties will need the offered support for increased immigration controls including limiting benefits to those who have not been in the UK for long.  Courting both major parties is something that has been avoided by other parties, the SNP have made overtures to the Labour party, UKIP have tied their fortune to the Conservatives and the Green Party claim they feel they can do better in opposition than coalition. The only other party to appeal to both major parties are the Liberal Democrats and they are in the entirely different situation of seeking to maintain power while most likely incurring a large loss of MPs.

They have included a number of measures to strengthen the Union, many of which seek to further integrate Northern Ireland in the UK brand. This is particularly interesting timing, Northern Ireland is often the most remote part of the UK, not just geographically but also in terms of attention and political interest. For example during the recent tv debates, no Northern Ireland party was invited despite the DUP having more MPs than UKIP, Plaid Cymru or the SNP. The DUP argued for their place but were ultimately ignored. Now the DUP are asking for a number of measures that would reinforce Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. These include a guarantee that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a cabinet level position, renaming the Olympic team ‘Team UK’ in recognition of Northern Ireland’s contribution and the replacement of GB on driving licences with UK. While these may seem like unusually small demands, Northern Ireland has been on the periphery of the UK for a long time and as a unionist party it is logical that in a position of power the DUP would want to reinforce Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.  

The DUP have found themselves in an interesting situation and they appeared primed to take advantage of it. Their manifesto offers not just a list of policies that they might implement in the impossible situation of them taking government but rather a clear offer to the next party of government. It is a clear series of things that they are willing to support and what they would like for Northern Ireland and the UK in return. However they are not just offering a deal to support votes in exchange for funding or power. If the DUP manage to work out a deal with the incoming government, the manifesto shows they want to strengthen the union and emphasise Northern Ireland’s place within it. This is a unique election for Northern Ireland, never before has the DUP found itself in a position where they can have a serious effect on the next Westminster government. This manifesto shows that they have fully recognised this and are ready to deal with whichever party will give them what they want.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity