I'm afraid you can't do that, Dave. Photo: Getty Images
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The Prime Minister should rethink his disastrous plan to shrink the Commons

David Cameron's silly solution to an imagined problem will only cause trouble - and many Conservative MPs agree, says Nigel Dodds.

During general election campaigns, long periods in opposition, and even unhappy periods in coalition, parties can say things which in retrospect aren’t always as sensible as they seemed to them at the time. One such example was the supposed innate unfairness of our electoral system and the consequent ‘need’ to reduce the House of Commons to just 600 members. This was always a deeply flawed proposal and the recent election result only goes to show how misplaced the reasoning was, not least as far as my Conservative friends are concerned.

However, if the government’s plans to weaken parliament by reducing the number of MPs while simultaneously providing no concrete assurances that the size of the government will be shrunk go ahead as currently planned, our democracy is going to be damaged. Put simply: a smaller parliament and a proportionately bigger government is bad for British democracy, and I’m confident that a majority of MPs are going to think this way. That’s why I asked the Prime Minister today whether he is committed to this policy, and that’s why I think he’s so wrong to say that he is.

Let’s consider the theoretical, principled problems before going on to the very real practical ones in a smaller parliament but a bigger government. A surprising number of Conservative colleagues for several parliaments now have quite seriously maintained that FPTP was ‘biased’: that somehow the operation of elections in this country was rigged against their party. Many statistics were quoted about how many voters it took to elect different shades of MPs and this was adduced to mean unfairness. We don’t hear those figures being bandied about any more for the simple reason that there never was such systemic ‘bias’. I’ve no doubt a lot of Tories sincerely meant these charges but as the recent general election conclusively shows, they are and always were a nonsense. All FPTP does is reward or punish a party depending on how it mobilises its votes in any particular election.

As the success of Lynton Crosby has, I hope, shown, FPTP is blind, just and even-handed. Do better in your campaigning and you’ll do better in the number of seats you get.

But this then brings me to how many MPs there should be. As part of the decade long complaints about the supposed but actually non-existent bias of FPTP, a boundary review shrinking the House of Commons was proposed as part of the answer to this fictional problem. Well, the problem didn’t really exist and therefore the solution really shouldn’t be applied.

As things stand, the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act means that the next House of Commons is supposed to be reduced to only 600 members. As we’ve seen, the principal rationale – ‘FPTP discriminates against the Tory Party’ – is bunk, but the consequences of putting the law as it stands into effect are poorer still. The Act was a pretty shoddy piece of work, badly drafted and the result of a fairly unseemly stitch-up with the Lib Dems.

However its real failure today lies in the fact that the case was never coherently made why a smaller Commons is better for British voters. How are we better represented with fewer representatives? What distinguishes 600 from 650 or 500 or 635 or any other number you care to pluck out of the air as being the optimal figure for how many MPs there should be? And most fundamentally of all, how is the government better held to account when it stays the same but parliament gets smaller? No, the case for 600 wasn’t made and it shouldn’t be put into effect.

What will happen if the legislation in force proceeds as planned and the Commons shrinks down to 600 members? Without an accompanying, unbreakable commitment to reduce the size of the ministerial footprint – and there is nothing whatsoever in the legislation providing for such a reduction – the payroll votes swells dramatically in relation both to the opposition and to the government’s own backbenches. This can’t be good for politics. It can’t be good for the voters who now send fewer non-ministerial MPs to parliament than ever.

For all that some Tories did, perfectly sincerely, come to turn against FPTP, in my experience in the tearoom, plenty of Conservative friends never wavered in their support for our current electoral system. You don’t have to look far to see that the British way of doing elections holds its own quite comfortably against the international competition.

And those Tories who didn’t join in the chorus of abuse against FPTP share, I know, my profound doubts about the wisdom of needlessly reducing the size of the House of Commons. They see that in an organic constitution like ours, which seeks to see actual communities rather than abstract blocs represented in parliament, constituencies shouldn’t be entirely artificial, mathematically precise things. They have to grow out of the communities they’ll represent, not be derived from what a computer model says would deliver ‘equal representation’. And they know – and this include serving ministers – that a swollen, over-mighty government resting on a shrunken House of Commons is not the way of British parliamentary democracy.

All of which is why I want to make it clear: my party, like a significant number of the David Cameron’s colleagues, does not support the current proposal to make parliament a smaller, lesser thing. I’d advise the Prime Minister to think again, and very carefully, on this one.

 

Rt Hon Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP and leads the party at Westminster

 

Nigel Dodds is MP for North Belfast and leads the DUP at Westminster

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.