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Parliament will debate a second EU referendum in September - this is what it means

How likely is it that a second referendum will actually take place? 

On Tuesday, it was announced that a debate on a second EU referendum will take place in Westminster Hall on 5 September. The announcement came in response of a petition, created by William Oliver Healy, that suggested that the Government should hold a second EU referendum  if the remain or leave vote is less than 60 per cent, based on a turnout less than 75 per cent.

All petitions that reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures must be debated by Parliament. And so, given the petition for a second referendum reached a startling 4.1million signatures, it deserves to be debated.

If you voted Remain on 23 June, this could be your first promising news in weeks. The debate offers a potential escape from the horrors of a Brexit Britain - and a voice to the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU.

But the hard truth is, just because Parliament has decided to debate the petition, this doesn't mean anything will come of it.

The Foreign Office officially responded to the petition days before the decision to hold the debate. It stated that there will be no second referendum over Britain’s position in the EU.

“As the Prime Minister made clear in his statement to the House of Commons on 27 June, the referendum was one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history with over 33 million people having their say. The Prime Minister and Government have been clear that this was a once in a generation vote and, as the Prime Minister has said, the decision must be respected. We must now prepare for the process to exit the EU and the Government is committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people in the negotiations.”

Following the announcement of the debate yesterday evening, a spokesman from the House of Commons said: “The Petitions Committee would like to make clear that, in scheduling this debate, they are not supporting the call for a second referendum." He added: "The debate does not have the power to change the law and will not end with the Commons deciding whether or not to have a second referendum”.

In other words, the debate is futile. It is clear that decisions have already been made and there will be no second EU referendum. 

E-petitions are in theory a fantastic demonstration of direct democracy. But in reality they hold very little power. They are essentially agenda setting, and do not fulfil the role of deciding Government policy.

Parliament doesn't take e-petitions too seriously. The debate on the second EU referendum will take place in Westminster Hall, the second debating chamber in Parliament. Visitors are welcome to attend. And it's worth remembering what has been debated in the past. The petition to "Block Donald Trump from UK entry" received 586,933 signatures, resulting in a debate taking place in January. A petition to "Stop allowing immigrants into the UK" reached 216,949 signatures and was debated in October 2015. Since then, Donald Trump has visited and immigrants continue to move here. 

So, while it may provide Remainders with something to lean on through Brexit Britain's birthing pains, they shouldn't get their hopes up. A debate in Westminster Hall is not about to trigger a second referendum and scupper the UK's exit from the EU.


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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge