Following from my previous post in relation to MPs’ use of Early Day Motions to raise concerns relating to the work of the intelligence and security agencies, my favourite intelligence related EDM was tabled by the Labour MP, Tony Banks, who died in 2006. Banks, who was a witty and at times outspoken left-winger, was also a prominent and vocal campaigner for animal rights.
In 2004, a batch of MI5 files was released at the National Archives relating to the agency’s work during World War II. Considerable media attention was generated by the revelation that during the war MI5 had established a ‘pigeon committee’ to examine the best ways of taking advantage of the particular skills of these birds. One of the proposals considered by the committee was that pigeons might be trained to carry explosives and fly into enemy targets such as searchlights.
The story prompted Banks to table the following Early Day Motion (EDM1255 session 2003-04):
That this House is appalled, but barely surprised, at the revelations in MI5 files regarding the bizarre and inhumane proposals to use pigeons as flying bombs; recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures; and believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.
Aside from Banks, the EDM received just two signatures, those of the other veteran left-wingers, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
There was, however, a mischevious response from the Conservative MP, Peter Bottomley. One of the peculiarities of EDMs is that once tabled they can be amended by other MPs. Such amendments, although rare, can be used to change the meaning of EDMs. Bottomley proposed the following amendments:
Line 1, leave out from ‘House’ to ‘recognises’ in line 2.
Line 4, leave out from ‘creatures,’ to second ‘and’ in line 5.
Line 6, leave out from ‘earth’ to end and insert ‘when humans and other creatures may with luck have the chance to live together again.’
The result, while retaining the broad sentiment of Banks’ original EDM, was considerably less confrontational, and omitted entirely any reference to the role of MI5 in the exploitation of pigeons:
That this House recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures and looks forward to the day when humans and other creatures may with luck have the chance to live together again.
This is a mildly amusing exchange. However, Banks’ EDM is also often used as an example of the problem with EDMs which is that while they are formal procedure of parliament and must be administered properly, at some cost, they are often used to raise issues, which are at best of minority interest, and in most cases have very little impact.
In an adjournment debate on EDMs in 2012, the Conservative MP, Graham Evans claimed that administering EDMs cost the taxpayer around £1 million a year, and that while they were extensively used by some MPs, (over 3000 were tabled in the 2010-2012 parliamentary session) many were spurious and a waste of time and money. Early-day motions he argued:
… have been devalued by the utter ridiculousness of many of them. There are motions congratulating football teams on promotion; motions congratulating two celebrities on their engagement; motions arguing about the origins of Robin Hood; motions suggesting a common hash tag to be used by MPs on Twitter; motions praising Ann Widdecombe’s dancing ability; and even a motion expressing support for an asteroid wiping out the entire human race.
Prompted by the debate, in 2013 the House of Commons Procedure Committee carried out an inquiry into EDMs. The Committee expressed some sympathy with Mr Evans’ characterisation of many EDMs. It also found that some MPs as a rule refused to sign them. In evidence to the committee the Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, who said she refused to sign any, complained that EDMs allowed members to give the impression, particularly to constituents, that they were doing something, while in actual fact they involve doing very little. She also expressed concern that some EDMs appeared not to have been written by members at all, and may well have been provided by professional lobbyists. The claim that MPs have been paid to table EDMs has been made in relation to a number of parliamentary abuses including the recent case involving Patrick Mercer.
Nevertheless, the Committee concluded that EDMs ‘remain a valuable tool for those Members who use them’ and that they were particularly useful for Opposition MPs, who perhaps have less channels through which to raise issues than government MPs. Although the committee looked at the possibility of bringing down the cost of administering EDMs by moving to an electronic system for tabling and signing, it also concluded that problems of authentication meant that this is not at present feasible. It recommended that the Parliamentary ICT service should continue to look into this, but in the meantime it concluded the system should remain unchanged.
Of course one obvious consequence of making EDMs easier and cheaper to table and sign might be an even greater propensity to table spurious EDMs. In all of this, however, it is important to remember that as in all things members are likely to disagree, in this case with regard to what is, or is not, a spurious or ‘ridiculous’ EDM. While Tony Banks’ EDM on pigeon bombs is often cited by critics as an example, it is far from clear that Mr Banks, or indeed the pigeons, would agree.