Mea culpa? Why pairing should have been mentioned more prominently in this piece

So I’ve come under a bit of flak for this piece, which suggests the refugee vote last night was lost because not enough Labour MPs turned up.

OK, so the piece is written in a style which is a little look-how-many-MPs-turn-up-to-debate-their-salary and probably I should have tuned that aspect down a bit. The headline was a misjudgement on my end. It is simplified to the point of unhelpfulness. 

However, this isn’t just a mea culpa. A few people online are suggesting I’m playing down ‘pairing’ - an informal parliamentary procedure where MPs on both sides of a vote agree to balance out each other’s absence - in order to attack Labour.

Actually pairing is not quite as simple as all that. A party decides when it wishes to do pairing. It does not do so when the vote is very politically important.

For instance, Labour did not allow pairing on the votes over tuition fees or the bedroom tax. The fact that pairing is allowed for a vote demonstrates the relative importance attached to it by the party which does it. Given that this vote involved saving 3,000 child refugees from these conditions, that is a reasonable point to make.

It’s also argued that not allowing pairing just means you have to drag lots of sick or bereaved people into the Commons for a vote, or cancel a bunch of trips overseas. The argument runs like this: As an MP you inform the whips of your absence a few days before a vote. So ending pairing just means the Tories would have dragged their MPs back too.

That’s true, as far as it goes. But pairing is undeniable useful to the government. It means you can take a potential rebel in your own ranks and say: take the day off. No need to come in. Stay in your constituency. You can do that knowing that they will be paired and neutralised on the other side. It means you don’t need to keep your eyes on them on the day of the vote and prevents any opportunities for last-minute Damascene conversions. Basically, it makes life easier for the governing party.

I made a error not going into those details in that news story. I should have done it as a blog and teased them all apart. It was a quite significant error, because it threatens to mislead rather than inform the reader. That’s something we always try to avoid on this site.

But the use of pairing is not quite as simple as many people online make out. Labour were asked not to allow pairing on this vote by the Lib Dems. Would doing so have won the vote? It’s hard to say. Probably not. But Labour’s decision to allow pairing is worthy of mention on its own right, especially given the (rightly) high flying rhetoric coming from MPs on the Labours benches last night.

Alone, hungry & frightened: the truth about the child refugees Britain refuses to help

Last night MPs voted by 294 votes to 276 to block plans to help 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems voted to help, but the Tory party successfully whipped MPs into staying in line, saying that a vote to help refugees in Europe would encourage more of them to make the journey from the Middle East and North Africa.

Here are the the main things we know about refugee children in Europe, as taken from a survey of 870 inhabitants of the Calais Jungle by Refugee Rights Data Project.

They are alone

A majority (59.7%) of children in the Calais camp are unaccompanied by any adult. Just 6.7% are with a parent. Just under 20% are with one or more siblings, and 3.4% are with another relative - usually an uncle.

People often ask why refugees go to the camp in France instead of claiming asylum somewhere else in Europe. For many of these children it’s because they have a family member in the UK. That’s the case for 44.5% of the children in Calais. Britain actually has a legal duty under the Dublin regulation to take in asylum seekers with relatives here, but it is not fulfilling it.

They are scared

The children face many daily threats, primarily from French police, French citizens and other inhabitants of the camps. Some 61% say they "never feel safe".

The police appear to be the worst culprits. Some 89.6% of children have experienced police violence. Most of them had been exposed to tear gas, often several times a week. Just under half have been arrested. Some are kept in detention for months, some just for minutes. They return to the camp with tales of being kept in cold rooms without food for days on end, or of having all their hair cut off.

French citizens are also feared. Thirty-six per cent of children in the camp say they’ve been physically abused by citizens and 25.2% say they’ve been verbally abused.

They are escaping war

By far the most common country of origin is Afghanistan, with 47% of children in the camp originating there. It’s followed by Eritrea, (16.8%), Kuwait (7.6%) and then Syria, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

They are hungry

Children in the camp are going hungry. Just 70.5% have access to food on a daily basis, while 73.8% say there isn’t enough to eat.

They are getting sick

Most of the children have been in the camp since last summer. The conditions are unsanitary and dangerous. Some 60.7% of them live in a shelter which leaks when it rains. Health problems are consequently rife, with 73.9% experiencing them since their arrival and 38.7% of them blaming the unhealthy environment they’re in.

Mental health problems are predictably common too, with many reporting they are suffering from anxiety and nightmares. This appears to be evidence of post-traumatic stress.

Now that the British government has refused to help, there are no plans to offer these children any assistance.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

Signs of growing panic as damning Theresa May judgement published

A day after our blog on the buried judgement against Theresa May’s student deportation programme, there have been all sorts of strange goings-on.

Something unusual is happening. Yesterday, the judgement against May was published on Bailii, a database of case law. Then it disappeared. Now it's up again. But there is a rather intriguing change: it has gone up with a judicial headnote.

Judicial headnotes are little bits of text summarising a judgement - an executive summary basically. They're there on reported cases because those can easily be cited in other cases. They’re not on unreported cases, because it is very difficult to cite those in other cases. There’s no point helping someone find something which can’t really help them.

So why does this unreported case have a judicial headnote? Well, therein lies a tale. Or a potential tale, anyway. It’s all so shrouded in secrecy that we have to do a lot of guess work to figure out what’s going on.

The judicial headnote reads:

"The generic evidence upon which the secretary of state has relied to date in all ETS cases has been held insufficient to discharge the legal burden of proof on the secretary of state of proving that the TOEIC certificates were procured by dishonesty in circumstances where this evidence, via expert evidence and otherwise, has been demonstrated as suffering from multiple shortcomings and frailties and, further, the evidence of the two students concerned was found by the tribunal to be plausible and truthful."

This headnote had been seen before, because some of the people involved with the case had seen it on the judgement, back when we all assumed it would be reported. It feels very much like this was the original version of the judgement, but that something then happened and the committee suddenly decided to let the case go unreported. Then they panicked a bit and put up the original version, in case anyone noticed.

How reported Theresa May's student deportation programme

Without due process: How Britain deported 50,000 students
Disaster for Theresa May as legal ruling brings student deportations to a halt
Secretive legal committee buries ruling against Theresa May

What could that something be? Why is this the only unreported case on the tribunal decisions website for 2016? It's impossible to know for sure because of the cloak of secrecy surrounding the reporting panel. But the letter threatening legal action against the committee by lawyers offers one possible explanation. It asks the committee to "please provide other written correspondences and submissions as to the president's judgement".

The lawyers are basically asking the committee if the Home Office has intervened and demanded they let the case go unreported.

There's previous on this sort of behaviour. Back in 2010, Jonathan Sumption QC was acting on behalf of David Miliband, then foreign secretary, in a case on British secret service collusion in the torture of Binyam Mohamed in Guantanamo Bay. One paragraph of the draft judgement by Lord Neuberger found that security service officials had "a dubious record on human rights" and covered up their involvement in Mohamed’s torture.

Sumption secretly wrote to the court asking it to remove the paragraph from the Court of Appeal judgment. He said the judge's "exceptionally damaging" comments would lead to "an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the courts and the executive". The Foreign Office had attempted to secretly censor the ruling without informing the other legal team.

Eventually it was leaked and the whole thing came out. Miliband insisted it was a "nonsense conspiracy theory" and that his barrister had "submitted a letter in a completely normal way". But that wasn't true. It showed the lengths government lawyers are willing to go when things get serious.

But the judicial headnote doesn't just suggest a growing sense of panic behind the scenes. It also dismantles the very argument the reporting committee has been making for why the case was going unreported. Their argument so far has been that the decision was made because the case was factual. In other words, it dealt specifically with the facts in this case and didn't have general application.

That's absolute nonsense. The Home Office attached two boilerplate witness testimonies to every accusation of fraud it made. They are the same statement by the same people, everytime. Those two witness testimonies were completely dismantled in the case, as was the scientific credibility of the people who made them. An expert analysis on voice recognition demolished the science behind the supposed tests ETS did to discover fraud. What was found in that case would apply to every other case of someone being wrongly accused of fraud for their ETS test by the Home Office.

And the fascinating thing is that the judicial headnote actually admits that. It says the "generic evidence upon which the secretary of state has relied to date in all ETS cases has been held insufficient" [emphasis added]. The judicial headnote specifically disproves the argument being put about for why the reporting committee didn't report the case.

What is happening here? Did the Home Office really step in and make a submission to this secretive legal committee to try to limit the damage of the judgement to its student deportation programme? We have no direct evidence for that. What we know is that there are signs of definite panic in the upper tribunal, as a judgement which was clearly meant to be reported and have general application is suddenly made much more limited.

We also know who wins from this: the Home Office. And we know who loses: All the tens of thousands of immigrants wrongly accused of fraud by the Home Office.

If this did stem from a Home Office submission to the reporting committee, they may have pushed their luck too far. The legal challenge lawyers are now pursuing against the committee could bring all of this secrecy out into the daylight. And it might even start raising questions about how this shadowy system of legal power is still allowed to operate without scrutiny.

Ian Dunt is the editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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