Making a difference

You don't have to be a minister to get things done in Parliament.

Backbench MPs with a few streetsmarts and a lot of persistence can change government policy and even the law, if they know how to use the procedures of the Commons to press their case. There's a good example coming up in the Commons tomorrow….in my round-up of the coming week's parliamentary business, I noted that "the former Conservative minister Sir Paul Beresford continues his long-running campaign to tighten up the law dealing with known paedophiles - his Coroners and Justice (Amendment) Bill would introduce restrictions on their access to written material".

For the last 10 years Sir Paul has been bringing in modest measures to close gaps in the law - the latest deals with possession of prohibited written material about children - and cumulatively, his efforts have made quite a difference. Over the years, through a series of private members bills, ten minute rule bills, and amendments to government bills, he has:

* banned the possession of indecent images of children in the form of cartoons, tracings, pseudo photographs and CGIs

* changed the legal definition of gross indecency with a child so that it applies to under-16s, rather than under-14s

* increased the sentences that can be imposed for possession of indecent images from six months to five years, with 10 years for a repeat offence

* increased the penalty for distribution of indecent images from a maximum of three years to a maximum of 10

* required that judges should have to view the material concerned before passing sentence

* introduced a fast-track search warrant procedure, so that if someone on the sex offenders register refuses police access to search their home, a judge will automatically grant a warrant

* introduced a five-year sentence for people who refuse to provide a decrypting key to allow police to inspect computers suspected of holding child pornography.

Last year, Sir Paul also piloted through a private members' bill intended to protect children and vulnerable adults from domestic violence in cases where two people in a household could have committed the crime, but neither would admit to it, and each blamed the other. It extended the existing crime of causing a death or failing to take reasonable steps to protect a child or vulnerable adult to cover "serious harm".

He was certainly helped by the procession of criminal justice bills in the Labour years, which provided plenty of opportunities to change the law (the smart tactic in the Commons is to put down new clauses at report stage, where the rules require that they are debated first) but it's an example of how a determined MP who knows how to use ten minute rule bills, private members' bills, adjournment debates and the whole spectrum of Commons procedure can fight a cause over 10 years, and have a significant impact.

Those MPs contemplating a career on the backbenches, or newly returned to them, should take note.

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