Celebrating progress with the Refugees Family Reunion Bill
Celebrating progress with the Refugees Family Reunion Bill

That’s what I call a good day’s work.

Today the UK took a step towards making it easier for refugees fleeing persecution, war and torture to be reunited with their families, as MPs voted 129 to 42 in support of the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill. I am proud to have played a part in this.

For MPs, Fridays are usually constituency days. Monday to Thursday I’m mostly in Parliament, so that leaves Thursday evening to Monday morning to visit schools, businesses, charities and all the other individuals and organisations I represent in Parliament and advocate for in Bristol West.

On some Fridays, Parliament does sit to hear Private Member’s Bills (PMBs). These are opportunities for individual MPs to try to change the law. Many big social changes were brought in by PMBs, such as legalising homosexuality. But they’re tough to get through, particularly without the support of the government of the day.

You need at least 100 MPs to vote to take the Bill to the next stage. You also need to make sure that other MPs who oppose your Bill don’t try to ‘talk it out’, by remaining on their feet, giving a long speech preventing the Bill from getting to a vote by running out of time or numbers of MPs. You also need the cooperation of whoever is in the chair – Mr Speaker, or one of the Deputy Speakers. And you really need a lot of public support. If you don’t have this, you won’t have enough MPs in the chamber, as each one will have to weigh up missing a constituency day against staying in Parliament to represent constituents on something they may not care about.

You may well find that even if you use all your knowledge of Parliamentary process, call in favours from your colleagues and do a brilliant job of making your arguments, many MPs will only make up their minds on the day about which way to vote.

Above all, it takes a team to get a Private Members’ Bill through.

This Bill had a team. First, and most importantly, refugees and refugee organisations from across the country wanted this Bill. If you’ve been granted asylum in this country, but your 18-year-old daughter or aging parent is still stuck in a conflict zone, you will be desperately worried about them and desperate to be reunited with them. It’s currently hard to do that. This Bill, if passed into law, will make it easier. These organisations did a great job of lobbying MPs across the country to get the numbers they needed.

Scottish Nationalist Angus Brendan MacNeil MP was the Bill’s sponsor. He had to make the opening speech, work with the refugee organisations to mobilise popular support and be on top of the arguments.

As chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I was the unofficial whip for the refugee organisations. As an official whip for the Opposition (Labour Party), I’ve learnt loads about how to do this effectively.

Most people think being a whip is about bossing colleagues around. It’s not. That would not work.

It’s about three things:

  1. Building good relationships with your colleagues and with MPs in other parties, using your powers of persuasion to influence them.
  2. Knowing how Parliament and the Standing Orders of the House of Commons work
  3. Being able to count!

And it was a privilege to be a whip on this Bill, using every bit of knowledge, all my powers of persuasion, a lot of counting, texting, phoning, checking and more counting. This work supported Angus’s lead and the refugees and refugee organisations who are campaigning to get the Bill through this stage of Parliament.

Angus is MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, a constituency formerly known in English as the Western Isles. I planned to speak so practiced this Gaelic name all morning. However, I did not speak in the end as it was more important to focus on getting enough MPs to vote.

There is still more work to do. The Bill has to go through line-by-line scrutiny in the committee stage, amendments, debates, further amendments in the House of Lords before it comes back to the final stages of the House of Commons.

As an official and unofficial whip, I’ll be helping get it through these processes. As chair of the APPG for Refugees I’ll be keeping colleagues and refugee organisations informed. As the MP for Bristol West, I’m very proud that the people I represent agree that this is important.

Every day in Parliament there’s the possibility of doing something special. Of changing people’s lives. And often it doesn’t work out the way I want it to, or in the ways the people of Bristol West have asked me to push for.

But sometimes it does work out. And today, by getting closer to changing the law so more refugee families can be reunited, it did.

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