A Labour MP who also serves as member of the Board of Deputies today decried the lack of consultation over the establishment of a new parliamentary group on British Jews and insisted that “considerable thought” was needed about whether it is the best way to proceed.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, to be launched next month, will provide regular briefings by the Board of Deputies – which will form its secretariat – on issues such as religious freedom, extremism, medical ethics, education and welfare. It will also set out to broker meetings with Jewish constituents and facilitate invitations to Jewish community events for parliamentarians. More than 20 MPs and peers – the number required to set up such a group – from all three main parties have pledged to back the group.
But news of the new body has been met with bewilderment over the fact other community organisations and politicians were not consulted over the move, while questions have also been asked about whether such a vehicle is the most effective way to engage backbenchers.
Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside and a deputy for the Jewish Labour Movement, said she was “extremely surprised” to hear about the group only hours before it was publicly announced. “I think there should have been much fuller consultation. It needs considerable thought about whether this is the best way to proceed and that discussion has not taken place, at least with me.”
While the Board last night hailed the fact that government spokespeople, shadow spokespeople and MPs across the spectrum have agreed to sign up “with more pledges coming every day”, Ellman said that she currently has “no plans to do so at the moment”.
Conservative MP Matthew Offord has been described as “driving forward” the initiative, although the eventual leaders of the group can only be elected by fellow members when it convenes in the autumn. Nevertheless, Ellman added: “This is not the normal way APPGs are set up. Normally the initiative comes from a cross-party group of MPs rather than outside bodies.”
One community source also raised questions about whether any group focusing on British Jews could avoid the issues of anti-Semitism and Israel – topics already covered by the APPG against Anti-Semitism and the three Friends of Israel groups – given their centrality to the community.
But denying there would be an overlap, Board President Vivian Wineman said: “This is clearly an idea whose time has come. The overwhelming consensus is that an APPG for our community will allow for a cross communal representation on the multitude of issues affecting the Jewish community. The group will cover issues of importance to the UK’s Jews including Jewish education, welfare, equalities, medical ethics, issues facing World Jewry, Shechitah and Brit Milah. It will not deal with Israel or anti-Semitism, causes which are well-served by existing APPGs.” He added: “We are greatly encouraged by the feedback that we have had from Parliamentarians, as well as Deputies.”
The Board said Britain’s Parliament already has 465 known APPGs on various issues and communities, including on Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadiyya Muslims and Baha’is. But another communal source said: “The fact that this cack-handed plan was concealed from jewish MPs and other communal organisations who work in parliament and deputies themselves speaks volumes. To form an appg at a time when all serious lobbying groups are ditching that model is the act of political pygmies rather than serious professional advocates.”
But there was also support for the new group – which will be staffed by the Board through its Public Affairs Team and whose budget will come from existing Board resources- from those engaged in lobbying work on behalf of the community.
In an email seen by the Jewish News, deputy Shimon Cohen, who helped to establish Shechita UK and Milah UK, said he had long believed in the need for such a group. “The Friends of Israel groups are single issue Friends’ groups. They do wonderful work in their field but are of no help to me in regard to the issues of Shechita or Brit Milah. First, because those Groups are party partisan and second, because they are, rightly, Israel focused, and many Parliamentarians that I have to deal with are just not friends of Israel.”
He added: “A non partisan, non Israel focussed, all Party group of Parliamentarians with a declared interest in our community and the issues we face as British Jews, will be a great help in my work. Such a group can and should work well in Parliament separately from but alongside the Friends’ groups as the Friends’ groups today do so with the APPGs on both Israel and Anti-Semitism.”
It’s understood that the JLC has in the past pressed the Board to increase backbench engagement. But it’s not yet known how the Board’s move might impact on ongoing talks with the Jewish Leadership Council – which was not consulted over the APPG – about a closer union between the organisations.