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They queued for hours to use one of just four computers with an internet connection for an allotted 15 minutes, in a city thrust into an unprecedented communications blackout.

Journalists were not excluded from the shutdown. Newspapers went offline. For weeks, print editions did not run. Five days into the shutdown, the Editors’ Guild of India released a statement urging the government to restore communication.

Amid the outcry, the government set up a communications center, called the Media Facilitation Center, in a hotel in the capital. The four computers provided were the only way Srinagar’s media industry could get online. “I was shocked to see almost 300 journalists in the center and everybody queuing up in front of the desktops to wait for their turn to access the internet for 15 minutes,” said Aarabu Ahmad Sultan.

“It was beyond humiliating but there was nothing we could do.”Aarabu Ahmad Sultan, freelance journalist

Sultan has for years operated as a freelance journalist and photographer in one of the world’s most volatile regions, navigating roadblocks, sporadic violence and unreliable communication lines to tell stories, but this, he said, was unprecedented. Attempts to report what was unfolding in Kashmir were further frustrated by the government’s efforts to spread its own message through daily news releases that reporters at the center were encouraged to download and run verbatim in their publications.

The effect was evident on newsstands.

Sajjad Hussain’s family used to begin their day by reading the Greater Kashmir, the English-language daily, and the Daily Sun, published in the local language, Urdu. When the papers reappeared after weeks of silence at the end of August, their content had changed, Hussain said. Page numbers had been slashed. There were no detailed reports, no investigative pieces, no editorials, no analysis and definitely no opinion pieces.

“By no standards was the copy of Greater Kashmir that arrived our home a newspaper,” Hussain said. “Every report was a government version.” It was reduced to propaganda, he said.

Hussain canceled his subscription.

Journalists and editors who worked during the shutdown say the government restrictions made reporting all but impossible. And in the months since, they say colleagues have been intimidated, questioned and even charged under anti-terrorism laws for pursuing stories deemed critical of the government. Almost one year after the start of the communications blackout, while internet and phone lines have now largely been restored, many newspapers are relying on government advertising revenue to stay afloat.

All that has caused some to question whether an independent press in Jammu and Kashmir is possible at a time when readers need it most.

Competing messages

Communications blackouts are common in Jammu and Kashmir — there have been more than 200 since 2012.

Despite the pressures of operating in that kind of environment, more than 100 newspaper titles are published in the Kashmir valley, according to Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Information and Public Relations. They serve a population of more than 7 million people.

In the past, attempts have been made to use newspapers as a political weapon in Kashmir, an 86,000-square-mile patch of the Himalayas that nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have fought over since gaining independence in 1947, causing thousands to die. In 1989, an armed movement broke out in Kashmir, with militants demanding freedom from India or a merger with Pakistan.

“When the conflict began in the late 1980s, each party wanted the media to be on its side. The militant groups wanted to control the media and the government wanted to control the media,” said Altaf Hussain, senior journalist and former north India correspondent for the BBC.

Treading the dangerous middle ground between Indian security forces and militants, journalists are often viewed with suspicion from both sides. Some have paid with their lives.

“We have a fair idea who killed whom, but we resisted the pressures and that is how to date the freedom of press has been a reality in Kashmir,” said Hussain.

Raashid Maqbool, a media scholar who is pursuing a PhD on media history in Kashmir, said while advertising has long been used as a means of repression and coercion, the situation has worsened for local media since August 2019.

Until that point, Delhi gave Jammu and Kashmir state the power to have its own constitution, flag and limited autonomy over certain matters. In converting its status to a union territory, India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BPJ), was satisfying an election promise to exert more control over a region beset by violence. When the move was announced, a lockdown was immediately imposed to suppress dissent.

The region’s private sector tanked, making newspapers in Kashmir financially dependent on the government for their survival — not by direct funding but through advertising revenue.

This year, India dropped two spots to 142 in the World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, said India’s score had been “heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir.” The communications blackout made it “virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison,” it said.

CNN has requested comment from India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the administration of Jammu and Kashmir but has not received a response.

‘Nobody risked anything’

As Delhi tightened its control on the region last summer, journalists faced a mix of harassment, surveillance, intimidation and information policing. Roadblocks made it impossible to get to the office, and the lack of telephone and internet connections meant little independent information could be gathered and published anyway.

Newspapers that wanted to get back into print had to send their journalists to the government-controlled Media Facilitation Center. Under constant government surveillance, reporters there were asked to download approved material, including government press releases, for publication in their newspapers, some of the journalists said.

Shams Irfan, a senior reporter for weekly news magazine Kashmir Life until March, said too few computers and phones lines were made available to reporters — and even when they had a chance to file, connection speeds were frustratingly slow.

“It was like living in a dark age. In order to make a one-minute call from the Media Facilitation Center or to access to a computer connected with the internet, we had to sometimes wait for over an hour,” he said.

The Media Facillitation Center in Srinagar, which journalists worked out of during the communications blackout.

Irfan, who now works as a freelance journalist, said it was an open secret that journalists were kept under surveillance in Kashmir. In some instances, police would question some journalists about their stories. The pressure led to self-censorship, Irfan said.

“At times, journalists self-censor some information knowing they will get in trouble (if they) report the truth,” he said. “With no mechanism in place to safeguard journalists in a conflict zone like Kashmir, your organization is as helpless as you are.”

Independent journalists in Kashmir believe the local press succumbed to pressure after the August 5 shutdown.

“To say that the coverage of the Kashmir story in the local press has been shameful would be an understatement,” said Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani.

“The owners of the local newspapers not only gave in but reduced themselves to be a propaganda arm of the administration.”Gowhar Geelani, author of “Kashmir: Rage and Reason”

The former editor of the Kashmir Reader newspaper, Hilal Mir, said local media could have done better. “Their hands were tied, no doubt, but they also did nothing to resist it,” he said. “We can’t say what was at risk because nobody risked anything.”

But Masood Hussain, editor and publisher of Kashmir Life, rejects the idea that newspapers failed in their duty to be critical of the government during this period.

“The media tells readers what the stakeholders say. Where were Kashmir’s stakeholders? They all were in jail,” he said. “Tell me the day when the stakeholders of Kashmir, be it the separatists or the mainstream politicians spoke and the press didn’t report it?”

Social activists, lawyers, human rights activists, all were restricted and nobody was talking, Hussain said. There were no opinion pieces, he said, because most people “stopped sharing their opinions.”

Pressure on reporters

Many journalists say they stopped producing critical work.

Irfan Malik, then a reporter with Greater Kashmir newspaper, said Indian paramilitary and police arrived at his home just before midnight on August 14, 2019. The 26-year-old reporter was taken to the local police station in his hometown of Tral, almost 50 km south of Srinagar. He said he wasn’t questioned about anything specific and officers released him the next day.

“Until now, I am not being told why I was detained,” Malik said.

“Following my release, my family asked me to leave journalism and look for another job. Since I have a degree in journalism and passion for reportage, I did not like to quit.”Irfan Malik, former reporter for Greater Kashmir newspaper

Malik was not alone.

In recent months, many journalists have been summoned to police stations and had cases filed against them under draconian laws. In some cases, reporters were asked to reveal the source of their stories and explain the pieces of reportage, according to Ishfaq Tantray, the General Secretary of the Kashmir Press Club.

“The summons to journalists and FIRs (First Information Reports) are clearly aimed at muzzling the press and, as a club, we denounce this practice,” Tantray said. “The authorities by these summons and FIRs want to create a fear psychosis among the journalists and force them to toe a particular line.” First Information Reports are police complaints that trigger an investigation, which could lead to a charge under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The UAPA allows individuals named as suspected terrorists to be investigated by the National Investigation Agency, a state body established by the Indian government. The law was introduced to combat terrorism, but rights groups including Amnesty International say it’s being used to curb free speech.
Newspapers for sale in Srinagar in 2020.
In April this year, charges were filed under UAPA against a photojournalist Masrat Zahra and journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for unspecified social media posts allegedly promoting anti-nationalist content.
The same month, an FIR was filed against Peerzada Ashiq, Srinagar correspondent for English daily The Hindu — one of India’s leading newspapers — for a story about attempts by the families of killed militants to exhume their bodies. Authorities termed the story as “fake” news. To date, Ashiq has not been charged.

In June, the administration in Jammu and Kashmir tightened press freedoms even further by approving a new media policy. The “Media Policy-2020” authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations (DIPR) to “examine” the content of print, electronic and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities,” and take action against journalists and media organizations.

It also states that the government will not release advertisements to news outlets that “incite or tend to incite violence, question sovereignty and integrity of lndia or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behaviour.”

“It is definitely going to choke the space for the journalists in the region and curb whatever freedom of the press is left,” said Tantray, from the Kashmir Press Club.

Shrinking media landscape

With the fall in advertising revenue, restricted operating conditions and an atmosphere of fear among journalists, some newspapers have resorted to job cuts to survive.

In October, Malik was asked by Greater Kashmir to stop reporting for the newspaper. He was not sent an official dismissal email by the newspaper but was told verbally, like several other reporters, that he was no longer part of the organization. CNN’s requests to interview editors and management at Greater Kashmir about the reporting environment went unanswered.

Copy editors and reporters, especially those operating in more remote districts outside Srinagar for a variety of publications, were laid-off. Many who survived the job cuts found themselves muzzled.

“Nowadays, we process whatever information the department sends us. Gone are the days when we used to plan some story or do some campaign in the public interest.”A Kashmir editor

Publications have had to toe the line — or risk going out of business. Masood, from Kashmir Life, said that copy is read again and again to ensure there’s nothing that can provoke a backlash.

“Earlier, once the copy was sub-edited and ready for publishing, it would be read just for grammatical errors by one person but now the same copy is re-read three to four times,” he said. “We are more cautious with what we write but that doesn’t mean we have stopped doing journalism.”

Currently, the front pages are normally filled by updates about the spread of the coronavirus. The shift in news focus has spared the media from testing the boundaries of the new media policy, said Hussain, the veteran Kashmir correspondent.

“Be it the pro-India or separatist leaders, everybody is hiding behind Covid-19 in Kashmir. There is no political activity, there are no statements issued by the pro-India or pro-freedom leadership, so local media doesn’t have to make any choices what to publish and what not to publish,” he said.

“Covid-19 situation has given breathing space to media in Kashmir, but when this pandemic passes and political activity resumes, we have to see how the media local media behaves. We have to see whether they will face the challenges or succumb.”

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Paul Rusesabagina of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ appears in court again seeking bail after arrest on terrorism charges

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He appeared before the Nyarugenge intermediate court Friday in the capital, Kigali, where a judge ruled that a decision will be made on his bail application October 2.

Rusesabagina, 66, was appealing against last week’s ruling to remand him for 30 days.

His lawyers, Emelin Nyembo and David Rugaza, told the court that Rusesabagina should not be tried for crimes committed by the MRCD party, a coalition of opposition parties. The group’s military wing, FLN, is accused of several attacks on Rwandan territory in 2018.

Rusesabagina faces 13 charges related to terrorism, and is accused of being the “founder, leader and sponsor of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits,” Rwandan authorities have said.

He admitted to the court that he was a member of the MRCD and that general decisions were taken under the leadership of all parties, with each party having different functions.

He said, “MRCD was a coalition of four opposition political parties, my own party PDR-Ihumure was in charge of diplomatic mission, CNRD party was in charge of military operations hence forming military wing (National Liberation Front-FLN), others had other responsibilities.”

“The FLN was an armed group with specific role, mine was different. I was in charge of diplomacy,” he added.

At a hearing on September 17, the judge said the court had analyzed all 13 charges against Rusesabagina and concluded that there were compelling reasons to remand him for 30 days.

His lawyers questioned the jurisdiction of the court to try their client, saying he is a citizen of Belgium, with residence in the United States.

It is a sentiment echoed by his family. His daughter Carine Kanimba told CNN that he has no right to be put on trial as a Rwandan, as a Belgian citizen.

“We do not accept this whole attempt at pretending that this is a fair trial. We are begging the international community to help us. We are worried that they will kill him and they have already silenced him. The pictures we saw of him in court told us that he is frail and weak,” she said.

Kanimba said that a Belgian diplomat was able to visit her father, but that Rwandan officials were present.

There are also questions about how Rusesabagina came to be in Rwanda. His family believes he was kidnapped from Dubai in late August. In a video interview with the New York Times on September 15, Rusesabagina said he was supposed to go on a private plane to Burundi to speak to churches on August 28, but when he woke up, he was in Rwanda surrounded by soldiers.

Longstanding Kagame critic

Rusesabagina gained prominence for saving hundreds of Rwandans during the country’s genocide by sheltering them in the hotel he managed. His story was made into the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” starring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo.
Rusesabagina and his supporters have long maintained that he became a target of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government after sustained criticism of the government and the conduct of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in ending the genocide in 1994.

Around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the genocide, which was led by Hutu extremists.

He is the recipient of several human rights awards for his efforts during the genocide, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Human Rights Prize by the Lantos Foundation in 2011, among others.

Rusesabagina also holds Belgian citizenship, according to a government source in Belgium.

Crackdown on opposition

Rusesabagina has not lived in Rwanda since 1996, when he survived an assassination attempt.

While widely praised for transforming Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame has also faced widespread criticism for human rights abuses and a crackdown on opposition.

Rwanda accuses a pastor's daughter of treason and espionage. Her family says the charges are fabricated

Opposition politicians in Rwanda have often found themselves jailed on what they say are trumped-up charges for standing against Kagame in polls.

In one of the more widely publicized cases, Diane Rwigara and her mother were jailed when the former attempted to run for president in the same election as Kagame in 2017.

Diane Rwigara was acquitted of all charges including insurrection and forging of documents in 2018.

Victoire Ingabire, the leader of the FDU-Inkingi party, was jailed in 2010 for charges that included collaborating with a terrorist organization, “divisionism,” “minimizing the genocide” and “genocide ideology.”

She had returned to the country from the Netherlands to contest in the 2010 presidential elections after years of living abroad but was barred from running, and served eight years of a 15-year prison sentence before receiving a presidential pardon in 2018.

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House GOP super PAC seeks to shore up additional Republican seats

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“CLF is doubling down and pressing even deeper into our top offensive opportunities, reinforcing our swing-seat incumbents and providing a small insurance policy in a few seats to ensure a win this November,” CLF President Dan Conston said in a statement.

Notable new reservations include $865,000 to boost Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska); $500,000 to help Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), $500,000 for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), $750,000 for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), $740,000 for Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and $750,000 for an open seat in central Virginia where Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) lost renomination in a district convention.

CLF also reserved $850,000 in Meadows’ former district, where the Republican nominee is 25-year-old businessman Madison Cawthorn. Court-ordered redistricting last year made the seat more favorable to Democrats by uniting the liberal enclave of Asheville, but President Donald Trump still carried it by 17 points.

Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) are each getting over a million in new ad reservations against them from the group — a sign that Republicans are still pushing to pick off incumbents. The group is also making large six-figure buys against Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). And earlier this week it laid down a new offensive target with a $2 million ad buy against Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

The vast majority of CLF’s total spending for the cycle is on offensive targets, and Republicans feel confident they will make gains in November, particularly if Trump tightens the presidential race. Democrats are defending 30 districts that the president carried in 2016.

But most of the districts in this new wave of reservations are Republican-held. CLF is increasing its buys to help Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.) — and in open seats on Long Island and in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Houston and Dallas.

Democrats, meanwhile, are scaling back their defensive buys and shifting resources away from once-vulnerable incumbents. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week scrapped four TV flights set to run from early-to-mid October in districts held by Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) — a show of confidence in their reelection prospects. All four hold seats won by Trump in 2016.

Republicans are hampered by the cash advantage of Democratic candidates and by their large number of open seats. Members like Hill and Young were outraised by their opponents last quarter — and Young trails in cash on hand. And retirements by longtime incumbents in Indiana, New York and Texas deprived the GOP of the war chests they amassed over the years.

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Matt Hancock Must Guarantee MPs A Vote On New Coronavirus Restrictions Or The Government Will Be Defeated, Says Rebel Ringleader Graham Brady

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The leader of a growing band of Tory rebels, Sir Graham Brady, says Matt Hancock must offer “explicit guarantees” MPs will get to vote on new coronavirus restrictions before they come into force or the government faces defeat on its flagship pandemic legislation.

Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to cave to the demands of his backbenchers after dozens of Conservatives signed an amendment put forward by Sir Graham, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee.

He told PoliticsHome it is “a fundamental matter of principle that the House ought to be consulted” before new lockdown measures are put in place.

It comes amid growing anger from MPs the Commons has been ignored by ministers as they have repeatedly changed the rules, affecting the lives of their constituents.

Sir Graham said he was spurred to act after his own constituency of Altrincham and Sale West was put into and then taken out of extra local restrictions, only to be put back under the measures hours later.

“It’s been a frustration for a long time, I was wary even back in March when we gave the emergency powers very rapidly. And I accepted it on the basis the House was about to go into recess and there was plausible concern NHS critical care capacity would be overwhelmed.

“But then when we found that every review of the lockdown, the government simply continued, and that when Parliament returned on 21 April we still didn’t have decisions put to the House of Commons.

“I thought that was wrong.”

He added: “But I guess it came to a head really with the experience of the additional local restrictions that were put in for Trafford and Greater Manchester at the end of July.

“And then the experience of the government removing Trafford from the extra restrictions at the end of August – and then 12 hours putting us back in again.

“And in none of this was the House of Commons, or me as a local MP, able to express a view.”

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With the six-month renewal of the coronavirus powers due for a vote on Wednesday, he has written an amendment which could bind the government into more votes. It has more than 50 signatories, including 42 Tories as of Friday afternoon – enough to defeat the government if selected, but there is some debate as to whether it will be allowed.

Such a motion would not normally be amendable; it would simply be the case that MPs either back it or not, with the final decision to be taken by the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle on the morning of the debate.

On whether it would be selected for debate, Mr Brady said: “Some people have suggested it is ‘disorderly’ in itself. It was drafted by a very senior clerk, who when I raised that with him gave me a very clear explanation why he is right.

“So I’m confident that it is selectable, but it is still – as with any amendment – a decision for the Speaker.”

He confirmed he had been to see Sir Lindsay, who he said suggested it was “more likely to be selected” if it had support from across the House, which is why he was pleased to have chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, John Cryer, put his name to it along with party grandees Harriet Harman and John Spellar.

A spokesperson for the Speaker would only confirm the motion is “technically amendable”.

They added: “The Speaker will take advice from the clerks about whether the amendment is in scope before deciding whether to select it.”

There is also debate over whether any amendment, if passed, would have any binding effect on the government, given it is not a vote on the legislation itself.

Sir Graham said: “It wouldn’t have statutory force because the motion itself isn’t statute, so what it would be is a resolution of the House instructing ministers to do something – and that has constitutional force.”

And Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, told PoliticsHome: “This isn’t supposed to be an epic rebellion but an indication that people want to have wider consultation.

“I think what this is a very clear sign of, and I think the government recognises this, is the whole country needs to be involved in decision making and the decisions that we are taking and for us to  have consent we need to consult widely and part of that consultation is with the people sent to Parliament to represent their communities.”

Mr Spellar said: “What we are trying to do is say to government you can’t just go rampaging around making decisions based on a very small group of advisers. 

“If you say you’ve gone from the science, there’s a significant division in the scientific world.”

It is a view echoed by Sir Graham: “I’m quite sceptical about a number of these measures, I think they are grossly intrusive into people’s civil liberties, the right to family life, but I suspect that there is a fairly strong majority of the House that would support the government in most of what it’s doing.

“So I don’t think by securing these votes we’re suddenly going to see the government losing them all and these powers being stripped away.

“I think it’s just a fundamental matter of principle that the House ought to be consulted, that if people’s liberties are being removed it should be done with the consent of parliament on their behalf.

“And also that ministerial decision-making will be improved if they know they’ve got to justify themselves in the House of Commons and the House will express its views in a vote.”

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Mr Johnson is likely to want to avoid another confrontation with his own backbenchers after already having to change tack on the Internal Markets Bill, with talks set to take place with Mr Brady and other rebels on Monday.

One MP suggested more names could go down on the amendment over the weekend ,with another signatory telling PoliticsHome it would be “dumb” if the government did not reflect on the number of disaffected Tories and try to come up with a compromise, or table their own amendment.

On whether he would pull the amendment, Sir Graham said it would need Matt Hancock to say from the despatch box that MPs will get votes on new restrictions before they are enacted, a point he said he had already pressed upon Number 10.

“If there were sufficient explicit guarantees given on the floor of the House then I may not press it to a vote,” he said.

“But I think it’s really important to have the opportunity to press it to a vote to make sure the health secretary gives those explicit guarantees.”

He said the time lag between announcements being made and the restrictions coming into force was the perfect time to hold a debate, pointing to the ‘rule of six’ policy.

“That was leaked to the press on Tuesday, the PM made a statement about it on Wednesday, it wasn’t going to come into force until the following Monday – but the Thursday was just general debates in the House of Commons,” he explained.

“It would have been entirely possible to change the schedule, put in a full day’s debate on the ‘rule of six’ with a vote at the end of it, and the government simply chose not to.”

Pressed on whether his amendment was in response to ministers not listening to backbench concerns, he said: “I put the point to Matt Hancock in the chamber as to why these powers had not been put to the House on the Wednesday, and he said ‘I’m talking to the business managers about how this can happen’, but it still hasn’t happened two weeks later, there still hasn’t been a debate or a vote on what was introduced then.”

1601142409 891 Matt Hancock Must Guarantee MPs A Vote On New Coronavirus

The PM’s spokesman has repeatedly said there would be a vote on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020, and that MPs also have the chance to vote on individual regulations.

But there has been criticism of that system, which is known as an ‘affirmative statutory instrument’, which allows the Commons a vote within 28 days of the legislation coming into force.

Some MPs have said they want new powers to be created as ‘draft affirmative statutory instruments’, where the vote takes place before they start to take affect.

But the government have said with a backlog of legislation from the summer, along with the fact the process can pass through the Commons quickly, but takes weeks to get though the House of Lords, they have argued it was not possible.

One potential solution may be to give MPs the guarantee that an ‘affirmative’ SI will be debated within seven days, rather than it taking the full month, but the government have stuck to the line that “the current position does provide for parliamentary scrutiny”.

 Disclosure: Sir Graham Brady is editor of the House magazine, which is part of the Dods Group.

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