By Matthew Barrett
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Guido Fawkes has a list of new Conservative members of Select Committees, from Graham Brady's office. Mr Brady explains: "For the following committees I have received the same number of nominations as there are vacancies, the following are therefore elected". The appointments are:
Communities and Local Government
John Stevenson (Carlisle), replacing George Hollingbery (Meon Valley), who became PPS to Theresa May at the reshuffle.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), replacing Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), who became PPS to Mark Francois, the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole), replacing Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), who was made the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Health Services.
By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has so far mainly featured groups founded or mostly composed of 2010 intake MPs. Last time, I looked at the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, founded in the 1980s. This week's group is somewhere between the two. The Cornerstone Group is the main group whose defining mission is to represent socially conservative Members of Parliament. The group was formed in 2005, and presented some challenges for David Cameron's leadership. In this profile, I'll see how the group is doing now.
Origins of the group
Cornerstone was founded by Edward Leigh and John Hayes, who still chair the group. Leigh has been the MP for Gainsborough since 1983, and is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was sacked for his opposition to Maastricht, and John Hayes, who has been the MP for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning since 2010.
Cornerstone admired the work done during Iain Duncan Smith's time as leader to promote a more communitarian, Burkean conservatism, and wanted to ensure IDS' work on this front was carried on.
When the group launched formally in July 2005, it released a pamphlet, which criticised Michael Howard's election campaign for being too quiet about tax cuts, public service reform and family values. Strongly condemning the personality politics and liberalism of New Labour, Leigh wrote:
"We believe that these values must be stressed: tradition, nation, family, religious ethics, free enterprise ... Emulating New Labour both lacks authenticity and is unlikely to make us popular. We must seize the centre ground and pull it kicking and screaming towards us. That is the only way to demolish the foundations of the liberal establishment and demonstrate to the electorate the fundamental flaws on which it is based."
The group first exerted its influence during the 2005 leadership contest. A group of about twenty Cornerstone supporters interviewed David Cameron, David Davis and Liam Fox. Fox apparently put in the best performance, while David Davis was, reportedly, not able to take criticism well. This meeting, combined with David Davis' alienating stint as the Minister for Europe under Major, and Davis' reluctance to support Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism programme wholeheartedly, is thought to be why many Cornerstone supporters first voted for Fox, and then switched to Cameron.
During Business Questions yesterday Alan Duncan teased Harriet Harman about the black pen marks that have started appearing on the Despatch Box since Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister.
Alan Duncan: "May we have a statement on vandalism in this House? Indeed, may we have an inquiry into who has been regularly defacing the Dispatch Box opposite me and in front of the right hon. and learned Lady? It would appear—I can see it from here—that the culprit strikes once a week with a black felt-tipped pen, and detectives have already noted that the gravest occurrence seems to be on a Wednesday each week at around midday? Does the Leader of the House have any inkling of who the culprit might be, and is she prepared to reprimand him in the strongest possible terms?"
Harriet Harman: "That is not a matter for business questions."
James Forsyth at Coffee House was unimpressed with Mr Duncan's "bad taste" intervention:
Sir George Young, who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee, had tabled an amendment to defeat the Government's motions, as he felt they pre-empted Sir Christopher Kelly's independent review for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Then Leader of the House Harriet Harman announced that the Government would support Sir George's amendment, but have votes on other reforms.
The motion relating to MPs being paid to turn up to work was withdrawn before going to a vote. And the reform of the second homes allowance will be left to Sir Christopher (although London MPs will lose their allowance for a second home).
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Alan Duncan comes into his own during debates like these:
"We are living in very feverish economic and political times. At a moment like this, the House can either look absolutely absurd or lift its level of debate and discussion to something that properly understands what this place should be. The boot that is on one foot at the moment can, in due course, change, and the balance of advantage in this place changes with it. We must therefore appreciate that this Parliament needs to work through those changes and set standards to which everyone will adhere.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell has tabled an Early Day Motion on Damian Green. It has been signed by Michael Howard, Bill Cash, Peter Bottomley, Bernard Jenkin and David Davis.
Herewith the text of EDM 1307:
"That this House notes the statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions on 16 April 2009 announcing his decision that no charges would be brought against the hon. Member for Ashford in relation to the documents leaked and stating that, `Mr Green's purpose in using the documents was apparently to hold the Government to account'; and calls for the House to be given the opportunity to debate a motion to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges."
Update: Alan Duncan and Bernard Jenkin both raised this matter at Business Questions today - and got a rise out of Harriet Harman.
Mr Duncan said:
"Most of us in the House will be pleased that the case of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has now been satisfactorily resolved. Even though the issue became rather heated, surely we should now stand back and study the implications of what happened. May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to reflect on early-day motion 1307?
Will the Leader of the House support the motion that was originally tabled on the Order Paper before the Easter recess to ensure that the House can refer this matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges as soon as possible? Now is the best time to learn the lessons of this affair so that all the confusion can be cleared up for the future. It is no good her saying that the Attorney-General’s opinion was that there was no confusion, because there was. There is a perfectly good process available to us, and we should invoke it; will she confirm that she will co-operate in doing so?"
The Leader of the House of Commons replied:
"Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and the issues of parliamentary privilege that arose from it. The House has already made a resolution to refer the matter to a Committee of the Speaker, and I do not think that it would be a good idea to set up a twin-track approach. All the issues about entry on to the premises of Parliament, the searching of parliamentary offices and constituency correspondence and what is, or should be, available to the court can be considered by the Speaker’s Committee, which the House agreed should start its work after the criminal proceedings had come to a conclusion. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should set up a twin-track approach and a separate inquiry into the same issues via the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Alan Duncan: Different issues.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman says that, but he would need to explain why the Speaker’s Committee could not consider the issues that he is concerned about and believes need to be looked into. I am obviously keen for the House to be able to have all the issues that it wants resolved looked into, and I have no vested interest in the House not looking into them and coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I just do not want there to be a twin-track proposal or for us to undermine a resolution that the House has already made at your request, Mr. Speaker, that there should be a Speaker’s Committee to look into the matter."
Herewith the latest installment of the romantic comedy starring Alan Duncan and Harriet Harman. Business questions took place yesterday.
Mr Duncan went first:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I thank her also for her thorough answer to my question last week about NHS trusts replying to Members’ letters. It is encouraging that we can sometimes work together constructively on issues that affect all hon. Members and, more importantly, our constituents.
May I, however, protest that convention has been discarded by the Government’s somewhat offensive decision to stick a topical debate in ahead of the second day of the Budget debate, which is traditionally opened by the shadow Chancellor? Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to reverse that unacceptable decision?
Yesterday, the Government promised that there would be an announcement on the inquiry into the Iraq war on 31 July, a full 10 days after the start of the summer recess. Quite simply, that is not acceptable. Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to give us a statement on the remit and intent of that inquiry before we rise for the summer?
Once again, I stand here to request an urgent debate on Equitable Life. On Monday, the parliamentary ombudsman launched an excoriating attack on the Government’s contemptuous treatment of her recommendations, and today in Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary compounded that by treating policyholders and this House with utter contempt. Because the Government’s response has been, as the ombudsman put it, a betrayal of justice, and they have ignored her recommendations, she has decided for the first time ever to invoke powers to produce a follow-up report. When will we have such a debate, and when will the people affected be compensated?
May we have a debate on the work ethic of Members of Parliament? Last week, we heard complaints from the Labour Chief Whip that at least 5 per cent. of his own MPs were completely idle. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Well, exactly. Today, the Government have lost three votes in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, because Labour MPs, including a Minister, did not even bother to turn up. In the interests of value for money, which the public expect, may I invite the Leader of the House—I hear calls for this from behind me—to list the 5 per cent. by name?
The love affair between Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman seems to be well and truly over. Or perhaps this is just the latest twist in a romantic story that trumps anything in classic English literature.
Business of the House Questions came around again yesterday. Mr Duncan was in bullish form:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Her response to me last week about the encampment and the harassment by protesters in Parliament square was, I am sorry to say, painfully inadequate. When will she undertake to give a full report to the House so that we can cut through the bureaucratic nonsense governing the issue and remove what has become a permanent embarrassment to British democracy?
May we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Yesterday we heard from the Health Secretary the miserable tale of Stafford hospital. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm to the House that the same senior management who were so devastatingly criticised by the Healthcare Commission on Tuesday saw their salaries doubled in 2008, and that one has been appointed to a Government watchdog? Is it not the clearest possible demonstration of Labour’s priorities towards the health service that while they spent their time lining the pockets of a failed management team, there were patients lining the walls of a filthy accident and emergency ward who were dying of neglect?
Lying behind this is, I sense, a growing problem with how health trusts and other public bodies are treating correspondence from Members of Parliament. Too often, Members’ letters about a constituent are fobbed off by being sidelined into a complaints procedure designed for another purpose, and also by hiding behind data protection. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that when an MP writes to a chief executive they should receive a letter back from that chief executive, that getting a letter from an MP should be regarded as a priority, and that any failure to treat an MP’s letter properly should be a disciplinary offence, even resulting in dismissal?
We are still waiting for the Government’s long-delayed strategic review of reserve forces. We all have reservists in our constituencies. When will we get an announcement, and can the Leader confirm that it will be a full oral statement?
Today 144 further education colleges have their building programmes frozen, and this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the Minister responsible for further education—or should I say, the Minister requiring further education?—offered no reassurance that the Government would prevent those colleges from going bankrupt. May we have an urgent debate to discuss the future of those institutions, which offer vital training to the rapidly rising number of people facing unemployment?
I reported yesterday that Shadow Communities Minister Paul Goodman was being stonewalled over the details of funding for the "violent extremism pathfinder fund".
Mr Goodman and Alan Duncan (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons) both raised the issue at Business Questions today. Mr Duncan asked the Leader of the House of Commons (Harriet Harman):
"The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is obstructing the publication of details about where money has been spent on the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund, even though the details were published for last year. Ministers are accountable to Parliament, especially on the spending of money. This appears to be unacceptable behaviour from the Secretary of State and brings her and this place into disrepute. Will the Leader of the House convey to the Secretary of State the displeasure of the House and seek a full apology from her along with the information to which hon. Members are fully entitled?"
Ms Harman replied:
"The hon. Gentleman talked about the accountability of the Department for Communities and Local Government for local spending. Obviously, the Department wants to answer parliamentary questions and be accountable for its spending. There is no attempt not to be open about what we regard a very important programme of ensuring that the police work for greater security. We also work with local communities to ensure that we prevent radicalism and extremism."
Mr Goodman later chipped in:
"I return to the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund, which I raised yesterday on a point of order and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) raised today from the Front Bench. I have in my hands details of where every single penny from the fund went last year, which were placed in the Library. The Department for Communities and Local Government is refusing to place in the Library the equivalent details for this year. It must follow either, as was suggested to me yesterday by the Secretary of State’s private office, that the Department no longer holds details of the fund, in which case there is no guarantee that money is not falling into the hands of extremists and violent extremists, or that it is refusing to put the information in the Library, which is a discourtesy to Members in all parts of the House and involves withholding information that the public have a right to know. Will the Leader of the House use her good offices to get the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement from the Dispatch Box about the matter, which is of exceptional seriousness?
Ms Harman: There is no intention to withhold any information about public money being spent. We are proud of the Prevent programme, which is designed to combat extremism. I suggest that I write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and ask her to meet the hon. Gentleman in order to resolve the issue amicably. I look to hon. Members to support the idea that Government take a role and take responsibility—
Mr. Goodman: Where is the money going?
Mr. Speaker: Order. When the hon. Gentleman asks for a reply from the Leader of the House, he should calm down and listen. It may not be to his liking, but he must calm down.
Ms Harman: It is right that the Government should put into the hands of local authorities funds so that they can work with community groups in their area to help divert young people away from extremism and to support community organisations that are trying to tackle extremism. I deplore the idea that some sort of hue and cry is being set up to smear this important programme. If the Opposition want information, the Secretary of State will give them the relevant information and ask for their support for the programme in their areas."
This now looks like a scandal. The Government should publish the full details of where monies from the violent extremism pathfinder fund are going this year - immediately. Something is rotten, and we have a right to know what it is.
Perhaps much of the money has not been disbursed swiftly and is sitting in a bank account. That would be embarrassing. Or maybe it has been given to some unsavoury organisations. That would be worse.
Regardless, I for one want to know what's going on.
Update: Daniel Hannan is also outraged at the democratic deficit.
Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House at Business Questions, and Anne Main, Julie Kirkbride and Christopher Chope later, all pressed yesterday for full parliamentary scrutiny of the Bank of England's momentous decision to start printing £75bn of extra banknotes:
Alan Duncan: "Why are we not being given a statement, even today, on the economy? Can we not have a statement from the Government and a full debate on quantitative easing, so that Members can question the Government on how they intend to steer a course through inflation and deflation? The decisions being taken today are of the utmost gravity and will have profound effects on the economy for many years to come. They are desperate measures designed to address economic failure and collapse. When can we be told in clear terms exactly what the Government are doing and why?"
Harriet Harman: "The hon. Gentleman asked for more opportunity to discuss the economy. There will be a written ministerial statement later today about the decision by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee to ensure that the inflation target is met and that the economy does not fall below that target by putting extra money into the economy, which is described as quantitative easing. There will be an opportunity to debate the economic situation in Government time next Monday, as well as an Opposition debate on Tuesday on unemployment and a debate on business rates on the following Wednesday. On Monday week there will be a debate on industry and exports and on Tuesday week there will be a debate on the Welfare Reform Bill. There will be a great deal of further discussion on the economy in the next week or two."
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have just had an update from the Leader of the House that we have now gone to £75 billion quantitative easing, which is uncharted territory. I ask the Leader of House to consider arranging an emergency statement on the matter so that the House might debate it. Frankly, I am surprised that we are not at least being offered a topical debate on the matter, given that it was widely trailed on all the radio programmes this morning and is now a reality.
Mr. Speaker: I am not responsible for as and when Ministers come to give statements to the House, except when hon. Members ask for an urgent question. I can then call the Minister—
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker: If I can finish. I can then call a Minister to the House. I have no doubt that the deep concern that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) has mentioned will be noted.
Miss Kirkbride: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The announcement was only made at 12 o’clock, although it had been widely anticipated. Clearly, it is possibly the most significant economic move that any of us will see carried out by the Government and the Bank of England in our lifetime. Can you tell us whether Treasury Ministers have said that they are prepared to come to the House either today, or at the very latest tomorrow, to explain this enormously significant economic move?
Mr. Speaker: These things are up to Treasury Ministers. The matter has been put on the record by both hon. Ladies.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We sympathise with the position in which you are placed by the arrogance of the Government, but can you give us an indication of whether you would be prepared to consider an urgent question for tomorrow? The House happens to be sitting this Friday and there will be a lot of public interest in the major announcement that was made by the Government today.
Mr. Speaker: I am not suggesting that I will grant an urgent question, because it would be wrong of me to do so at this stage. Matters have been put on the record and the deep concern of hon. Members has been conveyed, and it will percolate through to Treasury Ministers. An application for an urgent question can be made in the usual way—[Interruption.] The Clerk reminds me it has to be done for 11 am. I used to work to a stopwatch when I was at Rolls-Royce.
There were more Business Questions in the House of Commons yesterday.
It became apparent that the touching truce between the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, and her opposite number Alan Duncan is at an end. Mr Duncan asked:
"Finally, on stepping down from jobs, may we have a debate on political blogs? I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Lady is aware of the blog of a Labour councillor from Hackney, who is convinced that he has a winning strategy for the Labour party. He has written what he calls his “unsolicited advice to Gordon”. He says:
“Harriet Harman has too many jobs and isn’t very good at hiding that she wants to add yours”—
“to the list. Removing her role as Party Chair will...remind her who is boss.”
So who is the boss? Who is wearing the trousers in the Labour party now? How many jobs does the right hon. and learned Lady hold, and is it not sadly the case that we have a crisis in the labour market, a crisis in the Labour party, a Prime Minister who will not apologise, and a Leader of the House who is unapologetic about wanting his job?"
Ms Harman responded:
"In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman made a load of snide remarks about the Prime Minister, and he made snide remarks about me, too. I am disappointed. I know my hon. Friends warned me, but I said the hon. Gentleman was different. They said, “He’s just a Tory. He’s the same as all the others,” but I said, “No, I think he’s different.” I even bought him a Valentine’s card, and I thought me might buy me, or rather get me, a little trinket from the Sultan of Oman. It is clear now that he is the same as all the others. He does not see things in the way that I do, and he does not believe in the things that I do—he does not believe in helping people, if they get into difficulties; I do. We started off well at the beginning of the year, but it’s over!"
I am told that when Ms Harman said she thought Mr Duncan "was different" he replied "But I am!" and brought the House down.
I think the occasional bit of light relief like this is welcome.
Sir George Young is chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. Yesterday he addressed the House of Commons.
His committee has published a report suggesting the end of "dual reporting" - whereby MPs have to report donations to both the Register of Members' Interests and Electoral Commission. The committee says that MPs should just record the donations on the Register and the Electoral Commission should then extract the information.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne and Health Secretary Alan Johnson are both thought to have been caught out by the current requirement to report to both bodies.
Herewith some highlights from Sir George's statement, which was supported by the Government:
"The reporting regime, which is one of the most demanding in the world, needs to be overhauled from time to time to ensure that it is both effective and proportionate. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that such an overhaul should be carried out once in each Parliament, and today’s package of proposals represents the overhaul in the present Parliament.
In addition to making changes that relate to the end of dual reporting, the revised guide clarifies existing rules, implements earlier decisions of the House—for example, on the employment of family members—and responds to developments outside this place, such as the development of new forms of investment vehicles. The final section of the revised guide sets out in greater detail than before the procedure for considering and investigating complaints that a Member has breached the rules. Many of the changes, however, and most of the red print in the revised guide are there to end dual reporting.
Members may well ask, “Well, what is the catch?” I do not believe there is a catch, but there is certainly some give as well as some take. Members will need to provide more information to the registrar than they did previously. However, this will be offset by the removal of any need to report the same information to the commission, and a single form will be provided for this purpose.
Although hon. Members will no longer have to provide information on permissible donations and loans directly to the Electoral Commission, the commission will remain under a statutory obligation to publish all the relevant information as soon as is reasonably practicable. That means that the commission will publish information on its register within one month of receipt. In order to avoid a four-month gap opening up in the commission’s register, it will be necessary to return to the previous practice of requiring Members to register their interests within one month of their election or re-election to the House, rather than within three months, as at present. Separate deadlines for information required under statute and for information required under resolutions of the House would create confusion and lead to error, and the Committee therefore considers it preferable to have a single deadline."
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Alan Duncan also commented. He found the matter more complicated than he had anticipated:
Today in the House of Commons Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House, called for a debate on moral authority. This comes in light of Carol Thatcher's sacking from The One Show for calling a tennis player a golliwog, and the Jonathan Ross / Russell Brand / Andrew Sachs affair.
Mr Duncan said:
"May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?"
I expect that some readers will accuse Mr Duncan of nanny statism, or censorship, or failing to mind his own business. However, a debate on this issue is a good idea. People in the public eye often lose their job for saying something controversial while others get off scot-free.
Often there is a post-hoc widespread sense that there has been an over-reaction. But in the case of Jonathan Ross, many people feel that his behaviour was outrageous and that he is jolly lucky to have kept his fantastically well-paid job. This lack of consistency can be frustrating, especially when a friend has been harshly treated.
So it could be a good idea to talk about what is hurtful and intolerably offensive and what is fair game. The trickier area is Mr Duncan's talk of a code "agreed by everyone". This of course will not happen. There will never be unanimity on what level of mockery can be levelled at religion, for example. And debate will always rage about what is and what isn't racist.
But we should not flap about what Mr Duncan said this afternoon. He is a freedom-loving guy (and has a wicked sense of humour), and I don't think he will want to impose severe restrictions on speech.
So a debate is a good idea and we'll have to wait and see what is meant by an agreed code.
Perhaps I can offer some useful advice. I am a stand-up comedian, and I enjoy talking about controversial subjects and creating a frisson in the room. I can't guarantee that no-one will take offence. Sometimes I want people to take offence.
However, I wouldn't dream of having material that I felt I could only do if there wasn't, say, a black person in the room. Once you're making those kind of calculations, you're probably being unacceptably offensive and plain hateful. I often make jokes about race, but never racist jokes.
Likewise friends of mine will make clear their atheism when they're doing stand-up, and I don't believe they would rein it in for fear that a Christian might get upset - because they are bullish but not unkind in their humour.
If we substitute the term "common decency" for "political correctness", we may make the sort of progress that Mr Duncan wants.
The House of Commons has been pushed kicking and screaming into greater disclosure, and compares very poorly with the Scottish Parliament, where expenses have been public for years (and where expenses were put online only a few weeks after the order was given that they should be).
Mr Duncan began with a good-natured (probably) pop at his opposite number Harriet Harman:
"May I thank the Leader of the House for generously taking so many interventions and for the thoroughness with which she has treated this topic? That is appreciated on both sides of the House. May I also express my gratitude for her earlier comments about my dress sense, my watch, my cufflinks and, not least, my interest in oil? They are especially appreciated coming from such a gentle flower of the aristocracy who has so aggressively embraced the working class.
Today will, I hope, represent a major step forward in everything that the House needs to do on the declaration of its expenses. The whole issue has given Parliament a wretchedly bad name for far too long, and there are deep wounds that need to be healed if we are to be seen as a sensible, honest, working institution by anyone in this country. We do not want to have a state of permanent war either across the Floor of the House or between this House and the press and public. Our reputation must be raised and we can achieve that only by being open and honest.
The other vexed issue accompanying the development of our allowances has been the implementation of freedom of information legislation. We have witnessed a long, slow train crash between what we do and what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires, which we have been unable so far to resolve. In the eyes of the public, that appears to be a requirement that we have always wanted to escape. The assumption of the Freedom of Information Act is that there should always be disclosure. However, the other side of the disclosure equation is that if such disclosure collides with data protection it may not be necessary. In the Freedom of Information Act, as it applies to this House or to anyone else, there is therefore always a permanent tension between openness and privacy. There are always exceptions in other fields on what is published. We can all accept that when there is a legitimate matter of security and the safety of the individual, and the revelation of certain details that could be taken wrongly and abused by other people, privacy is very important.
The other side of the equation, which affects us uniquely, is the fact that when it comes to the need to reveal information we are at the top of the scrutiny pyramid. We are elected. We choose that, and through election we become permanently in the public gaze. Even High Court judges are not quite in the same category, nor even permanent secretaries, and certainly not middle-ranking— [ Interruption. ] I shall set the BBC to one side for the moment. Middle-ranking civil servants are certainly never expected to be in the public gaze and they are just that—civil servants. We must accept that we are the people who are most expected to come clean about how we spend the allowances that are granted to us. I think that we have been very slow to accept that that scrutiny is legitimate and that we are in an almost unique category.
We need to move on and make this place work better, and to make people realise that this is an honest Parliament. It is probably more honest than any other that I know in the world, and it is here to serve people. People would benefit from respecting it—they may even want to be elected to it—and from appreciating what we all try to do for our constituents. That would enhance our democracy instead of causing it to decay."
The new Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Alan Duncan, seems to be throwing himself into his new role with gusto. Yesterday he took part in Business Questions:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and, in turn, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement just now.
Apart from a short exchange on a point of order yesterday, this is my first formal encounter with the right hon. and learned Lady. May I say to her and the House that I am delighted to have been appointed her shadow? I have always held a dangerously romantic affection for the House of Commons, and it looks as though my teenage years spent reading Hansard and “Erskine May” under the duvet might now finally pay off.
I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me while I hold this position to work towards three principal objectives: to explore all ways of making Parliament work better for Britain; to help overcome the low reputation of Parliament in the eyes of much of the press and the public; and to take an understanding of Parliament and our democracy into schools, so that younger people can overcome their instinctive derision for politicians. As shadow Leader of the House, one must work on many levels. One must be able to work on a non-partisan basis of trust as well as take part in vigorous exchanges of political difference. I undertake to do both."
He went on:
"Yesterday, we saw the release of the latest figures which show unemployment racing towards 2 million, and most forecasters predict that this year it will burst through 3 million. Today, the value of sterling is at its lowest point for nearly 25 years. The exchange rate is the price tag put on our country’s value by the rest of the world, and it is plummeting. Why, if this is a global phenomenon, is Britain in so much worse a position than other countries across the globe? It is increasingly difficult to persuade the Government to debate the future of the economy in Government time. Only last week, we had to drag Ministers to the House to explain the announcement of their loans guarantee scheme. Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on telling everyone how brilliant he is, the Government’s reticence on the economy seems rather strange. In the interests of recognising the saviour of the world’s achievements over the past few months, may we now have a full debate in Government time on the state of the British economy and how we can escape from the Government’s mishandling of our livelihoods?"