By Peter Hoskin
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It’s no surprise that Tory MPs are joining Douglas Alexander in seeking a recall of Parliament ahead of any military action in Syria. After all, 81 of them signed a letter to David Cameron in June, demanding a vote on any decision to dispatch British arms to the rebels.
And it’s also no surprise that the author of that letter, Andrew Bridgen, is among the most insistent voices this time around, now that missiles appear poised to strike at Assad. “We need to recall Parliament immediately, if that’s what’s on the table,” is how he put it on the radio yesterday. “I want to hear what the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary has to say at the despatch box.”
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in Parliament, Richard Bacon, a Conservative backbencher, tried to introduce a Bill which would repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. One of Mr Bacon's lines of argument was that the legal requirement for Ministers to amend legislation - without a vote in Parliament - in order to comply with European human rights legislation - is "fundamentally undemocratic":
"Under section 10, a Minister of the Crown may make such amendments to primary legislation as are considered necessary to enable the incompatibility to be removed by the simple expedient of making an order. In effect, because the accepted practice is that the United Kingdom observes its international obligations, a supranational court can impose its will against ours. In my view this is fundamentally undemocratic."
Mr Bacon also compellingly argued that the controversial social issues that judges often like to get involved in should be decided by "elected representatives and not by unelected judges":
"[T]here is no point in belonging to a club if one is not prepared to obey its rules. The solution is therefore not to defy judgments of the Court, but rather to remove the power of the Court over us. ... Judges do not have access to a tablet of stone not available to the rest of us which enables them to discern what our people need better than we can possibly do as their elected, fallible, corrigible representatives. There is no set of values that are so universally agreed that we can appeal to them as a useful final arbiter. In the end they will always be shown up as either uselessly vague or controversially specific. Questions of major social policy, whether on abortion, capital punishment, the right to bear firearms or workers rights, should ultimately be decided by elected representatives and not by unelected judges."
By Matthew Barrett
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The Daily Mail this morning reports on the 118 Conservative MPs who have written to constituents indicating their opposition to gay marriage proposals. The Mail says "Their opposition has been expressed in letters and emails sent to constituents who have contacted them with their own concerns", and points out that if these MPs voted against proposals, it would constitute the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times. However, Equalities Minister (and Secretary of State for Culture) Maria Miller pointed out on Twitter that since any vote on the issue would be a free vote, it would not technically be counted as a rebellion.
I have listed the MPs from the Mail's story below.
By Tim Montgomerie
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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism worked with Newsnight on the Lord McAlpine story and questions about its conduct and biases are now swirling. A quick look at its website gives a clear idea of its targets.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen has just tabled this Early Day Motion:
"That this House deplores the appalling quality of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s investigation into Lord McAlpine for Newsnight, notes that the former Managing Director of BBC Television, Will Wyatt, described it as ‘completely terrible journalism’, notes that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has previously criticised Help for Heroes, believes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is totally discredited as a serious producer of quality journalism, regrets that the investigation has taken attention away from other very serious allegations of child abuse, and calls on the following organisations to cut all ties and refuse to donate any more money to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: City University, The David and Elaine Potter Foundation, Oxfam, The Green Park Foundation, Stamp Out Poverty, Save the Children and The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust."
Mr Bridgen has also written this letter asking the Bureau to detail the payments it has received from the BBC and to return those fees:
By Matthew Barrett
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Since details of the reshuffle have emerged, Tory MPs, especially on the right of the party, have been reacting positively to David Cameron's appointments.
"I am on the whole very pleased with what has been done. There's another purpose why you need reshuffles. There is always a need to curb public spending and ministers become attached to their departmental budgets and therefore the Treasury needs to have new ministers who will look at their departmental budgets with fresh eyes and find ways of further savings and that is particularly necessary at the present time."
He had specific praise for Owen Paterson's promotion:
"I am very pleased to see in this reshuffle the promotion of Owen Paterson. Owen Paterson is little known to the British public because he has been Northern Ireland Secretary, so he is well known there, but really little known elsewhere. He is in fact one of the most able and promising young men or women around the Cabinet and therefore his promotion to Environment is extremely welcome….he is a man of reason and sense."
"I think the reaction from the backbenches is that this reshuffle is quite a lot more extensive than we actually predicted. So it is far more radical. But at the end of the day, these reshuffles are of great interest for those of us in the Westminster bubble and the media out there, but I think the people, your viewers, are really interested in policy, not necessarily personality, and it’s about reinvigorating the Government and pushing those policies forward to deliver economic growth that’s going to get the country out of recession."
By Matthew Barrett
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Robert Halfon, the Member of Parliament for Harlow, and one of the most successful campaigning MPs in Parliament, has organised a motion, backed by 60 MPs from all parties, and including 41 Tories, calling for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate allegations of price-fixing by British oil companies. The full motion is worded as follows:
"That this House urges the OFT to investigate oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency actions being taken in other G20 nations to cut fuel prices, for example President Obama strengthening Federal supervision of the U.S. oil market, and increasing penalties for “market manipulation”, and Germany and Austria setting up a new oil regulator, with orders to help stabilise the price of petrol in the country; finally urges the Office of Fair Trading to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms active in the UK, after allegations of price-fixing."
By Paul Goodman
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8.45pm Update by Matthew Barrett: I have now learned which candidates are being backed by the traditional organisations on the right of the Conservative Party, such as the No Turning Back group. I have highlighted these in purple.
The following have been returned unopposed:-
Posts for which elections will take place (I have marked those previously identified by Tim as members of the 301 slate in blue):
1) Secretary - the following nominations have been received for TWO posts:
NICK DE BOIS
2) Executive members - the following nominations have been received for TWELVE posts.
PRITI PATEL - Priti Patel is being backed by both the 301 group, and the right of the Party.
Finally and separately, the following nominations have been received for Conservative members of the Backbench Business Committee - four posts:
By Paul Goodman
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Last year, the Prime Minister flew to Brussels amidst rumour of a leadership challenge if he didn't achieve at least a token repatriation of power.
Today, he faced the Commons not only with no such repatriation realised but with his veto - so rapturously greeted at the time by Conservative MPs - arguably valueless, since it's now clear that he won't challenge the principle of the EU institutions being used to enforce the F.U agreement.
Yet there was no mass revolt from his backbenches, and no revival to date of the leadership challenge rumours. What explains this change in the Tory atmosphere? I hope to explore the question in detail soon, but will for the moment rest with an answer I've cited before.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Andrew Bridgen MP (who writes a good piece on health and safety red tape on ConHome today) recently put a written question asking how much the €uro Implementation Unit cost UK taxpayers.
Mark Hoban, Treasury Minister, has just replied:
The cost of the Euro Preparations Unit in each year since its inception is difficult to ascertain, since much of the expenditure has been grouped within other departmental costs. An estimate of spending in those years that separate data were available is set out in the following table:
By Joseph Willits
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In a Parliamentary debate on Armed Forces Personnel yesterday, Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey rather poignantly assessed the state of the military now, compared with the First and Second World Wars.
Harvey paid his respects to those killed in military combat. "Remembrance" he said, "is not a political occasion" but "about recognising that the real price of war... is a human price—a price paid not just by those who have died but by their families and by all those who have returned wounded, physically or mentally".
The armed forces today, he said "are different in many ways from those who fought on the Somme or at El Alamein", and that conscription then, was a "reflection of the existential threat facing the country at that time". Harvey stated that public awareness of the military had "declined" and was not "woven deeply into the fabric of the nation" as it once was. He suggested two reasons for the said decline; the numbers of those "who fought in the world wars or undertook national service" has dwindled, and service downgrades "since the end of the cold war." Harvey was careful to emphasise a decline in perception and awareness of the armed forces, rather than respect for them. "The people of Royal Wootton Bassett [who] chose to mark the return of the fallen is surely testament to that", he said.
By Paul Goodman
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Grovelling? Yes, let's face it: it happens. But not yesterday when the Prime Minister was questioned after his statement on Libya. Read Patrick Mercer on Islamism, Andrew Tyrie on torture, Peter Lilley on getting Libya to pay, Baron on intervention, Chisti on Syria. Plenty of pertinent questions
Also follow David Cameron being polite to Mark Pritchard, telling Rory Stewart that he shouldn't have gone to Libya recently, and being thrown for a moment by a very sharp question from Andrew Bridgen. Here are the exchanges in full from Hansard.
"Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): As someone who had reservations about the principle of intervention, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on a successful outcome in Libya? It was largely achieved by two aspects: first, it was legal; and secondly, it had the support of the Libyan people. Further to the previous question, however, will my right hon. Friend now use it as an illustration to persuade permanent members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China, that a well conducted intervention can be successfully used to restrain autocrats in countries such as Syria?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Everyone should have misgivings about such operations, and one should never have the naive belief that they are easy or that everything is going to go to plan. That very rarely happens, and we should always be hard-headed and careful about such things. We should also respect the fact that this is not done—this is not completed yet.
Also, I think that we should be very cautious about trying to draw up a new doctrine, because it seems to me that as soon as a new doctrine is established, a case comes up that flies completely in its face, but I do hope that other members of the Security Council will see that there has been success in removing a dictator, and in giving that country a chance of peaceful and democratic progress, which will be good for the world.
By Jonathan Isaby
The first of yesterday's opposition day debates in the Commons saw a Labour motion demanding a reversal in January's VAT rise with respect to road fuel and asking where the fuel duty stabiliser was - all in the name of the "hard pressed motorist".
The hypocrisy of Labour's position, given its record in government, was not lost on Conservative MPs, who proceeded to harry Angela Eagle, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was opening the debate.
Here is a selection of their interventions and her non-replies to their points:
Greg Knight: Will the hon. Lady help the House? Over the past 13 years, in every aspect of Government policy, the Labour Government were deliberately and decisively anti-motorist. Does the motion before the House today represent a seismic shift in policy, or is it, as we suspect, a transient spat of opportunism?
Ms Eagle: I am rather sorry that I gave way so early in my remarks to that kind of comment. I do not recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s caricature of our policies for motorists. Perhaps he has been reading too much of the Daily Express.
Robert Halfon: I find the Labour motion astonishing, because over the past few years the hon. Lady’s party crucified Harlow’s motorists by putting up fuel duty by 6% a year and increasing it more than 12 times—and it was going to introduce another tax.
Ms Eagle: I will come to the details of the motion later. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will do us the honour of staying in the Chamber and listening to that.
Charlie Elphicke: To clear up the addling of some minds in the House regarding the history of this matter, will she confirm that in 1997 duty was 36.86p and today it is 57.19p?
Ms Eagle: One has to remember that the price of petrol at the election was £1.20 a litre, at a time when the Conservatives were promising to cut 10p off the price of a litre because petrol prices were too high. It is now £1.32 a litre.
Brandon Lewis: Will she confirm that, despite what has been said, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) is right: there were 12 fuel duty rises under the Labour Government, and six more were set to come into force before they left office and would have done in the next few years?
Ms Eagle: As I said, we had six years when we did not even increase the price of fuel by inflation, so there were real-terms price falls. The number of increases in all sorts of duties tends to expand the more one is in government.
Andrew Bridgen: The Labour party’s apparent Damascene conversion on fuel taxes will amaze and intrigue the bulk of the electorate. Will the hon. Lady confirm whether she supported the crafty action of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, who effectively excluded fuel from a VAT reduction in 2008 by raising duty, and then put the VAT on fuel back up to 17.5% in January 2010?
Ms Eagle: One minute Government Members say that we have no plan to deal with the deficit, and the next minute they complain that we had a plan that would have raised money. They really do try to have it both ways and are not remotely coherent.
"The previous Government increased fuel duty four times in their last 16 months in office... They left many tax bombshells, but perhaps that pre-planned tax increase was the tax road mine. There was a pre-planned additional per pence increase on fuel and a pre-planned year-on-year RPI increase—the so-called escalator. Ironically and utterly bizarrely, we are today debating a Labour motion that goes against the policy introduced by the previous Labour Government.
"Listening to the Opposition is stunning. The outgoing Chief Secretary’s message to the incoming Government was that there was no money left. Worse than that, the previous Government had pre-planned increases, which were due to come in now... The bottom line is that it is outrageous for the Labour party to cry crocodile tears about tax increases that it had planned—it is disingenuous in the extreme, and shows that it has no credibility and no leadership on the issues that matter to people, such as motoring, which we are debating today. The audacity of the motion is stunning."
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Caroline Spelman has just made a difficult statement to the Commons, making a full U-turn on the Government's proposals to sell off some state-owned forests. She announced
Mrs Spelman said that she takes "full responsibility" for the situation and in particular takes the message from this experience that people cherish the forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring. She concluded:
"I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listend to people's concerns."
Later on I will try and include some of the reaction from Tory backbenchers.
In the meantime, do read my post from last Friday: Lessons for the Government to learn from the forests fiasco.
Nick Watt from the Guardian has already blogged to commend Caroline Spelman's execution of the U-turn and to criticise Labour's spokesman, Mary Creagh, for a laboured and ineffective performance.
He rightly observes that Creagh managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by speakng for far too long and claiming that Labour was the party of the countryside, which prompted Tory MPs all the more to go into bat for Spelman and aid her in attacking Labour's hypocrisy on the issue of forests.
Here's a selection of the contributions from the Conservative backbenches in response to her statement:
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford): The Secretary of State has had the honesty and guts to come here to say that she presented ideas to the British public, but the British public did not much like them, so she said sorry and came up with a new approach. Is it not instructive that that is in such amazing contrast to the behaviour of that lot on the Opposition Benches who, no matter how many acres of woodland they sold and no matter how much gold they sold and at what price, nevertheless ran our economy into the ditch, from which we are trying to dig it out?
By Jonathan Isaby
Two Tory MPs sought an update on the Government's plans to bring forward proposals to prevent unfair dismissal on grounds of age, to which Work and Pensions Secrteary Iain Duncan Smith replied:
"We are moving in that direction. Our changes will abolish the default retirement age, and we will make sure that people can no longer be kicked out of work because they have reached a certain age. By getting rid of that, we will improve the economy and help older people find work for a longer period, which is beneficial to the economy and beneficial for those people."
Supplementary exchanges then followed:
Robert Halfon (Harlow): In the recession redundancies have been higher among the over-50s than any other age group, including in Harlow. Many people, like my constituent, Kevin Forbes, who applied for more than 4,500 jobs, are worried that employment law is biased against older people. What are the Government doing, apart from what my right hon. Friend has just described, to make work fairer for the over-50s?
Iain Duncan Smith: The reality for companies and for those who are seeking work is that, because of the need for employment over the next few years, we will need more and more of the skills that are present in the age group to which my hon. Friend refers. Therefore, companies have to reach the sensible solution, which is that people who have those skills and ways of doing their jobs can stay in work much longer. The Work programme will be set up so that they can be helped back into work if they become unemployed. My concern is that companies should recognise that older workers have huge value, well beyond the cost of paying their wages.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North): Constituents in Northampton have raised with me the fact that they have been forced to retire because of their age before they were ready to do so. As I know my right hon. Friend accepts, older people offer a wealth of experience and skill. What progress have the Government made on the consultation on the default retirement age?
Iain Duncan Smith: The consultation has gone very well. We are sifting through the responses. There have been more responses than we anticipated. The vast majority have been positive, although there are some, in some areas of business, that were not as positive as we had hoped. We will publish those results and press on. I can guarantee to my hon. Friend and the rest of the House that we will press on with the issue.
Earlier in the session, Employment Minister Chris Grayling said that the new enterprise allowance would expand to become a nationwide scheme from next autumn, being launched initially on Merseyside before being rolled out nationally.
But Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) had a concern about the scheme:
"I welcome the fact that the enterprise allowance scheme, which had such a positive effect in the 1980s, is being reinstated. However, I have a concern about the eligibility criteria: one has to have been unemployed for six months or more to be eligible. The National Audit Office noted in the 1980s that the longer someone spent on unemployment benefit before going into self-employment, the less successful that tended to be. Given that, will the Minister consider reducing that time and allowing people who have been unemployed for less than six months to go on to the scheme?"
Chris Grayling replied thus:
"I would very much like to improve the support that we provide, but obviously we have to do that in the context of the finances that we have inherited from the Opposition. The big difference that the new scheme will make is that it will also take advantage of the expertise of existing business people. I hope that my hon. Friend, who has a strong track record in business, will look to become a mentor for one of the new business people. That is an important difference from the previous scheme; the new scheme offers both financial and practical support, and not just financial support."
By Jonathan Isaby
"That this House regrets the unnecessarily high costs and inadequacies of the systems introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA); calls on the IPSA to introduce a simpler scheme of office expenses and Members’ allowances that cuts significantly the administrative costs, reduces the amount of time needed for administration by Members and their staff, does not disadvantage less well-off Members and those with family responsibilities, nor deter Members from seeking reimbursement of the costs of fulfilling their parliamentary duties; and resolves that if these objectives are not reflected in a new scheme set out by the IPSA in time for operation by 1 April 2011, the Leader of the House should make time available for the amendment of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to do so."
The motion had been tabled by a cross-party group of MPs, but it fell to Conservative MP Adam Afriyie - who does not himself claim expenses - to move it, giving IPSA four months to change the way it handles MPs' expenses or face being reformed by new legislation.
Mr Afriyie said he wanted to highlight the way in which the current expenses system "unintentionally discriminates against MPs with family commitments and those who come from a less well-off background":
"The system seems almost designed to create a Parliament for the wealthy. If a Member does not have sufficient resources to subsidise themselves, they become ensnared in a vice-like grip designed to bring them into disrepute—they have to produce every single receipt for some sort of personal item. Wealthier Members or those with independent means, of course, can simply not claim. As I look around both sides of the Chamber, I know that probably not a single Member here has claimed everything that they are entitled to claim—first, through fear of the public and the media really having a go, or secondly, because it is too complicated and time-consuming to do so. We have to ask ourselves whether the public want such a system for their Parliament. The wealthy swan through, buy their way out of the system with no trouble at all and are treated as saints when they are nothing of the sort, and everyone else is stuck in the system."
"The current system causes inconvenience and makes things very difficult for Members with families and Members who are less well-off. It also causes problems, because Members are not making claims. Looking back at this year, and certainly over the past six months, I know that virtually every one of my colleagues—I have spoken to 350 MPs one-to-one—has not made the claims that they are entitled to make. That may be seen externally as a great success—“Look, IPSA has crushed the MPs, and they cost far less!”—but we all know that that is not the situation. We know that Members are borrowing from their parents, having to borrow cars from friends, and still sleeping on floors of offices, which they are not supposed to do, because they are not claiming what they rightfully should be able to claim. It is not a good situation.
"However, I am not moaning on behalf of existing MPs. I love all the MPs here, but I am not whingeing on their behalf. What I am concerned about is the functioning of Parliament for the next 100 years. Where will we be in 30 years’ time if we continue down this route where only the wealthy can serve? That is where we were before; I thought we had moved on. IPSA, I hope you are listening."
"The motion asks not for a system that involves looking into the individual lifestyle of every Member, but merely for a simplified system that recognises the variability in family arrangements. The motion asks not for a system that investigates the lifestyle, family arrangements and travelling habits of every MP, but for a simpler system that saves the taxpayer money, so that MPs can focus on the job at hand, whether or not they have a family."
"I am begging IPSA please to propose a scheme that sorts the problems out, and I hope that it will. It has the mandate of the House of Commons already, so it can do so. However, the motion states that if a scheme that can be put into operation by 1 April 2011 is not proposed, this place will act—not in our interests, but in the interests of our constituents and Parliament.
"I am now on the record as encouraging IPSA to come forward with a scheme, but we must be clear on timing. If a proposal is not forthcoming by, say, mid-January, it will be impossible to introduce a scheme before the beginning of the next financial year. Therefore, if the motion is carried, it is necessary for us to introduce a Bill or a statutory instrument or something, probably this side of Christmas, in case IPSA’s proposal is not the right one. Otherwise, we are trapped within the current system, and our constituents will suffer. The costs will be astronomically high for at least another year to a year and a half, and I fear that Members will begin to leave Parliament. The work of Parliament will continue to be impeded unless such changes are made."
"This is a sensitive issue and the public are understandably concerned. I am certain that tomorrow this debate will be reported as, “MPs whinge about their conditions and the independent body that controls them”, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about saving the taxpayer money and ensuring that MPs’ voices are heard and not hidden through fear of speaking out."
Other Conservative MPs contributing to the debate made a variety of points.