By Paul Goodman
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With debt doubled and the deficit high - on one count, it hasn't fallen - cutting beer duty is a frippery. Furthermore, government must tax something and, this being so, I'd rather tax spending than income. In particular, there's a strong case for "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as long as they're not set at a level which encourages evasion and smuggling. None the less, I'm no longer a politician, and can see that there are benefits in the budget's beer duty cut not only for George Osborne, but for beer drinkers (a bit) and the brewing industry (rather more).
So congratulations to Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Burton and Uttoxeter, Chairman of the Parliamentary Beer Group...and seasoned, effective political campaigner. (He was Eric Pickles's Chief of Staff when the latter was Party Chairman.) I suspect that Griffiths didn't join the Beer Group just because he likes a pint. The brewer Molson Coors is based in Burton, and Griffiths will thus have been nursing his constituents' interests by pushing for the cut. He's given an interview to his local paper, the Burton Mail, about how the campaign was won.
By Peter Hoskin
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With the Budget less than a couple of weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to collect some of the recommendations being put to George Osborne by Tory parliamentarians. Of course, the parliamentarians listed below may want other measures too – and there may be other parliamentarians who want what they want – but I’ve tried to go with the most prominent examples from the past few weeks. If you think I’ve missed anyone off, please do shout out in the comments section, or email me on pete @ conservativehome.com (without the spaces).
Robert Halfon MP: The reinstatement of the 10p tax rate
Robert explained how and why he wants the 10p rate of income tax reinstated in a recent article for ConservativeHome. Here’s a snippet:
“When Labour brought in the 50p income tax-rate, it cost HMRC something like £7 billion pounds overnight, as people changed their behaviour to avoid the new tax. This year, the Coalition will cut that 50p income tax-rate down to 45p, because this is expected to raise more money from the rich, not less. The message of the campaign at CutTaxTo10p.com — or, alternatively GreatGordonBrownRepealBill.com — is that we should use every extra penny raised from this to restore the 10p basic rate of income tax, to help lower earners. Added to the Universal Credit, this will help stop disincentives to employment, and to ensure that work always pays.”
He also discussed the policy on the Daily Politics today.
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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Yesterday's debate on the Lords Reform Bill was heated, yet relatively polite. I noticed far more speakers against reform of the Lords than for - perhaps because pro-reform Tories knew, the programme motion having been withdrawn, that they would win the Second Reading vote easily (thanks to Labour votes).
Many Tories early in the debate - the initial stages took the form of Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, and his Shadow, Angela Eagle, giving statements on behalf of their leaderships - gave answers which followed the format of "Of course the current Lords is indefensible, but so is this Bill". Gareth Johnson (Dartford) did not take that line. He was proud to be in favour of the Lords' position as an unelected house:
"I have never defied the party line before, and it is something I hope not to do throughout my time in Parliament, but the Bill is fundamentally wrong. I have been a loyal supporter of both the Government and my party, but I am proud to be British, proud of our constitution and proud of our Parliament. The other place forms an essential part of our constitution, our heritage, history and culture, and once it is gone, it is gone. Seven hundred years of history will be undone if we support the Bill. I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say, “I did not forsake the British constitution. I said no.”"
"I may be in a small minority, but I am one of those people who do not become infected by the view that we must have a democratic House of Lords. I do not want a democratic House of Lords, and that is precisely why I shall vote against the Bill. I want objectivity, expertise, experience and wisdom, all the qualities that we are told so often that we do not have in this House. I do not want Members of the House of Lords to be subject to the electoral and party pressures to which we may be subject here."
By Matthew Barrett
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Since the interview with a recently-departed senior Nick Clegg aide, Richard Reeves, in this morning's newspapers, which intimated there would be consequences for the Government's boundary review if backbench Tories vote against stopping debate on Lords reform, a number of Tory MPs have appeared in the media to express their thoughts - from frustration to amusement - at the Lib Dems' threats.
"The idea that a fundamental and irreversible constitutional change should be pushed through with the usual whipping and guillotining that happens on more routine bills is just unthinkable. Coalition policy was to seek a consensus on House of Lords reform and I think it’s pretty clear to anyone watching this debate that they failed to achieve a consensus."
Secondly, Peter Bone (Wellingborough), appearing on the Daily Politics show, was asked how he felt being threatened by the Lib Dems. He replied:
"Quaking in my boots. ... They just can’t be trusted. I mean, the deal was they got this wretched AV vote in return for the boundary review. They all voted for that bill, I actually voted against the bill, and now because they didn’t get what they wanted in the AV they’re now saying ‘well it’s all about House of Lords reform.’ ... House of Lords reforms were bringing forward proposals, seeking agreement, but nothing about legislation. The Prime Minister said it was a third term priority. A consensus is a consensus, and we’re still seeking it. We haven’t quite made it yet."
By Jonathan Isaby
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I have already covered Conor Burns' sideswipe at Lord Heseltine from the debate on Lords reform, but what else happened during the debate?
Overall, one got the impression that (with a few exceptions) the Conservative benches were highly sceptical about an elected second chamber - including many who are usually deemed to be supporters of the Government.
Later in his speech, Conor Burns spoke in favour of the status quo - ie a fully appointed chamber - and then considered what parties had promised in their manifestos:
"I wish to deal briefly with the argument that reform was in every party’s manifesto. It was, to some degree, and the Liberal Democrats, who had the most pro-reform manifesto commitment, got 23% of the vote in the general election. Labour, which was slightly more lukewarm, got 29%, and the Conservatives, who were the most lukewarm, got 36%. There is almost an argument that if we want to do things on the basis of what was in the manifestos, we should remember that the most people voted for the party that was most lukewarm on the issue. We have to ask ourselves, as at the time of Maastricht, when all three Front-Bench teams are united on something, how do those who dissent make their view known?
By Jonathan Isaby
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He asked the DCLG "on what dates representatives of the Audit Commission dined with representatives of the National Audit Office paid for by the public purse since 2007-08; in which restaurants each meal took place; and at what cost".
The Audit Commission is of course responsible for auditing the spending of taxpayers' money and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced its abolition last year. It has come in for criticism before over its profligacy with public funds.
Anyhow, the following reply to Griffiths enquiry came back from the chief executive of the Audit Commission, Eugene Sullivan:
The Commission has paid for meals with the NAO on five occasions since 2007/08:
The Commission dined with the NAO on three occasions where the Commission did not pay.
It is unclear whether or not the NAO footed the bill for those latter three engagements.
Andrew Grififths responded thus:
"The Audit Commission continues to make a mockery of its position as the council spending watchdog. These latest revelations of quangos dining quangos are an insult to the taxpayers it was set up to protect and represent the culture of waste allowed to fester under a Labour government. By opening up the books and shining a spotlight on waste, it is thanks to this Government that people can now see the abuse of taxpayer funds that Labour and its cronies spent years trying to cover up. We will continue to root out waste of public expenditure and lead the way in ensuring taxpayers get value for money."
Thirty-nine pubs are closing each and every week. The all-party save the pub group secured a Westminster Hall debate last week to highlight the problem and discuss solutions. Contributions from MPs are extracted below.
Karen Bradley MP said pubs are socially useful: "The group shares a belief that the British pub is an important part of this country's history and heritage, and that pubs are hugely important to the communities they serve as a focus for community, social, sporting and charitable activity. The traditional public house also provides a sociable and controlled drinking environment, which is important to encourage responsible sociable drinking."
Jack Lopresto MP says the smoking ban should be relaxed: "Overall, the smoking ban has been positive. It has improved the environment of pubs no end, especially for those that rely on serving food as a key part of their business, and it makes for a much more pleasant experience for most people who are non-smokers. It has also made pubs more family friendly. But there needs to be a re-think on having a dedicated smoking area inside buildings, with extractor fans, where no children would be allowed and no food would be served. I realise that this would not be possible in every case, but it would allow many pubs to utilise extra space or even have a smoking bar and non-smoking bar or room/lounge-whatever-and end the practice of smokers being thrown outside in all weathers at any time of day or night, with the problems that can be caused with disturbance to local residents who live close by. That would generate a significant increase in business for pubs that are currently struggling and it could make the difference between a pub staying open or closing."
Thérèse Coffey MP said that pubs should offer diverse services: "We must also encourage other income streams; I think of what is happening with post office essentials. If a pub is open from 11 until 11, there is no reason why one cannot buy stamps and get driving licence forms and so on there. There are also aspects such as the internet hub. We have the digital village pump, and I know that schemes are afoot already to try to ensure that it is near the pub, so that people can use the internet there as well. Of course, we had the endorsement of His Royal Highness Prince Charles in 2001, when he spoke about the pub as the hub. On that note, I raise my glass and toast the future of British pubs. Cheers, everyone."
Maiden speeches are often used by MPs to speak up for local industries in their constituencies.
Here are three such example from this week:
"Aberconwy is a diverse constituency. It is dependent on tourism, with Llandudno, which I have mentioned, the queen of Welsh resorts, in the centre of the constituency, and locations such as Conwy with the castle of Edward I, Llanfairfechan and Betws-y-Coed in the Snowdonia national park. There is no doubt that tourism is an important industry within the constituency. Agriculture, on the other hand, has seen a decline during the past 10 years. The agriculture industry, which is centred on the market town of Llanrwst in my constituency, is in need of support.
"While I am in the House, I will try to support the tourism industry and ensure that it is not seen as a Cinderella industry. In our part of Wales it is crucial to creating employment and retaining young people in the area. In the same way, we need to develop the food sector and the food industries by working with farmers and the agriculture sector. I would like to see the development of real opportunities for businesses to be created in the food sector in my constituency."
"We desperately need to support the brewing industry that is so vital to Burton. We have seen a haemorrhaging of pubs, and of the strength of the brewing community, as a result of 13 years of the last Government. I hope that the new coalition will act to right that wrong as well. Tony Blair told us that the late-licensing laws would usher in a café culture, but that is certainly not what we are finding in Burton, where in just a few weeks there have been a fatal stabbing and two brutal beatings—all as a result of people spilling out of late-night drinking establishments.
"I hope that the new coalition Government will do something for the brewing industry and the people of Burton, and tackle our late-licensing problem. I also hope that they will introduce measures to prevent below-cost selling in supermarkets. We are seeing too many young people drinking in parks, and going out to drink when they have already consumed too much alcohol.
"Finally, I hope that the Government will introduce the “smart taxes” that were proposed in our manifesto. The last Government, with a Scottish Chancellor, did very well for the Scottish whisky industry. I believe that our proposals to tax the bad and reduce the taxation on low-strength alcohol will help to tackle binge-drinking, and also to support the brewing industry in Burton."
"The Selby and Ainsty seat does its bit for energy production with two large coal-fired power stations: Drax and Eggborough. Drax alone provides 7% of the UK’s electricity needs. It has plans to build three new large-scale dedicated biomass plants alongside the co-firing facility at its existing coal-fired station, which could result in Drax becoming responsible for supplying at least 15% of the UK’s renewable power and up to 10% of total UK electricity. The total renewable capacity could be enough to power 2 million homes, which is the equivalent output of 2,000 wind turbines."
He also outline his opposition - like Chris Heaton-Harris before him - to onshore wind farms:
"Regular readers of the Selby Times and The Press in York—I am sure that there are many of those in the House this afternoon—will be aware that in the seat there are several controversial applications, including for onshore wind farms and incinerators, which are causing great concern to local residents. A total of 30 turbines are in planning, each over 400 feet high and taller than power station cooling towers. More are being scoped by developers. If all the applications go ahead, the landscape of our district will be blighted by a forest of windmills that will do little to meet our desire to reduce carbon emissions. I agree that wind power should play a part in a mix of renewable sources, but it would be a better idea to install them where the wind blows fairly regularly: offshore."