By Jonathan Isaby
We have already carried a report on the Standards Commissioner clearing Nadine Dorries of wrongoing, and also today comes news about two of the MPs who stood down during the Expensesgate saga - Julie Kirkbride and her husband, Andrew Mackay, formerly MPs for Bromsgrove and Bracknell respectively.
The question about Ms Kirkbride regarded whether she was "within the rules of the House in claiming interest on the increased mortgage she took out in order to build an additional bedroom in her home in Bromsgrove when it was used by her brother principally to assist her with childcare and when no allowance was made by her for the cost of his use of the property."
John Lyon, the Standards Commissioner, did not uphold the complaint against her.
Mr Mackay, meanwhile, faced questions over whether he was acting within the rules of the House "in identifying as his main home the Bromsgrove property he shared with his wife and fellow Member of Parliament, Ms Julie Kirkbride, when he knew that she had identified that home as her second home and would claim parliamentary allowances on it".
The Commissioner did uphold the complaint against him and the he Standards and Privileges Committee's conclusions about his case are as follows:
"We conclude that Mr Andrew Mackay breached the rules relating to second home allowances by wrongly designating his home in Bromsgrove as his main home for ACA purposes and because his claims against ACA for his London home were not beyond reproach. In our view, it should have been obvious to Mr Mackay that the arrangement whereby he and Ms Kirkbride each designated the other's second home as their main home, allowing both to be funded from Parliamentary allowances, was fundamentally wrong. It went beyond the purpose of the rules, which was to reimburse Members for the additional cost of maintaining a second home for Parliamentary purposes. The flaws in the arrangement should have been no less obvious to the Department of Resources and its predecessors, who should not have allowed it. But although this failure on the part of the House authorities may help to explain why Mr Mackay made and never corrected a serious misjudgement, the responsibility remains with him.
"We are very disappointed that, even after seeing the Commissioner's full report, Mr Mackay maintains that he did not break the rules, when it is quite clear that he did. Mr Mackay has already paid a high price for making such a serious misjudgment. The very fact that Mr Mackay is no longer a Member of Parliament shows what a heavy political price he has paid. He has also repaid a considerable sum of money. Nonetheless, we expect Mr Mackay, having read our Report, to apologise for the breach in writing. Had Mr Mackay still been a Member of this House, we would have recommended that he apologise on the floor of the House by means of a personal statement and we would have recommended a period of suspension from the service of the House."
Full report here.
During questions to the ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government yesterday, a torrent of Conservative MPs asked questions of Ian Austin - a junior minister and former aide to Gordon Brown - about Home Information Packs, demanding their abolition.
It's interesting to see the argument being deployed by Labour that abolishing the bureaucracy of Home Information Packs - as Conservatives are committed to do - will cost "thousands of jobs". Doubtless they will be deploying the same tactics when Conservatives talk about making cuts in the bloated public sector.
Here are the exchanges on the subject from yesterday afternoon:
David Amess: Whatever methodology the Department intends to use, is the Minister aware that Southend estate agents, without exception, believe that although HIPs may have been introduced with the best of intentions, in practice they have not worked out at all well and have damaged the housing market?
Ian Austin: I do not accept that at all. Despite a difficult housing market, evidence shows that HIPs actually speed up sales. I am not sure whether there is a branch of Connells estate agency in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but its survey of more than 37,000 transactions showed that sales with HIPs go through an average of seven days quicker.
Andrew Mackay: Why is the Minister in total denial? Nobody whatever thinks that HIPs work, and it would be sensible for the Government to knock them on the head before the election rather than have that albatross around their neck. For our part we are delighted that they are not doing so, but it is in his interests that he should.
Ian Austin: As always, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's advice, but I can tell him that thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process and 13,000 people have invested thousands of pounds in training as energy assessors. The Opposition need to explain why they want to put all those jobs and businesses at risk. He needs to tell all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on the process why the Opposition want to put them out of work.
Ministers from the ludicrously named Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills had questions in the House of Commons yesterday.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts asked about funding provision for apprenticeships:
"In a parliamentary answer on 20 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), assured me that funding will allow every person who has started an apprenticeship to complete it. So why are providers approaching us to warn that funding cuts for next year are so severe that they cannot be confident even of being able to maintain their current apprenticeships, let alone meet the Government’s ambitious targets for more apprenticeships? Will the Secretary of State consider our proposal for a nationwide clearing house for all apprentices who are now in danger of losing their apprenticeships before they are completed?
Mr. Denham: Two issues are involved. On the funding for apprenticeship training, it should not be the case that training providers are unable to pay for or receive funds for the completion of current apprenticeships. On the second issue of those who lose their jobs because their employers are unable to keep them in work as a result of the downturn, we already have a clearing house in construction apprenticeships, which is obviously one of the most pressured areas, and that has managed to place more than 600 apprentices; we have changed the rules so that an apprentice can continue training for up to six months at college even if they do not have an employer, so that their training is not interrupted; we have reached agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions that—this is unusual—apprentices will automatically be able to continue for up to 13 weeks seeking work solely in the line of occupation of their apprenticeship; and we are discussing with the DWP the best way of ensuring that apprentices whose technical training might be interrupted are able to do intensive work in college to complete their training. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that I think is feasibly possible to ensure that we continue to support apprentices who might lose their jobs while they are training.
Mr. Willetts: I heard what the Secretary of State said, but I have to tell him that there are training providers who, having seen the provisional proposals for their funding in 2009-10, are not sure that they will have the funding to continue providing the training for apprentices whom they have already recruited. We will be holding him to account for the assurance that he and the Under-Secretary have given. I warn the Secretary of State in respect of any thought he may have had that further education capital spending was under control. He has a plan for 50 per cent. of students to go to university next year, yet he has cut his plans for university student numbers so that it is absolutely impossible for that figure to be reached. Given the current funding pressures, will he consider suspending the reorganisation of all the quangos, which has been estimated to cost £140 million, and devoting that money instead to ensuring that apprentices and students are supported during this Labour recession?
Mr. Denham: I would remind the hon. Gentleman that on 5 January his party announced that it would be cutting my Department’s budget by £610 million in this financial year, and he has yet to reply to my letter of 15 January to explain where those cuts would fall, so he is not in a position to talk about this Department’s spending.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to follow up with me the points that he has made about training providers. I understand that although it is, of course, necessary to ensure that budgets are adhered to within the Learning and Skills Council on apprenticeships—he will entirely understand that—there should be no question of someone having the funding for an apprenticeship that they have already started withdrawn. I am perfectly happy to follow that issue up."
There is not room to record all the interventions here, but Conservative members were deeply concerned about the funding of institutions in their constituencies. There seems to be a disconnect between what is promised and what is delivered.
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Health questions were put in the House of Commons yesterday.
The situation at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which has been slammed by the Healthcare Commission for "appalling" emergency care at Stafford Hospital, stood out. Between 2005 and 2008 about 400 more people died there than would ordinarily have been expected.
Stone MP Bill Cash expressed his profound concern:
"Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State take account of the fact that I am repeating my call for an inquiry into this whole matter under the Inquiries Act 2005? Will he also make it clear that all those in that trust who are culpable, as set out in the Healthcare Commission report—that includes other senior management besides the chairman and the chief executive at the time—must be removed and not merely suspended on full pay?
Alan Johnson: As I just said, the investigation will involve everyone who has any position of authority within that trust—the whole board and all the executive directors. It will be a proper investigation and it will be fair, and the action taken will result from that inquiry, not from any knee-jerk reaction by me or anyone else."
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (above right) went on the same topic:
“we should be spotting these issues much earlier and getting rid of incompetent chief executives or chairpersons who, fortunately, are in the minority, rather than waiting for a report such as this, by which time, frankly, most of the damage has been done.”—[ Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 571.]
The Secretary of State knew about the failings at Stafford in May 2008, so why did he not intervene then and there?
Alan Johnson: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the Healthcare Commission’s report carefully. The difference between what happened in Stafford and in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and the fact that the Healthcare Commission took into account those words and what others said at the time, is that as soon as commission staff went into Stafford and saw the problems—in May 2008—they immediately called the chief executive to a meeting, put their concerns to him, and started to see the process of improvement. That is the job of the Healthcare Commission while it carries out its inquiry. The staff cannot say at that stage that they have come to any conclusions, and it would be unfair, one day into an inquiry, to reach conclusions and say that heads must roll and recommendations must be made. We made that specific point to the Healthcare Commission at the time of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, so in Stafford staff immediately introduced measures to put things right, rather than wait for the end of the process and the report to be published—as I said they should do in that quote.
The House of Commons hosted Culture, Media and Sport questions yesterday.
Andrew Mackay, Bracknell MP and one of David Cameron's right hand men, asked about the possibility of England hosting the World Cup. Would such a move be popular? The 2012 Olympic Games are not currently universally so.
"I warmly support the bid. Does the Secretary of State agree that in this very deep world recession the strongest case that we have to put at the next meeting with FIFA representatives is that we already have the infrastructure and ability to take on the games? In the present financial circumstances, FIFA would be ill advised to take a chance on a country that does not have the facilities already available.
Andy Burnham: The right hon. Gentleman makes a solid point, and I very much agree with him. FIFA is taking the World cup to South Africa and then to south America; I think it would be in everyone’s interest to have a World cup in 2018 that can do so much to reach out around the world. He is right that, because of our football grounds infrastructure, unlike others we can spend time working with other countries through our status as host nation. That is one of the compelling aspects of our bid. It feels to me that this is the right time for the country to get the FIFA World cup—not because we deserve it or because it is our turn, but because we can do so much more to enhance football around the world."
Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed the front bench's support:
"This is a new question. Given the good will towards the bid from both sides of the House, does the Secretary of State think it appropriate that nearly half the members of the bid board are from the Labour party? I know that he will be keen to maintain cross-party support, so will he make urgent representations to resolve the issue so that a potentially great sporting success is not compromised by party politics?
Andy Burnham: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I hope that he is not trying to make a party political issue out of the bid, because the strength of our Olympic bid was its cross-party nature. Might I point it out to him that there are figures linked to the bid who represent both political parties? The recent announcement that Lord Coe accepted an invitation to join the board is welcome. Party politics really should not play a part; this should be a bid that represents all opinion, all football supporters and, indeed, all people who love sport in this country. I am confident that the balance on the board properly reflects the interest in sport throughout the country."
I used to work at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, as a speechwriter for Seb Coe. I remain a supporter of the Games, as I believe that this country should be able to stage great events - and the World Cup is certainly one of those too.
What is crucial, of course, is that public money is spent wisely. The media often confuses the budget for the Games themselves - which is privately financed - with broader infrastructure and regeneration costs. And it does make sense to build first-class facilities which will endure rather than tin sheds. However, I am uncomfortable with the cost of some the venues.
Do readers support a bid to host the World Cup? Arguably we are even better placed to stage that tournament, having as we do lots of superb stadia and a love for the game. Dare we dream that we could win the trophy once again?!
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson yesterday challenged his opposite number Shaun Woodward.
The Secretary of State had announced that following advice from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, he was extending the weapons decommissioning amnesty to February 2010. This amnesty comes under the provisions of the 1997 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride (whose husband Andrew Mackay is a former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary) made a particularly persuasive point:
"Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?
Mr. Woodward: Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice."
Mr Paterson later weighed in:
"Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?
Mr. Woodward: The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.
Mr. Paterson: The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?
Mr. Woodward: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman that it would be possible through the usual channels to discuss with him further details, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him."
Conservative members are right to raise these concerns. Northern Ireland may be unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, but its residents are no less entitled to protection from gangsterism and violence than anyone else.
The Conservative MP for Bracknell made the suggestion during Justice questions yesterday.
Andrew Mackay MP: As one in five men reporting drug use admit that they started taking drugs in prison, we still clearly have a real problem. Would the Secretary of State consider stating that no prisoners should be released early from their sentence unless they are clear of drugs? Would that not be a great incentive?
Jack Straw, Justice Secretary: "Whether that figure is correct or not—self-reporting of levels of drug abuse, particularly by prisoners, tends to be rather imaginative to say the least—there is no doubt that we have a drug problem in prisons, which I do not underestimate. In the past 11 years, we have sought to strengthen the means of enforcement and greatly to improve treatment. I will certainly think about whether the sort of incentive—such as it would be—that the right hon. Gentleman mentions would work. In respect of indeterminate sentence prisoners and others who have to apply for parole, their behaviour in prison, and their readiness to undertake treatment programmes and comply with them, is one consideration in the determination of their release."
Andrew Mackay MP: How come it took until yesterday for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to condemn the Royal Mail strike? Could it have anything to do with the fact that, until the Prime Minister bottled at the weekend, he was expecting lots of funds from the Communication Workers Union to fight the election?
John Hutton MP: That is untrue. I have made it clear repeatedly since I have been in this job that the strikes should end. There has to be a sensible solution to this industrial dispute. My interest is to safeguard the investment that the taxpayer has made in this business and to ensure that the business can operate effectively in the liberalised market in which it operates. It is completely untrue to say that Ministers have been silent. We have made our views known on this matter repeatedly since the summer.
Mark Harper MP: The Secretary of State rubbishes the point made by my right hon. Friend, but over the past four years the CWU has made political contributions of £4.5 million, half of which has gone directly to the Labour party, with the rest being used for campaigning in the Government’s favour. This presents the Secretary of State with a huge conflict of interest, given that the Government are the sole shareholder in Royal Mail and a recipient of funds from the principal union involved.
John Hutton MP: There is absolutely no conflict of interest of any kind whatsoever. I have made it clear repeatedly, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that we will always speak up for the public and the taxpayer when it comes to the future of Royal Mail and the Post Office.
More from Hansard here.