By Matthew Barrett
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The Government has given the go-ahead for fracking licenses to be granted. Shale gas has the potential to transform our energy outlook, reducing our carbon emissions, reliance on foreign oil, and most importantly, prices.
Questions to the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, were held in the House yesterday. A number of Tory MPs, including Members local to the main fracking site in the North West, welcomed the decision to start exploiting shale gas.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) hailed the possibility of shale gas reducing fuel poverty:
"I want to see proper environmental safeguards and generous community benefits for the areas where fracking will take place, but does my right hon. Friend agree that shale gas has the potential not only to lead an industrial renaissance in this country but to play a serious part in dealing with fuel poverty?"
Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) wanted to dispell the "alarmist stories" about lax regulatory regimes:
"Many of my constituents remain concerned about the parallels that they perceive between shale extraction in the United States and what is being planned in the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about why he thinks that the regulatory environment here will be superior to that of the United States, thereby disproving many of the alarmist stories that are circulating?"
By Matthew Barrett
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Paul Goodman and Harry Phibbs have already covered this strange case of UKIP-supporting foster parents having children taken away from them by the council in Rotherham. Such a breach of political freedom and liberty has been greeted with concern by a number of Tory MPs - including the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - in tweets and elsewhere. I have collected some below.
Michael Gove has released a statement (via here):
"Rotherham have made the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Rotherham's reasons for denying this family the chance to foster are indefensible. The ideology behind Rotherham's decision is actively harmful to children. We should not allow considerations of ethnic or cultural background to prevent children being placed with loving and stable families. We need more parents to foster and many more to adopt. Any council that decides supporting a mainstream UK political party disbars an individual from looking after children in care is sending a dreadful signal that will only decrease the number of loving homes available to children in need."
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 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.
By Matthew Barrett
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In the Commons yesterday, a debate was held on whether to suspend Sunday trading restrictions for the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer. The Bill passed through the House, with only extremely minor rebellion from the Tory benches. This was surprising because there was some consternation felt by some sections of the backbenches about the proposals, with the suspicion that the period was simply softening the public up for a full scrapping of Sunday trading laws.
"Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my hon. Friend reassure a significant number of Harlow residents who have written to me that the Bill is just a temporary Bill for the Olympics, and that there are no plans to extend Sunday trading per se?
Mr Prisk: I am happy to give that assurance. I do not want to test the patience of the Deputy Speaker. The motion is about the proceedings of the House, but I want to make it crystal clear that the Bill will come off the statute book immediately after 9 September."
The first vote, which was merely a procedural vote concerning the passage of the BIll, was agreed to with 281 ayes, and 112 noes. The only two Tory noes on that vote were Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone, who voted with the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party and many Labour MPs.
"Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being extremely generous very early on in his remarks. Will he give me some reassurance? What protection will be in place for, say, volunteer sports coaches or church workers with commitments on Sundays, if their volunteer commitments are threatened by having to work extra hours?
Vince Cable: Of course, they could opt out of the commitments, as is already provided for under existing legislation, which means that they will receive all the protections subject to unfair dismissal legislation."
By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel - want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
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.
Work and Pensions questions came around again yesterday.
Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Andrew Selous called for reform of the local housing allowance:
"It is now clear from reports across the country that not only tenants but charities helping the homeless are being very poorly served by the local housing allowance, so will the Minister agree to urgent reform of that allowance, which, frankly, is failing the very people whom it was designed to help?
Kitty Ussher: We always said that we would review the local housing allowance after two years, but the evidence so far does not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s points. In the pathfinder evaluations, it was shown that 96 per cent. of customers had a bank, building society or Post Office account, and a quarter of those had been opened in order for those customers to pay their rent. We are talking about an important policy, giving more choice to tenants. It is an important part of our plans for financial inclusion. We will, of course, listen to all interested parties, but we do not currently have the evidence that the hon. Gentleman needs to make his point."
There were questions to Justice ministers yesterday. These are the highlights.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride raised the thorny issue of the state funding of political parties:
"Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a huge conundrum when it comes to party political funding? The public want democracy, but it is expensive. They do not want to pay for it with their own taxes, and they do not want other people to pay for it with their hard-earned cash.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady has put the dilemma very acutely. She will know that one of Sir Hayden’s key recommendations was that in return for donation limits there should be very extensive state funding. I think it is now recognised, not least given the state of the British economy, that the British people would not take kindly to that proposition. In Canada, where there had been state funding, the Government of Mr. Stephen Harper suddenly decided to withdraw it as an economy measure, causing a fundamental crisis in Canadian politics. That, I suggest, is another reason not to introduce comprehensive state funding.
Yes, it is true to some extent that the public want democracy and do not want to pay for it. Meanwhile, I happen to believe that it is entirely honourable to ask people to contribute to the political parties of their choice, provided that those who donate make it clear that they are donating."
Large donations should be declared. No-one should be compelled to donate to a political party, either through their membership of an organisation or through their taxes. It should be up to parties to make themselves sufficiently appealing to voters that they want to support them, and many of us would deeply resent being made to fund a political movement we find repugnant (and I'm not even thinking of the ghastly extremist parties!).
There were questions on Energy and Climate Change yesterday.
Henley MP John Howell (right) asked about fuel poverty:
"Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?
Edward Miliband: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty."
It is, of course, a lie to say that you can't freeze or even cut a department's overall expenditure whilst concurrently increasing spending on certain individual projects.
Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark went on the same issue:
"The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?
Edward Miliband: I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.
Greg Clark: Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?
Edward Miliband: I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances."
These days questions to the Minister for the Olympics immediately follow DCMS questions.
Mark Harper and Humfrey Malins both asked about shooting:
"Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What her latest estimate is of expenditure on the London 2012 Olympics, and if she will make a statement. 
Mr. Harper: I thank the Minister for that answer. Now that the Olympic Delivery Authority has decided that Woolwich is to be the site for shooting events at the Olympics, will she arrange for the KPMG report on the venues to be published in full? I know that it has been published, but only with all the rather interesting financial information missed out, and British shooting does not feel that it has been given a fair crack of the whip. Will she therefore arrange for that report to be published in full and placed in the Library of the House?
Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I met the advocates for the Bisley case very particularly, as I also met the advocates for other venues, and the Olympic Board confirmed its decision at its last meeting. It is certainly my intention to publish the KPMG report once the issues of commercial sensitivity have passed and the relevant negotiations have been completed."
"Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): On the subject of shooting, we all know that one of the factors in choosing Woolwich was cost, so will the Minister today tell us the cost estimate for staging the shooting at Woolwich, and for staging it at Bisley?
Tessa Jowell: No, not today; I shall do so once the negotiations, which are inevitably sensitive, are concluded. I know of the hon. Gentleman’s great concerns about Bisley, and his advocacy for it. He will understand that there were two factors that led the Olympic Board to conclude that Woolwich should be the preferred venue for shooting. The first was on the grounds of cost, to which he referred. The second was certainty, the judgment being that, at this stage, Bisley simply involved too much risk, in terms of delivering an acceptable venue."
Wellinborough's Peter Bone asked about the future use of the stadium:
"Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What plans she has for the legacy use of Olympics sporting venues by young people. 
Tessa Jowell: The Olympics sporting venues in east London and around the UK will be available for use after the Olympics in a way that involves residents of all levels of ability, from starters to elite athletes. That is a fundamental aspect of the Olympic legacy ambition.
Yesterday the House of Commons had Work and Pensions questions.
Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans asked what can be done to make parents take responsibility for their children:
"Poverty for youngsters is often reinforced when a married couple separates by a missing parent who refuses to take their responsibility. The Child Support Agency is often deficient in chasing the missing parent. What action can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the CSA takes to make sure that it tracks down missing parents, so that they pay for their own children?
James Purnell: In the past year, the CSA—now the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—has collected an extra £156 million, but we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to be able to take away people’s passports or driving licences without a court process. That will make things much more speedy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, unlike the Conservative party in the Lords the last time that that was proposed. That is also why we are saying that, where there is a payment, parents should be able to keep all of it and that there should be a complete disregard for child maintenance payments and benefits. We think that that could lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty."
The new Shadow Secretary of State, Theresa May, put pressure on the Secretary of State over child poverty:
"According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 indicators of poverty and social exclusion had worsened in the five years preceding the onset of the current economic downturn, more than double the number in the previous five years. That includes the number of people living in very low-income households. Perhaps it is little wonder that the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 in the past two years. How does the Secretary of State explain the Government’s poor performance?
Mrs. May: Yet again, the Secretary of State is very complacent about his attitude to the issue. Another example of the Government’s complacency is their refusal to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. Why will the Government not do that?
James Purnell: The right hon. Lady has no policy of that kind, because she has no way of funding it. The Conservatives used to say that they would fund it out of welfare reform, but now they are not prepared to do as much welfare reform as us. If the right hon. Lady wants to repeat that claim, she will have to find new resources. Hers is a policy without a budget, and I hope that she will not pretend to repeat it."
Here is the latest batch of interesting written answers from the House of Commons.
Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions Andrew Selous had a written reminder that ministers are supposed to make big announcements to Parliament first when it is in session - a rule that they in fact breach on a spectacularly frequent basis:
"To ask the Leader of the House what recent discussions she has had with Ministerial colleagues on the criteria to be used in deciding whether an announcement should be made by means of an Oral Statement. 
Chris Bryant: My right hon. and learned Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues when deciding whether an oral statement should be made to announce Government policy. This is done against the general principle set out in the Ministerial Code that when Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament, and taking into account the importance of the issue and the other business before the House."
The answer to Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt also serves as a reminder - that the Church of England is responsible for much of our architectural heritage:
"To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners how many church buildings are listed. 
There are a number of intriguing written answers in the latest edition of Hansard.
Shoreham & East Worthing MP (and Shadow Minister for Children) Tim Loughton uncovered some diplomatic buckpassing by the Government, through a question to the Olympics Minister:
"To ask the Minister for the Olympics if she will invite the Dalai Lama to attend the London 2012 Olympics. 
Tessa Jowell: Guests and dignitaries are invited to attend the Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee and participating National Olympic Committees, and the Paralympic Games by the International Paralympic Committee and participating National Paralympic Committees."
Mid-Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries asked about fishing quotas:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what proposals he has to make changes to the fishing quota system; and if he will make a statement. 
The UK is actively engaged with the European Commission's current activities to reform the Common Fisheries Policy, which will include consideration of the quota and fisheries access management systems. I have publicly signalled my intention that the UK should play a leading role in shaping this reform and the future of the CFP."
Entering a negotiation with no ideas whatsoever is a novel tactic.
The House of Commons was dominated by the Pre-Budget Report yesterday, which has been well reported elsewhere on ConservativeHome. But there was also an oral questions session on Work and Pensions.
David Evennett, MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, exposed a worrying fact - that far too many gas fitters are not properly qualified:
"Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): CORGI estimates that as many as 20,000 people are working illegally with gas in the UK. What more can the Government do to ensure that the public are aware of the dangers of employing unqualified workers?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right: about 10 per cent. of installations were carried out by people who are still not registered with CORGI, and more needs to be done on that. As part of the arrangements for the new contract with Capita, that body will donate about £1.7 million to a charity. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie is asking other energy providers to put in resources, too. That fund will be used further to raise awareness. The more we do to raise awareness, the greater the reduction in the number of fatalities will be."
Philip Dunne, the Ludlow MP, uncovered latest unemployment figures:
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Ludlow, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 651.
Mr. Dunne: I am delighted that the Secretary of State is aware that unemployment in Ludlow has gone up by 10.5 per cent. in the past year alone, but why are there 300,000 fewer British people in work today than two years ago, while there are almost 1 million migrant workers in work?
James Purnell: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we totally understand that people will be worried about the economic circumstances, and our commitment is to do everything that we can to help people get back into work if they lose their job. That is why we have announced, for example, an extra £100 million—to do exactly that. We will do that to ensure that we never reach the unemployment levels that we had in the past of almost 3,000 people, not 651, in his constituency at the height of the previous recession."