By Matthew Barrett
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One of the two biggest political stories today, the summit to consider the next European budget, is opaque. We cannot know what is happening behind closed doors. However, we can know what Tory MPs have made of the other big political story today: the Government's attempt to deal with the European court's ruling that Britain must give at least some prisoners the vote. Here are some of the best contributions of Tory MPs to the debate in the media surrounding prison voting.
Nick Herbert, the former Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice, wrote about leaving the jurisidiction of the European Court of Human Rights for ConservativeHome this morning. He also appeared on the Today programme this morning, and said:
"I think it’s doubtful that this will comply with what the European Court of Human Rights wants, and it seems as if the Government is effectively just playing for time. And ironically one of the three options that the Government is going to put down today, which is that we retain the blanket ban, is something that it’s unlikely ministers will be able to either to advocate or vote for because it’s a breach of the ministerial code to advocate breaking the law, even though the Prime Minister himself said that there was no way this Government was going to give prisoners the vote and that it make him feel physically sick to even contemplate the idea."
By Matthew Barrett
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Guido Fawkes has a list of new Conservative members of Select Committees, from Graham Brady's office. Mr Brady explains: "For the following committees I have received the same number of nominations as there are vacancies, the following are therefore elected". The appointments are:
Communities and Local Government
John Stevenson (Carlisle), replacing George Hollingbery (Meon Valley), who became PPS to Theresa May at the reshuffle.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), replacing Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), who became PPS to Mark Francois, the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole), replacing Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), who was made the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Health Services.
By Tim Montgomerie
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One of Grant Shapps' first acts as the new Tory Chairman has been to ask for the election countdown clock to be put back on the wall of Conservative HQ. Meeting him yesterday afternoon he told me that there were less than 1,000 days until the next general election (969 actually if its 7th May 2015) and the party machine needed to start getting into battle mode.
Yesterday he announced the team that he hopes will help the party deliver victory for David Cameron. He, Lord Feldman and Mr Cameron made five new appointments:
Nicola Blackwood (Social Action), Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (International), Alan Lewis (Business) and Andrew Stephenson (Youth) were reappointed as Vice Chairmen. They are all pictured above.
Grant Shapps told ConservativeHome that one of the jobs facing him, Lord Feldman and the new team was to overcome the cynicism that people feel about the tasks currently facing Britain. He suggested that we were in the phase two or three years before the Olympics when people were suspicious about the cost of the Games and wondered whether all of the effort would be worthwhile. It was the whole Conservative Party's task, he said, to use the rest of the parliament to convince people that the road may be hard but the destination of better schools, a benefits system that rewards work and a paying down on the deficit will all be worth it.
The new Tory Chairman will be writing a regular monthly column for ConservativeHome.
PS Can any reader remember the last time that we had a party chairman who has won a seat from Labour?
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon saw Communities and Local Government questions in the House. Eric Pickles is often a target for sharp Labour questions - because of his combative approach, and the fact that his department is making cuts in one of Labour's bureaucratic strongholds, local government.
This belligerent attitude from the Labour - front and back - benches was on show yesterday.
By Jonathan Isaby
"It strikes me as a bit bonkers that many communities have separate fire, ambulance and police stations, many of which have been built recently. What is the Minister doing to encourage emergency services to work together to cut costs and to get rid of three lots of electricity bills and the such like? Also, what is he doing to ensure that they work together so that when one service is pressed, another can help and support it"
The Local Governemnt minister, Bob Neill, replied as follows:
"In fairness, a good deal of work is already being done at local level on closer collaboration and joint working between fire authorities and other emergency services, and I commend that. At the time of the settlement, I wrote to the chairmen of all fire and rescue authorities and their chief officers to set out the way in which closer joint working, collaboration, better procurement and the stripping out of back-office services could save money that could be made available to the front line."
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday at questions to Eric Pickles and his team of ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government, a number of Tory MPs took the opportunity to highlight how their local Conservative-run councils are coping with the financial squeeze. Doubtless their local papers will be encouraged to cite the praise heaped upon them by the ministers.
Here's a sample:
Peter Bone (Wellingborough): Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?
Eric Pickles: What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley [Caroline Flint] accepted some responsibility for that.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.
Bob Neill: Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplar of how councils with imagination and political courage can deal with the matter. My hon. Friend is right to point out that it has done so-without any significant redundancy-by deleting needless posts.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?
Eric Pickles: I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.
Mel Stride (Central Devon): Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services?
Eric Pickles: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?
Eric Pickles: I am always glad to congratulate my hon. Friend's council and have no hesitation in doing so today.
Later, in reply to a complaint from Labour MP Mary Glindon about cuts to the voluntary sector in her local council, the minister Greg Clark delivered a roll call of Tory councils that are dealing with the situation without such cuts:
"I am grateful for the hon. Lady's question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton - 10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors."
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.
Bob Neill, Shadow Minister for London, has posed an intriguing question:
"Robert Neill: To ask the Minister for Women and Equality whether the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the Church of Scientology as a religion or faith. 
Maria Eagle: The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises all religions, faiths and beliefs in terms of its duties to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. It is up to the courts to decide whether Scientology is a religion or faith within the terms of the Equality Act 2006."
That reply suggests that there is no settled answer. What do readers think - should Scientology be treated in a reverent way? Should any religion?
And are any of you Scientologists? Hot on the heels of the Conservative Humanist Association, could a Conservative Scientologist Society be next?
It was questions to Communities and Local Government ministers yesterday.
Shadow London Minister Bob Neill asked a good question about centralised housebuilding targets:
"It is five years this month since the Government’s own Barker review identified the problems that arise from reliance on the section 106 system and its attendant complexities as a means of driving development. Since then, the Government have added to those complications with measures such as the community infrastructure levy. Against that background and the decline in receipts, to which reference has been made, is it not better to move away from that complicated regime and a system of top-down development targets to one of incentivising local communities and local authorities to accept development by allowing them to keep some of the proceeds that arise to their own tax base from encouraging development?
Margaret Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman left out an important development: in the meantime the Government have made available some £8 billion of resources for investment in housing. That is twice as much as the amount that was available in the previous period, which was itself substantial. I think that he was probably referring to the proposals, in so far as one can call them that, in the Conservative party’s latest publication of its policies —[Interruption.] I accept that it is a very short read. It is perhaps not entirely well-founded in the statistics that it cites, but I am sure that we will be examining it in future in the House."
Robert Neill: "Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Conservative-controlled London borough of Bromley on achieving the highest rate of dry recycling in London and on being recognised as an exemplary authority for garden and home recycling? Would he like to come and see the work that we are doing in Bromley? I could take him and show him one of our bottle banks."