By Paul Goodman
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Mr J.A.Prufrock (Grummidge West) (Con): The amendments tabled by the Prime Minister reconcile two key principles. The first is total solidarity with the victims. I am not afraid to say, Mr Speaker, that I am on their side. We need to keep before us at all times what the victims have been through. Gross intrusion of privacy. The harrassment of family members. Doorstepping. The theft of documents. Paparazzi. Details of their most private, personal and intimate affairs splashed across the papers for all to read. I refer, of course, to the treatment of honourable and right honourable members of this House during the so-called expenses scandal -
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con) - Sit down, you bloody fool.
Mr J.A.Prufrock: I am extremely grateful to the Whip on duty on the front bench, who reinforces my call for total solidarity with the victims, by which I of course really meant Mr Hugh Grant, who was so splendidly portrayed by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in Love Actually, and Sir Oswald Mosley, who as the House knows was spanked by Hitler. This brings me to the second key principle at stake - namely, unwavering support for press freedom. I yield to no-one in my total condemnation of censorship. Many newspapers are rightly opposed to the ECHR. It follows that they must appeal to it against these measures if they feel so inclined -
By Matthew Barrett
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There are two strands of parliamentary activity at the moment - the first is the heavy-duty Government legislation, which is mostly going through the Lords, including the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
By Matthew Barrett
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Just in case you hadn't heard about the Nadine Dorries-Frank Field amendment in the news, Parliament is back this week - and the next couple of weeks will be proof that the long summer recesses of the past really are a thing of the past. Before conference season begins, Parliament will be considering:
"We are in the middle of the worst financial crash in living memory. Our heroes are fighting and dying in a vicious war 3,500 miles from home. And our MPs are about to take one of their longest holidays ever. Next Tuesday politicians pack their bags and leave Westminster for TWELVE WEEKS. This is after 24 days off at Christmas and New Year, a 10-day winter half-term break, a 17-day Easter hol and 10 days at Whitsun. You might think they would have reconsidered their 82-day summer snooze if only to restore their reputation after the expenses scandal. No one wants even more interference in our lives by MPs hanging around looking for things to do. We are already over-governed. That is why their numbers - currently a bloated 646 - need cutting in half. Just like the holiday time of those who are left. Then they can do a proper job of vetting what Ministers do, instead of nodding through half-baked laws."
Read the full attack here.
Herewith the latest installment of the romantic comedy starring Alan Duncan and Harriet Harman. Business questions took place yesterday.
Mr Duncan went first:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I thank her also for her thorough answer to my question last week about NHS trusts replying to Members’ letters. It is encouraging that we can sometimes work together constructively on issues that affect all hon. Members and, more importantly, our constituents.
May I, however, protest that convention has been discarded by the Government’s somewhat offensive decision to stick a topical debate in ahead of the second day of the Budget debate, which is traditionally opened by the shadow Chancellor? Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to reverse that unacceptable decision?
Yesterday, the Government promised that there would be an announcement on the inquiry into the Iraq war on 31 July, a full 10 days after the start of the summer recess. Quite simply, that is not acceptable. Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to give us a statement on the remit and intent of that inquiry before we rise for the summer?
Once again, I stand here to request an urgent debate on Equitable Life. On Monday, the parliamentary ombudsman launched an excoriating attack on the Government’s contemptuous treatment of her recommendations, and today in Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary compounded that by treating policyholders and this House with utter contempt. Because the Government’s response has been, as the ombudsman put it, a betrayal of justice, and they have ignored her recommendations, she has decided for the first time ever to invoke powers to produce a follow-up report. When will we have such a debate, and when will the people affected be compensated?
May we have a debate on the work ethic of Members of Parliament? Last week, we heard complaints from the Labour Chief Whip that at least 5 per cent. of his own MPs were completely idle. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Well, exactly. Today, the Government have lost three votes in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, because Labour MPs, including a Minister, did not even bother to turn up. In the interests of value for money, which the public expect, may I invite the Leader of the House—I hear calls for this from behind me—to list the 5 per cent. by name?
The love affair between Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman seems to be well and truly over. Or perhaps this is just the latest twist in a romantic story that trumps anything in classic English literature.
Business of the House Questions came around again yesterday. Mr Duncan was in bullish form:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Her response to me last week about the encampment and the harassment by protesters in Parliament square was, I am sorry to say, painfully inadequate. When will she undertake to give a full report to the House so that we can cut through the bureaucratic nonsense governing the issue and remove what has become a permanent embarrassment to British democracy?
May we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Yesterday we heard from the Health Secretary the miserable tale of Stafford hospital. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm to the House that the same senior management who were so devastatingly criticised by the Healthcare Commission on Tuesday saw their salaries doubled in 2008, and that one has been appointed to a Government watchdog? Is it not the clearest possible demonstration of Labour’s priorities towards the health service that while they spent their time lining the pockets of a failed management team, there were patients lining the walls of a filthy accident and emergency ward who were dying of neglect?
Lying behind this is, I sense, a growing problem with how health trusts and other public bodies are treating correspondence from Members of Parliament. Too often, Members’ letters about a constituent are fobbed off by being sidelined into a complaints procedure designed for another purpose, and also by hiding behind data protection. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that when an MP writes to a chief executive they should receive a letter back from that chief executive, that getting a letter from an MP should be regarded as a priority, and that any failure to treat an MP’s letter properly should be a disciplinary offence, even resulting in dismissal?
We are still waiting for the Government’s long-delayed strategic review of reserve forces. We all have reservists in our constituencies. When will we get an announcement, and can the Leader confirm that it will be a full oral statement?
Today 144 further education colleges have their building programmes frozen, and this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the Minister responsible for further education—or should I say, the Minister requiring further education?—offered no reassurance that the Government would prevent those colleges from going bankrupt. May we have an urgent debate to discuss the future of those institutions, which offer vital training to the rapidly rising number of people facing unemployment?
I reported yesterday that Shadow Communities Minister Paul Goodman was being stonewalled over the details of funding for the "violent extremism pathfinder fund".
Mr Goodman and Alan Duncan (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons) both raised the issue at Business Questions today. Mr Duncan asked the Leader of the House of Commons (Harriet Harman):
"The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is obstructing the publication of details about where money has been spent on the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund, even though the details were published for last year. Ministers are accountable to Parliament, especially on the spending of money. This appears to be unacceptable behaviour from the Secretary of State and brings her and this place into disrepute. Will the Leader of the House convey to the Secretary of State the displeasure of the House and seek a full apology from her along with the information to which hon. Members are fully entitled?"
Ms Harman replied:
"The hon. Gentleman talked about the accountability of the Department for Communities and Local Government for local spending. Obviously, the Department wants to answer parliamentary questions and be accountable for its spending. There is no attempt not to be open about what we regard a very important programme of ensuring that the police work for greater security. We also work with local communities to ensure that we prevent radicalism and extremism."
Mr Goodman later chipped in:
"I return to the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund, which I raised yesterday on a point of order and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) raised today from the Front Bench. I have in my hands details of where every single penny from the fund went last year, which were placed in the Library. The Department for Communities and Local Government is refusing to place in the Library the equivalent details for this year. It must follow either, as was suggested to me yesterday by the Secretary of State’s private office, that the Department no longer holds details of the fund, in which case there is no guarantee that money is not falling into the hands of extremists and violent extremists, or that it is refusing to put the information in the Library, which is a discourtesy to Members in all parts of the House and involves withholding information that the public have a right to know. Will the Leader of the House use her good offices to get the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement from the Dispatch Box about the matter, which is of exceptional seriousness?
Ms Harman: There is no intention to withhold any information about public money being spent. We are proud of the Prevent programme, which is designed to combat extremism. I suggest that I write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and ask her to meet the hon. Gentleman in order to resolve the issue amicably. I look to hon. Members to support the idea that Government take a role and take responsibility—
Mr. Goodman: Where is the money going?
Mr. Speaker: Order. When the hon. Gentleman asks for a reply from the Leader of the House, he should calm down and listen. It may not be to his liking, but he must calm down.
Ms Harman: It is right that the Government should put into the hands of local authorities funds so that they can work with community groups in their area to help divert young people away from extremism and to support community organisations that are trying to tackle extremism. I deplore the idea that some sort of hue and cry is being set up to smear this important programme. If the Opposition want information, the Secretary of State will give them the relevant information and ask for their support for the programme in their areas."
This now looks like a scandal. The Government should publish the full details of where monies from the violent extremism pathfinder fund are going this year - immediately. Something is rotten, and we have a right to know what it is.
Perhaps much of the money has not been disbursed swiftly and is sitting in a bank account. That would be embarrassing. Or maybe it has been given to some unsavoury organisations. That would be worse.
Regardless, I for one want to know what's going on.
There were more Business Questions in the House of Commons yesterday.
It became apparent that the touching truce between the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, and her opposite number Alan Duncan is at an end. Mr Duncan asked:
"Finally, on stepping down from jobs, may we have a debate on political blogs? I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Lady is aware of the blog of a Labour councillor from Hackney, who is convinced that he has a winning strategy for the Labour party. He has written what he calls his “unsolicited advice to Gordon”. He says:
“Harriet Harman has too many jobs and isn’t very good at hiding that she wants to add yours”—
“to the list. Removing her role as Party Chair will...remind her who is boss.”
So who is the boss? Who is wearing the trousers in the Labour party now? How many jobs does the right hon. and learned Lady hold, and is it not sadly the case that we have a crisis in the labour market, a crisis in the Labour party, a Prime Minister who will not apologise, and a Leader of the House who is unapologetic about wanting his job?"
Ms Harman responded:
"In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman made a load of snide remarks about the Prime Minister, and he made snide remarks about me, too. I am disappointed. I know my hon. Friends warned me, but I said the hon. Gentleman was different. They said, “He’s just a Tory. He’s the same as all the others,” but I said, “No, I think he’s different.” I even bought him a Valentine’s card, and I thought me might buy me, or rather get me, a little trinket from the Sultan of Oman. It is clear now that he is the same as all the others. He does not see things in the way that I do, and he does not believe in the things that I do—he does not believe in helping people, if they get into difficulties; I do. We started off well at the beginning of the year, but it’s over!"
I am told that when Ms Harman said she thought Mr Duncan "was different" he replied "But I am!" and brought the House down.
I think the occasional bit of light relief like this is welcome.
Today in the House of Commons Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House, called for a debate on moral authority. This comes in light of Carol Thatcher's sacking from The One Show for calling a tennis player a golliwog, and the Jonathan Ross / Russell Brand / Andrew Sachs affair.
Mr Duncan said:
"May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?"
I expect that some readers will accuse Mr Duncan of nanny statism, or censorship, or failing to mind his own business. However, a debate on this issue is a good idea. People in the public eye often lose their job for saying something controversial while others get off scot-free.
Often there is a post-hoc widespread sense that there has been an over-reaction. But in the case of Jonathan Ross, many people feel that his behaviour was outrageous and that he is jolly lucky to have kept his fantastically well-paid job. This lack of consistency can be frustrating, especially when a friend has been harshly treated.
So it could be a good idea to talk about what is hurtful and intolerably offensive and what is fair game. The trickier area is Mr Duncan's talk of a code "agreed by everyone". This of course will not happen. There will never be unanimity on what level of mockery can be levelled at religion, for example. And debate will always rage about what is and what isn't racist.
But we should not flap about what Mr Duncan said this afternoon. He is a freedom-loving guy (and has a wicked sense of humour), and I don't think he will want to impose severe restrictions on speech.
So a debate is a good idea and we'll have to wait and see what is meant by an agreed code.
Perhaps I can offer some useful advice. I am a stand-up comedian, and I enjoy talking about controversial subjects and creating a frisson in the room. I can't guarantee that no-one will take offence. Sometimes I want people to take offence.
However, I wouldn't dream of having material that I felt I could only do if there wasn't, say, a black person in the room. Once you're making those kind of calculations, you're probably being unacceptably offensive and plain hateful. I often make jokes about race, but never racist jokes.
Likewise friends of mine will make clear their atheism when they're doing stand-up, and I don't believe they would rein it in for fear that a Christian might get upset - because they are bullish but not unkind in their humour.
If we substitute the term "common decency" for "political correctness", we may make the sort of progress that Mr Duncan wants.
The House of Commons has been pushed kicking and screaming into greater disclosure, and compares very poorly with the Scottish Parliament, where expenses have been public for years (and where expenses were put online only a few weeks after the order was given that they should be).
Mr Duncan began with a good-natured (probably) pop at his opposite number Harriet Harman:
"May I thank the Leader of the House for generously taking so many interventions and for the thoroughness with which she has treated this topic? That is appreciated on both sides of the House. May I also express my gratitude for her earlier comments about my dress sense, my watch, my cufflinks and, not least, my interest in oil? They are especially appreciated coming from such a gentle flower of the aristocracy who has so aggressively embraced the working class.
Today will, I hope, represent a major step forward in everything that the House needs to do on the declaration of its expenses. The whole issue has given Parliament a wretchedly bad name for far too long, and there are deep wounds that need to be healed if we are to be seen as a sensible, honest, working institution by anyone in this country. We do not want to have a state of permanent war either across the Floor of the House or between this House and the press and public. Our reputation must be raised and we can achieve that only by being open and honest.
The other vexed issue accompanying the development of our allowances has been the implementation of freedom of information legislation. We have witnessed a long, slow train crash between what we do and what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires, which we have been unable so far to resolve. In the eyes of the public, that appears to be a requirement that we have always wanted to escape. The assumption of the Freedom of Information Act is that there should always be disclosure. However, the other side of the disclosure equation is that if such disclosure collides with data protection it may not be necessary. In the Freedom of Information Act, as it applies to this House or to anyone else, there is therefore always a permanent tension between openness and privacy. There are always exceptions in other fields on what is published. We can all accept that when there is a legitimate matter of security and the safety of the individual, and the revelation of certain details that could be taken wrongly and abused by other people, privacy is very important.
The other side of the equation, which affects us uniquely, is the fact that when it comes to the need to reveal information we are at the top of the scrutiny pyramid. We are elected. We choose that, and through election we become permanently in the public gaze. Even High Court judges are not quite in the same category, nor even permanent secretaries, and certainly not middle-ranking— [ Interruption. ] I shall set the BBC to one side for the moment. Middle-ranking civil servants are certainly never expected to be in the public gaze and they are just that—civil servants. We must accept that we are the people who are most expected to come clean about how we spend the allowances that are granted to us. I think that we have been very slow to accept that that scrutiny is legitimate and that we are in an almost unique category.
We need to move on and make this place work better, and to make people realise that this is an honest Parliament. It is probably more honest than any other that I know in the world, and it is here to serve people. People would benefit from respecting it—they may even want to be elected to it—and from appreciating what we all try to do for our constituents. That would enhance our democracy instead of causing it to decay."
The new Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Alan Duncan, seems to be throwing himself into his new role with gusto. Yesterday he took part in Business Questions:
"I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and, in turn, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement just now.
Apart from a short exchange on a point of order yesterday, this is my first formal encounter with the right hon. and learned Lady. May I say to her and the House that I am delighted to have been appointed her shadow? I have always held a dangerously romantic affection for the House of Commons, and it looks as though my teenage years spent reading Hansard and “Erskine May” under the duvet might now finally pay off.
I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me while I hold this position to work towards three principal objectives: to explore all ways of making Parliament work better for Britain; to help overcome the low reputation of Parliament in the eyes of much of the press and the public; and to take an understanding of Parliament and our democracy into schools, so that younger people can overcome their instinctive derision for politicians. As shadow Leader of the House, one must work on many levels. One must be able to work on a non-partisan basis of trust as well as take part in vigorous exchanges of political difference. I undertake to do both."
He went on:
"Yesterday, we saw the release of the latest figures which show unemployment racing towards 2 million, and most forecasters predict that this year it will burst through 3 million. Today, the value of sterling is at its lowest point for nearly 25 years. The exchange rate is the price tag put on our country’s value by the rest of the world, and it is plummeting. Why, if this is a global phenomenon, is Britain in so much worse a position than other countries across the globe? It is increasingly difficult to persuade the Government to debate the future of the economy in Government time. Only last week, we had to drag Ministers to the House to explain the announcement of their loans guarantee scheme. Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on telling everyone how brilliant he is, the Government’s reticence on the economy seems rather strange. In the interests of recognising the saviour of the world’s achievements over the past few months, may we now have a full debate in Government time on the state of the British economy and how we can escape from the Government’s mishandling of our livelihoods?"
Something else emerged from yesterday's Business Questions.
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Theresa May asked about Equitable Life:
"I note that the Leader of the House announced a statement on Equitable Life in the first week back after Christmas. Last week, the Prime Minister promised to the House a statement on Equitable Life before Christmas. So will the Prime Minister come to the House to explain why his Chancellor is not doing what the Prime Minister promised the House he would do? Given that the Leader of the House, on numerous occasions, told us that the statement would be given in autumn, perhaps she can explain why this is the first time in living history that autumn has extended into January?"
Harriet Harman replied:
"The right hon. Lady mentioned Equitable Life. I acknowledge that we said that the statement would be ready in the autumn, but it is important to note that the issue has its roots in problems that started in the 1980s. In the summer, there was a substantial report from the ombudsman that needed consideration. We are talking about important issues, and if the Treasury needs to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, it should do so. Surely it is more important that the report is properly considered before it is brought to the House than for us to have an artificial timetable. The statement will be made in January."
It was more than moderately cheeky for Ms Harman to describe the Government's own (abandoned) timetable as "artificial".
Pensions expert Stephen Yeo commented to ConservativeHome:
"The delay is even worse than it seems at first. The Ombudsman's report took an unprecedented 4 years because the Treasury decided to submit 500 pages of prevarication in 'evidence'. Although the report was published in July, the Government would have had a draft in their possession for some months prior to then. If so minded they could have responded straight away, but they said they would do so 'in the Autumn'. Yesterday we learnt that meant January!"
The House of Commons has had its last Business Questions for the year. Shadow Leader of the House Theresa May asked why the Government has failed to find time for a debate on the economy, and then teased Harriet Harman for good measure:
“commit to a debate on the economic slow-down, and the problems in the banking industry and their effects on the housing market”.—[ Official Report, 13 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 465.]
She did not give us a debate in Government time then, and she has not given us that debate a year later—the debates on the economy have been chosen by the Opposition. Given that that the pound has now hit its lowest level against the euro and the German Finance Minister has said that the Government’s switch to “crass Keynesianism is breathtaking”, when will the Government give us a full debate in Government time on the economy?
“I know what it’s like for everyone, stuck in a job with an outrageous boss”.
Ms Harman responded thus:
"The right hon. Lady mentioned the economy. There will, of course, be a debate on the economy next Monday. As far as the German Finance Minister is concerned, Germany went into this world economic crisis with higher levels of unemployment and Government debt than us. However, it, too, has sought to recapitalise its banks; it, too, has benefited from a cut in interest rates; and it, too, has provided fiscal stimulus—in its case of €31 billion. It has taken action on its economy, and we have taken action on ours.
What a wit.
On Monday the Commons will debate portions of the Queen's Speech that relate to the economy, pensions and welfare. It is not a debate specifically on the current economic crisis.
Questions on the Business of the House of Commons are often fascinating. Harriet Harman is Leader of the House and is shadowed by Theresa May for the Tories. The latter is afforded the chance to raise a number of political issues at the same time, which she did yesterday.
As readers will see, the Leader of the House dodged a question about Quentin Davies in a less than admirable manner, and was unable to resist yet another dig about all those years of "Tory rule". When will Labour acknowledge that the buck stops with them now?! And is it now the policy of the Government that select committees negate the need for public inquiries?
"Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Today the Home Secretary is making a written statement, understood to be about the cost of the identity card scheme. She is also making a speech today announcing that the Government have backtracked on plans to issue identity cards to workers at all UK airports; it has been heavily trailed in the press. Why has the Home Secretary not come to the House to make an oral statement on the status of the ID card scheme?
Will the Leader of the House give us a date for the pre-Budget report, or at least a date when she will give us a date for that report? Given the current economic climate, and the state of public finances, it will be a very important statement. Given that we have not had a debate on the economy in Government time, will she take up the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that we should have one or two days’ debate on the pre-Budget report?
On Monday the House of Lords had a debate on the economy. During that debate, my noble Friend Lord Forsyth called for an inquiry on the leaking of information about the banks’ bail-out package. The noble Lord Lea of Crondall suggested a wider public inquiry, including the banks. The City Minister, Lord Myners, said—I quote from Lords Hansard, column 16—“My Lords, I agree”. But yesterday, the Prime Minister said, in Hansard , column 247, that the City Minister “said no such thing”. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister’s statement in the official record is corrected, and when will we have that public inquiry?
Shortly, the Bank of England is expected to cut interest rates, but today it is reported that Northern Rock, the nationalised bank owned by the taxpayer, will instead raise some of its mortgage rates. Businesses and home owners are already struggling, as banks are not passing on interest rate cuts, so may we have a statement from the Chancellor on why a state-run bank is blatantly defying the Government?