By Paul Goodman
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"Well, gentlemen, I see we have a good gathering tonight," said side-burned Forth, like a teddy boy relishing a dust-up with some mods at the local disco. "I think we ought to have a discussion of what this group believes in. I must say I always thought we believed in lower taxes, locking up more criminals and standing up for Britain. But now I am told we stand for something called REACHING OUT! He shrieked the words with melodramatic disgust."
This morning's account in the Times (£) of a "dinner table plot to unseat the coalition" turns out to be the second subtantial leak from the No Turning Back Group - the right-of-party-centre backbench dining club of Conservative MPs of which I was once a member. The first is chronicled in loving detail in Simon Walters's romp, Tory Wars, and I quote from the words of the late, great Eric Forth - whose attack on Michael Portillo opens the account. (It followed Portillo's speech to the Conservative Conference in 2000.)
Over ten years on, how fortunate we are that these contentious issues have been put to rest!
A word on the Times's story and the NTB itself. The Times refers to some MPs “chuntering” about a leadership contest. If that's all that took place, what took place wasn't a "plot" - so the headline is a bit out of proportion. The Times mentions the idea of a "mandate referendum" to precede the In-Out one to which David Cameron is committed. There's no great mystery about whose idea that is. It's Davis's. We know that because...he set it out publicly at a ConservativeHome conference last autumn.
Finally, note the names quoted in the Times story: Davis, Redwood, Liam Fox, Bernard Jenkin. Chris Grayling. These names are those of very senior MPs. The report also says: "it is understood that about a dozen MPs were present". If that's right, it sounds like a gathering consisting almost entirely of senior and older MPs. I wonder if the NTB is replenishing its membership. At any rate, no member of the 2010 intake, which now constitutes half the Parliamentary Party, is quoted in the story.
When I was a member of the NTB in the last Parliament, about 20 or so MPs would turn up regularly, including John Baron, Mark Harper, Jonathan Djanogly, Andrew Turner, and Angela Watkinson. Clubs of Tory MPs spring up all the time - for example, the Free Enterprise Group, which gave very public advice to Osborne earlier this week - and the more established ones must renew themselves to stay at the cutting edge. One thing's certain: the NTB will this morning be undertaking a leak enquiry.
By Paul Goodman
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The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Tim Montgomerie
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The Coalition may get its welfare bill passed but it may do so at a cost to its relations with the House of Lords.
The Upper House repeatedly amended the welfare bill - sometimes by large majorities. Labour, crossbench and Lib Dem rebels defeated, for example, the benefits cap but there were also a significant Tory rebellion - led by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay - against reforms to the Child Support Agency.
The Coalition is attempting to prevail by asserting what is known as "financial privilege". This gives the Commons "sole rights" in respect of financial legislation that applies indivisibly to public expenditure and to the raising of revenue to meet that expenditure (PDF background here).
"It cannot be denied that we are in extremely difficult financial times, and that the government has no choice but to take measures to address the situation. Tackling the unsustainable rise in spending on benefits and tax credits, as part of the government’s overall deficit reduction strategy, is undeniably important."
By Matthew Barrett
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The Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for Employment, Chris Grayling, was responsible for answering an Opposition day debate on unemployment yesterday afternoon.
Labour Members, both from the frontbench, and through the Shadow Minister, Liam Byrne, issued a number of attacks on the Coalition's record, some more based upon reality than others, which Mr Grayling was able to swat away with relative ease.
Mr Grayling was then able to set out the Coalition's achievements on unemployment, especially youth unemployment. First, he explained why figures from the last month showed signs of labour market stabilisation:
"It is because over the past month, employment has risen by 38,000 and unemployment has risen by 16,000, a number that is considerably exceeded by the change in activity levels. The youth unemployment figure, excluding full-time students, has remained static, and the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count has risen by 3,000, whereas the total number of people who have moved off incapacity benefit and income support as a result of our welfare reforms is 10,000. Those are one month’s figures and certainly do not reflect a long-term change, but they are at least a sign of some stabilisation in the labour market."
By Paul Goodman
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Lists of how Conservative MPs vote on "moral" issues have a perennial fascination (since they tend to divide more evenly than Labour ones.) Some vote for reasons of principle alone; others, particularly senior ones, want to show a bit of ankle to the party's right or the liberal media - and these motives aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.
Here below from Hansard is the list of MPs who voted for the Dorries/Field abortion amendment yesterday on counselling. Among the senior Conservatives who voted in the Aye lobby were Henry Bellingham, Graham Brady, Chris Grayling, John Hayes, Gerald Howarth, Tim Loughton, Maria Miller, and Desmond Swayne, David Cameron's PPS.
I noted yesterday that Liam Fox, Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith voted for the amendment, which was lost by 316 votes to 118. I will try to have a look later at those who passed through the No lobby.
By Jonathan Isaby
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And how do those from elsewhere in the EU qualify to claim benefits in this country anyway? Again, there's no way of knowing because the Government has not defined the rules in law.
Readers may be alarmed to hear all this, but the explanations are below in black and white in written answers from the Work and Pensions Minister, replying to questions posed by the Conservative MP for St Albans, Anne Main, and passed exclusively to ConservativeHome.
Here are those stark questions and answers:
Anne Main: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether his Department plans to publish on its website information on the cost to the public purse of benefits claimed by nationals of other EU member states working in the UK.
Chris Grayling: The information referred to is not available. The UK's benefit and tax credit payment systems do not record the nationality of people receiving such benefits. I have therefore commissioned my officials to look at alternative ways of making this information available. EU nationals who have worked and paid sufficient National Insurance contributions and meet the other conditions of entitlement, may be entitled to contributory benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance. Those who have not paid sufficient contributions may claim income-related benefits (Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, income-related Employment Support Allowance, Pension Credit, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit) providing they satisfy the Habitual Residence Test.
So what exactly is this Habitual Residence Test?
Anne Main: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what plans he has to bring forward proposals on the definition of habitual residence.
Chris Grayling: There are no plans to bring forward such proposals. To be eligible for an income-related benefit such as Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, income-related Employment Support Allowance, Pension Credit, Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit, a claimant must have a right to reside and be habitually resident in the Common Travel Area (ie the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland). This is known as the Habitual Residence Test. A person who fails either or both parts of the test is treated as a person from abroad and does not have access to such benefits.
The term "habitual residence" is not defined in social security legislation. This means that each case is considered on its own merits, in the light of the person's individual circumstances. In deciding whether a person is actually habitually resident, decision makers, who decide entitlement to benefit, consider a wide variety of factors. These include reasons for coming to the United Kingdom, the length of their stay, future intentions, previous links with the country and, in the case of people returning to the United Kingdom, the reasons for their absence.
I suspect this is something we can expect Anne Main to be pursuing further...
By Jonathan Isaby
Two Tory MPs sought an update on the Government's plans to bring forward proposals to prevent unfair dismissal on grounds of age, to which Work and Pensions Secrteary Iain Duncan Smith replied:
"We are moving in that direction. Our changes will abolish the default retirement age, and we will make sure that people can no longer be kicked out of work because they have reached a certain age. By getting rid of that, we will improve the economy and help older people find work for a longer period, which is beneficial to the economy and beneficial for those people."
Supplementary exchanges then followed:
Robert Halfon (Harlow): In the recession redundancies have been higher among the over-50s than any other age group, including in Harlow. Many people, like my constituent, Kevin Forbes, who applied for more than 4,500 jobs, are worried that employment law is biased against older people. What are the Government doing, apart from what my right hon. Friend has just described, to make work fairer for the over-50s?
Iain Duncan Smith: The reality for companies and for those who are seeking work is that, because of the need for employment over the next few years, we will need more and more of the skills that are present in the age group to which my hon. Friend refers. Therefore, companies have to reach the sensible solution, which is that people who have those skills and ways of doing their jobs can stay in work much longer. The Work programme will be set up so that they can be helped back into work if they become unemployed. My concern is that companies should recognise that older workers have huge value, well beyond the cost of paying their wages.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North): Constituents in Northampton have raised with me the fact that they have been forced to retire because of their age before they were ready to do so. As I know my right hon. Friend accepts, older people offer a wealth of experience and skill. What progress have the Government made on the consultation on the default retirement age?
Iain Duncan Smith: The consultation has gone very well. We are sifting through the responses. There have been more responses than we anticipated. The vast majority have been positive, although there are some, in some areas of business, that were not as positive as we had hoped. We will publish those results and press on. I can guarantee to my hon. Friend and the rest of the House that we will press on with the issue.
Earlier in the session, Employment Minister Chris Grayling said that the new enterprise allowance would expand to become a nationwide scheme from next autumn, being launched initially on Merseyside before being rolled out nationally.
But Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) had a concern about the scheme:
"I welcome the fact that the enterprise allowance scheme, which had such a positive effect in the 1980s, is being reinstated. However, I have a concern about the eligibility criteria: one has to have been unemployed for six months or more to be eligible. The National Audit Office noted in the 1980s that the longer someone spent on unemployment benefit before going into self-employment, the less successful that tended to be. Given that, will the Minister consider reducing that time and allowing people who have been unemployed for less than six months to go on to the scheme?"
Chris Grayling replied thus:
"I would very much like to improve the support that we provide, but obviously we have to do that in the context of the finances that we have inherited from the Opposition. The big difference that the new scheme will make is that it will also take advantage of the expertise of existing business people. I hope that my hon. Friend, who has a strong track record in business, will look to become a mentor for one of the new business people. That is an important difference from the previous scheme; the new scheme offers both financial and practical support, and not just financial support."
Yesterday saw the Second Reading of the Government Crime and Security Bill in the Commons. The Conservatives voted against the Bill, with Chris Grayling citing the Government's intention to continue retaining the DNA of innocent people as a "point of principle" for opposing it:
"Unless the Home Secretary finally accepts that his proposals on the DNA database are opposed across the House and unless he accepts that things will have to be different, we cannot support what he is doing...
"Those are measures that we would happily see passed into law, but none of them is of sufficient significance to get us to back away from the key point of principle that divides us from the Government—the DNA database. The current system is all wrong. I am seldom a fan of the European Court, but on this matter it has clearly got things right. We have, for years, been storing the DNA of innocent people on our national DNA database. People who go into a police station voluntarily to help with an inquiry, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Greg Hands), find themselves on the list. People who are briefly questioned in a police station about a crime that they did not commit find themselves giving DNA to be stored for the future. People who are arrested on one of those occasions when the police hugely overreact, as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), find their DNA being taken, and few succeed, as he did, in having their DNA removed.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson made a statement to Parliament this afternoon about aviation and border security in the wake of the failed attempt by Umah Farouk Abdulmutallab to destroy a plane above Detroit on Christmas Day.
His Tory Shadow, Chris Grayling, was again in attack dog mode as he lambasted Gordon Brown and Downing Street for spinning intelligence information in its aftermath:
"The person who should be before the House explaining himself this afternoon is not the Home Secretary but the Prime Minister. Twice in three days the Prime Minister has been caught out making false claims about the contacts that have taken place between Britain and the United States over the airline bomb plot and the security threat to our airports. On Sunday he admitted to the BBC that supposed discussions between himself and President Obama about the bomb plot and the situation in Yemen had not actually taken place.
"Then, yesterday, he claimed that Britain had supplied to the United States in 2008 intelligence about the bomb suspect and his links to extremists—a claim that Downing Street now admits was untrue. This Government, the House will remember, have systematically misused intelligence data over the years, most notably in relation to the so-called dodgy dossier. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Prime Minister—the man who leads our Government—to exaggerate, mislead on or spin intelligence information, particularly when it relates to a terrorist threat?
"The Home Secretary told the House this afternoon: “It is an established and accepted principle that we do not routinely comment on intelligence matters.” Why did the Prime Minister and Downing street break that principle this week? Does the Home Secretary agree also that it is damaging to our most important intelligence relationship, with the United States, for Downing street to disseminate information in such an inaccurate and cavalier way?"
"People of all faiths have been victims of terrorists over the past decade, and we must all stand together against that threat. However, that task has not been helped by the actions of Downing street in recent days."
He opened his speech by taking the pledges Tony Blair made in his famous "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" speech in 1994, and contrasted his promises with what has happened after twelve years of Labour Government:
"First on the list were measures to tackle juvenile offending. They have been a feature of virtually every one of the 49 criminal justice Bills that we have had since then. We have had initiative after initiative and new idea after new idea. Surely that must have made a difference. The number of persistent young offenders sentenced by courts in England and Wales have increased by 92 per cent. since 1997. In 2007–08, more than 93,000 youngsters aged 10 to 17 entered the criminal justice system for the first time, up from only 78,000 five years previously, in 2002–03. Just a couple of weeks ago, Home Office research showed that 72 per cent. of 10 to 25-year-olds admitted to committing crime or antisocial behaviour within a four-year period.
"The next bit in the speech was the plan to crack down on illegal firearms. Over the past decade, there has been a big jump in gun crime. The number of firearms offences, excluding air weapons, has increased from 5,209 a decade ago to a provisional figure of 8,184 in 2008–09, an increase of 57 per cent. The number of people injured or killed by a gun has more than doubled, increasing from 864 a decade ago to 1,760 in 2008–09. Behind those figures have been a series of high-profile tragedies, punishment shootings and a culture of weapons on our streets not seen previously.
"Tony Blair then talked about the need to punish properly crimes of violence, including racial violence. Violent crime has increased from 615,000 offences in 1998–99 to just over 1 million in 2008–09, an increase of 68 per cent. In 1998, 23,500 people were cautioned for violence against the person. In 2007, that figure had doubled, to 52,300."
"The fourth pledge given before the Government took office was to give the victims of crime the right to be consulted before charges were dropped or changed. What a hollow promise that turned out to be, particularly given the Home Secretary’s comments just last week that “in an ideal world” every victim would be “visited by the police”, though it was admitted at the time that doing so would be “rather challenging”. If we talk to the victims of crime, a very different picture emerges—one in which they receive very little information about what is going and are not sure even when trials are happening. The Home Secretary has talked to victims of crime, so he knows that the promises made to the victims of crime back in the 1990s have not been fulfilled a decade later."
"Tough on crime? Fifteen years after it was first made, that promise now looks pretty hollow. By the test that Mr. Blair set for a future Labour Government back in that first conference speech, in office they have failed again and again."
On the day that Alan Johnson expressed a desire to see a "real debate" on immigration, Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling was yesterday granted an Urgent Question by the Speaker to ask the Government about claims that it broke Freedom of Information legislation to cover up a change of immigration policy.
Here are the charges Mr Grayling made in the Commons:
"More and more evidence is now emerging to suggest that the Government broke freedom of information laws and tried to cover up a deliberate change of policy designed to encourage much higher immigration, very probably for party political purposes.
Two weeks ago, a former Home Office adviser, Andrew Neather, was widely reported as saying that Ministers had covered up a secret plan to allow in more immigrants and to make Britain more multicultural. When I put those allegations to the Minister, he said, quite extraordinarily, that he had not and that he did “not know to whom or to which reports the hon. Gentleman refers” [Hansard, 26 October 2009]. Let us hope that he can do better today.
First, there was what was originally a secret plan. Will the Minister confirm that what he was talking about back in 2002 was a relaxation of the rules for clearing immigration applicants so that those who had been waiting more than 12 months would be granted clearance to stay without any further investigation into their cases? Will he also confirm that the head of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate said in an e-mail to the then Minister that that involved “pragmatic grants, i.e. not pursing every angle which could conceivably justify a refusal”, and that the policy meant that “some risks would have to be taken”?
Will he also confirm that Ministers were aware of that policy change and that they accepted that it involved taking risks with immigration applications?
Then there was the cover-up. Will the Minister confirm that the Home Office tried to withhold documents outlining that policy change from the Information Commissioner? I have copies of those documents, and they are clearly marked “withold” at the top. Will he also confirm that the Information Commissioner found the Home Office guilty of breaking the law, and ordered the documents marked “withhold” to be released? Will he tell the House why Ministers broke the laws that this Government had passed?
The Home Secretary says that he wants a rational debate on immigration, but why on earth does he think anyone will take him seriously in that debate when it is now clear that this Government have set out deliberately to deceive the British people, and have proved utterly incapable of telling them the truth about their policies on immigration."
Chris Grayling: "Independent scientific advice is important, but those who take on formal roles with the Government have to be extremely cautious about the things that they say. Professor Nutt’s comments earlier this year, comparing the risks of ecstasy with those of horse riding, were particularly ill judged. The issues that the council deals with are highly sensitive, and there are very divergent opinions out there, so there is a clear responsibility to act cautiously, and be mindful of the fact that messages given by official advisers can and will influence the behaviour of the public."
Sir Patrick Cormack: "As the Home Secretary comes under attack, will he remind himself that it was Churchill who said that scientists should be on tap and not on top?"
David Davis: "May I give unequivocal support not only to the Home Secretary’s decision but to the reasoning behind it? He is obviously familiar with Professor Robin Murray’s comments, which imply that the ACMD did not do a very good job in surveying the evidence previously. I know that the Home Secretary will want to be diplomatic to the council now, but will he please ensure that he also takes evidence from others when he makes his decisions in future?"
Yesterday Home Secretary Jacqui Smith made a statement on the twelve arrests that took place in the North West of England earlier this month. She told the House of Commons that:
"The arrests were pre-planned as the result of an ongoing joint police and Security Service investigation. The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and the Security Service, but the Prime Minister and I were kept fully informed of developments. The priority at all times has been to act to maintain public safety.
The House will also be aware that during the course of Wednesday 8 April, photographs were taken of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick as he was going to a meeting in Downing street. Mr. Quick was carrying papers that contained sensitive operational detail about the investigation and some of that detail was visible in the photographs. As a result, a decision was made by the police to bring forward the arrests to a few hours earlier than had been originally planned. The fact that these papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests—it simply changed the timing by a matter of hours. Assistant Commissioner Quick offered his resignation to the Metropolitan Police Authority on the following day and it was accepted. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work on counter-terrorism and for his many years of service. He has made an enormous personal contribution to making our country a safer place."
I'm afraid it stretches credulity to say that being forced to bring forward arrests by several hours is a simple matter.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling responded for the Conservatives:
"I was asked after the event in an interview whether I blamed the Home Secretary for the fiasco. I said no—for once she was blameless, and I am glad that she recognised immediately that Bob Quick had to go. Such a blatant breach of the relevant protocols meant that his position was completely untenable. That is as far as I am going to go in praising the Home Secretary. The past few weeks have been another chapter of chaos in the Home Office. We have warned for years about abuses of the student visa system for immigration purposes, but the emergence of a terror threat within the UK from this system is a worrying but perhaps unsurprising new development.
The Home Secretary made a statement to the House of Commons yesterday on international terrorism. She explained:
"As we set out in our Contest strategy today, the greatest security threat that we face comes from al-Qaeda and related groups and individuals. Our aim is to reduce the risk to the UK and our interests overseas from international terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence. We know that the threat is severe and that an attack is highly likely and could happen without warning at any time. We know that this new form of terrorism is different in scale and nature from the terrorist threats that we have had to deal with in recent decades. This new form of terrorism is rooted in conflicts overseas and the fragility of some states and grounded in an extremist ideology that uses violence to further its ends. It exploits the opportunities created by modern technologies and seeks to radicalise young people into violent extremism.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of thousands of people, to whom I pay tribute, we have had considerable success in stopping terrorists in their tracks and bringing those responsible to justice. We have disrupted more than a dozen attempted terrorist plots in the UK and, since 2001, almost 200 people have been convicted of terrorist-related offences."
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling replied for the Conservatives:
"May I thank the Home Secretary for providing an advance copy of her statement? Once again, however, may I express my annoyance on behalf of the House at the fact that the documents, which are published today, were released and distributed through the media long before they were released to MPs? That is completely unacceptable and goes against numerous rulings by you, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary should be ashamed of herself.
I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to the police and all the security services, both overseas and at home, for their work in protecting us against the terrorist threat, but we should do more than recognise that hard work—we should also recognise their personal courage in looking after us. We all share the same goal in respect of the issues we are discussing today. We want to do everything we can to combat terror, and we will be constructive critics of what the Government do as a result.
Furthermore, we face new kinds of threat. The events in Mumbai in November were truly shocking. Innocent people were gunned down in their hotel rooms or shot at random on a busy railway station. Armed men roaming the streets of cities looking for people to shoot indiscriminately is a new experience in the battle against terror. That is why we back the Government’s aim of broadening knowledge of the terrorist threat to thousands of people who work in public places.
However, the Government have to do the job properly. It is depressing to discover that the programme described in last weekend’s newspapers by the Prime Minister does not appear to be what we were promised. He described the programme as follows:
“Tens of thousands of men and women...from security guards to store managers...have now been trained and equipped to deal with an incident and know what to watch for as people go about their daily business”.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the training programme described by the Prime Minister amounts to no more than a voluntary three-hour seminar, and that includes the coffee break? I do not see how we can train people properly to deal with terrorism in less than half the time allocated to a cycling proficiency course.