By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday, Justine Greening said she would "push on" with awarding the West Coast rail franchise to FirstGroup, rather than Virgin, despite Sir Richard Branson’s calls for an inquiry into the decision.
"Virgin, Stagecoach and Sir Richard Branson have lost the West Coast Rail franchise bid after a very rigorous, professional, lengthy and carefully-evaluated process conducted by the Department for Transport and its expert advisers - as required for such an important contract. The bid selected has been assessed as the best for the taxpayer and rail user.
May I call upon Sir Richard to accept this outcome and move on to the many other opportunities that exist for him and his organisation. His refusal to accept the decision - despite not raising any objection to the process until he had lost - smacks of sour grapes. We cannot operate major Government procurement decisions on the basis of a publicity campaign, or move the goalposts after a decision has been properly reached.
Any delays to the start of the new franchise will delay the delivery of benefits promised and bring great uncertainty and concern for all concerned - not least the employees who are all due to transfer to the new franchisee.
Sir Richard must realise that, although he is a very successful businessman, he is not entitled to automatically receive government contracts or be the judge of which bid is the best. He should show a little humility and accept the outcome of this process with good grace."
By Matthew Barrett
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Robert Halfon, the Member of Parliament for Harlow, and one of the most successful campaigning MPs in Parliament, has organised a motion, backed by 60 MPs from all parties, and including 41 Tories, calling for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate allegations of price-fixing by British oil companies. The full motion is worded as follows:
"That this House urges the OFT to investigate oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency actions being taken in other G20 nations to cut fuel prices, for example President Obama strengthening Federal supervision of the U.S. oil market, and increasing penalties for “market manipulation”, and Germany and Austria setting up a new oil regulator, with orders to help stabilise the price of petrol in the country; finally urges the Office of Fair Trading to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms active in the UK, after allegations of price-fixing."
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.
Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, has written a letter to the National Trust, warning it against becoming too political. Kawczynski writes:
I am very concerned by the Trust's current political campaign on planning reforms. I am especially worried that the Trust’s behaviour runs the risk of causing long term damage to the organisation.
The Trust's responsibilities are set out clearly in Section 4 of the 1907 Act. It was established to promote the permanent preservation of land and buildings of beauty or historic interest. This is a statutory definition of your role. I cannot imagine that Parliament, at that time, thought the National Trust should become the leader of a national lobby on planning policy.
Whilst I accept the Trust has a right to comment on how the reforms may impact on areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas, listed buildings or similar, you seem to be treating the whole of the "open" countryside as being lands of beauty. This is patently incorrect. I am concerned there is a danger that the Trust, as currently managed, could have stretched the interpretation of your statutory purpose to breaking point – leading to serious questions being asked about the Trust's activities.
It was Treasury questions yesterday.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne poured scorn on the Budget growth forecasts:
"As the Chancellor knows, the growth forecasts that he gave us in the Budget last week, which predicted a return to boom levels of growth in just two years, and that the economy would stay at those boom levels, were greeted with near-universal derision, yet they were the fiction on which he constructed every other Budget forecast. When he gave those forecasts, did he know that the IMF was planning to contradict them flatly just an hour later?
Mr. Darling: Yes, of course I knew the IMF forecasts. The IMF takes a more pessimistic view, not just of our economy but of every economy across the world. However, we ensure that our forecasts are based on the information that we have. If hon. Members look at the IMF and its forecasting over the past three months, they will see that it has downrated its forecasting three times since last October, which demonstrates the uncertainty in the system. However, I believe that because of the action that we are taking, because of the fact that we have low interest rates, because inflation will be coming down this year, and because of the action that most other countries are taking to look after and support their economies, that will have an effect, which is why I remain confident that we will see growth return towards the end of this year.
Mr. Osborne: Frankly, I do not think the Chancellor is in any position to lecture anyone else about downgrading their forecasts after last week. Is not the truth this—that the dishonest Budget has completely unravelled in the space of just a week? We have seen the IMF produce those growth forecasts, which were wholly different from the ones given an hour earlier to the House of Commons. We have the CBI saying that there is no credible or rigorous plan to deal with the deficit. We have the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointing to the black hole, and yesterday a former member of the Cabinet, beside whom the Chancellor sat at the Cabinet table, said that his tax plans were a breach of a manifesto promise that is damaging not just to the Labour party, but to the economy. Today we had the Prime Minister getting a lecture in prudence while he was in Warsaw. We are used to Polish builders telling us to fix the roof when the sun is shining, but not the Polish Prime Minister as well.
Does not the collapse of the Budget in the past week and the damage to the Chancellor’s credibility make an almost unanswerable case for an independent office for Budget responsibility, so that we get independent forecasts on Budget day and the assumptions of the Budget are believed by the public?
Yesterday saw Foreign Office questions.
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind both asked about Iran's nuclear ambitions:
"The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report of 19 February shows that Iran continues to refuse to suspend its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and has not granted the IAEA the access that it seeks as required by five UN Security Council resolutions. We, and the international community, will continue to press for Iran to fulfil its international obligations and restore confidence in its intentions.
Mr. Jones: Does the Secretary of State agree that while President Obama’s recent outreach to Iran is welcome, diplomatic overtures must be backed by a readiness on the part of the United States and the EU to impose such further sanctions as are necessary until such a time as Tehran can demonstrate to the unequivocal satisfaction of the UN inspectorate that it has abandoned its ambitions to develop a military nuclear capability?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his enunciation of the policy, which I think has support across the House. It is the so-called dual-track policy, which is that we should seek to engage with Iran, that we should make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the choice of Government in Iran should be a matter for them. However, whatever the Government in Iran, they need to abide by their international responsibilities. If they refuse to do so, there are costs associated with that decision.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are responsibilities on the EU and the US, but the responsibilities go wider. The international coalition, which is right to fear an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, goes wider than the EU and the US. Russia, China and the Gulf states have responsibilities, too, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in working to ensure that they are part of a global coalition against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: With North Korea, it has proved useful to include its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, in the negotiations to discourage it from going down the nuclear weapons route. Should not Iran’s neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, be invited by the Security Council to join the negotiations over Iran, especially as the Iranians need to realise that those three countries might themselves go nuclear if Iran ends up as a nuclear weapons state?
David Miliband: Only up to a point. The multilateral negotiations are not being conducted under a UN framework—the E3 plus 3 is not a UN body, but it is recognised to have a global coalition behind it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have an important point, which was at the heart of the E3 plus 3 offer agreed under my chairmanship last May in London. It concerns what will happen in the future if Iran ceases its nuclear weapons programme or restores the confidence of the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. There are important regional political issues about Iran’s legitimate interests in the region, but no discussion of those issues can take place without the involvement of the countries that he has mentioned."
The EDM (which is not yet online) reads as follows:
"That this House is deeply disappointed and frustrated by the lack of reference to Britain, and in particular our country’s flag, in the branding used by the Department of International Development when working on development projects abroad; believes the current ‘DFID’ branding is meaningless and does not effectively convey the origins of the funding provided by British tax payers to those people that it is helping; considers the stripping of the British brand by DFID in order to stop the Department from being subsumed into foreign policy has gone too far; that Britain should instead follow the lead of other agencies across the world such as the United Nations, the European Union and United States Agency for International Development in clearly stating the origins of its aid; and calls on the Government to introduce a small Union Jack on all DFID branding overseas, sending a clear the message that our country is proud of those representing our nation and what they are doing."
This is an excellent idea. When countries like America and Great Britain are condemned as evil by rabble rousers, it is vital that people should see for themselves when we are making the effort to help them.
There was an Opposition Day Debate on the Royal Mail in the House of Commons yesterday. Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke moved:
"That this House welcomes the Hooper review of UK postal services; and urges the Government to implement rapidly the review’s proposals for the partial privatisation of Royal Mail."
But despite this support from the Conservatives a Government amendment was drafted, stating that the House:
"“notes the threats to the future of the Royal Mail and welcomes the conclusion of the Hooper Report that, as part of a plan to place the Royal Mail on a sustainable path for the future, the current six days a week universal service obligation (USO) must be protected, that the primary duty of a new regulator should be to maintain the USO, and that the Government should address the growing pensions deficit; notes that modernisation in the Royal Mail is essential and that investment must be found for it; endorses the call for a new relationship between management and postal unions; urges engagement with relevant stakeholders to secure the Government’s commitment to a thriving and prosperous Royal Mail, secure in public ownership, that is able to compete and lead internationally and that preserves the universal postal service; further notes the Conservatives’ failure to invest in Royal Mail when they were in power in contrast with Labour’s support for both Royal Mail and the Post Office; and notes that legislation on these issues will be subject to normal parliamentary procedures.”
Two Conservative MPs - Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury & Atcham) and Edward Timpson (Crewe & Nantwich) - voted against the Conservative motion - and then abstained on the Government amendment.
Last October Mr Timpson slammed the Royal Mail for its proposals to transfer around 460 jobs from Crewe to Warrington. Mr Kawczynski recently gave staff from the Shrewsbury Royal Mail sorting office a tour of the Palace of Westminster before holding a surgery with them.
Update: Mr Kawczynski told ConservativeHome:
"After four years in Parliament and never having voted against my party, I felt I had to in this case. I am in favour of the Post Office remaining in state hands and will not vote for any measure which would wholly or partly privatise it. I have a regular meetings with staff at the huge sorting office in Shrewsbury, which covers Shropshire and a large part of Wales. I have a special strong bond with the workers at the sorting office and I will do everything I can to protect their jobs. I think that privatisation could lead to job losses there, and that's one of the reasons I voted the way I did."
Further update: Mr Timpson has given ConservativeHome the following statement:
"Crewe sorting office has been earmarked for closure, with little consultation from Royal Mail. This will result in a loss of up to 600 local jobs, with the majority of staff unable to relocate. The impact on both them and their families at a time of recession would be devastating. They do not oppose modernisation of their industry. Like them, I have found Royal Mail managers and the Minister for Postal Affairs to be disinterested and dismissive rather than concerned with the plight of workers at this time of recession. They have used the Hooper Report as an excuse to retrospectively justify their behaviour. I cannot therefore welcome a report that is being used as a stick with which to beat the third largest workforce in my constituency. They deserve better than the atrocious treatment they have received."
During the debate on the Queen's Speech in the Commons on December 3rd, the following exchange took place between Daniel Kawczynski, the Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, and Gordon Brown:
Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful that the Prime Minister has given way. One group of people whom he has not mentioned today is the policyholders of Equitable Life. We recently had a debate in Westminster Hall, which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats. Will the Prime Minister give us a concrete date for when the Government will respond to the parliamentary ombudsman’s report on the issue?
The Prime Minister: There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done. [Hon. Members: “Answer!”] There will be a statement before the House rises this Christmas.
The Prime Minister may have made his promise of a statement before Christmas twice, but it did not come. As the Daily Mail reported on Thursday, two ministers had to apologise to the House for failing to respond as promised to the Ombudsman's report which heavily criticised the Government's regulatory failings and said that those Equitable Life policyholders who lost out should be compensated.
The first week back after Christmas is of course more than three weeks away - another reason why this recess is too long.
Shadow Minister for Children Tim Loughton has tabled EDM 2542, on a fantastically unimportant issue:
"JOHN SERGEANT AND STRICTLY COME DANCING20.11.2008
That this House is devastated by the circumstances surrounding John Sergeant's departure from Strictly Come Dancing; notes that the programme is a highly popular light entertainment show aimed at entertaining the licence fee paying public, not a serious talent show to launch `wannabes' on a dancing career; further notes that a key component of the programme is to encourage viewers to exercise a meaningful vote and pay for that privilege and to ignore the wishes of the voting public in this way undermines the whole point of voting; and calls on the BBC to reinstate John Sergeant on the show immediately and for the veteran political commentator, turned entertainingly dodgy dancer, to dust down his sequins, return to the dance floor and manfully face the music until the British public, or jury, decides otherwise."
At the time of writing, only Mr Loughton's Conservative colleague Peter Bottomley has also signed. In fairness to them, there is a place for levity in EDMs.
Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb has tabled a rather more worthwhile one in EDM 2540:
"INTERNATIONAL PARLIAMENTARY CONFERENCE ON AID EFFECTIVENESS19.11.2008
That this House congratulates and commends the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch on its timely International Parliamentary Conference held on 17th to 21st November 2008 in the Palace of Westminster for 92 colleagues from across the Commonwealth and beyond on the scrutiny of the effectiveness of international aid; notes that following the Accra High Level Forum in September 2008, the conference debated the vital role of parliamentarians in donor and partner legislatures in holding their executives to account on international aid effectiveness and commitments made under the Paris Declaration in 2005; further notes that the conference discussed the need to enhance the capacity of partner parliaments to undertake more effective scrutiny; and recognises an outreach responsibility within this Parliament to assist in strengthening the capacity of partner parliaments."
There are several noteworthy written answers in the latest edition of Hansard.
The Opposition has supported the Government's carbon reduction plans. The following question from Shadow Local Government spokesman Eric Pickles is interesting in light of this. Are the Conservatives contemplating a spending commitment?
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether local authorities will be compensated for the regulatory costs of the carbon reduction commitment. 
There are no plans to provide additional funding to local authorities in regard to their participation in the Carbon Reduction Commitment. There are already funding streams in place to help local authorities monitor and reduce their energy use via the Local Authority Performance Framework Climate Change Indicators and the SALIX Finance fund. The additional administration costs of the emissions monitoring required by the Carbon Reduction Commitment are not substantial.
Overall the energy efficiency benefits of participating in the Carbon Reduction Commitment are calculated to outweigh the administrative costs. Economic analysis indicates that local authorities are well placed to perform well in the scheme as there are significant opportunities for local authorities to increase the energy efficiency of their operations."
Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers asked about Metronet - who are responsible for two-thirds of London Underground's infrastructure - and we were reminded how costly the programme is:
"Mrs. Villiers: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effects of Metronet going into administration upon the delivery of its commitment under its public-private partnership contract. 
Jim Fitzpatrick: Following the PPP administration of Metronet on 18 July 2007, both Metronet companies transferred to Transport for London on 27 May 2008. Transport for London, together with London Underground and the Government, are currently considering the future structure for the lines previously the responsibility of Metronet. A key consideration is to ensure that the major upgrades due to be completed on the Victoria, Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith and City lines are not significantly affected by Metronet’s failure.
The comprehensive spending review 2007 settlement sets out the expected levels of Transport for London’s grant and borrowing to 2017-18. This generous funding package worth some £40 billion over the next 10 years makes provision for the continued modernisation of the underground and costs arising from Metronet’s administration. Government will continue to work with London Underground and Transport for London to ensure that these upgrades can be delivered.
Passenger safety remains of paramount importance. London Underground has always retained overall responsibility for passenger safety on the network and the Office of Rail Regulation regulates health and safety on the underground."
Daniel Kawczynski is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post. All-party it may be in principle, but of course the Liberal Democrats are not fans. The arguments in favour of our current system for electing MPs are worth quickly rehashing.
It is certainly the case that a candidate's party affliation is the most important factor for most electors - but that doesn't mean that a potential MP's personal qualities should be systematically overlooked, which is what happens when they are elected because of their position on a list drawn up by party hacks in smoke-filled rooms. (Actually, perhaps the rooms aren't smoke-filled any more.)
It may be that many of us would find it a challenge to name our MEP even if they were elected by first past the post - but it seems likely that the list system we use for European elections has made that challenge even tougher. Do we want that for Westminster too?
Proportional representation often results in smaller parties enjoying disproportionate power as the big boys struggle to form a majority, and this may in turn result in less stable government.
Proponents of PR argue that millions of votes are wasted because if someone lives in a safe Tory or Labour seat they have little hope of effecting change. But this is sloppy thinking. No vote has been cast until it's been cast, and is there not a danger that PR would stop parties and candidates from seeing a need to reach out to new voters in unnatural constituencies? Might it not seem easier just to play to one's core vote? Would that be healthy?
That said, there is no reason why a Conservative supporter should not also be a supporter of electoral reform. Rumour has it that the young William Hague was pro-PR. Would any Conservatives out there like to advocate a different way to choose our representatives in Westminster?
(With many different forms of PR existing in practice world-wide and in theory as well, this conversation could get mega-geeky. Let's embrace that.)
On Tuesday in the Chamber of the House of Commons I listened to the statement by the Secretary of State for DEFRA Hilary Benn MP on the recent Foot and Mouth outbreak.
I and many of my fellow MPs are determined to scrutinise the Government on this key issue, as so many of our farming constituents have endured yet more financial loss and frustration as a result of this outbreak.
Here in Shropshire this latest blow has come on top of a rampant increase in the cases of bovine tuberculosis across the constituency, with the Minister acknowledging that bTb cases have risen by more than 20% in Shropshire over the last 12 months and by nearly 400% in the previous six years, from 39 cases in 2000 to 149 cases in 2006.
When we first heard of the news of the outbreak in Surrey earlier this summer, many farmers in Shropshire telephoned me with their fears and worries, highlighting to me the extent of their individual losses caused by the restrictions imposed on the movement and selling of cattle and meat. Although I believe DEFRA were correct in imposing a ban on the movement of cattle, many individuals have lost thousands of pounds and, in certain cases, tens of thousands of pounds.
In our own county I am sure the figure must come to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds of lost revenue to our already suffering rural communities. In certain cases this latest outbreak has been the straw that has broken the camel’s back and farmers have decided to leave the industry - which is of course the fault of the Government, not only because of their mishandling of the current crisis, but because of 10 years of neglect of British agriculture.