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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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 Paul Goodman
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I haven't a clue whether there is more to the story of Danny Nightingale, the SAS Sergeant who "was sentenced to 18 months by court martial after an illegal Glock pistol given to him by grateful Iraqis was found in his belongings", than meets the eye.
But I know a political rumpus when I see it. Philip Hammond wanted the case reviewed. The Attorney-General has refused. I see that Julian Brazier, the MP for Canterbury, has a Commons debate later today.
My old friend and colleague Dominic Grieve's principled support for the ECHR (in my view mistaken, but there you go) hasn't endeared him to the more rumbustious end of Fleet Street - particularly in Murdoch Towers - and the blogosphere. Here we go...
15.15pm Update - The Attorney-General has released a statement, part of which reads:
"It would be inappropriate for the Attorney General to review either the decision to prosecute or comment on the appropriateness of the sentence. That is a matter for the Court Martial Appeal Court, in due course."
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 Matthew Barrett
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7pm update: Labour will support Andrew Tyrie's chairmanship of a joint parliamentary committee holding an inquiry into the banking industry. Ed Balls told the House after losing tonight's vote (below):
"The Government has won its vote. The chair of the Treasury Select Committee will now chair a narrow inquiry... On this side we respect the Right Honourable Member and we will work with him. But we have some very real concerns about the membership and the secretariat of that committee, which we hope that he will address."
The debate in the House regarding "professional standards in banking" has just wound down. At stake was a vote on whether there should be a judicial or a parliamentary inquiry into the culture of the banking industry. Labour favours the former drawn-out, Leveson-style inquiry, whereas the Government favours a swift investigation by Lords and MPs, so that any recommendations can be implemented in the upcoming banking reform Bill, which is set to come before the House in the new year. The Government won the vote to reject a judicial inquiry by 320 votes to 239, a safe majority of 81, and then won a second vote to hold a parliamentary inquiry, by 330 votes to 226 votes, an even safer majority of 104.
That all sounds a bit dry compared to the barney which took place between Ed Balls and George Osborne. Mr Osborne made comments to the Spectator which, Mr Balls argued, implied that Balls was involved in the Libor scandal. Mr Balls was incensed with the allegations. He called them "utterly baseless", urged Mr Osborne to "put up" the evidence of any wrongdoing from Balls, or "shut up", and attacked the...
"cheap and partisan and desperate way in which he and his aides have conducted themselves over recent days does him no good, it demeans the office he holds and most important it makes it harder to achieve the lasting consensus that we need"
Mr Osborne did not feel the need to supply an apology. This annoyed Mr Balls even more. He said: "the sight of a Chancellor who says one thing to the press, but can't defend himself in Parliament, is embarrassing to the office." It was a more rowdy affair than most PMQs - there were frequent interventions from the Deputy Speaker, the Tory MP Nigel Evans, as much of the House felt the need to shout at each other.
By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel - want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
By Jonathan Isaby
In advance of yesterday's debate on votes for prisoners, the man moving the motion, David Davis, made his case on ConHome here.
So below are some of the highlights from the contributions of other Conservatives during the debate.
NB A full breakdown of how all MPs voted is here.
South West Devon MP Gary Streeter said the motion invited people to address the "fundamental issue" of "whether or not we can pass our own laws":
"There comes a time when it is necessary to take a stand. I argue that right now, on this issue, it is right for this House, today, to assert its authority. The judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case flies in the face of the original wording and purpose of the European convention on human rights, in which it was clearly intended that each signatory should have latitude in making decisions on the electoral franchise in that country.
"We decided in this country centuries ago that convicted criminals should not have the right to vote, and I support that decision. After all, the punitive element of incarceration is the denial for the time being of certain rights and privileges that our citizens enjoy. We decided long ago that in addition to surrendering their liberty, convicted criminals while in prison would also give up their right to vote. That was the case in 1953 when the treaty on human rights was signed, and it remains the case."
Attorney General Dominic Grieve set out the Government's position early in the debate:
"Ministers will abstain. The Government believe that the proper course of action will be to reflect on what has been said and think about what proposals to bring back to the House in the light of the debate. The Government are here to listen to the views of the House, which are central and critical to this debate, as was acknowledged in the Hirst case."
Conservative MPs lined up yesterday to oppose Labour's plans for a £80m referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system for electing the House of Commons. Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve led for the Conservatives.
Richard Shepherd on how AV elects the least objectionable candidates: "I know that the Prime Minister has abolished boom and bust, and I now know that he wants to reform our voting system, but let me make an observation. The first-past-the-post voting system goes back to before time almost. It was the way by which, in ancient societies, in a one-vote system, the individual who had the most votes came first. It was the most simple rubric for determining who should be elected. That is how things were, but there has been a reversion. I am told that the Liberal Democrats support the money resolution and the purposes behind it. They have forgotten the advice of Lord Jenkins in his commission’s report. The system that we are debating cannot be said to be an equal or proportionate system any more than the first-past-the-post system can. It therefore means that the least-objectionable candidate is elected."
John Gummer protests at the £80m cost of a referendum on AV: "My constituents do not have the wherewithal to keep our current systems going, because the Government have taken money from the national health service and local government and spread it elsewhere in order to distribute it to their heartlands. It is therefore a scandal to talk to my constituents about £80 million, and they will not forget it at the election. More importantly, the neighbouring constituencies, which are very marginal, will certainly not forget it. They will return to this House people more willing to care for the public finances."
Dominic Grieve says £80m would fund 15 rape crisis centres: "I do not know where the £80 million is supposed to come from, but on my calculation it would pay for the prison places needed to scrap the early release scheme, which the Secretary of State says is so important to him; it would fund 15 rape crisis centres, if that is what he wants to do out of the justice budget; and it would enable him to drop the disgraceful policy of refusing to meet the legal costs of acquitted defendants who do not enjoy legal aid. All those things could be done, and I have to say to him that that would be money much better spent."
Patrick Cormack says the debate is all about Labour wooing the Liberal Democrats: "The motion not only illustrates the prodigality of the Prime Minister—with his busted reputation for financial acumen, which went down the drain a very long time ago—but shows that the Government have no place in their affections or regard for Parliament. They are thrashing around like a dying tyrant, seeking to use their majority to take the public eye off the things that really matter and, perhaps, to save their skins in what they think might become a deal in the future—we remember the Lib-Lab pact, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with those who might come to their aid and succour."
In his main contribution, Dominic Grieve notes that the left-wing blogosphere oppose AV: "The best starting point would be for the Secretary of State to take a short absence from the Chamber to look at the excellent blog site run by his son, Will Straw, on which there has been extensive polling in left-of-centre areas of radicalism about these proposals. No more than 20 per cent., he has concluded, support the alternative vote proposed by the Government and 29 per cent. want no referendum at all. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn, particularly from a left-of-centre blog, that the vast majority of the remainder want such disparate things that it is impossible to assess what they desire. I think that the Secretary of State would have done rather well to have considered that blog first."
Dominic Grieve says that few voters want the paralysis of PR: "In my constituency—I make this point also in the context of the Liberal Democrats—I get very few representations about changing the electoral system. I suspect that the same is true for many hon. Members. The more that people study proportional representation systems, including purist systems such as that in Israel, the more they must conclude that such systems saddle countries with impossible legislatures, that no proper governance can be carried out under them and that they bring inertia. For those reasons, PR does not commend itself to me."
Mr Grieve on AV favouring Labour: "The alternative vote system would have delivered more seats than the first-past-the-post system for Labour in 2005, even though it only gained 36 per cent. of the popular vote. That seems to me to be a very poor starting-point for change in that direction."
Frank Field highlights another unfairness of AV: "What worries me about the proposals that we are debating is that it is not difficult to imagine some of our colleagues initially being clear winners against three or four other candidates, but, through a process of elimination, losing their seats because the votes eventually go to the runner-up. There is a terrible illogicality in having a system in which a candidate can have a clear lead in the first-preference votes, but in which the second or third-preference votes become equal to the first-preference votes in further stages of the counting. Clearly, those other votes are not equal to the first-preference votes; if they had been, people would have voted differently in the first place."
John Redwood corrects the idea that the Conservatives use AV in internal leadership elections: "Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives seem keen to say that we use the alternative vote system for our internal party elections, but we do not. The system used for our leadership election is the progressive rounds model, under which one candidate drops out at each stage, with everyone being given a vote on the remaining candidates. That could not conceivably be adopted for general elections, as having six or seven candidates at the start would mean that the election would take about three months. The electorate would get bored, and the costs would be massive."
Grieve quotes Ken Livingstone's opposition to AV: “Many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first-past-the-post because the AV alternative is even worse…Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties.”
As promised by Eleanor Laing last week, the Conservatives have tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which would Save General Election Night by setting in statute a requirement for Returning Officers to count votes at general elections on the night.
It proposes that counts could only be delayed if there are "exceptional circumstances" - and that these would have to be defined by the Justice Secretary and be subject to approval by Parliament.
Tomorrow's proceedings on the committee stage of the Bill will most likely be dominated by the Government's proposals on electoral reform, so I do not presently know what likelihood there is of the issue being properly debated and/or voted on.
If it is put to the vote, I would certainly hope that all the 220 MPs from across the House who signed the original Save General Election Night early day motion would stick to their word and back it.
I will let you know if I get any more news later.
The full text of the amendment (New Clause 98) is as follows:
Counting of votes in parliamentary electionsMr Dominic Grieve
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Eric Pickles
To move the following Clause:—
(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows—
(2) In Schedule 1 (Parliamentary elections rules), in paragraph 44, after sub-paragraph (1) insert—
“(1A) The counting of votes in a parliamentary election shall start within four hours of the close of the poll, save in exceptional circumstances.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall, after consulting the Electoral Commission, prepare draft guidance on the definition of “exceptional circumstances” for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1A).
(1C) The draft guidance prepared under sub-paragraph (1B) may not be issued unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by both Houses of Parliament.”.
The Sunday Times reports this morning that the Conservatives want to stop the Government from ousting the remaining ninety hereditary peers from the House of Lords - which seems nothing more than a naked attempt to reduce the Tories' strength in the Upper House yet further, rather than being part of a concerted attempt to make wider reforms.
The report states:
"The Conservatives want to scupper new legislation that would begin the process of removing the 90 remaining aristocrats who have seats in the upper house by virtue of their lineage. In a move that has outraged both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they have put down an amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill which calls for the deletion of the clause ending the hereditary principle. Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, says he will not sign up to “piecemeal” reform of the Lords and claims the remaining hereditaries — almost all of whom are Tories — play an “important role” in the upper house."
I take the view that the House of Lords as currently constituted is doing its job of scrutinising legislation rather well - often far better than the Commons in fact - and am unconvinced of the case for further meddling, as has been Labour's wont. Its record on the Lords is one of political opportunism rather than principle and Dominic Grieve is right to be resisting this latest wheeze.
P.S. The Sunday Times appear to think that the election has already taken place and that there has been achnage of government:
"But opposition politicians accused the Conservatives of seeking to protect the wealthy and privileged and claimed the decision showed the party was not serious about modernising parliament."
There were questions to Justice ministers yesterday. These are the highlights.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride raised the thorny issue of the state funding of political parties:
"Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a huge conundrum when it comes to party political funding? The public want democracy, but it is expensive. They do not want to pay for it with their own taxes, and they do not want other people to pay for it with their hard-earned cash.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady has put the dilemma very acutely. She will know that one of Sir Hayden’s key recommendations was that in return for donation limits there should be very extensive state funding. I think it is now recognised, not least given the state of the British economy, that the British people would not take kindly to that proposition. In Canada, where there had been state funding, the Government of Mr. Stephen Harper suddenly decided to withdraw it as an economy measure, causing a fundamental crisis in Canadian politics. That, I suggest, is another reason not to introduce comprehensive state funding.
Yes, it is true to some extent that the public want democracy and do not want to pay for it. Meanwhile, I happen to believe that it is entirely honourable to ask people to contribute to the political parties of their choice, provided that those who donate make it clear that they are donating."
Large donations should be declared. No-one should be compelled to donate to a political party, either through their membership of an organisation or through their taxes. It should be up to parties to make themselves sufficiently appealing to voters that they want to support them, and many of us would deeply resent being made to fund a political movement we find repugnant (and I'm not even thinking of the ghastly extremist parties!).
Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve responded for the Conservatives to Jack Straw's statement on prisons and probation yesterday:
"I thank the Justice Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I join him in paying tribute to the service and commitment of prison and probation staff, and police and emergency services, under such challenging conditions. May I therefore express my disappointment that once again he has trailed a major policy announcement in the weekend press, with the Government’s usual disdain for this House?
I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s U-turn on Titan prisons; giant warehouses are no good for reforming prisoners or for protecting the public. However, the Justice Secretary first announced Titans amid great fanfare in 2007. Why has it taken almost two years to work out what Opposition parties, the chief inspector of prisons, the voluntary sector and prison officers told him then? Is it because the Government ran out of money, or because the policy ran out of spin? The stark reality is that this U-turn is the nail in the coffin of a flawed approach to tackling crime.
Violent crime has nearly doubled under Labour, with Ministers advised to expect a further surge during this recession. The Justice Secretary has released more than 50,000 prisoners early, including 14 violent offenders every day, to grossly inadequate aftercare; and we have seen Ashwell prison virtually destroyed in a riot. Does he now at last accept that these systematic failures are the direct result of his Government failing both to provide enough prisons and to provide the right prison regime? Take prison numbers; more than half of prisons are overcrowded, and 70 per cent. of prisoners are in overcrowded cells; and on top of early release, dangerous offenders have been moved to open prisons to create space. We now face the possibility of serious unrest, with prisons bursting at the seams. Can he tell the House whether he received any warning from the Prison Service of the riot at Ashwell before it took place? Has he received any further warnings of possible unrest elsewhere?
The current crisis is a direct result of reckless neglect by Ministers. Many will suspect that the sudden conversion over Titans is really just cover to delay or dilute the Government’s pledge to provide the additional 15,000 places that we need, net, by 2014. Ministry of Justice officials advised only last year that 15 prisons would be needed to match the capacity otherwise provided by Titans, but the Justice Secretary is now proposing just five. Will these be mini-Titans, or is he reneging on his pledge to provide the extra places that we need within the timetable that his officials have said is necessary? We will look carefully at the particular sites that he now proposes. Can he explain what consultation process is under way for each site?
Then there are the costs. The Prison Service already faces a black hole of nearly £500 million. How will the Justice Secretary fund these proposals? He says that he intends to end early release. Well, he has said that before. When will it end, and does he recognise that nothing can make up for the failure to invest in the prison estate since he was first warned of the looming crisis more than a decade ago?
As I said, I welcome the abandonment of the Titan model in favour of smaller prisons, because we will never reform until our prisons until we reform the poor regimes that are the direct result of overcrowding. However, these proposals are too little and too late. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that more than half of all prisoners now have serious drug addictions, but that less than 10 per cent. are on rehabilitation programmes? Can he confirm that vital programmes in work and skills have been shelved because of the overcrowding, and does he accept that far from a reduction in adult male reoffending from prison, as he claims, there has in fact been a rise in reoffending from 57 per cent. in 1996 to 65 per cent. in 2006, at which point the Government fiddled the figures rather than tackle the problem?
Turning to probation, the Justice Secretary has, I think, announced cuts. Will he tell the House how many probation areas will see a reduction in their budget, and can he guarantee that public safety will not be compromised? Amid the disinformation and bluster, two things are now crystal clear. The Government are papering over the cracks of a prison crisis that is entirely of their own making and, as the author of that failure, the Justice Secretary appears incapable of providing a credible solution."
Here are some interesting answers from the latest edition of Hansard.
Shadow Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary David Willetts asked a question that couldn't be answered:
"Mr. Willetts: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many EU citizens working in the UK paid sufficient national insurance contributions to earn a potential entitlement to the state pension in each year since 1997. 
National Insurance is effectively income tax - especially as we have no guarantee that we will see the benefit of our contributions when we retire. It is staggering that the Government doesn't know how much it takes from British subjects specifically.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw made a statement yesterday on a Green Paper entitled: "Rights and Responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework".
The Green Paper presents arguments for a written constitution. Mr Straw said:
"Duties and responsibilities are to be found in the convention, in statute, in common law and woven deeply into our social and moral fabric. We have a latent understanding and acceptance of our duties to one another and to the state. That said, responsibilities have been a poor cousin to rights. The Green Paper proposes that responsibilities are given greater prominence in our constitutional arrangements, better to articulate what we owe, as much as what we expect. That is how we can move away from a “rights culture” to a “rights and responsibilities culture”.
Some responsibilities are obvious, such as obeying the law, paying taxes and undertaking jury service. Others are less obviously recalled at the moment they should be exercised, such as a responsibility towards future generations to live within environmental limits, the duty we have to protect the well-being of children in our care, a civic duty to vote, responsibilities towards our neighbours, respect for those public sector workers who care for us and a responsibility towards the taxpayer—for example, not claiming benefits if one is able to work.
A key question set out in the Green Paper is whether any Bill should have, directly or indirectly, the force of law. Bills of Rights from around the world are a combination of symbolism, aspiration and law across a spectrum of legal effect. There need not be a binary choice between the justiciable and the declaratory. As the Green Paper points out, the Government do not necessarily consider a model of directly legally enforceable rights or responsibilities to be the most appropriate."
Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve responded for the Conservatives.
"I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It was not in fact needed, as it was all in The Sunday Times. Yet again, even on serious matters of constitutional reform, this Government demonstrate their disdain for this House by first announcing policy to the media.
We have had a decade of botched constitutional reform from this Government. The Justice Secretary was there from the start, and now he has been instructed by the Prime Minister to clear up the mess. In truth, there can be only two reasons for this Green Paper, which he says sets the framework of debate. Has he come to the House because he accepts that the Human Rights Act, which has been in force for less than nine years, has proved badly flawed, and that new thought is needed? Or is the statement just the latest exercise in pure spin, designed to make absolutely no difference in practice?
In the latest edition of Hansard there are some more interesting written answers.
Shadow DEFRA minister Anne McIntosh wanted to know about the impact of the recession on giving to churches:
"To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners what assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effect of the current economic climate on levels of giving to parishes (a) via the collection plate and (b) otherwise; and if he will make a statement. 
Sir Stuart Bell: Over the last 30 years church members have increased giving as a proportion of net income from 1 per cent. to over 3 per cent., so there is still some way to go to achieve General Synod’s 5 per cent. target. Clearly church members will, like everyone else be affected by the present economic difficulties and the dioceses and Archbishops’ Council are monitoring the situation closely. The high proportion who give by regular standing order provides some measure of resilience, but these are uncertain times, particularly with other sources of Church income also under pressure."
Shadow Justice Secretary and Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve asked about the powers of the Electoral Commission:
"To ask the hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission what administrative financial penalties may be levied by the Electoral Commission. 
Sir Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission has powers to issue civil penalties under section 147 of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) where a relevant organisation is late in delivering a statutory report to the Commission. The amount of the civil penalty is calculated in accordance with subsection 3 of section 147, and depends on how late the relevant information is provided to the Commission.
The Electoral Commission is also able to apply to a magistrates court to order the forfeiture of an amount equal to the value of a donation that has been accepted by a registered party or regulated donee, if the donation was impermissible or a court is satisfied that the true amount of a donation was intentionally concealed."