By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in Parliament, Richard Bacon, a Conservative backbencher, tried to introduce a Bill which would repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. One of Mr Bacon's lines of argument was that the legal requirement for Ministers to amend legislation - without a vote in Parliament - in order to comply with European human rights legislation - is "fundamentally undemocratic":
"Under section 10, a Minister of the Crown may make such amendments to primary legislation as are considered necessary to enable the incompatibility to be removed by the simple expedient of making an order. In effect, because the accepted practice is that the United Kingdom observes its international obligations, a supranational court can impose its will against ours. In my view this is fundamentally undemocratic."
Mr Bacon also compellingly argued that the controversial social issues that judges often like to get involved in should be decided by "elected representatives and not by unelected judges":
"[T]here is no point in belonging to a club if one is not prepared to obey its rules. The solution is therefore not to defy judgments of the Court, but rather to remove the power of the Court over us. ... Judges do not have access to a tablet of stone not available to the rest of us which enables them to discern what our people need better than we can possibly do as their elected, fallible, corrigible representatives. There is no set of values that are so universally agreed that we can appeal to them as a useful final arbiter. In the end they will always be shown up as either uselessly vague or controversially specific. Questions of major social policy, whether on abortion, capital punishment, the right to bear firearms or workers rights, should ultimately be decided by elected representatives and not by unelected judges."
By Matthew Barrett
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Paul Goodman and Harry Phibbs have already covered this strange case of UKIP-supporting foster parents having children taken away from them by the council in Rotherham. Such a breach of political freedom and liberty has been greeted with concern by a number of Tory MPs - including the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - in tweets and elsewhere. I have collected some below.
Michael Gove has released a statement (via here):
"Rotherham have made the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Rotherham's reasons for denying this family the chance to foster are indefensible. The ideology behind Rotherham's decision is actively harmful to children. We should not allow considerations of ethnic or cultural background to prevent children being placed with loving and stable families. We need more parents to foster and many more to adopt. Any council that decides supporting a mainstream UK political party disbars an individual from looking after children in care is sending a dreadful signal that will only decrease the number of loving homes available to children in need."
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.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Last night at least 32 Tory MPs (listed below) voted with Labour against an 88% hike in Britain's contribution to the IMF. The hike is to partly fund the IMF's ability to fund bailouts. I write "at least" because I've only quickly scanned the voting list. Please email email@example.com if I've missed anyone off the list.
The Government won the vote to increase Britain's contribution from £10.7 billion to £20.15 billion by 274 votes to 246. This is the first time that the Labour frontbench has voted with Tory Eurosceptics. Labour was voting against an increase in the IMF subscription that was largely agreed during Gordon brown's time in office.
On his blog John Redwood suggests that the 29 rebels are only one sign of Tory discontent. Given that there are more than 300 Tory MPs he calculates that AT LEAST 80 Conservatives were unavailable, abstained or voted against the government. He writes:
"Some of us want the UK government to use the influence it says it has at the IMF to halt the futile bail outs of Eurozone members. The debt markets show the markets do not believe that Greece can repay all its debts in full and on time. Yesterday was a day when market worries spread beyond Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Italy. Those in charge of the Euro scheme need to get a grip. It is doing a great deal of financial and economic damage, and they no longer seem to be in control of their project. The IMF should decline to bail out rich countries that have shackled themselves to a currency scheme that was badly put together and needs a thorough re think."
"The decision to raise our IMF subscriptions by 88 percent was first mooted when Gordon Brown was in charge – but was okayed by the current government last October. While Canada, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium all managed to keep the increase in their subs low, whoever negotiated the deal on our behalf seems to have preferred to have UK taxpayers assume greater debt liabilities so that they could sit on a bigger chair at the various international summits they attend on our behalf. Alongside fiscal policy and monetary policy, our approach towards the bailouts and the IMF shows that there has been remarkably little change in economic policy at the Treasury since Gordon Brown was in charge."
by Paul Goodman
ConservativeHome recently asked Tory MPs to tip us off if they believed a colleague to have made a particularly good speech in the Chamber. I won't slip to Graham Stuart, the Education Select Committee Chairman, which Conservative MP tipped us off about his defence of home education - and attack on local authorities in relation to it - in the Commons yesterday, but here is some of the fruit of his energetic late-night internet research...
"The Badman review, which many hon. Members will remember, under the previous Government recommended a 20-day period in which a child’s name should remain on a school’s register, so that if the parents had been pushed into home education because of failures on the part of the school or local authority to meet the needs of their child, they would not automatically lose a place at school, but would have time to think through the implications of home education.
That recommendation by the Badman inquiry was accepted by the then Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. I always thought that that was right, because it seemed to place no restrictions on the rights of parents and families, but seemed to restrict the rights of schools and local authorities, which, according to Badman, if I recollect correctly, were in some cases using home education to push away children whose needs they were failing to meet, finding it easier to push that responsibility on to parents who did not really wish to pursue it...
...In case that response was just overly paranoid home educators who felt that properly caring local authorities would be asking them impertinent questions or who had misread or misunderstood what they were doing or saying, I can share with the House the fruits of my labour last night, which I spent on the internet looking at various local authority websites. A colleague texted me at 6 o’clock to say that we were going to be let go unusually early, and that a night of fun and frolics could lie ahead. I had to say, “No, my fun will involve looking at local authority websites.”
“It is up to parents to show the local education authority that they have a programme of work in place that is helping their child to develop according to his/her age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs he/she may have...
“the law allows parents to educate their children at home instead of sending them to school, if they fulfil certain conditions.”
That is subtly done. I am not sure whether it is strictly inaccurate, but it is suggestive enough to make it sound as though the council decides whether those conditions are fulfilled. It goes on to make it clear that that is precisely its conclusion:
“Barnsley MBC will need to be satisfied”—
“that a child is receiving suitable education at home, and the Assessor”—
“will ask to meet with the family in order to talk to the parents and to look at examples of work and learning.”
“You must show that the opportunities being provided are helping your child to learn and that development is taking place appropriate to their age, ability and aptitude.”
It is fair enough for parents to have a duty to provide suitable education and meet those requirements, but local authorities have no right to interpose themselves and decide that that is not happening. If they have reason to believe that suitable education is not being provided, they have a duty to challenge, but only in that event. They do not have the right routinely to monitor and interfere.
“The Children Service Authority (CSA) is responsible for ensuring that the arrangements provide a suitable education for your child.”
“When you have given the CSA a plan stating your ideas an appropriately qualified”
“Senior Inclusion Officer (SIO) will arrange an initial home visit and make a preliminary assessment”
“of the education provision the child is receiving.”
“information, support and challenge to parents…The service is responsible for assessing the suitability of the education provided to children educated at home”.
“Lancashire Officers will take the lead on this because they have the responsibility to ensure the safety of all children as well as to monitor the quality of education received by children educated at home.”
That is a nice one, neatly conflating the issues of safety and home education. No one has yet arrived at my house during the summer holidays just to check up on the safety of my children, who are, after all, spending months at home with me. Who knows what my wife and I might get up to, or what the younger or older sister might do? Who knows what visiting relatives might do? What we need are visitors from the local authority, just to make sure. I do not want people such as the director of children’s services in my local authority to lose a moment’s sleep because they feel that they are not pursuing every possibility of intervention to cover their own backsides and telling me how I should run things in my own home. That is precisely what the local authority suggests should be done in the case of home-educating parents, who deserve its intervention no more than the rest of us. The document continues:
“Thus, when a practitioner or professional becomes aware that a child is being educated at home, they should use local information sharing arrangements to help the Lancashire Authority to fulfil both its duty to be confident”
“of the well-being of the child and its duty to assure the quality of the education provided.”
As far as I can tell from one evening spent looking at their websites, council after council is entirely misrepresenting the legal position, and I hope that the Minister will put that right."
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw the Second Reading of the Academies Bill, which has already gone through the House of Lords.
"I am concerned by the speed at which the legislation is going through Parliament. It would be a great shame if something so potentially beneficial were damaged or discredited by over-hasty execution. The Bill delivers a Conservative manifesto commitment on a policy that has been clear for years, but none the less parliamentary scrutiny is necessary and beneficial for any policy. It should not be rushed and when it is, as the last Administration found, the errors usually rebound on the Government who put it through. I ask Ministers to think carefully about implementation this September-whether we are talking about hundreds or, perhaps, as few as 50 schools. Is it worth the candle to put the Bill through so swiftly?"
"I know that some Opposition Members say, "Pause, gie canny, slow down, hesitate", but that is the argument of the conservative throughout the ages when confronted with the radicalism that says we need to do better for our children. We cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford Labour's failed approach any more, with teachers directed from the centre, regulations stifling innovation and our country falling behind other nations. We need reform and we need it now. We need the Bill."
He summarised the need for the Bill earlier in the speech:
I wondered earlier this week here whether Labour MPs would use the Select Committee elections to make life difficult for David Cameron.
They didn't. Instead, they lined up behind the Conservative establishment candidates. Andrew Tyrie took the Treasury Select Committee; Richard Ottaway, Foreign Affairs (a big, big consolation prize, after his defeat in the 1922 Committee Chairmanship election); James Arbuthnot, Defence; Stephen Dorrell, Health; Tim Yeo, Climate Change. Anne McIntosh, who won the Environment Committee, leans towards the left of the Party.
I didn't, of course, see anyone cast a ballot paper. But unless Conservative MPs turned out en masse to vote against the Party's right - an unlikely course of action, given the '22 Executive results - Liberal and Labour support for less spiky candidates provides the only comprehensible explanation of the results.
It would be unfair to view the victors as patsies. Tyrie, in particular, has a track record of independent-mindedness. But ask yourself whether Cameron Towers would prefer the winners to, say, Patrick Mercer at Defence or Peter Bone at Health (let alone Nadine) or Philip Hollobone at Climate Change, and there's only one answer.
Bernard Jenkin and Chris Chope are both seen as men of the right. But Chope's used the Chamber to launch independent-minded assaults on establishment causes, and it's noticeable that he lost out in the tussle for the Public Administration Committee Chairmanship.
John Whittingdale at Culture and Greg Knight at Procedure, both No Turning Back Group stalwarts, are in unopposed. Graham Stuart won what should have been, even if it wasn't, a close-fought battle for the Education Committee.
As most readers know, the Select Committee Chairmanships have been carved out among the parties, and tomorrow's elections for the posts will be cross-party. So Conservative MPs, for example, can vote for Labour candidates, and vice-versa. Jonathan has a list of those standing here.
A question follows: on what basis will Labour MPs vote for the Conservative candidates? Answer: it depends. Some will support the best candidate. Others will vote for the Conservative candidate seen to be the more left-wing of the two.
Such is the attachment on the Labour benches to climate change orthodoxy, for example, that large number of the Party's MPs are likely to line up behind Tim Yeo, the establishment candidate for the Energy and Climate Change committee.
In other cases, however, Labour MPs will surely ask: who's the candidate more likely to cause David Cameron trouble? Or, if they've a more elevated turn of mind: who's the candidate more likely to stand up for the legislature against the executive?
In some cases, it's hard to tell. For example, both candidates for the Treasury Select Committee Chairmanship, Michael Fallon and Andrew Tyrie, are independent-minded. But in others, it's easier to see who'd be more likely to give Downing Street a fit of the heebie-jeebies.
Step forward, then, Peter Bone - standing for the Chairmanship of the Health Select Committee - John Baron, contesting Foreign Affairs (Baron pursued Ministers energetically about Iraq during the last Parliament) and, in the Defence Select Committee poll, no fewer than three of the candidates: Julian Lewis, Patrick Mercer and, above all, Douglas Carswell (one half of the Carswell-Hannan "Cannon" dynamic duo).
If Carswell in particular wins (an unlikely event, but you never know), expect senior officials in the Ministry of Defence to start screaming and screaming, and be unable to stop...
So if any of the above are elected, take a long, hard look at the Labour benches for those responsible.
Official disclaimer: nothing in this article is to be read as an endorsement of any candidate, in any election, at any time, anywhere...
The Children, Schools and Families Select Committee has published a report today on the National Curriculum. Three Conservative members of the Committee - Graham Stuart, Edward Timpson and Douglas Carswell - have published a minority report.
They argue that that the National Curriculum has failed, and that "a major rethink is needed". They say that "the curriculum has reduced the ability of teachers to do their jobs as respected professionals or to innovate. Inflexibility and constraint have been the hallmarks of the national curriculum under every administration." The report recommends:
"a) A national curriculum that sets out broad goals to be reached by the age of 16. The curriculum would set out a framework of the core subjects and would include no further instruction as to what aspects of those subjects should be taught or how subjects should be taught.
b) All schools, as well as independent schools and academies, would be free to opt out of the national curriculum where their governing bodies voted to do so and were supported by a majority of parents who would vote in a ballot. This would act as a safety valve against further interference with and overloading of the national curriculum.
c) The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is ineffective and should be scrapped or much reduced in size. In its place, each university would be invited to send a representative to a “National Curriculum Board.”"
Mr Stuart has added this comment:
"The National Curriculum as it currently stands has had its day. Ministers and unelected quangos have used it to meddle and interfere over what is taught in classrooms, instead of trusting the instincts and professionalism of teachers. If we are to have a curriculum at all it should be a significantly scaled down version that sets out a number of broad aspirations and goals and doesn't try to micro-manage every day of a child's life. It's also vital that schools have the option to opt out of the curriculum altogether, if parents and school governors so wish. This will be an essential valve to stop future governments, of whichever colour, imposing more central direction on schools. Overall we need to get out of the current mindset that Ministers know best. This has stifled innovation in schools and damaged the quality of learning that is provided to the nation's children."
I agree with the trio that something has to give. Under normal circumstances I think all kids should learn English, maths, British history and some science, but the current system is far too prescriptive.
There needs to be proper controls on and scrutiny of teachers, but in the final analysis schools will only work if teachers are given their heads and allowed to flourish. That's the way to let pupils flourish too.
Beverley and Holdness MP Graham Stuart secured a debate on the flood risk to the River Hull and River Humber. Herewith some extracts:
"In 2005, the “Planning for the Rising Tides” document was published and in March 2007 funding for the first 25 years of work, estimated at about £323 million, was approved by the Government. That formed the basis for the Humber flood risk management strategy that was published at the beginning of this year. In the strategy, the Environment Agency boasts that 99 per cent. of people living around the estuary will continue to receive a good standard of protection from tidal flooding. That means that the defences surrounding their homes and businesses will be maintained.
Most of those defended, of course, are in the densely populated towns and cities, but a huge section of land on either side of the river will be left without defence. Some 11,500 hectares—more than 28,000 acres—in the east riding of Yorkshire alone will be abandoned. More than 2,000 homes around the estuary will be abandoned, including 1,000 in the east riding. A large number of those homes are in the South West and South East Holderness wards of my constituency. According to the Environment Agency, 668 properties will be lost in the Sunk Island area, 62 will go in the village of Kilnsea and 10 will go in the village of Skeffling. The precise nature of that abandonment has been set out in the strategy. When the Environment Agency has decided that it cannot afford to fund improvement work to a defence, it will simply stop maintaining it."
Mr Stuart also talked about the River Hull:
"I shall speak now about the River Hull flood risk management strategy. The agency has been working on the strategy for a number of years. It has concluded that in the upper level of the River Hull catchment, it can no longer justify the existing defences. It wants to cease to provide the pumping stations which for many years have provided security and protection to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. There is enormous concern among local people about the threat to homes and land. We all recognise that urban areas must take priority over rural areas, but we want decent protection for all."
(The agency in question is the Environment Agency.)
Mr Stuart is to be commended for raising these issues.