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 Paul Goodman
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Michael Crick tweeted earlier this evening: "Four MPs at 1922 Committee critical of Andrew Mitchell - Andrew Percy, James Duddridge, Ann Main, Sarah Wollaston. 12-15 backed him."
I am told that the difference of view was more 50-50 than three or four to one. (Memories don't always tally, as I pointed out earlier this week in the context of the row itself.)
Robert Buckland, Bernard Jenkin, Edward Leigh, Penny Mordaunt, and Nicholas Soames were apparently supportive of Mr Mitchell (and Philip Davies rather critical).
I'm also informed that there is no mood in the '22 Executive for the Chief Whip to go now, though some of its members think that he should have departed after the original incident.
My guess earlier this week was that Mr Mitchell would attend the '22, and that any criticism of him would be muted.
For better or worse, he wasn't there - I presume it was decided that MPs present should be able to speak freely - and it can't fairly be claimed that they were constrained in what they said.
So we have the worst outcome for Cameron and the best outcome for Miliband: a wounded Conservative Chief Whip. I don't think Mr Mitchell should go, but he is in a bad way.
21.45pm Update A very senior source insists that the Crick tally was correct. I am recording his view to reinforce the point that, as I note above, "memories don't always tally".
The above screengrab from BBC Parliament shows an image I have never seen before - a Government whip making a speech from the Despatch Box.
Convention states that Government whips never speak in the chamber - so what on earth is James Duddridge doing at the Despatch Box?
It's the end of day adjournment debate and Andrew Rosindell secured a half hour debate on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The minister responsible for the Overseas Territories is Henry Bellingham, and I would have expected him or a Foreign Office colleague to reply to the debate.
But no, instead there you have James Duddridge, the whip attached to the Foreign Office ministers. I missed the beginning of his speech, but I can only conclude that Bellingham is stranded overseas on government business or perhaps snowed in in his Norfolk constituency.
Will let you know if and when I get an explanation!
Henry Bellingham was not able to reply to the debate because of long-standing ministerial commitments overseas, but the plan was for Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt to take his place. However, as of this morning he was snowed in in Paris and it was decided that as the Foreign Office whip, James Duddridge was a suitable stand-in, and he was swiftly called back to Westminster from his Southend constituency to do the task.
Defence Questions came around again yesterday. Conservative members dominated the session and exhibited excellent technical knowledge.
James Arbuthnot (MP for North-East Hampshire) chairs the Defence Select Committee. He asked about Pakistan:
"Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?
Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part."
Former Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was also concerned:
"Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?
Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said."
Rochford & Southend East MP James Duddridge (right) asked about the cost to taxpayers of assuming liability for the Royal Mail pension scheme:
"The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): We estimate that the Government will assume total liabilities of £29.5 billion and assets of £23.5 billion. That would mean the Government absorbing a deficit of £6 billion. This assessment of the liabilities in the scheme and the funding position is based on the most recent trustee valuation, from March 2008. However, we anticipate that the funding position of the scheme could well have worsened since that date, so when we have updated figures from the new valuation, beginning this month, we will finalise our assessment of the funding position of the scheme.
James Duddridge: Clause 20 of the Postal Services Bill will allow the Government to take the existing assets from the pension fund into the consolidated fund and spend it that very same year. Is it wise as part of addressing the pension funding crisis to take the existing inadequate assets and use them to rescue the Government’s current deficit, making the problem worse in the longer term?
Mr. McFadden: Our motivation is not about the public sector accounting impact. Our motivation is to give greater security to the hard-working men and women who work for Royal Mail, because the pension fund is an increasing burden for Royal Mail. At the same time, however, if we are to ask the taxpayer to take on those liabilities—I have set out what the scale of those liabilities is—it is equally right that we also give the taxpayer some confidence that the company can be transformed and modernised in the future. It is precisely those two things that are set out in the Postal Services Bill, which was published recently."
There may well be merit in the Government subsidising postal deliveries to far-flung parts of the UK, but I don't see why mail services as a whole should not be opened up to competition.
Shadow Corporate Governance Minister Jonathan Djanogly had a concern:
"The Minister has just said that the Government proposals would provide greater security for postal workers’ pensions, but can he confirm that clause 19(6)(b) of the Postal Services Bill provides that this or a future Government could waive the pension guarantee and vary the terms of the postal workers’ pensions without the approval of the trustees, who will lose their power to protect the pensions under the provisions of the Bill? Mr. McFadden: The changes that we propose to the pension scheme will mean that the deficit is handled on the same basis as the pension schemes serving teachers, nurses and civil servants. That will indeed give Royal Mail staff far greater pension security than they get at the moment, when the deficit appears to be increasing year on year."
"The Minister has just said that the Government proposals would provide greater security for postal workers’ pensions, but can he confirm that clause 19(6)(b) of the Postal Services Bill provides that this or a future Government could waive the pension guarantee and vary the terms of the postal workers’ pensions without the approval of the trustees, who will lose their power to protect the pensions under the provisions of the Bill?
Mr. McFadden: The changes that we propose to the pension scheme will mean that the deficit is handled on the same basis as the pension schemes serving teachers, nurses and civil servants. That will indeed give Royal Mail staff far greater pension security than they get at the moment, when the deficit appears to be increasing year on year."
Bob Spink, erstwhile Tory and MP for Castle Point, rather upset some of his former Conservative colleagues yesterday during a debate on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, including James Duddridge (right).
MPs were debating raising the threshold for public donations to parties from £200 to £500.
Mr Spink intervened:
"An amount of £200 is not seen as an insignificant sum, and £500 is a considerable sum. Why is he pushing the matter so far? Why is a 250 per cent. increase proposed, which can only reduce transparency for local people? People in Castle Point want to know who is funding the Castle Point Tories and Castle Point Labour party. Those people may be developers or businesses; they may have a vested interest in what goes on in local government and in this place.
I was making a point about the Minister’s attitude towards the Conservative amendments. I would be more sanguine about the amendments if I did not know the Conservative party’s track record in driving a coach and horses through election law and the public test of what is acceptable—for instance, by taking money from people who do not pay tax in this country to fund marginal constituencies by £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000 a year before the election is even declared. I do not want to give the Conservative party any loophole through which it can jump; nor do the public and nor do those in the media, who are watching us carefully in the House."
Rochford & Southend East MP James Duddridge put the boot in:
"For example, I was considering making a £50 donation, having met Rebecca Harris, the Conservative candidate in Castle Point. That would have been below the £200 threshold. I am actually incredibly proud of wanting to make that donation, and I think that I shall increase it to £201, so that it can go on the record, as part of the attempt to bring greater democracy and accountability to Parliament, rather than having to wait until the threshold goes up to £500 to make the same point. That would also be an awful lot more expensive for my pocket. So Castle Point Conservatives can expect a £201 donation from me as a result of this debate.
There are good arguments on both sides in regard to raising the threshold for donations being made public. But it's a bit rich for Bob Spink to pour cold water over a party which he was a member of until recently.
What is clear is that any donation to the outstanding Rebecca Harris's campaign would be money well spent. She is a constant reminder that some people really are motivated to become MPs by a desire to serve the public and, although she'd be the last person to agree, she is fearsomely bright.
It was time for questions to the Health Department yesterday. Perhaps the most noteworthy question came from Mike Penning (pictured right), who spoke in light of the revelation that in 2007-08 criminal sanctions following cases of assault in the acute sector rose by thirteen per cent.
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley asked about sport in schools:
"I welcome the announcement of the Active England strategy, but it has taken a year to get there. I am afraid that the Secretary of State has got it wrong about school sports. The Government are not meeting their commitment to ensure that all pupils get two hours of sport a week in schools. In the school sport survey last October, the number of 11 to 16-year-olds getting two hours of exercise had gone down from 88 per cent. to 83 per cent. in a year. Will the Secretary of State, with his colleagues at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, ensure that the commitment to a minimum of two hours of exercise in schools is achieved, and will he tell us when will it be achieved?
Alan Johnson: From memory, the proportion of young children getting two hours of exercise in schools was about 24 per cent. when we came into government, so a drop— [ Interruption. ] Incidentally, I am not sure about the statistics that the hon. Gentleman just quoted. If there has been a slight drop, it should be seen in that context. Sport in our schools is essential to the sort of message that we seek to deliver, which is why we have pledged not just effort and time, but a huge amount of finance to meet those targets. And we will meet the target in 2010, just as I am absolutely sure we will move on to meet the extended target in 2012."
Shadow Health Minister Mark Simmonds was concerned about access to GPs:
"In Battersea, the provision of primary care is vital to the health of the community, but according to the Royal College of General Practitioners, seeing a doctor who knows the patient and their medical condition personally is important to more than 75 per cent. of patients. Yet the Secretary of State recently said that he “could not care less” which GP he sees. That is totally out of touch with patient needs both in Battersea and elsewhere. Can the Minister confirm that continuity of care is important to the vast majority of patients, particularly those with long-term conditions? If so, why are he and the Secretary of State centrally imposing polyclinics, against patients’ needs and wishes?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I am happy to confirm what the hon. Gentleman asks me to confirm. However, what he says is another of the myths that were peddled by both the Opposition and the British Medical Association, at the time, in their opposition to new GP health centres. I do not know whether he has now abandoned the Conservative party’s opposition to the centres. I suspect that the Conservatives will quietly abandon that opposition, because where the new centres are opening, they are incredibly popular, not least with local Conservative councillors and Conservative MPs who want theirs to open as quickly as possible.
Of course continuity of care is important for many patients, particularly those with long-term conditions. However, many people, such as professionals who are otherwise healthy and who are juggling work and family life, find it very difficult to see their GP, because of opening times. They warmly welcome the opportunity to see a GP, and they do not particularly mind whether it is always the same GP."
It stretches credulity to say that people are indifferent about who their GP is; Mr Simmonds is correct.
He told ePolitix.com:
"Speaking to the police there are issues of number plate recognition and I thought it was ironic that we weren't allowed to have for example ESSEX, but you were allowed E55EX, and surely using the proper words such as JAMES or ESSEX makes it more memorable and easier to recognise."
Mr Duddridge says that the sale of personalised registration plates raised over £86million for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in 2007/08. In the event of his bill being successful, he expects the DVLA to earn well over £100million in the first year:
"It will raise money, it’s deregulatory and there aren't that many things in life you can do that everyone is in agreement on, raises money and doesn't cause too many problems."
Speaking to ConservativeHome, Mr Duddridge said that his bill had the support of a number of former Transport ministers, and that Jim Fitzpatrick, current Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, promised he is considering the proposal seriously.
He added that far from being a bill just for the rich, liberalising the law to enable people to spend £300,000 on a registration plate will act as a "voluntary tax" which will raise large sums for the Treasury.
All that's left to add is the following message to Mr Duddridge: