Today's Conservative Parliamentary Party awayday takes place at a mystery location in Oxfordshire - indeed and to be more specific, in David Cameron's constituency, I am told. Downing Street is presenting it as a chance for the Prime Minister to "listen to the views and concerns of Conservative MPs". Predictably, Cameron will address the gathering. Almost as predictably, so will Lynton Crosby. Break-out sessions on policy will be led by George Osborne, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.
By Paul Goodman
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There's a great deal to be read between the lines of Steve Barclay's interview, posted earlier on this site, about Jeremy Hunt's announcement on NHS whistleblowers earlier today. Barclay welcomes Hunt's decision, and is right to do so. It's part of the Health Secretary's campaign to try to lead public anger about the failings of the system, and channel it in ways that have practical benefit for patients, and the whole NHS.
But Barclay, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, also asks some probing questions. He wants to know if the ban on gagging orders will apply to all cases, and if it will apply retrospectively those who've already signed such orders - adding that Parliament still doesn't know the total number of them.
Barclay also asks why David Nicholson has told him until now that such change isn't needed: what has changed his mind? The Cambridge MP has previously gone into print to ask who knew what, and when, about mortality rates in the NHS: "the most pressing of many serious questions that must now be answered is how far the cover-up actually extends and what senior officials and ex Ministers stand to lose if it is brought into the open."
Charlotte Leslie explores the same territory on this site today, and she is leading a Commons debate on the issue. I see the Telegraph is claiming that there are moves afoot to ensure that Nicholson steps down. Francis Maude has made it known that he believes that sooner this happens, the better.
By Matthew Barrett
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The annual newspaper index report by Hanover Communications into media coverage of MPs shows that 12 of the top 20 most-mentioned politicians are Conservatives. The index, which measures newspaper coverage over the last year, shows few Labour frontbenchers have media profiles, with only Ed Balls and Ed Miliband featuring in the list.
I list below the top twenty politicians and the number of mentions they received:
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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Firstly, out of the two final candidates in the Speakership election during the last election, Bercow is the man with the more stern manner when dealing with Parliamentarians misbehaving. Sir George Young, a good man, and an effective Leader of the House, only conjures a hint of temper loss when made to sit through weeks of provocation from his Labour opposite number. I don't think Sir George would have been able to produce the near-anger Speakers occasionally have to. Admittedly, Speaker Bercow has reduced the impact of the Speaker intervening in debates by intervening too often, and sometimes with trivial complaints - but he nevertheless has the ability to silence the House when necessary.
Secondly, Bercow holds Ministers to account. He has made them answer far more urgent questions, and made them explain their actions far more fully than I remember under Michael Martin and Labour. That's the Speaker's job, and we should welcome it regardless of the party of government.
However, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of Speaker Bercow - for example, his aforementioned cheapening of interventions, and his frequent assertions that "the public doesn't like" MPs to have robust debates in the Commons. There is also Rob Wilson MP's research published earlier this year, which showed that 62% of the Speaker's interruptions are against Conservative MPs, despite only 47% of MPs being Tory. It's not wise, therefore, for the Speaker to use drastic and unkind adjectives to describe those who do not like him. Appearing on the radio this afternoon, Bercow said:
"I pride myself on being courteous to people, and trying to fashion good relations. Why do some like me and others not? To be frank there are issues of personality. ... [but] Sometimes people who perhaps haven’t achieved what they want to achieve in their political career can display some sign of resentment – not necessarily because they themselves wanted to be Speaker, because they feel ‘well, my talents haven’t been recognised. That fellow was a rather free-wheeling, independent minded’ – perhaps even, in their minds, disloyal – ‘backbench member, and suddenly he pops up as speaker. And we don’t like it.’"
By Matthew Barrett
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8.30pm Update: I have been through the ayes and noes, and have found the following Tory abstainers:
It's worth noting that there may have been circumstances which prevented the MPs from voting with the Government that were out of their control. In William Hague and Alan Duncan's cases, for example, they will probably be overseas on Government business. In Louise Mensch's case, the Queen was visiting her Corby constituency today as part of her Jubilee tour.
The following DUP MPs also voted with the Government:
Labour's Commons motion on whether Jeremy Hunt should be investigated for breaching the Ministerial Code in his handling of the BSkyB bid has been rejected - the Government won the vote of confidence in Hunt by 290 to 252.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured) was one of forty or so MPs and peers from all parties who ran yesterday's Westminster Mile - a race to raise funds for Sport Relief. The winner, though, was another Tory MP, George Eustice. He beat last year's winner David Davies into second place. The Monmouth MP would probably beat George, however, in a boxing contest! Others taking up the challenge for Sport Relief included Alun Cairns MP for Vale of Glamorgan, Rob Wilson MP for Reading East and Karen Bradley MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.
By Tim Montgomerie
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David Cameron is likely to face another rough press tomorrow after sending Jeremy Hunt to the House of Commons to update MPs on 'Hackgate'. While Mr Hunt was able to tell the Commons that he was now referring NewsCorp's BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission he was unable to answer all questions from Ed Miliband and other Labour MPs on, for example, the extent of David Cameron's recent contact with Andy Coulson and other senior NewsCorp executives. The Leader of the Opposition said Cameron should have come to Parliament to answer MPs' question - just as he answered journalists' questions last Friday. Both Christopher Hope of The Telegraph and Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail (ie not the usual suspects) tweeted agreement...
Jeremy Hunt gave a robust defence of the Coalition's position and said that a fiery Ed Miliband had set the wrong tone. The Culture Secretary said Labour had had ample opportunity to investigate hacking when they were in power and had been asked by the select committee covering the brief to do so. Not only had Labour failed to act Mr Hunt attacked Ed Miliband for double standards in employing Tom Baldwin; a former Times journalist accused by Lord Ashcroft of dirty journalism.
The news continues to get worse for News International. The Guardian has now accused other Murdoch titles of foul play against Gordon Brown. The former Prime Minister was it appears targeted by The Sun and The Sunday Times:
More in The Guardian.
VIDEO OF KEY SECTION FROM JEREMY HUNT'S STATEMENT
By Jonathan Isaby
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Central Devon's Tory MP, Mel Stride, wanted to know what will happen to the 9,000 tickets for the 2012 Games which have been allocated to the Government:
"Will he reassure the House that none of them will be provided as free perks either to Government employees in general or, in particular, to UK politicians?"
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt replied:
"I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend about the details of those tickets: 3,000 tickets have been allocated to staff associated with the project — they will be purchased and are available through a ballot; 2,400 are being made available to host towns and cities, and they, too, will be purchased; 2,900 will be made available to guests of the Government, including international business guests and dignitaries, to make sure that we secure an economic legacy to the Olympics; and 450 tickets will be allocated as prizes in the school games, to which 6,000 schools have signed up."
I make that 8,750 accounted for; I wonder what will become of the other 250?
By Paul Goodman
How does a Secretary of State find a way of congratulating Prince William and Kate Middleton when there's no means of doing so on the Order Paper? Jeremy Hunt's means yesterday during Culture Questions was to exploit the start of topical questions, use today's street parties as a cover, and smuggle his gambit past the Speaker by quoting our greatest national poet -
The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Jeremy Hunt): This House has already expressed its good wishes to the royal couple for tomorrow’s events. I know that we would also wish to express our good wishes to the 500,000 people planning to go to street parties who are anxiously looking at the clouds. After my earlier slap on wrist I hesitate to crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, but as Culture Secretary, I would like to read a couple of lines from the nation’s greatest playwright to honour the happy couple. These come from sonnet 136 by Shakespeare:
“Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is ‘Will’.”
Simon Hoggart's Guardian column prevents me citing the old from Bard to verse joke by getting there first.
By Jonathan Isaby
Just before Christmas, Alex Deane used this piece on ConHome to highlight the outrageous attack on Norris McWhirter and the Freedom Association by David Baddiel and Alan Davies on a BBC radio programme, who linked them with fascism.
At Culture Questions in the Commons on Thursday, several Tory MPs took the opportunity to raise the matter on the floor of the Commons.
"When considering the governance of the BBC, will he also examine BBC impartiality? On "The Alan Davies Show" last year, BBC employees likened the Freedom Association to the British National party and its founder, the late second world war hero Norris McWhirter, to one of Mosley's brownshirts. When I wrote to the BBC I received a ridiculous letter from Mark Thompson refusing to apologise. Will my right hon. Friend demand that the BBC starts to live up to the obligation in its own charter?"
The Culture Secretary replied:
"I agree that impartiality at the BBC is paramount and that the particular comments to which my hon. Friend refers were totally inappropriate. I can understand why many people found them offensive. By way of reassurance, I say to him that in the selection process for the new chairman of the BBC Trust, which is responsible for impartiality, we have said that all candidates must show commitment to improving governance at the BBC. I hope that these issues will continue to be addressed."
"I thank the Secretary of State, from the bottom of my heart, for what he said about the disgraceful attack on the reputation of Norris McWhirter, whom the BBC was delighted to have as one of its star celebrities for decade after decade. May I tell him that I worked with Norris McWhirter for many years in politics, and one could never find a more dedicated opponent of totalitarianism? That is hardly surprising given that at the age of 17, he volunteered for the Royal Navy and took part in one of the most successful anti-U-boat organisations in the battle of the Atlantic. It was a particular disgrace that someone-David Baddiel-who, like me, is from a Jewish background, should denounce that admirable man as a fascist or a Nazi sympathiser simply because he disagreed with him politically."
Jeremy Hunt replied thus:
"I echo what I said about the importance of impartiality, and say simply to my hon. Friend that given his sustained interest in that, many people at the BBC are gutted that he did not put his name forward for the chairmanship of the BBC Trust."
A few highlights from questions in the Commons to yesterday's Culture, Media and Sport team.
Diane Johnson MP: "Many of my constituents have contacted me, concerned about the local independent BBC news that runs in East Yorkshire and Hull through Radio Humberside and programmes such as "Look North". There is great concern that, because of the cuts to the BBC budget, areas such as East Yorkshire will lose that local independent news. What guarantee can the Minister give me that we will continue to have that?"
Jeremy Hunt MP: "There is no bigger supporter of local news than me. I made it one of the most important parts of our media policy, but if we are to have a thriving local media sector, people in the sector need an assurance that the BBC will not undertake more local activity than it does; otherwise, they simply will not take the risk of setting up newspapers, radio and television stations, and so on. We have come to a very good solution in this licence fee settlement, which is that the BBC has made a commitment that it will go no more local than it does currently. It is confident that it will be able to continue with its current obligations for the period of the settlement."
Labour culture spokesman Ivan Lewis accused Mr Hunt of riding roughshod over the BBC.
Ivan Lewis MP: "We will work with the Government on issues where we agree, such as the Olympic games and England's World cup bid. The Secretary of State will agree that the BBC is one of this country's great institutions and its future a matter of public interest. Of course, the BBC cannot be exempt from cuts at this difficult time, but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman how he can justify a negotiating process that rode roughshod over the independence of the BBC, crushed any serious prospect of reform and involved no consultation with licence fee payers or parliamentarians? Will he confirm that at one point in the negotiations the BBC Trust board considered mass resignation and that he now faces a judicial review sought by S4C? Is that not another example of the Secretary of State doing a dodgy deal for the Chancellor to further his own political ambitions, instead of providing responsible leadership on an issue of crucial importance to the future of this country?"
Mr Hunt: "May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his post? I am delighted to talk to him about the BBC because the new licence fee settlement was announced last Wednesday and the silence of the Opposition's response has been absolutely deafening. They have not been able to work out what to do because we have agreed a settlement that is acceptable to the BBC and is very popular with the public. Let me tell him the difference between what happened when his party negotiated the licence fee and when we did it. With his party, it took two years, it cost £3 million and we ended up with an above-inflation rise. With us, it took two weeks, it cost nothing and we got a freeze for six years."
By Tim Montgomerie
In the Commons yesterday the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt announced reform of quangoes under his department's purview:
"I shall make a brief statement, if I may, to start proceedings. First, because of my Department's responsibility to take its share of reducing the deficit inherited from the previous Government, we have announced today plans to rationalise or merge a number of arm's length bodies for which we are responsible. As part of that, we have said that we are considering the abolition of the UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. That does not reflect our commitment to the Government's or the lottery's investing in UK film, or Government support for the sectors represented by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. However, in the constrained circumstances in which we find ourselves, we want to ensure that every penny is used on front-line services, not on back-office and bureaucracy."
Further proposals from Mr Hunt include:
Shadow Culture Secretary used his speech yesterday to set out his overall position on the Bill and to identify the contentious sections which the Conservatives will seek to block being passed into law during the "wash-up" this week. Here are some key excerpts:
"Instead of a big, ambitious vision for this country, we have a digital disappointment of colossal proportions. As well as the controversial measures it does contain, we should not forget what it does not contain, because it is a catalogue of ducked decisions. The Government have ducked sorting out digital radio switchover, which the Secretary of State has just talked about. They are giving Ministers the power to switch over in 2015, yes, but without taking any of the difficult measures necessary to make it practical or possible. They have ducked reforms to help our struggling local newspaper and radio sector, when local newspapers are closing every week and local radio stations are losing so much money that their very existence is being cast into doubt."
"The Government have ducked reforms to give Britain a credible path towards super-fast broadband, leaving us languishing with one of the slowest broadband networks in the developed world. They have ducked public service broadcasting reform, failing both to clarify the limits to commercial activity by the BBC and to ensure that it has strong competition from an independent sector that will still be burdened by outdated regulation."
"One final thing that the Government have ducked, which is incredibly disappointing, is the possibility of giving the public a right to access Government data sets, which was mentioned in the “Digital Britain” White Paper, and which President Obama has successfully introduced in the United States. It would have been a huge leap forward for our digital economy for people to be able to access those data."
Yesterday in the Commons the Conservatives proposed that the licence fee be frozen for the coming year. Here are three highlights from Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's opening of the debate:
The BBC, like Parliament, needs to be more accountable for its use of public money: "Why have we called this debate over a £3 increase in the licence fee? We have done so partly because of the MP expenses issue that has engulfed the House over the past two weeks. It has shown that the public are justifiably angry about the misuse of their money, whether in small sums or large, which has reminded the House to respect the taxpayers who pay our salaries. The same surely applies to all publicly funded organisations, including the BBC. We have called for the debate also partly because the economic situation has changed beyond recognition since January 2007, when the current licence fee settlement was made. With 2.2 million people unemployed and many people facing dire personal financial circumstances, it is surely right to ask whether an increase that may have seemed reasonable in 2007 is still justified. We should also put the rise in context.
Labour has allowed a 56% increase in the licence fee (twice the rate of inflation): "In 1997, the licence fee was £91.50. Since then, it has increased by 56 per cent.—almost double the retail prices index rate of inflation. When the BBC’s commercial rivals are struggling, sometimes for their very existence, licence fee payers have been treating the BBC incredibly generously."
Other broadcasters' income is falling: "Yesterday, RPI inflation fell to minus 1.2 per cent., the steepest fall since 1948. That means that programme inflation, the cost of buying and commissioning programmes, is also falling, and with Channel 4’s revenues down 18 per cent. and ITV’s revenues down 19 per cent. in the first part of this year, there is less competition to buy and commission programmes. The traditional parity between licence fee revenue and the revenue that goes to commercial broadcasters funded by advertising has been lost. Last year, there was a broad equivalence between the two sums of money, but this year it is expected that licence fee revenue will amount to £500 million more than the entire sum received by all the commercial broadcasters funded by advertising put together... It is completely false to say that there is a choice between competition and quality. It is because British public service broadcasting is the most competitive in the world that many people think that it is of the highest quality in the world. In order for that to continue, there must be a sensible balance between the revenue that commercial broadcasters are able to raise and what the BBC gets, and many will ask whether that is possible if there is a £1 billion gap between state-funded broadcasters and the rest."
Towards the end of the debate the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham accused Jeremy Hunt of "BBC-bashing":
Jeremy Hunt was quick to interject:
Mr Burnham did not have a good answer to that one!
The Liberal Democrats joined with Labour to defeat the Tory motion by 334 votes to 156.
On CentreRight yesterday Matthew Elliott of The TaxPayers' Alliance proposed a cut in the licence fee.