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.
And after his recent disparaging remarks about small businessmen, the newly-ennobled entrepreneur was the subject of no fewer than four questions from Conservative MPs when ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills came to the Despatch Box yesterday.
First was David Willetts:
If the Minister is so keen on apprenticeships, will he explain to the House why, in the leaked document that I have before me, he proposes cuts to the funding of apprenticeships, and why he is doing so little to help apprentices who are losing their jobs during the recession? Why does he not adopt our policy of a clearing house to help apprentices who lose their jobs to find new employers? If he will not do that, why does he not ask Lord Sugar to take that on? That might be a better use of Lord Sugar’s time than denouncing Britain’s hard-working small businesses, which is all that he seems to do at the moment. Or is it a case of “Lord Sugar, you’re fired”?
The minister, Kevin Brennan, did not bite on the bait, so Henley MP John Howell then had a go:
Picking up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made, I wonder whether the Minister agrees with her new noble Friend Lord Sugar, the Prime Minister’s enterprise tsar, who said that those small businesses that are trying to seek credit are merely moaners and living in Disneyland?
Another minister, Rosie Winterton, merely replied that it was "not my understanding of what Lord Sugar said".
The baton was then passed to Shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke:
At a time when 51 companies are going bust every day in this country, and when, as we said a few moments ago, the credit position for small businesses is very difficult, does the Minister agree with Lord Sugar, the small business tsar, that struggling small business men are moaners and living in Disneyland, which he undoubtedly said. Is it not time for the Department’s senior Minister in the House of Commons to apologise on behalf of the Government for what was said? Otherwise, it will appear that they are indifferent to, and out of tune with, the problems of entrepreneurs up and down the country who are trying to save their businesses and other people’s jobs.
Yet another minister, Pat McFadden did not engage with the reference to Lord Sugar, but rejected the charge that the Government is indifferent to the difficulties faced by small businesses.
The fourth Tory to raise Lord Sugar was backbencher Peter Bone, who got straight to the point:
Would the Minister recommend to the Secretary of State that he sits Lord Sugar down in a room, looks at him mournfully, stabs his finger at him a couple of times and says, “You’re fired”?
Another junior minister, Ian Lucas, said that among the many interesting discussions he has with Lord Mandelson, he "certainly would not give him that advice".
There were questions on Energy and Climate Change yesterday.
Henley MP John Howell (right) asked about fuel poverty:
"Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?
Edward Miliband: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty."
It is, of course, a lie to say that you can't freeze or even cut a department's overall expenditure whilst concurrently increasing spending on certain individual projects.
Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark went on the same issue:
"The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?
Edward Miliband: I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.
Greg Clark: Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?
Edward Miliband: I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances."
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Health questions were put in the House of Commons yesterday.
The situation at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which has been slammed by the Healthcare Commission for "appalling" emergency care at Stafford Hospital, stood out. Between 2005 and 2008 about 400 more people died there than would ordinarily have been expected.
Stone MP Bill Cash expressed his profound concern:
"Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State take account of the fact that I am repeating my call for an inquiry into this whole matter under the Inquiries Act 2005? Will he also make it clear that all those in that trust who are culpable, as set out in the Healthcare Commission report—that includes other senior management besides the chairman and the chief executive at the time—must be removed and not merely suspended on full pay?
Alan Johnson: As I just said, the investigation will involve everyone who has any position of authority within that trust—the whole board and all the executive directors. It will be a proper investigation and it will be fair, and the action taken will result from that inquiry, not from any knee-jerk reaction by me or anyone else."
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (above right) went on the same topic:
“we should be spotting these issues much earlier and getting rid of incompetent chief executives or chairpersons who, fortunately, are in the minority, rather than waiting for a report such as this, by which time, frankly, most of the damage has been done.”—[ Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 571.]
The Secretary of State knew about the failings at Stafford in May 2008, so why did he not intervene then and there?
Alan Johnson: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the Healthcare Commission’s report carefully. The difference between what happened in Stafford and in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and the fact that the Healthcare Commission took into account those words and what others said at the time, is that as soon as commission staff went into Stafford and saw the problems—in May 2008—they immediately called the chief executive to a meeting, put their concerns to him, and started to see the process of improvement. That is the job of the Healthcare Commission while it carries out its inquiry. The staff cannot say at that stage that they have come to any conclusions, and it would be unfair, one day into an inquiry, to reach conclusions and say that heads must roll and recommendations must be made. We made that specific point to the Healthcare Commission at the time of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, so in Stafford staff immediately introduced measures to put things right, rather than wait for the end of the process and the report to be published—as I said they should do in that quote.