By Jonathan Isaby
We have already carried a report on the Standards Commissioner clearing Nadine Dorries of wrongoing, and also today comes news about two of the MPs who stood down during the Expensesgate saga - Julie Kirkbride and her husband, Andrew Mackay, formerly MPs for Bromsgrove and Bracknell respectively.
The question about Ms Kirkbride regarded whether she was "within the rules of the House in claiming interest on the increased mortgage she took out in order to build an additional bedroom in her home in Bromsgrove when it was used by her brother principally to assist her with childcare and when no allowance was made by her for the cost of his use of the property."
John Lyon, the Standards Commissioner, did not uphold the complaint against her.
Mr Mackay, meanwhile, faced questions over whether he was acting within the rules of the House "in identifying as his main home the Bromsgrove property he shared with his wife and fellow Member of Parliament, Ms Julie Kirkbride, when he knew that she had identified that home as her second home and would claim parliamentary allowances on it".
The Commissioner did uphold the complaint against him and the he Standards and Privileges Committee's conclusions about his case are as follows:
"We conclude that Mr Andrew Mackay breached the rules relating to second home allowances by wrongly designating his home in Bromsgrove as his main home for ACA purposes and because his claims against ACA for his London home were not beyond reproach. In our view, it should have been obvious to Mr Mackay that the arrangement whereby he and Ms Kirkbride each designated the other's second home as their main home, allowing both to be funded from Parliamentary allowances, was fundamentally wrong. It went beyond the purpose of the rules, which was to reimburse Members for the additional cost of maintaining a second home for Parliamentary purposes. The flaws in the arrangement should have been no less obvious to the Department of Resources and its predecessors, who should not have allowed it. But although this failure on the part of the House authorities may help to explain why Mr Mackay made and never corrected a serious misjudgement, the responsibility remains with him.
"We are very disappointed that, even after seeing the Commissioner's full report, Mr Mackay maintains that he did not break the rules, when it is quite clear that he did. Mr Mackay has already paid a high price for making such a serious misjudgment. The very fact that Mr Mackay is no longer a Member of Parliament shows what a heavy political price he has paid. He has also repaid a considerable sum of money. Nonetheless, we expect Mr Mackay, having read our Report, to apologise for the breach in writing. Had Mr Mackay still been a Member of this House, we would have recommended that he apologise on the floor of the House by means of a personal statement and we would have recommended a period of suspension from the service of the House."
Full report here.
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!).
The Equitable Life scandal was rightly prioritised by Conservative members, who leapt on Economic Secretary to the Treasury Ian Pearson, who had this to say:
"I am very disappointed that the Public Administration Committee should choose to obscure the real help that it accepts the Government’s payments scheme will deliver under extreme headlines, seemingly driven by an uncritical acceptance of the findings of the ombudsman’s report and by its unjustifiable and irresponsible characterisation of the manner of the Government’s response. [ Interruption. ] As a Government, we do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but— [ Interruption. ]
Ian Pearson: The Government do not depart lightly from any of the ombudsman’s findings, but in such an important and complex case we have a clear duty to the taxpayer to ensure that our response is informed by a proper and comprehensive consideration of her report. That is what we have done and, as I have indicated previously, we want to move forward with an ex gratia payment scheme just as quickly as possible. We are talking to Sir John Chadwick about the advice that he is providing."
South Staffordshire's Sir Patrick Cormack (above right) was appalled:
"Is the Minister aware that he has just made one of the most shameful statements to have been made from that Dispatch Box in many years? He has rubbished a Committee presided over by one of his own greatly respected colleagues, and discounted the unprecedented second letter from the ombudsman that we all received this week. He has had no support from the Benches behind him, as not a single Labour Member has risen to echo his words. He should be deeply ashamed of himself, because he is bringing the Government and the whole system into disrepute.
Ian Pearson: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has a very long track record of upholding standards in this House, but we have departed from the ombudsman’s findings only where we have clear and cogent reasons for doing so. We have applied scrupulously the terms of the Parliamentary Commissioners Act 1967, as interpreted by the Court of Appeal in the Bradley judgment. For no other reasons have we departed from those findings. I have to say that I remain very disappointed indeed that the PAC does not appear to have understood some of the arguments that we have made to it."
(The Public Administration Committee is chaired by Dr Tony Wright.)
The House of Commons had Energy and Climate Change questions yesterday. Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark was very concerned about Britain's gas reserves:
"On 20 February this year—two weeks ago—Britain hit a new low, with just four days-worth of gas in storage in the reserve. Does the Minister consider that an acceptable margin for safety?
Mr. O'Brien: It is not about how many days worth of gas there are. The amount of gas in storage at a given point cannot meaningfully be assessed in terms of days. Stored gas is not used on its own to meet UK demand in any way. The North sea gas reserves put the UK in a position unlike that of other countries. Yes, we need gas storage, and we will need to increase the amount of storage as our imports increase, but we still have a substantial amount of gas coming from the North sea. That means that we do not need quite the amount of storage capacity that other countries do, although we will need to improve gas storage capacity in future as North sea gas depletes, and imports rise.
Greg Clark: That is a remarkably complacent answer, because every country in the world is content to denote their storage in days—apart from Britain, apparently. For the second time in only four winters, we almost ran out of gas, and almost did not have sufficient gas to meet demand. According to a written answer that the Minister gave me only this morning, only the depressed state of the economy, due to the recession, saved us from running out. Even the official regulator thinks that we do not have enough storage. In the Energy and Climate Change Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) asked the regulator whether he thought that enough storage was being planned, and he said:
“I am not happy to talk about this...we were hoping”—
“and we have barely moved.”
Mr. O'Brien: That is a stunning statement the week after Centrica announced a £1.2 billion proposal to create the second-biggest gas storage facility at the old gas field in Baird in the North sea. We hope that that will come on stream from 2013. There are 17 other projects, too. That is one of the main areas for us, and the Government are setting out their priority of bringing gas storage on board. Let me be clear. The hon. Gentleman’s claims that we were suddenly about to run out of gas take no account of the fact that the Norwegian gas fields were pumping vast amounts of imports into the country. We were therefore able to manage successfully and capably the issues that arose as a result of the recent cold snap and the Russia-Ukraine dispute."
Other Conservative members asked interesting questions too.
Update: Daniel Hannan is also outraged at the democratic deficit.
Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House at Business Questions, and Anne Main, Julie Kirkbride and Christopher Chope later, all pressed yesterday for full parliamentary scrutiny of the Bank of England's momentous decision to start printing £75bn of extra banknotes:
Alan Duncan: "Why are we not being given a statement, even today, on the economy? Can we not have a statement from the Government and a full debate on quantitative easing, so that Members can question the Government on how they intend to steer a course through inflation and deflation? The decisions being taken today are of the utmost gravity and will have profound effects on the economy for many years to come. They are desperate measures designed to address economic failure and collapse. When can we be told in clear terms exactly what the Government are doing and why?"
Harriet Harman: "The hon. Gentleman asked for more opportunity to discuss the economy. There will be a written ministerial statement later today about the decision by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee to ensure that the inflation target is met and that the economy does not fall below that target by putting extra money into the economy, which is described as quantitative easing. There will be an opportunity to debate the economic situation in Government time next Monday, as well as an Opposition debate on Tuesday on unemployment and a debate on business rates on the following Wednesday. On Monday week there will be a debate on industry and exports and on Tuesday week there will be a debate on the Welfare Reform Bill. There will be a great deal of further discussion on the economy in the next week or two."
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have just had an update from the Leader of the House that we have now gone to £75 billion quantitative easing, which is uncharted territory. I ask the Leader of House to consider arranging an emergency statement on the matter so that the House might debate it. Frankly, I am surprised that we are not at least being offered a topical debate on the matter, given that it was widely trailed on all the radio programmes this morning and is now a reality.
Mr. Speaker: I am not responsible for as and when Ministers come to give statements to the House, except when hon. Members ask for an urgent question. I can then call the Minister—
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker: If I can finish. I can then call a Minister to the House. I have no doubt that the deep concern that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) has mentioned will be noted.
Miss Kirkbride: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The announcement was only made at 12 o’clock, although it had been widely anticipated. Clearly, it is possibly the most significant economic move that any of us will see carried out by the Government and the Bank of England in our lifetime. Can you tell us whether Treasury Ministers have said that they are prepared to come to the House either today, or at the very latest tomorrow, to explain this enormously significant economic move?
Mr. Speaker: These things are up to Treasury Ministers. The matter has been put on the record by both hon. Ladies.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We sympathise with the position in which you are placed by the arrogance of the Government, but can you give us an indication of whether you would be prepared to consider an urgent question for tomorrow? The House happens to be sitting this Friday and there will be a lot of public interest in the major announcement that was made by the Government today.
Mr. Speaker: I am not suggesting that I will grant an urgent question, because it would be wrong of me to do so at this stage. Matters have been put on the record and the deep concern of hon. Members has been conveyed, and it will percolate through to Treasury Ministers. An application for an urgent question can be made in the usual way—[Interruption.] The Clerk reminds me it has to be done for 11 am. I used to work to a stopwatch when I was at Rolls-Royce.
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson yesterday challenged his opposite number Shaun Woodward.
The Secretary of State had announced that following advice from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, he was extending the weapons decommissioning amnesty to February 2010. This amnesty comes under the provisions of the 1997 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act.
Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride (whose husband Andrew Mackay is a former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary) made a particularly persuasive point:
"Since the Northern Ireland peace process began more than a decade ago, the people of Northern Ireland have been promised a deal, which is to say a compromise on political issues in return for the decommissioning of the vicious paramilitary groups whose activities have scarred Northern Ireland for far too long. The public have delivered their side of the deal, so why are the Government prevaricating on their side?
Mr. Woodward: Let us be clear about what the purpose of this process is. We all want to see every gun and every weapon removed from the streets. The decommissioning order provides an additional route towards seeking that goal. The record of achieving decommissioning over the years has been successful. I have to weigh the advice of the Chief Constable, as well as that of the IICD and the other bodies that give me security advice, about whether they believe that it would be useful to continue for another year to provide that additional way of getting weapons off the streets. It does not prevent the police from doing their work and removing those weapons, which are of course illegal, but if it provides an additional route that may be successful in removing the guns, it would be foolish of me to ignore that advice."
Mr Paterson later weighed in:
"Eleven years on from the agreement, it is unacceptable that there are armed gangs operating in any part of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has just mentioned new evidence that has convinced him that the amnesty should be extended. Will he give us some of that evidence now?
Mr. Woodward: The purpose of sharing with the House the advice from the Decommissioning Commission is to encourage Members of this House to listen very carefully to that advice, as well as to me. I am not in a position to disclose the commission’s current negotiations, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there are channels available to him through which I am prepared, and happy, to engage.
Mr. Paterson: The Chief Constable has consistently said that anyone who has guns should give them up immediately. One officer has been shot in the back, and five have had to be rehoused. By extending the amnesty period, the Government are letting down local communities and the police who are trying to protect them. These are parasitical gangsters, drug dealers and protection racketeers. They do not deserve another extension. As we are strongly opposed to what is proposed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing this statutory instrument?
Mr. Woodward: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hearing difficulty, but as I have just explained to him, it is advice to us from the commission that has ensured that, on balance, we have made this decision. In my last answer, I made the offer to the hon. Gentleman that it would be possible through the usual channels to discuss with him further details, but if he really thinks it would be helpful for me to make public now the content of discussions that might result in guns being removed from the streets, I have to question what his motives are. If his motive is to remove the guns, I suggest he listens to the advice from the commission. On the other hand, if his intention is simply to proceed with a decision he made before that information emerged, I am afraid that even I am unable to help him."
Conservative members are right to raise these concerns. Northern Ireland may be unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, but its residents are no less entitled to protection from gangsterism and violence than anyone else.
A few days ago we reported that the special Speaker's Conference would, under the chairmanship of Speaker Michael Martin:
"Consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large".
We now have details of its membership:
Anne Begg (Vice-Chairman, Labour), Diane Abbott (Labour), John Bercow (Conservative), David Blunkett (Labour), Angela Browning (Conservative), Ronnie Campbell (Labour), Ann Cryer (Labour), Parmjit Dhanda (Labour), Andrew George (Liberal Democrat), Julie Kirkbride (Conservative), William McCrea (DUP), David Maclean (Conservative), Fiona Mactaggart (Labour), Anne Main (Conservative), Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrat) and Betty Williams (Labour).