By Paul Goodman
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The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Matthew Barrett
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The Government suffered a number of defeats in the House of Lords last night on its legislative plans for trials held in secret. Ken Clarke's Justice and Security Bill would have allowed Ministers to order secret court hearings to consider evidence in national security cases.
Peers from the across the political spectrum (but notably many Liberal Democrats) voted for a number of measures which guarded against the plans, including giving judges, not Ministers, the say over the use of the secret trials. This was passed by 264 to 159 votes.
Peers also backed giving judges greater discretion to hold the secret hearings, rather than obliging them to do so in national security-related cases, by a majority of 105. The third vote, to give judges and defendants, and not just Ministers, the right to demand secret trials, was passed by 273 votes to 173.
After this third defeat, the Government decided not to oppose a further set of amendments tabled by opponents of the Bill, including ones saying secret trials would be used only as a last resort, and only if the court was unable to use an existing secrecy mechanism, the public interest immunity system.
However, the substance of the issue could be said to have received something like a technical vote of confidence: a backbench Labour amendment to remove the concept of secret hearings from the Bill was defeated by 164 votes to 25.
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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Questions to Ministers of Justice were held in the Commons yesterday, the first real opportunity Members of Parliament have had to ask questions about the events of this summer.
The key question came from Labour MP Stephen Pound, who asked "Could I ask him to give credit to the prison officers who have participated in this expansion, and the people working within the prison estate? It cannot have been easy for them. An additional 500 operational usable places have appeared in the last few weeks. Where from?"
"First, I agree strongly with the praise that the hon. Gentleman gives to the prison officers. The system did respond—the criminal justice system responded very well to the totally unexpected pressure of the riots. Partly it proved that our criminal justice system does work well in such circumstances. Secondly, it was entirely because of the public-spiritedness and good will of prison officers, probation officers, policemen and court staff, all of whom responded to the events with horror, as did every decent member of society, and decided to put the public interest first. We always carry a cushion in the prison estate, because we do not know what number of prisoners will come. I know the consequences, which some of my predecessors have encountered, of running out of places in the prisons, and for that reason, I am glad to say, we were able to cope—there is still sufficient capacity—and it is very important that we continue to do so."
By Tim Montgomerie
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As Grant Shapps tweeted, the big topic in Westminster yesterday wasn't the Vickers report but the outcome of the boundaries review. Fifty seats will disappear in total in an effort to (1) save £12 million and (2) reduce the inequality in the populations represented by each MP to about 76,000 on average (and between 72,810 and 80,473 voters). The political effect of the changes will be to reduce the unfairness of the current system, under which the Tories need a much larger share of the vote than Labour to win a Commons majority. In total, Labour will lose about 25 MPs, the Conservatives 16 or 17 and the Liberal Democrats 10. That reduction is proportionately much greater for Nick Clegg's party and was only accepted by the junior coalition partners in return for the referendum on AV. AV's defeat will make the loss of one fifth of the Lib Dems' parliamentary strength a very difficult pill to swallow and there has been speculation that - in breach of the Coalition Agreement - many Lib Dem MPs might not vote for it. Among the Lib Dem MPs who will face tougher re-election fights are Clegg himself but also Tim Farron, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne.
By Paul Goodman
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Here is the list of those who went into the No lobby to oppose the Dorries/Field amendment. It included such senior Conservatives as George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Cheryl Gillan, William Hague, Eric Pickles, David Willetts, Sir George Young.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
Alexander, rh Danny
Alexander, rh Mr Douglas
By Paul Goodman
Nick Clegg's statement to the Commons on Lords reform - and Chris Huhne's on carbon emission reductions (that, at any rate, is what his statement was meant to be about) are covered in our newslinks today. The Justice Secretary is in the news for other reasons - his Department plans to halve rapists' sentences under some circumstances - but it's worth reading in full what he said yesterday about superinjunctions, in reply to a question from John Whittingdale, the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
"Mr Whittingdale: Is my right hon. and learned Friend concerned about the possibility that the large number of injunctions that appear to be being granted on a routine basis suggests that the courts are paying insufficient regard to section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which was intended to protect press freedom? Given that, and given the huge speculation on the internet about the identities of those who have obtained injunctions, does he feel that the time is approaching when Parliament may need to revisit the issue?
Mr Clarke: I do not think any of us know whether the number is increasing. As far as I am aware, there have been two super-injunctions since the John Terry case, but the word “super-injunction” gets used very widely. I realise there is increasing concern, however. I personally have strong views on the secrecy of justice. We have a tradition of open justice in this country. Plainly, I believe in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech in this country, even when it is sometimes exercised provocatively, as it is supposed to be in a free country, but there are also areas where an individual is entitled to have their privacy protected. The time is certainly coming when the Government are going to have to look at this matter, although we will probably wait until we have had the report of the Master of the Rolls, who is looking rather more closely at the procedural aspects."
In reply to a question from his opposite number on Labour's benches, Sadiq Khan, Clarke said -
"As I have said, we will wait until he reports back before starting to take a proper look at the issue, but I think the Government will now have to study it and decide whether there is a case for intervening. There will never be unanimity on all these judgments, precisely because it is so difficult to balance the competing parts of the convention on human rights and the competing interests involved. There have been cases where we have certainly needed to know—such as where people are disposing of waste material by dumping it off the coast of Africa. That is easy in one direction, but in the other, every time I watch a football team I do not think I necessarily need to know about the sex life of each of the players."
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday Justice Secretary Ken Clarke presented his Green Paper on Criminal Justice, “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”. ConHome has already covered some of the announcements contained therein here and here, but here are some of the highlights of what Mr Clarke said in presenting the Green Paper to the Commons and the reaction he got from Tory backbenchers.
"Of course, criminals must face robust and demanding punishments. This means making them work hard both in prison and in the community. More prisoners will face the tough discipline of regular working hours. This has been lacking in most prison regimes for too long. Community sentences will be more credible, with more demanding work and greater use of tough curfew requirements. There will be greater reparation to victims through increased use of restorative justice and by implementing the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996. We will bring forward other changes to make sure that more offenders directly compensate the victims of crime.
"But we will take a new approach to the reform of offenders. I regard prison first and foremost as a place of punishment where people lose their liberty as reparation for what they have done, but on top of that, prison cannot continue to be simply an expensive way of giving communities a break. We must give higher priority to ensuring that more prisoners go straight on release.
"Offenders will face a tough and co-ordinated response from the police, probation and other services. It will mean that they must either address the problems that fuel their criminal activity or be caught and punished again."
"The sentencing framework must provide courts with a range of options to punish and rehabilitate criminals and keep the public safe. The sentencing framework has developed in an ad hoc fashion recently, with over 20 Acts of Parliament changing sentencing in the past 10 years. This has left it overly complex, difficult to interpret and administer, and hard for the public to understand. We need to make better use of prison and community sentences to punish offenders and improve public safety, while ensuring that sentencing supports our aims of improved rehabilitation and increased reparation to victims and society. We will therefore simplify the sentencing framework in order to make it more comprehensible to the public and to enhance judicial independence. We will reform community orders to give providers more discretion, and we will encourage greater use of financial penalties and improve their collection."
"Let me assure the House that public safety remains our first priority. We will continue to ensure that serious and dangerous offenders are managed effectively and their risk is reduced through appropriate use of prison and then through the multi-agency public protection arrangements... Any adult who commits a crime using a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and serious offenders can expect a long sentence. For juveniles, imprisonment is always available and will also be appropriate for serious offenders."
There were some voices of considerable scepticism from some Tory MPs sitting behind him:
By Jonathan Isaby
During Justice Questions yesterday, the issue of votes for prisoners was raised on the back of the recent judgment from the European Court of Human Rights.
"The Hirst judgment says that article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights obliges this House to give some prisoners the vote; as we have heard, it also gives rise to financial compensation to some prisoners who have been denied that right. Although I sympathise with my right hon. and learned Friend, does he accept that there is an intellectual case for, in time, bringing powers back to Westminster in this area by repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdrawing from the European convention of human rights?"
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was not sympathetic to this course of action:
"There has been another British case today, which has clarified the situation slightly and has underlined the fact that the Government have discretion on how to comply with their obligations. In due course, obviously, we shall establish a commission on how best to give effect to our human rights obligations in this country, but that will not happen until at least next year. The coalition Government do not intend to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, which was imposed by the victorious British on the rest of Europe after the war in order to establish British values across the countries that were recovering from fascism and was drafted largely by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who put what he thought were the best principles of British justice into it."
"In considering the Government’s policy on this thorny issue, will the Secretary of State, if he has to abide by the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, restrict the right to vote to those prisoners at the lowest level of seriousness — for example, those dealt with by the magistrates courts for summary offences only?"
Ken Clarke replied:
"This applies only to prisoners — obviously, people who have not been in prison do not lose their vote at all. We have to comply with the judgment of the Court. The problem is that this extremely annoying issue will become even more annoying to the public and everyone else if we simply do nothing and wait until some huge financial judgment is made against the taxpayer, which will turn the present public anger into fury. That is why we are going to bring forward considered proposals. At the moment, someone not sent to prison does not lose their vote — irrespective of what other punishment they receive in their summary trial."
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".
Furthermore, the Business Secretary has no fewer than three fellow peers in his ministerial team, meaning that peers in fact outnumber MPs in the Department for Business, leaving three underlings to be accountable for the actions of Lords Mandleson, Carter, Davies and Baroness Vadera in the Commons.
Back in March, since Lord Mandelson had thus far refused to debate with his opposite number, Ken Clarke, in television studios, I suggested that there was an alternative way to get the pair of them to debate the issues: by changing the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to allow for peers who were ministers to have to answer questions at the Despatch Box in the Commons and be held to account by MPs for their actions.
I put it to David Cameron at a press conference and he said it was "an intriguing idea" and that since Ken Clarke had chaired the party's constitutional task force, perhaps it was something he could examine.
Ken Clarke's spokesman has now got back to me and alas the shadow business secretary is not minded to take my suggestion on board. He says:
Perhaps I should suggest to Messrs Hannan and Carswell that it be included in one of their subsequent volumes on constitutional reform...
The Guardian reports that Hansard - marking their centenary as the official record of Parliamentary proceedings - have published a book of the greatest parliamentary speeches of the last hundred years.
Senior figures have been asked to identify their favourite speech of the 1909 - 2009 period. Rather surprisingly, the achingly partisan Gordon Brown has chosen Sir Edward Heath's speech against the reintroduction of hanging. David Cameron selected a speech by Duff Cooper (to whom he is distantly related) opposing appeasement in 1938.
Ken Clarke, Lord Heseltine and Sir John Major all chose Geoffrey (Lord) Howe's call for Margaret (Lady) Thatcher to resign.
Ann Widdecombe and Denis (now Lord) Healey were both courageous enough to choose a speech by Enoch Powell. Miss Widdecombe's preferred speech argued against embryonic research, while Lord Healey picked Brigadier Powell's 1959 excoriation of British brutality at the Hola camp in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau emergency. Lord Healey concludes that Enoch Powell was "far from being the racist bigot".
In keeping with flagrant disregard for political correctness, David Blunkett singled out Oswald Mosley's speech on the economic crisis in 1930!
Most amusingly of all, Dennis Skinner felt that the most noteworthy piece of parliamentary oratory of the last one hundred years came from the member for Bolsover - one Dennis Skinner - in a filibuster against opponents of stem cell research. It's a curious phenomenon that this national treasure can do such a good impression of an insubstantial, boorish egomaniac.
What speech would you choose?
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."
There was an Opposition Day Debate on the Royal Mail in the House of Commons yesterday. Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke moved:
"That this House welcomes the Hooper review of UK postal services; and urges the Government to implement rapidly the review’s proposals for the partial privatisation of Royal Mail."
But despite this support from the Conservatives a Government amendment was drafted, stating that the House:
"“notes the threats to the future of the Royal Mail and welcomes the conclusion of the Hooper Report that, as part of a plan to place the Royal Mail on a sustainable path for the future, the current six days a week universal service obligation (USO) must be protected, that the primary duty of a new regulator should be to maintain the USO, and that the Government should address the growing pensions deficit; notes that modernisation in the Royal Mail is essential and that investment must be found for it; endorses the call for a new relationship between management and postal unions; urges engagement with relevant stakeholders to secure the Government’s commitment to a thriving and prosperous Royal Mail, secure in public ownership, that is able to compete and lead internationally and that preserves the universal postal service; further notes the Conservatives’ failure to invest in Royal Mail when they were in power in contrast with Labour’s support for both Royal Mail and the Post Office; and notes that legislation on these issues will be subject to normal parliamentary procedures.”
Two Conservative MPs - Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury & Atcham) and Edward Timpson (Crewe & Nantwich) - voted against the Conservative motion - and then abstained on the Government amendment.
Last October Mr Timpson slammed the Royal Mail for its proposals to transfer around 460 jobs from Crewe to Warrington. Mr Kawczynski recently gave staff from the Shrewsbury Royal Mail sorting office a tour of the Palace of Westminster before holding a surgery with them.
Update: Mr Kawczynski told ConservativeHome:
"After four years in Parliament and never having voted against my party, I felt I had to in this case. I am in favour of the Post Office remaining in state hands and will not vote for any measure which would wholly or partly privatise it. I have a regular meetings with staff at the huge sorting office in Shrewsbury, which covers Shropshire and a large part of Wales. I have a special strong bond with the workers at the sorting office and I will do everything I can to protect their jobs. I think that privatisation could lead to job losses there, and that's one of the reasons I voted the way I did."
Further update: Mr Timpson has given ConservativeHome the following statement:
"Crewe sorting office has been earmarked for closure, with little consultation from Royal Mail. This will result in a loss of up to 600 local jobs, with the majority of staff unable to relocate. The impact on both them and their families at a time of recession would be devastating. They do not oppose modernisation of their industry. Like them, I have found Royal Mail managers and the Minister for Postal Affairs to be disinterested and dismissive rather than concerned with the plight of workers at this time of recession. They have used the Hooper Report as an excuse to retrospectively justify their behaviour. I cannot therefore welcome a report that is being used as a stick with which to beat the third largest workforce in my constituency. They deserve better than the atrocious treatment they have received."
Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke was up again in the House of Commons yesterday. He is of course not able to question his opposite number Lord Mandelson in the chamber.
He asked about the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which was launched last month and is open to businesses with a turnover less than £25 million. Companies will be able to borrow between £1,000 and £1 million. Loans can be repaid over up to ten years.
Mr Clarke swung into action:
"When Lord Mandelson announced the scheme, he said that it was “going live today”, and the Minister has just said that it is open for business—but does he not realise that he is lucky if he has found a small business that is aware of the existence of the scheme, and very lucky if he has found a bank that believes that it is operating the scheme at local level? Instead of producing a series of measures in a panic-stricken way, as the Government have done in recent months, would it not have been better if they had speedily adopted our policy of a £50 billion loan guarantee scheme for businesses of all sizes, and had shown some competence in getting it into practice at the speed required?
Ian Pearson: No, it would not have been a good idea to implement an uncosted, untargeted scheme. What the Government have done is to introduce the enterprise finance guarantee, which is specifically targeted at companies with a turnover of up to £25 million. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware of the working capital scheme that we are also introducing. It will provide working capital support for businesses in the economy. That will apply to a portfolio of companies with a turnover of up to £500 million. That is real support for business, and it is working. We need to do more to market existing products to the business community. I would like to think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I shared an interest in wanting to do that, and in wanting to get the maximum possible publicity for the real support available to companies to help them through the recession."
I must say that while I wasn't too sure, it is good to have Mr Clarke's debating skills back on the front bench and in frontline politics.