By Paul Goodman
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"Well, gentlemen, I see we have a good gathering tonight," said side-burned Forth, like a teddy boy relishing a dust-up with some mods at the local disco. "I think we ought to have a discussion of what this group believes in. I must say I always thought we believed in lower taxes, locking up more criminals and standing up for Britain. But now I am told we stand for something called REACHING OUT! He shrieked the words with melodramatic disgust."
This morning's account in the Times (£) of a "dinner table plot to unseat the coalition" turns out to be the second subtantial leak from the No Turning Back Group - the right-of-party-centre backbench dining club of Conservative MPs of which I was once a member. The first is chronicled in loving detail in Simon Walters's romp, Tory Wars, and I quote from the words of the late, great Eric Forth - whose attack on Michael Portillo opens the account. (It followed Portillo's speech to the Conservative Conference in 2000.)
Over ten years on, how fortunate we are that these contentious issues have been put to rest!
A word on the Times's story and the NTB itself. The Times refers to some MPs “chuntering” about a leadership contest. If that's all that took place, what took place wasn't a "plot" - so the headline is a bit out of proportion. The Times mentions the idea of a "mandate referendum" to precede the In-Out one to which David Cameron is committed. There's no great mystery about whose idea that is. It's Davis's. We know that because...he set it out publicly at a ConservativeHome conference last autumn.
Finally, note the names quoted in the Times story: Davis, Redwood, Liam Fox, Bernard Jenkin. Chris Grayling. These names are those of very senior MPs. The report also says: "it is understood that about a dozen MPs were present". If that's right, it sounds like a gathering consisting almost entirely of senior and older MPs. I wonder if the NTB is replenishing its membership. At any rate, no member of the 2010 intake, which now constitutes half the Parliamentary Party, is quoted in the story.
When I was a member of the NTB in the last Parliament, about 20 or so MPs would turn up regularly, including John Baron, Mark Harper, Jonathan Djanogly, Andrew Turner, and Angela Watkinson. Clubs of Tory MPs spring up all the time - for example, the Free Enterprise Group, which gave very public advice to Osborne earlier this week - and the more established ones must renew themselves to stay at the cutting edge. One thing's certain: the NTB will this morning be undertaking a leak enquiry.
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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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has so far mainly featured groups founded or mostly composed of 2010 intake MPs. Last time, I looked at the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, founded in the 1980s. This week's group is somewhere between the two. The Cornerstone Group is the main group whose defining mission is to represent socially conservative Members of Parliament. The group was formed in 2005, and presented some challenges for David Cameron's leadership. In this profile, I'll see how the group is doing now.
Origins of the group
Cornerstone was founded by Edward Leigh and John Hayes, who still chair the group. Leigh has been the MP for Gainsborough since 1983, and is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was sacked for his opposition to Maastricht, and John Hayes, who has been the MP for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning since 2010.
Cornerstone admired the work done during Iain Duncan Smith's time as leader to promote a more communitarian, Burkean conservatism, and wanted to ensure IDS' work on this front was carried on.
When the group launched formally in July 2005, it released a pamphlet, which criticised Michael Howard's election campaign for being too quiet about tax cuts, public service reform and family values. Strongly condemning the personality politics and liberalism of New Labour, Leigh wrote:
"We believe that these values must be stressed: tradition, nation, family, religious ethics, free enterprise ... Emulating New Labour both lacks authenticity and is unlikely to make us popular. We must seize the centre ground and pull it kicking and screaming towards us. That is the only way to demolish the foundations of the liberal establishment and demonstrate to the electorate the fundamental flaws on which it is based."
The group first exerted its influence during the 2005 leadership contest. A group of about twenty Cornerstone supporters interviewed David Cameron, David Davis and Liam Fox. Fox apparently put in the best performance, while David Davis was, reportedly, not able to take criticism well. This meeting, combined with David Davis' alienating stint as the Minister for Europe under Major, and Davis' reluctance to support Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism programme wholeheartedly, is thought to be why many Cornerstone supporters first voted for Fox, and then switched to Cameron.
By Matthew Barrett
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In my series profiling groups of Tory MPs, most groups I've looked at have been mostly or wholly composed of 2010 intake MPs. The next group is bit different, as it was founded more than 25 years ago. The No Turning Back group has a proud history of celebrating and promoting Thatcherism. How is the group doing now? In this profile, I'll be examining what No Turning Back, the backbench group for Thatcherites in Parliament, is doing now.
Origins of the group
No Turning Back was founded in 1985 to defend Mrs Thatcher's free-market policies. The 25 founding members included, amongst others, now-Deputy Chairman Michael Fallon, now-Defence Minister Gerald Howarth, and the late, great Eric Forth.
The name of the group comes from Mrs Thatcher's famous conference speech given in October 1980:
"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.” I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends."
There are about 100 members of the group, which is chaired by John Redwood, including "quite a lot" from the 2010 intake. Members include such big beasts as John Redwood, David Davis, Bernard Jenkin, Peter Lilley, Lord Forsyth, and Liam Fox. Current Conservative officeholders who are members of the group include the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith; David Cameron's PPS, Desmond Swayne; Nick Clegg's Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mark Harper; the Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers; a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Jonathan Djanogly; three government whips, Angela Watkinson, Mark Francois and Greg Hands; the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Greg Knight; and the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, John Whittingdale, who was Mrs Thatcher's Political Secretary in the late 1980s.
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in the Commons, the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was debated. The 2009 Act created IPSA, the body responsible for regulating the current expenses regime for MPs. Its workings are deeply resented by many MPs - some of whom dislike it in principle. Adam Afriyie, the Chair of the Members' Expenses Committee, led the debate, following the publication of a report into the workings of IPSA. The main motion of yesterday's debate was:
That this House approves the recommendations of the First Report from the Members’ Expenses Committee on the Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009
by Paul Goodman
The second reading of Harriett Baldwin's Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill took place in the Commons yesterday. Beneath its unstirring title lurks an emotive subject - namely, how to right the wrongs inflicted on England by Labour's devolution settlement.
Baldwin's solution is what she called "a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws". However, I don't want so much to explore her bill - or Malcolm Rifkind's detailed account of his long-standing proposals, or Jacob Rees-Mogg's probing speech against the bill, or others in favour of it - as probe the Government's view.
The Conservative manifesto said -
"A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries."
The Coalition Agreement picked up this ball, and kicked it into the long grass, as follows -
"We will establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question."
Baldwin quoted this commitment, and then added, tactfully but pointedly -
"On 26 October last year, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister in this Chamber when the commission would be established, and I was told that it would be established by the end of 2010. However, it became apparent on the final sitting day of 2010 that the commission had not been established, and I again put the question to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the Minister on duty, who said that
“the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year.”—[Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1338.]
If nothing else, given the fragile life chances of private Members’ Bills, I am pleased to use today’s debate to encourage the Government to advance their own business."
A few moments later, Chris Chope intervened on Baldwin, and asked, just as pointedly (but less tactfully) -
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. She describes the issue as complex. Does she understand why it is so complex that the Government have not even been able to set up a commission to look into it? Surely, that should not be beyond the capability of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has she been able to find out why that has not been done?
Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a somewhat cheeky question. I am sympathetic to the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—a constituency neighbour of mine—has had a rather busy last couple of weeks. I am giving him a little slack because of that, but I agree that it is important to keep pressing for the establishment of the commission."
Later, Mark Harper replied to the debate on behalf of the Government and - having been intervened on by Chope - went on to say later:
"Although the coalition parties came up with very different solutions to the West Lothian question, both parties consider it important to attempt to answer it, and neither party believes that it is possible to answer it by ceasing to ask it. We consider it a serious question that will be best tackled when we can tackle it in a calm and reasonable manner rather than waiting for a crisis.
I can confirm that we will set up the commission this year, as, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire established through her perceptive questioning. We had hoped to make announcements to the House at an earlier stage, but I look forward to making them in the not-too-distant future, and the commission will then be able to consider the ideas that have been advanced today. Hon. Members have effectively made bids to participate, either as members of the commission or in giving evidence to it. I hope that it will arrive at solutions that we can subsequently debate."
This brought Chope to his feet -
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister was not more forthcoming about the commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a commission. As he and other Members have observed, this issue is extremely complicated, so why are we now delaying even the appointment of the people who will consider it? We have already delayed for far too long. The original commitment was that the commission would be established before the end of 2010, but the Minister now expects us to accept as a big deal the information that he will make an announcement before the end of this year...
...I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on what I am about to say. Indeed, the reason I am able to speak after him is that he will not be able to comment on it. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of my hon. Friend’s Department and is the person who can give the yea or nay to whether the commission is to be set up and when, has not got his heart in it. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in the extra time that he will have next week, now that he has cancelled his trip to South America, he should give serious consideration to getting on with working out who will be on the commission and what will be its scope and remit. Surely the commission should be set up now, so that it can get to work before all the other stuff that is coming along is before the House. The last written answer on the issue says:
“Careful consideration is ongoing as to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the Commission to consider the… question.”
Some of us were not born yesterday. It is obvious that this is a stalling exercise by the Government. There was an unholy compromise in the coalition agreement but the Deputy Prime Minister is not even delivering on that compromise. He may realise that it could have implications for his party. There is no point, if the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have different views on the matter, trying to paper over the cracks. Why do we not get on and appoint the commission? Perhaps the coalition cannot even agree who could be on it, or what its scope and remit would be.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission
“will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords”.
Well, what has happened to those? We were told that a draft Bill would be published before Christmas. We have not seen that yet. We might be waiting another year or so before those proposals emerge.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission will need to take account of
“the changes being made to the way this House does business”.
There will be further changes to the way the House does business when the Backbench Business Committee is able to look at both Government legislation and Back-Bench business, and we are told that that will not start until the third year of this Parliament—another recipe for delay.
The written answer says that the commission will have to consider
“amendments to the devolution regimes”.
We know that a referendum will be held shortly in Wales, but why do we need to wait for the outcome of that before we set up the body that will look into these complex issues? There is then a reference to the fact that there is
“the Scotland Bill presently before the House”.
The written answer concludes; it is similar to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said today:
“We will make an announcement later this year.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 549W.]
It does not even say that the commission will be set up later this year...
...I remain suspicious about the motives of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that he is stalling seriously on the issue. If the Bill goes into Committee it will give all hon. Members the opportunity to keep the pressure on the Government to meet what was a pretty meaningless commitment in the coalition agreement anyway. At least it would be something.
Mr Harper: I know that my hon. Friend is not perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the coalition Government but I think that he sees mischief where there is none. The clear message from the thoughtful speeches of all Members today is that the issue is complicated. If the Government are to deal with it calmly and sensibly and in a manner that does not put the Union at risk, we must proceed thoughtfully and properly. However, I have given a clear commitment that we need to deal with the matter and answer the question. Therefore, I urge him to be a bit more generous in spirit.
Mr Chope: I am generous by nature but I would be even more generous if my hon. Friend had explained why it has turned out to be impossible for the Government to appoint the commission before Christmas, as they originally intended.
Chope wound up as follows -
"That is what leads me to conclude—I think any rational observer would conclude this—that the Government have not got their heart in this. They are hopelessly split between the Liberal Democrat agenda and the Conservative party agenda, which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We compromised on that in the coalition agreement, and we have given the tools whereby that compromise might be taken forward, namely the setting up of the commission, to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I do not think he has got his heart in trying to achieve any progress on this matter, however. I sympathise enormously with the Minister, but I hope that by getting the Bill into Committee we will be able to maintain the pressure. That is why I support the Bill."
I've quoted Chope at length because, whatever one thinks of his view of the issues, his take on the process is surely right - or at least, it's hard to think of any other reason for delay. There are good and bad aspects of the Coalition: as I've written many times, the good, in my view, outweigh the bad, and the Coalition should be supported.
But this issue throws up a serious problem, at two levels. The first, unashamedly, is a party political one. The Party won more votes in England than Labour even in 2005. It won an absolute majority of seats in England in 2010, gaining 36 more seats than the other parties combined - an outcome I tested here, though admittedly in the context of Labour gaining a majority because of its strength elsewhere.
Before 1997, the right response to this outcome would have been: hard luck - there's more or less a level playing field for all parts of the Union. Post-1997 and Labour's devolution settlement, such an answer won't do. MPs from Scotland can now vote on England's business, but not vice-versa. Proposals for further Scottish and Welsh devolution look to tilt the imbalance further. And Northern Ireland has its Assembly.
In a sparsely-attended House, Baldwin's bill passed by 19 votes to 17. One Labour MP, Kate Hoey, supported the bill, which was otherwise backed by Conservatives only. One Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, opposed the bill.
By Jonathan Isaby
During the latest proceedings on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill yesterday, Bill Cash led an attempt to make a pre-full term general election subject to a motion passed by a simple majority of MPs, rather than two thirds of MPs, as the Bill proposes.
Moving his amendment to clause two of the Bill, which was also signed by Ed Miliband on behalf of the Opposition, he explained:
"The clause is the turn of the screw by the coalition into our democratic system of government, which, at its essence, is about the individuality and votes of conscience of MPs, irrespective of the Whips and the patronage system. It creates a permanent constitutional change through a passive, silent revolution—the most silent revolution since our Parliament began. It is being done without a mandate of any kind for any party, in any manifesto, in any part of the political system."
"My amendment 4 is based on a simple point of principle, namely that a motion can be passed by a simple majority of one, as has been the case from time immemorial—from the very inception of our parliamentary process in what is sometimes described as the “mother of Parliaments”. That is now being changed in a manner that will seriously alter the method whereby a Government may fall."
"Why have I tabled this amendment? It is because I object to the new-fangled idea that an early election would result from a motion, perhaps proposed by the Opposition, any MP or even the Government themselves, that requires—this is contrary to all constitutional precedent and history since our Parliament first sat representing the electors of this country—the support of two-thirds or more of those eligible to vote as Members of Parliament. In other words, we are talking about seats and not the persons present in the House of Commons. That is a profound and dangerous doctrine."
"The coalition originally proposed 55%, but that was so manifestly absurd that the coalition agreement was then torn up and the figure was replaced with two thirds. If not 55%, why two thirds? The Scottish Parliament—I am using this analogy because it has already been raised, but I think that it is completely irrelevant—does not form Her Majesty’s Government. Decisions in time of war, a Finance Bill or any of the other great levers of power are issues are determined, and will continue to be determined, by the United Kingdom Parliament. One such great exercise of power at a most important time was the confidence motion of 10 May 1940, which was passed, as it happened, by the Government, and it led to the demise of Neville Chamberlain’s Government, because everyone knew he had to go. I do not regard the Scottish parliamentary experience as relevant. If not two thirds, why not 75%, 60% or any other number that Harry Potter’s wand might conjure out of thin air?"
He then moved on to the issue of votes of confidence, which the Bill would still make subject to a simple majority, but rather than causing an immediate general election, there would be a fortnight for a new government to be formed which could command the confidence of the Commons, before a new election had to take place:
By Jonathan Isaby
During Tuesday's proceedings on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, amendments were tabled by Plaid Cymru - and also backed by Labour and the SNP - that would reduce the proposed term limit of this and future Parliaments to four years, and not five, as the Government proposes in the Bill.
Two Tory MPs gave speeches in favour of the four year term. Richard Shepherd began by quoting Asquith's speech from 21 February 1911 on the Parliament Bill which was to change the Septennial Act 1715:
"In the first place we propose to shorten the legal duration of Parliament from seven years to five years, which will probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years. That will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or-and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will-it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship."-[ Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 1749.]
"Asquith's reasons have been borne out in all the years since then. The average length of a Parliament is not far off four years, and his points relate to the electorate. None of the constitutional proposals of the Deputy Prime Minister-who I again note is not following his own Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons-strengthens the position of the electorate versus the Crown as represented by the Government. The proposals are therefore abandoning the principle that a Government have the authority to govern but must be mindful that there is a time after which the electorate should make a judgment on the actions, activities and success of that Government. That is all being cast out for what I believe to be a profoundly cynical purpose: the entrenchment, or attempted entrenchment, of a particular Parliament for five years."
"What distresses me most about this constitutional arrangement, and the actions of the coalition Government, is that they think that we are all back-of-the-envelope legislators who set aside the traditions and history of our own constitution. They are trying to legislate for something that I believe is unnecessary. A Government last for as long as that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons: that is a fundamental constitutional proposition in the Parliament Act."
Then there was a contribution from Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy:
By Jonathan Isaby
During last night's proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, Tory MP Bill Cash proposed an amendment that the AV referendum should be subject to a 40% turnout threshold.
He explained to the Commons:
"My amendment is very modest. It simply calls on the Government to agree that we should insert in the Bill that the result of the referendum will not pass if less than 40% vote in it. That is 40% of those who are eligible to cast a vote. It is about turnout, and 40% is not a large proportion. It is much less than what George Cunningham insisted on in the Scottish devolution proposals that led to the 1979 legislation on that; he insisted on having 40% for a yes vote, whereas I am calling here for only 40% of the electorate. It is a very modest proposal. Is it not a reasonable proposal? Is it not reasonable that the people of this country should be able to have the result of a referendum refused if less than 40% actually cast a vote in it?"
"The threshold question is very important and we were previously deprived of an opportunity to discuss it properly because of the programme motion and other activities that I regarded as rather disreputable. I believe the Bill is being severely vitiated, and I think it is very important that the people of this country know that threshold is a key issue. Indeed, threshold and the 40% figure are regarded by all commentators as having significance across the international scene as well as for the United Kingdom."
Eleanor Laing, meanwhile, had another proposal: to require 25% of those who are entitled to vote, to vote yes for the referendum to be binding.
In replying, Cabinet Office Minister Mark Harper did not accept their amendments. He said:
"The reason why we have not specified a threshold in the Bill is, as a number of hon. Members said, that we want to respect the will of the people who vote in the referendum, without any qualifications... People may choose to abstain, but the amendment would create an incentive for people who favour a no vote to abstain. So people would not campaign, as they rightly should, for only yes or no votes in the referendum. We would have people campaigning actively for voters not to participate. We debated this a little on Second Reading, and as I said in my speech then, I do not think that is right. We need to encourage participation in the referendum. We want people to take part, and putting in a rule that encourages at least one side to campaign actively for voters not to take part would do our democracy a disservice.
"I am not concerned as some colleagues are about what the turnout will be. As we have said in previous debates, both in Committee and in the House, there are elections for the devolved Administrations-for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly-but there are also elections scheduled next year for 81% of England. The percentage turnout in English local elections varies, but it is usually in the mid to high 30s at least. I am confident that with the additional publicity and the awareness of the referendum, and the fact that it is an important decision, we will indeed get a good turnout."
"Let me now focus on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). She is right to say that it proposes a completely different, outcome-specific threshold. It is worth saying to colleagues on the Government Benches who support the Government's proposals and respect the coalition agreement that my hon. Friend's amendment is not compatible with what we set out in the coalition agreement, which was a simple majority referendum, without an outcome-specific threshold. Colleagues who are reconciled to a referendum being held should bear that in mind if they are tempted to vote for my hon. Friend's amendment."
The voting saw 31 MPs favour thresholds with 549 voting against.
The 21 Conservatives backing the thresholds were:
It is odd to see Keith Simpson's name there since he is a PPS and would usually be expected to vote in line with the payroll. Those marked with an asterisk* are members of the 2010 intake.
Later last night the Bill then comfortably obtained its Third Reading by 321 votes to 264. With speculation at various points that the Government would struggle to get the Bill through as it wished - with MPs wanting to change the referendum date, impose those thresholds or be less prescriptive about the electorate quotas of the new constituencies - the whips will doubtless be quietly pleased about it attaining a majority of 57.
The following 15 Tories voted against the Third Reading:
By Jonathan Isaby
This afternoon in the Commons, Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper was summoned to the Dispatch Box to answer an Urgent Question on the decision to grant the right to vote to prisoners. Quite why Nick Clegg could not have done so, given that his is the only of the main parties to have actually promoted this policy, I don't know.
Mr Harper explained:
"The UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting was declared unlawful by the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005, as a result of a successful challenge by a prisoner, John Hirst. The Government accept, as did the previous Government, that as a result of the judgment of the Strasbourg Court in the Hirst case, there is a need to change the law. This is not a choice; it is a legal obligation. Ministers are currently considering how to implement the judgment, and when the Government have made a decision the House will be the first to know."
Labour shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan then responded with a flurry of questions:
"When the previous Government consulted on this matter, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who was then the shadow Secretary of State for Justice and is now the Attorney-General, described the prospect of giving prisoners the vote as “ludicrous”. Does the Minister share that view? One of the most troubling aspects of the European Court ruling is that it opens the door to the possibility of serious offenders being given the vote. Will he explain how the Government would ensure that serious offenders are not given the vote? Press reports suggest that sentence length will be the key determinant in deciding which prisoners can vote. If that is the case, what length of sentence do the Government have in mind? How will they ensure that prisoners who are guilty of serious offences but serving short sentences are not given the vote? Will the Minister provide details of the precise mechanics that prisoner voting will entail? Can he also tell us whether prisoners will be allowed to vote in referendums as well as elections?
"The Prime Minister is reportedly “exasperated” and “furious” at having to agree to votes for prisoners. Does the Minister share that view? There is a strong sense that the decision is being forced on this country against the will both of the Government and of the people’s representatives in this Parliament. For the sake of public trust in British democracy, will the Minister who is standing in for the Deputy Prime Minister therefore agree that any legislation put before the House on this vital issue should be the subject of a free vote?"
The minister responded:
"No one would have realised, listening to that, that the right hon. Gentleman was ever a member of the previous Government, who also accepted that the law needed to be changed, and accepted the judgment. I have looked carefully at the media reports, and all I can see is an expression by the Government, relating to what they are going to say in a pending legal case, that they must comply with the law. I would not have thought that explaining that the Government had to comply with the law was particularly revelatory. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman shared our view when he was in government. He was quite right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Prime Minister is exasperated. I suspect that every Member of the House is exasperated about this, but we have no choice about complying with the law.
"The fact that the previous Government failed for five years to do what they knew was necessary has left our country in a much worse position, both because of the possibility of having to pay damages and because case law has moved on. The only thing that would be worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and having to pay them damages as well. That is the position that the previous Government left us in.
"I shall now turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I made it clear in my statement that Ministers were considering how to implement the judgment, and when decisions have been taken they will be announced to the House at the Dispatch Box in the usual way. No decisions have been taken, and I am therefore unable to answer any of his questions at this time. The previous Government took five years to do nothing when they knew that something had to be done—in exactly the same way as they behaved in not dealing with the deficit. This Government have been in office for only a matter of months, but yet again our two parties are having to deal with the mess left behind by Labour."
There then followed questions from a wide variety of MPs, including many angry Tories from across the whole spectrum of the party. Here is a selection of their points:
By Jonathan Isaby
Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper is a busy man at the moment. Not only has he got the bills to introduce fixed term Parliaments, the AV referendum and the reduction in constituencies on his plate right now, but he was back in the Commons this afternoon to make another announcement.
The Government will introduce a system of individual voter registration across Great Britain, akin to that which was introduced to Northern Ireland in 2002.
He told the Commons:
"At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system vulnerable to fraud. Household registration harks back to a time when registration was the responsibility of the head of the household. Access to a right as fundamental as voting should not be dependent on someone else. We need a better system of keeping up with people who move house or who need to update their registration for other reasons. Individual registration provides an opportunity to move forward to a system centred around the individual citizen.
"I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are concerned when they read of allegations of electoral fraud, including those alleged to have taken place at elections this year. Although proven electoral fraud is relatively rare, we should be concerned about the impact that such cases have on the public’s confidence in the electoral system."
"Individual registration will require each person to register themselves and to provide personal identifiers—date of birth, signature and national insurance number—which will allow registration officers to cross-check the information provided before a person is added to the register, which should tackle the problem of fraudulent or ineligible registrations.
"However, I want to make it absolutely clear that there will be no new databases... Electoral registration officers will check the information they receive from people applying to be registered with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the applicant is genuine. People seeking to access public services are already subject to various similar authentication processes, for example when applying for benefits, and I do not believe such a check, which will help to eliminate electoral fraud, is disproportionate or that it represents an invasion of privacy. Naturally, we will ensure that robust arrangements are put in place to ensure that personal data are securely held and processed by electoral registration officers. Personal identifiers will not be published in the electoral register."
He outlined the timetable for introducing the changes as follows:
"Individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but that no one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 general election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election. From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system, including last-minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote."
By Tim Montgomerie
In the Commons yesterday, Labour's Jack Straw quizzed Nick Clegg's Tory deputy, Mark Harper, on whether the reduction is seat numbers would respect historic boundaries and whether the Isle of Wight would be broken up as a constituency with a second seat covering people on the island and the English mainland.
Mr Jack Straw: "Will the Minister confirm that under the Bill, local boundaries, including county boundaries, can be completely ignored and that the only boundaries required to be observed are the national boundaries? Will he also confirm that under the Bill the Boundary Commission will be required, by law, to begin the process of redrawing the boundaries for the whole of the United Kingdom in the Isle of Wight-to transfer 35,000 voters in that constituency across the Solent into Hampshire, and then to work up the United Kingdom in an equally arbitrary way, with no public inquiries?"
Mr Mark Harper: "There were so many questions in there that it is not clear which one to answer. First, we are not proposing to move anybody who currently lives on the Isle of Wight; I think that they will continue to live where they are. The right hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. We do not lay down a prescriptive method for the boundary commissions to draw the boundaries; they are independent, and they will continue to draw the boundaries."
Mr Straw: "The Minister has obviously not read his own Bill. If community cohesion is good enough for separate seats on the outer isles of Scotland and for the invention of an entirely artificial rule to protect the seat of a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, why is it not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom?"
Mr Harper: "The right hon. Gentleman knows that there are two exceptions, which are the two Scottish seats that have unique geography. There is not an exception for the seat of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats; it is simply a rule to prevent the boundary commission from drawing an extraordinarily large seat, and his boundaries are able to be redrawn in the same way as anybody's else's. All this bluster simply highlights the fact that Labour Members do not believe in seats of equal size and votes counting equally across the whole of the United Kingdom."
Work and Pensions questions came around again yesterday.
Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Andrew Selous called for reform of the local housing allowance:
"It is now clear from reports across the country that not only tenants but charities helping the homeless are being very poorly served by the local housing allowance, so will the Minister agree to urgent reform of that allowance, which, frankly, is failing the very people whom it was designed to help?
Kitty Ussher: We always said that we would review the local housing allowance after two years, but the evidence so far does not bear out the hon. Gentleman’s points. In the pathfinder evaluations, it was shown that 96 per cent. of customers had a bank, building society or Post Office account, and a quarter of those had been opened in order for those customers to pay their rent. We are talking about an important policy, giving more choice to tenants. It is an important part of our plans for financial inclusion. We will, of course, listen to all interested parties, but we do not currently have the evidence that the hon. Gentleman needs to make his point."
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.
These days questions to the Minister for the Olympics immediately follow DCMS questions.
Mark Harper and Humfrey Malins both asked about shooting:
"Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What her latest estimate is of expenditure on the London 2012 Olympics, and if she will make a statement. 
Mr. Harper: I thank the Minister for that answer. Now that the Olympic Delivery Authority has decided that Woolwich is to be the site for shooting events at the Olympics, will she arrange for the KPMG report on the venues to be published in full? I know that it has been published, but only with all the rather interesting financial information missed out, and British shooting does not feel that it has been given a fair crack of the whip. Will she therefore arrange for that report to be published in full and placed in the Library of the House?
Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I met the advocates for the Bisley case very particularly, as I also met the advocates for other venues, and the Olympic Board confirmed its decision at its last meeting. It is certainly my intention to publish the KPMG report once the issues of commercial sensitivity have passed and the relevant negotiations have been completed."
"Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): On the subject of shooting, we all know that one of the factors in choosing Woolwich was cost, so will the Minister today tell us the cost estimate for staging the shooting at Woolwich, and for staging it at Bisley?
Tessa Jowell: No, not today; I shall do so once the negotiations, which are inevitably sensitive, are concluded. I know of the hon. Gentleman’s great concerns about Bisley, and his advocacy for it. He will understand that there were two factors that led the Olympic Board to conclude that Woolwich should be the preferred venue for shooting. The first was on the grounds of cost, to which he referred. The second was certainty, the judgment being that, at this stage, Bisley simply involved too much risk, in terms of delivering an acceptable venue."
Wellinborough's Peter Bone asked about the future use of the stadium:
"Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What plans she has for the legacy use of Olympics sporting venues by young people. 
Tessa Jowell: The Olympics sporting venues in east London and around the UK will be available for use after the Olympics in a way that involves residents of all levels of ability, from starters to elite athletes. That is a fundamental aspect of the Olympic legacy ambition.