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.
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.)
Health questions were put in the House of Commons yesterday.
The situation at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which has been slammed by the Healthcare Commission for "appalling" emergency care at Stafford Hospital, stood out. Between 2005 and 2008 about 400 more people died there than would ordinarily have been expected.
Stone MP Bill Cash expressed his profound concern:
"Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State take account of the fact that I am repeating my call for an inquiry into this whole matter under the Inquiries Act 2005? Will he also make it clear that all those in that trust who are culpable, as set out in the Healthcare Commission report—that includes other senior management besides the chairman and the chief executive at the time—must be removed and not merely suspended on full pay?
Alan Johnson: As I just said, the investigation will involve everyone who has any position of authority within that trust—the whole board and all the executive directors. It will be a proper investigation and it will be fair, and the action taken will result from that inquiry, not from any knee-jerk reaction by me or anyone else."
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (above right) went on the same topic:
“we should be spotting these issues much earlier and getting rid of incompetent chief executives or chairpersons who, fortunately, are in the minority, rather than waiting for a report such as this, by which time, frankly, most of the damage has been done.”—[ Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 571.]
The Secretary of State knew about the failings at Stafford in May 2008, so why did he not intervene then and there?
Alan Johnson: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the Healthcare Commission’s report carefully. The difference between what happened in Stafford and in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and the fact that the Healthcare Commission took into account those words and what others said at the time, is that as soon as commission staff went into Stafford and saw the problems—in May 2008—they immediately called the chief executive to a meeting, put their concerns to him, and started to see the process of improvement. That is the job of the Healthcare Commission while it carries out its inquiry. The staff cannot say at that stage that they have come to any conclusions, and it would be unfair, one day into an inquiry, to reach conclusions and say that heads must roll and recommendations must be made. We made that specific point to the Healthcare Commission at the time of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, so in Stafford staff immediately introduced measures to put things right, rather than wait for the end of the process and the report to be published—as I said they should do in that quote.
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.
At DEFRA questions yesterday Macclesfield's Sir Nicholas Winterton was rightly troubled about the infrequent collection of rubbish:
"I am concerned about the service that local authorities give to residents. Increasingly, under councils of every political colour, there is anger and criticism about how local authorities are operating refuse collection, not least regarding the move from a once-a-week to a fortnightly collection. In many cases, the size of wheelie bins has been reduced. When will local authorities take account of the interests of those paying them their wages rather than seek to meet—I say this although I do support recycling—some unacceptable regulations, many of which come from Europe?
Jane Kennedy: It is obviously a matter for local authorities to determine how local household waste is managed, how it is collected and how much recycling is performed. I have already described the improvements across England in respect of the proportion of household waste recycled. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is behaving in a way that he disapproves of, let me tell him that in my experience, because of the importance to every household of dealing with waste, this is one of the most highly political issues. It is therefore very important for local authorities to be aware of what their communities are saying."
I agree with Sir Nicholas wholeheartedly. Recycling can be a very good thing, but some waste has to be disposed of differently, and it is not hygenic for rubbish to sit in a bin for nearly two weeks. There are times when I wonder what I pay my council tax for. I wouldn't be sorry to see a central directive that bins had to be collected on a weekly basis.
Nick Herbert, the new Shadow Secretary of State, pressed the Government on landfill:
"The Minister told me this week that in all but two English regions, landfill capacity would run out in less than seven years’ time. We urgently need a better strategy to increase recycling rates further and develop markets to use waste as a resource for materials and energy in particular. Last month, however, the National Audit Office said that DEFRA had responded too slowly to the landfill directive, with the result that waste infrastructure projects were being delayed. Can the Minister explain why a Department that is meant to be leading on environmental protection takes years to act?
Jane Kennedy: As I said earlier, the recycling rate in England was 7.5 per cent. in 1997 and is now 34.5 per cent. A huge amount of work has been done. We expect the combined impact of our policies in the waste strategy that I described earlier to be a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of at least 9.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020 as a result of waste management. What would be the impact on targets of that nature of the cuts that the hon. Gentleman would be forced to make in any departmental programme of this kind? When in government one makes decisions that have a big impact, and the decisions that we have made have brought about a sea change in household attitudes to recycling."
What would you do to improve the disposal of rubbish? (No jokes about getting rid of the Government!)
The Commons also hosted Treasury questions yesterday.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne scented blood:
"Are we really expected to believe that when the Prime Minister appointed Sir James Crosby to the board of the Financial Services Authority, and when the current Chancellor promoted him to the job of deputy chairman in 2007, neither of them had any idea that they were appointing someone whose business model at HBOS was being investigated by the regulator whose board they were appointing him to?
Mr. Darling: As the Prime Minister has just told the Liaison Committee, Sir James’s appointment in 2003 was made on the recommendation of a selection panel that followed an open competition, and that panel, which was chaired by the senior official then responsible for banking regulation, Sir James Sassoon, recommended the appointment of James Crosby. At that time, there was no reason to question that appointment. With the benefit of hindsight, many people now make claims about what they say they knew at that time, but the then Chancellor followed the proper procedures and followed the advice, and he had no reason not to make the appointment.
The FSA has said that in 2002, and subsequently, it drew attention to a number of concerns, as it did with several other organisations. In terms of the law, the way in which the FSA supervises any bank, let alone this one, is a matter for it. Neither the subsequent investigation into the allegations made against James Crosby, nor the concerns that it had, were reported to the Treasury. I would not expect them to have been, given the information that I have from the chief executive of the FSA at the moment.
Mr. Osborne: Either the Chancellor knew what was going on and did nothing, or he was entirely ignorant, and neither is much of a defence. Is not the net closing in on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? Their accomplices are resigning, their alibi that no one knew what was going on has been blown apart, and their fingerprints are all over the mistakes that were made during the age of irresponsibility.
Is there a coherent view in the Cabinet about how long this recession will last? We know what the Treasury’s forecasts are, and we know what the Chancellor says about the economy recovering halfway through this year, but today the Health Secretary has said that we need to be ready for two years of recession. Is the Health Secretary expressing the collective view of the Government on this issue?
Mr. Darling: In relation to the FSA, the hon. Gentleman’s claims are frankly ridiculous. Appointments were made in the normal way, which is a great deal more open than for some of the appointments that were made in the past. At the time, there was no reason not to accept the recommendations in relation to Sir James Crosby.
On the broader economic picture, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, there has been an extremely sharp downturn not just in this country but in countries right across the world, and we can see the effects of that. I am clear, though, that if we had followed the hon. Gentleman’s advice and done absolutely nothing to prevent the full effects of the recession from being felt, the impact and the long-term damage to this country would have been substantial. I believe that the action that we have taken is not only justified but will ensure that this recession will be shorter and less painful than would otherwise be the case. I am sorry that the Conservative party continues to take the view that there is absolutely nothing that they are prepared to do to help people and businesses in this country."
It was time for Welsh questions in the Commons yesterday.
Monmouth MP David Davies was concerned about onerous rules on the use of Welsh:
"Does the Minister agree that enacting legislation that will require all companies, or at least private companies, to use the Welsh language in all forms of business could prove very detrimental not just to the rural economy but to the rest of the economy in Wales, at a time when, tragically, we are seeing hundreds of jobs lost?
Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman should choose his words carefully. I am sure that the last thing any Member would want to do is be seen to be against the Welsh language. It has developed over the past few years, and we want to ensure that it continues to develop with the consent of all the people of Wales.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the draft Welsh language legislative competence order is due to be published next week. I hope that, as a result, there will be full discussion among all the people of Wales about what is the best way forward."
Mr Davies might appreciate people knowing that he is himself a Welsh speaker.
Preseli Pembrokeshire MP (and Opposition MP) Stephen Crabb is eager to see a new power station in Wales:
"Does the Minister agree that one significant boost to the rural economy of west Wales at this time would come from the construction of the new gas-fired power station at Pembroke, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger)? The project has taken four years to reach this point. It has passed its environmental consents, and merely awaits a decision from the Minister’s colleague the Energy Minister. Will he speak to the Energy Minister and unlock this important project? The United Kingdom needs the generating capacity, and my constituents need the jobs.
Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: this is an important project. We are mindful of that; discussions have taken place with my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), who represents the constituency where the new installation will be based, and I am sure that, across all Departments, we are absolutely committed to ensuring matters are expedited as quickly as possible, but also in a proper manner."
Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan asked about job losses:
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith came before the House of Commons yesterday to make a statement on the Damian Green arrest. She was very much on the defensive:
"As the statement issued by Sir David Normington on 28 November made clear, he was informed by the police at about 1.45 pm on 27 November that a search was about to be conducted of the home and offices of a member of the Opposition Front Bench. Sir David was subsequently told that an arrest had been made. This was the first time that anybody in the Home Office was informed that a Member of this House was the subject of the police investigation. I have made it clear that neither I nor any other Government Minister knew until after the arrest of the hon. Member that he—or any other hon. Member—was the subject of a police investigation or was to be arrested. I hope that those who have asserted the contrary will now withdraw their claims.
Let me be clear that even if I had been informed, I believe it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to seek to intervene in the operational decisions being taken by the police. I will not do that and I should not do that."
As Quentin Letts writes in the Daily Mail, Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve was ruthlessly efficient. This page has already carried his statement. One point that the Home Secretary made in response does need highlighting:
"The hon. and learned Gentleman asserted several times that “there is not the slightest evidence”. He does not know what evidence the police have. I do not know what evidence the police have—but I do know that it is wholly appropriate that the police should use their professional judgment to follow the evidence during the course of a police investigation without fear or favour."
Unfortunately for the Government, no-one is going to give them the benefit of the doubt. If no breach of national security is uncovered, they will look very foolish.
Other Tory MPs were furious too.
Sir Nicholas Winterton MP: "As the longest-serving Member in the county of Cheshire, and a close friend of the late Mrs. Dunwoody—I worked with her on many issues in Cheshire over many years—I believe that I represent a view held fairly strongly across the House. It appears to me and many others that the issuing of the writ before the funeral of Mrs. Dunwoody means that this matter is being pursued with unseemly haste. As you know, Mr. Speaker, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody was hugely respected for what she did in this place. She was a robust, independent socialist who was never frightened to express her view or to stand up for what she believed to be right. She was equally committed to and respected in her constituency and the county of Cheshire as a whole. I merely wish to represent to this House my concern that the writ has been issued before Mrs. Dunwoody’s funeral, next Thursday in St. Margaret’s church here in Westminster, which I shall attend. I wish to register that point. I do not intend to vote against the issuing of the writ, and I hope that Members of the House will not do so."
Ann Winterton MP: "I support my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) as a fellow Cheshire Member of Parliament. I know that the sentiments he expressed will be shared by other Cheshire colleagues and hon. Members of all parties. In almost 25 years, I have never known a writ be moved before a colleague’s funeral. I was dismayed at the discourtesy and insensitivity afforded to Mrs. Dunwoody’s family and her constituency. When boundary changes took place in 1983, I inherited part of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s constituency and I know the high esteem in which she was and continues to be held by her former constituents. Gwyneth Dunwoody was a neighbour, a redoubtable woman and a character. She did not deserve such treatment."
The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): "I wish to raise two points in response to those that have been made. The first is about the wishes of the family and the second is about the conventions of the House. I shall read to the House a statement from the family in respect of the late Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody. They said:
“We fully support the decision to begin the process of electing a new MP for Crewe and Nantwich. Our mother proudly represented this constituency for 34 years, and would not want to see local people go without an MP. She worked tirelessly for local people and recognised there was always more to do. She would want that job of work to continue, as quickly as possible.”
It is a long-standing convention of the House that, when a party loses a member, it decides when to move the writ, which triggers the process that leads to the ensuing by-election. Crewe and Nantwich has had a doughty advocate for 34 years and it needs a new Member of Parliament. I therefore invite the House to support the motion."
THERESA MAY MP, Shadow Leader of the House: "I want to comment on why the issue of whether MPs vote on their pay has resonated so much with the public, and sadly, it is because many voters no longer trust politicians. They have a jaundiced view of politicians and are consistently given the view by the media that all MPs have their snouts in the trough. That is a disappointing representation on the part of the media because it damages this House, politics and our parliamentary democracy if people feel that they are not able to trust politicians. There are, of course, other ways in which trust in politicians is damaged, such as Governments not delivering on their promises, and other factors, but we should be concerned about the image of MPs portrayed by the media... The way in which MPs pay is reported in the press is an important issue. We consistently see the misreporting of the amounts of money that MPs “earn” in this House by the addition to our basic salaries of the budgets that we have to pay for our staff and in order to run our offices. Indeed, only last week The Daily Telegraph set out a table that included average staff salaries and average expenditure on offices alongside average travel expenses and the average additional costs allowance, under the heading “MPs’ Gravy Train”."
NICHOLAS WINTERTON MP: "Including time spent travelling to and from my constituency, I estimate that I spend an average of 85 hours per week on parliamentary and constituency work when the House is sitting. That is more than twice the normal working week in this country."
MARK FIELD MP: "Even if one of those independent mechanisms were properly implemented and all the concerns raised in this debate were addressed, the issue would still become a media hue and cry. Therefore, it is for us, as Members of Parliament, simply to bite the bullet and to drive forward the right sort of pay package, given that we believe in the idea of a sovereign Parliament."
DAVID MACLEAN MP: "Our work load is increasing all the time, but our hours have stayed fairly static, at 60, 70 or 80 a week. I could reduce my work load. I could, on Armistice Sunday, refuse to go to the service in Carlisle in the morning and the one in Penrith in the afternoon. I could refuse to do Saturday surgeries, and could refuse to go to council meetings on a Friday night. We could reduce our time commitment to 40 hours a week, but would that be the responsible, sensible thing to do? Would it be serving our constituents if we refused to do all the things that we have to do that take us 80 hours a week when the House is sitting and 60 hours a week when it is not?"
JOHN MAPLES MP: "A fair amount of remarks have been made about the erosion in our pay, and I do not need to reiterate those. Had the mechanism that we had agreed been followed, however, we would now be paid between £65,000 and £66,000 a year. Were we to continue to allow the erosion of our pay relative to other people, or to the public sector, that problem would sooner or later get so bad that it would have an effect on the sort of people who get into this place. If we want to fill it with people who are either fanatics or rich, that is the way to go, but it is not sensible. There are people who would do the job for nothing—I would be happy to present “Newsnight” for nothing—but whether they are the right people is a different question. It is not the right way of qualifying for a job. We certainly do not want to fill the place up, as we did until about 100 years ago, with people who have significant other sources of income."
and... "If we let the editorial writers of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph set our pay, we are done for."
The decision over pay did not even go to a formal vote in the end with MPs agreeing to a sub-inflation pay rise (BBC).