By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in Parliament, Richard Bacon, a Conservative backbencher, tried to introduce a Bill which would repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. One of Mr Bacon's lines of argument was that the legal requirement for Ministers to amend legislation - without a vote in Parliament - in order to comply with European human rights legislation - is "fundamentally undemocratic":
"Under section 10, a Minister of the Crown may make such amendments to primary legislation as are considered necessary to enable the incompatibility to be removed by the simple expedient of making an order. In effect, because the accepted practice is that the United Kingdom observes its international obligations, a supranational court can impose its will against ours. In my view this is fundamentally undemocratic."
Mr Bacon also compellingly argued that the controversial social issues that judges often like to get involved in should be decided by "elected representatives and not by unelected judges":
"[T]here is no point in belonging to a club if one is not prepared to obey its rules. The solution is therefore not to defy judgments of the Court, but rather to remove the power of the Court over us. ... Judges do not have access to a tablet of stone not available to the rest of us which enables them to discern what our people need better than we can possibly do as their elected, fallible, corrigible representatives. There is no set of values that are so universally agreed that we can appeal to them as a useful final arbiter. In the end they will always be shown up as either uselessly vague or controversially specific. Questions of major social policy, whether on abortion, capital punishment, the right to bear firearms or workers rights, should ultimately be decided by elected representatives and not by unelected judges."
By Matthew Barrett
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Guido Fawkes has a list of new Conservative members of Select Committees, from Graham Brady's office. Mr Brady explains: "For the following committees I have received the same number of nominations as there are vacancies, the following are therefore elected". The appointments are:
Communities and Local Government
John Stevenson (Carlisle), replacing George Hollingbery (Meon Valley), who became PPS to Theresa May at the reshuffle.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), replacing Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), who became PPS to Mark Francois, the Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole), replacing Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), who was made the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Health Services.
By Matthew Barrett
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Robert Halfon, the Member of Parliament for Harlow, and one of the most successful campaigning MPs in Parliament, has organised a motion, backed by 60 MPs from all parties, and including 41 Tories, calling for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate allegations of price-fixing by British oil companies. The full motion is worded as follows:
"That this House urges the OFT to investigate oil firms active in the UK; calls on the Government to consider the emergency actions being taken in other G20 nations to cut fuel prices, for example President Obama strengthening Federal supervision of the U.S. oil market, and increasing penalties for “market manipulation”, and Germany and Austria setting up a new oil regulator, with orders to help stabilise the price of petrol in the country; finally urges the Office of Fair Trading to note that the Federal Cartel Office in Germany is now investigating oil firms active in the UK, after allegations of price-fixing."
By Matthew Barrett
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On Friday, 50 MPs, including 34 Conservatives, wrote a letter to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, expressing their "serious concerns" with the Department of Health’s proposal to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products.
The letter stated that:
"There is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will have any public health benefit; no country in the world has yet to introduce it. However, such a measure could have extremely negative consequences elsewhere. The proposal will be a smuggler’s charter. ... this policy threatens more than 5,500 jobs directly employed by the UK tobacco sector, and over 65,000 valued jobs in the associated supply chain. ... Given the continued difficult economic climate, businesses should not be subjected to further red tape and regulation"
The signatories of the letter also expressed concern about the freedom aspect of blocking any branding of tobacco products:
"...we believe products must be afforded certain basic commercial freedoms. The forcible removal of branding would infringe fundamental legal rights, severely damage principles around intellectual property and set a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech. Indeed, if the Department of Health were to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products, would it also do the same for alcohol, fast food, chocolate and all other products deemed unhealthy for us?"
By Matthew Barrett
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I recently profiled the 2020 and Free Enterprise groups of Tory MPs. Those two groups are formed by ideology: MPs are attracted to the groups because, in the case of the Free Enterprise Group, members wish to open up markets and make Britain business-friendly enough to compete with other world class economies. The 2020's members want to renew and refresh Project Cameron, while considering how the country should look after a majority Conservative government.
The 40 is rather different as it is a group of MPs brought together solely by necessity - the members are those MPs who were elected in 2010 with the narrowest majorities in the Party.
Origins of the group and key members
The group was founded early last year by Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood), Graham Evans (Weaver Vale), and David Mowat (Warrington South). There is no rigid structure to the group as such, given its non-ideological purpose, but when it meets, the convener is usually David Mowat. Other key "executive" members of the group include Evans and Ollerenshaw, as well as Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye), James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) and Ben Gummer (Ipswich).
By Joseph Willits
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After Justine Greening's announcement giving the go-ahead for a high speed rail network, High Speed 2 (HS2), 37 Conservative MPs were able to question the Transport Secretary within 60 minutes.
The exchanges demonstrated the opposition of those MPs whose constituencies are directly affected by high speed rail. However their reservations were outweighed by praise for the scheme from MPs namely in the North and the Midlands - and some in the South East who claimed that their seats have benefitted from HS1.
Fervent critic of high speed rail, Andrea Leadson MP (South Northamptonshire), questioned the project's costs in yesterday's debate. Leadsom praised the Transport Secretary's patience in listening to her concerns many times, but spoke of "communities blighted by this high-speed rail line". She continued:
"How sure is she that the actual costs in their entirety will be kept to the amounts we have been talking about, and how realistic is it for Britain to afford this project at this very difficult time economically?".
The country "cannot afford not to do this" replied Greening, who cited High Speed 1 as an example of being both on time, and on budget. Once Crossrail had been completed, the cost to the taxpayer would begin, Greening said.
Another MP whose constituency will be touched by high-speed rail, Steve Baker MP (Wycombe), welcomed that "additional protections for the Chilterns will reduce costs", but asked whether Greening would "consider tunnelling the entire width of the Chilterns?". At £1.2 billion, although considered, was "unaffordable", replied Greening.
Drawing examples from both France and Spain, St Albans MP Anne Main raised concerns "that the north might not get the projected benefit and that instead it might be London that grows". Both Lyon and Seville were "caused expense" rather than growth as Paris and Madrid benefitted, she said.
Greening responded by reiterating the backing for the project, and that the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield all believe "this project is vital." Rehman Chishti MP (Gillingham) reminded the House that "real concern was expressed prior to the introduction of High Speed 1 in Kent". This has now led to "real economic regeneration and growth in the south-east and Kent", he continued. Another Kent MP, Damian Collins (Folkestone & Hythe) echoed Chishti's sentiment with the hope that Kent will further benefit from connections north.
MPs from the North and the Midlands were most vocal in their support for the project. Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew spoke of the need to "rebalance the economy" nationwide, and allow the North "to become more attractive for business to invest in". The "solution", he said, was HS2. Martin Vickers MP (Cleethorpes), who has many constituents working at the Tata Steel plant in Scunthorpe, welcomed the announcement of HS2 as a boost to industry. He asked for "categorical assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that the procurement procedures favour British-based companies". His sentiment was echoed by Nigel Mills MP (Amber Valley) who concluded that the decision would "be even more popular in Derbyshire if the trains are built at Bombardier".
Some MPs in the Midlands did seem to be slightly cautious about the region's positioning, leading to a lesser service and coverage by HS2. Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy spoke of businesses in north Staffordshire requiring stops between Birmingham and Manchester (of which Stafford would be one). This "stop is essential to the development of the regional economy", Lefroy said, and asked Greening to "confirm that it is still under serious consideration". Rugby MP Mark Pawsey's concern was slightly different in that the town's good service to London could be jeopardised by high speed rail. He hoped that even with high speed rail, "the legacy line will retain the speed and frequency of their existing rail links".
You can watch the debate on the BBC's Democracy Live.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Last night at least 32 Tory MPs (listed below) voted with Labour against an 88% hike in Britain's contribution to the IMF. The hike is to partly fund the IMF's ability to fund bailouts. I write "at least" because I've only quickly scanned the voting list. Please email email@example.com if I've missed anyone off the list.
The Government won the vote to increase Britain's contribution from £10.7 billion to £20.15 billion by 274 votes to 246. This is the first time that the Labour frontbench has voted with Tory Eurosceptics. Labour was voting against an increase in the IMF subscription that was largely agreed during Gordon brown's time in office.
On his blog John Redwood suggests that the 29 rebels are only one sign of Tory discontent. Given that there are more than 300 Tory MPs he calculates that AT LEAST 80 Conservatives were unavailable, abstained or voted against the government. He writes:
"Some of us want the UK government to use the influence it says it has at the IMF to halt the futile bail outs of Eurozone members. The debt markets show the markets do not believe that Greece can repay all its debts in full and on time. Yesterday was a day when market worries spread beyond Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Italy. Those in charge of the Euro scheme need to get a grip. It is doing a great deal of financial and economic damage, and they no longer seem to be in control of their project. The IMF should decline to bail out rich countries that have shackled themselves to a currency scheme that was badly put together and needs a thorough re think."
"The decision to raise our IMF subscriptions by 88 percent was first mooted when Gordon Brown was in charge – but was okayed by the current government last October. While Canada, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium all managed to keep the increase in their subs low, whoever negotiated the deal on our behalf seems to have preferred to have UK taxpayers assume greater debt liabilities so that they could sit on a bigger chair at the various international summits they attend on our behalf. Alongside fiscal policy and monetary policy, our approach towards the bailouts and the IMF shows that there has been remarkably little change in economic policy at the Treasury since Gordon Brown was in charge."
By Matthew Barrett
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Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I understand that my hon. Friend recently received the very prestigious award of tax personality of the year. I am somewhat concerned that this glorious award may be influencing his conduct as a Minister in carrying on his business in relation to tax policy. Is that a fact?
Mr Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am trying hard not to let the award go to my head. I will endeavour to do my best, but it is of course a great honour. I take it as praise for what the Government are doing more generally on tax policy. Before I break into tears—I find it quite emotional to talk about the award—I shall return to the issue of mutual assistance.
1.30pm update: Below is a photo taken at the event, with (left to right), David Kilshaw, Chairman of the Private Client Group at KPMG, the Minister, David Gauke, Chris Jones, Director of Tax & Accountancy at LexisNexis, and Natasha Kaplinsky, the host for the awards ceremony:
"The choice of winner for this award reflects the judges’ desire to recognise a significant change in the approach of government to tax policy, and the process of passing tax legislation. In particular, the recipient of the award has shown a real willingness to engage with the tax profession and develop a technical understanding of the issues which it raises with government. His attendance and accessibility at the tax profession’s events was noted well before he became a government minister. Even when he was shadowing another well-respected minister, Stephen Timms, this person impressed the tax profession with his grasp of the subject. Since he has come into the Treasury team as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, he has continued to deal with us as one professional talking to other professionals."
2.15pm Update: The award was also recognised by Nigel Mills (Con, Amber Valley) during the Finance Bill (No. 3) report stage on Monday evening:
"The Exchequer Secretary has made such a great start in tax simplification that he has had the honour of being named the “Tax Personality of the Year”. We could start making various jokes about accountants’ personalities, but we would probably cause grave offence to all my former colleagues, so perhaps we should leave that subject. We have had a consultation on removing a few simple tax allowances, such as the reliefs for angostura bitters and black beer—if going that far gets the Minister that award, just think what garlands could be thrown at his feet if he tackled some of the real complexities of our tax system!"
...and the Minister's Labour Shadow, David Hanson returned to the subject in summing up the debate:
"I am grateful to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for kicking off this wide-ranging discussion on a number of important tax issues. He certainly enlightened me when he revealed that the Minister is tax personality of the year. I missed that; despite all my “Gauke” Google alerts, I missed the fact that he was tax personality of the year. May I offer the official Opposition’s wholehearted congratulations to him on that?"
“That is a thread that binds together all of us on this side of the House. We believe that the constitution has become too centralised and that local people should be given more of a say. That is certainly true in West Suffolk. Such attention to local need is unfortunately in marked contrast to the one-size-fits-all, we-know-best attitude that Newmarket has seen over the past 13 years, and it is to that point that I turn in the final moments of my speech.
“For many years, the constitution has endured a creeping centralism. In particular, in planning, John Prescott’s regional spatial strategies have tried to turn every market town into a clone town. The powers of local people to resist have been stripped away, but already the new Government are succeeding in giving power back to the people. The regional spatial strategy was forcing through an inappropriate proposal to build thousands of homes and an industrial park in the middle of Newmarket, which the council found itself powerless to reject—but no more. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has given councils the power to make decisions for themselves once again. The people were given their voice and their democratically elected councillors voted unanimously to reject the proposal.
“So there we have it. After less than a month in office, the new Government are already improving our constitution to make it more local, more responsive to the people and less in hock to unelected, unaccountable quangos. A law and a quango cannot solve every ill of this world, but by trusting people and sharing responsibility, we can make a start. That principle binds us together on these Benches.”
“I should declare an interest: I am a member of the Kent police authority. However, on occasion, turkeys do vote for Christmas, and I should like to welcome the coalition’s proposals to abolish police authorities and replace us with directly elected individuals. It must be right that those who exercise the coercive power of the state should be held to account by those whom they serve.“
“I have heard the odd senior police officer oppose those plans, yet there is no suggestion of any intrusion on the chief constable’s prerogative. The powers that will be transferred are currently those of police authorities. Surely, the objection is not merely that directly elected individuals will exercise those powers more effectively than police authorities have done to date.
“We will also codify operational independence. I would caution that that does not mean that the police should be allowed to get along with things solely as they wish. The Metropolitan police have a tradition of independence because we have had a concern to guard against them becoming the arm of central Government. However, our tripartite system is a compromise between counties, where chief constables would occasionally receive instructions, and boroughs, where oversight was much greater. Indeed, the watch committee of the borough of Preston met twice a day—once in the morning, to give the chief constable his instructions, and once in the early evening, to check that he had carried them out.
“Before I close, I should like to draw the House’s attention to what I consider the major trend in policing of the past 25 years. It is the movement of power from locally appointed and accountable chief constables to an organisation that is both a private company and a trade union with a closed shop: the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has grown to dominate the field of policing without the sanction of the House. It has its committees and its cabinet, and it issues instructions to us in Kent on how much we should charge for policing the Faversham carnival or the Maidstone water festival. It is right that we should now move and have directly elected police commissioners to rebalance the policing landscape and restore local democracy.”
“We know that the size of the budget deficit run up by the previous Government means that difficult decisions need to be taken, and Derbyshire police will have to take their share of that pain. I note that the amendment that bears the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn [Jack Straw] contains a request that the cuts do not damage the number of police officers. I point out to the Minister that the police funding review carried out some six years ago noted that Derbyshire police needed a significant increase in funding, of approximately £5 million a year. However, that funding has still not been provided to this day, due to the damping mechanism. I urge the Government to have a full review of the allocation of funds for police forces, to ensure that Derbyshire police—who are currently being deprived of the 100 officers whom those funds could be used to provide—get the fair funding they are entitled to for the level of crime in Derbyshire. Only by ensuring a fair allocation of funding can we make sure that we have police services that are both effective and efficient.”