By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
The four in question, as above, were Peter Luff, Tim Loughton, Cheryl Gillan and Nick Herbert.
My report on their views of how British government now works - and to what degree it requires overhauling - can be read on the Conservative Intelligence website.
By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
Even the most cursory glance at today's ConHome newslinks demonstrates that Philip Hammond had a torrid time in the Commons yesterday. I think it is worth listing a selection of the questions he was asked from his own backbenches, and I hope and believe that the one below is representative of those asked.
Readers will see that only one question was supportive, and it came from Peter Luff, who was recently dismissed from the MOD during the reshuffle. (The Defence Secretary will be grateful to Mr Luff for rallying round, especially since he was apparently expected to stay in the department: it was another curious dismissal.)
I have edited Mr Hammond's replies in order to keep this summary reasonably brief, and I think and hope, again, that the result is not unfair to him. The full Hansard record is here. Paul Waugh reports elsewhere that Rory Stewart, who knows more Afghanistan than any other MP, forced William Hague to admit yesterday that 75% of attacks on our troops are not by the Taliban.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay): "This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal...What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?"
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): "I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East): "The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen."
Hammond: "I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014."
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): "The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?"
Hammond: "There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built."
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): "Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?"
Hammond: "Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents."
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): "My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?"
Hammond: "General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible."
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): "Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues."
Hammond: "I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective."
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): "The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?"
Hammond: "I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed."
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
"The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks
was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he
agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the
Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone
strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a
higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that
we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which
is considered on the front page of The Times today?"
Hammond: "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation."
A section of the Defence Secretary's statement that particularly caught my eye was another part of his answer to Dr Fox:
"As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations."
Given the rising number of green-on-blue killings, I'm not sure that this is an argument I would have used. The chart below is from the Guardian.
Their view in a nutshell is that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a western-style liberal democracy and that British military commitment to it should be minimal.
By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
The BBC is reporting that Peter Luff, the Member of Parliament for Mid Worcestershire since 1997, previously Worcester since 1992, is to stand down.
Mr Luff was the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology until this week. In that role, he had responsibility for overseeing defence procurement.
Before entering government, Mr Luff served as PPS to Tim Eggar and Ann Widdecombe during the Major years, and then during the Blair/Brown years, chaired the Agriculture, Trade and Industry, Business and Enterprise, and Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committees over a period spanning eight years.
In a message to constituents, Mr Luff said:
"My work as defence equipment minister since the last election has been immensely rewarding and encouraging. To work with the finest our country has to offer, the men and women of our armed forces, has been inspirational. The civil servants of the MoD, so often and wrongly derided, that make their work possible have also been superb. To all of them, I express my deep appreciation ... The coalition government is grappling with huge challenges, the scale of which is only just becoming clear. David Cameron and his ministers will enjoy my robust support as they address them with the determination and energy I know they will demonstrate."
Mr Luff may well have been planning to retire anyway, or may be doing so for reasons entirely unconnected to the reshuffle. But, given he has announced this only a short time after being asked to step down from his post, it's not unreasonable to expect that other now-ex-Ministers may also have some thoughts of retiring.
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday, however, he decided to break his post-election silence by seeking to catch the Speaker's eye during yesterday's end-of-day adjournment debate introduced by his parliamentary neighbour in Fife, Thomas Docherty, on the subject of aircraft carriers. He even deigned to vote in the 10pm division just before the debate (his voting record now standing at attending four out of 107 divisions).
As the pictures below show, the former Prime Minister (wearing what appears to be a somewhat ill-fitting suit) took his seat in the third row behind the Opposition front bench in what was a packed chamber for an adjournment debate.
His purpose in making the intervention was to speak up for Fife's Rosyth dockyard, although began by paying tribute to the armed forces in general:
"At the start of any defence debate, even one on the Adjournment, it is important to recognise the quality and commitment of our armed forces: our Army, our Navy, our Air Force, and the civilian defence staff who work for the security, strength and safety of our country. Speaking as someone who has visited Iraq and Afghanistan on many occasions, I think it is important to pay tribute to all those serving in Afghanistan at the moment and to their contribution to the security of this country.
"In the week that precedes Armistice day, I also think it important to recognise those who gave their lives in the service of this country. On this day and in this month, it is important to say that those who lost their lives in Afghanistan will never be forgotten and that their influence lives on in the lives of the people they leave behind.
"I have been Member of Parliament for one of the Fife constituencies for 27 years. I am pleased that the other MPs for Fife are with us this evening, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for securing this debate and for securing this above-average attendance for an Adjournment debate. In the course of those 27 years, the whole history of Fife has revolved around the future and the fate of Rosyth dockyard.
"Winston Churchill said that Rosyth was the best defended war harbour in the world, in recognition of Rosyth's work during the second world war, when it refitted as an emergency all the vessels sent to sea from that area of Scotland. Over the past 30 years, the naval base has closed; the Rosyth dockyard and naval base, which once employed 15,000 people now employs 1,500 people. Rosyth is the only base that can assemble the aircraft carriers that this country has commissioned. It is also the only base that can serve us by refitting the carriers in the future. When announcements are to be made by the Ministry of Defence, it is important to recognise that Rosyth is the base best able to refit the carriers in the years to come."
Read the rest of his short contribution here.
Relpying to the debate, Defence Minister Peter Luff noted that Members present were witnessing a "footnote in parliamentary history", saying of Brown:
"I am tempted to say some of the things that are on my mind, but I shall leave them for another occasion... I particularly welcomed the contribution of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I well remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and making similar points on behalf of my own constituents, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find my response as constructive as I found many Government responses then."
At questions to the MP representing the House of Commons Commission (Nick Harvey) yesterday, a succession of Conservative MPs raised issues about the cost of the recently refurbished Bellamy's Bar being turned into a nursery for the children of MPs and House of Commons staff...
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This important issue has not suddenly arisen before the House. I believe that the process so far has been unacceptable and undemocratic. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that £400,000 has recently been spent on refurbishing Bellamy's bar, and that this proposal will cost an additional £400,000? Will he confirm whether that has been included in the House budget estimates for this financial year?
Nick Harvey: The recent refurbishment in Bellamy's involves a significant amount of work and furnishing that can be reused-certainly about a third of the cost can be used directly. The hon. Gentleman says that this has come about swiftly, but I would point out that there have been constant surveys of the need for child care provision here, and the decision has been taken to move swiftly with this project so that the option is available to new Members as early as possible in the new Parliament to take up this facility if they need it.
Peter Luff (Worcestershire Mid): I entirely share the perception of the need for such a day nursery, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the House of Commons should establish any such facility on an exemplary basis. Given that, as on this particular occasion, a nursery cannot comply with statutory guidance to providers, I hope he will search urgently for an alternative site - one that would comply with that guidance.
Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman made a point of order in the House of Commons this afternoon which is well worth a detailed look.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you are aware, the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund distributes more than £70 million of public money to local authorities. Last year, after a delay of some six months, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was persuaded to place in the Library details of how that fund was being spent for that year. Earlier this year, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask her to place in the Library the corresponding details for this year. I received no reply. After a written question, I received a reply studiously ignoring the request I had made. This morning, I phoned the Secretary of State’s private office and was told that the Department may—I stress “may”—no longer holds these financial details for this year at all.
My point of order is as follows. Either the Department no longer holds the details of where a substantial tranche of £70 million-worth of public money is going, which is a scandal, or it is refusing to place in the Library details of where that money is going, which, frankly, is no less scandalous in relation to information that Members of this House and members of the public have the right to see. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to assist Members of this House in obtaining access to information that they have a right to know?
Mr. Speaker: It is up to Ministers as to how they answer parliamentary questions. I will look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises, and I will get back to him. I thank him for raising it.
Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to point out my concern, which I hope is shared by the House, that it seems easier to get information from the Government through freedom of information requests, which would work for my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), than through written questions. That is a very worrying development.
Mr. Speaker: It would certainly worry me. When parliamentarians seek information through parliamentary questions that is all-important and they should be a priority for any Minister."
Mr Goodman is right to be concerned. As recent events once again prove, extremism needs to be addressed as an urgent priority. Since 1997 Labour have made a habit of announcing hefty expenditure on all sorts of projects and then closer inspection has shown that all is not as it seemed.
I was due to speak at a debate (which has alas been cancelled) at the Oxford Union tonight, against the motion "This House Would do Anything for Charity". I would have made the obvious but essential point that not all charities are worthwhile, and that some do positive harm. So it is with Treasury expenditure. If large sums of money are indeed being splashed around in the name of preventing extremism, we need to know who is receiving the cash and what they stand for.
I am told that the Conservatives may press this matter further. I hope so, and I will be interested to see what they uncover.
Mr Goodman, Mr Luff and Mr Speaker all made the additional point that ministers should answer written questions properly. Since October I have been trawling through Hansard regularly, and this is certainly another real problem.
It was the second reading of Peter Luff's Small Business Rate Relief (Automatic Payment) Bill on Friday. It is backed by the Federation of Small Businesses and reflects the fact that business rate relief is not taken up by half the smal businesses entitled to it. Around £400 million earmarked for rate relief for small businesses is returned to the Treasury every year.
In 2007 the Welsh Assembly made such payments automatic in Wales. In Scotland businesses with a rateable value below £8,000 have had their rates abolished.
Some 115 MPs have signed Mr Luff's Early Day Motion, number 676, on the subject. He told the House of Commons:
"I sincerely thank the supporters of the Bill and of the campaign, especially the Federation of Small Businesses for taking a lead, suggesting the measure to me and campaigning tirelessly on behalf of all our small businesses. Towards the end of my remarks, I will name some of the many other supporting organisations, to which I am grateful for all their support and advice, especially the Local Government Association. Its unqualified support for the Bill was an important factor in my decision to proceed with it.
I also thank the 115 colleagues from all parties who signed early-day motion 676 on the subject, and the 11 colleagues, again from all parties, many from the Business and Enterprise Committee, who sponsor the measure. I thank the Minister for Local Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for their help and advice, for agreeing to a private meeting before today’s Second Reading and for at least giving the impression that they sympathised with the Bill’s objectives and might be tempted to support or adapt it, and introduce it with a package of other measures to help small businesses. We will wait and see what the Under-Secretary says in his winding-up speech.
“Research published by the Government shows rates to be an especially heavy burden for small businesses, accounting for a significantly higher proportion of operating profits than in the case of larger businesses.”
I do not pretend that the Bill is a cure-all or a panacea, but I believe that it constitutes a useful and important step forward. Indeed, the Federation of Small Businesses said in a statement that it gave me to read out:
“This cash injection could save many small businesses laying off staff or closing down completely. Our members fully support the call for automatic rate relief, a key theme of our Keep Trade Local campaign.”
The Bill may have shortcomings and I am sure that, if it gets a Committee stage, we can discuss two specific changes in more detail. However, I believe that the Under-Secretary understands that the current position is unacceptable and can be improved. Approximately half of all small businesses currently claim the relief, leaving half not getting money to which they are entitled. The Bill is far from perfect—I do not claim perfection for it—but it would improve the current position and save jobs in the real economy.
A fascinating statistic is that 64 per cent. of all commercial innovations come from small firms. We know that this country needs to innovate to stay ahead in the international competitive race. Small firms will play a key role in helping us do so, but many are in serious trouble. The Federation of Small Businesses has seen a 200 per cent. increase in phone calls to its small business helpline compared with last year. To take one example, small independent retailers seem to be in terminal decline across the UK. The accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward forecasts that 33,900 small businesses will close in 2009, which equates to 120 a day. I will not list all the statistics of doom and gloom, but one that particularly worries me, as a Member with a predominantly rural constituency, is that 42 per cent. of English towns and villages no longer have a shop of any kind. We must protect the shops that are still running."
Select committees are not usually all the rage, but there is widespread media coverage of the Treasury Select Committee's grilling yesterday of RBS and HBOS bankers.
All four men (the former HBOS chief executive and chairman, Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson, and the former RBS chief executive and chairman, Sir Fred Goodwin and Sir Tom McKillop) apologised for the events that have led to the crisis in their banks. Andy Hornby said that it was an error to pay huge bonuses for short-term successes. Sir Tom admitted that the purchase of Dutch bank ABN Amro for £10 billion was a mistake. The witnesses were also keen to impress upon the committee - and the wider public - that they have personally lost a great deal of money.
The question, however, is what is to be done about it all, and how a future crisis might be averted.
In the Times today there is a leading article calling for an overhaul of the select committee system. It says that committees are "better at theatre than scrutiny" and "thinly staffed and poorly resourced". The piece calls for committee chairmen to be paid at least as well as junior ministers, so that committees are an alternative career path and not just for mavericks, has-beens and the hopeless. (In fact select committees are a good place for junior MPs to start - David Cameron thrived on the Home Affairs one).
Peter Luff, who chairs the Business and Enterprise select committee, suggested a way forward in an article for ConservativeHome published in January. He wants fewer committees with greater powers, and the creation of one new one - a social justice committee chaired by Iain Duncan Smith.
Under Mr Luff's proposals, which are well worth reading in full, most select committees would be reduced in size to nine members. He argues that most "cross-cutting" committees get in the way of those that scrutinse specific government departments, and that they should have "the power to refer more issues about expenditure, appointments and policy to the floor of the House not just for debate but also for votes."
Select committees were an early and excellent innovation of the first Thatcher government. It is indeed time that they had greater bite.
Herewith some interesting recent early day motions.
Mid Worcestershire MP Peter Luff put down EDM 676 to call on the Government to make business rate relief for small businesses automatic:
"That this House notes with concern that business rate relief is not taken up by over half of those small businesses eligible to claim it; further notes that as a result small businesses are losing out on saving up to £2,500 yearly; further notes that across the country around £400 million earmarked for rate relief to be paid to small businesses is returned to the Treasury; and calls on the Government to support the Small Business Rate Relief (Automatic Payment) Bill."
Mr Luff is promoting this Bill, backed by the Federation of Small Businesses. It was presented to Parliament on 21 January (there was no debate). In 2007 the Welsh Assembly made such payments automatic in Wales. This seems like a thoroughly worthwhile move.
Romford MP and Shadow Home Affairs Minister Andrew Rosindell is fan of the EDM medium. Number 705, which he tabled, refers to British relations with the Maori people:
"That this House is proud to join the people of New Zealand in celebrating Waitangi Day, their national day, on 6 February 2009, commemorating the historic signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, that marks the coming together of the Maori people and representatives of the British Crown; notes the importance of maintaining strong links between the United Kingdom and New Zealand; recognises the strong historic bond and shared heritage, longstanding trading relationships and deeply intertwined cultural, educational and military ties between the peoples of these two great allies and Commonwealth members who share Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State and Sovereign; and urges the Government to continue to foster and strengthen the special relationship that binds these two nations together."
As Iain Dale blogged last week, Ed Stourton learnt that his time at the Today programme was ending from a non-BBC journalist.
"I'm not saying Ed Stourton is perfect - in fact I didn't much like his "revelations" about the Queen Mother. But I know he is a good and thoughtful interviewer whose inept and insensitive dismissal contrasts sharply with the treatment of Jonathan Ross. I think I'm right in saying that Ross is paid more every year than the entire budget of the Today programme. Its presenters, whatever their individual shortcomings, who do so much to inform and provoke, deserve to be much better treated than was Mr Stourton."
Meanwhile - on Comment is free - I've welcomed Justin Webb's appointment... and had a little go at the BBC's institutional biases.