By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday's debate on the Lords Reform Bill was heated, yet relatively polite. I noticed far more speakers against reform of the Lords than for - perhaps because pro-reform Tories knew, the programme motion having been withdrawn, that they would win the Second Reading vote easily (thanks to Labour votes).
Many Tories early in the debate - the initial stages took the form of Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, and his Shadow, Angela Eagle, giving statements on behalf of their leaderships - gave answers which followed the format of "Of course the current Lords is indefensible, but so is this Bill". Gareth Johnson (Dartford) did not take that line. He was proud to be in favour of the Lords' position as an unelected house:
"I have never defied the party line before, and it is something I hope not to do throughout my time in Parliament, but the Bill is fundamentally wrong. I have been a loyal supporter of both the Government and my party, but I am proud to be British, proud of our constitution and proud of our Parliament. The other place forms an essential part of our constitution, our heritage, history and culture, and once it is gone, it is gone. Seven hundred years of history will be undone if we support the Bill. I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say, “I did not forsake the British constitution. I said no.”"
"I may be in a small minority, but I am one of those people who do not become infected by the view that we must have a democratic House of Lords. I do not want a democratic House of Lords, and that is precisely why I shall vote against the Bill. I want objectivity, expertise, experience and wisdom, all the qualities that we are told so often that we do not have in this House. I do not want Members of the House of Lords to be subject to the electoral and party pressures to which we may be subject here."
By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel - want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
By Paul Goodman
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Grovelling? Yes, let's face it: it happens. But not yesterday when the Prime Minister was questioned after his statement on Libya. Read Patrick Mercer on Islamism, Andrew Tyrie on torture, Peter Lilley on getting Libya to pay, Baron on intervention, Chisti on Syria. Plenty of pertinent questions
Also follow David Cameron being polite to Mark Pritchard, telling Rory Stewart that he shouldn't have gone to Libya recently, and being thrown for a moment by a very sharp question from Andrew Bridgen. Here are the exchanges in full from Hansard.
"Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): As someone who had reservations about the principle of intervention, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on a successful outcome in Libya? It was largely achieved by two aspects: first, it was legal; and secondly, it had the support of the Libyan people. Further to the previous question, however, will my right hon. Friend now use it as an illustration to persuade permanent members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China, that a well conducted intervention can be successfully used to restrain autocrats in countries such as Syria?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Everyone should have misgivings about such operations, and one should never have the naive belief that they are easy or that everything is going to go to plan. That very rarely happens, and we should always be hard-headed and careful about such things. We should also respect the fact that this is not done—this is not completed yet.
Also, I think that we should be very cautious about trying to draw up a new doctrine, because it seems to me that as soon as a new doctrine is established, a case comes up that flies completely in its face, but I do hope that other members of the Security Council will see that there has been success in removing a dictator, and in giving that country a chance of peaceful and democratic progress, which will be good for the world.
By Jonathan Isaby
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I have already covered Conor Burns' sideswipe at Lord Heseltine from the debate on Lords reform, but what else happened during the debate?
Overall, one got the impression that (with a few exceptions) the Conservative benches were highly sceptical about an elected second chamber - including many who are usually deemed to be supporters of the Government.
Later in his speech, Conor Burns spoke in favour of the status quo - ie a fully appointed chamber - and then considered what parties had promised in their manifestos:
"I wish to deal briefly with the argument that reform was in every party’s manifesto. It was, to some degree, and the Liberal Democrats, who had the most pro-reform manifesto commitment, got 23% of the vote in the general election. Labour, which was slightly more lukewarm, got 29%, and the Conservatives, who were the most lukewarm, got 36%. There is almost an argument that if we want to do things on the basis of what was in the manifestos, we should remember that the most people voted for the party that was most lukewarm on the issue. We have to ask ourselves, as at the time of Maastricht, when all three Front-Bench teams are united on something, how do those who dissent make their view known?
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw MPs debating the merits of the Big Society on a backbench motion moved by Dover's Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, which stated its support for the Big Society, "seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged."
"The big society has been "much discussed in the media", yet this was, Elphicke asserted, "practically the first proper occasion on which it has been discussed on the Floor of this Chamber."
His motion had been co-signed by a number of Conservative MPs, as well as Labour's Jon Cruddas and Tristram Hunt and Lib Dem Bob Russell.
Here are some excerpts from a variety of the 24 speeches delivered by backbench Tory MPs - who, interestingly enough, were all members of the 2010 intake.
What I want to talk about is the sense of annoyance that everyone has when an individual feels put off from simply sweeping the snow from the pavement outside their house for fear that they will be sued, or when they are scared to jump into a pond and rescue a drowning child.
How have we got to the situation where individuals do not feel that they can take responsibility, and that rules and procedures stop them doing so? It is important to encourage people to take more action and more responsibility for their own lives and for their communities. People in communities are frustrated, such as the head teacher who cannot decide which children are in his school and feels that he is being told what to do by diktat, and the hospital worker who wants to take responsibility for his area, but who has to follow detailed rules and procedures.
Communities as a whole-big communities such as mine in Dover-want a greater sense of being able to chart their own destiny and future direction, but feel hampered by central Government saying, "No, these are the rules. This is how it is going to be. It is all going to be top-down and what you say doesn't count for much." It is that sense of annoyance and frustration, which stalks the land up and down the country, that the big society aims to counteract.
By Tim Montgomerie
Highlights from yesterday's Commons debate on the Localism Bill.
Rory Stewart summarised why localism works: "This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels."
Stewart Jackson on new powers for local governments to act more freely: "The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill's provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said: "This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level." That is something that Labour never did in its 13 years of power, although it promised to do so in its 1997 manifesto. The other important issue-unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes-is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts."
Mr Jackson also highlighted the economic advantages of decentralisation: "An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before."
Thirty-nine pubs are closing each and every week. The all-party save the pub group secured a Westminster Hall debate last week to highlight the problem and discuss solutions. Contributions from MPs are extracted below.
Karen Bradley MP said pubs are socially useful: "The group shares a belief that the British pub is an important part of this country's history and heritage, and that pubs are hugely important to the communities they serve as a focus for community, social, sporting and charitable activity. The traditional public house also provides a sociable and controlled drinking environment, which is important to encourage responsible sociable drinking."
Jack Lopresto MP says the smoking ban should be relaxed: "Overall, the smoking ban has been positive. It has improved the environment of pubs no end, especially for those that rely on serving food as a key part of their business, and it makes for a much more pleasant experience for most people who are non-smokers. It has also made pubs more family friendly. But there needs to be a re-think on having a dedicated smoking area inside buildings, with extractor fans, where no children would be allowed and no food would be served. I realise that this would not be possible in every case, but it would allow many pubs to utilise extra space or even have a smoking bar and non-smoking bar or room/lounge-whatever-and end the practice of smokers being thrown outside in all weathers at any time of day or night, with the problems that can be caused with disturbance to local residents who live close by. That would generate a significant increase in business for pubs that are currently struggling and it could make the difference between a pub staying open or closing."
Thérèse Coffey MP said that pubs should offer diverse services: "We must also encourage other income streams; I think of what is happening with post office essentials. If a pub is open from 11 until 11, there is no reason why one cannot buy stamps and get driving licence forms and so on there. There are also aspects such as the internet hub. We have the digital village pump, and I know that schemes are afoot already to try to ensure that it is near the pub, so that people can use the internet there as well. Of course, we had the endorsement of His Royal Highness Prince Charles in 2001, when he spoke about the pub as the hub. On that note, I raise my glass and toast the future of British pubs. Cheers, everyone."
By Jonathan Isaby and Paul Goodman
8.45 pm update: It's also worth noting the amendment tabled by Julian Lewis, supported by three other Conservative MPs, which sought to add to the motion the following words -
"provided that a more realistic military strategy is adopted designed to fulfil the United Kingdom's long-term interests in the region at lesser cost in life, limb and financial resources".
Lewis argued that -
"...all the Governments are signed up to an unrealistic strategy which ought to be changed. The reality is that General Richards was not really wrong in what he said previously and he is not really wrong when he says that we ought to be talking to the enemy. It is a question of timing. The truth of the matter is that General Petraeus is absolutely right to pursue such a counter-insurgency strategy, provided that we have all the time in the world and that we are prepared to take the casualties that are being inflicted on us by irregular forces. If we are not prepared to take those casualties, we will have to adopt a more realistic strategy, because otherwise we will withdraw arbitrarily and, on our withdrawal, the likelihood of the Afghan Government's being able to sustain themselves is open to doubt."
His speech can be read here. He was supported in the lobbies by Philip Hollobone and Andrew Turner. Conservative MPs seem to have been whipped to vote against the amendment.
Yesterday saw a debate initiated by the Backbench Business Committee on the presence of British troops in Afghanistan.
The motion before the Commons was "That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan" and was passed by 310 votes to 14. Only one Conservative opposed the motion - John Baron - and two Lib Dems, Julian Huppert and John Hemming. The remaining opponents were a variety of Labour MPs along with the Green and a Plaid Cymru member.
Below are some of the highlights of the Conservative contributions.
"We have made some fundamental mistakes. I am not blaming anyone, but we made mistakes in 2006 when we dissipated our forces so they were in platoon houses and were not within the envelope. That meant that they could not have protection from artillery, and we had to use air power instead. The air power protecting them knocked out houses around them and killed local people, turning the people against our forces. In 2007 and 2008 we had gone back to counter-insurgency tactics—taking, holding, building—and our gallant troops went in to take, but they could not hold. They had to withdraw. Perhaps Members remember those pictures of helicopters flying with men strapped aboard to try to bring troops back. We could not hold the ground. Also, of course, our enemy came in and put devices on the ground that caused real problems, and they continue to do so to this day.
"We now have a situation in which there is an increase in the number of soldiers on the ground, principally from the United States, and the principles of counter-insurgency are, in fact, beginning to work. They are protecting the people, and the key is whether the Afghan people feel protected and safe and can live a decent life."
By Jonathan Isaby
“I will be eternally grateful to the good people of South Basildon and East Thurrock for sending me here. They have put great trust in me. I intend to repay that trust by being open and honest with them, and accessible and available. My one aim is to ensure not only that they have a voice, but that that voice is heard.”
Citing that his constituency is “a very industrious area, in which business plays an important role in the community”, he went on to speak in support of the Academies Bill in that context:
“Companies thrive on having a supply of well-educated, enthusiastic and aspirational people. It is our duty as politicians to provide an education framework that delivers that, and I believe that the Bill that we are scrutinising today will do exactly that. It feeds into the need to provide a well-educated work force for the future. It is through our businesses and through innovation that we will get our country back on track.”
“From my experience of discussions with governors, staff and teachers, I know that they are desperate to show that they know what is best for them and their pupils, and that they know how best to serve their local communities. We must give them the opportunity to do that. I fear that the amendment would hinder that process and deprive my constituents of the chance to access academies at the earliest possible opportunity.
“These issues are vitally important to my constituents. Essex attracts many preconceptions: I think that many people misunderstand it. We are a proud county. We have our foibles, but I think that, as well as being proud, we are hard-working, industrious and generous. Those traits-combined with the opportunities that I believe the Bill, unamended, gives us-will help us to emerge from the challenges of the past 13 years.”
Meanwhile, the same debate saw the first speech in the Common chamber itself from Rory Stewart, the new MP for Penrith and the Border.
Rory Stewart was always going to be an unconventional MP. The former soldier, diplomat, academic and writer has already fitted much into his 37 years and was one of those who came forward to join the Conservative candidates' list last summer after the MPs' expenses scandal.
He was elected at the general election as MP for the seat of Penrith and the Border in Cumbria, which is why he was moved to break convention and deliver a maiden speech in Westminster Hall yesterday on the subject of the tragic shootings in that county on June 2nd which saw the deaths of twelve people. The debate had been in initiated by the Labour MP for Copeland, Jamie Reed.
Foregoing the right to give a traditional maiden speech in the Commons chamber, here's what Rory Stewart told the MPs in the parallel Westminster Hall chamber:
"I was not intending to make a maiden speech today, but I can think of no better example of what Parliament is about than the issue that the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has brought us. There is a precision, a compassion and a sense of dialogue and openness in this room that I wish was more present on the Floor of the House, so I am proud to be making my maiden speech. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution was immensely deeply felt and measured. He balanced the kind words of Tony Parsons with the horror of cheque-book journalism. His commitment to the West Cumberland hospital really came across, and I very much hope that our Government will be able to sustain the hospital. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Prime Minister was very impressed by his visit.
"As the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) pointed out, Cumbria is a dense and complex web, which stretches across the artificial boundaries created by the Boundary Commission. Grandchildren of constituents in Brampton were in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency when the shots were fired. In all that we do, I hope that we reflect that dense web of Cumbrian culture in two specific ways. I hope that we look at the lessons of the tragedy in terms, first of distance and secondly of the way in which we conduct the inquiry. Both should reflect Cumbrian approaches.
"In terms of distance, we need to understand the sad but powerful lesson that we represent a county defined by its sparse population and long distances. That is why the West Cumberland hospital matters and why we in Penrith and The Border think all the time about what would have happened had some terrible tragedy occurred in Kirkby Stephen, which is an hour and a half from the Carlisle hospital.
"In this time of potential budgetary cuts, we need to fight hard to make sure that the police services that got 47 armed officers on the ground within an hour continue to be able to do that. We should also remember that recent events are an argument against hasty amalgamations, against closing our cottage hospitals and turning them into big hospitals, and against amalgamating the Cumbrian police with the Lancashire police. As we have seen, local services are much more responsive and flexible, and they can draw on services available in other parts of the country and make them operate more effectively.
"We need to fight for such things. That is partly because although Cumbria is one—although we are a dense web—the needs of people in Copeland are very different from those of people in Penrith and The Border. Although we are one, we are also divided in very sad ways. The life expectancy figures on the west coast are nearly 20 years shorter than those in the east of Cumbria. Those are the kinds of things that we need to work together to overcome. They are also the reason why all our specific services—the police, the fire service and social services—need to be local, adept, flexible and focused on specific communities and to be pragmatic in responding to them.
"That brings us to the inquiry. The hon. Member for Copeland talked about Cumbrian virtues. As he said, the fundamental element of Cumbria and of the whole border is people who are slow to react and slow to anger, but who, when they are determined, are resolute and focused. Let us hope that the inquiry reflects those values. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should not rush into anything, but once a decision is made we should stick with it and push it through.
"We should not have some grand commission based in London, with people who know nothing about Cumbria, guns or mental health pontificating in an abstract fashion. We need the very virtues that the hon. Gentleman saw in the local newspapers to be part of a local inquiry and a local commission. Those involved should include mental health professionals, the police and, above all, Cumbrians. Too often, our farmers and our teachers are ignored in favour of distant bureaucrats. Let the commission and the inquiry reflect Cumbrian values; let those involved be slow to anger and resolute, but also precise, pragmatic and focused on the exact events of the day of the shootings.
"On that point, let me end my maiden speech by saying that it is a great honour to stand in this room with the hon. Gentleman, who is an impressive leader. It is also a great honour to participate in a debate that shows the precision, level of inquiry and openness that I hope can characterise the House as a whole."