by Paul Goodman
The second reading of Harriett Baldwin's Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill took place in the Commons yesterday. Beneath its unstirring title lurks an emotive subject - namely, how to right the wrongs inflicted on England by Labour's devolution settlement.
Baldwin's solution is what she called "a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws". However, I don't want so much to explore her bill - or Malcolm Rifkind's detailed account of his long-standing proposals, or Jacob Rees-Mogg's probing speech against the bill, or others in favour of it - as probe the Government's view.
The Conservative manifesto said -
"A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries."
The Coalition Agreement picked up this ball, and kicked it into the long grass, as follows -
"We will establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question."
Baldwin quoted this commitment, and then added, tactfully but pointedly -
"On 26 October last year, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister in this Chamber when the commission would be established, and I was told that it would be established by the end of 2010. However, it became apparent on the final sitting day of 2010 that the commission had not been established, and I again put the question to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the Minister on duty, who said that
“the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year.”—[Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1338.]
If nothing else, given the fragile life chances of private Members’ Bills, I am pleased to use today’s debate to encourage the Government to advance their own business."
A few moments later, Chris Chope intervened on Baldwin, and asked, just as pointedly (but less tactfully) -
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. She describes the issue as complex. Does she understand why it is so complex that the Government have not even been able to set up a commission to look into it? Surely, that should not be beyond the capability of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has she been able to find out why that has not been done?
Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a somewhat cheeky question. I am sympathetic to the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—a constituency neighbour of mine—has had a rather busy last couple of weeks. I am giving him a little slack because of that, but I agree that it is important to keep pressing for the establishment of the commission."
Later, Mark Harper replied to the debate on behalf of the Government and - having been intervened on by Chope - went on to say later:
"Although the coalition parties came up with very different solutions to the West Lothian question, both parties consider it important to attempt to answer it, and neither party believes that it is possible to answer it by ceasing to ask it. We consider it a serious question that will be best tackled when we can tackle it in a calm and reasonable manner rather than waiting for a crisis.
I can confirm that we will set up the commission this year, as, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire established through her perceptive questioning. We had hoped to make announcements to the House at an earlier stage, but I look forward to making them in the not-too-distant future, and the commission will then be able to consider the ideas that have been advanced today. Hon. Members have effectively made bids to participate, either as members of the commission or in giving evidence to it. I hope that it will arrive at solutions that we can subsequently debate."
This brought Chope to his feet -
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister was not more forthcoming about the commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a commission. As he and other Members have observed, this issue is extremely complicated, so why are we now delaying even the appointment of the people who will consider it? We have already delayed for far too long. The original commitment was that the commission would be established before the end of 2010, but the Minister now expects us to accept as a big deal the information that he will make an announcement before the end of this year...
...I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on what I am about to say. Indeed, the reason I am able to speak after him is that he will not be able to comment on it. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of my hon. Friend’s Department and is the person who can give the yea or nay to whether the commission is to be set up and when, has not got his heart in it. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in the extra time that he will have next week, now that he has cancelled his trip to South America, he should give serious consideration to getting on with working out who will be on the commission and what will be its scope and remit. Surely the commission should be set up now, so that it can get to work before all the other stuff that is coming along is before the House. The last written answer on the issue says:
“Careful consideration is ongoing as to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the Commission to consider the… question.”
Some of us were not born yesterday. It is obvious that this is a stalling exercise by the Government. There was an unholy compromise in the coalition agreement but the Deputy Prime Minister is not even delivering on that compromise. He may realise that it could have implications for his party. There is no point, if the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have different views on the matter, trying to paper over the cracks. Why do we not get on and appoint the commission? Perhaps the coalition cannot even agree who could be on it, or what its scope and remit would be.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission
“will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords”.
Well, what has happened to those? We were told that a draft Bill would be published before Christmas. We have not seen that yet. We might be waiting another year or so before those proposals emerge.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission will need to take account of
“the changes being made to the way this House does business”.
There will be further changes to the way the House does business when the Backbench Business Committee is able to look at both Government legislation and Back-Bench business, and we are told that that will not start until the third year of this Parliament—another recipe for delay.
The written answer says that the commission will have to consider
“amendments to the devolution regimes”.
We know that a referendum will be held shortly in Wales, but why do we need to wait for the outcome of that before we set up the body that will look into these complex issues? There is then a reference to the fact that there is
“the Scotland Bill presently before the House”.
The written answer concludes; it is similar to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said today:
“We will make an announcement later this year.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 549W.]
It does not even say that the commission will be set up later this year...
...I remain suspicious about the motives of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that he is stalling seriously on the issue. If the Bill goes into Committee it will give all hon. Members the opportunity to keep the pressure on the Government to meet what was a pretty meaningless commitment in the coalition agreement anyway. At least it would be something.
Mr Harper: I know that my hon. Friend is not perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the coalition Government but I think that he sees mischief where there is none. The clear message from the thoughtful speeches of all Members today is that the issue is complicated. If the Government are to deal with it calmly and sensibly and in a manner that does not put the Union at risk, we must proceed thoughtfully and properly. However, I have given a clear commitment that we need to deal with the matter and answer the question. Therefore, I urge him to be a bit more generous in spirit.
Mr Chope: I am generous by nature but I would be even more generous if my hon. Friend had explained why it has turned out to be impossible for the Government to appoint the commission before Christmas, as they originally intended.
Chope wound up as follows -
"That is what leads me to conclude—I think any rational observer would conclude this—that the Government have not got their heart in this. They are hopelessly split between the Liberal Democrat agenda and the Conservative party agenda, which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We compromised on that in the coalition agreement, and we have given the tools whereby that compromise might be taken forward, namely the setting up of the commission, to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I do not think he has got his heart in trying to achieve any progress on this matter, however. I sympathise enormously with the Minister, but I hope that by getting the Bill into Committee we will be able to maintain the pressure. That is why I support the Bill."
I've quoted Chope at length because, whatever one thinks of his view of the issues, his take on the process is surely right - or at least, it's hard to think of any other reason for delay. There are good and bad aspects of the Coalition: as I've written many times, the good, in my view, outweigh the bad, and the Coalition should be supported.
But this issue throws up a serious problem, at two levels. The first, unashamedly, is a party political one. The Party won more votes in England than Labour even in 2005. It won an absolute majority of seats in England in 2010, gaining 36 more seats than the other parties combined - an outcome I tested here, though admittedly in the context of Labour gaining a majority because of its strength elsewhere.
Before 1997, the right response to this outcome would have been: hard luck - there's more or less a level playing field for all parts of the Union. Post-1997 and Labour's devolution settlement, such an answer won't do. MPs from Scotland can now vote on England's business, but not vice-versa. Proposals for further Scottish and Welsh devolution look to tilt the imbalance further. And Northern Ireland has its Assembly.
In a sparsely-attended House, Baldwin's bill passed by 19 votes to 17. One Labour MP, Kate Hoey, supported the bill, which was otherwise backed by Conservatives only. One Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, opposed the bill.
Highlights from the Prime Minister's remarks to the Commons about the treatment of terror suspects. Not verbatim.
The reputation of the security services has been overshadowed by allegations of mistreatment of detainees in other nations. Terrorists and extremists are exploiting these allegations and undermining the UK's global reputation. The matter needs to be cleared up, once and for all.
We have the finest security services in the world. They cracked the Enigma code in WWII. They recruited Russian spies during the Cold War that kept us safe. They disrupted IRA in 1980s and 1990s. Every day intelligence officers help prevent the most dangerous weapons falling into the hands of dangerous states. They provide important intelligence for the campaign in Afghanistan. They do so without public credit. Many die in service and their relatives mourn without public acknowledgment.
Although there is no evidence of direct involvement of UK personnel in abuse since 9/11 there are a dozen allegations of UK agents being complicit in other nations' abuses.
Rt Hon Sir Peter Gibson, a judge, will chair a investigative committee, with Peter Riddell, formerly of The Times, and one other to investigate the allegations. The Committee will start its work by the end of the year and conclude within one year. Part of the Inquiry Committee will inevitably be secret. The Head of the Civil Service and of the Intelligence Service will give the Committee their full co-operation.
Also being published today are the detailed guidelines for how the Intelligence Services behave.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, MP for Kensington, will chair the Security Committee for the duration of the Parliament.
Answering questions from Harriet Harman Mr Cameron said that torture was always wrong and information obtained under torture was likely to be "useless".
Michael Brown has written a thought-provoking piece for The Independent.
One of his most interesting observations is this:
"Assuming a Tory victory with an overall working majority, Mr Cameron will be faced with a parliamentary party numbering 350, or thereabouts, of whom only just over 100 will be previously sitting MPs. By comparison, when Margaret Thatcher formed her first government in 1979 her party gained 62 seats from other parties, but she was able to choose widely, from over 250 re-elected MPs from the previous parliament, the 100 or so cabinet and junior ministers."
ConHome has already speculated about the return of the likes of Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, Malcolm Rifkind and John Redwood to the frontbench to give an inexperienced incoming government some weight. Michael Brown implies that this might not be enough and he suggests that some new MPs might become ministers immediately. He mentions Nick Boles as a candidate for instant promotion and cites the preecedent of one Harold Wilson:
"Attlee was faced with a similar situation when forming his 1945 government. He had no hesitation in asking the newly elected MP for Ormskirk, Harold Wilson, to become Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Works.
Wilson made his maiden speech from the Treasury bench speaking for the government, as a minister, on the amenities and facilities for MPs. Within two years he had joined the cabinet at President of the Board of Trade. So who might be destined to repeat Wilson's achievement? Step forward Nicholas Boles, soon to be Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford, and who is now currently working for Mr Cameron's implementation team, preparing for government, in Tory HQ. Mr Boles may already be dreaming of the arrival of a ministerial limousine before he even makes his maiden speech."
My inclination is to believe that every new MP should be given some time getting used to the Commons before such elevation but Cameron may feel he does not have much choice.
Yesterday saw Foreign Office questions.
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind both asked about Iran's nuclear ambitions:
"The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report of 19 February shows that Iran continues to refuse to suspend its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and has not granted the IAEA the access that it seeks as required by five UN Security Council resolutions. We, and the international community, will continue to press for Iran to fulfil its international obligations and restore confidence in its intentions.
Mr. Jones: Does the Secretary of State agree that while President Obama’s recent outreach to Iran is welcome, diplomatic overtures must be backed by a readiness on the part of the United States and the EU to impose such further sanctions as are necessary until such a time as Tehran can demonstrate to the unequivocal satisfaction of the UN inspectorate that it has abandoned its ambitions to develop a military nuclear capability?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his enunciation of the policy, which I think has support across the House. It is the so-called dual-track policy, which is that we should seek to engage with Iran, that we should make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the choice of Government in Iran should be a matter for them. However, whatever the Government in Iran, they need to abide by their international responsibilities. If they refuse to do so, there are costs associated with that decision.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are responsibilities on the EU and the US, but the responsibilities go wider. The international coalition, which is right to fear an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, goes wider than the EU and the US. Russia, China and the Gulf states have responsibilities, too, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in working to ensure that they are part of a global coalition against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: With North Korea, it has proved useful to include its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, in the negotiations to discourage it from going down the nuclear weapons route. Should not Iran’s neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, be invited by the Security Council to join the negotiations over Iran, especially as the Iranians need to realise that those three countries might themselves go nuclear if Iran ends up as a nuclear weapons state?
David Miliband: Only up to a point. The multilateral negotiations are not being conducted under a UN framework—the E3 plus 3 is not a UN body, but it is recognised to have a global coalition behind it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have an important point, which was at the heart of the E3 plus 3 offer agreed under my chairmanship last May in London. It concerns what will happen in the future if Iran ceases its nuclear weapons programme or restores the confidence of the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. There are important regional political issues about Iran’s legitimate interests in the region, but no discussion of those issues can take place without the involvement of the countries that he has mentioned."
Defence Questions came around again yesterday. Conservative members dominated the session and exhibited excellent technical knowledge.
James Arbuthnot (MP for North-East Hampshire) chairs the Defence Select Committee. He asked about Pakistan:
"Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?
Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part."
Former Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was also concerned:
"Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?
Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said."
Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind made a noteworthy observation about NATO during Foreign Office questions yesterday:
"Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that an urgent priority for the Obama presidency—and, indeed, for that matter, for the British Government—is to ensure that we do not extend NATO membership to countries unless we are prepared ultimately to go to war in their defence? As there is not the slightest possibility of either the United States or the countries of western Europe going to war over countries such as Georgia or those like it whose territorial integrity might be threatened, will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with the American Administration other ways of enhancing the security of Georgia—by accelerating its membership of the EU, for example, as well as through other initiatives?
David Miliband: Yes, we will discuss a whole range of ways in which Russia’s neighbouring countries can give greater security and support—political and economic, including through the EU, as well as on the security front. We should certainly not welcome people into NATO unless they are willing to live up to all the obligations. I would say, however, that when the three Baltic countries joined NATO 10 years ago, many people asked whether they could ever be properly bound into a western security architecture, yet they have been—and they are far more secure for it. I absolutely assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Georgian and Ukrainian cases will be decided on the basis of their merits, their capacity and the determination of their population to join. These countries must want to join; it is not just a matter of whether we allow them to."
It will be intriguing to see how much the approach to foreign affairs taken by Sir Malcolm and Lord Hurd holds sway if the Conservatives win the next election, and to what extent neoconservatism is a busted flush in a post-Bush world.
Yesterday the House of Commons debated democracy and human rights. A number of Conservative MPs made interesting contributions.
Tony Baldry, chairman of the International Development select committee, highlighted the desperate situation in Sudan:
"Before we move on from Sudan, let me point out that Darfur shows the fragility of the international community’s ability to support the emerging norm of the international community’s responsibility to protect. The matter is not just about the failure of the Security Council to enforce that; the international community does not have the military lift capacity to do so either. We are hoping that things in Darfur will not get worse and that something will turn up. There is no UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, effectively, and there is no real process in Darfur. The responsibility to protect is just being forgotten."
David Lidington, part of the Shadow Foreign Affairs team, indicated his determination to make the promotion of human rights a central plank of foreign policy:
"The promotion of human rights should not be seen as an add-on, but as an integral part of our thinking, incorporated in, for example, our national security strategy and our policies on international development. For instance, I should like us to build plans for the reduction and eradication of human trafficking into our poverty reduction programmes, and to find a way in which to integrate our concern for human rights into the pursuit of millennium development goals."
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: "Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if military action against Iran is to be discouraged, it is crucial for there to be a robust and effective alternative that cannot be scuppered by Russian or Chinese vetoes? As President Sarkozy of France—along with the United States—is enthusiastically calling for financial and banking sanctions against Iran, and as Deutsche Bank, UBS, HBSC and other banks are already responding, will the Foreign Secretary do all in his power to encourage other European Union countries, particularly Germany, Italy and Spain, to support such a policy?"
David Miliband, Foreign Secretary: "The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s general point about the importance of the diplomatic route having proper teeth is absolutely correct. He could have added Standard Chartered to the list of banks that he mentioned. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be interested to know that in the year to May 2007, EU trade with Iran fell by 34 per cent., which constitutes a significant tightening of the sanctions. We are exploring all avenues. I will of course discuss the matter with EU colleagues next week, and will continue to monitor it at an international level."
More from Hansard here.