The highlight of today’s Commons sitting will not be PMQs.
Instead, it will be the Opposition Day motion tabled by Labour on the Coalition’s NHS reforms.
Or, more rightly, on the Government’s NHS reforms.
Lib Dem Spring conference last week saw an angry backlash from party members and backbench MPs alike, who, while welcoming some parts of the Health and Social Care Bill, were concerned that the reforms would act against the founding principles of the NHS: available to all, free at the point of use, and based on need, not the ability to pay.
Conference backed a Motion to amend the Bill, and similar sentiments are included in Labour’s motion today.
Indeed, one phrase in Labour’s motion is directly lifted from the one passed by the Lib Dem conference.
Labour will be hoping that by tabling such a Motion they will not only be able to score political points, especially in light of the BMA’s emergency meeting yesterday.
But they will also want to show splits between Lib Dem backbenchers and Lib Dem Ministers.
More importantly, it is an chance for Lib Dem and Labour MPs alike to put forward the case for stopping the damaging aspects of the proposed reforms.
Bit of a dramatic few days since the Commons last sat. The awful earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan is a story that will dominate for some time to come, especially in regard to the nuclear debate.
The tsunami has pushed the Libya situation from the front pages, but the situation there is worsening and there have been calls this morning for the UK to arm the rebel forces. We’re expecting a statement this afternoon from David Cameron in relation to the Middle East, so there could well be an update on the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Elsewhere this week….
Philip Hammond appears infront of the Transport Select Committee this afternoon, answering questions on the impact that December’s cold spell had on the transport network. What with the snow being blamed for the poor economic perfomance in the final quarter of 2010, this is an important subject for the coalition.
William Hague needs a good week. After having relatively little to do in the first 7 months as Foreign Secretary, Hague is struggling to impress in the role. Criticisms for the way in which the UK has responded to problems in the Middle East have come from all directions. More worrying for Hague is the way in which he was hung-out-to-dry by No.10 over the bungled SAS mission into Libya.
Hague has Questions in the Chamber tomorrow from 1430 and then appears at the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Douglas Alexander is new to the Shadow role, but this is a big chance for him to really put the boot in on Hague.
It’s actually a fairly quiet week in the Commons, but in the Lords the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill has it’s first day of committee. Another constitutional change being attempted by the Government and a long-standing committee of the Lib Dems. The Bill has a provision to implement five-year parliaments, which is a year longer than most Lib Dems would prefer.
Oh dear Tom Greatrex.
The Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West—who is also the Shadow Scotland Office Minister—has been causing a stir over allegations that Lib Dem Michael Moore “is terrified of the truth”.
It all relates to a vote in the Commons back in July that Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, missed. It was part of the Committee stage of the Finance Bill—which of course included the VAT increase.
Moore was absent for the vote to include the tax rise in the Bill and Labour, suspecting the Lib Dem of “wanting to keep his hands clean”, made several attempts to determine exactly what pressing business had led to Moore failing to back the coalition’s plans.
Initially, the response was that Moore was in Scotland, doing the important work that befits a Secretary of State. But this later turned out to be false as Moore had completed all his meetings and was back in London by the time of the vote.
And then last week, it appears that the Scotland Office has refused to answer a Freedom of Information request on the subject. A spokesperson said:
“It is considered that to release detailed information regarding specific modes of transport to and from specific locations would, or would be likely to, endanger the physical or mental health or safety of an individual and is therefore exempt under section 38 (1) of the Act.
“I believe that disclosure may give rise to the potential to endanger the safety of individuals or impact on the safety and security of ministers.”
Greatrex—and it would seem the Scotsman—aren’t all that impressed with this answer. And they are focusing on the mental health part of the reason.
The Labour MP is reported to have said:
“This is ludicrous and shows how terrified of the truth Mr Moore is. Mental heath should not be used as an excuse to save face. If he opposed the Tory plan to put up VAT, he should have resigned from the Government and voted against but this shows he was too cowardly.”
In my opinion, it is Greatrex’s response that is ludicrous. Moore isn’t hiding behind mental health issues. Greatrex has chosen to focus on one part of the answer that was given, totally ignoring the “endanger the physical … or safety” aspects. To me, this seems like a fairly standard response that any department would give when asked about a Minister/Secretary of State’s whereabouts at a particular time.
Greatrex then went on to say that:
“If he opposed the Tory plan to put up VAT, he should have resigned from the government and voted against, but this shows he was too cowardly.”
Well, no Tom. Firstly, he fails to mention that two days later Moore voted with Government at the Third Reading of the Bill. Second, Moore wasn’t the only Secretary of State to miss that vote. Chris Huhne, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox were all absent, as well as Nick Clegg.
And for that matter, Labour absentees including former Ministers Tom Watson and Ian Austin, not to mention a former Home Secretary (David Blunkett) and a former Prime Minister (I’ll give you one guess).
This is little more than squalid opportunism on Greatex’s part. Maybe he should start focusing on the real policies issues facing our friends north of the border, and worry less about the voting habits of the man on the benches opposite.
So the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (always fun to type that, so I shall all it PVSC) returns to the Commons today.
MPs will debate the amendments made in the House of Lords. These include a 40% turnout threshold so that if less than 4 in 10 people vote, the result will not be binding.
In the second part of PVSC, which relates to the redrawing of constituency boundaries, the Lords want to change the margins that constituency size can vary by. The Government wanted this to be 5% either way—so that the Boundary Commission can create constituencies within 95% and 105% of the electoral quota. The Lords want to increase this to 15% (7.5% either way).
The Amendments to be put forward today—click here for a full list—indicate that the Government will oppose both of these.
Interestingly, the amendment paper shows that there will be a Government move to introduce two constituencies “in the Isle of Wight”. Original proposals had two constituencies for the Isle of Wight, but with one split between the island and the mainland. This was—rightly in my view—met with some opposition and the Lords wanted to maintain the current arrangements of having one, exceedingly large, constituency.
I suspect that this amendment will have support one side of the house. It will, in effect, create two Tory constituencies. Chris Bryant summed up the general feeling:
The Govt amendment on the isle of wight is pure gerrymandering, creating 2 small Tory seats. If geography matters there, why not everywhere?
In general, expect dissent from both backbenches.
Labour will oppose the plans to reduce the number of MPs and there are bound to be arguments about whether it is right to draw constituencies based on the number of registered voters. This is a crucial point as the numbers can change and MPs are not just the representatives of those people who are registered to vote.
Both sides are also likely to be displeased with the programme motion that will take place before the debate. This will limit discussion of the Lords Amendments to just four hours.
But with the Government needing to get the PVSC passed before the close of play tomorrow, time is at a premium.
In the week before recess for both House, one thing is likely to dominate proceedings:
On Monday, we have the Third Reading in the Lords—the last chance for peers to alter the Bill—with the only interesting amendment relating to party election broadcasts. If the amendment goes through, party election broadcasts won’t be allowed during the AV referendum campaign if they imply that the party is supporting either the for or against camp.
On Tuesday the Bill returns to the Commons for consideration of the changes made by the Lords. These include the introduction of a 40% turnout threshold—which I suspect will have Tory backbench support—and the loosening of rules governing constituency size.
A document released on Friday outlining the Government’s response to the Report stage of the Bill in the Lords suggests that the Coalition will fight against the amendment that would increase the variance in size of constituency from 10% to 15%.
Labour are also likely to try to frustrate the progress of the Bill as they try to force a de-coupling of the two elements. They oppose the reduction in numbers of MPs, and also object to the way in which boundaries are being redrawn.
On Wednesday the fun really begins. We are likely to see a bit of ping-pong, with various newspapers suggesting that we could be in for an all-nighter. But with the Government needing to get the Bill ratified to secure a May 5th referendum, we are likely to see it pushed through.
Elsewhere, Oliver Letwin is in front of the Lords Science and Technology sub-committee discussing behaviour change on Tuesday, while Nick Hurd and Justin Greening appear before the Public Admin committee. They will be answering questions about the funding of the voluntary sector, continuing the Big Society theme that has kicked off the week.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill will return to the Commons on Tuesday as MPs debate the amendments made in the Lords.
The Bill has to become legislation by next Wednesday if the AV referendum is to take place on the 5th May as planned.
The key amendment is the introduction of a 40% turnout threshold, meaning that 1 in 10 of eligible voters must take part for the result to stand. Tory MP Bill Cash tabled a similar motion when the Bill was last in the Commons, but it was soundly beaten 549 votes to 31.
The problem with this threshold is that you could argue it should apply to all elections—why just apply it to an AV referendum?
Tory backbenchers could jump on a separate amendment—relating to the size of constituencies—in order to delay the Bill. The Bill originally wanted the number of votes in each constituency to be within 5% of a number around 76,000. The Lords have increased this to 7.5%.
With Conservatives and Labour opposing different parts of the Bill, there may be some entertaining “ping-pong” action to ensure that Wednesday’s deadline is met.
—update 11/2/11 There should be a written statement from Nick C laying out the Government’s response to the Lords amendments, so keep your eyes peeled!
Ever since the possible referendum on changing from First Past the Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV), I’m been trying to work out what I’m going to do.
I’ll either vote in favour of AV, or not vote at all. I despise FPTP-but I don’t see that AV is a marked improvement.
I would prefer the Single Transferrable Vote, but thanks to the Coalition agreement, that’s not an option.
I’m leaning towards supporting the AV campaign. Not for any principled reason but more out of party loyalty. I’m starting to wonder just how damaging to the party and to the coalition if the referendum is lost.
Or, thanks to new amendments from the Lords, if AV wins the day, but the 40% turnout threshold isn’t met.