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Upcoming Week in Westminster

March 14, 2011 2 comments

Monday, Monday.

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.

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Categories: Parliament, William Hague Tags:

Shadow front-bencher Greatrex is “ludicrous”

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill returns to the Commons

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill latest

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

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!

Categories: AV referendum, Parliament Tags:

Treasury Questions end in a score draw as Ed Balls makes his debut

February 8, 2011 1 comment

Well that was rather disappointing.

New shadow chancellor Ed Balls took to the dispatch box for his first question time since getting the job after replacing Alan Johnson, who resigned for personal reasons.

On the day that George Osborne announced that he was increasing the banking levy to £2.5bn this year, up by £800m, you would have been excused for thinking the Osborne was nervous heading into his first confrontation with Balls.

The problem for Balls—who is undoubtably more economically astute than his predecessor in the role—is that he is tarnished with Labour’s economic record during their 13 years in government.

Clashes over the economy are becoming rather predictable as the Coalition turns everything back on Labour. They point to the deficit run up by the now opposition and use that as the explanation for their policies.

The negative economic growth in the final quarter of 2010 should make the Government think again about the cuts they’ve made, and desperately need to provide more plans for growth.

Osborne and his front-bench team argue that the UK had the biggest real estate bubble in Europe and was more profoundly affected by the economic crises than other countries.

But the US—whose growth during the first half of the last decade was just at predicated on house prices as in the UK—recorded a 3.2% growth in GDP over the same quarter.

As Balls pointed out this was despite cold weather shutting airports and impacting upon infrastructure. So, he asked of his opposite number, if the “wrong sort of snow” was responsible for the UK’s poor performance.

Osborne deflected with usual line about Balls being a deficit denier and said that if they were in power, Labour would have made many of the same decisions as the Coalition.

Actually, a key difference between the US and the UK is that Obama’s recovery plan involved increasing state spending with a massive impetuous package. In comparison, Osborne has presided over massive cuts and a VAT rise.

One area where Osborne does have the upper hand over Balls is when it comes to regulation of the financial sector.

One of the key coalition policies currently being formed involved the replacement of the tripartite regulatory system. Gone will be the system whereby regulation is split between three bodies: the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FSA.

In comes a “twin peaks” arrangement: a Prudential Regulation Authority within the Bank of England, and the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority.

Although the exact roles of the two new creations are yet to be decided, the aim should be to ensure that Banks no longer are allowed to take gambles that put the taxpayers and the economy at risk. Breaking up the banks to separate the high street deposit functions from investment practices will also protect taxpayers, as well as having the added advantage of increasing competition in the sector.

Instead of focusing on bankers’ bonuses—which would be difficult philosophically to legislate against and any taxes directed at them could be easily avoidable—the opposition should be ensuring that the new system prevents the practices that lead to the economic crisis from reoccurring.

 

Upcoming week in Westminster

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

After an interesting weekend including Cameron’s “multiculturalism has failed” speech and Paul Maynard’s excellent but deeply concerning interview in The Times, we come back to a windy Westminster with a tasty week ahead.

Today sees Education Questions with Secretary of State Michael Gove. John Stephenson, Conservative MP for Carlisle, will ask Gove about the standards of teaching, while David Wright (Labour, Telford) raises the thorny issue regarding the size of the EMA replacement. We can bet that awkward questions will be asked about the cost of setting up the Free Schools programme, and I’m personally hoping that someone will tie in Cameron’s speech on Saturday. With Cameron bemoaning the lack of integration, how can this situation be helped by supporting the founding of faith-based schools, one might ask.

We’ve also got a statement from Cameron on all things EU and North Africa, including the release of Abdelbase Al-Megrahi, while William Hague is in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Gove is back in action on Tuesday when the Education Bill returns to the Commons for its second reading. The Bill is supposedly aimed at giving schools more freedom to operate, although opponents of the Bill argue that the effect will actually be the opposite.

Thursday will bring challenges to the Coalition as Members debate voting rights for prisoners. Paul Waugh is reporting that Ministers will have a free vote on the debate and Number 10 expects them to abstain. One Minister who apparently won’t be is Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill rears its ugly head once again in the Lords as it returns for the Report Stage. There were no all-nighters last week as a deal had reportedly been struck between the two sides, although this week will see Labour peers fighting to ensure that promises are kept to.

Health Bill makes it past the Second Reading stage

February 1, 2011 1 comment

The Health and Social Care Bill passed the second reading stage in the House of Commons yesterday and will now progress to a Public Bill Committee. The first meeting of the Committee is expected to take place next Tuesday.

The Bill is pretty wide in scope but the main parts have been well reported in the press, albeit with various reactions. There is a great deal of disagreement about whether the reforms laid out in the Bill are a radical reform, or the next logical step in creating an improved NHS.

Simon Burns, Minister of State with the Department of Health, touched on this during his summing up:

In fact [our plans] are evolutionary and an extension of the policies of previous Administrations, notably the Blair and Brown Governments

The key reform will be the eradication of Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs). These will be replaced with GP consortia. As PCTs and SHAs are abolished, they will be replaced with a new NHS Commissioning Board. The Commissioning Board will received a budget from the Department of Health, and will then be responsible for allocating this to each consortia based on number of patients and the local health demographics.

Basically, the idea behind the Bill seems to be to give GPs more control over how they treat their patients. This makes sense—GPs know the needs of their patients better than bureaucrats.

However, it’s also a cost cutting exercise and critics of the Bill argue that it will produce more competition within the public health system—competition that will harm patient care.

These were the main arguments that dominated the second reading debate yesterday. Labour rounded against it while Tory MPs spoke in favour.

We saw the maiden speech from Debbie Abrahams during the proceedings—a natural choice for her as she was formally Chair of Rochdale PCT—and she delivered an impressive performance.

After going through the traditional platitudes to her constituency and her predecessor (the shamed Phil Woolas, who Abrahams said had “incredible attention to detail” and showed “kindness” to his constituents), she attacked the argument that competition is good for health care. Instead of widening choice, it will “give rise to a new postcode lottery.”

The only Lib Dem to speak at length about the Bill was Andrew George. A member of the Commons Health Committee, George praised the intentions of the proposed reforms, but questioned the timing—an argument I believe carries a lot of weight.

The NHS is being asked to make major reforms at a time they are expected to make record savings. If the Bill becomes legislation, there is a chance that the reforms will be implemented without the financial backing they need. Indeed, the Coalition estimates that the cost of reorganisation will be £1.4 billion, compared to other assessments that put the figure nearer £3 billion.

It is unclear whether the difference in figures is down to government under-funding, or opposition over-costing.

The Bill passed easily, 321 votes to 235. There were no coalition Members who voted against the plans, although George purposely abstained.

I haven’t made my mind up over the plans. My instinct is that they need some work. I’m planning on having a closer look at the Bill before posting my thoughts.

So there’s something for you to look forward to…