By Dick Barry
National Minimum Wage
On 12 March, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced to the House of Commons that the Low Pay Commission’s 2014 report and recommendations to the Government were being published in full that day, alongside the Government’s response. His statement is of interest as it highlights the paltry increases in what are already low rates of pay.
“The commission has recommended that the adult hourly rate of the national minimum wage should increase from £6.31 to £6.50. The commission has recommended increasing the development rate, which covers workers aged 18 to 20-years-old, from £5.03 to £5.13 and increasing the rate for 16 to 17-year-olds from £3.72 to £3.79. It recommends that the apprentice rate should increase from £2.68 to £2.73. It is recommended that these changes take place in October 2014.
The commission has also recommended that the accommodation offset increases from the current £4.91 to £5.08 in October 2014.
The Government accepts all of the rate recommendations.
Migrant Domestic Workers
We recommend that the Government should review the law, and take the next available opportunity to legislate and clarify the entitlement of migrant domestic workers to the national minimum wage.
The Government fully agree that non-compliance in this area needs to be reduced. As suggested by the Low Pay Commission, the Government will look at this area of national minimum wage legislation and consider the full range of options to reduce non-compliance.”
Ukraine: To War Or Not To War?
On 18 March, Foreign Secretary William Hague presented a further statement on Ukraine to the House of Commons. (The previous statement was presented on 4 March.). There were two particularly contrasting responses to this:
from Labour’s Chris Bryant and from the Conservative’s Sir Edward Leigh, a noted right-winger. Bryant’s speech contained a litany of ‘crimes’ committed by Vladimir Putin, for which Bryant believed he should be punished, by military force if necessary. For when one regrets, as Bryant did, that Britain has surrendered its military capacity to intervene, one is effectively saying military force should be used if circumstances dictate. (This was not the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, who urged effective diplomatic engagement with Russia.). Leigh’s speech on the other hand, was that of someone who understands Russian history and as such empathises with its plight.
“What more do we really need to know about Vladimir Putin? Even if we leave aside for a moment:
his self enrichment, which would put Victor Yanukovych, Imelda Marcos and Mummar Gaddafi to shame; the way in which misinformation, media manipulation and the repression of independent journalists are a standard part of the Putin package; the perversion of the criminal justice system in Russia, which means that more than 95% of all prosecutions lead to conviction, because they are determined by political persuasion, rather than justice; what more do we need to know?”
“He seems to have forgotten one important point. You can add targeted assassinations on British soil to your list.”
“That was one of the other things I was leaving aside for a moment. We know how Putin reacts in a crisis. That is what really worries me. He always reacts with extreme force. In Beslan the state used such force to resolve a hostage crisis that 334 of the hostages, including 186 children, were killed. When terrorists from the Chechen republic took over a theatre in Moscow, the state’s intervention ended up killing not only all of the terrorists, but 130 of the hostages. We also know about his territorial ambition. I can do no better than quote the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). During a debate on Georgia in the previous Parliament, he said:
“Whatever one may think of Georgia’s actions on 7 August, Russia used grossly disproportionate force in response, and by subsequently recognising its supported regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is attempting to redraw the map of Europe by force”.—(Official Report, 20 January 2009; Vol 486, c, 686.)
“That is exactly what we are hearing again today. What more do we need to know?”
“In Syria, Putin actively prevented an early resolution to the conflict and assisted Assad’s barbarous regime in repressing its people, and all for the strategic advantage that accrues to Russia, as has already been said, from its naval base in Tartus, which is vital for access to the Mediterranean. Now, after trying to bribe, bully and coerce the whole of Ukraine into aligning itself with Russia and against the European Union, he has effectively annexed part of an independent country.”
“I am afraid the international response, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, has thus far been pitiful and spineless. People have even trotted out in this Chamber the argument that most of the people in Crimea are Russian speaking and wanted to join Russia in the first place. Can Members not hear history running through the decades? In 1938 the British apologists for Hitler, combined with those who felt that Germany had been treated badly after the first world war, combined with the British mercantilists who wanted to do more business with Germany, and combined with the British cowards who wanted to avoid war at all costs, argued, using the same argument that has been advanced today, that the vast majority of the people in the Sudetenland were really German and wanted to be part of Germany.”
“I have no desire for us to be at war, or for there to be a war of any kind. I opposed the proposed military intervention in Syria for the simple reason that I could not see how bombing that country would help. However, we should be ready for any eventuality. I was saddened that when I formally asked the Foreign Secretary on 30 November 2011 whether he would rule out the use of force in tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he refused to do so. Others agreed with him. I was told, including by Members on my side of the House, ‘Don’t be silly. You simply can’t rule things like that out.’ Well, perhaps they were right, but I want to ask now why on earth we ruled out any military intervention, in whatever set of circumstances and at whatever stage, from the very beginning of Putin’s advance into Ukraine. I am not arguing for war; I am simply asking why we do one thing for Iran but say exactly the opposite when dealing with Russia. I think that the EU has shown little honour in this. The Ukrainian Government have behaved with extraordinary and admirable restraint.”
“My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In the last but one Foreign Office questions, I asked the Foreign Secretary what the fact that NATO has a co-operation agreement with Ukraine means, and he gave the impression that I was asking for war. I was not asking for war; I just wanted to put the military options on the table.”
“I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I think he also agrees with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who spoke earlier. There has been little honour in the way that Britain, France and the United States, having signed up to the Budapest memorandum, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, now make lots of great speeches but introduce the measliest level of sanctions and targeted interventions against Russian individuals. The real problem is that we all know where this might all too easily be leading:
to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Belarus. What will we say then; what will we do then? We have done far too little to safeguard European energy supply over the years. We have surrendered our military capacity to intervene. We have let commercial interests alone determine our foreign policy. We have failed to tackle deep Russian corruption within the EU, especially in Cyprus It is not so much that we have let Russia pick us off country by country but that we in the European Union, country by country, have gone begging to Russia to try to do more business with it and left aside too many other issues.”
“There are things that we could and should be doing. We should target a much longer list of Russian officials. The Foreign Secretary referred, I think, to Leonid Slutsky. He should not be a member of the socialist group in the Council of Europe, and nor, for that matter, should his party. I am delighted that the Conservative party has now taken the action that it has, for which I had been arguing for some time. I cannot see for the life of me why the Government still use their slightly weaselly language about the potential of a Magnitsky list. It has been implemented by the United States of America, the European Union has called for it, and the Council of Europe is calling for it, and we should go down that route. A Russian friend of mine says that Putin is not yet mad. That may be true, but what will our surrendering and our appeasement do for his sanity?”
Sir Edward Leigh:
“My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) quoted John Quincy Adams who famously warned against his country going out seeking ‘monsters to destroy’. I declare an interest:
I have been interested in Russian culture and history ever since my Russian Orthodox wedding to my Russian Orthodox wife. I have visited Kiev, and I want to explain to the House how important Ukraine is to the Russian people. In our island, secure as we are, we sometimes do not understand the importance of history and of fear, and of the great fear of the Russian people. I am neither pro-Russian nor pro-Ukrainian, because I am also sympathetic to Ukrainians living in western Ukraine who are Catholic Uniates, and I understand the division of that country.”
“History is everything. My wife’s grandmother escaped through Crimea in 1918, and her first husband was dragged out of the woods and shot by Bolsheviks, simply because of his name and title. The Russian people—this is seared into their soul—went through the most appalling suffering during the second world war, not least in Crimea. When one goes to Kiev, as I have done, and walks around the Russian Orthodox cathedrals, one understands the Kievan Rus’, which was founded 1,000 years ago. Ukraine is not just some settlement. I am not apologising or being an apologist for Putin or what he has done; I am just trying to explain to the House how importantly Russians feel about the future of Ukraine, and how sensitive we must be to their sensibilities. That particularly applies to Crimea, which has been Russian since the time of Catherine the Great, and Russian speakers are the dominant part of the population. I know that the Tatars have been treated appallingly, but—again, the House will not like what I say—many Russians believe that some elements of the Tatar population collaborated with what they call the fascist invaders.”
“We must remember that Finland, too, was occupied by Russia for a considerable period. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Russians have an affinity with Finland that perhaps gives Russia the right to think what to do in a place like Finland? It still holds some Finish territory.”
Sir Edward Leigh:
“No, of course I do not. Finland was also occupied by Sweden, but there is no time to debate that. Ukraine is a completely different ball game to Russians than Poland. My point is that Ukraine is an extraordinarily divided country. This is not a simple, liberal argument about a long-standing independent united country and a foreign aggressor. Western Ukraine is fiercely anti-Russian. As I said, it is Catholic Uniate, its capital city is Lviv, and formerly it was largely inhabited not by Ukrainians but 80% by Poles who were forcibly removed by Stalin. Before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was called Lemberg. The whole question of western Ukraine is therefore passionately opposed to Russia—quite understandably—and wants to break free.”
“The eastern part of the country around Donetsk and Crimea is a completely different state of affairs. We must be aware that however many speeches we give, and however many sanctions we impose, this is not just about a tyrant–Putin–invading a foreign country. A great proportion of the Russian population feels very strongly that the west is imposing double standards. The west insisted on self-determination for the Kosovans, and Serbia is very close to the Russian heart as a fellow Orthodox country. The House may not agree with that, but that is their point of view, and imposing any amount of sanctions will not change it. We must stop playing power games. It is too dangerous a situation, and the west must realise that it cannot tear Ukraine away from Russia. We must stop these games of Ukraine ever joining NATO—thank God Ukraine is not in NATO because we would be involved in a war. We must stop these games.”
Dr Julian Lewis:
“My hon. Friend said yesterday in Defence questions what a different position we would be in had we let Ukraine become part of NATO. We must realise and impress on Russia that membership of NATO involves the criterion that an attack on one is an attack on all. If we are not prepared to protect a country in that way, we must not give it bogus guarantees.”
Sir Edward Leigh:
“Absolutely. An attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them. Poland is a completely different state of affairs from Ukraine. As I have said, we must stop the power games of trying to detach Ukraine from Russia. It is not going to happen. Russia will not allow it to happen, any more than we would allow an integral part of what we consider to be important to our soul and our history to be detached from us. It is a dangerous game (Interruption) Well, somebody has to give an alternative point of view. There is no point in the House of Commons if we all agree with each other all the time. I am trying to explain the Russian point of view.”
“Encouraging Ukraine to join NATO is obviously absurd, but it is also extraordinarily dangerous to encourage Ukraine to join the EU. As I said, I am neither pro-Russian nor pro-Ukrainian, and I am in favour—this may be a cliché—of peace and humanity. I want Ukraine to have a developed system of administration so that the west can run itself, as can the east. Ideally if we can think in terms of free-trade areas and Ukraine having some sort of free-trade agreement with the EU, that is positive, sensible and acceptable to Russians. However, we should please not take any step further, because we will be indulging in extraordinarily dangerous power games.”
Tributes To Tony Benn
MPs from the Labour and Conservative benches (13 Lab, 5 Cons.) paid tribute to Tony Benn (nee Anthony Neil Wedgewood Benn) on 20 March. Benn, who died on 14 March at the age of 88, was Labour MP for Bristol East from 1950 to 1983 and for Chesterfield from 1984 to 2001. Among those who came to praise him were, David Cameron, Harriet Harmon, Sir Peter Tapsell, Michael Meacher, Dennis Skinner, William Cash, Diane Abbot, the Leader of the House Andrew Lansley and, of course, his son Hilary, currently a member of the Shadow Cabinet. All of them spoke of his love of Parliament, his humanity and his personal generosity, but Labour’s John McDonnell best summed up his political agenda. It’s often forgotten that Benn, referred to by the right-wing press in the 1980s as “the most dangerous man in Britain,” set out policies to address the weakness at the heart of Britain’s economy at the time. That was the easy part, however. The difficult part was working out the detail and overcoming the inevitable opposition to the practical application of his ideas. The opposition included a substantial proportion of the electorate who stubbornly elected the Tories during the 1980s, although offered Benn’s socialist programme. McDonnell reminded the House of these ideas.
“Tony, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolosover (Mr Skinner), founded the Socialist Campaign Group, of which I am the chair. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who cannot be here today because he is in Geneva as part of a human rights delegation.”
“Tony inspired my generation. We did not just respect him; as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, we loved the man. I want to go back to what my hon. Friend said about the longest suicide note in history, because it is interesting that it has come up time and time again among the commemorations of the past week or so. I want to go back, not to the manifesto of 1983, but to Labour’s programme of 1982, which was the Bennite programme, and virtually all of it was written by Tony Benn. It is worth looking back at what it said. It was absolutely prophetic. It basically said, ‘We will create a society that is more democratic, more just and more equal.’ How would we do it?”
Tony’s ideas in that programme were straightforward:
we would undertake a fundamental, irreversible shift in the redistribution of wealth and power. How would we do that? Through a fair and just tax system, tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, taking control of the Bank of England, preventing speculation in the City and the banks because it could be dangerous to our long-term economic health, and creating full employment. That is what he was about. That is what he inspired to do.
“It is interesting that he said we should invest in housing, health and education, give all young people the opportunity to stay on at school with an education maintenance allowance; and make sure that they had a guarantee of an apprenticeship or training and the opportunity to go to university, not by paying a fee but on a grant. That was his programme in 1982. It was prophetic and years in advance of its time. He said that what we needed to create the wealth was an industrial strategy—a manufacturing base based on new technology and skills. Actually, I remember him talking in one of his speeches about alternative energy sources, well in advance of the debate about climate change. The programme also included equal rights for women and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”
“What else was he committed to? He lost a brother in the war, so he was committed to peace. And bravely, courageously, he called for inclusive talks in Northern Ireland—for everyone to get around a table to secure peace. He also said that we needed to control the arms trade and that no more arms should be sold to dictators in the middle east for them to use as weapons against their own people and to destabilise the region. Of course, he also argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament, which I continue to support and which remains a popular cause for many.”
“He was a European—sceptical about the European Union, but a true European. I found that inspiring. He inspired my generation and he inspired generations to come. What a world we would have created if we had listened to him. But more important, what a world we can create now if we listen to him. Solidarity and go well, comrade. You made a significant contribution to all our lives. I hope we will be able to implement the lessons you taught us, when Labour next gets back into power.”