2014 07 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes by Dick Barry

The Queen’s Speech 4 June 2014

In replying to the long Address Ed Miliband paid tribute to the work of the UK’s armed forces in Afghanistan whom he said had fought to make the country more stable, with democracy and the rule of law. It’s a pity that if, as promised, British troops leave at the end of the year, and the Taliban subsequently take over large areas of the country, the deaths of, to date, 453 troops will have been in vain. The following extracts include Miliband’s observations on most of the key issues raised in the Queen’s Speech. The Speech included a commitment to continue to cap the benefits bill. Significantly, Miliband had nothing to say on this. He hit many of the right notes, but his policy solutions lack coherence, sounding like a pick and mix of issues he believes most concern the voters. There is a distinct absence of a clear, bold, and radical strategy to deal with the problems he outlines. It will be interesting to see just how much of the IPPR report, ‘The Condition of Britain’, (June 2014), Labour adopts. Among its proposals is a shift in the balance of political and economic power from the centre to local authorities.

Edward Miliband:

This Friday will mark 70 years since the Normandy landings, when wave upon wave of allied forces poured onto the beaches of northern France. They marked the beginning of the final chapter of the second world war, which preserved the freedoms that we enjoy today, so I want to start by honouring the service of those veterans and the memory of their fallen comrades—a feeling that I am sure is shared across the whole House.

“I am sure that across the House today Members will want to remember and pay tribute to the work of our armed forces over the past decade in Afghanistan. At the end of this year, British combat operations will come to an end. We should be incredibly proud of the service of our armed forces in that country. They have fought to make Afghanistan a more stable country, a country with democracy and the rule of law, and a country that cannot be used as a safe haven to plan acts of terrorism here in Britain. We grieve for the 435 members of our armed forces who have been lost, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. All of them and all the people who have served have demonstrated, as did our Normandy veterans all those years ago, that they represent the best of our country.”

“Before I turn to the Loyal Address, let me say something about one of the most important decisions for generations, which will be made in a few months time—the decision about the future of our United Kingdom. The history of the UK, from workers rights to the defeat of fascism to the NHS to the minimum wage, is the story of a country stronger together—a country in which representation from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England has helped us to advance the cause of social justice. It is a decision for the people of Scotland, but I believe passionately that this kingdom should remain united.”

“The ritual of the debate on the Loyal Address has existed for centuries. Today we do not just debate the Queen’s Speech; we assert the importance of this House and the battle it has fought over hundreds of years on behalf of the British people. But what the recent elections show is that more than at any time for generations this House faces a contemporary battle of its own—a battle for relevance, legitimacy and standing in the eyes of the public. The custom of these debates is to address our opponents across the Despatch Box, but today that on its own would be inadequate to the challenge we face. There is an even bigger opponent to address in this Queen’s Speech debate—the belief among many members of the public that this House and any party in it cannot achieve anything at all.”

“About 10% of those entitled to vote at the recent elections voted for UKIP, but as significant is that over 60% did not vote at all. Whatever side we sit on in this House, we will have heard it on the doorstep—‘You’re all the same. You’re in it for yourself. It doesn’t matter who I vote for.’ Of course that is not new, but there is a depth and scale of disenchantment that we ignore at our peril—disenchantment that goes beyond one party and one Government. There is no bigger issue for our country and our democracy, so the test for this legislative programme, the last before the general election, is to show that it responds to the scale of discontent and the need for answers.”

“In this election we heard concerns about the way the EU works and the need for reform. We heard deep-rooted concerns about immigration and the need to make changes, but I believe there is an even deeper reason for this discontent. Fundamentally, too many people in our country feel that Britain does not work for them and has not done so for a long time—in the jobs they do and whether hard work is rewarded; in the prospects for their children and whether they will lead a better life than their parents, including whether they will be able to afford a home of their own; in the pressures that communities face; and above all whether the work and effort that people put in are reflected in their sharing fairly in the wealth of the country.”

“The Governor of the Bank of England gave a remarkable speech last week, saying that inequality was now one of the biggest challenges in our country. We should all be judged on how we respond to this question, right as well as left. There are measures that we support in this Queen’s Speech, including tackling modern slavery, an ombudsman for our armed forces, and recall, but the big question for this Queen’s Speech is whether it just offers more of the same or whether it offers a new direction so that we can genuinely say that we can build a country that works for all and not just for a few at the top.”

“For me, this task starts with the nature of work in Britain today. It is a basic belief of the British people that if you work all the hours God sends, you should at least be able to make ends meet. We all, on all sides of the House, say in our slogans that those who work hard and play by the rules should be rewarded for what they do, but we should listen to the voices of all those people who say that their reality today is that hard work is not rewarded and has not been for some time. All of us on all sides will have heard that during the recent election campaign, such as from the person I met in Nottingham who was struggling with agency work and total uncertainty about how many hours’ work he would get. This was his working life: every morning at 5am he would ring up to find if there was work for him. M ore often than not, there was none. He had a family to bring up.”

“The fact that this is happening in 21st century Britain, the fourth richest country in the world, should shame us all. This is not the Britain that man believes in, it is not the Britain we believe in, and it should not be the Britain this House is prepared to tolerate. (Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”)We have seen the number of zero-hours contracts go well above 1 million. We need to debate as a country whether this insecurity is good for individuals, families and the country as a whole. It is not.”

“We must debate, as a country, whether we should really be prepared to do something about the problem, and we need to debate the wider problem. Five million people in Britain—one in five of those in work—are now low paid. The shocking fact is that, for the first time on record, most of the people who are in poverty in Britain today are in work, not out of work.”

“We want to see taxes on employment fall—that is why we have proposed a 10p tax rate to actually make work pay for people. The shocking fact is that for the first time on record most people in poverty are in work—so much for hard work paying. None of our constituents sent us here to build such an economy. At a time when we face significant fiscal challenges into the future, it is costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. It is no wonder that people in this country do not think this House speaks for them. To show a new direction for the country, and to show that it is not just more of the same, the Queen’s Speech needs to demonstrate to all those people that it can answer their concerns.”

“There is a Bill in this Queen’s Speech covering employment, but the Bill we need would signal a new chapter in the battle against low pay and insecurity at work, not just business as usual. What would that involve? It would set a clear target for the minimum wage for each Parliament, whereby we raised it closer to average earnings. If someone is working regular hours for month after month, they should be entitled to a regular contract. If dignity in the workplace means anything, it should clearly mean that. We could make it happen this Parliament and show the people of this country that we get what is happening, but this Queen’s Speech does not do that.”

“Britain, like all countries all round the world, faces a huge challenge of creating decent, middle-income jobs that we used to take for granted, and many of those jobs will be created by small businesses. There is a Bill in this Queen’s Speech on small businesses, but we all know—(Interruption.) A Government Member says ‘Hear, hear’, but we all know that we have a decades-long problem in this country of banks not serving the real economy. Companies that are desperate to expand, invest and grow cannot get the capital they need. For all the talk of reforming the banks, is there anyone who really believes the problem has been cracked, with lending to small businesses continuing to fall? The choice that we face is whether to carry on as we are, or whether we say that the banks need to change, break up large banks so that we tackle our uncompetitive banking system and create regional banks that properly serve small business, but the Queen’s Speech does not do that.”

“Let me come to the child care Bill. We support measures on child care, which is part of the cost of living crisis, although the scale of that challenge means that we can go further on free places for three and four-year-olds. We also support the Bill on pensions, although we want to ensure that people get proper advice to avoid the mis-selling scandals of the past.”

“The next task for this Queen’s Speech is to face up to another truth: for the first time since the second world war, many parents feel that their children will have a worse life than they do. No wonder people think that politics does not have the answers when that is the reality they confront, and nowhere is that more important than on the issue of housing. We all know the importance of that to provide security to families, and we know that it matters for the durability of our recovery too. The Bank of England has warned that the failure to build homes is its biggest worry, and that generational challenge has not been met for 30 years.

Sir Bob Russell (LD):

Will the leader of the opposition confirm that in 13 years of a Labour Government, fewer council houses were built than under even the Thatcher Government?”

Edward Miliband:

What I can say is that we built 2 million homes under a Labour Government., and we had a faster rate of house building than under this Government. As I have said, we face a big long-term challenge in this country, and the question is whether we are going to face up to it or just carry on as we did. A Queen’s Speech that is rising to the challenge on housing would also do something for the 9 million people who rent in the private sector. There are more than 1 million families and 2 million children with no security at all. Children will start school this September, but their parents will have no idea whether they will still be in their home in 12 months time—and we wonder why people are losing faith in politics.”

“Another test for the Queen’s Speech is whether it responds to the anxieties people feel in their communities—(Interruption.) We all know that one of the biggest concerns at the election was around immigration. This is an important point. I believe that immigration overall has been good for the country. I believe that as the son of immigrants, and I believe it because of the contribution that people coming here have made to our country, but hon. Members know that we must address the genuine problems about the pace of change, pressures on services and the undercutting of wages.”

“Some people say we should cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and withdraw from the European Union. In my view, they are profoundly wrong. We have always succeeded as a country when we have engaged with the rest of the world. That is when Britain has been at its best. Others say that nothing can or should be done. I believe they are wrong, too. We can act on the pace of change by insisting on longer controls when new countries join the EU. We need effective borders at which we count people in and out. The House can act on something else that all hon. Members know is happening in our communities by tackling the undercutting of wages. We should not just increase fines on the minimum wage, but have proper enforcement.”

Sir Gerald Howarth (Con.):

“I am sure that the entire nation is grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for allowing the British people to speak about immigration—the Opposition have previously denounced as racist many of our fellow citizens who have spoken out on the matter. Will he apologise for the policies of the previous Labour Government, who admitted uncontrolled migration of 2.2 million people into this country—deliberately—the result of which is huge pressure on our social services and a massive increase in the demand for housing, to which he has referred.”

Edward Miliband:

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman plainly that it is not prejudiced to have concerns about immigration—he is right about that. We should have longer transitional controls, as I have said on many occasions, but the question is what we are going to do about the problem now. Are we going to tackle what is happening in our labour market? I do not understand why the Government are not taking action on those issues. Employers crowd 10 to 15 people into a house to sidestep the minimum wage. We all know it is happening. Gangmasters exploit workers from construction to agriculture. We all know it is happening. We should stop employment agencies from advertising only overseas or from being used to get around the rules on fair pay. We all know it is happening.”

“This what the Queen’s Speech should have done: a ‘make work pay’ Bill to reward hard work, a banking Bill to support small businesses, a community Bill to devolve power, an immigration Bill to stop workers being undercut, a consumers Bill to freeze energy bills, a housing Bill to tackle the housing crisis and a NHS Bill to make it easier for people to see their GP and to stop privatisation. To make that happen we need a different Government: we need a Labour Government.”

 

Ukraine: The Right To Choose?

Petro Poroshenko was elected President of Ukraine on 25 May. According to the British Foreign Office the people of Ukraine exercised their right to vote in a free and fair election without outside interference. When the people of Crimea exercised their right to vote in a referendum to determine their future, the Foreign Office described the referendum as a sham and refused to recognise the result. Foreign Secretary Hague’s last statement on Ukraine was delivered on 14 May, the final day of the Parliamentary session. Parliament returned on 4 June with the Queen’s Speech. On 9 June, Foreign Office Minister David Lidington assessed political developments in Ukraine in the following statement. (Note: Lidington’s brief is Europe and NATO). As the statement was in response to a question there was no opportunity for a follow up by MPs.

Mr Lidington:

On 25 May the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) congratulated the Ukrainian people on the conduct of the presidential election. The high turnout showed the Ukrainian people’s determination to decide their own future without outside interference, and sent a decisive signal of their support for unity, reform and a new future for their country. The Foreign Secretary also paid tribute to election commission staff who were subject to appalling levels of intimidation by illegal armed groups who sought to deny the citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk their right to vote but who strove to do their duty, and to the citizens in eastern Ukraine who overcame all obstacles to vote or who tried to do so. Each vote cast there was an individual act of courage.”

“The Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend for Witney (Mr Cameron) spoke to Mr Petro Poroshenko on 30 May, congratulating him on his election as the President of Ukraine and welcoming his clear messages on democracy and financial and political reform. The Prime Minister also praised the Ukrainian people for their determination to hold elections in such difficult circumstances and choose their own future, offering his continued support in helping Mr Poroshenko to build a secure and prosperous Ukraine through an inclusive national dialogue.”

“On 4 June G7 Leaders welcomed the successful conduct under such difficult circumstances of the 25 May Ukrainian presidential election, and commended Mr Petro Poroshenko for reaching out to all the people of Ukraine. G7 Leaders stand by the Ukrainian government and people in the face of unacceptable interference in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs by the Russian Federation, and call upon the illegal armed groups to disarm. G7 Leaders continue to encourage the Ukrainian authorities to maintain a measured approach in pursuing operations to restore law and order and fully support the substantial contribution made by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to the de-escalation of the crisis through the Special Monitoring Mission and other OSCE instruments. The G7 remains committed to continuing to work with Ukraine to support its economic development, sovereignty and territorial integrity and encourages the fulfilment of Ukraine’s commitment to pursue the difficult reforms that will be crucial to support economic stability and unlock private sector-led growth.”

“G7 Leaders confirmed the decision by G7 countries to impose sanctions on individuals and entities who have actively supported or implemented the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and who are threatening the peace, security and stability of Ukraine. G7 countries are implementing a strict policy of non-recognition with respect to Crimea/Sevastopol, in line with UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262 and stand ready to intensify targeted sanctions and to implement significant additional restrictive measures to impose further costs on Russia should events so require.”

“The Prime Minister met President Putin on 5 June and reiterated that there is an opportunity for a successful, peaceful and stable Ukraine, but the current situation needs to change. He said that Russia must properly recognise and work with this new president and there must be action to stop arms and people crossing the border.”

 

Extremism: Violent And Non-Violent

Home Secretary Theresa May was asked by Labour’s Yvette Cooper on 9 June to make a statement on the Government’s action on preventing extremism. According to May non-violent extremism is a real threat to British society. But what is non-violent extremism? Is expressing an extreme opinion, an example of non-violent extremism? Presumably, violent extremism involves committing a violent act based on an ideology. May cites the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby as an example of this. However, on those grounds, the UK and the United States are just as guilty of violent extremism. The following is May’s short statement.

Mrs Theresa May:

The Government take the threat of extremism—non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism—very seriously. That is why, in line with the Prime Minister’s Munich speech in 2011, I reformed the Prevent strategy that year, and it is why, in response to the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, the Prime Minister established the extremism task force last year.”

“The Prevent strategy we inherited was deeply flawed. It confused Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism. It failed to tackle the extremist ideology that undermines the cohesion of our society and inspires would-be terrorists to murder. In trying to reach those at risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting. Ministers and officials sometimes engaged with, and therefore leant legitimacy to, organisations and people with extremist agendas.”

“Unlike the old strategy, this Government’s Prevent strategy recognises and tackles the danger of non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism. Unlike the old strategy, the new strategy addresses all forms of extremism. Unlike the old strategy, there is now a clear demarcation between counter-terrorism work, which is run out of the Home Office, and the Government’s wider counter-extremist and integration work, which is co-ordinated by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Unlike the old strategy, the new strategy introduced explicit controls to make sure that public money must not be provided to extremist organisations. If organisations do not support the values of democracy, human rights, equality before the law and participation in society, we should not work with them and we should not fund them.”

“Turning to the issue of the unauthorised comments to the media about the Government’s approach to tackling extremism and the improper release of correspondence between Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary undertook a review to establish the facts of what happened last week. As the Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister concluded, I did not authorise the release of my letter to the Education Secretary. Following the Cabinet Secretary’s review, the Education Secretary apologised to the Prime Minister and to Charles Farr, the director general of the office for security and counter-terrorism. In addition, in relation to further comments to The Times, my special adviser Fiona Cunningham resigned on Saturday.”

 

Iran: You Couldn’t Make It Up

On 12 June Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson was asked what representations he has made to his Iranian counterpart on that country’s material and financial support for terror organisations. This was Robertson’s considered reply.

Hugh Robertson:

We have serious concerns about Iran’s support for a number of militant groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the military wing of Hamas, and Shia militia groups, including in Iraq. This support undermines prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East. We have raised our concerns about such activity during our expanding bilateral engagement with Iran, and will continue to do so.”

Five days later, on 17 June, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK embassy in Tehran would be reopened, due to the “increasing confidence in conducting bilateral business directly rather than through our Swedish and Omani intermediaries.” It seems that the Government have decided to dispense with the long spoon in its dealings with Iran, one of the “axis of evil” countries, and will for the foreseeable future dine at the same table. A cynic would suggest that the re-establishment of relations with Iran is linked to the events in Iraq, where the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is effectively at war with the Shia government, with the ultimate, alleged, purpose of establishing a caliphate across the whole region. The support of Shia Iran to counteract ISIS is critical to this. In a short debate on the same day, Hague made no reference to this when asked what assessment he has made of recent political developments in the middle east.

Mr William Hague:

Advances by terrorists are threatening the sovereignty of Iraq. Assad’s refusal to negotiate a political transition has led to the largest humanitarian tragedy this century and is exacerbating the terrorist threat. We are working closely with the United States and European and regional nations to try to bring stability, tackle terrorism and relieve humanitarian suffering.”

This distortion of the roots of the current conflict takes some beating. It wasn’t so long ago that the Government wanted to support the opposition in Syria, which is now fuelling the crisis in Iraq. Obama has recently announced that the United States will be sending ”military advisers” to help al-Maliki’s beleaguered forces combat the threat from the Sunni extremists. One wonders how long it will be before Hague announces that the UK is sending “military advisers” to Iraq, having ruled out “boots on the ground.”

Hague went on to say, in reply to a point about the UK’s approach to Iran, that “We work with other nations across the globe to counter terrorism, and the United Kingdom is absolutely relentless in its efforts to defeat terrorism all over the world. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no softening of our policies in relation to Iran. We look to Iran to cease support for sectarian groups elsewhere in the middle east and to reach a successful conclusion to nuclear negotiations, but I believe that it is important to discuss such issues with Iran, and we need the ability to do so.”

Labour’s Gisela Stuart recently spent five days in Iran. It appears to have been a wasted journey given her comment about Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unless, of course, Stuart has a deeper understanding of the politics of Saudi Arabia than many of her colleagues.

Ms Gisela Stuart:

Having just returned from five days in Iran, I very much welcome the written ministerial statement on UK-Iran relationships. However, the events in Iraq have, for the first time ever, created a situation in which Saudi interests and Iranian interests have something in common, which is to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

 

Afghanistan: Mission Unaccomplished

Foreign Secretary William Hague presented his Monthly Progress Report on Afghanistan on 26 June. When the media report that British and US troops will leave the country at the end of the year they are being economical with the actualite, as the late Alan Clark once said. According to Hague the US will continue to have a military presence up to at least the end of 2016 and probably beyond.

Mr William Hague:

I wish to inform the House that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, is today publishing the 38th progress report on developments in Afghanistan since November 2010.”

“The Afghan Independent Election Commission confirmed that none of the presidential candidates secured over 50% of votes to win the election in the first round. Abdullah Abdullah was in the lead with 45% of the vote, followed by Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with 31.6%. There were 6.6 million valid votes in the presidential election, 2 million more than the 2009 election, a display of popular support for the democratic process. Approximately 36% of voters were women. The second round was scheduled for 14 June.”

“The Afghan Parliament passed by majority vote the presidential decree amending article 26 of the criminal procedure code. This amends the controversial wording of the original articles that legally prevented relatives from testifying in cases involving their own family members.”

“12 May marked the beginning of the fighting season. While there was a spike in violence and ANSF casualties on this date, this was expected and consistent with levels seen in previous fighting seasons. There were also two selection days for the first female blook (platoon) which selected 33 candidates to start in June 14, demonstrating the ANSF’s commitment to increase the role of women in the security sector.”

“The Helmand redeployment continued with the closure of observation post Sterga 2 on 10 May. Following the closure, conventional UK forces in Helmand are now based in Camp Bastion.”

“President Obama announced planned US post-2014 force levels. 9,800 US personnel will remain deployed in a regional model in 2015, reducing to 5,500 in Kabul by the end of 2015. A ‘normalised’ embassy-based mission supported by up to 1,000 troops will be in operation by the end of 2016, providing a bilateral security agreement is concluded satisfactorily.”

“I am placing the report in the Library of the House. It will also be published on the gov.uk website:www.gov.uk/government/publications/afghanistan-progress-reports

 

The Battle Of Waterloo: Remember It?

On 26 June, Labour’s Tom Watson, erstwhile scourge of News International, declared an interest in a 200 year old battle. He asked what plans the Government has to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015.

Sports, Tourism and Equalities Minister Helen Grant told Watson: “Planning for the commemoration, in 2015, of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is being carried out by Waterloo 200, an umbrella organisation which is overseeing the anniversary. More information can be found on its website at the following link: www.waterloo200.org In the June 2013 budget, the Chancellor announced funding circa £1 million will be allocated to restore the site of the battle.

“The previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), was also pleased to announce in October 2013 that at least £10 million will be made available by the Heritage Lottery Fund over the next four years to find projects marking some of the UK’s most important anniversaries and commemorative events, including the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.”

The odds on successful military adventures being prominent among the commemorations must be pretty short.

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