2014 03 – Parliament Notes

Parliament Notes

Dick Barry

Hancock’s Half-Baked Politics

Matthew Hancock, Tory MP for the ultra safe seat of West Suffolk and Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, appeared on BBC TV’s Question Time on 6 February. A member of the audience asked if workers in essential services should be prevented from striking. Hancock dithered over the answer, saying meekly, “we need to consider it.” The question was prompted by the London underground 48 hour transport strike on 5 and 6 February. His views on this were unequivocal. He began saying that he supported trade unions, but “they” (i.e. union members) “are badly served by their bosses”. “The majority of workers on the tube didn’t vote for the strike and were driven into it by their bosses”, he said. When George Galloway, another panellist, retorted “you support trade unions like a rope supports a hanging man”, Hancock, failing to spot the Leninist jibe, simply said, “only 30% of members of the RMT voted for this strike”.

The RMT were supported in the strike by the TSSA, some of whose members are ticket office staff. In total, 953 could lose their jobs if Boris Johnson’s plans to close all ticket offices go ahead. But Hancock wasn’t interested in the TSSA. His target was the RMT and its elected General Secretary Bob Crow. Crow is a straight talking working class Londoner whose left wing views are well known. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he defends and protects the interests of his members, the job he is paid to do. At around £145,000 a year, some would say handsomely paid. Some of his members, tube drivers, earn around £52,000 a year. Not enough to be in the 45% tax bracket, but too much for people like Hancock to stomach. But the real issue here is the right of workers to take strike action. Some Tories want to make it as difficult as possible for them to do so.

Boris Johnson has proposed that a strike should not be valid unless at least 50% of members of a trade union have voted. The RMT has said that the turnout was 40%, with 76% of those who voted supporting strike action. The TSSA turnout was 49%, with 58% voting for strike action. These are clear majorities in favour of strike action of the membership who voted. Unless Hancock and Johnson want to make it compulsory to vote, they will just have to accept that’s how democracy currently works in Britain. If elections to the House of Commons under the present voting system depended on a turnout of at least 50% of the electorate in a constituency, some constituencies would be unrepresented.

At the 2010 general election the West Suffolk electorate was 74,374. Of those, 48,089 voted, (64.66% of the total electorate). Hancock’s share of the vote was 50.56% or 24,312. But his share of the total electorate was just 32.68%. On Johnson’s criteria, Hancock’s election would be valid. But Johnson’s would have failed the test. In the last London mayoral election there was a turnout of just 38%, well below the 50% mark Johnson wishes to impose on trade unions. His share of first preference votes was 44%, but only 17% of the total electorate. Johnson’s Oxford double first in Classics is no help with his arithmetic.


Parliament’s Under 50% Club

At the 2010 general election 50 constituencies experienced a decline in voter turnout over 2005 of between 8.8% and 30.6%. More significantly perhaps, in 13 of those constituencies voter turnout fell below 50%. The constituencies, in descending order of turnout, were: Barking (49.9%); Tottenham (48%); Feltham and Heston (47.8%); Liverpool West Derby (47.7%); Newcastle Upon Tyne Central (47.4%); Vauxhall (47.3%); Salford and Eccles (46.4%); Tyneside North (46.2%); Poplar and Limehouse(46.1%); Hull West and Hessle (44.9%); Liverpool Walton (44.1%); Liverpool Riverside (40.9%); Staffordshire South (37.7%). All seats, with the exception of Staffordshire South, were held by Labour. Some of these seats are held by prominent Labour figures. They include,  Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles), Margaret Hodge (Barking),  Alan Johnson (Hull West and Hessle), David Lammy (Tottenham), and Stephen Twigg (Liverpool West Derby). Staffordshire South is the former seat of  Labour’s Denis McShane who was jailed for expenses fraud. The seat was gained for the Conservatives by Gavin Williamson in a by-election held on 27 May 2010. The turnout fell from 68.4% in 2005 to 37.7% in 2010.

In the by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East, held on 13 February, and won comfortably by Labour, the turnout was a derisory 28%. The result was: Mike Kane, Labour, 13,261; John Bickley, Ukip, 4,301; Daniel Critchlow, Conservative, 3,479; Mary Di Mauro, Lib Dem, 1,176; Nigel Woodcock, Green, 748; Eddy O’Sullivan, BNP, 708; Captain Chaplington-Smythe, Monster Raving Loony, 288. The Lib Dems lost their deposit. The Ukip seem to be making a habit of pushing the Tories into third place in Labour strongholds in the north of England. They may do the same to Labour in Tory strongholds in the south of the country. While the poor old Lib Dems appear to be in melt down.

There are at least ten more Labour-held seats at risk of falling below the 50% mark at the next general election. The ten seats are, with 2010 turnout in brackets, Hackney South and Shoreditch (50.5%); Hackney North and Stoke Newington (50.6%); Liverpool Wavertree (50.7%); Westminster North (50.7%); Nottingham South (50.8%); Lewisham Deptford (51.3%); Streatham (51.8%); Greenwich and Woolwich (51.9%); Bethnall Green and Bow (52.7%); and Brentford and Isleworth (53.2%).


Floods Of Money?

David Cameron’s “money is no object” comment, suggesting that there will be no limit on the amount of money needed for flood defences, was no doubt spurred by the fact that many of the constituencies in the areas affected are held by Tory and Lib Dem members. That at least is the cynical way of viewing it. But the spending reality is different. Cameron and Environment Secretary Owen Patterson are being disingenuous when they claim that they are spending more than Labour did on flood defence work. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what the updated House of Commons Standard Note SN/SC/5755, ‘Flood defence spending in England’, published on 12 February 2014, said:

“Some 5.2 million properties are at risk of flooding in England. Annual flood damage costs are in the region of £1.1 billion. These costs could rise to as much as £27 billion by 2080. It has been estimated that maintaining existing levels of flood defence would require flood defence spending to increase to over £1 billion per year by 2035. Central Government spending on flood defences will reduce in real terms over the spending review period. The Government has introduced a new flood defence funding system, which it believes will help meet the shortfall. The new funding arrangements seek to encourage more local investment in flood defences, so that schemes that might not be funded nationally may still go ahead. There are concerns about the extent to which local communities are able to contribute to flood defence funding. While the number of properties at risk of flooding may not rise in the short term, there could be a significant increase in the longer term if current spending levels do not increase.”

The latter point is a reference to local authority spending on flood defence. The Government’s claim that it is spending more than Labour is true only if local authority partnership funding is included. A report by BBC News Environment analyst Roger Harriban on 16 January confirmed this: “Floods Minister Don Rogerson has admitted ‘some minor inconsistencies’ in figures provided, adding that they have now been ‘rectified.’ The amount of flood spending will reach a new high – but only if the government counts partnership funding from local councils. Environment Secretary Owen Patterson has been under pressure on the issue after he repeatedly insisted that the coalition was spending money at a record level, a claim also made by Prime Minister David Cameron.”

“Mr Patterson’s deputy Mr Rogerson has published a clarification, saying: ‘Floods funding is complex with a number of different income streams including government funding, local levies, and other contributions towards schemes. The clarified figures confirm that without the partnership funding, the government is spending £2.341 billion in the current spending review (2011-15), compared with £2.371 billion spent in 2007-11. Only if ministers include a further £148 million in partnership funding can the government claim it is spending more than Labour on floods.”

The House of Commons Library Note provided further detailed proof that flood defence spending was higher under Labour. Under a sub-heading ‘National flood defence spending’ (page 3 of Note), it said: “There was a significant increase in flood defence spending from 1997 to 2010 – spending increased by three-quarters in real terms. Central Government spending on flood defence in 2010-11 was cut soon after the Coalition Government was formed. Spending was reduced in that year by £30 million, or 5%. In the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (2011-12 to 2014-15), a total of £2.17 billion in central government funding was provided for flood and coastal defence. This represented a ‘six per cent fall in central government funding.’ The Committee on Climate Change calculated that this represented a real term cut of around 20% compared to the previous spending period.”

All of this frenetic activity by Cameron and co. demonstrates clearly the important role the state plays in the daily lives of people. Imagine the outcry in Tory constituencies affected by flooding if it was proposed that flood defence work should be a matter only for the private sector; handed to G4S for example. Tory celebrity MP Nadine Dorries claimed in a recent Commons debate that governments don’t create jobs. The time she spent in the celebrity jungle has clearly resulted in a serious loss of brain cells. The Government has created and supported and continues to create and support, millions of jobs. Without government help, through tax breaks and other financial incentives, most business and industry couldn’t survive. And jobs in the public services, the Fire Service, NHS and Police for example, are created and maintained by government. Not to mention jobs at a local and national government level, including flood defence work.  Let the Tories shrink the state if they wish, but it will be at the peril of us all.


Hammond’s Illusions

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond made a statement on Afghanistan to the House of Commons on 10 February. As one would expect it was riddled with political hyperbole. The following is a flavour of it:

Philip Hammond

It is well over a decade since September 11, but the events of that day still have the power to shock. The operation that began later in 2001, and continues to this day, has been hard fought and has cost us dear, but the cost of doing nothing and abandoning Afghanistan to the terrorists and insurgents would have been much greater. Thankfully, in today’s Afghanistan al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self and we are all safer as a consequence.”

“Since the start of operations in 2001, 447 members of our armed forces have made the ultimate sacrifice, two of them since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made the last quarterly statement on Afghanistan to the House on 17 October. I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary courage and commitment of those individuals, and of their families, who have to live daily with the loss of their loved ones, and of the many hundreds more who have suffered life-changing injuries. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. They have protected our national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. Working with our international security assistance force partners and the Afghans themselves, they have ensured that Afghanistan is neither a safe haven, nor a launch pad for terrorists who despise everything we stand for and seek to destroy our way of life.” (my emphasis).

This latter statement is nonsense. It is the fantasy of a Blair politician. A diversion from the real reasons why al-Qaeda have attacked the west. Hammond links terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, refusing to acknowledge that the insurgents, the Taliban, have no interest in attacking the west. Their sole motive is to rid Afghanistan, their country, of western invaders. Just as the mujahideen, which the west supported, fought to eject Soviet troops in the 1980s. And al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan because it has moved elsewhere, into Pakistan for example. Not because it has been defeated, as Hammond implies. He went on in similar vein to justify western intervention.

“The security situation in Afghanistan today represents very real progress since 2003. When the campaign started, the Afghan national security forces did not exist. Today they are leading operations, protecting the population and taking on the Taliban. For example, as part of the security operation for the Loya Jirga in November, the ANSF established a layered security zone a week before the event. It was a complex, large-scale operation in which all elements of the ANSF co-operated. The results were impressive: 6 tonnes of home-made explosives were interdicted and the event ran safely and smoothly.”

“The ANSF have almost reached their surge strength target of 352,000 army, police and air force personnel, and between them they are leading 97% of all security operations and carrying out over 90% of their own training. While work continues on professionalising the forces and addressing high attrition levels, their ability to provide security for the Afghan people and maintain the momentum generated by a coalition of 50 nations remains a significant achievement – a source of pride to the Afghan forces themselves and a source of confidence to the civilian population.”

But all this prompts the question: if the ANSF have been so successful, why will the British military presence continue in Afghanistan? Could it be that confidence in the ANSF’s ability to handle the Taliban is at best luke-warm? For Hammond confirmed that British withdrawal will not be total: “The combat operation might be ending, but our commitment to Afghanistan will endure. A small contingent of UK military will remain to provide the coalition lead at the Afghan national army officer academy, supported by mentors from Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway. The academy is currently training over 250 male officer cadets. We expect to train an additional 30 female officers alongside each male intake, with the first female cohort starting in June this year. Together, they will form the next generation of military leaders, and this will be our lasting legacy to the Afghan army.”

“Afghanistan today is a very different place from the one we entered in 2001. The Afghans are taking charge of their security and their democracy. It is changing fast, with a growing economy, a young population, and a revolution in access to the outside world through mobile communications and satellite TV. The 2013 Asia Foundation survey of Afghanistan paints a picture of a people who, despite the country’s difficulties, can dare to hope. This is particularly true in Helmand, where 84% of the population believe their country is heading in the right direction. They are a people who are at last seeing an opportunity to move away from the conflicts of the past and towards a brighter future of reconciliation, investment and lasting security. We have played our part in making that happen. We should be proud of what our armed forces have achieved over the past 13 years in helping Afghanistan to stand once again on its own two feet. Our focus now is on helping the Afghans to secure the gains of the last decade, using these as a platform for further steady progress in the years to come.”

There is not a word about the deaths of civilians, collateral damage is the western term, in Hammond’s glowing statement. His attention was drawn to this, and other matters, by Labour’s Paul Flynn

“Heroin production is at a record high, the number of civilian deaths is at a record high, the Taliban control large parts of the country and the hard-won women’s rights are being degraded by the ingrate Karzai, who described our brave soldiers and their work as a failure, especially in Helmand, where most of them died. Can this be described as ‘mission accomplished’”? He could have said more, but nevertheless it forced Hammond to retreat somewhat from his optimistic statement:

Philip Hammond

And the hon. Gentleman forgot to say that the glass was half empty. No one has ever suggested that Afghanistan is emerging as a perfect society. This is a war-torn country with deep ethnic and tribal divisions and a young and fragile Government seeking to hold it together, and we are trying to assist them in maintaining something better than what has been there in the past – decades of internecine warfare resulting in desperate standards of living, many tens of thousands of people dead and many more displaced.”

“On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, there has been an uptick in civilian deaths, but given the historical levels of civilian deaths, I believe we are making progress. I am disappointed by the recent opium harvest figures – he is right that we are not making as much progress there as we would like – but on women’s rights I think he is being unduly negative. Rights do not just operate around statutes and laws; they are about societal norms, and the norms in Afghan society are changing. The genie of women’s rights is out of the bottle, as even the Taliban now acknowledge in recognising the rights of girls to an education. That is progress, albeit slow and painful progress.”

When Hammond retires from Parliament he can look back at his tenure as Defence Secretary and be grateful that 447 British military personnel died so that girls in Afghanistan could go to school. But it’s unlikely that the parents of those who died will be equally grateful.


No Smoking Vehicles

A Labour Lords amendment to the Children and Families Bill carried by the House of Commons by 269 votes (376 to 107) on 10 February calls for a ban on smoking in private vehicles when children are present. Amendment 125, ‘Protection of Children’s Health: Offence of Smoking in a Private Vehicle’, was moved by Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Jane Ellison. In a free vote it was supported by most Labour MPs, but none more so than Luciana Berger Member for Liverpool Wavertree since 2010, who once admitted she’d never heard of Bill Shankly. As she was selected as Labour candidate, one has to assume that the selection meeting was overwhelmingly attended by supporters of Everton FC. It should be noted that the amendment empowers, but does not compel, ministers to make it a criminal offence for drivers to fail to prevent smoking in their privately owned vehicles when children are present. Berger’s speech, and that of Tory Philip Davies, who opposed the amendment, are interesting for what they say about the new breed of Labour MPs and the libertarians in the Tory party.

Luciana Berger

It is worth remembering that when the Bill left the House, it did not contain any of the tobacco measures before us today. Those provisions are a credit to those in the other place who successfully argued for them, for which I commend them. The package of measures was passed with a great deal of agreement in the other place, so I hope we can preserve that consensus in this House.”

Ann Main

The Minister and the hon. Lady have talked about smoking in cars, but Lords amendment 125 refers to smoking in ‘private vehicles’, which means that it will cover any vehicle, including motorised homes. We need to be absolutely clear that any vehicle will be affected, not just cars.”

Luciana Berger: Lords amendment 125 refers specifically to private vehicles. (So) let me turn to Lords amendment 125 and the question of protecting children from adults smoking in cars…..In the final analysis, the decision before the House comes down to a simple question: if we know beyond doubt that passive smoking in an enclosed space can do serious harm to a person’s health and that hundreds of thousands of children are being subjected to passive smoking in a car every single week, and if we know from our experience of similar laws passed in this country and others that legislation can have a major impact by changing behaviour and improving public health, should we act and do something, or stand by and do nothing? We say that we cannot afford not to act.”

Tim Loughton (Conservative)

By that same token, does the hon. Lady concede that we should criminalise pregnant women who smoke, on the basis that their child is in an even more confined space than a car?”

Luciana Berger

We are considering a specific provision, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to bring forward further measures, I am sure that the House would wish to debate them. We are talking about children who do not have a choice when travelling in a car. We all know the dangers of passive smoking, but the reality is that its worst consequences are inflicted predominately on the very youngest in our society. Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers because they have smaller lungs and faster breathing rates than adults……Bronchitis, asthma, meningitis, glue ear, the common cold and reduced lung function are just some of the many respiratory illnesses that can be suffered by children as a result of passive smoking.”

Sir Gerald Howarth (Con)

If smoking is so damaging to children’s health, surely the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument is that we should ban smoking in people’s homes.”

Luciana Berger

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will talk later about the toxicity of smoke in an enclosed vehicle, because many studies have shown that children are susceptible to passive smoke in the back of a car in a way that they are not in a building or in the home……….A significant proportion of the effects of passive smoking felt by children are linked to passive smoking in a car, not least because – this relates to the intervention made by the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) – tobacco smoke in a small, enclosed car can create levels of pollution that are up to 35 times greater than the level deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. A single cigarette in a car can create concentrations of smoke up to 11 times greater than those in a smoky pub of old.”

“I agree with the Minister when she says that we need better education and that we have to improve public awareness. Adults and parents have a duty to act responsibly, but we know from experience that when education is accompanied by legislation, it can help bring about profound changes in behaviour. That is why we already have laws on what people can and cannot do in cars, from not using mobile phones at the wheel to compulsory seats for children under the age of five. It is why our existing smoke-free legislation already makes it illegal to smoke in the workplace or in public vehicles. The proposal to protect children from smoking in cars would build on that precedent.”

If Berger and her colleagues are genuinely concerned about children’s health they could go a lot further than to ban smoking in private vehicles. Tim Loughton and Gerald Howarth asked reasonable questions about pregnant women and smoking in homes which Berger ignored. There is also the question of whether the ban applies to vehicles in motion only or also those that are stationary. If it applies to both, how will it be enforced in the case of motorised homes stationed at a special site? Will the police be expected to patrol these sites? And when a vehicle is in motion, how are the police to determine if there is a child on board.? Will they stop every vehicle where the driver is smoking? And why stop at a ban on smoking in private vehicles if the issue is children’s health? Obesity in children is a serious health issue. It is known to be caused by lack of exercise and bad diet, particularly the consumption of processed food. Is Luciana Berger prepared  to take on the food industry and call for a ban on the sale of processed food? Some of these related issues were addressed by Tory Philip Davies.

Philip Davies

I have no quibble at all with the hon. Member for Liverpool Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who represents the smug, patronising excesses of new Labour. They think that the only reason they came into Parliament was to ban everybody else from doing all the things  that they happen not to like. What perturbs me is that Conservative Ministers appear not to have grasped the concept, even though they claim to be Conservatives, that we can disapprove of something without banning it. This is just another in the long line of triumphs for the nanny state…… I believe parents are much better placed to decide what is best for their children than the state is. If we want to encourage parents to take responsibility for their children, we have to give them that responsibility. We will never get parents to do that if the Government say, ‘Don’t worry about taking responsibility for your children, because we will make all the relevant decisions for you. You don’t have to worry about anything.’ That is not something we should be encouraging.”

“The Conservative party used to believe in the rights of private property, and that people could do as they pleased in their own private property. Their private vehicle is their own private property. If people wish to smoke in a car with children, that is their decision for them to take. As Conservatives, we should not interfere with that. Members have talked about small and confined places and about restricting the proposal to private vehicles……..What is the difference between a caravan and a small car? What is the difference between a small, confined flat and an open-top car? Why is it worse for people to smoke in an open-top car than in a confined flat or a caravan? Why is one much more of a danger to health than the other? This in no way reflects the fact that most car journeys are very short. Why do Labour Members think it is an absolute outrage and terribly dangerous for somebody’s child if they smoke in a two-minute car journey but absolutely fine for them to smoke for hour after hour in a caravan that is, in many cases, just as much of a confined space? The whole thing is absolute nonsense.”

“Moreover, this is totally and utterly unenforceable. What on earth are we doing saying to the police, whose resources are already stretched, that all of a sudden this should be a new priority for them to undertake? Have they got nothing better to do than go up as close as they can to a moving car to see whether there happens to be a small child in the back seat? Of course this is not just about small children but all children. How on earth does the driver prove that the person in the back of the car is over 18 rather than under 18? ………It is gesture politics of the worst kind, with Ministers and shadow Ministers trying to flex their health zealotry at all these health organisations and saying, ‘We’re tougher on these matters than the others.’………All these arguments are arguments for banning smoking altogether. If people had the courage of their convictions and said, ‘We should ban smoking altogether’, I would at least have some respect for them, but they dare not say that that is what they want to do, even though we know it is their real agenda.”

The following Cabinet Ministers voted for the ban on smoking in private vehicles: Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change; Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education; Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development;  Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence; Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health; and George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The following Shadow Cabinet Ministers voted for the ban: Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Hilary Benn, Andy Burnham, Vernon Coaker, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Margaret Curran, Gloria De piero, Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Harriet Harman, Tristram Hunt, Sadiq Khan, Jim Murphy, Chris Leslie, Rachel Reeves, Owen Smith, John Trickett,  Chuka Umunna, and Rosie Winterton. The following Shadow Members did not vote: Michael Dugher, Ivan Lewis, and Ed Miliband.

The following Cabinet Ministers voted against the ban: Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor; Theresa May, Home Secretary; and Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The following Cabinet Members did not vote: Vince Cable, David Cameron, Alistair Carmichael, Nick Clegg, William Hague, David Jones, Patrick McLoughlin, Maria Miller, Owen Patterson, and Eric Pickles.

In spite of it being a free vote, no Labour Member voted against the ban. Odd, to say the least.

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