Thursday, 25 June 2009

Downing St. u-turn on MP pensions - as it happened

Earlier this year Gordon Brown announced a series of changes to MPs terms and conditions that he wanted to see implemented at once. One that attracted little attention at the time was his suggestion that MPs pay just over £60 per month extra into their pensions. I looked at the figure and realised that this was not enough to prevent the taxpayer from also being asked to pay more in 2009/10. I took the view that this was not acceptable and tabled a motion to this effect along with Frank Field and Vince Cable. As I write it has 23 signatures, including one independently-minded Conservative.

There was then a delay in debating this aspect of the package but a motion was put down by Harriet Harman for debate today (Thursday 25th). On Tuesday night I tabled an amendment with Frank and Vince to freeze the taxpayer contribution at its (already generous) 2008/09 level. Until yesterday afternoon the Government were taking no notice, saying it was simply following what the Government Actuary had said. But a reporter from Bloomberg raised the issue at the afternoon lobby briefing, the press and broadcast media caught on to the story, and suddenly things took on a life of their own. The Conservatives announced they would back my amendment, and by mid-evening Downing Street said that if my amendment was selected for debate they would accept it!

This is only a relatively modest change, and a review body is quite rightly looking at root-and-branch reform of the MPs' pension scheme. But hopefully it does send a signal that MPs are realising that we can no longer give the impression that too many of us live in a bubble sealed off from the real world.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Speaker #3

So, it looks like its down to two: John Bercow 221 so far, and George Young 174; roughly 200 votes up for grabs; if they split 40:60 Bercow:Young (as happened in the last round of transfers) it would end up Bercow 301, Young 294 or thereabouts - incredibly close! In a way that would be a shame, as we could do with a Speaker who can clearly unite the House.

PS All the other remaining candidates have now dropped out

Speaker #2

Results of round 1:

John Bercow 179
George Young 112
Margaret Beckett 74
Alan Haselhurst 66
Alan Beith 55
Ann Widdecombe 44

Eliminated are: Parmjit Dhanda (26), Richard Shepherd (15), Patrick Cormack (13) and Michael Lord (9)

We now have ten minutes to see if anyone drops out, otherwise a second round of voting.

[PS Do I get a bonus point for correctly predicting the first four to drop out??]

Electing a Speaker - 'live' update (well nearly...)

Just come from the House of Commons where we've just heard from the ten candidates for Speaker. We have until about ten past four to vote then they reckon it will take about an hour to count the first round of votes. The bottom candidate plus anyone with less than five per cent of the poll has to drop out, plus anyone who realises they don't have much support. We could easily drop to four candidates in round two.

I should declare that I have nominated Alan Beith, so I'm not impartial! Alan is a decent man, not a member of the two larger parties (which I think is an advantage in a highly partisan parliament) and has a track record as a select committee chairman and over many years in Parliament of being widely respected around the House.

Anyway, having got that off my chest, the main things I thought about what we have just heard were:

- good performances from George Young (who I voted for last time and who I might well vote for again if Alan Beith drops out), John Bercow and Parmjit Dhanda. Ann Widdecombe was well received but the Labour faces didn't look sympathetic from where I was sitting;
- surprising cheer for Alan Haselhurst (current deputy speaker); hard to tell if it was just from the opposition benches or from the Government as well;
- Margaret Beckett started off (which was not easy) but was very disappointing;

Most interesting idea was from Alan Haselhurst who proposed sensible use of Fridays for private members bills debates with 'deferred votes' (ie you don't spend a whole day out of the constituency simply on the off chance of a single vote on a Bill);

At this stage, my best guess is that the following will be eliminated early on:

- Richard Shepherd, Michael Lord, Patrick Cormack and Parmjit Dhanda.

However, since every candidate needs 12-15 supporters to stand, and the minimum to stay in is five per cent (or around 30), few will be forced out first time round.

I'll post the result as soon as we have it.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Yet another own goal...

The decision to publish MP expenses with large swathes of black ink is yet another own goal by the Parliamentary establishment. A day that could finally have lanced the boil of this issue by bringing everything into the open has instead created a new wave of resentment and cynicism. Even the most honest MPs look like they are trying to cover things up.

Looking at the expense claims that go in, there is virtually nothing that needs to be concealed - I would suggest credit card numbers / bank account details and signatures - not much else. All the rest should have been simply published. I couldn't believe my ears when I saw the TV news last night and one senior MP who had overseen the whole process of blacking out expense details suddenly telling Nick Robinson it was all a disgrace!

I can only hope that the Election of a new Speaker on Monday starts a completely fresh way of thinking about our role as MPs and that the old attitudes are got rid of as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The next steps to a Digital Britain

In the Commons this afternoon to hear new Secretary of State Ben Bradshaw launch the final report on 'Digital Britain'. Among many important matters, the report dealt with the issue of access to broadband - both at current speeds and at proposed 'next generation' speeds. The key points were:

- to reaffirm a 'universal service broadband commitment' that everyone would be able to achieve 2 Mbps by 2012; this would be based on existing technology such as DSL, 'fibre to the cabinet', new wireless coverage and possibly 'satellite infill'; some of the money for this would come from what looks like being the underspend on the money that the BBC has been given for facilitating the switchover to digital TV;

- recognising that new 'superfast' broadband (eg optical fibre cables) would only ever be commercially viable to deliver to about two thirds of the country; (I hadn't realised that around half the country is cabled and is therefore now on the brink of superfast broadband delivered by Virgin); a strategy was therefore needed for the 'final third'; this is to be funded by a 50p per month 'broadband tax' (though that's not what they call it); companies could then bid for this money (which would raise around £150m per year) in return for delivering superfast broadband to those areas that would be in the 'final third' that would not otherwise be delivered.

In response to the statement I queried whether 2 Mbps obligation by 2012 was really good enough. Whilst that speed would be heaven-sent for some people today who have very poor service, by 2012 I suspect that such speeds will seem wholly inadequate and will again leave people excluded, especially if the next town are getting 50 Mbps on cable. Ben Bradshaw said that the 2 Mbps was the speed needed to use BBC iPlayer and that seemed a reasonable goal.

All of this does mean that a lot of people will start to get much better broadband speeds over the coming years, but, as ever, I can't help thinking that the market towns and villages of South Gloucestershire will end up near the back of the queue unless we are organised and effective in our lobbying.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Could this be the Cabinet that never meets?

At 10pm on Thursday the minister I shadow in Parliament, James Purnell, announced his resignation. For a few hours it looked as though the dam had broken, other frontline ministers would follow suit, and the Prime Minister would have to go. But, after a night's sleep, the major potential successors to Gordon Brown each decided that they didn't want to be the one to push him over the edge. By the end of that day Gordon Brown had just about managed to form a cabinet (though how you must feel as a Labour MP that he has repeatedly had to turn unelected people into Lords to get enough quality to fill a Cabinet?) and the consensus was that he had survived.

But tomorrow night we get the European election results and they are universally expected to be bad for Labour. I strongly suspect we may have no Labour MEP in our region - the South West - which is pretty extraordinary for the governing party. If the results are grim this will give fresh momentum to the Labour rebels to get together a list of names to produce on Monday. If that list is long enough, even the stubborn Prime Minister will surely realise he has to go. The Cabinet appointed yesterday might never get to meet. Let's hope they don't all pick up redundancy payments if the new leader doesn't reappoint them....

If there is a Labour leadership election it would be outrageous if there was not then an immediate General Election. Changing the Prime Minister once without consulting the British people is bad enough, but doing it twice would be an outrage.

The slogan: "Gordon Brown - five more years" is one I think most advertising agencies would struggle with. I reckon his time is up.