Madeleine Moon MP

Labour Member of Parliament for Bridgend

This Week in Parliament 10th - 11th November

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It was a short week in Parliament as the November recess began on Wednesday. Despite this, there were plenty of debates taking place, including over the payment of £1.7bn to the EU which the Chancellor claimed to have negotiated a deal on. There were also questions to the Justice Secretary and the Communities and Local Government Secretary.

MONDAY

Communities and Local Government Questions
 
The questions to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team were dominated by the long-running dispute over firefighter pensions in England, but also touched upon what action the Government would be taking to combat anti-Semitic abuse, which a report says is on the rise.

Pat Glass (North West Durham, Labour): What progress has the Department for Communities and Local Government made on resolving the dispute over firefighters’ pension?

Penny Mordaunt (Minister of State for Communities and Local Government): After extensive consultation and numerous changes, the Government laid the final regulations before Parliament on 28 October. They provide one of the best schemes in the public sector. I regularly meet firefighters and will continue to do so

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North, Labour): In a letter to the Shadow Fire Minister on 5 September, the Minister stated: “I am conscious that we will only have the ideas for the service to meet future challenges and aspirations if firefighters are engaged and feel an ownership for the service. Trust and good morale are key to this.” How does refusing to change a single word of the regulation improve morale, and how does refusing to negotiate improve trust?

Penny Mordaunt (Minister of State for Communities and Local Government): The irony of the honourable Gentleman’s question might be lost on him, but I am sure that it will not be lost on many Members of the House. There have been several changes to the scheme since it was originally published, including improvements on the 2006 scheme—introduced by Labour—which introduced retirement age at 60, disproportionately penalised firefighters who want to retire early and offered no protections on fitness. We have addressed those issues in the new scheme.

Hilary Benn (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government): I join the Secretary of State in condemning anti-Semitic abuse. I very much welcome the action he has taken today. Last year, the Secretary of State decided to extend permitted development rights so that offices could be converted to residential use without requiring planning permission. What assessment has he made of the impact of his change on the availability of office space, in particular for small and start-up businesses that are so important to our economy?

Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government): First, may I express great sadness that the right honourable Gentleman was not on his feet yesterday to defend his leader? For him to be missing seems to me to be deeply shameful. [Interruption.] Well I’m here to defend Ed. We did this because there was quite a lot of surplus office accommodation. It was a necessary thing to do and I think it has improved a number of town centres by getting people new homes. In terms of offering new and exciting ways for people to set up new businesses, the situation remains open.

Hilary Benn (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government): It seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State has clearly made no effort at all to find out the impact of his decision, despite reports of small businesses being affected. As he will know, the Mayor of London is very unhappy about what he has done. The Business Secretary thinks it is a really bad idea, saying that “in South West London large swathes of commercial property are in the process of disappearing…there is nowhere for small firms to operate.” A recent Local Government Association survey found in one case that 100 charities and small businesses had been given four to six weeks’ notice to quit. The right honourable Gentleman used to be a localist. He said earlier that he has given more power to local communities to take decisions on planning, so why did he decide that his view on this matter would prevail over the views of local people?

Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government): I note that the right honourable Gentleman has not taken the opportunity to defend the Leader of the Opposition, which again I am very shocked at. He should do his homework: local schemes exist and article 4 exists. It is possible to decide where they go and where they do not. People need housing, and where Labour failed to deliver houses, we have succeeded.


http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm141110/debtext/141110-0001.htm#1411103000011
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EU Budget Surcharge

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was called to Parliament by an Urgent Question submitted by Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, asking him to explain in more detail the deal that he claimed to have negotiated over the weekend over the £1.7bn surcharge to the EU Budget.

George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer): Last month the previous European Commission presented Britain with a bill for £1.7 billion, which it insisted must be paid by 1 December. The Prime Minister spoke for British taxpayers when he said that that was completely unacceptable, and we set about getting a better deal. Following intensive discussions with the new Commission and at the ECOFIN meeting last week, we have achieved such a deal. I can tell the House that we have halved the Bill, have delayed the Bill, will pay no interest on the Bill, and have changed the rules of the European Union so that such unacceptable behaviour never happens again.

As a result of those discussions, we achieved unanimous agreement that, first, expecting payment on 1 December was indeed unacceptable. The budget rules will therefore be rewritten to allow for a delay in any payment. In Britain’s case, that means that we will pay nothing this year, and will instead make payments in two instalments in July and September, in the second half of next year. Secondly, the suggestion that we might have to pay interest charges was rejected, and it was agreed unanimously that no interest would be charged on the delayed payments. Thirdly, in our discussion with the new European Commission, it was agreed that a full rebate would apply to the British payment, that the rebate would be specific, that it would be in addition to any other rebate that we might expect next year, and that, for the first time ever, it would be paid at the same time as any money owed.

It had not been not clear that we would receive a rebate, let alone such a large one. No one in the House had suggested that we would. Only my right honourable Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire had even asked a question about it. Indeed, it was only confirmed that we would receive a rebate, and a large one, by Vice-President Georgieva on 6 November, last Thursday evening. This means that Britain’s payments have been halved, from £1.7 billion to about £850 million.

In the face of this budget challenge, we have far exceeded the expectations and predictions that preceded Friday’s meeting. We have achieved a real result for Britain. The whole episode reminds us of the reform that we need in Europe—reform that Government Members believe should be put to a vote of the people of Britain.

Ed Balls (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer): If this is such a good deal, why did the Chancellor not offer to make a statement? Why was he dragged to the House this afternoon? Talk about smoke and mirrors, Mr Speaker—I can barely see you through the Chancellor’s fog and bluster!

Is not the truth that the Chancellor failed to reduce our contribution by a single penny? All he is doing is simply counting the rebate that was due anyway—a rebate that was never in doubt—in an attempt to fool people into thinking that the bill has been halved. His so-called victory is nothing more than a con trick. The Chancellor claims that the rebate was somehow in doubt, but that claim has been contradicted by everyone else. The EU Budget Commissioner was very clear when he said, on 27 October, in a statement on the backdated gross national income revisions, “the UK will benefit from the UK rebate for the additional payments”.

On Friday, having been asked whether the rebate was in doubt, the Vice-President of the Commission replied, “No, absolutely not.” On Friday, the Treasury was telling journalists that the Government had legal advice that the UK rebate somehow might not apply. If the legal advice exists, the Chancellor should publish it. Mr Barroso’s spokesperson, Mr Mark Gray, has directly contradicted the Treasury’s claims, saying: “Commission position on this clear at European Council—rebate was never in doubt”...

And it is worse. The Financial Times reported: “Officials involved in the closed-door negotiations between finance ministers said Mr Osborne did not complain about the overall bill.” He didn’t even complain about the overall bill, Mr Speaker! I have here the minutes of Friday’s ECOFIN meeting: 21 pages, and not a single reference in those 21 pages to the UK rebate or the amount Britain owes being reduced. Is it not now clear that the Chancellor totally failed to get a better deal for the taxpayer? He did not reduce Britain’s backdated bill by a single penny. The British people don’t like being taken for fools, and his attempts to fool them have totally unravelled.

George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer): No, the British people do not like being taken for fools which is why the Shadow Chancellor is in opposition. The Shadow Chancellor is one of those people who is wise neither after the event nor before the event. How do we know that? Because he wrote an article in The Guardian last Friday. It appeared alongside another article called “Labour is doomed” by one of his colleagues, and in his article he set out four tests that I had to pass. The first test, he said, was that we needed a coalition of support, and he asked me about that again today. We had unanimous support around the ECOFIN table for the deal that was agreed. The second test he set me before the ECOFIN council was that we needed the support of Germany. Well, we went to Berlin and the German Finance Minister was central to the deal that we did.

Thirdly, in this article, he said: “The Prime Minister should be clear about whether he intends to take the EU Commission to the European Court of Justice if they insist on the deadline of 1 December.” Well, we do not have a deadline of 1 December anymore, because we did not challenge the law; we changed the law. So three tests passed, and here is the fourth and final test the Shadow Chancellor set us: he said that the interest rates on any delayed payments should be fair. Well, I disagree. I do not think we should pay any interest at all, and we are not, but what is revealing about this fourth test is the number he himself gave for the fines Britain might face. He said: “Britain could face a…fine of £114,000 a day.”

Does he confirm that that is what he said in the article: £114,000 a day? [Interruption.] Well, he has given himself away because £114,000 a day happens to be the EU penal interest on £1.7 billion, so the shadow Chancellor, who stands before us today and says he always knew the rebate would apply, is the same shadow Chancellor who on Friday said we would paying £1.7 billion.

And of course the word “rebate” never appeared once in that article or, indeed, in any intervention from the Labour Party on this issue. This whole question from the Shadow Chancellor today is based on the absurd charade that he would stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe, but he gave away billions of pounds of the rebate, he signed us up to billions of pounds of Eurozone bail-out, and he still refuses to give the British people a say on our future in Europe. May I suggest to him that he should leave the strong leadership in Europe to us, and he should get on with throwing over the weak leadership in the Labour Party?

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm141110/debtext/141110-0001.htm#1411103000001

http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16407&st=15:34:18
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TUESDAY

Justice Questions

Tuesday saw questions to the Secretary of State for Justice; these included the case of a Welsh judge who recently criticised Government legal aid cuts, as well as concerns raised over the Government’s plans to part-privatise many elements of the prison probation service.

Jessica Morden (Newport East, Labour): A retired Welsh judge told BBC Wales last month that cuts to legal aid in the family court meant rising numbers of couples representing themselves, more contested hearings and longer delays in resolving cases, which “must be damaging to the child”. What consideration are the Government giving to the extent to which the system is working in the best interests of children?

Shailesh Vara (Minister of State for Justice): I remind the honourable Lady that the manifesto on which she stood at the last election referred in chapter 5, page 5 to legal aid cuts that would be made if Labour got into government. Perhaps she would like to ask the Opposition Front Benchers whether they intend to reverse the cuts that we have made.

Sadiq Khan (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice): The Minister will be aware that we disagree with the scale of the civil and criminal legal aid cuts that his Government have made. Has he read the serious recent criticism from a senior judge, Sir James Munby; a retired judge, Sir John Royce, about whom my honourable Friend the Member for Newport East asked a simple question; and Emma Scott, the Director of the Rights for Women charity? They have all expressed concern about the impact of the Government’s cuts. Is the Minister aware of their concerns and will he meet them? They are apolitical, serious experts who are genuinely worried about the impact of his cuts.


Shailesh Vara (Minister of State for Justice): The right honourable Gentleman asks whether I have read certain things. Has he read The Law Society Gazette of 24 September, following the Labour conference? The heading was, “Labour will not reverse legal aid cuts—Slaughter”. The reporter states: “Labour’s legal aid spokesman has warned that the party cannot reverse the cuts of the current government if it comes to power next year.” It goes on to say that “in a packed meeting organised by Justice Alliance UK in Manchester…Slaughter said he could not commit to re-establishing legal aid.” It quotes the honourable Member for Hammersmith as saying: “We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before”.

Sadiq Khan (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice): The independent chief inspector of prisons appointed by the previous Government is well respected by prison governors, prisoners, experts, the wider community and on both sides of the House. As the Justice Secretary will be aware, he is not afraid to
make critical reports. At a time of huge turmoil in the probation service, with massive problems throughout the country, why does the right honourable Gentleman think that the newly appointed chief inspector of probation, who has links to six of the 21 preferred bidders, has been so silent?

Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Justice): May I put it on record that I regard the current chief inspector of probation as a man of the highest integrity and of great professional expertise who has started to make a positive contribution to the probation arena. I recognise the issue raised earlier by the honourable Member for Darlington. I indicated that I would make further comments to the House in due course. We are only at the stage of preferred bidders. As I said earlier, there are many people in public life who are married to other people in public life. We should be extremely careful before we start to damn them because of that situation, or we risk losing some extremely able people from our public life.

Sadiq Khan (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice): Maybe the Justice Secretary can reassure us. Has the chief inspector of probation at any time raised concerns with him or his Ministers about the Transforming Rehabilitation programme? If so, what were they?

Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Justice): The chief inspector of probation has done a detailed piece of work on the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, and that report will be published shortly. He has highlighted a number of areas we are addressing. The report will set out in detail some issues, many of which preceded the current reforms and go back many years, on how to improve performance on probation. As I said to the House recently, I have asked the chief inspector and all inspectors to come to my office immediately and tell me if they identify anything in the reforms that gives cause for concern about public safety. They have not done so.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm141111/debtext/141111-0001.htm#14111147000004


 
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Oral Questions - Monday
 
The Lords began the day with a number of small debates on several questions. This Monday saw a diverse range of issues covered from exempting unpaid carers from the bedroom tax to the resources being allocated to different British Olympic and Paralympic teams for the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 to the mental health of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.
 

Lord Roberts of Llandudno (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the mental health of asylum seekers who have had to wait 12 months or longer before being allowed to apply for work?

Lord Bates (Minister of State for Home Affairs): My Lords, asylum seekers may apply for permission to work if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months. The Government have had no cause to assess the impact of this policy on the mental health of asylum seekers. However, we are always open to discussing any welfare concerns with voluntary sector and refugee groups.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno (Liberal Democrat): I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. However, does he not agree that we are all very much aware of the stress and tension that are caused when someone cannot find a job, which sometimes lead to suicide? Will he consider that asylum seekers, who are not allowed even to apply for a job for 12 months, face stress even worse than that faced by others? We know that there have been cases of suicide because of the prohibition against allowing them to work for that first 12 months. Would it not be a humanitarian gesture for us to reduce that 12 months to six months, so that asylum seekers have less time to wait until they can apply for work?

Lord Bates (Minister of State for Home Affairs): It is a very difficult situation. Of course, we have every sympathy with the people who come here. However, the reality is that, if they are allowed to work while they are not here legally, we are saying that they are able to compete in the labour market with people who are here legally. That would be unfair. It is not the case that they cannot work; they are able to volunteer in the community and they are getting support, with all their accommodation covered and access to education and health care, including mental health care if they need it.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour): My Lords, the denial of the right to paid work, as well as the inadequate asylum support system, can lead to severe poverty or even destitution. Last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence that women, many of whom have fled violence, are thereby made vulnerable to further violence and sexual exploitation. What steps are the Government taking to prevent this as part of their strategy to end violence against women and girls?

Lord Bates (Minister of State for Home Affairs): I accept the point that the noble Baroness is making about the importance of providing that protection. Of course, asylum seekers have accommodation with all utility bills and council tax paid, access to legal aid, safety and protection and a liaison officer allocated to them. However, in providing the care, we need to reach a decision on their asylum claims as quickly as possible so that they can get on and rebuild their lives.

Lord Dubs (Labour): My Lords, of course one wants quick decisions because it is not fair to keep people hanging on month after month after month. However, does the Minister accept that it is humiliating and frustrating to want to work and not to be allowed to? Would it save the country money if these people were allowed to work and contribute more to our society?

Lord Bates (Minister of State for Home Affairs): The six-month period applies broadly across Europe. We have arrived at the figure of 12 months but the key is to speed up the decision-making process. However, during that time we encourage people to undertake volunteering, learn the English language and take IT courses. They can get support with those types of initiative.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm131031/debtext/131031-0001.htm#13103165000029

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Control of Arms Exports Committees
 
The Control of Arms Export Committee met this week to continue its scrutiny of arms exports to countries with poor human rights records. Members of the committee, in particular its chair Sir John Stanley, have expressed concern that the Coalition Government has relaxed limits on export licences to oppressive regimes leading to an increase in sales of equipment and munitions that could be used for internal repression and human rights abuses.

On Monday the Committee took evidence from both civil and industry witneses on the issue. First to give evidence were:

 
  • Roy Isbister, Team Leader, Small Arms and Transfer Controls, Saferworld
  • Oliver Sprague, Programme Director, Military Security and Police, Amnesty International UK
  • Martin Butcher, Policy Adviser – Arms Campaign, Oxfam GB
You can read more about CAEC and their work here:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/other-committees/committee-on-arms-export-controls/news/2015-inqury-ev-session-1/

And watch the evidence session through the link below:
 
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