Tag Archives: House of Commons

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

Social care reform – the next great health debate?

Amid the furore surrounding the Government’s legislation on NHS reform, the wheels have slowly been turning on reform in the social care sector.

At last week’s seminar on the future of social care held at The Care Show in London, the chief executive of the English Community Care Association, Martin Green, said that engaging with government policy makers had never been more important. Peter Hay, President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, and a member of the Department of Health’s listening exercise, NHS Future Forum echoed that sentiment.

It is no wonder that leading figures in social care are urging organisations and the wider public to engage. Social care is under huge strain and faces potentially huge changes in policy, particularly on funding and care home regulation.

The Dilnot Commission on the funding of social care has reported and its findings are being digested within the Department of Health. Local authority funding of social care was already being squeezed, but following the Budget, this is now being done with thumbscrews.

The sorry saga of the collapse of Southern Cross, in part a consequence of reduced local authority funding, has tainted politicians’ perceptions of care home providers. It has also prompted the House of Commons Health Select Committee to widen its inquiry into social care to examine the regulation of care homes in addition to future funding and personalisation. It will look into how to protect against the consequences of operators going bust, and we can expect some very public grilling of care home providers over the coming months.

The DoH published a discussion paper last week on the regulation of the social care market. It examines issues surrounding the risk of financial failure of large care home operators.

There is no guarantee that every care home will always remain open. Nor is the DoH looking to protect care home businesses. There will be no “moral hazard” of the sort that surrounds banks. If a care home operator becomes unviable as a business, it will ultimately be allowed to fail.

What the DH is groping for is a system that will help prevent failures like that of Southern Cross and allow for the orderly transition of care homes to new operators. It is looking for feedback on suggestions such as tougher regulation, more rigorous financial checks, or requiring operators to post bonds to cover for financial failure.

This is just to scratch the surface; the options for reform could reach into every aspect of social care and there is no shortage of contentious issues. Just when the Government gets its NHS reforms enacted (or ditched?), it will set itself up for another round of reform, policy proposals and, no doubt some heavy-duty controversy along the way.

There will be some serious policy boxing over the coming months, with round one commencing with publication of the social care White Paper next spring. Anyone with an interest in the future of social care should answer the calls to engage. Let’s just hope that the ring is big enough to hold us all.

Don’t disengage because of the election

With the general election almost certain to be held on 6 May, businesses and campaign groups could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point in responding or examining final reports from Government and Parliament, as they will die a natural death when the election is called.

But that would be a mistake, as most of the issues and policy proposals being discussed will be resurrected under the new Parliament/Government. Issues such as climate change, energy security, social care reform, high speed rail, infrastructure investment and planning reform will not disappear just because there has been an election. These are long-term problems for which policy makers will still be seeking solutions after 6 May, regardless of which party is in power.

Government departments currently have live consultations on issues such as a new planning policy statement, taxation of insurance companies, Social Fund reform, retailers’ compliance with the groceries supply code of practice, the Renewable Heat Incentive and regulation of local bus services.

At the same time, Select Committees will shortly be publishing reports on a range of subjects such as the major road networks, the future of local and regional media, low carbon technologies, bioengineering and the end of cheques.

A Conservative government would strive ostentatiously to portray itself as different from the current administration. And if Labour is re-elected against the odds, it will want to show that it is making a fresh start. It will be new Labour without using the word ‘new’. So there will be changes to headline policies, and different approaches to tackling the fiscal deficit will have differing effects on expenditure on current programmes.

But many of the same macro- and micro-policy issues will still be unresolved. Policy proposals being put forward today by businesses will still be relevant after 6 May. If anything, the new administration may be more receptive to policy solutions that require a longer term view. Even though ministers are presently switching increasingly into election mode, officials will still be developing policy proposals, even if only to prepare for an incoming Conservative Government. They will still be receptive to a well-argued and persuasive case that enables them to offer solutions to their new ministerial masters.

Select Committee reports published over the next few weeks risk being ignored during the increasingly frenzied pre-election period. But they will still help set the agenda in particular policy areas by offering authoritative recommendations for policy makers. And they can still, potentially, be used by businesses and policy campaigners as independent justification for their own proposals.

It is easy to be distracted by the hurly burly of the election campaign but anyone seriously interested in affecting future policy needs to keep their eye on policy development right up until the end of this Parliament.

And then start all over again in the new one.

Interest groups at risk in MP clear-out

Whichever party gains the most seats in the forthcoming general election, there is certain to be a higher proportion of new MPs in the House of Commons than for many years. While some current MPs have come to the end of their working lives and look forward to deserved retirements, the turnover in our political representation is also a direct consequence of the expenses scandal. The general public will widely regard this as a good thing: a positive outcome from a sleazy episode, which can restore some integrity in politics.

But another consequence of a large clear out of MPs will be the damage that it will do to specialist interest pressure groups, whether in health, manufacturing, biotech or any specialist sector, who may suddenly find themselves without the core of the support that has driven their lobbying and campaigning for years.

Worse still, if the interest group’s focus is of a historical nature, the new intake may not even be aware of the issue. Take my beloved Cyprus, for example, whose invasion by Turkey occurred in 1974. In order to have been alive at the time, an incoming MP would have to be 35. To have been aware of the implications and political backdrop of the tragedy, MPs would be old enough now to start thinking of retirement!

Such is the situation that those of us seeking an end to the Cyprus problem may soon face, as will other interest groups. But another common characteristic of such campaigning and lobbying bodies is that the reason they still exist is because the passion for their respective causes has not diminished over time.

Political change normally occurs at a glacial pace. But occasionally, something happens which changes the way we view the world and how we react to it. For Cyprus, and other interest groups, this is such a change. And the reaction must be to return to look at what it is that drives us to campaign. In the case of Cyprus it is social justice, the removal of foreign troops, a regard for international law and the chance for families to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.

We must go back to basics, restate the principles and reasoning behind our issue and present them anew, articulating them to new audiences who may know nothing and whose familiarity must not be assumed. It will represent a challenge, but this is no bad thing, for it is easy to persist with stale approaches when campaigning over a long time. If Parliament is to change, so must the approach of specialist interest groups.

Select Committees bare their teeth

Two Select Committees are in the news for very different reasons. Both have important lessons for business.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has published a controversial report condemning News International for the News of the World‘s alleged widespread phone-tapping of public figures. There are potentially major reputation – and possibly legal – implications for Rupert Murdoch‘s UK newsgroup.

Yesterday, too, Bank of England Governor, Sir Mervyn King appeared for the 17th time before the Treasury Select Committee and its forensic Chairman, John McFall MP. It was also King’s 19th Parliamentary questioning on the economic crisis in 29 months. Like Bob Beamon’s long-jump record, this was set in extraordinary circumstances and is unlikely to be surpassed for a very long time. King admitted that his time before the Treasury Committee “hadn’t been fun and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t been easy”. But what King did acknowledge is the high quality of the Committee’s reports and that they have contributed to the reform of the UK financial sector.

Parliamentary Select Committees rarely attract much attention beyond the Westminster village. Although they have existed for centuries, the modern system of departmental Select Committees was only established in 1979, as an innovation under Margaret Thatcher. Today, there are 19 of them. In the last full session they produced nearly 250 reports, but only about 25 of them were debated in Parliament. These reports are hardly ever read by anyone outside the Westminster bubble. And apart from the Mervyn King Show the work of the committees rarely makes it onto television screens – unless you watch the Parliamentary Channel at two in the morning.

Despite this, the Select Committees should not be ignored by businesses and campaigning organisations that seek to influence policy. Select Committees can present a valuable means to, at the very least, publicise views, criticisms or policy proposals. With a well-argued case, which wins over the committees, organisations can sometimes even exert some influence on Government policy.

But Select Committees are also be bear traps. I have helped prepare people for grillings from McFall and other Committees, so I know how King felt each time he was up before his inquisitor. It can be even worse for representatives of commercial organisations, whose company reputations (and their own jobs) can be on the line. News International is one high-profile, politicised example. But damage can also be done in much lower-profile committees: witness the discomfort that Tesco suffered at the hands of the Human Rights Committee last year, when pressed about its refusal to meet a trade union seeking recognition in its US subsidiary. Select Committees should not be underestimated.

And, potentially, with a minority Government in a hung Parliament or with a weak majority, who knows? Select Committees could be more influential than ever before.

A rescue remedy that I just can’t swallow

The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee have recently finished taking evidence on its inquiry into Alternative Medicine.

Perhaps the most notable outcome of the oral evidence sessions was the ever-increasing acceptance that homeopathic remedies – on which the NHS’s four homeopathic hospitals spend £10million per year – are nothing more than placebos. A senior representative from Boots testified to the Committee that “a large number of our customers actually do believe [homeopathic remedies] are efficacious”. The use of the word “actually” is a virtual admission that there’s nothing of value in the snake oil!

The rigorous double-blind tests that pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines undergo seem not to apply to homeopathic remedies. Presumably this is because it’s either widely perceived that natural compounds cannot harm (er… isn’t arsenic natural?) and/or that they have such little effect on the human body that they require no such scrutiny. Yet while natural remedies are easily available on the shelves at our chemists, we are denied vaccines that have been tested rigorously enough to be widely available in other countries, sometimes because of the cost to the state. And this is despite compelling evidence that manmade drugs and vaccines work. Whither smallpox, typhoid and cholera?

So why should such a massively profitable industry be allowed to get away with peddling fraud? I guess the answer is in the question: rather than being a cost to the state, it generates income. To be fair, the remedies may have a placebo or therapeutic effect that genuinely makes people feel better, but are we really happy to rely upon a placebo when the alternative could be a drug proven to deal with the medical problem we suffer?

What we should be doing is educating people to make the right choices from informed positions. The risk with homeopathy is that we deny ourselves and our children remedies that work, simply for the sake of a flawed notion that Mother Nature can cure our ills.

So, here’s a chance for Government to show real leadership and courage: the findings can recommend dropping funding and endorsement of homeopathic remedies unless properly tested. For homeopathic supporters, it would be a bitter but overdue pill to swallow. I suspect they ought not to worry – we’ll probably just be handed a placebo.

A neverendum of referendum

Parliament will today debate Gordon Brown’s proposals to hold a referendum on voting reform. In 1975, Callaghan described the referendum on EEC membership as a “rubber life raft into which the whole party would have to climb”. Perhaps Gordon Brown thinks that he can craft his own lifeboat with electoral reform, reviving his chances at the polls.

But is it good use of parliamentary time? Other legislation currently going through Parliament may be sacrificed for it, yet ask the average voter about voting reform and he/she will probably conclude (unfairly) that it doesn’t matter how we elect them, they’ll all be on the make anyway.

Whenever a referendum is suggested, I am baffled. Election turnouts are depressingly low. Why demonstrate further the disengagement of the electorate by asking them to vote on something they either don’t understand to a level of detail that enables informed choices or, more likely, don’t care about?

In this case, I suppose it’s about demonstrating democracy. Giving the people the chance to vote on how they can vote. A democratic double whammy!

Faced with this democratic gambit, David Cameron has responded with… er, petitions. The Conservative leader has said that under a Tory government, any petition signed by more than 100,000 people would guarantee a debate in the House of Commons. One million or more signatures would win you the right to put a Bill before Parliament. UKIP must be licking their lips.

I fear that the idea may have been prompted by Facebook groups (“If 100,000 people join my group MPs must decide who is hotter: Kylie or Danni”*). Petitions will simply encourage further trivialisation of politics and waste even more parliamentary time.

We have a parliamentary system quite capable of delivering good government. What we lack is the public’s trust in that system or in politicians. Cheap imitations of democracy won’t change that and, worse still, is a waste of our time and of Parliament’s time.

* The answer is Kylie.