Friday 5 February 2010

Grayling's wobble

"No matter how hard shadow home secretary Chris Grayling tried to sound convincing, there was a little wobble in the back of his throat betraying the fact he wasn't even persuading himself.

He was trying to refute claims the Tory party had misrepresented statistics to make it look like violent crime had gone up more than it actually had under Labour.

But within seconds he began to sound like someone with a complex for being short, who stands in front of the mirror telling themselves that size doesn't matter."

Read the Evening Post Parliamentary Correspondent's full column here.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Changing shape of midlands Labour

After seeing that three more Labour MPs announced they were standing down I thought I’d review the situation in my area.

When I say my area, I mean the areas of the newspapers that I write for – Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and north Staffordshire.

When I started my job two years ago there were 28 Labour MPs out of a total of 40.

Eight of those have announced they are standing down – Alan Simpson, Paddy Tipping, Bob Laxton, Mark Todd, Tom Levitt, Patricia Hewitt, David Taylor (who passed away recently) and Liz Blackman.

I strongly suspect a further two, Geoff Hoon and Alan Meale, may also stand down soon.

That makes ten, about a third of the original figure, which will be replaced.

Another group of six, which includes two ministers, are in seats that are wobbly to varying degrees.

With the weakest majority first, they are: Andy Reed (1,996), David Kidney (2121), Nick Palmer (2,296), Charlotte Atkins (2,438), Vernon Coaker (3,811) and Judy Mallaber (5,275).

If we say it is probable that those with a majority of less than 3,000 could lose their seat it would mean four more MPs being replaced.

From the original 28 Labour MPs half would be replaced, either by a new Labour candidate or an opposition MP.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

The original Hands letter on Brown's "undeclared" £50,000 fund

...and the one from Greg Hands MP to the Commissioner for Standards, sent on January 28.

Dear Mr Lyon,

I am writing to you regarding the allegations made by Peter Watt, the Labour Party’s former General Secretary, that the Prime Minister was the beneficiary of a secret fund held by the Labour Party to enable him to conduct private polling.

His central allegation is that ‘Before becoming Prime Minister, Gordon [Brown] went to some lengths to insulate himself and the Treasury from our financial troubles, setting up his own personal pot of cash at party HQ.’ (Inside Out, Peter Watt, 2010, page 105). Mr Watt provides further details:

• He alleges that this was for Mr Brown’s ‘own projects’ and may have been used to finance ‘his long-term campaign to become party leader.’ (Inside Out, Peter Watt, 2010, page 105)
• Separately, he has claimed that Gordon Brown used ‘up to £50,000-a-year of Labour money to pay for private polling’ (Mail on Sunday, 17 January 2010).
• In the same newspaper report, it was also reported that a Labour official confirmed the fund existed.

A number of newspaper reports support these assertions. For example, The Sunday Times reported in 2006 that ‘private polling and focus groups show Brown is much more trusted than Blair, especially since the Iraq war.’ (12 February 2006)

To date, Mr Brown has not declared any of these material benefits on his Register of Interests. Therefore, I believe there are three grounds upon which an investigation is required:

1: Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament

I note that The Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members (House of Commons, 22 June 2009) states:

‘Members are responsible for making a full disclosure of their interests, and if they have relevant interest which do not fall clearly into one or other of the specified categories, they are nonetheless expected to register them...’ (Page 12)

2: Registrable Interests

Under the Categories of Registrable Interests (Category 4b), Members are told:

‘any other form of financial or material support as a Member of Parliament, amounting to more than £1,000 from a single source, whether as a single donation or as multiple donations of more than £200 during the course of a calendar year.’

Under the clarifying note (Section 33), the rules also state:

‘Category 4(b) covers any other financial or material benefit in support of a Member’s role as a Member of Parliament (Any contribution for the personal benefit of a Member should be entered under Category 5 (Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK)).’
3: Precedent set by the Committee on Standards and Privileges

In 2008, you investigated Mr George Osborne for failing ‘to include in his personal entry in the Register details of donations made to the Conservative Party and used by the Party to support the cost of running his office as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.’ (Conduct of Mr George Osborne, House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges, 10th Report of Session 2007-08, 14 May 2008)

In that investigation, you upheld the complaint and set out a series of recommendations, including:

‘...in the case of identifiable donations received through a party’s central office, it would aid clarification if the fact that the donation was received through that office were recorded in the Register entry’ (Page 5)

Given that this fund, worth thousands of pounds, was set aside exclusively for Mr Brown’s personal use and secured ‘from the Chancellor’s supporters’, it should have been registered with the Parliamentary authorities.

As a matter of courtesy, I wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue two weeks ago and requested a response. I have not received one to date.

Therefore, as a matter of public interest, I believe it is important that you investigate the Prime Minister’s failure to declare the material benefit he received from the arrangement noted by Mr Watt.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require any further information.

Yours sincerely,

Greg Hands
Member of Parliament for Hammersmith and Fulham

Leaked letter from Pickles to Brown

This letter that Eric Pickles sent to Brown today after PMQs was leaked to Lobbydog:

Dear Mr Brown,

At Prime Minister’s Questions today, you told the House of Commons that you knew nothing about the secret fund, worth a reported £50,000, which was held by the Labour Party for your benefit. When asked why you did not declare this on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (RMFI), you said specifically: ‘I know nothing about what he [the questioner] is talking about.’

This simply cannot be true.

It is clear from Peter Watt, the Labour Party’s former General Secretary, that you were the beneficiary of a secret fund held by the Labour Party. He has said explicitly:

‘Before becoming Prime Minister, Gordon went to some lengths to insulate himself and the Treasury from our financial troubles, setting up his own personal pot of cash at party HQ. This was money we could not dip into, since it was set aside for the Chancellor’s own pet projects. Murray Elder helped secure donations from the Chancellor’s supporters’ (Inside Out, January 2010, page 105).

He went on to claim that it may have been used to finance your ‘long-term campaign to become party leader’ (Inside Out, Peter Watt, 2010, page 105).

Mr Watt’s assertions were widely reported. Indeed, across several pages in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Watt claimed that you used ‘up to £50,000-a-year of Labour money to pay for private polling’ (Mail on Sunday, 17 January 2010).

The allegations were explicitly confirmed as truthful by a Labour official who said in the same article: ‘It [the fund] was funded through donations to the Party.’

In the light of these allegations, my colleague, Greg Hands MP, wrote to you more than two weeks ago, on 17 January, to query why you had failed to declare the fund properly the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This letter was publicised in several newspapers on 18 January.

As you did not respond, Greg Hands submitted a complaint to John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner this week. I attach a copy of this complaint for your reference. Again, this complaint was reported.

Yesterday in a speech titled ‘Transforming Politics’, you said that you would ‘do all that is necessary to restore trust’ in politics and the conduct of MPs. If you wish to restore trust in politics, you should stop treating people like fools by claiming that you were unaware of this fund when all the evidence points to the contrary.
I therefore urge you to admit to this fund’s existence, apologise for misleading the House and co-operate with any inquiries that John Lyon may wish to make.

Yours sincerely,

Eric Pickles

DNA expert slams Government

The professor who developed genetic fingerprinting slammed ministers earlier for wanting to retain DNA profiles of innocent people on the UK’s national database.

The database is the largest in the world, holding five million profiles, some 850,000 of which are from innocent people.

“If my DNA were to be put on the database I would object profoundly against that,” said Sir Alec Jeffreys at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee.

“What advantage is it to me, as an entirely blameless citizen? The best outcome is that my DNA would sit there cluttering up a fridge and that my DNA profile would sit there cluttering up the database.

“The worst that could happen is that there is some glitch in the database that made a false match to my DNA profile and that brings me into the frame of a criminal investigation which has very serious repercussions.”

He said that if, when first developing the process, he’d known a database would be used by the Government in the way it has, he’d have been “astonished, perplexed and deeply worried”.

“I’ve always understood that one of the great foundations of English law was a presumption of innocence, but obviously now there is a presumption of future possible guiltyishness,”
he said.

Prof Jeffreys acknowledged that the chances of a DNA sample from a crime scene being wrongly matched to someone’s profile on the database could be between one in a billion and one in ten trillion.

But he went on to explain: “That’s about a million times less likely than you winning the lottery, but every week someone wins the national lottery.

“Now if you look at the ‘lottery’ of the national DNA database, we have five million players there and you run the ‘lottery’ tens of thousands of times a year by doing searches across them.

“So even for matches down to the one in a trillion level, false matches start becoming likely after that.”

The expert pointed out that false matches between family members – who share similar DNA profiles – were even more likely, with the probability narrowing to one in 200,000.

He said only profiles of the guilty should be retained. The Government is bringing in new rules that will allow them to retain the data of innocent people for between six and 12 years.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

If the polls don't turn enough in Labour's favour...

Hat tip SlurpyStudios

You're not debating, you're not debating, you're not debating anymore!

Lobbydog has learnt that plans for the live leaders' debates have been thrown into disarray – the problem is they’ve been scheduled for Wednesday nights.

Assuming the election is on May 6, that would mean the debates clashing with European football’s Champions League semi-finals.

Given that each debate – like a football match – will last 90 minutes, organisers fear viewers may prefer to watch the soccer over the politics.

Surely people would find the cut, thrust and intensity of the debates far more appealing than elite European football.

Ok. I thought I’d at least write that last line down before totally dismissing it. They need to rearrange.

Monday 1 February 2010

Labour MPs: Let's spend loads more

THERE were a lot of the usual suspects among the 40 Labour MPs who signed a letter today calling for the Government to bring in radical left-wing policies.

They reckon the measures are needed to reinvigorate the party membership in both “numbers and activity”.

Stronger union rights, splitting banks and a programme to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor all feature in their ideas.

Interestingly, on a day when the Government announced big cuts to higher education, the MPs call for “massive public investment” to tackle the recession.

With Darling asking for ministers to come forward with more spending cuts I don’t think they’ll make much headway.

But the letter highlights the internal battle over cuts which is now heating up throughout the party from top to toe.

Legg and Kelly

There is the predictable hubbub about who Sir Thomas Legg’s report will finger when it comes out on Thursday.

But there should also be another interesting confrontation that day in the Thatcher Room over at Portcullis House.

There the Public Administration Committee will take evidence on standards from that other recent nemesis of MPs, Sir Christopher Kelly.

Sir Christopher’s proposed changes to the expenses system are in the process of being implemented (watered down).

View it live here.