Friday 11 February 2011

What Burnham got wrong and what he missed...

Andy Burnham has made a key mistake in his reaction to the decision at High Court today relating to cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme.

At around 10.30am a judge said that Michael Gove’s decision to withdraw funding for school rebuilding projects in six council areas was “unlawful”.

In a piece on the Labour website the shadow education secretary writes: “The ruling calls into question every school building scheme cut by Michael Gove.”

That is not the case and the judge specifically said so. In fact Mr Justice Holman said: “The decision [to cut funding] is now over seven months ago, and in my view any other authorities would now be far too late to apply for judicial review.

“I do not mean to trivialise so important an issue, but it may be said that fortune has favoured the brave.”

In other words – if you’ve brought you case, well done you for having the gumption, but if you haven’t the door is closed.

I’ve already heard of councils thinking this case means something significant for them. It doesn’t, and it’s unfair of Burnham to stir hopes in the way he has.

What he has missed in his statement is that the case does open up the fundamentals of Government education policy to a clear line of political attack which will play very well with Labour supporters.

This case was brought by councils – big education authorities who had the financial and legal clout to push the Government back to the drawing board.

Would a free school set up by parents, or even a city academy run by education professionals, have the power to do the same? What would one free school be able to do if the Government decided to cut off its funding?

So this case says something very significant about the balance of power between local and national government and how that balance may shift massively if councils lose overall control of education.

A couple of things to say on prisoners voting...

Many people blamed the expenses scandal on the Government’s eternal fiddling and playing politics with MPs’ pay deals and terms.

Meanwhile many thought the fact that MPs were not respected anymore was because Parliament as a body which held the Government to account had lost its teeth.

So a wider consequence of the scandal was a movement to wrestle power away from the Government (the PM, cabinet and ministers) and bring it back to the House of Commons (backbench MPs).

This was a cause that transcended partisan politics, because rather than being ‘Labour against Tories’, it was legislature (MPs of all colours) against executive (Governments of any colour).

It was a big victory when the Government agreed to allow a backbench committee to be formed and given power to schedule debates and votes on subjects of its choosing in the House of Commons.

All those things backbenchers wanted to debate, but were too politically prickly for party leaders to discuss on the Commons floor, would no longer be swept under the carpet but would find their way into open dialogue.

Last night was a great example of that – a backbencher forced the issue of prisoners’ voting rights on to the Commons floor and Parliament’s will now has to be taken into account in any future decision.

The problem is that last night’s vote, and the entire concept of backbench business, was undermined by the fact that hardly anyone turned up to take part.

The vote passed 234 to 22. That means 256 out of 646 MPs voted – less than 40% (not taking account of positive abstentions) a figure which calls into question whether the decision really reflects Parliament’s view.

Some MPs said it was only a backbench debate, others that it was only a one-line whip and so they decided to work in the constituency instead.

But surely if you only vote when it’s a Government/Opposition motion, you’re saying backbench business doesn’t matter. If you only vote when you’re whipped then aren’t you just a sock puppet for your party?

After such a long fight to wrestle control from the executive, it seems the legislature is neither willing nor able to take up its new powers.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Turning Europe

MPs will soon finish their debate on prisoner voting, but it seems clear that the motion – preventing inmates from taking part in elections – will be approved.

The real question is what happens after that. One school of thought among legal minded Tory backbenchers is that the Government will be able to take Parliament’s decision back to the European Court and persuade it to change its mind.

It’s not a plan based on the hope that the court will simply give way because the Mother of Parliaments has spoken – though some Tories would like to think that’s what should happen.

The MPs believe there is a powerful grouping of judges at the courts who actually oppose the idea of prisoners voting, and who were only narrowly defeated first time round when the original decision was passed.

Overturning the decision may therefore not be as difficult as thought, plus it holds out the prospect of the Government being able to stop prisoners voting and adhere to the court’s ruling.

It would also mean achieving something that Labour never even thought of doing.

He's not the deputy leader, he's a very naguhty boy

The war between Nottingham City Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government took a bizarre twist last night when Eric Pickles made the following speech.

We've altered Mr Pickles picture to look like the mother from The Life of Brian to help you get a feel for it...

"The deputy leader of Nottingham city council is a gentleman called Graham Chapman, which is obviously the same name as the late and long-missed member of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". It seems to me that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) should get on the phone to that gentleman and tell him, as his namesake's mother did in "Life of Brian", that he might be the deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, but he is a very naughty boy. If it is necessary for me to use the powers that I have to force Nottingham, I will, but why should this process be held back by one obdurate council that simply wants to play politics with transparency?"

Councillor Chapman , seen here in character, and Council Leader Jon Collins are still refusing to comply with Mr Pickles demand to publish all expenditure above £500 on-line.

But the Government is now making moves to force them to do so. This week it published a "code of conduct" for councils to follow on the publication of financial data - including guidance on publishing expenditure and the salaries of civil servants,

Under a piece of existing legislation introduced in the 80s by Margaret Thatcher, Pickles now has the power to issue an order to require councils to follow that code.

So are the naughty boys at Nottingham City Council about to get their punishment?

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Millions to settle convicts' cases

With one eye on the prisoners’ voting debate later this week, there are some interesting figures from the Ministry of Justice this morning.

The Government has forked out almost £6.4 million to convicts in the last three years to settle litigation cases.

An answer to a written parliamentary question showed that £1,452,309 was paid to settle cases in 2007/08, £1,648,045 in 2008/09 and a whopping £3,257,892 in 2009/10.

And these figures don’t even include the associated legal fees and compensation paid through the internal complaints procedures of prisons.

The case of Soham killer Ian Huntley springs to mind – last year he began suing the Government for up to £95,000 in damages after he was attacked in jail.

But Huntley has nothing on those who will sue the Government if MPs decide on Thursday not to let prisoners vote in elections.

After all, they have a European Court ruling behind them – something for MPs who are saddling their high horses ready for Thursday to think about.

The Government have made a dog’s dinner of this one – if they thought it was going to be tricky to sell to Tory MPs they should have done what Labour did and kicked it into the long grass (again).

But once they started down the course of compliance with the European Court they should have had the conviction to see it through with a whipped vote and avoid what is going to a politically damaging and messy show on Thursday.