Here’s an afternoon summary.
• William Hague has used a debate on Europe to mock Labour for not having a clear position on whether to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Although we can’t be certain what the Labour Party’s position is, we have an educated guess that although they won’t call for an in/out referendum now, they might do so in future and it’s completely possible but not certain that it will be in their next election manifesto.
If that is their position, that is the most uncertain position of all to say you might have an in/out referendum but you might not. They are against an in/out referendum but not necessarily. They have adopted a position for the next general election which might not apply even at the next general election. They are against uncertainty but they are not really sure about it.
(It sounds like he was inspired by Churchill’s famous “adamant for drift” quote.) In the debate Kate Hoey, a Labour Eurosceptic, said that she was “disappointed” that her party was not now committed to a referendum, but that she thought it inevitable that the party would eventually back one. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, used his speech to claim that David Cameron’s call for a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU was a mistake.
The truth still remains that on the issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union, the gap between the minimum Conservative backbenchers will accept and the maximum the EU can deliver remains unbridgeable. With a divided government and a divided Conservative party, it falls Labour to make the hard-headed patriotic case, founded on the national interest, both for Britain in Europe and for change in Europe.
• Michael Gove, the education secretary, has announced that computer science will be included in the EBacc league table measure. “The change is being made because of the importance of Computer Science for both education and the economy,” the Department for Education said. It said computer science would be added to the list of separate science options (so there are now four separate sciences instead of the traditional three) in the EBacc. Pupils who sit any three of the four separate sciences and get at least a C in two of them will get the EBacc, it said.
That’s all from me for today.
Thanks for the comments.
Here’s an afternoon reading list.
Part of the problem in investigating electoral conduct is that it is broadly unquantifiable. High profile cases like those above make the press but many other stories are not publicised – Lee Scott MP for example spoke in a parliamentary debate about a leaflet distributed in his constituency claiming he was an “enemy of Islam” alongside a picture of him in a Jewish head covering. This inquiry is an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the extent of the problem.
The purpose of the inquiry however, is not to drag the parties through the mud, to shut down free speech or to exasperate with tails of misconduct. Rather, we hope to bring to the fore examples of good and replicable practice. Working outside of an election cycle, we would like to see considered thought given to a transparent, workable and enforceable framework on electoral conduct which can be agreed by the political parties. This will give clarity for candidates and agents, for the parties and ultimately confidence to constituents about how concerns will be addressed.
I watch PMQs and I find the level of debate, if you can call it that, embarrassing. I watch political interviews with cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers and despair of the vacuity of the questions and answers. Perhaps I now understand what most voters think of the same things …
I remarked to someone a few weeks ago that in 25 years of being involved in politics, I could probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of real friends I have made in the political arena. That perhaps says just as much about me as it does others, but It just shows how transient political relationships can be. People befriend you when they think you can be useful to them. As soon as you can’t, they drop you like a stone. Perhaps I have done it myself. I’d like to think not, but I can’t look myself in the mirror and say it categorically hasn’t happened.
Politics is like a drug. It’s very difficult to pull yourself away from something which is capable of giving you the equivalent of a massive adrenaline rush. I suspect I will never lose an interest in politics. But I know now that I am falling out of love with it.
Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice was giving evidence to the Lords constitution committee this morning.
He said that cameras were going to start filming in the Court of Appeal in October. But he did not sound particularly keen …
I’m very troubled about the idea of having cameras just swanning round the court. I think you have got to see how it works in the Court of Appeal.
“I am bound to say that in most cases I suspect John and Jane citizen will find it incredibly dull …
I hope I am not being cynical but I can envisage a time coming – not in any situation that I can contemplate today nor with any political party currently lying in office – but I can well see a political advantage being seen, ‘Well, the television companies have been awfully difficult at the moment for the last few months, it might do quite well for us to let them do it’.
We will arrange for those judges who sit in these courts to have some training in the fact of the television cameras are going to be present and the general idea is that it will start in October in the two Courts of Appeal.
Here’s the Guardian video of David Cameron and Ed Miliband at PMQs.
It lasts 2 minutes 11 seconds.
Here’s a lunchtime summary.
• Chief police officers have strongly criticised Home Office plans to open up police recruitment, warning that a system of direct entry to the “officer class” tends to be used only by paramilitary police forces. As Alan Travis reports, the Association of Chief Police Officers said the government’s radical plans to open up chief constables’ jobs to experienced overseas recruits and the middle-ranking officer roles to outsiders with business and leadership skills would not deliver the required reform. Sir Peter Fahy, Greater Manchester’s chief constable and Acpo lead on workforce development, said chief officers were not resistant to change but warned that the scheme would not work. (See 10.25am and 11.46am.)
• Alex Salmond’s preferred referendum question on Scottish independence has been rejected by the Electoral Commission, which has recommended using a more neutral question. As Severin Carrell reports, the elections watchdog said the Scottish first minister’s choice of question – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – was biased in favour of a yes vote and should be dropped. After testing the issue with voters and language experts, it recommended the question put to Scotland’s 4 million voters in the autumn of 2014 be changed to: “Should Scotland be an independent country: yes/no?” The commission also said that London and Edinburgh should make it clear to voters before the referendum takes place what the consequences of a no vote would be. When the SNP’s Angus Robertson asked David Cameron about this at PMQs, Cameron said he would not “pre-negotiate” the break-up of the UK with the SNP.
First of all can I welcome the fact that the SNP have accepted what the Electoral Commission found because they were worried that frankly it was a biased question, and so I think it is good they have accepted that. Of course we will work with the Scottish government in providing information, but let me be clear about what we won’t do — we will not pre-negotiate Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom. It is frankly his party that wants to break up the United Kingdom and it is for his party to make the case.
• Cameron has welcomed figures showing that university applications are higher than they were last year. Speaking at PMQs, Cameron said:
After all of the concerns that were expressed about the new way of paying for university finance reducing the number of students applying to university, the number of 18-year-olds has actually gone up. It is now level with where it was in 2011, which is higher than any year under the last Labour government.
• Ed Miliband has accused Cameron of presiding over “the slowest recovery for 100 years”. At PMQs, Miliband taunted Cameron by saying that the “good news” Cameron promised on the economy last year was not materialising. Miliband also accused the government of “borrowing more for failure”. Cameron said that progress was being made and that the economy would be worse under Labour.
What is happening under this government is a million private sector jobs, unemployment down since the election, the fastest rate of business creation in our recent history, a balance of payments surplus in cars … [Labour] are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because they haven’t learned the lessons and that is why the British public will never trust them with the economy again.
• Cameron has said that he will visit a food bank in his constituency soon. For several weeks Labour MPs have been challenging him to visit one, and today he said he would.
Only yesterday that I was discussing with the person who runs the food bank in my constituency, which I will be visiting very shortly. He pointed out to me that it was established five years ago and it is worth remembering that food bank use went up 10 times under the last Labour government. But I think instead of criticising people who run food banks, we should be thanking them for the work they do.
Later a Number 10 source played down the need for food banks. “Benefit levels are set at a level where people can afford to eat,” she said. “If people have short term shortages, where they feel they need a bit of extra food, then of course food banks are the right place for that. But benefits are not set at such a low level that people can’t eat.”
• Miliband has accused George Osborne, the chancellor, of interfering with the route of HS2, the high-speed rail line. At PMQs Miliband said Osborne should spend “less time worrying about how to divert high-speed rail routes away from his constituency” and more time worrying about the economy. Miliband was referring to this report. But Cameron said the HS2 route would go “right through the middle of the chancellor’s constituency”.
• Cameron has suggested that HS2 is taking too long. “My concern is not that it’s going too fast but, if anything, it’s going too slowly,” he said.
• Cameron has accused the Respect MP George Galloway of defending Arab dictators. At PMQs Galloway asked a question about Mali.
Following yesterday’s announcement, will the prime minister adumbrate for the House the key differences between the hand-chopping, throat-chopping jihadists fighting the dictatorship in Mali and the equally bloodthirsty jihadist who we are giving support to in Syria. Has the prime minister read Frankenstein? And did he read it to the end?
Some things come and go but there is one thing that is certain, wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he’ll have the support of the honourable gentleman.
• Cameron has joked about the reports that the backbench Tory MP Adam Afriyie is plotting to become the next party leader. “The Conservative party has always stood for people who want to work hard and get on and I’m glad that all of those behind me take that very seriously indeed,” Cameron said.
• Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has said that the coalition is like an extended family that has spent too much time together. It was like Boxing Day, he said. “You have been as nice as you can to your relatives, but by the time Boxing Day comes around you realise why you do not live together.”
• The Office of Fair Trading has ruled out a full investigation into the UK fuel industry. It said a preliminary inquiry showed that the market was working well. It also said that it had found no evidence of unfair marketing or trading between oil companies and retailers and that an increase in average petrol prices from 76p a litre in 2003 to 136p a litre in 2012 was caused largely by rising oil prices and duty.
• Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader, has said MPs should be given a vote on any further increase in Britain’s military involvement in west Africa.
Tony Blair, although he was much-criticised about the decision to go to war against Iraq, submitted his proposal to the House of Commons and it was carried by what was at the time a very substantial majority. You can’t get many people to defend that decision now. So the precedent has been established and I think if there was any substantial increase in British commitment, then the House of Commons would welcome and might even demand the right to pass judgement upon that.
• Justine Greening, the international development secretary, has announced that Britain is doubling the amount it is contributing to alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. This is from the DfID news release.
The UK is set to pledge £50 million in new British funding. With the £21 million announced on Saturday from Jordan, the UK has now more than doubled its funding for Syria in under a week in response to rapidly escalating needs.
The £50 million announced in Kuwait today will help to deliver food, medical supplies and medical care, shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation services to hundreds of thousands of people across Syria and the region.
Britain does have a trade surplus in cars, for the first time in 1976, and that’s undoubtedly a good things, but the very fact that Cameron had to mention it suggests that he was rather short on the economic good news front. And that’s why it was such a straightforward win for Ed Miliband. He just kept goading Cameron with questions that he didn’t want to answer.PMQs Verdict: It was the moment when David Cameron started talking about the trade surplus in cars that I knew he was in trouble. It’s not that he was wrong.
On the BBC’s Daily Politics just now someone described it as a rather dull PMQs and, admittedly, there weren’t any exchanges that are going to make it as a YouTube sensation. But they were important nevertheless. Since 2010 the performance of the economy has been dire, but to some extent the Conservatives have been immunised against the effect of this by the fact that voters still think Labour is largely to blame. Gradually, though, the vaccine is wearing off, and what we saw today is how much weaker the “it’s all Labour’s fault” arguments are getting as time goes on.
George Galloway asks Cameron to explain the difference between the jihadists Britain is fighting in Mali and the ones Britian is supporting in Syria.
Cameron says some things never change: wherever there is a brutal dictator in the Arab world, Galloway will be supporting him.
Alun Cairns, a Conservative, says Ed Miliband talking about the economy is like a Victorian undertaker looking forward to a cold winter. Cameron agrees.
Labour’s Ian Lucas asks about a severely disabled constituent who will lose money because he has an extra room which he needs for his condition.
Cameron says the government has allocated money to help people like this. It is not credible for Labour to oppose all welfare cuts.
Peter Luff, a Conservative, asks Cameron if he will encourage young people to take up engineering.
Cameron says today’s university figures show more people wanting to study engineering. That’s encouraging, he says.
Labour’s Gavin Shuker says Cameron said last week the government was paying down the debt. Would he like to correct the record?
Cameron says that you have to control the deficit before you can bring down the debt.
Labour’s Alex Cunningham asks Cameron if he is going to do anything about traces of “stalking horse” found in the Conservative party food chain.
Cameron says that the Conservative party has always stood for people who want to get on in life. He is glad that that view is represented by the MPs behind him.
Richard Graham, a Conservative, asks Cameron to review the law on dangerous driving. He mentions a constituent killed by someone with a multiple record of driving without a licence.
Cameron says he will look at this.
Labour’s Graham Stringer asks why the government does not have just one bill on HS2, so that it can start building north to south and south to north at the same time.
Cameron says he is concerned this could delay the project. He wants the scheme to speed up, he says.
Labour’s Frank Roy asks why Cameron is refusing to have the decency to visit a food bank.
Cameron says maybe they need to modernise the system, so that if an MP gets a question from the whips, they can update the question on a tablet as PMQs goes on. (He’s saying that because he answered a question on food banks earlier, and said he would visit one soon.)
The SNP’s Angus Robertson says the SNP government in Scotland have accepted the Electoral Commission’s advice on the referendum question. (See 11.05am.) Will the UK government also accept the commission’s recommendation that London and Edinburgh should make it clear before the referendum takes place what the outcome of a yes and a no vote would be.
Cameron says he will cooperate. But he won’t “pre-negotiate” Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK.
Damian Hinds, a Conservative, asks Cameron if he agrees with the need to raise the status of early years educators.
Cameron praises the announcement from Elizabeth Truss yesterday. On ratios, he says continental countries have higher ratios.
Labour’s Grahame Morris asks about school capital spending. Cameron says the money for capital spending is there. Funding for Lending is having an effect too, he says.
Peter Bottomley, a Conservative, asks what Britain is doing to help Syria.
Cameron says he would like China and Russia to reconsider their opposition to UN action.
Labour’s Russell Brown asks Cameron to define “good news”, especially in view of the growth figures.
Cameron says unemployment in Scotland has been falling this year. People have been taken out of income tax by the rise in the threshold.
Cameron says the coastguard reforms are designed to improve response times by 20%.
Labour’s Dave Watts asks why Cameron is frightened to visit a food bank. Is it because he does not want to see the “heartless Britain” he is creating?
Cameron says he spoke to the person who runs one in his constituency only yesterday. That food bank was launched five years ago. He will visit it soon, he says.
Labour’s Gordon Marsden says the Green Deal has 7% interest charges. Only five households have signed up. Why did the government create this fiasco?
Cameron says the Green Deal has only just begun. Marsden should not be talking down these schemes; he should be encouraging people to take them up.
Snap PMQs Verdict: An easy win for Ed Miliband. More later …
Miliband says the answer is “more of the same”. Last week Cameron said in a PPB that he was paying down the debt. Yet debt is rising.
Cameron says that if Miliband thinks there is a problem with borrowing, he must explain why he wants to borrow more. Miliband wants the public to give the car keys back to the people who crashed the car.
Miliband says Cameron is borrowing for failure. He has run out of excuses. This is the slowest recovery for 100 years.
Cameron says he is dealing with year after year of failure. There are 1m private sector jobs, unemployment is down and there is a surplus in cars. The public will never trust Labour again.
Miliband says Cameron did not answer the question. Noticing that George Osborne is talking to Cameron, he says “the part-time chancellor” should spend more time on the economy and less time trying to divert HS2. Growth was not 5%, but 0.4%. A flat-lining economy means living standards are falling. Since the spending review two years ago, can Cameron confirm that Britain has been 18th on growth of the 20 major economies.
Cameron says the IMF and the OECD say Britain will have the fastest growth in Europe this year. Labour are promising more spending and more debt. That’s what caused the problem.
Miliband says the chief economist of the IMF said last week the government should change policy. After two years of no growth, does Cameron think he should do anything differently.
Cameron says Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, said that when she imagined the state of Britain in May 2010 [without an austerity programme], “I shiver”. On America, Cameron says the UK recession was “longer and deeper” than the American one. The two people responsible for regulating the banks are on the Labour benches.
Ed Miliband says that in economy Cameron said the “good news” on the economy would keep coming. What went wrong?
Cameron says the governor of the Bank of England has said the economy is recovering. Unemployment is falling.
Miliband says that is “extraordinarily complacent”. How much as the economy actually grown since the government predicted 5% growth?
Cameron says he is not complacent. There have been 1m private sector jobs. It’s the fastest rate of job creation since 1989.
Cameron welcomes figures out today showing the number of 18-year-olds applying to university going up.
Alison Seabeck, a Labour MP, asks about the bedroom tax. Is it right that a mother cannot offer a son in the armed forces a bedroom?
David Cameron says he will look at this case. Many people in private rented accommodation do not have their own bedrooms. The government is spending £23bn on housing benefit.
Here’s some more reaction to the Home Office plans to make it easier for outsiders to join the police at a senior level. (See 9.33am and 10.25am.)
From Sir Peter Fahy from the Association of Chief Police Officers
In general police forces are not short of talent. In fact a bigger challenge is dealing with ambitious staff frustrated by the lack of promotion opportunities. Bringing people in from outside to senior leadership positions will obviously make that more difficult. There will be questions about how any direct entry scheme will work in practice, how it can be afforded and whether those already in the service can apply.
Chief officers are not resistant to change but this one scheme will not bring about the degree of reform required.
From Steve White, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers
The Police Federation does not support proposals that would allow external candidates to join the police service at any rank above that of constable.We believe the rank structure allows officers to perfectly equip themselves for their next role within the service. To command a policing operation effectively, a senior officer should have first-hand experience of responding to incidents in an operational capacity.
From Boris Johnson, the mayor of London
These reforms will help open up the force to the best and the brightest outside talent, talent that has previously been beyond our reach.
By having a bigger pool of experience from which to choose the Metropolitan Police will inevitably be more representative of the city it serves, across all its ranks.
We are recruiting 5,000 constables over the next three years and we want Londoners of every background to consider a policing career. Direct entry will help cast the recruitment net even wider.
As for the rest of the papers, the PoliticsHome list of top 10 must reads is here, the ConservativeHome round-up of today’s political stories is here and the New Statesman list of top 10 comment articles is here.
And here are some stories and articles I found particularly interesting.
David Cameron is under mounting pressure to push through tax breaks for married couples as a way of averting a Tory rupture over gay marriage.
Ministers are pressing Downing Street to make a Budget announcement in March implementing the party’s promise to reward married couples in the tax system. Cabinet sources told The Times that George Osborne should act “sooner rather than later” and that the Budget would be “a good time to placate an awful lot of people”.
MPs plan to use the coming weeks to warn a reluctant Chancellor that he will increase the risk of losing lifelong Tories from the party unless he acts.
In an intervention that would have embarrassed David Cameron, the Right Reverend Justin Welby said: ‘Whether we go into a triple-dip [recession] or not, whatever does happen, it’s going to go on being pretty dark economically.’
In a farewell service as the outgoing Bishop of Durham, he said: ‘Children are going without sufficient food which I found particularly shocking and distressing.
‘This was something I had thought would have been eradicated by now.’
He added: ‘We are seeing things we thought had disappeared in the Thirties. Not on remotely the same scale but traces here and there.’
We must not put at risk the common ground that we have achieved in more than half a century of European co-operation. Today’s Europe is the result of decades of hard-won compromises. And our British partners have been an integral part of this process, helping to shape and share responsibility every step of the way. The current European settlement may not be to everybody’s liking in every respect, but that is the nature of every good compromise. One thing, however, holds true for all of us: there are no rights without duties. There can be no cherry-picking. Saying “You either do what I want or I’ll leave!” is not an attitude that works, either in personal relationships or in a community of nations.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, has said the Scottish government will accept the Electoral Commission’s advice about the wording of the referendum question.
The pro-union camp will be relieved.
The Electoral Commission has said the Scottish government should change its proposed wording for the Scottish independence referendum.
Here’s the commission’s news release. And here’s an extract.
The Commission was asked to test the following question by the Scottish Government:
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No”
The Commission’s established question assessment process involved talking to people across Scotland, asking for advice from accessibility and plain language experts, and writing to people and organisations, including the main political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and campaigners to seek their views.
We found that the language in the proposed question is clear, simple and easy to understand. However, we also concluded that the words ‘Do you agree’ potentially encouraged people to vote ‘yes’ and should be replaced by more neutral wording.
The Electoral Commission recommends the question should be altered to:
“Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes / No”
Labour: 42% (up 1 point from YouGov on Tuesday)
Conservatives: 33% (down 2)
Lib Dems: 11% (up 1)
Ukip: 8% (down 1)
Labour lead: 9 points (up 3)
Government approval: -31 (down 4)
The Office of Fair Trading has said that competition is working well in the UK petrol market. It is not going to launch a full inquiry.
Here’s the top of the Press Association story.
Competition is “working well” in the UK road fuel market and rises in pump prices over the past decade are largely due to increases in tax and the cost of crude oil, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has reported.
It found “very limited evidence” that pump prices rise quickly when the wholesale price goes up but fall more slowly when it drops.
The OFT said its investigation into the market did identify a lack of pricing information on motorways as a concern and it not rule out taking action in some local markets if there was “persuasive evidence of anti-competitive behaviour”.
Hurray! Our tech problems seem to be over. I have not been able to post for the last hour, but with luck I should be back to normal now.
Here’s more from Damian Green on the Today programme.
Derek Barnett, the president of the Police Superintendents’s Association, told the programme that he was concerned that allowing outsiders to join the police at a senior level implies that existing officers were not good enough.
We do have some concerns about the risks associated with this and also the message that it is sending to the public about the quality of police leadership. What it reveals is, at a time when crime is at a 30-year all-time low, confidence in the police is high and rising and the police service has managed to absorb the 20% cuts in a very professional and measured way, we have no shortage of talent in the police service and we have some exceptional police leaders. So I don’t accept the premise that somehow there is a lack of talent within the ranks of the police service.
But Green said it was always possible to make a service better.
Derek’s right that policing is largely successful in this country – crime is down 10% in the last two years – but there is no organisation, no institution in the world, that can’t get better and it must be the case that if you widen the pool of talent from which you gain police at various levels then you will get even better policing in this country.
Green was also asked about a suggestion from Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, that professionals should face mandatory drug tests at work. It’s made the Daily Mail splash. Green did not sound very keen.
I think there are obvious points about practicality and expense. It’s an interesting idea and obviously we’ll go away and think about it, but I don’t want to make an instant response.
Hogan-Howe floated the idea in a speech to an all-party parliamentary group, but I see that he said much the same thing in a speech last year.
I’ve taken the quotes from PoliticsHome.
I’m sorry I’m late launching this. We’ve had technical problems in the office.
David Cameron will be in the Commons today for PMQs before he heads off to Algeria. I hope he’s going to generate some news because otherwise it’s a bit thin. The BBC is leading on the Home Office announcement about allowing outsiders, including foreigners, to apply for senior police jobs. A written ministerial statement is being issued today, but the key details are already out and the Guardian story about them is here. On the Today programme Damian Green, the policing minister, said that these reforms should lead to a foreigner (or someone with “an American accent”, as John Humphrys put it) being appointed as a chief constable, perhaps even chief constable of the Metropolitan police, within the next few years.
I have no idea [when], but years rather than decades. I think if five years ago you said, “Can you envisage the Governor of the Bank of England talking to you in a Canadian accent?” you would have thought that was a bit odd. But actually, Mark Carney is, I am told, the best central banker in the world and it’s great that he’s going to apply those talents in this country and the same will be true of senior policemen.
I’ll post more from the Green interview shortly.
Here’s the full agenda for the day.
10.15am: Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, gives evidence to the Lords constitution committee.
10.30am: The Office of Fair Trading publishes a review of the petrol market.
Midday: David Cameron and Ed Miliband clash at PMQs. Cameron is leaving for Algeria afterwards.
12.30pm: MPs begin a debate on Europe. It’s a general debate in government time, announced after David Cameron’s Europe speech last week. The Tories seem to want to capitalise on Labour’s refusal to commit itself to a referendum.
12.50pm: Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, publishes one of his regular NHS Check reports.
As usual, I’ll also be covering all the breaking political news as well as looking at the papers and bringing you the best politics from the web. I’ll post a lunchtime summary after PMQs and another in the afternoon.
If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m at @AndrewSparrow.