Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Week in Parliament

Monday, my question about the drafting of the new constitution and progress towards a new electoral register,needed before the deadline of the elections in June 2013 []. By that time Mugabe will be 89 and it is becoming increasingly unrealistic for Zanu PF to say that he will be their Presidential candidate. That's why there is a faction within the party that wants elections by the end of 2012, even though many of the provisions of the Global Political Agreement remain unfulfilled. Free political activity, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, and impartiality of state institutions, for instance, are all absent, and it remains to be seen whether SADC, as the guarantors of the GPA, will step up the pressure.

Tuesday morning, I chaired and spoke at a seminar on Bahrain in Fielden House, one of the annexes of Parliament. For reasons that aren't clear of transparent, Black Rod won't allow TV cameras or even photography in the Committee Rooms of the main building, though unofficially I understand that its to avoid giving the impression that the views expresed are those of the House itself. I spoke about the failure to implement some of the most important recommendations of the Bassiouni Commission of Inquiry into the human rights violations that followed the start of the uprising in February 2011. None of the most important political prisoners have been released, nor have they been compensated for the torture an incommunicado detention they endured in the weeks after they were detained.

In the afternoon I listened to the debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, when the House considered amendments rejected by the Commons, and considered alternative amendments that were proposed in lieu of the rejected ones - which couldn't be tabled in their original form because the Commons asserted financial privilege. The Commons have exclusive and undisputed jurisdiction over taxation, but the principle has been widened so that it now covers any financial matter such as, in this case, benefits.

There was a three-line Whip but I voted against the Government on an amendment by Lord Best, a Crossbencher, dealing with the so-called 'bedroom tax', a provision that withdraws part of the housing benefit now paid to a family which occupies more than the number of rooms it is said to need. Thus for example if a member of the family dies, the benefit may be docked and they may be compelled to move or make do on income which is insufficient for their needs.

I disagree with the idea that in order to pay off the deficit we need to cut benefits from the poor and vulnerable, as in some parts of this Bill. There is plenty of scope for raising the money quicker and more effectively. For instance, the Daily Telegraph quoted Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP on February 11 2012 as saying that the better-off are receiving overly-generous tax relief when they invest money for their retirement. He said that removing the higher-rate tax relief would save the Exchequer more than £7 billion and make the system fairer.

Ending winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for higher rate taxpayers would be another way of increasing revenue.

Duties on alcohol sufficient to cause an all-round increase of 10% in retail prices would raise £1.5 billion, and at the same time yield large savings in health and criminal justice. Reggie Maudling told me, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he believed in taxing people’s vices rather than their virtues, and I agree. We should use fiscal means to deter the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and harmful things people eat such as salt.

Some of our leaders tell me they have read The Spirit Level on the correlation between inequality and a variety of social harms such as violent crime, physical and mental ill-health, educational under-achievement, obesity and lack of social mobility, but they say the authors’ evidence had been rebutted by some respectable academics. Actually, the authors have responded to their critics on The Equality Trust website [], and I think a dispassionate reader would agree the authors have won the argument. Their message was reinforced in a powerful New Statesman leader Too many feel that they have no stake in our unequal society [].

I recognise that Liberal Democrat Ministers have mitigated a great many of the harmful effects of Government Bills, and they are to be congratulated and thanked for those achievements; but it does seem to me utterly illiberal, politically unwise, and downright immoral to penalise those at the bottom end of the income scale for the economic crisis. My decision to vote against the Government wasn't the careless whim of a moment, and I have listened to, read and considered long and hard the debates on the relevant sections of the Welfare Reform and LASPO Bills we have been debating.

Wednesday morning, Subcommittee F considered the draft txt of our report on EU Drugs Policy, due to be published in the near future.

Thursday, I chipped in on Janet Whitaker's Question on the definition of Gypsies and Travellers []. There are two separate definitions in law, one for housing policy and the other for planning. The planning definition is based on lifestyle rather than ethnicity, and since Travellers are no longer nomadic because there are hardly any temporary stopping places, this has caused some problems in the courts. Ann Medhurst applied for planning permission to develop land she owns in Tonbridge, as a caravan site for her family, and the High Court decided that she was not a Gypsy for the purposes of planning Circular 1/2006, though it was common ground that she was an ethnic Gypsy []. This case is now going to the Court of Appeal.

Three written questions this week: on plans for Black history month, and the UK's attendance at the Bahrain International Airshow in January 2012 [],and on the number of Roma in England and Wales. They say there are no reliable estimates, but the Roma Support Group estimate the number as 500,000. Th 2011 Census won't help much either, because 'Roma' wasn't one of the ethnicities from which respondenrs were asked to choose.

No comments: