NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Sunday 19th March 2017
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I’ve never seen a Budget u-turn quite like the rapid decision this week by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Theresa May to rip up their core proposal on National Insurance. On Wednesday, as I thought might be the case (but perhaps not quite so quickly!), the Chancellor crumpled under pressure from embarrassed Tory backbenchers and announced they wouldn’t proceed with the Budget plan to hit the self-employed with a two percent leap in National Insurance contributions.
What is more astonishing is that the Government ever thought they could get away with this crude and inconsiderate measure – and that apparently my ‘tweet’ at 1pm straight after Hammond’s announcement in the Budget speech was the first time they realised they’d broken their promise clearly made in their 2015 manifesto!
The Government really should be in deep trouble this week because Budgets are the cornerstone of public policy and with this year’s now virtually scrapped, in other circumstances the Government would be brought to its knees. We now expect that there will be a second ‘go’ at a 2017 Budget in the autumn – where the Chancellor will need to explain how he’ll find the extra £2 billion for social care initially raised by the NIC hike.
I tried my best from the backbenches to put Ministers on the spot when I asked the Chancellor how he justified sending his colleagues out to defend the broken promise for a full week, and whether he wanted to apologise – decide for yourself if he gave me a straight answer at the link here.
- On Friday I caught up with the Renewal Trust to learn about some of the projects they are currently supporting, and their future plans. Established following the end of the early 1990s ‘city challenge’ regeneration scheme, the Renewal Trust now manages a series of buildings and facilities including sporting, business units and offices in St Ann’s, with other sites across the city providing much needed revenue for reinvestment in local community development projects. I met with their chief executive Cherry Underwood at the Sycamore Centre to discuss their plans for the future, which hopefully include expanding the Brendon Lawrence Sports Centre and increasing capacity for local sporting groups.
- This week I was invited to meet with representatives of the Ahmadiyya community in Nottingham. At the meeting I heard from local residents concerned not only about issues of persecution in Pakistan but also of the recent murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow which has caused real anxieties across the UK Ahmadi population. UK law guards against discrimination on grounds of religious belief in employment and our tolerance for different religious belief is an important principle. Thank you to Irfan Malik for inviting me along.
- A team from Nottingham has been in France this week in a bid to attract international investors to the city at a major property investment conference, linked in with the Midlands Engine investment portfolio which comprises a variety of property development sites in the region. Nottingham is being pitched to investors as an ideal venue due to its central location, tram system and superfast broadband. New business investment for Nottingham which can link into include residential development as well as commercial opportunities is an important objective – and the Nottingham team hope the event will attract investment to the city for these projects.
- Congratulations to the team at Sherwood Playgroup on Mansfield Road who have received confirmation again of a ‘good’ rating following their OFSTED inspection at a time of significant change, including the prospect of expanding provision. Inspectors said their teaching is consistently strong and partnerships with parents are good.
- It was a bit rainy but still nice to get out and knock on doors in the Carrington area on Friday afternoon to talk with local residents not just about national political issues, but also some important local questions, including street repairs and parking problems. Thanks also to the team and local councillors for their efforts (pictured) in particular raising issues about the quality of private rented accommodation in the area.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- On Monday the House of Commons debated the Bill which gives the Prime Minister power to trigger Article 50 and begin the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Bill has now become law and we can expect Theresa May to trigger Article 50 by the end of March. I had the chance to ask the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, about his deeply worrying suggestion that it would be ‘perfectly okay’ for Britain to fall out of Europe without a deal and rely on World Trade Organisation tariff rules – an idea Michael Heseltine described as “rubbish” last Sunday. It would be incredibly damaging for Britain to leave the EU without a deal – and as I wrote in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, we don’t have to. That’s why the Government’s rejection of a House of Lords amendment on Monday which would have given Parliament a meaningful say on the final terms is such bad news. I urged Ministers to think again: watch here. Another amendment sought to guarantee the residence rights of the 3.2 million EU citizens currently in the UK – people who have made their homes here, who do vital jobs and are valued members of our community. This is a matter of basic principle, and I was deeply disappointed that the Government chose to oppose and defeat the amendment.
- Tuesday morning brought news that Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, would opportunistically push for a rerun of 2014’s independence referendum. She couldn’t have asked for a better excuse than Theresa May’s decision to throw in the towel on Britain’s membership of the Single Market before negotiations have even begun. And when, on Tuesday afternoon, the Prime Minister quite ridiculously told the Commons that she’d urged other EU leaders to get on with “completing the single market,” there was understandable astonishment and incredulity across the chamber. It takes something to lecture the rest of Europe about improving the Single Market while simultaneously telling them you want to leave it straight away! I pressed the PM on both of these bungles, as you can see here. Going forward, I’ll continue to use all means at my disposal to hold the Government to account and fight for jobs and the economy throughout the process of EU withdrawal.
- On Wednesday Parliament also considered the National Citizen Service Bill. The National Citizen Service (NCS) is programme of holiday courses for 15-17 year-olds which aims, among other things, to promote social integration by bringing together young people from different backgrounds and instilling a sense of community. The Bill proposes to make the NCS Trust, the community interest company which administers the programme, a national institution while preserving its independence, and put it on a more secure financial and administrative footing. All of this I welcome, but the Public Accounts Committee this week raised a number of concerns over the NCS and its value for money, governance and transparency. I hope the Government will show that it is listening to these concerns. Worryingly, the proportion of NCS graduates from poorer backgrounds has fallen since 2011, and I hope that the Government will be mindful of the need to keep NCS open to those who need it most as this Bill progresses.
- With all the news of the Budget u-turn, another matter slipped through without much media attention; the decision to increase the Sovereign Grant for the royal family from a fixed 15% of the profit share from the (publicly owned) Crown Estate, now rising to 25% of those profits. I was quite surprised that both Tory and Labour frontbenches decided to vote in favour of this, which was on the face of it to cover the renovations needed for Buckingham Palace. However, I decided not to support this proposal because it is a highly unusual means for allocating money for capital repairs. If the Palaces need renovations (and there is a case for taxpayer support, I accept) then a straightforward, fully-costed capital grant from the Treasury would be a simpler way to achieve this. But by dedicating a 25% chunk of Crown Estate profits to the royal household in this way we have ended up with a potentially ongoing share of a taxpayer-owned revenue stream going into the royal budget. I am surprised there was not more scrutiny of this highly unusual measure.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I am increasingly worried about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and the SNP’s desire to re-run the Scottish independence referendum so soon after the last one seems to pile another massive uncertainty onto our country’s shoulders. I’d be interested to know your views about where we go from here, because the rationale of the Brexit debate should in my view delay such considerations rather than bring them forward. Do you think that Scotland’s separation is inevitable, or perhaps that the Scottish people will remain unconvinced? Theresa May’s response has been “now is not the time” and I have to say I have sympathy with that assessment. How should representatives in England and the UK Government be treating this question? Do you agree with Gordon Brown’s proposal that powers returning to the UK from the EU should be apportioned in a devolved way, as a ‘third option’ for a more federal UK? Or should we be less defensive about the importance of the Union between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland?