Tom Richmond: Don’t allow Parliament to become an inconvenience

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IS it any wonder that British politics is so bereft of great orators, and debaters, when Ministers – David Cameron included – continue to regard the Houses of Parliament as an irksome inconvenience?

It should not be like this. If Ministers intend to make an agenda-setting policy speech, they should be encouraged to do so on the floor of the House of Commons where their pre-legislative ideas and intentions can be scrutinised – and even refined – by democratically-elected MPs.

I write this following two glaring examples of Parliament being bypassed. The first came on November 10 when Mr Cameron chose to set out his European Union renegotiation strategy to the Chatham House think-tank rather than the Commons.

One of the defining issues of this Parliament, I’m sure it could have been arranged for this statement and debate to take precedence over the adjournment discussion on the conservation of hedgehogs – I kid you not – which concluded the day’s proceedings.

The second example came this Wednesday when Amber Rudd, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, set out the Government’s new policy on power generation to the Institution of Civil Engineers rather than MPs who are, slowly, realising that talk of “a long-term economic plan” is meaningless without energy security.

Given the growing fears that Britain will not have the capacity to keep the lights burning, this issue should have been debated in the Commons where the flaws in the new policy – one that spells the end of coal-fired power stations – could have been exposed.

In fairness, the one plus of John Bercow’s supercilious stint as Speaker has been his willingness to order Ministers to the Commons to make emergency statements on contentious policies and then take questions from shadow Ministers and backbenchers. He was scathing in his criticism of the Home Office and its reluctance to explain the farce over the police funding formula.

But the Speaker should now go further. Given that MPs have just enjoyed a November recess, and that the Commons agenda is threadbare after PMQs every Wednesday, he should insist that major policy speeches are first made to Parliament and not those think-tanks where the Minister concerned can control the questions.

If this happened, it would make Ministers think through their policy intentions in greater detail – this clearly did not happen over police funding – while becoming more confident debaters and forcing the Opposition to raise its game when it comes to scrutiny.

It might also help Parliament restore its tarnished reputation as a part-time legislature. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

THESE are tough times for the Home Office. Scandalously, hapless Minister Mike Penning has still not resigned over the botched changes to the police funding formula which have now had to be scrapped, Mark Sedwill – the top civil servant – has been reprimanded by the Home Affairs Select Committee for his weak leadership and Hull MP Diana Johnson has helpfully revealed that the department employs 42 press officers to co-ordinate its public relations.

Given this, and the continuing fallout from the Paris terror attacks in which some blame is being attached to previous decisions in France to reduce counter-terrorism funding, the Government should not contemplate further cuts in police numbers here without seeking efficiency savings from elsewhere.

As Mrs Johnson pointed out, her local force of Humberside – which has paid £39,000 to help Chief Constable Justine Curran to relocate from Tayside to Yorkshire – now has the lowest number of officers since 1979. She asked: “My constituents would like to know this: how it is that the Home Office can fund 42 press officers but not police officers on the beat?”

Many would like an answer to that question. For, despite Mr Penning praising Humberside’s reduced crime rates, he doesn’t seem to understand that a key role of the police is preventing crime, or terrorist atrocities, from occurring in the first place – and that neighbourhood policing is just as important as the tireless work of the intelligence agencies.

CLIVE Betts, the longstanding Sheffield MP, asked a perfectly reasonable question in the House of Commons this week – when are road and rail connections between South Yorkshire and Manchester going to be improved, and will they be overlooked because of the emphasis on the HS2 (North-South) and HS3 (trans-Pennine) high-speed rail projects?

If only the same could be said for the response of Andrew Jones, the Rail Minister and Harrogate MP. I quote: “A sub-national transport body would provide a link between central and local government to ensure a united voice representing an area’s transport requirements and, as a result, to make more likely solutions that are tailored to local need.”

In plain English, this is gobbledygook for “nothing will happen” – despite Mr Jones accepting “that connections across the Pennines, especially between Sheffield and Manchester, are not good enough”.

Given that this scheme was at the heart of the £15bn transport plan which preceded last year’s Autumn Statement, it is another example of the Government over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to the North’s creaking infrastructure.

IF the former deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz did not have sufficient confidence to challenge bosses at the Kids Company over the misuse of public funds, why was she appointed in the first place? More pertinently, why was she then given a severance payment of £134,000 before being hired – briefly – as a £1,000 a day consultant? I despair.

THE power of sport as a force for good was self-evident at Wembley when supporters of the English and French football teams united in a show of solidarity following the Paris terror attacks. The pre-match ceremony as the players linked arms for an impeccably observed minute’s silence showed football at its best.

It would, I’m afraid, have been another victory for the Islamic State terrorists if the match had not taken place and the legacy from Tuesday’s match will be, I believe, comparable to Nelson Mandela wearing the Springboks rugby shirt prior to the iconic 1995 World Cup final to unite South Africa against the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks.