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Tuesday 22nd October 2013 | 09:42
Those of you who subscribe to the Waugh Room Memo already get a daily insider briefing on what's moving in Westminster, Whitehall and in the political media. Crucially, it is a look-forward to the day's events rather than a recap of last night's and is read by everyone from the PM to Ed Miliband to backbenchers and Govt departments.
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Cabinet meets at 9.30am and tensions over Free Schools may still be felt around the coffin-shaped table. David Laws is sure to be asked exactly what he thinks when a Westminster Hall debate takes place today.
It’s the Immigration Bill’s Second Reading and Jeremy Hunt has come up with a £490m figure for the cost of NHS ‘health tourism’ that was disputed by the BMA. Meanwhile, Theresa May has decided to dump the ‘Go Home’ vans.
Francois Hollande is upset with the US and the Germans may cut up rough over Dave's repatriation plans. William Hague just hinted at Iran being invited to the Syria talks.
Watch the Lords today for a topical question from Lord Donaghue about the Royal Mail. Boris is also among the Peers too, taking questions on the Olympic legacy from a Lords Committee.
Sir John Major is the latest distinguished guest at our Press Gallery lunches. PSBR figures are out at 9.30am.
Outside Planet Westminster, you can bet the punters are more interested in Sir Alex Ferguson’s biography out today (great factoid: his book tour has sold out faster than One Direction concerts) and the final of the Great British Bake Off. A prize must surely go to any Parliamentarian who shoe-horns (or should that be choux-horns?) either of those into debate today.
GETTING A HEALTHY FIGURE
Ministers have estimated that up to £500m could be saved for the NHS by imposing a levy on overseas visitors and migrants. The Government will introduce the new health surcharge in the Immigration Bill, which is to be debated in the Commons today.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told ITV's Daybreak this morning that the levy could pay for "4,000 doctors, 8,500 nurses". He added: "It's only fair to those of us who do pay our taxes to the NHS to make sure we don't have a leaky ship."
But BMA GP committee chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul told Today: "It did not include, for example, the costs of implementing such a scheme... There are all these consequences that really need to be looked at and we believe this is probably an exaggeration.”
Dr Nagpaul also claimed that the expense and inconvenience to other patients should be a factor. He said in his GP’s surgery the lines of patients would lengthen if receptionists had to check the immigration status of each one. He also said that charging a levy could encourage migrants to use the NHS more, claiming a single outpatients appointment would cost more than the £200 saved by a levy. Ironically, a centralised scheme may be the best way to save trusts the time and money of chasing the bills.
Hunt told Daybreak: “We've been absolutely clear that we do not want GPs to act as border guards and we're looking for a non-bureaucratic way of making sure that we recover this money.”
Kailash Chand, also of the British Medical Association, insisted earlier this year: ‘Believe me, there is little evidence that health tourism is a significant burden on the NHS. The £40million allegedly written off over the last four years by hospitals in England and Wales is approximately 0.01 per cent of the NHS budget over the period.’
But Hunt pointed out other EU states collected much more from Brit patients than we collect from our visitors here. Maybe the NHS actually underestimates, not overestimates, the cost? Walk into any busy London hospital and you’ll see the reality of migrant numbers, insiders say.
GO HOME VANS GO HOME
The Mail has a scoop that the infamous “Go Home” immigration vans will not be rolled out nationwide. Sources close to Theresa May say she decided the adverts, which were piloted in six London boroughs, were ineffective after they led to the voluntary return of just one person (and by the way, I think that person spotted the ad not in the street but in a pic in the Guardian). All a far cry from the bravado of Mark Harper on Question Time last week and the Lib Dems will be delighted. A senior Lib Dem source told me last week that Harper’s plan would never see the light of day. As for May, as she told The House magazine last month, she believes in evidence-based policy.
Worth noting too that Boris yesterday used his Telegraph column to say “We need to help young people — not beat up on Johnny Foreigner.” He was talking about house prices rather than immigration per se. But anti-May message was clear. He said Britons were “the biggest load of bloody foreigners on earth”, and had pushed up property prices in countries such as France. Wonder what Jeremy Hunt makes of that line?
Rachel Sylvester in the Times says that the row over Free Schools could be a ‘tipping point’ in relations between the Libs and the Tories in Government. The anger and bafflement among some Tories is palpable. Of course we’ve been here before, not least over Clegg’s squashing of Liz Truss’s childcare ratio reforms, but what’s different about this spat is the DPM attacking a policy that has already been agreed – and voted on. And unlike other agree-to-disagree differentiation on things like mansion tax or married couples allowance, this is an attempt to undo something the Coalition has actually committed to.
Last night on ITV’s Agenda programme, Clegg appeared to realise he’d gone off a half cock. “Maybe I didn't explain it well enough” is how he put it. But he added: “ I actually am in support of our push to give schools more freedom but in future I also want to make sure we give parents the reassurance that standards are met. I don't find that very complicated”. In the Times, Lib Dem sources have accused their coalition partners of “not doing their own homework” and keeping pace with Lib Dem policy. They also say David Laws is fully signed up.
But there appears to be some joint working between Laws and Gove on this issue. Sylvester has an intriguing line that they have already drawn up plans to increase the accountability of academies and free schools. The pair of them have been working for nine months on a joint coalition proposal to “improve the monitoring of and intervention in failing institutions”. It will neither return control to local authorities nor leave it in the department; it is due to be in place by the end of 2014.
Rachel also quotes one Tory source saying: “If Labour is enacting a 35 per cent strategy, hoping to sneak into power with just 35 per cent of the vote, the Liberal Democrats are going for a 10 per cent strategy to avoid annihilation at the next election. Nick Clegg has to shore up his core vote and he obviously thinks that includes state school teachers.” Ouch.
Lib Dems suggest Laws’s strong support for unqualified teachers in the House last week was merely him parroting the Government line rather than Lib Dem line. But that’s a heck of a conflict. As it happens, Bill Esterson has a Westminster Hall debate on teacher training and supply teachers today at 2.30pm. And David Laws is set to turn up. That’s a gift to Labour and Kevin Brennan has this morning said of Clegg:
“He ordered his party through the lobbies in favour of unqualified teachers and his schools minister, David Laws, said he was "100% behind" the policy in Parliament last week. This is just more proof that you can't trust a word the Lib Dems say.”
SUGARING THE PILL
Meanwhile, the Mail picks up on another line in the Clegg ITV interview last night where he appeared to execute another U-turn, this time on pensioners’ perks. Clegg said:
“Some of these universal benefits – TV licence, winter fuel payments and so on – are going to people who simply don’t need them. It’s not because of their age... but because they have the wealth to be able to cover those costs themselves. I certainly will be advocating that – I hope other parties will as well.’
He added: ‘Alan Sugar having his TV licence [paid for] is a nonsense.’
But Labour sources are already pointing out this morning that Clegg has got Sugar’s age wrong. The Apprentice star is nowhere near the 75 years needed for a free telly licence. How long before Sugar uses his Twitter power on that one?
Clegg’s remarks are in stark contrast to those he made last week following suggestions that the Government should treat wealthier pensioners less generously.
Social mobility tsar Alan Milburn said on Thursday that ministers should ‘look again’ at universal benefits for pensioners. But Clegg slapped him down within minutes.
Ed Davey had a bruising time yesterday as he made the Hinkley announcement. Papers pick up on his several challengers: admitting there was no guarantee punters would save £77 a year by 2030, admitting the ‘British jobs’ was an aspiration rather than a guarantee and – most of all – looking impotent as EDF bosses refused to tell him how much their bills would go up this winter.
But there was one hit for Green MP Caroline Lucas in the House. Davey said he would be happy for NAO to look at the deal. That could prove a real hostage to fortune.
WE’RE SORRY, WE’RE SORRY, SO SO SORRY
Friends of Andrew Mitchell have rejected the apology from police officers who are accused of trying to disgrace him as “simply not good enough”. The three officers apologised for their “poor judgement” and said they were apologising due to the “public concern” arising from the ‘plebgate’ scandal. That won’t wash in the Tea Room. David Davis said this was not just about ‘misjudgement but misconduct’.
As it happens, the Mail reports that the British habit of constantly apologising (even if you've done nothing wrong) makes you look MORE trustworthy. Harvard Business School found the type of superfluous apologies that have made Hugh Grant's characters famous represent a 'powerful tool for social influence'. Not in the Met.
Meanwhile, the Mail reports on an innocent man who was tasered five times by cops in Liverpool. Yet more proof there’s plenty the police need to worry about.
Danny Alexander has a Written Ministerial Statement today (it could become an Oral Statement) on infrastructure guarantees. This is yet more of No.10’s grid for the week, and the FT has a flick of the announcement. It says among 15 projects will be named out of a total of 40 projects worth a total of £33b. There’s a £300m biomass plant near Bristol and a £400m Northern Ireland gas storage facility.
William Hague hinted the Iranians could be invited to join peace talks on Syria. He told Today:
“The invitation won’t be up to me, that will be up to the United Nations…If they’re serious, of course it is helpful to have all outside powers involved in this, but that depends on them coming in on a common basis of trying to achieve a peaceful settlement on the basis of a transitional government in Syria.”
Few in the UK appear to have noticed the big news from Germany: that Angela Merkel is set for a ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD. The Times hasn’t missed the angel, claiming David Cameron was dealt a blow to his ambition of winning back powers from the European Union after the German Chancellor’s centre-left allies vowed yesterday to frustrate British demands.
Mrs Merkel gave clear encouragement in the summer to the Prime Minister’s pledge to take some controls back from Brussels before a referendum on EU membership in 2017. But asenior SPD member said that his party was opposed to Mr Cameron’s plans and would resist his aim of ending the EU’s commitment to “ever-closer union”.
It is the first clear sign that the new German Government will be less likely to back Mr Cameron, even though he believes that some repatriation of powers is necessary to convince voters to stay in the EU. Asked whether the SPD supported Mr Cameron’s goal, Axel Schäfer, deputy chairman of the party’s parliamentary group, said simply: “No.”
CYBER HACK ATTACK
Francois Hollande is not a happy bunny after Le Monde did a Guardian-style story on US snooping on his fellow Frenchmen. The White House has admitted the revelatiosn raise “legitimate questions for our friends and allies”. In a statement released after a phone call between Barack Obama and Hollande, the White House said the president had “made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence".
Guardianistas wonder why David Cameron failed to have a similar ‘Love Actually moment’ in standing up to the Yanks over the NSA Prism programme. But maybe GCHQ have a ‘special relationship’ with the NSA that the French just lack
As it happens, Tory MP Julian Smith has a Westminster Hall debate today on the threat to national security posed by the Guardian.
Philip Hammond is at the Nato defence ministers meeting in Brussels today. But he’s already making waves on another form of hacking. The MoD’s Joint Cyber Reserve Unit could recruit former hackers, its new head told Newsnight. Hammond added “Each individual case would be looked at on its merits. The conviction would be examined in terms of how long ago it was, how serious it was, what sort of sentence had followed. So I can't rule it out….across society there are many examples of people who have misspent pasts and turned the knowledge they have gained to the advantage of the community”.
Some have missed it but the Treasury didn’t: Vince Cable claimed in the Standard yesterday that house prices soaring at 10 per cent a month in London are “dangerous and unsustainable”.
Cable said the capital was in the grip of an “extreme problem” of affordability, with both property values and rents spiralling out of the reach of many families. “What is happening is not just that house prices are rising, they are accelerating and that clearly is dangerous and unsustainable. There is an extreme problem of affordability, particularly but not only in London. Families on middle and low incomes can’t get anywhere near an average property in London. This is a very worrying trend.” He didn’t mention Help to Buy by name, but we got the message…
From 11.30am, we have Health Questions. As well as the obvious topicals on health tourism, there are questions down on plain packaging for cigarettes and fast food.
It’s the Second Reading of the Immigration Bill. As it happens, Prit Patel (fresh from her appointment to the home affairs and constitution brief in the No.10 policy board) has a Westminster Hall debate at 9.30am on immigration controls
The pick of the Selects include the Treasury Select at 10am, taking evidence from Peter Marks CBE, former Chief Executive, The Co-operative Group; DCMS Committee at 10.30am has Lord Patten and Tony Hall before it on the BBC Annual Report; and the Health Select at 2.30pm takes evidence from David Prior, Chair and David Behan, Chief Executive, Care Quality Commission.
Much of today's interest will be on the Second Reading of the Lobbying Bill, which over the course of the next couple of months could see a broad alliance of Peers try to amend the proposals in ways MPs couldn't. Today of course, is about the setting out of stalls with over 40 members of the House down to speak, including a fair number of Crossbenchers who sit on the boards of NGOs and charities.
That said, something else taking place in the Lords today might provide for more eye-catching news - the short debate on the Royal Mail sell off prompted at daily question time by Bernard Donoughue, ex-adviser to Prime Ministers' Wilson and Callaghan. With a bubbling concern over just how much those advising the government trousered from the deal (shares included), expect a few tricky hand-grenades to be lobbed the way of whichever Minister is put up to respond.
The other three topics at questions continue the week's international feel, focused as they are on the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the post-2015 Millenuium Development goals, and UK influence in EU institutions. Grand Committee meanwhile hosts the Second Reading of the Inheritance and Trustees Powers Bill.
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