A rocket is fired between combatants in the Israel-Palestine conflict during July. If the UK government recognises Palestine, could this change the way the international community views the situation there?
Much though this blog maligns the BBC News website, it does come out with the occasional scrap of news, such as the fact that MPs are to vote on a backbench motion to officially recognise Palestine as a state.
“Labour backbencher Grahame Morris will present the motion on Monday as MPs return to the Commons,” the report states.
“The motion has the full backing of the Labour shadow cabinet, the BBC has been told.
“The vote is symbolic and would not change government policy but could have international implications.”
It goes on to say that backbenchers are likely to add an amendment, simply to say that this would be a contribution towards securing a two-state solution for the conflicts between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.
In the light of the violence that flared up in July, this all seemed fairly straightforward – but it seems it isn’t. The Independenthas reported that the amendment is part of an “internal revolt” from “pro-Israeli” members of the shadow cabinet over a decision to “force” them to support the proposal.
To be frank, it all seems very childish, especially when considering the number of deaths – mainly of Palestinians but also of some Israelis – and the destruction of homes and property.
But what do you think? Originally this was going to be a question about Labour but considering the pettiness of the squabble, let’s rise above it: Should the United Kingdom recognise Palestine as a state? Please vote.
“I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies.” – James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr Smith Goes To Washington
Congratulations are due to Labour MPs John McDonnell and Grahame Morris, who have persuaded Parliament’s Backbench Business Committee to agree that a debate on the ‘WoW’ petition will take place in the House of Commons, early in the New Year.
Responsibility now falls back on the British people to make sure our elected representatives do not squander the opportunity, as the Commons Work and Pensions Committee squandered its chance to hold Iain Duncan Smith to account for his own, and his department’s, statisticial inaccuracies.
The petition, on the government’s website, passed its target of 100,000 signatures at the beginning of the month, meaning the Backbench Business committee had to consider whether a Commons debate should take place.
Those who oppose it will be trying to find any reason – no matter how small – to avoid having to consider the changes it demands, so its supporters need to go through it, line by line, making sure they can justify every claim and every demand with hard facts.
We cannot rely on our MPs to do this. Even those who are sympathetic may not have the time or the resources to research the issues properly; and we have seen from the woeful Work and Pensions meeting on Monday that it is best not to leave Parliamentarians to phrase their own questions.
To use an angling metaphor – which seems appropriate – we must allow no opportunity for these worms to wriggle off the hook.
So, for example, the petition demands “a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform”. The government has denied that this is possible, saying it would be too complicated to carry out and that “external organisations have not produced this either”.
But the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013, states: “There is a … growing number of people … in very deep poverty. They are being hit by … overlapping measures from welfare reform”. We can expect some Conservative MPs to demur over the differences between “cumulative” and “overlapping” (probably down to their respective spellings) but it seems clear that the Foundation not only has the evidence needed to provide a cumulative assessment, but has already carried it out.
It should also be noted that the Foundation has said the effects of this year’s changes cannot be quantified yet, and we must wait until next year to learn what further damage may have been caused; this is just the beginning.
The petition also calls for “a New Deal for sick and disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions” – meaning evidence would need to be available to show that the Coalition system does not adequately cater for those needs, abilities and ambitions.
It demands an immediate end to the work capability assessment, and strong evidence will be required to show that this is necessary. Individual cases are fine on an anecdotal level – for example the single-question medical assessment (“Did you get here by bus?”) that led to the refusal of benefit for the poor lady from Kingswood who then took her own life; it seems clear that there was no attempt to understand the state of her mental health.
But these stories must be supported by the weight of numbers. We know that 3,500 people in the work-related activity group of ESA claimants died between January and November 2011. How many ESA claimants have died since then, and how many of them were in the group where they were expected to be working again within a year? We don’t know, because the statistics have been suppressed. Why have they been withheld? Is it because the number of deaths has risen to an even more horrifying level?
If the government wants to deny that this is the case, then it must provide proof. The Coalition has had more than a year to produce these figures; if it is unable – or unwilling – to do so then they must be damning indeed.
This article’s headline is based on the title of the film Mr Smith Goes To Washington (the ‘Political’ refers to the fact that some commenters, here and on Facebook, refer to me as if ‘Vox Political’ was my real name). It is a statement of my intent to go to London and watch the ‘WoW’ debate in person, just as Jefferson Smith attends the US Senate to seek justice in the film.
Of course I won’t be able to speak in the debate. If I could, though, I might pick a few words from that old movie, because they are just as relevant today:
“Take a look at this country if you really want to see something. You’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, colour, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.
“Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again! I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”
Or how about this one? “I guess this is just another lost cause. All you people don’t know about lost causes. They were the only causes worth fighting for – for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule. Love thy neighbour. And in this world today of great hatred a man who knows that rule has a great trust. And you know that you fight harder for the lost causes than for any others. Yes you’d even die for them.”
People have died for this cause.
Those of us who remain have a duty not to lose it.
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An end to the corporate backhander? [Picture: This Is Money}
A Labour government would make private companies who provide services at the taxpayers’ expense obey public sector transparency rules, it has been revealed.
The change means firms and charities that sell services to the state – for example, all the private companies now working in the NHS – would lose their right to commercial confidentiality.
The Freedom of Information Act would be extended to cover them and they would have to reveal their commercial secrets if a FoI request required them to do so.
If enacted, this is likely to be more effective in creating transparency of lobbying than the Parliamentary Bill of the same name that is currently working its way through Westminster.
The policy was revealed in a Sunday Times article which is paywall protected. Labour has yet to release an announcement on its website.
The article quotes shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who said: “More and more of our public services are being delivered by private companies and charities, out of reach of freedom of information. We must demand the same openness from them as we expect from government. It’s not on to let these organisations hide behind a veil of secrecy.”
The new policy comes after a 10-minute rule motion by Labour’s Grahame Morris began its journey through Parliament earlier this month. Such motions rarely get very far because the government of the day usually opposes them in the later stages and there is often too little time to complete the debate.
But these bills stimulate publicity for their cause, and it seems clear that the Labour leadership has taken this particular cause on board.
So it should – concerns are high that unfair advantages are being handed to, for example, the private healthcare companies, who are then able to hide the facts behind the veil of commercial confidentiality. Why should they be allowed to do this when they are providing a public service, funded by the citizens of the UK?
Existing NHS operators do not have the advantage of commercial confidentiality and must provide details of the way they operate if a FoI request is submitted to them. This makes them vulnerable during the bidding process for NHS contracts, as private operators can ask about the current providers’ operations and then undercut them to get the work.
Then there’s the so-called “revolving doors” practice, in which government advisors move to lucrative contracts in the private sector, often after providing advice that changes government policy in favour of their new employer. Mr Morris’s motion noted that “at least five former advisors to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are now working for lobbying firms with private healthcare clients”.
This is a corrupt practice – the firms gain an unfair advantage because they have, if you like, a spy in government manipulating affairs to their advantage. Nothing is done about this at the moment, nor will the Labour proposal change that situation – but we will all be able to see who the spies are.
It would probably be advisable for a future Labour government to put powers in place to reverse any change in the law due to corrupt advice intended to engineer a commercial advantage to a private company. Restricting the movement of government employees to other jobs would be problematic, but if it is known that any changes they effect will be reversed after such a move, then the exercise would become pointless.
Companies would not be able to pay a person to influence the government while they remained in the taxpayers’ employ, as this would be a clear case of bribery and corruption.
A previous VP article on this subject mentioned the idea of the level playing field – and Labour is to be praised for producing policies intended to restore that principle to government in the face of Conservative and Liberal Democrat efforts to skew the field in favour of their corporate chums.
And the corporates themselves? Well, their bosses are likely to be furious and it’s possible that all kinds of threats will come in Labour’s direction.
That’s fine. A Labour government can take any such complaint in stride by launching a programme to revise government tax strategy with regard to corporates, and bring any complaining company to the top of the list.
Open and transparent: Grahame Morris, who called for a ‘level playing field’ for both private companies and public organisations when bidding for government contracts.
Did you know that £1 in every £3 spent by the government goes to an independent or private-sector service provider?
If you also recall government ministers bemoaning the fact that £1 in every £4 spent by the government was borrowed, as they said very often during the first year or so of the Coalition, and you bear in mind the fact that all private companies must make a profit, you’ll come to a fairly damning conclusion.
Did you know, also, that private companies – while free to hide behind commercial confidentiality regarding the conditions under which billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are awarded to them in government contracts – may use Freedom of Information requests to gain detailed information about public sector organisations and then use that knowledge to undercut or outbid those bodies when government contracts are tendered or put up for renewal?
FoI regulations give private providers an unfair competitive advantage when bidding for contracts, due to unequal disclosure requirements.
Both of these were made clear in Grahame Morris’s short speech in support of his 10-minute rule motion to bring in a Bill amending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply to private healthcare companies, and for connected purposes.
He even pointed out that we are living in a society where freedom of information is routinely censored – stating that he attended a demonstration against NHS privatisation in Manchester at the start of the Conservative Party conference there, “but which was barely reported by our public sector broadcaster”.
He said the government should be chastened by recent events. “For example, the tagging scandal — involving Serco and G4S and uncovered by the Serious Fraud Office — showed that these companies had defrauded the taxpayer of more than £50 million.
“Perhaps we need a hard-hitting advertising campaign, with advertising hoardings on vans driven around the City of London, warning off corporate fraudsters from bidding for public contracts?
“The danger for our NHS is that we are inviting convicted fraudsters into our health system.”
He said HCA, the world’s biggest private healthcare company, recently won the contract to provide cancer treatment for NHS brain tumour patients, “stopping patients receiving world-class treatment at London’s University College Hospital”.
Mr Morris continued: “The Competition Commission has already caught HCA overcharging private patients in the United Kingdom. In the United States, HCA has had to pay fines and costs in excess of $2 billion for systematically defrauding federal healthcare programmes.
“The public are right to be concerned about these providers coming into the NHS. If that is to happen, it is essential that their operations and their contracts with the NHS should be open, transparent and subject to public scrutiny.”
Introducing his Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill, he said its purpose was to strengthen FoI legislation and introduce vital safeguards, so members of the public can see how their money is being spent.
It seems he may even have read Vox Political‘s earlier article on his motion, as he said: “I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support fair competition, a level playing field and the duty of equal disclosure throughout the bidding process for NHS services.
“The public have a right to know the record of public and private providers before contracts are awarded. Those safeguards can work only if the Information Commissioner has the same rights to seek information and carry out investigations, and to make all providers of public services comply with freedom of information legislation.
“I understand that the Information Commissioner expressed concern to the Justice Select Committee that accountability would be undermined if FOI did not apply to private providers of public services.”
He said: “Freedom of information is one of the Labour Government’s greatest achievements, ensuring transparency and accountability in modern government and allowing the public access to information on what is being done in their name and how their money is being spent.
“In recent years, we have witnessed an acceleration in the number of public services being outsourced, and today roughly £1 in every £3 that the Government spend goes to independent or private sector providers.
“Owing to the Government’s policy of opening up public services to the private and voluntary sectors, billions of pounds of NHS contracts are now being made available to the private sector, following the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
“Unfortunately, while more and more taxpayer money is being handed to the private sector, especially in the NHS, FOI responsibilities are not following the public pound.
“There is a big issue here about transparency, because the public should know what is happening in their name, as was brought home to me recently in a demonstration against NHS privatisation in Manchester that I attended, along with more than 50,000 other people, but which was barely reported on by our public sector broadcaster.
“Private health care companies should not be permitted to hide behind a cloak of commercial confidentiality. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being awarded to private sector companies under barely transparent contracts.
“Meanwhile, private companies are free to benefit by gaining detailed knowledge of public sector bodies through their use and submission of FOI requests. The same information is then used by the private sector to undercut or outbid the very same public sector bodies when contracts are tendered or put up for renewal.”
Although no objection was raised to the Bill going forward, it seems the Coalition has performed an about-face on the issue. Mr Morris said: “I understand that in opposition the Prime Minister was convinced about this matter, having previously promised to increase the range of publicly funded bodies subject to scrutiny using section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act.
“The coalition agreement also promised to extend the scope of the Act to provide greater transparency, but unfortunately it would appear that nothing is being done to address the democratic deficit caused by the outsourcing of public services.”
Sadly, it seems likely that this Bill won’t get very far, for reasons this blog has already mentioned – the Government usually opposes Private Member’s Bills in the later stages and, given their low priority in the schedule, there is often insufficient time for the debate to be completed.
But this may not matter, as the information already provided by Mr Morris makes fascinating reading that is damning for the government.
Let us hope Grahame Morris’s 10-minute rule motion – on the unfair advantages enjoyed by private healthcare firms working in the NHS – does not get swamped by the coverage of the Transparency of Lobbying Bill that resumes its unwelcome journey through the Parliamentary process after it.
Vox Political does not have the exact wording of the motion, but it seems likely it will follow a similar line to the Private Members’ Bill that Mr Morris put down last December, winning the support of 111 fellow MPs.
You will notice that it is relevant to the Lobbying Bill in several ways. Here is the wording of the Private Members’ Bill:
That this House notes
that the most significant development that has followed from the Government’s healthcare reforms has been the £7 billion worth of new contracts being made available to the private health sector;
further notes that at least five former advisers to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are now working for lobbying firms with private healthcare clients;
recalls the Prime Minister’s own reported remarks prior to the general election when he described lobbying as `the next big scandal waiting to happen’;
recognises the growing scandal of the procurement model that favours the private health sector over the NHS, by allowing private companies to hide behind commercial confidentiality and which compromises the best practice aspirations of the public sector;
condemns the practice of revolving doors, whereby Government health advisers move to lucrative contracts in the private healthcare sector, especially at a time when the privatisation of the NHS is proceeding by stealth;
is deeply concerned at the unfair advantages being handed to private healthcare companies;
and demands that in future all private healthcare companies be subject to freedom of information requests under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in the same way as existing NHS public sector organisations.
The active part is at the end – that private healthcare companies be subject to FoI requests in the same way as existing NHS public sector organisations. That’s why this 10-minute rule motion is entitled Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies).
The aim is to have a level playing field for both private and public organisations providing NHS services. Do you remember the level playing field? The Tories were constantly banging on about having a level playing field, back in the 1980s and 90s when they were privatising left, right and centre, but they don’t seem to be quite as interested in it any more.
The other parts of the original bill are just as interesting in relation to the Transparency of Lobbying Bill. What will it do about people who are employed by the government but who take all available opportunities to push forward a particular private company’s interests (above those of the taxpayer?) and then quit to take a position with that company once their work is done? Nothing, most likely.
The sad part is that this 10-minute motion is unlikely to get very far. Here’s how they work (taken from Wikipedia, which we can use as a reliable source on this subject):
“Whichever MP has reserved the slot presents their bill and is entitled to speak for 10 minutes to convince the house of its merit. After the 10 minutes have passed, another MP may speak for a further 10 minutes to oppose the bill. The Speaker then calls a voice vote to decide whether the bill should be allowed a second reading, which is when the bill is debated at a later date. The Speaker will divide the house for a recorded count of votes if there is some opposition. However, the majority of Ten Minute Rule motions are not objected to, and are allowed to proceed without any debate at this stage. This is because MPs have not yet had time to review the bill’s content.
“When a Ten Minute Rule motion passes, the bill is added to the register of parliamentary business. It is scheduled for debate along with the other Private Member’s Bills, but at a lower priority. The MP presenting the bill must tell the Speaker the date for this second reading debate. The bill is generally printed and published shortly before the second reading.
“Bills introduced under the Ten Minute Rule rarely progress much further, since the Government usually opposes Private Member’s Bills in the later stages and, given their low priority in the schedule, there is often insufficient time for the debate to be completed. Most Ten Minute Rule introductions are instead used to stimulate publicity for a cause, especially as the debate follows the media-popular question time and is usually broadcast live on BBC Parliament, or to gauge the opinion of the house on an issue which may later be introduced in another bill.”
“To stimulate publicity for a cause”. Let us hope that this one does not get swamped by coverage of the Lobbying Bill.
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