POLITICS

The Waugh Zone Tuesday October 31, 2017

The five things you need to know about politics today.

31/10/2017 09:35 GMT | Updated 31/10/2017 09:49 GMT

1. PALACE OF PESTMINSTER?

It’s Halloween and for MPs accused of sexual harassment the spectre of their past misconduct is coming back to haunt them. But with some men in Westminster talking about ‘witch hunts’, the irony (and timing) of that particular phrase was not lost on MPs like Labour’s Jess Phillips.

I’ve been passed the unredacted, expanded list of Tory names and as well as some historic claims there are some more recent ones. There are real legal issues involved in naming many of them, although the Sun managed to get Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to admit “inappropriately touching” political journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer on the knee during a conference dinner in 2002. She has made clear she thinks the matter is closed and accepted his apology at the time.

Others on the list either flatly deny or play down the claims against them. The Sun quotes one former Cabinet minister saying the alleged bad behaviour “could only have happened in my sleep”. Another MP says he has “never been rude to a woman in my life”, while another joked that his inclusion in the list proves there’s “clearly life in the old dog yet”. On Newsnight last night, Michael Fabricant went public with his own unease: “It’s not fair to base things on rumor, there has to be evidence. I feel there is a growing witch-hunt mentality currently going on.” Is that really why so few male MPs showed up for the Urgent Question yesterday? Our Kate Forrester has spoken to a string of female staffers to hear their complaints.

There is a real danger that stories like the Fallon one obscure much more serious cases where those on the receiving end of the harassment feel their complaints have been ignored or risked jeopardising their own career. Plaid Cymru MP Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts rightly raised the case of a Parliamentary staffer who complained about serious mistreatment and nothing was done. The Telegraph reports Theresa May is being urged to investigate one cabinet minister following claims two female researchers had to move to different jobs because of inappropriate behaviour. No.10 seemed coy yesterday in saying just how much of the claims were known by whips and passed on to the PM.

Yesterday, Speaker Bercow made plain he wanted the political parties to first sort this out and the big question is just how radical any changes will be. Will the parties follow his call for them to have transparent, and partially independent, complaints procedures? There are rival agendas here, with the parties HQs and the whips’ offices and bodies like the 1922 Committee all seeming to want different responsibilities. The difficulty in getting agreement seems almost as intractable as party funding. Cameroons say they tried to get agreement in 2014 but were blocked by their own MPs. Labour’s Kevin Barron yesterday pointed out in 2012 his own Standards Committee tried to widen the scope of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to combat abuse, but the plan was killed off by “the three major parties’ Parliamentary shop stewards and supported by front benchers”. Therein lies a key problem.

We report that Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has written to IPSA to suggest that one simple way to help MPs’ staff is for the watchdog to formally recognise trade unions. There’s a curio that Unite can represent Parliamentary staff but not MPs’ own staff. Leadsom and the Speaker suggested yesterday unions would have a role to play. 

 

2. BANKING ON BREXIT?

The Bank of England believes that UK financial services would lose 75,000 jobs under a ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome, the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed has been told. And 10,000 jobs could go on ‘day one’ of our exit, if there’s no specific arrangement for the City. Xavier Rolet, the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, has suggested that over 200,000 jobs could go, so maybe the Bank of England thinks its own ‘reasonable scenario’ is well, reasonable.

Of course Brexiteers will see this as yet more Project Fear from Governor Mark Carney and his ilk. Others will see it as a tactic to scare the EU, given how much its businesses depend on London’s expertise. Yet others will say it’s just brutally honest, sensible planning. Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein tweeted again yesterday a hint part of its new London HQ may lie empty post-Brexit. Even if 75,000 jobs go, the UK would still employ a million people in financial services.

Speaking of bankers, new extracts from Gordon Brown’s autobiography show him warning that the City hasn’t learned from the 2007/8 crisis, and urging the use of the 2006 Fraud Act to send bankers to jail. He also reveals for the first time that he feared he’d be forced to quit as PM if his rescue plan had failed on October 8, 2008. “When I got up the next morning I told Sarah that she would have to be ready to pack our things for a sudden move out of Downing Street…if what I was about to do failed”.

Back in the here and now, and ahead of the Budget, the FT has the current Chancellor in defiant mood. Treasury sources tell the paper Philip Hammond has told Cabinet colleagues he has “no room for manoeuvre”. He fears that investors, already worried by Brexit, will be spooked if he abandons his fiscal rules adopted only a year ago. The Cabinet meets this morning to discuss the costs of preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit today.  

Our own Owen Bennett has a report on something else that’s preoccupying both ministers and the Bank of England: a possible interest rate rise either this week or in December. Debt campaigners Step Change and The Money Charity are really worried even a small rise will tip a lot of people over the edge. Meanwhile, Labour’s Stella Creasy is urging Tories to back her new clause to the Finance Bill today to force offshore firms to pay their taxes in the UK.

 

3. LOWER LORDS

With 800 peers, our House of Lords is one of the biggest second chambers in the world. The Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the Upper House will finally report at 2.30pm today. Its two most important recommendations were leaked to the Times earlier this month, namely that there should be a new 15-year time limit on new peers and that the political parties should start cutting their current numbers.

On the crucial issue of numbers, as I’ve said before, the biggest pressure will be on the Lib Dems given the huge disparity between their Commons (12 MPs) and Lords (101 peers) representation. I’m told that the key, net figures to watch will be these: the current 800 peers is planned to be cut to 725 by 2022, 600 by 2027 and 574 by 2032. Most of that will be triggered by net departures of existing peers. In the next five years, the Lib Dems look like being asked to cut their numbers by 18 peers – and by a further 32 peers by 2027 and 25 more by 2032. Will they agree?

Of course, peers get a healthy attendance allowance for simply turning up to work. But benefit claimants on welfare have to go through a trickier process and today the Government will confirm last week’s PMQs U-turn on benefit caps for those in supported housing. A Written Ministerial Statement is due and everyone will want to see just what the price tag is.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this guy react when he touches the glass in a new shark tank exhibition in Washington DC.

 

4. GAMBLING FIX

At 7am, the Government published its consultation on reforming fixed odds betting terminals, aka the ‘crack cocaine’ of the gambling world. For those who don’t frequent betting shops, it may come as a surprise that these machines allow people to bet up to £100 every 20 seconds. The new review suggests a new limit that could cap that level to between £2 and £50.

Of course that is quite a wide range of outcomes and reformers worry the industry will manage to scare ministers into opting for a middle way of around £20 per spin, rather than the genuinely radical £2 limit. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport consultation will take 12 weeks. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling hopes that is a signal that gaming minister Tracey Crouch is determined to avoid a judicial review by bookmakers, and could hint at the £2 option.

Changes would certainly hit UK gambling company revenue, put at £1.8bn last year. On one estimate, Ladbrokes Coral alone could lose £449m in revenue. Both Labour and the Tories are now much more gripped by the issue. Gordon Brown was slated for the initial relaxation in the law and Cameron and Osborne ruled out a stake reduction in 2013 and blocked a review in 2015.

 

5. POLLUTION NATION

With London Mayor Sadiq Khan having launched his ‘T-charge’ (T is for toxic air) last week, there’s often a focus on the capital as the big pollution blackspot in the UK. Today, a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report shows 44 out of 51 British towns and cities had failed its tests for fine sooty particles aka PM2.5s.

Dr Toby Hillman, one of the report’s authors from the Royal College of Physicians, said: “There isn’t a safe limit for the amount of pollution that’s been defined as yet and we know the effects of poor air quality run from cradle to grave; it’s a lifetime threat to human health”.  Will DEFRA be doing more to help our cities or, as campaigners claim, just pass the buck to councils?

And in further proof that it’s towns not just cities that should get more attention, the list today has some surprising pollution hot spots. Eastbourne, Scunthorpe, Armagh, Chepstow and Thurrock are all named.

 
 
 

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Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Paul WaughNed SimonsKate Forrester Rachel Wearmouth and Owen Bennett.