1. UNCOMFORTABLE, UNACCEPTABLE
At PMQs today, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will no doubt unite to condemn the terror attack in New York. But will they unite on any meaningful, practical way forward on the issue of sexual harassment and assault in politics? After the latest revelations, all the parties need to come together to agree on a complaints framework inside and outside Westminster and it will need real leadership from both the PM and Corbyn.
Damian Green is the latest Tory MP to be accused of inappropriate conduct. Bright Blue think tanker and writer Kate Maltby uses a column in the Times to accuse the minister of touching her knee and making it “clear he was sexually interested” in her, adding his own wife was “very understanding”. Green denies any sexual advance and says the allegations are “untrue [and] deeply hurtful”. The PM has asked the Cabinet Secretary to “establish the facts and report back as soon as possible”.
Damian Green’s importance to Theresa May cannot be overstated. A friend since they were both at Oxford University, he carries the title of First Secretary of State and is de facto deputy PM (imagine if he had to fill in for her at PMQs today). As May’s cross-Whitehall ‘enforcer’, he chairs no fewer than nine Cabinet sub-committees on everything from Brexit prep (see below) to immigration, social reform and housing. And the latest allegations have the added problem that the Cabinet Secretary is not actually an ‘independent’ investigator, given he works with Green almost daily on a range of issues. Will Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office’s director general of ‘Propriety and Ethics’ be drafted in? Tory MP Anna Soubry this morning suggested Green should step aside during the investigation.
The facts of the Green/Maltby case are disputed, but the issue of young women feeling powerless when confronted by the conduct of more senior men is precisely at the heart of the cases dismissed by some as at the so-called ‘lower end’ of the harassment scale. Don’t forget that Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom on Monday set the bar “significantly” lower than criminal conduct, stating that anyone ‘made to feel uncomfortable’ by the conduct of others should have their concerns treated seriously. She added that staff could lose their jobs, MPs lose the whip and ministers sacked. One-off incidents may be described as ‘harmless’ flirtation, but regular patterns of behaviour cannot be shrugged off so lightly. If an MP is accused once, they can possibly avoid consequences. But if they’re accused several times and by several people, then Leadsom’s lower bar of proof (and I suspect backed by the PM herself) will surely kick in.
The appalling case of Bex Bailey, the Labour activist who on Radio 4 yesterday bravely revealed her own rape at the hands of a party figure (and the advice by a party official to keep quiet) underlines just how serious this all is. Labour has called in an independent legal figure to investigate and a police case is not out of the question. Bailey’s bigger point was to call for an independent mechanism for all party staff to get help and justice. When she was on the party’s ruling NEC (from 2013 to 2016), she pushed hard for changes to Labour’s own procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and bullying. Ed Miliband tweeted his shock last night, but could he and the NEC have done more to overhaul the structures? As MP Stella Creasy told us last night: “You should not be getting a careers advice session if you come forward to report a sexual assault.”
Another Parliamentary staffer has told ITV News (and the Guardian) of how an MP pinned her to a bed while on a foreign trip last year. She complained to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, the police (who said it was outside their jurisdiction as the incident was abroad), the Commons authorities and party officials - and none took any action. Her claims, and those of Bailey, are a long way from the consensual affairs/peccadillos of some of the Tory MPs on the ‘pest spreadsheet’ circulating Westminster (and the web). Several of those named are threatening to sue, stating some of the claims are plain wrong. One of them told me one allegation was “100% untrue”. For Theresa May the list is not the issue. The issue is just what practical steps she will now take to deal with current – and future - complaints. All those victims who have suffered in silence (and there are plenty) until now will be watching and waiting for real action and reassurance.
2. CUSTOMS AND PRACTICE
The PM’s reliance on Damian Green was underscored yesterday when No.10 told us he was chairing a brand new Cabinet sub-committee on EU Exit and Trade, with a focus on “Domestic Preparedness, Legislation, and Devolution”. The PM herself will chair a reshaped sub-committee on “strategy and negotiations”, but Green’s new body looks like it is designed specifically to cope with a possible ‘no deal’ outcome.
And it was on a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and other options, that yesterday’s Cabinet meeting focused as David Davis led his colleagues through the 300 programmes being worked on. In an unusually detailed read-out, the PM’s spokesman told us Davis revealed 3,000 new Governments posts had been created to handle Brexit so far, including 300 extra lawyers.
The cost of those lawyers alone may be substantial, but we were then also told HM Customs and Revenue has ‘confirmed’ it will hire between 3,000 and 5,000 new staff too to deal with trade issues. There was surprisingly little clarity on just how much those new posts would be cost or be funded. And I’m told some senior HMRC staff were stunned when told No.10 had briefed the staff figures. Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association of senior civil servants, told me the new posts were welcome “but we have no answer yet as to whether this will be fully funded”. I understand some of the new HMRC posts will be ‘backfilled’ by existing staff when their current roles end. After years of staff cuts, the new expansion suggests rhetoric about austerity is upended when Brexit is concerned.
No10 did come up with a figure that £250m extra would be spent in 2017/18 on Brexit prep, on top of £412m for one-off costs in coming years. That’s already a cool three quarters of a billion in new spending for Brexit (they didn’t put that on Boris’s Vote Leave bus), and the new HMRC staff could add a further £200m (though it seems 5,000 staff is the maximum, worst case ‘no deal’ scenario). The Times has a figure that nearly £1m a day will be spent next year on Brexit prep.
3. OPEN TO THE WORLD?
It’s certainly another big day for Brexit transparency today, with Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox (and trade negotiator Crawford Falconer) all due to give evidence to various committees. Yet it is a lack of transparency that is the focus for Labour’s latest Parliamentary guerilla tactics.
Keir Starmer has an Opposition Day motion that Labour says will force a binding vote to require Ministers to hand over the 58 secret studies that have been carried out about the economic impact of Brexit to a Parliamentary select committee. Labour’s motion will use an ancient, but still effective, Parliamentary procedure that gives the Commons the power to require Ministers to release Government papers to Parliament. And in a strange coincidence, the Government itself is using such a procedure (a ‘Humble Address to Her Majesty’) to give an update on the Hillsborough tragedy.
Tory rebels such as Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke are on record supporting the publication of the secret studies. With the DUP’s backing, the Government could squeak a victory but it may be tight if more Tory rebels line up. Will ministers dare to repeat recent tactics of simply not opposing such Opposition motions? If they ignore any vote, a big constitutional row will erupt again. The Brexit Department slipped out news of its 58 secret studies on Monday night, but they are in the limelight now. The TUC is accusing ministers of trying to ‘bury bad news’, and many suspect the impact assessments spell out some scary consequences of Brexit. We have an update later on the increasingly odd ways in which DExEU is refusing Freedom of Information requests about details of our exit.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Here’s a reminder of just what women MPs have had to put up with over the years. Watch then Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd call out Tory MP Tony Marlow as he admits he called Harriet Harman ‘a stupid cow’ in the chamber.
Controversy over Universal Credit continues to rumble on and today we have an exclusive on the problems it causes for the self-employed. ‘Sole traders’ have been told by Department for Work and Pensions advisers that they would be better off jobless. Given that the Government’s main claim about UC is it helps get people off the dole into work, the new revelations ought to worry many ministers.
Thousands of people who work for themselves are on working tax credits but are being migrated onto UC. Some of them have been told they may as well shut down their business and sign on, while others say strict rules have left them reliant on food banks and charity handouts. One claimant was told by an official they “would not have a sanction applied” if he chose to end his trade and became unemployed.
A “hidden” clause restricting in-work benefits has begun to affect some of the 800,000 people who run their own business, many of whom are naturally reluctant to claim benefit in the first place but do so out of necessity. The Federation of Small Businesses tells us: “As it stands, Universal Credit poses a real threat to entrepreneurship in the UK.” After the national outrage over ‘White Van Man’ national insurance rises forced Hammond to U-turn on his first Budget, ministers are under real pressure to act on this one.
5. AFFORDABLE REDUCTION
It remains to be seen just how much help the Chancellor gives to housing in his Budget. But given recent reports that he wants a ‘cost-free radicalism’ (such as changing some Green Belt designations), maybe he should back calls to tighten the law on affordable housing.
A new Shelter study has revealed that thousands of such homes are not being built each year because developers use a legal loophole to wriggle out of targets in order to maximise profits. So-called ‘viability assessments’ used by builders have cost 2,500 fewer homes to be built, Freedom of Information request show. One council told HuffPost UK it feels it has no choice but to accept the cuts or risk no new low-cost homes at all. The Home Builders Federation defends the assessments, which are part of DCLG advice. Over to you, Sajid Javid?