23 April 2012 12:09 PM

Wedding bells on Whitehall

ESP hears congratulations are in order for Gabby Bertin, David Cameron's hugely popular spinner, who got engaged over Easter.

And it turns out there's a lovely story behind how such a busy lass found time to meet a bloke - and one from outside the Westminster bubble at that.

She put her London house up for sale and the buyer, a finance director in the City, discovered he was even more keen on the seller.  Romance blossomed and the pair plan to wed next year.  

Gabby is not alone in having to juggle a Government job and wedding planning. I understand Iain Duncan Smith's spinner Susie Squire also recently got engaged to a lawyer, and is due to marry in May. Laura Trott, Francis Maude's former special adviser now working in Downing Street, is also preparing for her big day.

It is a turnaround from the early months of the Coalition, when the pressures of Government put several relationships under sadly unsurvivable strain.

Craig Woodhouse and Joe Murphy

20 April 2012 1:06 PM

Fig trees cost axed - to just £18,500 a year

Commons officials have come up with a genius plan to save the fig trees which have so far cost the taxpayer almost £400,000.

The 12 trees will be donated to Parliament - huzzah! - but only in return for a four-year maintenance contract being handed to Bristol-based Plant Care UK they are currently rented from. The cost of this contract? Merely £18,500 a year.

The senior officials responsible for drawing up this plan - which is to be considered by the Commons Finance and Services Committee before going up to the ruling Commons Commission to be signed off (provided it is deemed acceptable) - hail it as a 60 per cent saving from the current deal. What's more, it will come into place in May, three months earlier than the existing arrangements were due to end, saving even more money!

In the proposal, leaked to the Standard, they argue replacing the trees would cost £200,000 and than any alternatives to provide adequate shade would be “more expensive, disruptive and increase our carbon footprint”.

They add it will "help a small British company to thrive by providing a reasonable return on its contract”.

It was drawn up by John Borley, Director General, Facilities, and Veronica Daly, Director of Commercial Services, after Commons Speaker John Bercow declared himself "horrified" at discovering the cost.

As chairman of the Commission, it remains to be seen what Speaker Bercow will make of the new idea. Officially, the Commons is not commenting until the proposal has been given "due consideration" by the committee

As you'd expect, campaigners are not exactly impressed and even some MPs think that spending more than a squaddie's salary on 12 trees cannot be justified.

“The maintenance cost of this opulent greenery might have come down but taxpayers will still be paying over £18,000 a year for just 12 trees, which is an outrageous amount of money,” said Robert Oxley, Campaign Manager of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Looks like the #savethefigs campaign has still got some work to do.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse


19 April 2012 12:10 PM

Is DCMS set for the chop?

Here's a curious one. In an article for today's Standard (link later), Harriet Harman raises fears that Jeremy Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport is set to be axed after the Olympics.

Citing “well-sourced rumours in Westminster and the arts world”, the shadow culture secretary says David Cameron is poised to shut it down once the Games are over.

The suggestion is apparently that arts functions will be hived off to the Arts Council, media put in Vince Cable's Business Department and sport split between local councils and the Department of Health - making it more like the department of public health the Tories used to trumpet. That certainly fits with the Hunt-to-replace-Lansley rumours which flew around Westminster when the Health Secretary was at his lowest ebb over the NHS reforms.

The Standard understands that the idea has been floated in some Government circles but is not likely to happen. For one thing, it won't save as much money as might seem possible on paper. Secondly - and most critically - it would remove a seat around the Cabinet table when David Cameron carries out his first major reshuffle.

A Number 10 source described Harman's suggestions as "nonsense" and insisted there were "no such plans".

Other insiders had great fun rebutting the claims. "If Harriet Harman believes every rumour she hears in Westminster and the arts world - two of the most rumour-filled places around - then she really is in trouble," said one.

"Not exactly authoritative for an opposition spokesperson" said another, in a thinly-veiled reference to the former equality minister's "Harperson" tag.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

16 April 2012 2:55 PM

Cameron's union claim backfires

David Cameron has been out on the stump today, declaring the Conservatives the party of "the strivers, the battlers, the family-raisers, the community-builders" and having a good old go at Labour for wasting money.

Part of that included an attack on Camden council, who as the PM put it "spent almost £200,000 on seven trade union activists".

But a little bird at Camden has been in touch to say the council actually spent more on union activists when it was run by the Tories and Lib-Dems then since Labour took over. To add insult to injury, my source quoted Taxpayers' Alliance figures to back up their defence.

"Employees who carry out branch official, convenor and shop steward roles are entitled to time off. The number of branch officials and convenors and amount of time taken, expressed as a full time equivalent, is outlined below:
2008/09 – 18, 8.0 full time equivalents
2009/10 – 18, 8.0 full time equivalents
2010/11 – 17, 7.8 full time equivalents"

Says my insider: "So LB Camden paid for *more* TU facility time when it was run by the Tories/LDs (2008-10) than when Labour took over (2010-). Hmmm."

But I'm sure the people who researched Cameron's speech knew that. Didn't they?

UPDATE: This is turning into a nice ding dong. Tories have been in touch to say their group on the council have proposed axing so-called pilgrims for the past two years but the motions have been voted down

It's also worth noting that the council, making £83.5 million of cuts, provides free office space to unions worth more than £30,000 a year.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

23 March 2012 1:16 PM

Osborne's West Country wipeout

With both the granny tax and the pie tax looking like massive own goals, there surely had to be a sensible political motive behind George Osborne's Budget. After two days of head-scratching, and following the announcement of minimum prices for alcohol, I think I've worked it out: it's all a clever bid to rid the Lib-Dems from the West Country.

While much of the focus on charging VAT on hot food has focused on the fact it wiped millions off Greggs' share price, down in the South West it is being painted as pasty tax - an assault on the Cornish icon.

Lib-Dem MPs Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) and Andrew George (St Ives) are far from happy about it, vowing Cornishmen would fight on the beaches to oppose the pasty tax.

It's a Coalition policy that is likely to hit them - and fellow Cornish Lib-Dem Dan Rogerson - at the ballot box. With the South West also a favoured hang-out of Britain's increasingly ageing population, so is the move to squeeze pensioner allowances - potentially allowing Tory MPs to sweep them away west of the Tamar.

Now the minimum pricing for booze has been unveiled, and that's got cider producers (predominantly based in the South West) up in arms too. It'll go down particularly badly in the Lib-Dem cluster of seats around Somerset, where cider is virtually worshipped.

My Friday afternoon theory is Osborne hopes these measures will make the Lib-Dems even more unpopular than they already are in some key heartlands, and is relying on Tory voters in the South West to stay loyal. If that happens, it brings an outright Conservative majority ever closer.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 March 2012 1:09 PM

Lib-Dem: Tories won't be trusted on NHS

Another day, another bid to de-rail the Government's NHS reforms. But this one is gathering some significance, and could see Lib-Dems joining forces with Labour to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill.

Five Lib-Dem backbenchers have tabled an amendment to a Labour backbench opposition day motion, which "declines to support the Bill in its current form".

Labour sources understand that in a rare move, it will be selected for debate by Speaker John Bercow and that Ed Miliband's troops are happy to back it.

The full amendment calls for an "urgent summit" between ministers and Royal Colleges, professional and patient groups to plan health reforms "based on the Coalition agreement" - which pledges to stop top-down reorganisations.

One of the rebels, Bradford East MP David Ward, said the move was needed because a string of concessions secured by Lib-Dem peers in the Lords had failed to quell opposition because they had been accepted by the Tories.

“The situation we find ourselves in - and I’m not sure there is an awful lot we can do about it  - is we are in coalition with a party that people will never, ever trust on the NHS and that is a huge problem,” he told the Standard.

“The view from the public is that if the colleges are against it then there must be something wrong.”

John Pugh, chair of the Lib-Dem backbench health committee, said the move and a letter from Royal College of GPs chair Clare Gerada offered a chance for a U-turn.

“Overshadowing this is the Prime Minister’s desire not to look weak and you can read the Gerada letter as an attempt to give the PM room to manoeuvre,” he said.

“There are few enthusiasts for this legislation and thought needs to be given to showing the Government a way out of what must be an agonising dilemma.”

One senior Lib-Dem source dismissed this as posturing by the "awkward squad", while another hailed more than 1,000 amendments secured by the party's peers on the Bill.

For their part, Downing Street rejected talk of a U-turn. “We are fully committed to the Health and Social Care Bill which is about improving the NHS while protecting its founding principles,” a spokesman said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

08 March 2012 11:14 AM

Tories give Warsi both barrels

By all accounts, last night's 1922 Committee meeting was a bruising experience for Baroness Warsi.

The Standard has been told that MP after MP lined up to attack her handling of MEP Roger Helmer's recent defection to Ukip - with one onlooker describing it as a "roasting".

The noble lady has never been popular among certain sections of the party, but this appeared to come from much wider than just the "usual suspects".

So savage was the mauling, and so badly-received was her response, that colleagues' mobile phones buzzed all night with reports from those present.

It sparked instant calls for her to be sacked as soon as possible and replaced with an MP - with Housing Minister Grant Shapps' name in the frame.

The Standard has been told among those who spoke out against Warsi's handling of the Helmer affair were Chris Heaton-Harris, Brian Binley, Sir Peter Tapsell, Nicky Morgan and Philip Hollobone.

Here's a flavour from some people inside the room.

One onlooker said: “She had a very very tough time. She got it with both barrels from MPs across the party.

“For the party chairman to get treated like that shows what people think of the party chairman.”

Another said: “She got a roasting, even from loyalists. I thought she was appalling. She has got no idea.

“I just thought she was out of her depth. I have never seen anything like it - other than the last time she was before the 1922. I genuinely think she is the worst chairman we have ever had."

And a third added: “It was from her perspective a car crash. There was a barrage of criticism.

“If had been an experienced Member of Parliament it would never have happened. This young lady thinks she knows everything and is the best thing to emerge in Parliament but she is not.”

To put it mildly: ouch.

Not everyone feels the same though. One MP said it did "nothing for morale" when colleagues attacked the party chairman, while a Conservative spokesman said Baroness Warsi had acted “entirely correctly and properly” over the Helmer situation.

They added: “The rules are perfectly clear. At the time Roger had not resigned, therefore there was no vacancy. Before there was a vacancy we could not select a candidate.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 March 2012 12:30 PM

Bad news for Tories on Whitehall bonuses

Civil service bonuses have attracted a lot of anger in recent years, mostly from Tory MPs angry at their explosion during the Labour years.

But they might be less than happy to learn the whole idea was actually brought in on Margaret Thatcher's watch.

As this PQ from Cabinet Office spokesman Baroness Verma sets out, performance-related pay was introduced in 1987 and then extended in 1989 before being passed to individual departments and quangos in 1996.

Latest figures put the cost at more than £100m a year. Wonder what the Iron Lady makes of that?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

29 February 2012 3:45 PM

The French battle for London

Socialist French presidential front-runner Francois Hollande is in town today, meeting with Ed Miliband and giving a talk at King's College.

He'll also be campaigning alongside Axelle Lemaire, his party's candidate in the race to be "French MP for London". A new-for-2012 innovation, France will have 11 MPs based outside of the country and chosen exclusively by ex-pats.

Ahead of Hollande's visit I spoke to all of Lemaire's London-based rivals (the time pressures of a visiting leader prevented it being a full house) and was struck by what an impressive bunch of budding politicians they are.

In Nicolas Sarkozy's corner is Emmanuelle Savarit, a 39-year-old divorced mother-of-two who has worked in LA and loves rugby. She also claims to be the only French member of the Carlton Club (following in Margaret Thatcher's footsteps - she was officially a male member back in the day). An impressive attack dog for the Sarkozy camp, she warned Brits should be "scared" if Hollande ousts her man from the top job.

Hoping to come through the middle is Yannick Naud, of the centrist Democratic Movement. A polished performer, the 44-year-old asset management firm boss is another with international experience, having worked in Japan where he met his wife. He is banging the drum for ex-pat rights, putting education at the top of his list and opposing plans to tax French people overseas.

Independent Will Mael Nyamat entered the race in protest at perceived gender bias in favour of Lemaire, quitting the Socialists to stand. A 27-year-old immigration adviser who was born in Gabon but now lives in Croydon. Very much the anti-establishment man, he argues voters don't want the contest "confiscated" by the two main parties.

Completing the list is the Green Party's Olivier Bertin, who runs a bilingual nursery school and has stood for the English greens as a council candidate in Lambeth. He believes the overseas MPs can bring a good perspective from their experiences abroad - even suggesting a Freedom of Information Act for notoriously privacy-aware France.

They are all bidding to woo as many as 100,000 registered French voters in the capital - the vast bulk of the constituency. It should make for a fascinating scrap.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

15 February 2012 2:45 PM

Ed Davey's toilet malfunction

The Secretary of State may have changed over at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, but the problems blighting the building go on.

I've written before about the "Curse" of Whitehall Place which struck several times while Chris Huhne was in charge there.

Now Ed Davey's tenure has got its first calamity - I hear the toilets are out of order on all but two floors and the lifts have been stopped as a deluge of "water" pours down from the first floor.

Insiders say the "water" has a rather nasty smell but are avoiding closer inspection.

Welcome to the Cabinet, Mr Davey.

A DECC spokesman says:  "There was a problem with the toilets on the first floor which affected a number of other floors. Things are back to normal on all floors now apart from the first where there’s still mopping up to be done."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

14 February 2012 2:34 PM

A broken-hearted Coalition?

Kudos to Unison, seizing on Valentine's Day to keep up pressure on the Government over Andrew Lansley's controversial NHS changes.

The union put on a picture stunt earlier on, with 'David Cameron' and 'Nick Clegg' holding a broken heart.

Unison's "heartfelt" plea was "not to break our hearts by breaking our NHS".

But with the Commons in recess, senior Coalition figures may be wondering if the love has dropped out of their relationship.

Not only was Lib-Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes calling for Lansley's head on Sunday, but the welfare reforms are back in the Lords and expected to suffer fresh defeats (ping pong has started). Also in the mix are Budget discussions, with the Chancellor preparing his set piece for next month.

On that note, James Forsyth had a great titbit in the Mail on Sunday - the Quad of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Cameron were due to have a meeting tonight after unexpectedly finding their diaries clear. But there was an obvious reason, and once wives found out some quick rescheduling took place.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Cat amongst the politicians

It must be recess.

How else to explain that the Prime Minister's official Twitter feed @Number10gov, has just posted a link to celebrate Larry the cat's first year as what they call Downing Street's #chiefmouser?

There's a whole photo album on Flickr too, showing Larry preparing for his anniversary party.

I don't fancy those balloons' chances against Larry's famous claws.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

10 February 2012 2:39 PM

Is Spelman one of the NHS three?

A fantastic game of Cluedo is going on after three Cabinet ministers rang the "alarm bell" over the Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms.

Various names and denials are flying around Westminster, and among them an interesting line has emerged from Caroline Spelman.

Asked whether the Environment Secretary was one of the three, her spokeswoman replied: "Caroline supports the policy."

I've asked repeatedly for a categorical denial that Mrs Spelman - who was forced into a u-turn over her own controversial forest sell-off proposal - was one of the three, but have been met with radio silence.

Note the language in the short line I was given: Caroline supports the policy. Not Caroline supports the Bill. A lot of Conservatives support the policy, of giving GPs more control over the NHS, while being dismayed about the reforms in the Health and Social Care Bill itself. In fact, Labour is also broadly supportive of GP-led commissioning though the party is less keen on increased private sector involvement.

You could certainly understand if Spelman felt bruised at being hung out to dry over forests, while Lansley has so far been allowed to get on with his NHS shake-up. She may also feel that she has little to lose in terms of job prospects.

According to Conservative Home, of the three ministers: "One was insistent the Bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax." While the second seems unlikely to be Spelman (it would surely be a tacit admission she should have been replaced too), you can make a case for her saying either of the others.

Until we get a categorical reply on whether Spelman is one of the NHS three, I guess we'll never know for sure...

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 February 2012 11:56 AM

Injury time

Is there a curse hanging over Whitehall?

Ministers have fallen victim to a range of injuries and ailments in recent weeks. First Transport Minister Theresa Villiers broke her collarbone in a cycling accident, then Scotland Secretary Michael Moore got chicken pox, and then Treasury Chief Secretary Chloe Smith broke her foot.

It has created some difficulties for the Government, with Moore having to postpone a meeting with Alex Salmond (prompting jokey suspicions that biological warfare had broken out in the row over Scottish independence), while Villiers was "walking wounded" to vote for the welfare cap.

But as one Westminster wag has just joked, they've got off lightly compared to Chris Huhne - nursing a "broken career" after charges forced him to resign.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

07 February 2012 5:49 PM

A bad day for Lansley

It was never going to be an easy week for Andrew Lansley, but I'm sure even the Health Secretary wasn't quite expecting to see Downing Street sources saying he should be "taken out and shot" over his controversial NHS reforms when he opened his newspapers this morning.

There is certainly a lot of anger among Tory MPs about the reforms, which face a mauling in the Lords tomorrow. One told me Lansley had "failed to do the pitch rolling" and complained they didn't know what the shake-up was really meant to do. Another complained: "We spent years convincing people that the NHS would be safe in our hands - this bill is destroying that reputation".

Lansley was also faced with a little, erm, local difficulty. First it emerged NHS South West was facing a £370 million black hole which campaigners warned could put vital services at risk. Then it emerged St Helier hospital in Carshalton could be the first victim of plans to hand doctors billions of pounds of the NHS budget.

This is particularly sensitive because the hospital is in Health Minister Paul Burstow's constituency. Neighbouring Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh claims a merger between St Helier and St George's fell through last week in part because GPs in the new clinical commissioning group are planning to reduce dramatically the use of the hospital. Fears have been raised it could close as a result.

Mr Burstow told ESP this was "shameful political scaremongering" and warned people not to be "duped" by it. Certainly there were other considerations for the merger's collapse as well, but Dr Martyn Wake, who is joint chair of Merton CCG, does say that "as GPs we are keen to keep our patients well and out of hospital".

"Whilst Ms McDonagh may not agree with the government's policy to put GPs in charge of commissioning health services we all feel it is most unjust to blame local GPs for the historic financial challenges facing our local hospitals," he said.
"The shift to care out of hospitals and into the community is no different in scale in Sutton and Merton than it is in other parts of south west London and the rest of the country."

But Labour and other campaigners are adamant. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told ESP: “The fact a Health Minister’s own local hospital may be the first major casualty of the Government’s reorganisation might bring home to him how wrong these reforms are.

“This is a glimpse of what is to come if this Bill goes through. Fragmenting decision-making in this way threatens the ongoing viability of hospitals. Paul Burstow has now got the biggest of all reasons to drop the Bill.”

There appears to be little appetite among Tories for the Bill to be dropped entirely, though (as my colleague Nicholas Cecil has reported) some Lib Dems would be delighted if that happens.

While today was a bad day for Lansley, expect a few more ahead.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Pulling up trees

Back in the days when Labour were in power, an annual parliamentary question would go down to find out how much Government departments had spent on Christmas trees.

After the Coalition vowed a more Scrooge-like approach, Labour's Gareth Thomas has repeated the trick to make sure they are as good as their word.

For the most part, they have been - sparing the public purse from buying a pine tree and tinsel. But there are a couple of notable exceptions.

Firstly, Caroline Spelman's Environment Department (which is in charge of - you guessed it - trees) spent £2,011 on trees and decorations last year.

And the mysterious "Government Hospitality", which runs the once equally murky wine cellar, spent £2,250 (excluding VAT) on a decorated tree for Lancaster House. According to Foreign Office minister David Lidington, this was to support the "commercial hire" of the building by outside groups.

Let's hope they were charged a little extra to party under the tree.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 February 2012 2:32 PM

Clearing up Parliament's graffiti

Are the days of Early Day Motions in Parliament limited?

On Monday MPs will debate whether to reform or abolish them following a long-running campaign by Tory MP Graham Evans - though there will be no decision taken.

He argues the time has come for serious change to EDMs, which MPs can put forward on virtually any topic but which almost never come up for debate or change the law. They cost around £290 each, or £1 million a year.

Evans says they have become a campaign tool for outside groups, often drafted by public affairs professionals, leading to clogged up postbags to little effect but at great cost.

Other MPs, led by Julian Lewis, argue they are a rare way to get lots of MPs speaking out on one topic and to get support for worthwhile causes.

Now Graham Allen, Labour chair of the political and constitutional reform committee, has put forward a middle way between scrapping them completely or keeping the status quo.

He wants EDMs to be renamed MPDs - MPs' Debates - and signed anonymously by backbench MPs only. At the end of every week the MPD with the most signatures would be granted a debate for the following week.

Allen has written to colleagues to garner support for his idea. And he said: “The EDM is devalued currency. It’s time to tear down this wall of political graffiti and rebuild a practical way for MPs to raise topical issues and hold government to account.”

Many will wish him well, though the glacial pace of change in Westminster suggests it could be a while before the graffiti is cleaned up.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

31 January 2012 2:37 PM

Riots put parenting under the spotlight

It seems David Lammy was ahead of the curve with his demands for smacking restrictions to be eased to prevent a repeat of the riots.

Those calls were followed by the Government's behaviour tsar, Charlie Taylor, criticising a lack of "basic" parenting such as preparing meals or putting children to bed. He used a horrifying example of a mother who said her eight-year-old son microwaves his own dinner and turns out his own lights once he is tired from playing on his X Box. The "depressingly familiar" cycle that follows sees bad behaviour, school exclusions and gang membership.

Tory MP Andrea Leadsom is using a Commons debate later to add her voice to the riots cause/cure debate. Making the case for early intervention, she argues parents should be taught how to love their children from a very young age to ensure their brains develop properly, equipping them with emotional resilience that can prevent a host of problems in later life.

"“We know from the shocking rioting and looting on our streets in August that there is a desperate need to address the broken elements within our society," she will say.

"Young people who cannot control their impulses, who are violent and who have no moral compass are like that for a reason."

Ms Leadsom will hail the work of Oxford Parent Infant Project which helps parents and children form loving bonds early, saying it has achieved "astonishing" results and should be rolled across the country.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 January 2012 3:10 PM

Transparency writ large

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is giving a speech in Washington (USA, rather than Wearside) today on open data and transparency.

Leave aside for a minute the fact that Government data dumps have an uncanny knack of arriving late in the day and spread across several websites, the speech contained a couple of lines that caught my eye.

In a list of examples of different government approaches around the world, Maude said: "In Liberia the struggle to publish government contracts with the forestry industry prompted mafia reprisals.

"In some parts of India where internet access is not available officials paint spreadsheets of welfare payments on village walls so local people can judge if the claimants are real or fraudulent.
"Brazil now requires officials to post expenses within 24 hours to reduce corruption and improving public confidence in government. And as a result President Dilma dismissed six ministers in 2011 linked to corruption scandals.
"Governments are finding transparency risky, difficult and uncomfortable. But transparency sticks – it’s irreversible once you start. And I believe transparency will become the defining characteristic of future public policy."

I love the idea of officials daubing roadsides with spreadsheets. Perhaps when the Budget comes round on March 23, Treasury civil servants should paint Red Book figures on the side of an iconic building.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

24 January 2012 11:48 AM

Nick Clegg's McBreakfast

Nick Clegg was at the McDonald's training centre in East Finchley this morning, to hail an announcement that the burger giant is creating 2,500 new jobs this year.

Given that it was an early morning call (a return to his "alarm clock Britain" campaign?), the Deputy PM enjoyed a spot of breakfast while he was there.

He tucked into a sausage and egg McMuffin and washed it down with a cup of tea, I'm told.

Looking at the details of the jobs announcement, it's no surprise Clegg chose to visit. While McJobs have attracted criticism in the past, more than half of the 2,500 announced today are expected to go to under-25s, with almost a third to first-time workers. Clegg has said tackling record youth unemployment - running at over 1 million - is his top priority for 2012.

(UPDATE: Labour's Kevin Brennan has just brilliantly coined it the Clegg McMuffin on Twitter)

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 January 2012 10:49 AM

Crow's anger on lobbyist list

Ministers are publishing their long-awaited plans for a register of lobbyists today - a bid to crackdown on what David Cameron described as "the next big scandal waiting to happen".

It looks set to cast the net fairly wide, possibly bringing trade unions and big charities within its remit.

While the TUC are broadly supportive, Tube union boss Bob Crow is rather less so.

In brilliantly colourful language, he said: "The idea that trade unions, representing millions of workers up and down the country, should be bracketed in with the chancers and shmoozers from the shadowy world of political lobbying is a gross insult to men and women fighting for a fair deal in the workplace.

"This is just another blatant ConDem attack on the trade union movement and shows complete and utter contempt for the role we play in protecting working people from the savagery of casino capitalism."

UPDATE: PRCA, the professional body for public affairs consultancies, have hit back at Bob Crow.
“Bob Crow’s plea for trade unions to receive special favours is self-interest at its most naked form," chief executive Francis Ingham said.

"Just as the CBI employs a whole floor of lobbyists, so too the TUC has a significant lobbying operation. When trade union employees meet ministers and civil servants and try to influence legislation, they are lobbyists. It is that simple, and for a mandatory register to work, it must cover charities, business groups, think tanks, lawyers and yes, trade unions too.”

Incidentally, Labour are far from impressed with the proposals which look to have a fair few shortcomings in them at the moment (not least the lack of a statutory code of conduct).

Jon Trickett had this to say of the document: "It is so full of loopholes it makes you wonder whether it's worth doing...

"It is a massively open barn door which people can drive several coach and horses through.

"It's extremely weak and very disappointing and unless it is tightened up then it leaves the scope for further scandals to emerge in future."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

19 January 2012 2:14 PM

Prezza v Shapps - round three

On the day Lord Prescott accepted £40,000 for having his phone hacked, his feud with the Government has sparked into life again.

Prezza is still fuming that ministers are blaming him for lavish spending on Government credit cards - including casino and restaurant bills during a 2004 fact-finding trip to Australia.

The former deputy prime minister was cleared of wrongdoing in December, and it has also emerged that the card was cloned. So he tabled a parliamentary question to ask what the Government had done about it.

Simple, came the reply - £2,000 was recovered but none of it related to the spending in Sydney. "It is clear to ministers, from examining government procurement card spending across the department, that there was unnecessary expenditure," Baroness Hanham said.

Fellow DCLG minister Grant Shapps has also waded in. "Prezza still hasn't given a full and frank explanation outlining how his Australian junket represents value for money for the taxpayer," he said.

"This kinds of cavalier expenditure represents the very worst excesses that he oversaw when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

"We have clamped down on the systematic abuse of the Government Procurement card, calling time on Labour's culture of waste and ensuring families and pensioners around the country get value for money."

I look forward to the noble Lord's response.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 January 2012 1:54 PM

Miliband's union dilemma

Ed Miliband has been unrepentant this morning in defending himself from union criticism.

He insists he is "right" to say Labour can't promise to reverse Government spending cuts - including going along with the public sector pay freeze.

The latter point has caused most anger among the brothers. First Unite's Len McCluskey warned the party was on the road to electoral disaster and even "destruction" with its reversion to "discredited Blairism", then GMB head Paul Kenny gave credence to the warning by threatening to sever his union's ties with the party in a letter seen by the Standard.

If GMB walked away, which could only happen if its members approved, the central Labour Party would lose more than £1 million of funding a year. If Unite followed suit, Miliband would goodbye to a further £4 million - plunging the party into financial ruin.

But here's the dilemma for Miliband - if he faces down the brothers who delivered him the leadership, it will allow him to shake off the "Red Ed" tag and really stamp his leadership on the party. It's a tactic which worked so well for Tony Blair, who gambled the farm on scrapping Clause IV and won.

Judging by the reaction of people around Miliband, they are happy for their man to stick publicly to his guns and are bullish about the chances of unions walking away.

"They will stand up for their members, we will stand up for the majority of people in this country," one source said.

A shadow cabinet minister privately acknowledged that unions withdrawing their funding would be a "disaster" - not just for Labour but for the unions too. "They'd never carry it with their members," the frontbencher predicted.

They're probably right, and it might not come to that in any case. But after a start to the year which has seen miserable poll ratings, a race row sparked by Diane Abbott and outspoken criticism from his former guru (among others), I'm sure Miliband could have done without this latest set of negative headlines.

For the record, here's the full text of the letter sent by GMB general secretary Paul Kenny to senior officers at the union yesterday.

Dear colleagues
The speech Ed Balls made on Saturday may have a profound impact on our relationship with the Labour Party.
I have turned down dozens of offers to comment on TV, Radio and in the Press.
Unite and Unison have adopted similar positions. I have spoken to Ed Milliband and Ed Balls to ensure they were aware of how wrong I think the policy they are now following is.
It is now time for careful consideration and thought before the wider discussion begin on the long term implications this new stance by the Party has on GMB affiliation.
It will be a fundamental requirement that the CEC and Congress determine our way forward after proper debate.
I will update everyone as events unfold but I have to say this is the most serious mistake they could have made and the Tories must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse 

11 January 2012 4:06 PM

The Ministry of Defence zoo

A cracking parliamentary question from shadow defence minister Kevan Jones reveals the Ministry of Defence could set up a pretty decent petting zoo if world peace broke out.

The roll call of animals employed by the department, according to Defence Minister Andrew Robathan, looks like this:

992 working dogs (324 search dogs, 409 guard dogs and 259 super-dogs that can do both)

449 ceremonial horses

13 falcons used by the Navy to clear runways

In addition, the following animals are offical mascots:

Two drum horses

Three dogs

Three mountain goats

One swaledale ram

Two Shetland ponies

And a partridge in a pear tree (I'm joking about the partridge).

As a former defence minister, I'm sure Jones knew exactly how many animals were at the MoD, which is why he asked the question. Sadly, though, Robathan refuses to say how much it costs to keep the animals - arguing the data is not held centrally and would cost too much to uncover.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

A joint platform for the PM and Miliband?

Today's PMQs show of unity in opposing Scottish independence raises the question: could David Cameron and Ed Miliband appear on a platform together to keep the UK together?

Neither side is ruling it out. The PM's aides point out that he appeared alongside Labour big beast John Reid during the AV referendum campaign, and say the independence campaign will be fought on the same lines.

Labour sources say Miliband will do "whatever is necessary and effective" to make the case for keeping the union together - though they point out that appearing on a platform with Cameron could actually be counter-productive.

For what it's worth, I doubt it'll happen as it would bolster the SNP's case that Westminster politicians are trying to dictate to Scotland.

Not quite peace in our time, then.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

10 January 2012 2:19 PM

Balls hits back over Tourette's jibe

Ed Balls has just been on the radio, making some comments that are raising a few eyebrows in Westminster.

The shadow chancellor, David Cameron's irritator-in-chief, was hitting back at David Cameron over the accusation he behaves like "someone with Tourette's" during PMQs. (The Prime Minister apologised after making the comments, sparked by his annoyance at Balls' endless hand gestures and frontbench barracking).

Condemning it as "offensive" - though insisting it hadn't hurt him - Balls painted himself as whiter-than-white in the political arena.

Balls said: “I think people want an opposition which takes the argument to the Government, and sometimes David Cameron gives the impression that he deserves to be there and nobody deserves to criticise his views and his policies.

“And he obviously attempts, whether it’s women who he patronises, or me who makes offensive comments about - which don’t offend me but did offend many people up and down the country suffering from Tourette’s - I don’t think that’s the right way to do politics.

“I think you should debate not about smear but about policy.”

Vowing to continue criticising the Government’s “failing” policies, he went on: “I will do that in a direct, clear, honest and open way, but I’m not going to say offensive things about David Cameron or anyone else.”

This from a man who has a reputation as a street fighter, both inside Labour and when taking on the opposition. He even appeared in a video game after Alistair Darling said the "forces of hell" had been unleashed against him.

It's worth noting he dismissed the idea his robust style turns voters off during the World and One interview, so don't expect him to change. PMQs would be duller if he did...

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 December 2011 11:30 AM

A sad day for democracy

Last Friday saw Labour's Seema Malhotra take victory in the Feltham and Heston by-election.

I reported at the time how elections experts were shocked at the low turnout of just 28.7 per cent - even for a pre-Christmas by-election.

A deeper look at the results by constitutional expert and Oxford professor Vernon Bogdanor has revealed that of the 23,224 votes cast, almost half were postal votes.

This is his verdict: "It seems to me that when people are fed up with politics and politicians they won't vote. They do not feel that any politicians can really resolve their problems. They see no Margaret Thatcher in the wings - nor - thank goodness - any Mosley - which explains why UKIP and the BNP did not do better - though if Cameron had not vetoed the treaty, I suspect that UKIP would have overtaken the LibDems.
"The unemployed in the 1930s and 1980s, far from being radicalised, became apathetic and stayed at home.
"There were around 11,000 postal votes! So one does not even have to turn up. A sad day for democracy."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

14 December 2011 2:13 PM

"Tin ear" Bercow sparks fresh Tory row

It's been a while since we had some decent Tory anger against Speaker John Bercow, but with Christmas looming large today's PMQs delivered a gift.

Towards the end of the Cameron-Miliband exchanges, Bercow leapt to his feet to correct the PM for the use of "you". As noise raged, he turned to his right - towards the naughty corner - and said "I'm glad the Minister of State has returned from his travels and we wish him a Merry Christmas but in his case it should be a quiet one". (It's at 10m33s here).

Mr Speaker appeared to be aiming his comments at Health Minister Simon Burns - who famously branded Bercow a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" - whose colleagues leapt to his defence. Foreign Office Minister Keith Simpson gestured at Bercow to sit down, and could be seen mouthing "stupid man", while others patted Burns on the shoulder.

After the session, Simpson insisted Burns - a "serial offender" - wasn't to blame this time as he launched an attack on the Speaker.

"I do not have any time for the man. He has got a tin ear. He doesn't know when to intervene or not," he said.

"He comes out with these appalling cliches (about the noise), all this business about 'the public don't like it, I don't like it', but I'm pretty sure my 88-year-old mother is sitting in front of the TV screaming that she does like it.

"(Burns) would happily take the rap but for once it wasn't him."

With a neat jibe at Chris Huhne, he went on: "He picked on old Burnsy, who tends to be a serial offender, but in fact it wasn't Burns - it was one of the younger lads standing to Burns's left. I said to him, it's like a man who is always speeding up and down the M11 and then gets caught when he is not driving. That's life. It's much easier to pick on a man who is a serial offender."

It will be interesting to see whether Simpson's frank words get him in trouble with Bercow. He did admit: "Every time the Speaker interferes and leaps up and down he tends to bring out the worst in me."

Simpson joins a growing list of Tory MPs (former colleagues, let's not forget) who have spoken out against the Speaker. Mark Pritchard accused him of acting like "f***ing royalty", Claire Perry asked whether she had to grant him oral sex to get called in debates, and both Nadine Dorries and Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin have clashed with him.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 December 2011 12:17 PM

Burnham's plain speaking on fag packets

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham gave a speech to the Britain Against Cancer conference today, which contained a very interesting line.

While praising the Government for pressing ahead with a ban on tobacco vending machines, Burnham signalled that Andrew Lansley would have Labour's backing if he decides to follow the Australian lead and introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.

Burnham said: "For every step we take, the tobacco industry takes a new approach.  After we banned advertising, tobacco manufacturers developed increasingly sophisticated marketing devices for their packaging.

"As Health Secretary, I proposed that the next front in this fight should be packaging and again I have been encouraged by the current Secretary of State’s statements on plain packaging. I want to assure him today that he will have my support if he want to make early progress on this front."

I'm told the offer is the "next step" in committing Labour to supporting plain packaging, and that Burnham is increasingly convinced it is necessary.

But if it is going to happen in the UK, political parties will need to steel themselves for an almighty fight with the tobacco firms - as the Australian experience has shown.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 December 2011 2:19 PM

Now that's a Boris bike

I don't know what the chances of these hitting the streets en-masse are, but it's an impressive piece of Boris Johnson fanaticism.


It's the brainchild of London Conservative Future deputy chairman Einy Shah, brought to life by Cole Coachworks in Barnet.

I'm not sure what the Ken Livingstone/Brian Paddick equivalents are, but I'd like to see them...

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

08 December 2011 3:40 PM

Clegg's olive branch to strikers

While Andrew Lansley was offering a new deal on health sector pension reform but sparking fresh anger from the unions, Nick Clegg has been out been out trying to smooth tensions with the public sector.

His comments are significant because they come in the aftermath of last week's pension strike - branded a "damp squib" by David Cameron - and George Osborne's fresh round of austerity which will hit public servants hard.

The Lib-Dem Deputy PM acknowledged public sector workers "bristle" at talk of paring back the public sector, and insisted rebalancing the economy was not "code for cutting them adrift".

Warning against re-opening old divisions, he said: "Many of our public sector workers are making sacrifices, and I am hugely grateful for it. And I am grateful to the people making sacrifices in the private sector too.

"And what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector; the North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking.

"Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s."

I suspect there is a dual message here: one for the public sector, to say the LibDems feel their pain. And one for Tory Coalition colleagues, to say lay off the tough talk.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 November 2011 3:13 PM

Sports Personality row reaches Parliament

The anger over the all-male shortlist for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year has been widespread, and MPs are not immune.

Labour's Geraint Davies has tabled an EDM on the issue, signed by 14 colleagues so far, which reads:

That this House is disappointed that there are no women in this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist; notes the lack of women in previous year's shortlists; further notes that high profile women in sport play an important role in encouraging women and girls to participate in sports; and calls on the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to do more to involve and promote women in sport.

Shadow culture secretary (and long time equality campaigner) Harriet Harman has also weighed in, declaring it "wrong" that no women are on the shortlist and demanding immediate action from the BBC. After the news that representatives from men's magazines were on the judging panel, she also asks whether the selectors were all-male. And she adds: “This shortlist highlights the failure over many years to give women’s sport the media coverage it deserves. There must be action to change that.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

29 November 2011 11:35 AM

Ukip moves in on Labour in London

Activity is hotting up in Feltham and Heston, where the by-election sparked by the death of Alan Keen is due to take place on December 15.

Both Labour and the Tories have selected their candidate to fight the seat, while the Lib Dems pick their contender tonight. Business consultant and Fabian Women's Network director Seema Malhotra will be in the red corner, while Hounslow Council Tory leader Mark Bowen (who has fought and lost the seat twice already) will be in the blue corner.

Also hoping for a strong showing are Ukip, who are aiming to beat the Lib Dems into third place. And in a nice bit of colour, candidate Andrew Charalambos found the office he has moved into was previously occupied by ex-Labour MEP Robert Evans.

"In the same way that Labour have left the ordinary working man and woman behind, they are now leaving the offices empty. We are happy to pick up in both places," he said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

24 November 2011 3:53 PM

Making light of the economy

As George Osborne prepares to deliver his autumn statement on Tuesday, the accepted wisdom is he'll have to downgrade growth forecasts and paint a bleak picture of the economy.

If he's looking for some light relief along the way, he could check out comedian Rufus Jones' representation of him as part of a campaign calling on the Chancellor to tackle food speculation on the markets.

Jones, who recently played Terry Jones in the BBC Monty Python film Flying Circus, hardly paints a flattering picture of Osborne - an interesting campaign tactic if ever I've seen one.

But running through the short videos on The Real George Osborne is an amusing fictional rivalry with Boris Johnson over the future Tory leadership. Incredulous that the Mayor is a serious contender, at one point Osborne declares: "Boris looks like a polar bear on wheels".

Whether it will succeed in getting the Chancellor to act on food speculation when the economy is flatlining is another matter.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

21 November 2011 12:17 PM

Huhne's curse strikes again

Yet another calamity at Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate change department, where staff have been sent home for the day because of a water shortage.

At about 11am civil servants at the Whitehall Place HQ found there was no water to drink or flush toilets, and were directed to the adjacent building on 55 Whitehall.

But when the water also went off there, both buildings were shut and staff were ordered to work from home while Thames Water investigates the problem.

As I've reported several times, DECC's HQ has been beset by glitches.

A routine fire drill saw the alarm bells get stuck on while an engineer was caught in traffic, a flood wiped out staff belongings in the basement, the central heating and air conditioning seem to work in reverse, and in March a power cut struck when Mr Huhne was in the lift. Staff wonder if it is cursed.

UPDATE: Thames Water says they've checked out the issue and found nothing wrong with the mains - pinning the blame on "a problem with pumps inside the building." It really is cursed.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

15 November 2011 3:21 PM

Out of touch crosses party lines

The over-use of "out of touch" shows no sign of relenting despite my blog yesterday.

Firstly it crossed party lines from Labour to the Government, as David Cameron levelled Westminster's three favourite words at the EU.

Then Yvette Cooper said the Government was "so out of touch that Ministers don't know what is happening on our borders" as the Home Office was also accused of putting out misleading statistics.

But today's prize use goes to Michael Dugher, for this on Oliver Letwin's bin troubles, with a H/T to @DavidHughesPA.

He said: "This Government is desperately out of touch, but when people tried to tell Oliver Letwin what was happening, he dumped their letters in a park bin. That's not just out of touch. It's out to lunch."

I have a feeling we are a long way from a ban.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

14 November 2011 2:40 PM

The "out of touch" Labour mantra

There has been a dramatic escalation in recent weeks of Labour spokesmen attacking the Government as "out of touch".

This reached tautological levels today as Ed Miliband declared: "The problem is they just seem out of touch and don’t seem to be in touch with the real needs of businesses and people up and down this country."

An advanced Google search of Labour's news pages for the term "out of touch" throws up 727 results.

They include the Government being "out of touch" on defence, families and pensioners, students, women, businesses, reappointing Lord Young, SureStart, fuel and energy prices, crime and criminal justice, the Thameslink contract, equality, and "the real world".

The same accusation was levelled at Theresa May's border control and Vince Cable and Oliver Letwin's letter dumping; Dan Jarvis said David Cameron's conference speech showed he was "out of touch"; and Tessa Jowell used it against Westminster Council's plan to impose weekend and evening parking charges.

It was even levelled by Tom Watson in connection with Patrick Mercer's unflattering comments about the PM.

Do you think Labour are trying to tell us something?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 November 2011 2:38 PM

Clegg tells Europe to forget Robin Hood tax

Yesterday George Osborne delivered a robust message to European finance ministers on a proposed new tax on the City. Bluntly put, his view was "forget it".

Now Nick Clegg, the most high-profile pro-European in the Cabinet, has popped over to Brussels to hammer it home.

As part of a speech warning that Europe must "reform or wither" he also said a continent-wide financial transaction tax (FTT) would unfairly hit Britain and be passed on to those who can least afford it.

Here's the relevant passage: "We cannot support the European Financial Transaction Tax that has been proposed.

"It would have a massively disproportionate impact on the City of London, responsible for more than half of the revenues that would be taxed. And, according to the Commission’s own analysis, it would also reduce EU GDP as a whole.

"But even for people who don’t care about the City of London or Europe’s economic performance, the FTT doesn’t make sense because it completely misses its target.

"This isn’t – as it’s often presented – a painless tax on banks and City speculators, the authors of the financial crisis. In reality bankers will be left sitting happily unaffected in their offices, passing on the charge to the people they are acting for.

"It’s pensioners who will pay this tax, and businesses. Companies that are vital to our economies, that are big engines of manufacturing or retail, that employ thousands of people across Europe, but just happen to do financial services business too.

"That is in no ones’ interests."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

07 November 2011 2:18 PM

Silvio's 21st century denial

Things aren't looking good for Silvio Berlusconi. The colourful Italian PM has been forced to deny rumours of his impending resignation - but he has done so in a very modern manner.

Not for our Silvio, media magnate and political operator extraordinaire, is the TV clip or the official press release. Oh no. Why bother when you can use Facebook?


SlivioIt translates (roughly) as "Rumours of my resignation are baseless" - though I'd love to know what the Italian translation of the famous Mark Twain retort "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" is.

Note that more people have commented than "like" the post...

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

03 November 2011 3:49 PM

When Bill Gates came to Parliament

Bill Gates was in town last night, making two speeches to Tory groups. First up was the backbench 1922 Committee (where ironically his laptop wouldn't work, apparently), and then came an address to the newly-launched Conservative Friends of International Development.

As one of these pics by Andrew Parsons show, the event was packed out. Sources say it was five times oversubscribed.

It was part of a wider evening of aid events last night. At the Royal Geographical Society, a Spectator motion to cut the foreign aid budget was defeated by 117 votes to 77. On the winning side were International Development Minister Alan Duncan, Professor Paul Collier and Action Aid CEO Richard Miller, defeating Ian Birrell, Stephen Glover and the Royal Africa Society's Richard Dowen.

Meanwhile Government sources are hailing fresh polling, partly covered in the Independent today, on foreign aid. It has found the amount people think the UK is spending (17.9% of government spending) on aid is far higher than we actually are (1.1%), while the level they think it should be (7.9%) is seven times higher than the true amount.

It is being held up as evidence ministers, led by International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, are right to ringfence aid and stick to commitments - despite opposition from some rightwingers.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Comic Relief asked for gang-busting cash

As Theresa May launched the Government's anti-gang strategy earlier this week, she hailed Waltham Forest's pioneering Enough is Enough project as an example of best practice.

But local MPs immediately criticised a lack of funding, and now the council leader has joined in with a call for extra cash.

Cllr Chris Robbins told ESP: "On top of the £1 million we put into our gangs programme this year, we paid £500 000 to the Mayor for additional police offices whilst losing core community safety grants. Local Authorities cannot be left to pick up the bill or the sole responsibility for sorting this issue.

"If we are to really address the causes of the problems, government departments need to follow our example and invest some money in dealing with this issue."

His comments came as it emerged Comic Relief has been asked to help fund part of Waltham Forest's gang-busting drive. A grant of £66,000 has been sought for a boxing programme in the project.

It could prove embarrassing for Mrs May and Iain Duncan Smith, whose constituency includes parts of Waltham Forest.

Walthamstow MP and shadow Home Office minister Stella Creasy has seized on the revelation, saying: "Theresa May hails Waltham Forest as an example of best practice in tackling gangs, but the truth is they're having to go cap in hand to charities to fund this work because the Government isn't actually giving the backing they need to do it."

Speaking to the Commons, Mrs May said sources of funding were available for gang-related projects is councils bid for them - though she didn't mention Comic Relief.

She also made the point that money was not the only answer - thousands have been spent on gangs and problem families with little success.

The Home Secretary added: "The work that has been done in Waltham Forest, however, shows that if we bring together agencies such as the police, the local authority and others to tackle gang violence, yes, we spend money on those individuals, but we end up saving money by turning their lives around. Often, the effective intervention is not the expensive intervention."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Clegg's warm welcome to returning Libya heroes

With David Cameron part of frantic efforts to save the Euro in France, Nick Clegg had a rather more enjoyable engagement this morning.

The Deputy Prime Minister was at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to welcome home returning heroes from the Libya conflict.

He took the opportunity to thank troops on behalf of Britain and Libya with some moving words - and said they had made the key differnce in ridding the world of Gaddafi.

Here is some of his address: “This was an allied effort. But I am here to pay tribute to you, the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces. You may have had the benefit of world-class aircraft. You may have had the benefit of precision weaponry. You may have had the support of the world’s greatest military alliance. But it has been your skill, your commitment, your bravery that has made the difference... 

“Thanks to the protection you have provided the Libyan people in their darkest hour, they have thrown off the yoke of Gaddafi and his regime. And, because of you, the guardians of freedom, they now have hope for their future.

“The road ahead will not be easy. But the people of Libya will have the support of the British Government as they build a new society. And Libya will no longer be a pariah state on the Mediterranean. Which means you have done a great service for Britain's national security too.

“You have saved countless lives. You have performed magnificently in testing times. Now, as you return to your families, my thanks, the nation’s thanks, the thanks of the Libyan people go to you.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

02 November 2011 11:35 AM

MPs seize on football racism claims

With John Terry and Luis Suarez embroiled in racism rows, MPs have seized on the opportunity to promote anti-discrimination drives.

Home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz has tabled an early day motion (weirdly not yet online), which has attracted the backing of a handful of MPs.

It reads: "That this House condemns any incidents of racism in sport; notes that there are currently two ongoing investigations into alleged incidents of racism by high-profile football players; commends the work of the Kick It Out campaign, Show Racism the Red Card and other charities which provide an inspiring service campaigning to ensure football is free from discrimination; and urges the Government to support these organisations in their excellent work."

The question is, will any MP be brave enough to speak out against the England captain as he faces a police probe?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 November 2011 1:36 PM

Foreign sniper discovered in Parliament

This is one of the best "small world" stories I've ever come across.

Bob Stewart, the former army commander who is now a Conservative MP, has struck up a friendship with a Commons chef who served as a sniper with Bosnian Muslim forces.


Sam Kaltak approached "Bosnia Bob" after recognising him in one of the MPs' tea rooms. It turned out Sam was a sniper around the same central Bosnian towns where the Colonel was leading women and children to safety in the early 1990s.

Originally from Slovenia, Mr Kaltak now wants to cook for British forces and is willing to go to Afghanistan to do so - with support from Colonel Stewart.

The MP doubts Mr Kaltak ever opened fire on British forces (they were, broadly speaking, on the same side) and is keen to stress he is no security threat. They have formed a bond over their shared experiences of the bitter conflict where temperatures dropped well below freezing.

It is a great example of something good coming from Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

27 October 2011 2:45 PM

The Lib-Dems' perfect jibe at Tory rebels

After Monday's huge Tory rebellion on Europe, it was only a matter of time before Coalition taunts about it emerged.

I've just been told one which must classify as almost the perfect Lib-Dem jibe, allowing MPs in the yellow corner to take aim at the Tories and Labour at the same time.

Told with relish to Tory rebels, it involves their Coalition partners crowing: "It was a shame to see you couldn't offer the Prime Minister the loyalty that we - or Ed Miliband for that matter - were able to on Monday."

Not that Lib-Dems are entirely delighted with the trouble caused by the rebels. They are worried David Cameron will try to "meet them half way" with a raft of measures that will be anathema to the Lib-Dems but won't go far enough to satisfy the eurosceptics.

"You should never placate implacable opposition," I'm told.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

26 October 2011 4:44 PM

The campaign group happy to accept cuts

Here's a refreshing change. Rather than fight cuts tooth and nail, as so many groups have done, part of the renewable energy industry has come up with a novel tactic as they petition Chris Huhne.

It comes from a new campaign group to protest against reductions in so-called feed-in tariffs for solar panels. This is the cash handed to individuals for installing green energy devices, but is being slashed back to stop budgets being bust. The body says it is happy to accept cuts, but is warning the proposed reductions will be fatal.

Howard Johns, of the Cut Don't Kill Solar Energy campaign, said: "The solar energy sector alone has created 25,000 jobs and has huge scope to expand further. At the moment we're facing threats of such drastic cuts in support for solar that the industry will be destroyed outright.

"We're happy to accept serious cuts, but the scale currently being proposed would kill jobs and innovation on a massive scale. The Government must get the balance right, not cut their nose off to spite their face."

What other ministers would give for such reasonable pressure groups.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

25 October 2011 3:33 PM

Clegg's tough message to Eurosceptics

Nick Clegg has been out and about this morning, vowing to tear up red tape for small businesses. But the issue of Europe has inevitably raised its head after yesterday's huge Tory rebellion, and the Lib-Dem leader has been delivering a pretty tough message to people who are, after all, members of his own Government.

Talking to ESP, he said the Eurosceptics were playing "Russian roulette" with British jobs and warned them to be careful what they wish for. He was also clear on the issue of getting powers back from the Brussels, condemning it as a "smash and grab raid".

Here's a full transcript:

ESP: How did you feel yesterday seeing the Prime Minister having to go through that rigmarole with his backbenchers and then all the Tories marching through the lobbies? Because it's your Government at the end of the day as well, isn't it?

Nick Clegg: Yes absolutely, it's our Government. It's our Government but the Conservative Party has a long standing bee in its bonnet about arcane European institutional questions. I just happen to think it is a monumental distraction from the key task of repairing the damage to our economy and getting people jobs and economic security and I think these ideas knocking about as proposed by Conservative eurosceptics of either pitching the whole country into months or years of uncertainty through some in/out referendum or launching some smash and grab raid across the channel on powers from Brussels - they are neither justified nor in the interests of Britain. Because at the end of the day British jobs, British prosperity, the British economy, British families, British communities are massively dependent on a successful European economy and Britain being successful in that economy. And the way you create a more successful European economy is be leading the debate, not leaving.

ESP: It sounds like there is a sense of frustration in your voice?

NC: Look, it's one of the many reasons I'm not a Conservative. I'm pro-European but not in a starry-eyed way. In fact I'm probably more realistic than anybody about the flaws in the European Union because I have done it myself. I have significantly changed Europe. I for instance, when I was a Euro MP, passed ground-breaking legislation to scrap a whole raft of red tape that was stopping British consumers from benefiting from lower telephone costs, for instance. I have been talking just now about Ed Davey getting a patent law in place, getting all the other countries to agree to reducing red tape. We have just had the Commission come out finally for something I have been campaigning about for years, which is a more sensible, more devolved Common Fisheries Policy. Because I think the way the Common Fisheries Policy was over-bureaucratic...was wrong. So the way you change Europe is not by stamping your foot in Westminster but by getting out there, self-confidently saying this is the way Europe should go, we are going to lead the debate."

ESP: Do you think this has lanced the boil or stored up trouble?

NC: Look, if there is one thing I have learnt over the years it's that people who are obsessed by European treaties - article this, article that - remain obsessed. I think they are playing Russian roulette with people's jobs. Because it is people's jobs and livelihoods and the money in their pocket which is at stake if you push Britain to the exit door - and I'm not going to let that happen."

It's worth noting that his comments haven't gone down well on the Tory backbenches. Mark Pritchard, 1922 committee secretary, said the country can't be "held to ransom by Europhile Lib-Dem MPs".

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

24 October 2011 3:22 PM

MP: Lawyers must not get Gaddafi victims' cash

As Colonel Gaddafi continues to lay unburied in a grizzly Libyan fridge, a post-conflict row is brewing in Westminster.

It centres around the issue of compensation for Provisional IRA semtex victims. Around 156 families or victims are set to receive payouts worth up to £6.3 million each, under a deal with the NTC over atrocities carried out with explosives supplied by the fallen despot.

But MP Daniel Kawczyinski, chairman of Parliament's all-party Libya group, is worried the deal will turn into a huge payday for lawyers.

He is urging David Cameron to bring administration of the compensation deal into Whitehall, to ensure all the money goes to victims and their families rather than legal representatives.

"I do not want a single penny of this lining the pockets of the lawyers," he told ESP.

"On the basis of a £450 million deal, lawyers would stand to gain as much as 20 per cent."

Mr Kawczyinski is also worried that a speedy deal will harm British standing in Libya. He argues that the worst victims of Gaddafi's brutality have been Libyans themselves, and that taking £450 million out of the country as it is being rebuilt would be propaganda ammunition for radical Muslim elements wanting to fill the power vacuum which may emerge.

"This has to be handled very sensitively," he cautioned.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 October 2011 3:30 PM

Huhne warned over return to dark ages

On Monday the Government held an energy summit after outrage at suggestions the Big Six energy firms are making £125 profit per customer.

But the desire to be seen to be driving down bills has sparked an angry (and entertaining) response from Ukip.

Upsetting the party's energy spokesman Godfrey Bloom is Chris Huhne's condemnation of high bills and the assertion that households could save £200 a year by careful budgeting and price comparison sites.

He told ESP Huhne should be "sent for remedial mathematics" because he "seems to want our vital energy sector to operate at a loss".

Flying the flag for market-based economics, he added: "The entire political class seem determined to boost the profits of candle makers at the expense of everybody else.

"The energy companies need profits to invest in better and secure supply. Without that we return to the dark ages."

It won't be a popular message - apart from with the gas and electricity giants.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 October 2011 4:00 PM

£2 billion a year on old electricity

Chris Huhne gave a major speech on nuclear power today which contained one quite amazing line.

Britain spends £2 billion A YEAR on nuclear electricity consumed in the fifties, sixties and seventies because decomissioning estimates were dramatically wrong.

They rocketed from an estimated £2 million in 1970 to £9.5 billion in 1990 and now stand at £53.7 billion, the Energy Secretary said, attacking the UK's historical nuclear strategy as “the most expensive failure of post-war policy-making”.

Huhne was famously anti-nuclear during his time in opposition but has become a convert in Government. Today he repeated his qualified support - that it needs to be part of the energy mix but with no public subsidy - and said of the past mistakes: “This will never happen again."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse