Talking Politics
  • How did Maria Miller keep her job?

    Maria Miller has been forced to repay expenses and apologise to the Commons. Yet somehow she is still in her job.

    The perfunctory apology lasted just 31 seconds and was delivered with an unmistakeable air of resentment, despite other Tory front benchers gathering around her in solidarity.

    The papers this morning have their knives out. The Mail branded it an insult to parliament. The Telegraph suggested MPs had conspired to save her. The media response is given extra urgency by her leading role in the negotiations over press regulation.

    When the allegations about Miller were put to her special adviser, she responded by observing that her boss had been having high-level meetings with editors recently, and perhaps the journalist wanted to think carefully about his story. This barely-concealed threat raised eyebrows in Fleet Street and confirmed many journalists' suspicions about what regulation of the press would look like.

    Miller is not even considered particularly talented. Even

    Read More »from How did Maria Miller keep her job?
  • By Caroline Lucas

    Last week, the secretary of state for justice wrote an article on the Conservative Home website to try and defend the decision to put a blanket ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, thereby preventing inmates receiving books in the post.

    His article starts with a rather shouty headline: "We have not, repeat not, banned books from prison".  It ends with a strident declaration that he's doing something "right-wing" to tackle reoffending. In the middle there are a set of contradictory positions.  It all sounds a bit like Mr Mackay from Porridge.

    The extraordinary array of different people who oppose this restriction, including Gareth Davies, former governor of Pentonville prison, Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, Salman Rushdie, Mary Beard, Alan Bennett, Jeffrey Archer, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McEwan (the list goes on and on), fully understand the policy.  We are asking the secretary of state and lord chancellor to reconsider the prison service instruction

    Read More »from Grayling’s book ban excuses just don’t wash
  • By Kristyan Benedict

    Last week the first Syrian refugees arrived in the UK as part of the government's commitment to help the "most vulnerable" Syrians under a resettlement scheme - a low-key but absolutely vital gesture for those affected.

    But it hardly needs to be said, the overall humanitarian situation in Syria remains calamitous.

    Over nine million people have been forced out of their homes and a staggering 3.5 million people are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, most in hard-to-reach areas. Depressingly, this last figure has increased by a million people since the beginning of the year alone.

    It almost beggars belief, but the situation is getting worse, at an accelerating rate.

    Among the very worst-off are the 220,000 Syrian civilians trapped in areas besieged by either government or opposition forces.

    There are now besieged areas all over Syria, including in Homs, Aleppo, the north-eastern city of Al-Hassaka, and - probably most infamously - in the Yarmouk district

    Read More »from The medieval punishment of Syria continues, ignored by the world
  • By Dominic Dyer

    The badger cull is one of the most controversial farming and wildlife policies in the last 40 years. Political support for the policy in Westminster has been draining away in the past six months, following the pilot culls in Gloucester and Somerset, which are now widely considered to have been a disaster on scientific, economic and animal welfare grounds.

    However, under considerable pressure from farming and landowning interests, the government is clinging to the wreckage of the policy and plans to continue badger culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire this summer and possibly extend the cull into Dorset as well.

    Throughout all the twists and turns of the badger cull debate, a key argument the government has used to justify the case for culling has been the apparent success in reducing TB in cattle as a result of killing badgers in the Republic of Ireland.

    It is true that Ireland has experienced a decline in bovine TB since the late 1990s, a period during which many

    Read More »from The BBC’s badger cull reporting has misled Britain
  • In 1998, Andrew Tift painted Tony Benn's portrait for the parliamentary art collection. The finished painting is on display on the first floor of Portcullis House in Westminster. Here, Tift recalls the experience of painting Benn - and the friendship that sprang up between artist and sitter.

    I went down to London and got the call from the House of Commons. I was going to do a portrait for them, but I didn't know who it was. I was delighted when I found out it was Tony Benn. I come from quite a socialist family - they were all delighted as well.

    I went down to his house in Notting Hill. When he moved in it was quite a run-down area, a long time before it was gentrified. I turned up, parked at the back of his house and went down the pathway into the basement of his house, which was where his offices were. After I'd walked down the steps I saw the bench in the front garden where he proposed to his wife Caroline.

    I walked in. His secretary, her name was Sheila, invited me in. It was quite

    Read More »from Painting Tony Benn: ‘He went to sleep while I was drawing him’
  • Facing a maelstrom of public anger from consumers, politicians and the press, energy bosses are getting desperate. Today's news of a two-year price freeze from SSE shows just how grim things are getting.

    SSE's decision is bad news for the 500 workers who will lose their jobs as a result. The environment will suffer because three planned offshore wind developments are being shelved.

    But it has at least earned SSE a respite from the endless vilification of politicians. Energy secretary Ed Davey has praised the company, saying the move shows "the big energy firms are able to cut their costs and profits, and be confident about their ability to weather potential uncertainty in the wholesale markets, to give bill payers long-term price security".

    Will the other players in the energy sector follow suit? Judging by the mood at a utilities industry conference in London, it doesn't seem likely.

    Besuited executives from across the utilities industry have gathered in the City for a bit of

    Read More »from ‘We’re getting hammered’: The never-ending misery of energy bosses
  • This weekend, Politics.co.uk published a piece by Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive Frances Crookin which she attacked the government for banning parcels to prisoners, including books. Here, justice secretary Chris Grayling defends his policy following an angry response from authors and campaigners.

    By Chris Grayling

    Let's be clear about one thing: prisoners' access to reading material is not being curtailed. All prisoners may at any one time have up to 12 books in their cells. All prisoners have access to the library, irrespective of which institution they are being held in.

    If any prisoner wishes to buy books with the money he or she gets from their pay, then that is up to them. If a prisoner has engaged with their own rehabilitation in prison, then he will be on a higher level in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, and so would have more money to spend – on books if he so chooses.

    Of course, this government believes that access to books is vitally important to

    Read More »from The ban on sending prisoners books is part of my rehabilitation revolution
  • By Frances Crook

    New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.

    The rules governing possessions of prisoners are arcane and not consistently applied by every prison. These new restrictions relate to a downgrading of the system of rewards and punishments, ostensibly designed to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules.  Yet the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from the outside.

    Last November new rules were introduced so that families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners. Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card. Prisoners with a particular

    Read More »from Why has Grayling banned prisoners being sent books?
  • Buried deep in the Budget document, there's a pretty significant HMRC power grab.

    If officials decide you owe them money, they now have the ability to take it directly out your bank account. No insolvency proceedings, asset freezes or debt collection agencies. Just the government taking out whatever it thinks it's owed.

    There are restrictions. The power can only be used once you've received a couple of letters and a phone call from enforcement. It only applies to people who owe over £1,000. HMRC must leave at least £5,000 in your account.

    Once they get the money they put it on hold for 14 days and you've got a chance to get in touch and set up a payment plan. If you don't, or you still refuse to pay up, they go ahead and keep it.

    All's fair in tax dodging, you might think – and indeed that will be the sentiment that George Osborne hopes will override concerns about the policy.

    But the plot thickens.

    A couple of points above the bank account section, there is another power HMRC has

    Read More »from Power grab: HMRC can now take money directly from your bank account
  • The chancellor's funding this year's giveaways by whacking the 'baddies' of 21st century Britain. If you're a tax-avoiding smoker with a penchant for gambling and a company car... well, let's just say this Budget might not be great news.

    Yes, there are big giveaways. The personal allowance is going up to £10,500. Savings are getting boosted with improvements to individual savings accounts. And, most importantly, beer duty is falling. But where, you have to ask, is the money coming from?

    The chancellor's strategy, summed up, is to take money from the baddies, even if it's not necessarily the baddies' money just yet, on the basis that if he only targets the unpopular no-one will hear them scream.

    Stealing from the future

    There's not much money around right now. That's a pretty firmly established fact in Westminster. So how about taking money from the future instead?

    That's what the chancellor is doing to 33,000 very wealthy taxpayers who have 'fessed up to involvement in tax avoidance

    Read More »from Osborne’s three clever Budget tricks revealed

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