Spending Review – Foreign Office

At a billion pounds a year our Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is perhaps the ultimate example of the U.K.’s deployment of what is sometimes now referred to as’soft power’. The settlement protects the budget of the FCO in real terms in order that it can maintain the U.K.’s global network of diplomatic posts which promote our interests around the World. New embassies will open in Abuja and Budapest. The U.K.’s diplomatic network consists of more than 250 posts and missions in over 150 countries and territories across the globe.

Spending Review – Home Office

The big surprise in the settlement for the Home Office was the decision to protect spending on our police. This will enable the police to continue to make the changes necessary to meet the emerging crime threats. £500 million more will be put into the counter terrorism budget.

The budget of the National Crime Agency will also be protected as the Agency leads the fight to cut serious and organised crime.

Over the next few years almost one billion pounds will be invested in new mobile digital technology through the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme. This will enable officers to access police databases, take fingerprints and electronic witness statements and stream live video from body-worn cameras – all while on the move. Once in place the new network will save costs for the taxpayer whilst saving time for police officers. It will connect all emergency services on the same broadband network for the first time.

Overall, the cost of the Home Office will remain broadly stable over the Parliament from £10.3 billion this year to £10.6 by 2019-20.

Spending Review – Defence

I have come up with a plan for what to write during the inevitably quieter days of the Christmas and New Year. I will look at how the various departments of government fared in the Spending Review the results of which were announced at the same time as the Autumn Statement on 25th November.

So, starting with Defence, this department saw an increase in its budget from a baseline figure of £27.2 billion in the current year to £31 billion in 2020-21. This is because of the government’s commitment to spend 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (ie: what the UK economy produces). Capital expenditure on defence equipment which is shown separately also increases From £7.1 billion to £8.7 billion.

£1.2 billion of this is to be spent on ensuring a Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier is ready for deployment with 24 jets on board by 2023. The arena forces will be maintained at their current levels and there will be four new nuclear submarines to deliver the nuclear deterrent.

Even with increase spending the Ministry of Defence will still be required to make savings. Pay restraint, reducing the number of civilians employed, ending military commitment bonuses, reducing travel expenditure and professional fees should all result in savings which will be reinvested into the defence budget.

All in all, the outcome of this review for the MoD demonstrates the commitment of government to meet the first duty of government: to keep its people safe.

Collective Responsibility in EU referendum

Let me start today by making a prediction. When it comes to the referendum on our membership of the EU Government ministers who are usually bound by the principle of collective responsibility will be freed from that convention. It seems to me to be inconceivable that on a matter of such national importance to effectively gag Ministers from explaining their own views is unthinkable. One reason for having a referendum is that there are different views within the main political parties.

Yesterday, it was Nine Lessons and Carols at St.Annes’s Church in Tottington in the afternoon and I read the seventh lesson on the news of Christ’s birth been given by the Angels to the shepherds.

I watched the Sports Personality of the Year yesterday evening. A great reminder of just how many dedicated and talented sportsmen we have. I don’t vote in these things but my would have gone to Jessica Ennis-Hill personally. I think having already won Olympic gold to marry, and have a baby and then come back to win the World title again is a tremendous achievement. In the end she came third. It will be interesting to see if she can retain the Olympic title in Rio.

I was particularly pleased to see A.P. McCoy receive the lifetime achievement award. His has been a truly incredible achievement. Champion Jockey over the jumps for 20 years is truly an achievement worthy of such recognition.

Today, I am back in the office in Bury dealing with constituency cases before attending Bury Conservatives Christmas fundraiser this evening.

Hydraulic fracturing

One of the announcements made on the last day of term was the winners of the bids for licences to explore for onshore oil and gas. These licences officially called Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences are awarded by the Oil and Gas Authority. The licences grant the exclusive right to the holder to explore the area covered by the licence to see whether they are any useable deposits of oil or gas. One of the new licences covers our area.

It is not very likely they will discover oil but we know from previous research that there might be useable reserves of shale gas which can be extracted by means of hydraulic fracturing.  The licences granted last week do not allow for any operations to begin because an operator would still need to seek a whole host of other permissions and consents before any work could start. Planning permission, an environmental permit from the Environment Agency, drilling consent from the Oil and Gas Authority and t he whole process would be under the scrutiny of the Health and Safety Executive. Onshore extraction has been taking place safely for over 50 years in the United Kingdom and as has been proved with nuclear energy our regulatory processes are strict enough to be as sure as we reasonably can be that no harm will be done to humans or our environment.

I am in favour of the new opportunities shale gas provides. A secure  supply of energy for years to come. We will not be reliant on other countries often in unstable parts of the world. It should be cheaper and it will certainly be a source of new jobs.

I know there will be those who oppose the use of shale gas but I am satisfied that the benefits of using shale gas outweigh any disadvantages. I believe the risks have been properly evaluated and we have enough experienced regulators in place to ensure the safety of the operations.

Local government grant

I mentioned yesterday that in addition to the three dozen written statements in the Commons on the last day of term there were two oral statements. The first of these was what is fast becoming a bit of an annual tradition, the revealing of the funding packages for local councils up and down the land.

The way local government finance operates is fiendishly complex. The first thing to note that the Council tax we all pay provides only one element of the funding Councils have. They also get funding from central government, which I often still refer to as the ‘block grant’ essentially re-distribution of business rates which are set nationally. There can also be some grants which are ring-fenced for specific purposes and then there are the fees charged for individual council functions such as the provision of car parking and planning application fees.

On Thursday the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark announced that whereas in 2010 local councils were 80% dependent on central government grants by 2020 they will be funded 100% by council tax, business rates and other local revenues. The plan is to allow local councils to retain 100% of business rates thereby forging the link between local business success and civic success.

As for the period until 2020 the funding is broadly unchanged but,of course, that means in real terms, after inflation, there will need to be savings on average of 6.7%. That, at least, is what the statement said. Every local authority is different and I can think we can safely assume that every Labour controlled authority will complain of swinging and unfair cuts. I suspect the reality is the outlook is a bit rosier than many had feared. Even though nobody likes to admit it given that local government makes up around a quarter of public spending there would have had to be cuts even if Labour had won the general election.

Negotiations

The last day of Parliamentary business proved a very busy one indeed with dozens of written statements and two oral statements in the Chamber. I will be returning to some of these subjects in the (hopefully) quieter days ahead. Today, the news is dominated by the Prime Minister’s attempt to make some very minor changes to the terms of our membership of the European Union. There are essentially four requests

  1. Ensure the UK is not bound by the words ‘ever closer union’ which appear in the introduction to the EU treaty.
  2. Ensure the countries outside the Eurozone are not treated unfairly.
  3. Reduce red tape.
  4. Prevent migrants to the UK from the EU claiming in work benefits for four years after arrival.

The first three are so meaningless they have been agreed immediately almost without debate. The fourth which most people might thing should not even be a matter which concerns the EU. It just demonstrates how powerless the UK has become that even something like deciding who receives benefits from our welfare system can no longer be decided by us.

Even if the change were agreed it would not have much effect on the numbers coming to the UK because all the figures I have seen show that only a minority claim benefits in the first twelve months which they presumably would do if that were a main reason for them coming to the UK.

The main point is that 99% of our terms of our membership are not even been debated. The U.K. will still be part of the Common Fisheries Policy the Common Agricultural Policy, we we still have to pay around a billion pounds a month (net) just to be members of the EU. Incidentally, it is the fact that we pay such a large amount each year towards the running costs of the EU that the others are desperate for us to stay.

We would still have to go begging to Brussels if the Government wanted to help industry as we have seen recently over broadband and the steel industry. It is frankly demeaning.

The suggestions that we would be isolated if we left are simply nonsense. We would be the EU’s biggest single market. The Germans would still want to sell us their cars the French their wine. I want so see us have free trade deals with all the countries in the World not just the few that make up the EU.

Britain would not only survive we would thrive outside the EU.