Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, is this week's ConservativeHome Diarist. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
House of Lords reform
Much of my week has been spent on the contentious issue of House of Lords reform. Back in July, I was appointed to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament that was tasked with scrutinising the Government’s draft House of Lords Reform Bill. Since then, we have considered a huge amount of evidence from proponents and opponents of reform and from various constitutional experts (self-appointed or otherwise), and on Monday and Wednesday we had the first two of three meetings where votes are cast to agree the exact wording of the report.
Being a member of this Committee has been one of the most interesting things I have done in my nearly two years in Parliament. As the recent discussions on ConservativeHome illustrated, House of Lords reform is an emotive issue that divides our party. The same is true of the Labour Party and even the Liberal Democrats to a lesser extent, so the divisions on the Committee are not along party lines and we have seen some unusual alliances!
Whatever one’s views on the issue of principle – whether those who have a hand in making the law ought to be elected – if the Government does decide to proceed, it is important that it does so in a way that doesn’t undermine the primacy of the House of Commons nor the relationship between an MP and his constituents, and doesn’t significantly increase the cost of politics. The Committee will make some sensible suggestions as to how the Government could improve its proposals and I hope our deliberations will result in changes that will make the proposals more palatable to ConservativeHome readers.
The Queen comes to Parliament
On Tuesday, I had a brief and welcome interlude from the arcane details of House of Lords reform when Her Majesty came to Westminster Hall to receive addresses from both Houses of Parliament and to see the Diamond Jubilee window, a gift paid for by MPs and Peers from all political parties. The window was the idea of my colleague Michael Ellis. His ennoblement is surely only a matter of time…
When Her Majesty ascended to the throne, Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister. In a period of profound changes to our country, she has been a symbol of continuity and her record of public service is one that stands as an example to all of us.
A Budget that rewards work
At 11.30 on Wednesday morning, I rushed from the Joint Committee meeting to grab a seat for Prime Minister’s Questions and the Budget that followed it. PMQs was a rather tepid affair – Ed Miliband clearly felt he couldn’t ask about the Health & Social Care Bill again, and that’s the only topic he really feels comfortable with, so he opted for some non-partisan questions about Afghanistan and some worthy questions about the Riot Damages Act.
The Chancellor delivered the Budget with real confidence – he is one Minister who has grown in stature in office. It was good to see that in the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts of growth, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits and borrowing had all improved slightly since the Autumn Statement.
For me though, the highlight was the proposal to increase the amount of money you have to earn before you start paying income tax by £1,100 next April in addition to the £630 increase already scheduled for this April and the £1,000 increase introduced last year. As a result, people will be able to earn up to £9,205 before they start paying. 24 million people earning less than £100,000 a year will gain and, as a result of these three increases in the threshold put together, people working full time for the minimum wage will see their income tax bill cut in half.
It’s essential that we don’t allow the Liberal Democrats to claim this as their policy – Nick Boles asked a great question to this effect at PMQs. As a Conservative, I believe taxes on work are too high right up the income scale. I therefore also welcome the fact that the Chancellor took the politically brave but economically essential step of cutting the 50p first rate – it was hardly raising any money and it was doing grave damage to the country’s reputation, we have to shift the debate from “high rate good; low rate bad” to “which rate maximises the amount of money we raise from the wealthiest”.
However, my first priority is tax cuts for low to middle income workers – they are the ones who are really feeling the squeeze. The response to Ed Miliband’s charge that our priority is tax cuts for the wealthy is simple: the Chancellor spent 35 times as much increasing the threshold at which you start to pay income tax as he did on cutting the top rate.
Finally there was a really good section on tax evasion with the Chancellor saying he regards evasion – and indeed aggressive avoidance – as “morally repugnant”. This too is really important politically – we have to make it crystal clear that we believe in people paying their fare share and we will do everything possible to make it happen.
On Wednesday night I sent out an email bulletin to thousands of households in my constituency with my thoughts on the Budget. The response was broadly positive apart from one issue – the freezing of pensioners’ allowances. I fear this issue is a consequence of being in Coalition – if he had a majority Conservative Government I suspect the Chancellor would have paid for the increase in the basic rate threshold with further spending cuts; as it was, that option wasn’t available and he had to look for other tax changes.
The BackBoris campaign is in full swing across London and nowhere more so than in Croydon. The Mayor has provided great support to our town in the wake of last August’s riots and is hugely popular. We are working hard to turn out the highest possible Conservative vote, and this Thursday afternoon I was joined by my colleagues Nick Herbert (ably assisted by Will from his office, who it has to be said is much better than his boss at remembering the names of the electors he is calling on), the campaigning maestro Simon Kirby, and Jeremy Wright, who spent nearly half an hour working on one disgruntled pensioner.
This week’s poll was encouraging. Livingstone’s fares policy has fallen apart, he has been revealed as a hypocrite on tax and an increasing number of Labour supporters are making it clear they won’t vote for him, but we cannot afford any complacency.
Fridays mean Croydon
Like most MPs with marginal seats, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are busy constituency days. Yesterday, I had a meeting with the Chief Executive of the NHS in south-west London and the Chairman of our Business Improvement District. I also had a meeting of the board of a charity I am a trustee of, and I went to speak at a local sixth-form college about Project Change, a social action project I formed in the wake of last August’s riots.
I was very conscious in the aftermath of the riots that I needed to visit schools and colleges to get young people’s perspective about why the riots happened and what should be done to stop them happening again. Interestingly, they had very similar views to older generations with two exceptions – they had a completely different view of the police and they were very angry with the way the media had reported the riots, referring to “feral teenagers” and thereby effectively demonising a whole generation whereas a majority of those convicted have been in their 20s or older. I therefore decided to get together a group of young people who would meet once a month to do some community work to improve the town and to change perceptions of Croydon young people. So far, nearly 300 have signed up and they have agreed their first three projects – brightening up the part of the London Road which bore the worst of the riot damage; visiting housebound elderly people to help them with their shopping or gardening or just provide some human contact; and a summer school to keep younger teenagers off the street. My role is to guide them, raise funds and get permission for the various projects. For more information, check out http://www.projectchangecroydon.org/.