If you want an idea of what the concerns of Conservative MPs are there is no better snap-shot than the nature of the questions raised each Thursday in response to the statement by the Leader of the House on what the business in Parliament will be for the next week or so.
On the back of the statement, MPs are able to ask that the business just announced be replaced by a debate or statement on an issue of concern to them. In justifying these requests, its gives MPs the opportunity to raise a wide range of topics whether international, national or local about which they feel strongly.
The range of issues raised breaks the old stereotypes and shows the level of engagement Conservative MPs have with issues of fairness and social justice. It is a good example of how Conservative MPs are on the side of aspiration: people who want to get on and who want their families to get ahead. The spread of questions shows the strong recognition that, in this tough economic climate, help should go to those most in need of it, and that we are on the side of those basic rate tax-payers who struggle to make ends meet.
To illustrate this, take the 225 questions that were raised by Conservative MPs from September to December 2011. My analysis of the questions shows a heavy emphasis on a wide range of social and economic issues.
The pie chart below sets out the broad themes into which the questions fell. Unsurprisingly, the largest covers business, finance and the economy. Many of the questions related to small and medium sized businesses and pointed to the positive announcements made by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement designed to help them.
Two examples give a good picture. In mid December, Sarah Newton (Truro & Falmouth) welcomed the £20 billion national loan guarantee scheme. In mid November, Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) asked for a debate on small business rate relief. Both spoke from the perspective of the benefits of such schemes on the ground in their constituencies.
Inevitably, given the nature of Business Questions, one frequent theme related to the working of Parliament and issues relating to MPs. This could easily have become a case of navel-gazing. However, the questions more often related to how MPs and Parliament could better serve the interests of constituents and how democracy could be improved. An example of this was concern about how the e–petitions system could be made to work.
Another prominent theme revolved around a group of issues relating to equalities, women, families and children. In late October Charlie Elphicke (Dover) asked for a debate to highlight the work the Government was doing to increase the number of health visitors and support childcare. A number of Conservative MPs picked up on the Government’s policies to help women and families including specific situations such as the importance of foundation years and early intervention for families struggling to bond with new babies. In December, Guy Opperman (Hexham) asked for a debate on equal pay for women in the context of his support for women in Northumberland who were fighting for equal pay with their local council whilst Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) in December again returned to the importance of the Government’s commitment to health visitors.
Education and health have also been prominent themes. A consistent request has been for a debate on the success of the Academies programme and Michael Gove’s education reforms. These requests have been backed up by strong evidence from constituencies of how the reforms are working. Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) at the end of October summed it up in a request for a debate on how the Government’s education reforms are transforming the life chances of deprived children in his constituency pointing to the improved results of local schools.
Similarly, there has been genuine concern to welcome the increased investment in the NHS and to evidence the impact that is having on the ground with local GP support.
Business Questions may not normally have the media coverage of PMQs but its scope is just as broad. That makes it a telling pointer to where the heart of Conservative MPs really lies.