February 14, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
In the middle “Inside the Commons” – a wonderful documentary by Michael Cockerell currently showing on Tuesday nights on BBC2 which delves deep into the lives of those who work in our Houses of Parliament – there is a focus on the campaigning work of Robert Halfon – the Conservative MP for Harlow. Or at least he was campaigning, until one of the most blatant pieces of patronage-for-quiet occurred that shut him up. That it was filmed and barely commented upon by both narrator or Halfon is a shame, because it does show up a limitation of our Parliamentary system.
Halfon, who entered Parliament in 2010, is notable for the work he has done on many political issues he finds important. Many Labour politicians find it almost odd that he isn’t one of them, and a close look at his campaigns backs that up. He has pushed for links between the Conservative Party and trade unions to be re-established an promoted, he has campaigned for a lowering of fuel duty, he has campaigned for and hired his own apprentices, he has campaigned tirelessly on the issue of cost of living – particularly the prices of utilities, and, in particularly, he has campaigned for NHS not to be able to charge for parking.
It is the last issue that was the focus for the programme this week. Parking charges for the NHS – which apply to both patients and visitors, has been pointed out by the New Statesman (a left-wing weekly periodical) to be the reason the NHS can not be said to actually be free at the point of use. Halfon has worked very hard over the past few years on this, supporting direct action from pressure groups, but also within Parliament too. The programme followed his attempt to get the issue debated in the House of Commons. We saw him try and get a Private Members’ Bill (a way to change the law as it applies to the population) in front of the House. The first way of doing this was a ballot – had he won that he could have had a day’s debate on the issue. The second was an application for a ‘ten-minute rule’ bill – which would have allowed him to speak for ten minutes to the house on his bill, and someone could oppose it. These both failed, so he instead managed to get 130 MPs from across the parties to sign a petition to have it debated, which then was put in front of the Backbench Committee and approved for a debate.
This was a great victory for Halfon, and he started preparing for the debate. Next thing we know he has a call from George Osborne asking him to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary. This, the lowest rung on the Minister’s ladder, means that Halfon has to be Osborne’s ‘eyes and ears’ in Parliament – a link between him and the MPs. Osborne, who had always described Halfon as a great campaigner, had realized that much of what Halfon was campaigning for would deprive the Treasury of money, as they were tax cuts or raises in spending. So, this move meant that Halfon would be tied in to Ministerial responsibility.
So it was that towards the end of the programme we saw Robert Halfon sitting silently in the middle of the debate he had fought so hard to get up in front of the House of Commons. He insisted in an interview afterwards that his new position meant that he could use some influence and access with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get the things he was campaigning about into government legislation. But I think he knew, and the viewer knew, that as long as he was tied to the Government in this way, the game was up.
I’m not saying that put in Robert Halfon’s position I wouldn’t have taken the ministerial coin and succumbed to the quite obvious use of political patronage to stop him making a nuisance of himself. For all I know he needs the extra money, or he genuinely feels that as a member of the government he can do more.
But Robert Halfon was someone who was definitely in Parliament to achieve things, and he was achieving a lot. Our democracy has lost out if he is silenced.