Tory peer Baroness Warsi faces police inquiry over expense

The Conservative Party co-chairman claimed up to £165.50 a night while staying at a London house belonging to Dr Wafik Moustafa.

She said she was entitled to the expenses because she had paid a “financial contribution” to her political aide, Naweed Khan, when both were non-paying guests at the house.

But Dr Moustafa insisted that he received no money and said he was “disgusted” that she had claimed taxpayers’ money when he had simply been “helping out” the two party members by offering his free hospitality.

MPs compared the disclosures with the case of Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative peer who was jailed last year for claiming overnight expenses to stay in London when he was not in the capital.

Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, said there was a case for investigating whether there had been “claiming for costs not incurred”.

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Calls for investigation into Warsi’s £12,000 flat expenses

Baroness Warsi charged the taxpayer £165.50 a night for attending the House of Lords while staying at a house in Acton, west London.

The owner of the house said she had her own bedroom and front-door key and said he received no money in rent from Warsi or from Naweed Khan, the party official who was also staying there, it was reported.

She claimed £12,247 in over-night subsistence within six months of taking her seat in October 2007, records show. It was the equivalent of 74 nights’ stay. The Lords sat for 84 days in the period. She was then the youngest peer at the age of 36.

The property was owned by Dr Wafik Moustafa, a GP. He said Warsi had stayed at the house over four months between Mondays and Thursdays and occasionally at the weekend.

He said: “Baroness Warsi paid no rent, nor did she pay any utilities bills or council tax. It was an informal arrangement, so no tenancy contract was drawn up.”

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Queen’s Speech Fallout

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

David Cameron faces the fallout from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech today. And the papers don’t make for happy reading for him. The short speech – coming in just under 15 minutes – was a bit thin. Especially given that he hasn’t had one for two years – the longest we’ve gone without since the war.

On one hand, the Government deserves congratulation for resisting the urge to pack the programme with too much legislation. But they open themselves to the charge that they have run out of ideas after just two years. They have perhaps not done enough to communicate that the reform programme on welfare, education and health should be enough to be getting on with.

Our leader column says the speech did little to alter the country’s fate, praising its plans to cut red tape, but questioning how that fits alongside the extra burdens laid on business by new paternity legislation. The Mail takes a harder line, asking “where are the big ideas?”

But the FT (£) is the paper to really stick the knife in, saying that Cameron needs “to get a grip” on his team, criticising his judgment on Andy Coulson, Andrew Lansley and Peter Cruddas. It also calls for him to conduct a reshuffle, adding:

“The government as a whole is suffering from a growing perception of incompetence. Too many initiatives are launched, and too few delivered.”

Ack, at least Dave can celebrate the fact that Theresa May has finally been granted permission to boot out Abu Qatada. It’s just a shame she’s also been told that she definitely got the date wrong. Read our report.

The Guardian has a detailed breakdown of all the bills announced in yesterday’s speech.

BUSINESS BOOS

The world outside Westminster hasn’t taken the speech well either. We’ve splashed on business leaders’ dismay at extra paternity-leave legislation and the lack of help for the economy. Likewise, the Mail gives its p2 to “the nightmare”.

If the pursuit of growth is supposed to be the only priority, then why add to the costs of business?

And the Mail’s Stephen Glover doesn’t buy that this is the result of bargaining with the Lib Dems. He asks:

“Was there anything in the Queen’s Speech that was exclusively Conservative, and which might have featured in the legislative programme of a robust, Tory-only government?”

TIME’S UP?

In his Telegraph column today, Peter Oborne is reluctant to criticise the speech, but says that time could be up on the Coalition:

“The Coalition Agreement will shortly run out – a profoundly dangerous moment. In Britain, with our tradition of one-party government, we have very little experience of how coalitions work. But on the Continent, where they are very common, it is no coincidence that so many fail at the end of the first two years.”

STILL LORDING IT

And the bit we were all waiting for – would Lords reform appear in the speech? Watered down or otherwise? In the end it was merely announced as “a Bill will be brought forward to reform the composition of the House of Lords.”

This already has the Conservative backbenchers up in arms – something that the Opposition looks poised to exploit. The Guardian reports that Labour plans to side with Tory rebels to cause maximum hassle for the Government. They will reject the timetable for debating the Bill and so ensure that Commons business will be at mercy of the rebels.

This will delight the Conservatives who see this as the swiftest way of killing the legislation in the Commons. No guillotine means the Bill can be talked into the ground, though as No 10 keeps trying to point out Governments are entirely capable of coping with more than one thing at once (Mark Harper, the minister responsible, recalls that in 1940 when the Government had somewhat more pressing matters on its plate, the Commons debated an Education Bill).

CULTURE CHANGE REQUIRED

Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech yesterday to Policy Exchange, saying that we need to change our culture to fix the benefits system. He said:

“By this I mean cultural change both within society, and within Government itself. We are faced with a fundamental challenge. Millions of people stuck on out of work benefits. Millions not saving nearly enough for their retirement. And Government addicted to spending levels as a measurement of success, rather than life change as a measurement of success.”

Quite. There’s nothing like ruling yourself out of leadership to loosen your tongue. Read our report.

COULSON AFFAIR

For Ed Miliband, the Leveson enquiry is the gift that keeps on giving. Today, the Guardian reports that Downing Street has admitted that Andy Coulson is likely to have attended high-level military meetings, despite having undergone only low-level security vetting.

Westminster will be following closely the evidence sessions of the next 48 hours for revelations that will deal another blow to Mr Cameron’s credibility. At least now the Government is a core participant and won’t be taken by surprise.

FIGHTING JETS

As we reported yesterday, the Government has U-turned on its plans to buy the take-off version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, instead purchasing the jump-jet model of the plane. Read our report. The Guardian has the details on the technical problems that could cost more than £57m. Read its report here.

The finger is already being pointed: the FT (£) reports that senior government figures have turned on Liam Fox who first announced the policy in 2010.

SAY NO TO LITTERBUGS..

… Well, that’s what Caroline Spelman, the minister responsible for waste, is telling us. She praised Alice Arnold on Radio 4 yesterday for picking up a bottle thrown from a car and tossing it back at the passengers. She said: “I think people feel it’s increasingly important to challenge behaviour that is anti-social.”

She’s on Question Time tonight, so I’m guessing we’re going to hear more on this one.

REBRANDING

And finally, if you thought the Queen’s Speech suggested that Dave was running out of ideas, try this one for size: a leaked document shows that he’s considering rebranding Whitehall departments. Each department would get a colour and “digital-friendly” Royal coat of arms.

As Rob Oxley of the Taxpayers’ Alliance says: “Only civil servants could think that simplifying government means flashy new logos for every department.”

Actually this seems to be an idea from Martha Lane Fox, Dave’s internet guru. Did anyone tell her adding pointless costs isn’t in her remit? Read our report here.

POLL WATCH

Latest YouGov/The Sun results: Conservative 31%, Labour 44%, Lib Dems 9%, UKIP 8%

Overall government approval rating: -39

TOP COMMENT

In The Telegraph

Peter Oborne: The cost of David Cameron’s Coalition is growing ever more expensive

Sue Cameron: Why shouldn’t we see Whitehall’s warnings?

Leader: This Speech did little to alter the country’s fate

Leader: Qatada’s time may be up

Best of the rest

Simon Kettle in the Guardian: Queen’s speech: a story of coalition uncertainty

Steve Richards in the Independent: Queen’s Speech – a ragbag of eye-catching measures worthy of Tony Blair

Leader in the Financial Times (£): Cameron must get a grip on his team

Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail: A prisoner of the Lib Dems? I’m afraid I take that with a very generous pinch of salt, Mr Cameron

THE AGENDA

Today: David Cameron meets Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, at Downing Street

Today: David Willetts announces £16m funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for UK robotics, University of the West of England

Today: Justine Greening speaks at a green motoring conference

Today: Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson attends the Olympic Flame Lighting Ceremony at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece

Today: Public sector workers strike against pension reforms

10am: Michael Gove will give a speech at Brighton College about excellence in education, Brighton College, Eastern Road, Brighton

10am: Andy Coulson gives evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. The Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London

10am: David Miliband speaks on youth unemployment, 21 Palmer Street, London

10.30am: Business Statement, Houses of Parliament

12pm: Bank of England decision on interest rates

10.35pm: BBC Question Time fromOldham. The panel will include Caroline Spelman, Chris Bryant, Lord Oakeshott, Peter Oborne and Mary Beard

If we must reform the Lords, here’s how…

The most important question to ask about the proposed reform of the House of Lords is this: will it make our system of governance better or worse? The democratic legitimacy of the Upper House or the past promises of political parties should be secondary considerations. This is not to say that the Lords works perfectly or cannot be improved. Its composition can be changed, as happened when the majority of hereditary peers were expelled by the Labour government. Its numbers can – and should – be reduced.

But any reform must, crucially, ensure that the chamber continues to carry out its essential functions, which are to act as a check on the Commons and to provide sage and, if possible, impartial scrutiny of legislation. The one guaranteed way of wrecking that purpose is Nick Clegg’s proposal for a 300-seat senate, mostly or wholly elected by proportional representation for 15-year terms. The idea that the administration of this country would be enhanced by the creation of another chamber of career politicians, beholden to party machines and government whips and locked in a constant “who rules?” fight with the lower house, is not so much fanciful as away with the fairies.

Read more….

Three ministerial aides could quit over Lords reform

The Prime Minister has been warned to expect “off the scale” rebellions if he pushes ahead with controversial plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate.

The warnings – made at a private meeting of Tory MPs last night – come ahead of the publication on Monday of an official report from a major Lords committee which has considered the proposals.

The Daily Telegraph has learned that at least three parliamentary private secretaries (PPS) are likely to vote against the plans if they go ahead.

This would force Mr Cameron to sack them and mark the biggest challenge to his authority since the Coalition was formed.

One PPS who confirmed that he would vote against the Government told The Daily Telegraph last night Downing Street “would be very wise to back off” on Lords reform.

Two PPSs resigned and decided to vote in favour of a referendum over Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in a Commons vote in 2010.

The warnings emerged from a stormy meeting of the 1922 committee meeting of backbench Conservative MPs on Thursday.

Forty out of 70 MPs spoke against plans to reform the Lords during the meeting in the House of Commons. At the meeting Jesse Norman MP gave what was described as a “powerful” denunciation of the plans.

Read more….

Omnishambles Goes On

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

MUNITY ON THE BOUNTY

A stormy session at the 1922 Committee last night. Dave has been warned to expect “off the scale” rebellions, that would “dwarf” those on the EU referendum last year, if he pushes ahead with plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate.

Chris Hope reports that at least three parliamentary private secretaries (PPS) have pledged to vote against the plans. One PPS told us that Downing Street “would be very wise to back off” on Lords reform. Forty out of 70 MPs spoke out against the plans at the meeting – only one speaking in favour.

No 10 says that: “The Government is committed to House of Lords reform” and they are stressing that all three parties put it in their manifestos in 2010. But as James Forsyth points out , the strength of feeling among Tory MPs cannot be dismissed – that the ultra-loyalists Jesse Norman and Nadhim Zahawi spoke out against the plans is particularly telling.

The difficulty for David Cameron is that the Lib Dems are hinting at making support for boundary reform – which is still to pass the Commons – conditional on House of Lords reform passing. In No 10, they see boundary reform as essential to winning a Conservative majority at the next election.

And then there’s the suggestion from the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform which says there should be a referendum on the matter. Nick Clegg, giving evidence yesterday , dismissed the idea out of hand.

MAYDAY MAYDAY

Theresa May’s muddle on dates continues on the front pages today. As we report, Mrs May still insists that the deadline was on Monday, but legal experts and officials lined up yesterday to tell her she’s wrong. The error could have Abu Qatada back on our streets within two weeks.

Mrs May was summoned to answer an Urgent Question yesterday to be grilled on the affair, where she steadfastly refused to answer 11 questions from MPs about whether her officials had asked the court for the date of the deadline.

The sketches all make hay with her plight. In the Telegraph, Michael Deacon wonders whether the Home Secretary would turn up to be questioned: “Would she turn up? Or would there be confusion over this date too?” Our Matt cartoon sums it up: “Theresa May April”

In our leader , we say that the mess is the result of a “political stunt that has spectacularly backfired”, and this makes for the “worst possible backdrop” to David Cameron’s attempt to reform the ECHR.

The Times’ meanwhile calls the affair “an embarrassment”. “It was the Home Secretary’s responsibility to get it right. Her premature declaration of victory over Abu Qatada has rendered any eventual deportation less noteworthy.” Indeed.

ECHR REFORM

And then there’s the issue of reform of the ECHR more generally – Ken Clarke was in Brighton yesterday representing Britain at a meeting of the Council of Europe. The Justice Secretary announced that the “Brighton Declaration” of reform would result in far fewer cases being appealed at Strasbourg.

“Taken together, these changes should mean fewer cases being considered by the court. Those that it considers should be allegations of serious violations or major points of interpretation of the convention and will be processed without the scandalous delays we are seeing at present.”

But as the Guardian reports, Sir Nicolas Bratza, the president of the Court- rather undermining Ken’s case that reform had been successful when he welcomed the fact that attempts to change the admissibility criteria for cases had failed.

STAND UP BOYS AND GIRLS

The local election campaigning goes on – today, David Cameron is in the North West, where he will deliver a speech on the Government’s apprenticeships plans. Yesterday, the PM was in Scotland, launching the Conservative’s local election campaign in Scotland (the party’s modest hope is to overtake the Lib Dems in the country).

As Rowena Mason reports, the PM’s message yesterday was rather unusual – as well as “real discipline”, “rigorous standards”, and “hard subjects”, he wants schools to turn out children “who stand up when their parents or teacher walks in the room.” Um, really Dave?

THE PARTY’S OFF

The row over cutting charities tax relief goes on. Dave doesn’t care how nice they are, he’s not inviting the charities to his party – he’s called off a champagne reception for planned for them because they don’t agree with George’s tax plans on donations – and so it would looked very embarrassing.

As the FT (£) reports, the PM was due to attend the Giving Summit on May 8th to mark a year since the government passed the “giving white paper”. The White Paper outlined what the government was doing to encourage philanthropy – wonder if it mentioned the tax relief cap?

The charities are disappointed – so are we – the fight would have made for interesting reading.

DAVID MILIBACK

David Miliband has also been on the campaign trail, this time in Halesowen in the West Midlands. The Daily Mirror has a report here - amusingly, they caught David M standing by a street sign marked “Downing Street”.

As they report, there was an “awkward moment when activist Margaret Homer, 70, said “hello Ed” but he turned on the charm as he corrected her, saying: “I’m David, actually”. Still, that’s good news for Ed right? Usually, it’s the other way around…

VOTES FOR THE GOVERNOR

George Osborne is very much not campaigning – today he’s back in Washington. Though this time, in his capacity as Chancellor, rather than as David Cameron’s main political strategist. He’s there with Mervyn King for a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors today, which precedes the spring meeting of the IMF at the weekend.

Jeremy Warner’s column today is on the topic of Osborne’s visit: he reckons that from Washington, the state of the British economy looks good. “The UK adjustment is being handled with skill and sensitivity.” But as Alex Brummer notes in the Mail, a big question for the Chancellor is whether he will agree to expand Britain’s commitment to the IMF.

On the topic, The FT (£) reports that Andrew Tyrie, Conservative chairman of the Commons treasury committee, wants a say over who will replace Sir Mervyn when he steps down from the Bank of England next year. Tyrie reckons that this is “perhaps the most important public appointment the government will make”. Quite.

MPS VOTING DRUNK

George Galloway only arrived in parliament this week, but he’s already making himself unpopular with his colleagues – he’s advocating the closure of the parliamentary bars. The Sun reports that Galloway, a teetotaller, thinks MPs should not be allowed to vote “blind drunk”.

Sarah Wollaston, the GP MP for Totnes, has said much the same thing before, but she didn’t get anywhere. Will she be glad of GG’s support? Perhaps George is smarting because the House’s authorities have been slow to organise his office: Sky’s Jon Craig has photos of “temporary office” in the Portcullis House canteen.

POLL WATCH

Latest YouGov/Sun polling: Conservatives 32%, Labour 45%, Liberal Democrats 8%, Ukip 7%.

Government net approval rating: -36%.

TWEETS AND TWITS

Most MPs last night were tweeting either about how much they dislike George Galloway or how much they dislike Tim Farron (they really don’t like Tim Farron). But one exception was the Welsh minister, David Jones, who kept us up to date on the important things: “iPad battery level down to 4%. Thank heaven I’ve got s far as Rhyl.”]

It’s also worth noting Alan Sugar’s Twitter outburst yesterday: “I don’t care if Ed Miliband is backing Livingstone. I seriously suggest NO ONE votes for Livingstone in the mayoral election”. Lord Sugar has 2m followers and is one of Labour’s few celebrity supporters. Ouch.

TOP COMMENT

In The Telegraph

Fraser Nelson: David Cameron should beware the march of the angry mothers

Jeremy Warner: Chancellor George Osborne looks a better bet from Washington

Alicia Castro: Warmongering won’t settle this old dispute

Leader: Whitehall farce lets Strasbourg off the hook

Best of the rest

Philip Collins in the Times (£): May I suggest to the PM what he’s thinking?

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: Chris Grayling calls me a job snob for questioning those who pay so little

Nick Clegg and Edward Davey in the Guardian: We need this key commitment to climate action

Richard Lambert in the FT (£): Why no British staff at Pret A Manger?

THE AGENDA

Today: Mark Prisk launching a competition to find the most enterprising area in the UK.

Today: Theresa May speaking at the Stonewall workplace diversity conference. Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London.

Today: G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, including George Osborne and Mervyn King, attend a meeting in Washington DC ahead of this weekend’s spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF

Today: David Cameron makes a speech about apprenticeships on a local election campaign visit in the North West

9.30am: Retail sales figures for March are published by the Office for National Statistics.

10.45am: Ed Miliband appears in Merthy Tydfil, South Wales, to campaign with Welsh Labour for the local elections

12.00pm: Disabled Remploy workers protest at DWP headquarters in London and Sheffield against the closure of Remploy factories.

 

Prayers before council meetings ruled unlawful

They challenged the practice of Bideford town council, Devon, of having religious prayers on meeting agendas.

Today Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled: ”The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.”

Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, told the BBC it was a “great shame that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority”.

“Every time there is a survey of religious beliefs in this country, around 70 per cent of the population profess a faith and to saying private prayers.

“At the House of Lords we began with prayers this morning. Prayers were said by a considerable amount of peers. I don’t think you will find anyone in the House of Lords who will seriously suggest we should end that practice.”

Read more….

Iain Duncan Smith launches last-ditch appeal over welfare reforms

Last night the House of Lords defeated the Government on seven key parts of the Welfare Reform Bill, including the centrepiece proposal to cap out-of-work benefits at £26,000 per household.

Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare minister, will offer minor concessions to critics of his plan to cap state benefit payments in a bit to rescue the plan.

However, ministers are determined to overturn all the defeats and will table their own amendments, reinstating the original plans, in the Commons today.

Read more….

Don’t legalise gay marriage, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu warns David Cameron

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Dr John Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, tells ministers they should not overrule the Bible and tradition by allowing same-sex marriage.

The Government will open a consultation on the issue in March and the Prime Minister has indicated that he wants it to be a defining part of his premiership. But the Archbishop says it is not the role of the state to redefine marriage, threatening a new row between the Church and state just days after bishops in the House of Lords led a successful rebellion over plans to cap benefits.

“Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” says Dr Sentamu. “I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.

“We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.

Read more….