ALAN BEITH: No smoke without fire

A fire at Swarland Brick works.  GM020616
A fire at Swarland Brick works. GM020616

When I raised the continuing fire of carpet waste at Thrunton in Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, it proved an effective way of getting much more official attention for the plight of local residents, who have been suffering from smoke and fumes since the beginning of September.

More officials came to look at it, but it takes more than visits by officials to put the fire out and move the material, some of which was never licensed to be where it is.

We have not left matters there. The Prime Minister wrote to me to say that he had instructed the Environment minister at Defrato call in the head of the Environment Agency to discuss the matter. In the same letter the Prime Minister says that the fire ‘should be completely extinguished shortly’, according to advice he has been given. I will believe that when I see it, but I welcome his continuing personal interest and will be pursuing him and other ministers until it is all dealt with.

Engaging the Prime Minister in this way is, in my experience, the best use of Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. The rest of this weekly half-hour resembles the activities of a particularly tribal and noisy football crowd.There have been quite a lot of letters in the national press lamenting this deeply discourteous and entirely pointless behaviour. Early in his premiership David Cameron indicated that he would like to change it.

Some hope. Having failed to quieten the baying mob, he seems to feel he has to give them the party rhetoric they want. But he did try again to raise the tone recently, and Ed Miliband had a go at taking the occasion more seriously last week. Unfortunately it did not last.

He began with a serious question acknowledging that the Coalition government had given good leadership to the international community in helping the vast numbers of refugees fleeing from civil war and torture in Syria.

The Government’s approach has been to direct help to the refugees in the camps in neighbouring countries to which they have fled. We are contributing more than almost any other country in the world. Labour were suggesting that we should also accept a quote of Syrian refugees to come to Britain, in addition to the many Syrian asylum seekers we have already accepted.

When David Cameron set out to explain why it made more sense to help large numbers in the camps than to admit a few to Britain, the Labour jeers began, and these were met by cheering and shouting from Conservatives.

The two parties were back to their old ways, despite the fact that serious issues had been raised by their leaders. Instead of a responsible discussion about a civil war in which 11,000 people have been tortured and murdered, we found ourselves watching what the Speaker labelled a Punch and Judy show – and that is a flattering description.

This sort of thing, which is largely confined to half an hour a week but gets most of the tv coverage, puts people off politics. It also conceals the vast amount of constructive work which goes on quietly in Parliament for the rest of the week. It is one feature of Commons life I will not miss when I retire next year.

Meanwhile, in more peaceful atmosphere of the Committee room, I had to deal with genuine and responsible disagreement among the members of the Justice Committee.

We have published a report into the Government’s plans for probation. These involve something which most people support, extending supervision to prisoners serving short sentences when they are released from prison.

At the moment they get no supervision at all, so it is no surprise that two thirds of them return to crime very quickly. The Labour government wanted to do something about it, but completely failed to find the money.

The Coalition plan to do it involves contracting out much of the probation service’s work to private sector, voluntary and mutual organisations, who will required to extend supervision to short sentence offenders.

Payment by results - cutting re-offending - will be part of the basis on which they are paid. High risk offenders and court work will remain in the public sector, and will be the responsibility of a new National Probation Service.

The Committee has taken evidence and analysed how the scheme intended to work, and what risks need to be foreseen and mitigated. We also recognise that there are continuing risks to the public in the present system because of the lack of provision for dealing with those most likely to re-offend.

In our report we set out some significant problems which face the new system. Government members of the Committee believe the scheme can go ahead and the problems can be dealt with; opposition members think it is too untried, should probably not be attempted and, if it is, should be tried out in some areas first.

Getting final agreement on the report proved difficult, despite the high level of agreement on its detailed contents. In the end one Conservative member voted against the report, one for it, and one abstained, while Labour and Plaid Cymru members voted for it.

As chairman, I only have a casting vote, which was not needed. It is the first time I have had a vote in the Committee on anything during this Parliament, but at least there was cross-party voting, in the best traditions of committee work.

Ministers will now be under an obligation to take notice of the issues we have raised and respond to our criticisms, as well as our demands for more information and more clarity. That is the sort of questioning, constructive challenge and careful analysis committees are there to provide.