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Good morning. It’s Budget day, which means that I will appear in your inboxes twice! The biggest news of the day, I’m sure you would agree. My colleague Jennifer Williams has a great scoop on Jeremy Hunt’s announcement, about which I have a number of fogeyish opinions in this morning’s note.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected]
Whitehall giveth, and it taketh away
Andy Burnham and Andy Street, the respective metro mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands combined authorities, will be handed a fixed pot of money, like a government department, with more flexibility in how they spend it. This devolution deal granting greater powers to the directly elected mayors is set to be announced in Jeremy Hunt’s Budget today.
But, as Jennifer Williams reveals, it will come with a new layer of scrutiny attached: they will have to attend quarterly select committee-style grillings by local MPs.
The new oversight mechanism placates two groups, as Jennifer explains in greater detail in this Twitter thread. On the one hand, Conservative MPs in the Greater Manchester conurbation are not sold on giving more power to Burnham, a Labour mayor. On the other, Whitehall officials are not keen on handing over more money and more power to local government full stop. So it works for both parties.
Except, uh . . . does it? The House of Commons has not been particularly adept at exercising its scrutinising functions. I think both Conservative MPs and government officials are kidding themselves if they think that restricting the pool of scrutinisers to the Greater Manchester area or to the conurbation surrounding Birmingham is going to result in robust scrutiny of either Andy Burnham or Andy Street.
Scrutinising local government — and indeed, scrutinising central government — is a core part of all MPs’ jobs. Yes, Chris Green, the Conservative MP for Bolton West and Atherton, has a particular reason to scrutinise what happens in Greater Manchester, but as an MP in our national parliament it is also part of his job to care about what happens in Tower Hamlets, or Staffordshire, or indeed in Scotland and Wales.
It would be better to just give regular select committees more power: to be able to compel people to attend and give evidence, for instance. Or to extend parliamentary privilege to the devolved parliaments so that members can speak more freely and become more effective scrutinisers, and so forth, rather than have a quasi-select committee with a geographically constrained membership. When you consider that after the next election these talking shops are likely to be even more Labour-dominated than they are now, you have to ask yourself what anyone thinks the point of them will be.
We talk a lot about a devolution dividend in terms of improving decision-making by moving it closer to people, and that is true. Some things are done better by local government; the metro-mayors are often better at delivering local bus routes, public toilets and skilling up the local workforce. But the other devolution dividend is that, by not having to sweat where exactly in Wolverhampton gets a new loo, central government and backbench MPs can think about other things. Such as the challenge of AI. Or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Or climate change. Or the UK’s sluggish growth. Notice how “spending an hour or two every quarter asking your metro-mayor pointed questions” is not on the list?
One frankly corrosive feature of British politics is the pressure on MPs to become super-councillors: to focus on local issues all the time at the expense of scrutinising government and legislation. The last thing we need is another mechanism pushing MPs to be more parochial and less focused on the machinery of government.
Now try this
I saw Joyland last night. It is a very, very, very, very, very good film that explores love, desire, sexuality, marriage and the human condition with grace and poise through the story of a Lahore family. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Danny Leigh’s review is here.
Top stories today
Energy bill support extended to June | The Energy Price Guarantee, which caps typical energy bills at £2,500, will continue from April to June, saving a typical household £160 during the three months, the Treasury confirmed today.
‘Full expensing’ to replace outgoing super-deduction | Government officials say Jeremy Hunt will announce a new multibillion-pound regime of capital allowances and other reforms intended to boost investment — and to offset other tax changes taking effect in April that will hit business.
£4bn boost for childcare | A £4bn expansion of free childcare for one- and two-year-olds in England is expected to be announced in the budget today as part of a wider drive to help people into work and boost growth, the Guardian was first to report.
Donaldson calls for Windsor changes | The leader of Northern Ireland’s main unionist party has called for “further clarification, reworking and change” to the new post-Brexit trade deal for the region agreed by London and Brussels after months of wrangling.
High-flying entrepreneur brought low by Wirecard links | After years of hiding from public sight, a hard-partying Englishman alleged to be central to the Wirecard fraud is about to be forced into the limelight by a criminal case in Singapore.