Andy McSmith's Diary: Zero tolerance? Contracts show MPs may want to put their House in order

Our Man in Westminster
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One of the last debates held in the Commons before the summer recess was about the spread of zero hours contracts, under which the worker is on call but is guaranteed no minimum hours or minimum pay. It was a one-sided affair, because every speaker but one was a Labour MP.

Lisa Nandy told the story of one working mother on zero hours who was allegedly threatened that if she did not take work offered at short notice, there would be no more offers. “She had two children, so she had to take them with her on a series of shifts lasting more than eight hours. The young children had to sit locked in the car for most of that time. The firm did not even factor in a lunch break,” Nandy claimed

The only speaker defending these contracts was the Liberal Democrat, Jo Swinson, whose job was to reply in behalf of the government. She argued that the flexibility of these contracts often suited employer and employee, though she agreed that that the system can be abused.

But if MPs really want to reverse the alarming spread of zero hour contracts, the place to start is closest to home. It has long been suspected that a growing number of Parliament's lowest paid staff are on zero hours contracts, but the figures to back that up have emerged for the first time in reply to a written question from the Labour MP Chris Ruane. Ten years ago, there were 18 parliamentary staff on these contracts. When Labour left office six years later, in 2010, there were 73. During 2012-13, there were 163.

On Monday, the House of Commons Commission meets, with the Speaker, John Bercow, in the chair. Perhaps they might like to give this questionable employment practice some thought.

Don’t mention the war Boris because (unlike Russell Brand) you really don’t know the facts

Russell Brand has, just this once, shown better political judgement than Boris Johnson. The comic's latest escapade, which was all over the front page of today's Sun, was to make a quip during an award ceremony about the Nazi links of one of the evening's commercial sponsors, the fashion house Hugo Boss.

Boris Johnson's gaffe was to tell Channel 4, on the same evening: “In the theatre of war, as far as I can remember, and I stand to be corrected on this, I don't believe that even the Nazis used chemical weapons.”

Britain's political class does not know what to do about the Syrian catastrophe, and that contribution from London's Mayor is no help. It breaches a very useful general rule that in any political argument, the first person to mention Hitler or the Nazis has lost. Boris Johnson's claim works only if it is accepted that an extermination camp is not a 'theatre of war' and a gas chamber is not a 'weapon' - two very dubious and implicitly offensive suppositions.

Russell Brand's historical research was faultless. Hugo Boss, founder of the fashion house that bears his name, was a member of the Nazi Party, and was from 1933 a supplier of Nazi uniforms. No doubt the current management hate to be reminded of this truth, but it escapes me why the rest of us should be offended.

A Prince among the lobbyists…

Possibly the only good thing that can be said for the government's iniquitous lobbying bill is that it produced this priceless Commons exchange earlier in the week (which I missed at the time: my thanks to Dr David Lowry for pointing it out). “One of the most reliable and enthusiastic lobbyists in the country,” said the Labour MP Paul Flynn, “has had 53 meetings with Ministers in this Parliament, including 35 meetings with members of the Cabinet, to lobby for some sensible causes, some eccentric causes and some barmy causes. Should we not put this most influential lobbyist, Prince Charles, into the orbit of the Bill?”

To which Jacob Rees-Mogg, that adornment of the Tory backbenches, replied: “Compared to some princes of Wales we have had in the past, how fortunate-how blessed-is this nation to have one who does his duty so diligently. I am glad that he does, and I think we can admire His Royal Highness for that.”

MP goes to bat for young George

When MPs assemble on Monday, top of their agenda will that “the Prime Minister will propose an humble address and message on the occasion of the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.” But a humble address is not enough to satisfy some of them. Sir Tony Baldry, a Tory MP born in the reign of George VI, wants a whip round so that they can give the royal babe a “decent” christening present, such as “a really good cricket bat”. The Speaker, John Bercow, suggested a tennis racket. Obviously, the lad himself will not be able to afford to buy this sort of kit, with only the Civil List and his grandfather's and great grandmother's millions to live off.

Polo: a mallet to break down walls

While Stephen Fry calls in vain for a boycott of the 2014 winter Olympics in Moscow because of the Russian government's ill treatment of gays, on Saturday the Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club, in Moscow, will be the venue for Russia's first ever British Polo Day. “You might not expect the Russian capital to be a natural backdrop for British polo but actually there is huge interest from Muscovites,” says the organizer, Edward Olver. If they had tried that in Margaret Thatcher's day, she would have exploded.