Westminster View - July 2010
July. Tell us what laws you`d like scrapped. Help us police the streets. GPs can run the health service. Russian spies cannot live in Britain. A serious leak develops in America. (Will the Chief Executive resign?) Hairline cracks begin to appear in the coalition. Work will be made to pay-until you are well past 65. And you are not obese. You are Fat.
Saint Nicholas of Clogg wants to know what legislation we would like to see consigned to the parliamentary re-cycling bin. This idea is launched at the turn of the month and not surprisingly the government`s website crashes within minutes. Among the more printable of popular suggestions are the legalisation of drugs and prostitution, an end to the prohibition upon marriage with a horse, a repeal of the ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants, the scrapping of the Human Rights Act and the restoration of the Death Penalty. They really should have spotted this coming because there is “previous”. That well known meddler in everything, the British Broadcasting Corporation, in the form of the Today programme, once took it upon itself to “promote” a Private Members` Bill by public acclamation. The editors and their self-publicising “tame” Labour MP, discovered to their consternation that the great British public had voted overwhelmingly for a measure to allow householders to use whatever force might seem necessary, up to and including summary execution, to deter burglars. A squeamish Auntie and our friendly backbench toady found this prospect unpalatable and it was left to yours truly to introduce what became known as “The Tony Martin Bill” on the simple premise that if you don`t want to get shot then you shouldn`t go a-burgling. That effort went the same way that I suspect that Clogg`s consultation is likely to go.
Russian spies have been embedded and in-bedded in the United States. These “sleepers” have raised families and become fixtures in local communities while sending deep and dark State Secrets home to Ivan.. When caught, they quickly fess-up and are swapped in short order for some naughty Yanks that have, we learn, been incarcerated in whatever now stands in for the Lubianka. The prettiest young Russian with the distinctly un-Soviet name of Anna Chapman has, it transpires, been previously married to a Brit while “studying” in the UK and has a British passport. She thinks, she says, that she might like to come and live here. Pictures of her stripped of just about everything else having been published, our strict disciplinarian Home Secretary strips her of her passport as well. Tabloid editors are seen to be in tears.
Infiltration is the order of the day. Foreign Secretary Hague is keen to saturate Brussels with British Civil Servants in order to influence policy. That, sadly, will not work either. An EU spokesthing is quoted as saying that “British officials serving in Brussels are indistinguishable from their colleagues from elsewhere in the EU” and the spokesthing is correct. I recall a visit to the Belgian capital with the Home Affairs select committee to do battle over a “transfrontier broadcasting directive” designed to impose a quota of clog-dancing and lederhosen oompah bands upon our domestic television screens. When I remonstrated with our man from Whitehall, a senior cog in the relevant Commission wheel, and suggested that these vile continental practices were un-British and unwanted he rounded upon me sharply. “Mr Gale”, he said “just because I am speaking English you must not think of me as an Englishman”! Eurocrats, William, go native in about three weeks.
Chancellor George sits knitting quietly at the foot of the guillotine as Madam`s kiss rises and falls upon the bloated aristos of public spending.. The “spending challenges website” invites the mob to denounce projects as suitable for decapitation. Building Schools for the Future? “Off with his Head” and Citizen Gove terminates the programme. Primary Care Trusts and Regional Health Authorities? Thud. Citizen Lansley wields the axe. The Trident Nuclear Programme? If you want to buy her freedom, Citizen Fox, then you must pay the gaoler. We await with baited breath but there is, to date, no sign that the revolving door of quango Kings and Queens is yet ready to spit into the tumbrel those who move seamlessly from costly administrative failure to sinecures fresh while gathering other little earners along the way. Time will tell.
Cutting the fat out of the Health Service is no bad thing and I have long said that the Regional health Authorities have represented a completely redundant tier of management. Whether GPs on £106k a year while out-of-hours patients find themselves gravitating towards hospital A&E Departments can spare the time to take over service commissioning from Primary Care Trusts is, though, uncertain. Competence and language tests for those doctors and nurses coming to the UK from Eastern Europe have already been called into question and can we seriously see GPs unable to provide out of hours services ready to police the professional abilities of those employed within the local health economy? And if not, who will? I rather wonder.
Building Schools for the Future, superficially a Utopian project designed to renovate or rebuild every secondary school in the land, had become a by-word for profligacy and red-tape, a job-creation exercise for those in the relevant trades. Nevertheless, we are now left with schools that, anticipating demolition, have fallen into dreadful disrepair. Citizen Gove has made it plain that capital expenditure has not been brought to a grinding halt and he now has to demonstrate that there is a Plan B to ensure that children are not taught under literally leaking roofs.
Trident is a real problem. The Defence review may reveal that we do not need or cannot afford a nuclear deterrent at all, but that, in an increasingly uncertain World, is unlikely. Traditionally the Ministry of Defence has funded the maintenance of the weapons and delivery systems while the Treasury has funded the capital investment in nuclear submarines and missiles. If Chancellor George wishes to change this then he needs to be aware that other promises made in relation to the wellbeing and equipment of our armed forces will have to be broken. I would not wish to see a Conservative Chancellor go down in ignominious history alongside his Labour predecessors as ever-ready to fight to the last drop of somebody else`s blood while sending them into battle ill-equipped.
The French vote to ban the wearing of the Burkha (strictly speaking the Naqib), likely to be emulated in other progressive European democracies, is one of those dog-whistle issues that, like the creation of Women Bishops, unites the population of the saloon bar and London taxi drivers in instant opinion. (“I had that Mullah in the back of the cab last night. I said I`m not having any bloody woman in here if I can`t see her face: “she” might be a bloke carrying a suicide bomb”) I do not always share the views of my friend and fellow Kent MP the Home Office Minister, Damian Green. Damian comes from the damper, or in his words more humane, wing of the Conservative party while I am regarded as rather to the right of Genghis Khan. On this, however, we are in harmony. The British, outside of the Labour party, are not natural regulators and while the Burkha may, in some minds, have connotations of oppression, people surely ought to be allowed freedom of choice. (I am not a fan of men in skirts either, but I would not legislate to prevent a Scotsman from wearing a kilt!) More seriously, this should not be a matter of religion but a matter of security and here my friendly taxi-driver has a point. If it is not permissible, on security grounds, for a person wearing a motor cycle helmet to enter a bank then surely all customers – and this must apply to airlines and taxis and other public services as well – should be identifiable on sight. Unfortunately it is an issue that brings out the absolute worst in some.
Talking of which, Her Maj made it be known that the BNP Member of the European Parliament, one Nicholas Griffin, would not, after all, be welcome at one`s Buck House Garden Party . The caricature had toured the studios in his morning suit announcing that he was “going to have tea with the Queen” and the palace accordingly withdrew his invitation on the grounds that he was using it for party-political purposes. All dressed up and he missed the booted Guards. Shame.
The Queen has had a busy month. The trip to Canada demonstrated that the real thing is still recognised and loved and her visit to the American Colony and first audience at the United Nations for 53 years went down rather well also, don`t you think. Her Maj must sometimes wonder, though, whether or not she can ever do anything right. The poor woman has rented a boat, the 30-berth “Hebridean Princess”, at her own expense, to take a summer holiday cruising her beloved Highlands and Islands with true friends for companionship, and who should say why, at her age, she should not do so? It transpires, however, that the security for this modest voyage will cost a million pounds (or something on a par with “protecting” The Legacy and Mrs. Blair) because it involves, amongst other toys, the presence of a warship. At this point you would expect, and you would not be disappointed, that an unelected goon from that unrepresentative and curiously funded body The Taxpayers` Alliance would pop up in the same tedious tabloid newspaper to say that in the present economic climate the Queen should be saving money. Setting aside the fact that if the Government had not, in 1997, scrapped the Royal Yacht and that the resultant attendant warship will be on a training exercise, there are still those of us who do have an electoral mandate and who feel that the Queen represents incredible value for money for UK limited and earns every penny that she “costs”.
And a million pounds is about what the BBC has spent on the bonuses that it said it was not going to award this year.
The Bonkers Broadcasting Company has announced that it will be spending 13% less on new programming. In the wake of the new Culture Secretary`s indication that, like all other public bodies, the BBC will face cuts another unelected self-opinionated organisation known as “38 degrees”, is currently inciting our constituents to send us a pre-drafted and unoriginal letter demanding that we tell them how we are going to save the BBC from reductions in spending and in that media poll-tax known as the licence fee. This, my friends, is the same BBC which has spent some £900 million of fee-payers money creating a new production centre in Salford Quay, Manchester, to remove the metro-centric flavour of the Corporation. The exchanging of one costly metro-centre for another just so that Radio Five and some children`s programmes can come from Salford instead of from White City (and how do you tell that on the screen?) is, as I said to Michael Grade when he was running the show before departing for ITV, a wasteful nonsense. Add to that the fact that the arch-proponent of this scandalous waste of money that has interfered with the domestic lives of scores of other Beeb employees, BBC North Director, Peter Salmon, has announced that he himself does not wish or intend to move his home to Manchester and you get the feeling that `38 Degrees` (which is the angle at which, if you push something it is supposed to topple over) might just be batting on a wicket that the Daily Mail dial-a-quotes of the Taxpayer`s Alliance might just not share! Perhaps, as an afterthought, the Director General could either (a) resign or take a cut in salary himself and (b) request a percentage of the royalties of the published works of Alastair Campbell, Cherie Blair and Mr. Meddlesome that they have so assiduously promoted.
My! Hasn`t it been a busy month. In the Gulf of Mexico BP would seem to have plugged the oil leak that has caused pollution to the shores of the Southern States. This prompts the President, Borat O`Bama, to recognise what describes as “a positive sign”. No word from him, though, of any measures that his country might yet take to clean up the various costly messes that US companies have left in India and around the World. Perhaps Borat has been preoccupied with the blow-out and massive leak of 91 thousand American military documents through Wikileaks and the Guardian and other newspapers. As we know from The President`s desire to hold people to account and “kick ass” and from the Replacement of BPs Tony Hayward with a Mississippi-born American called Bo Dudley, it is the Chief Executive who must carry the can. So, Mr. President, how much have you put into escrow to pay for the damages that will be claimed by the families of those who will lose their lives as a result of the leaks that have taken place on your watch? And will you fall on your sword or will you leave it to the American people to commence the coup de grace at the forthcoming elections and in the light of your plummeting ratings. As I said last month, pots and kettles spring to mind.
It is not surprising, given the boorish behaviour of some American Committee Members during their interrogation of BP representatives, that the former Justice Minister Jack Straw, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and his own Justice Minister have declined an invitation to give evidence in connection with what many regard as the premature release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Al Meghrabi. Just perhaps, the Great American Public, will realise that their elected representatives do not, by grandstanding for the benefit of their very parochial media, serve the cause of truth, justice or their constituents well and will also vote accordingly when the time comes.
Something happens to politicians when we go abroad. I don`t know whether it is the jet-lag or the in-flight alcohol that fries our brains but we all become gaffe-prone.
Man David started off rather well. On his first visit to the USA as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he commendably indicated a desire to see a “close but not slavish” relationship with our American cousins . This bond he described as “essential” but he backed that up with a determination to bring about an “end to the fixation with the special relationship” and the substitution of a “hard-headed day-to-day alliance”. And he presented the Obamas with sensible Hunter wellies. Then he went and spoilt it all by getting his history wrong, and announcing, as though the Budweiser had gone to his head, that “we were the junior partners in 1940”. And he managed to do that as, back at home, we were recognising the anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the sacrifice of young lives over the skies of Kent. In one fell swoop he offended the veterans of Dunkirk, the Friends of The Few and the survivors of The Blitz, all of whom remember the Americans, chiefly, at that time, for some costly support that it took us years to pay off.
I think that it would, on balance, be better if Prime Ministers left Foreign policy to Foreign Ministers and if they, in turn, heeded the advice of the most senior professionals of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I know that it is fashionable to deride the mandarins of the F&CO as spoiled buffoons over-exposed to sun and servants but I don`t subscribe to that view. With some dishonourable exceptions they know what they are doing and (save, sometimes, for what goes on in Brussels) they do it very well. The Legacy blundered around the World with his consort like some two-bit dictator and I would not want to see our young Prime Minister head for the same elephant traps. Not everyone is enamoured of the Turkish occupation of the northern part of Cyprus; many recognise that Israel, while sometimes excessive in her zeal, faces very real threats from very real enemies; and while it is certainly right that India is a proud and rapidly developing democracy as well as an economic opportunity, the British legacy in the Asian sub-continent is, on balance, on the credit side as it is in much of the rest of the world. Can it, either, be clever, to weaken the hand of those trying to maintain law and order and stability in Pakistan? Saying what you think is admirable – but not at any price.
My duty is in part to report private grief and while Man David was strutting his stuff across the continents it was left to The Clogg to act as night watchman at the Despatch Box. Oh dear! I had to observe this on television from my wheelchair and, not caring for bloodsports, it made me wince. To say, as the Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition, that the Iraq war was illegal, whatever your party`s former line, was not wise. And to announce “closure” of the Yarls Wood detention centre, only to have that smartly countermanded by the Home Secretary, was careless and demonstrated an arrogant lack of briefing. So it`s not only the stratospheric influence of foreign travel that generates foot-in-mouth disease!
A degree of turbulence as the summer parliamentary session and the month draw to a close. The publication of the Alternative Vote bill and associated measures relating to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons generate heat on the Conservative back benches. It is the Old Knuckleduster, David Davis, who uses a speech in the Boot and Flogger public house to refer to the “Brokeback coalition” and to indicate that a Big Society, the Prime Minister`s pre-election dream, must depend upon a Smaller State. The “Brokeback Group” as it is now known, represents serious parliamentary opposition to the AV Bill and to the permanent state of coalition government that a successful referendum could precipitate. When heavyweights such as John Redwood and the hugely respected former Tory Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, make common cause then it is clear that the whips are going to have to use every black art in the book to get this through. And if the bill falls, what price the support of the LibDems within the coalition? BBC Correspondent Nick Robinson, in a highly professional examination of events following the election and leading up to the creation of the coalition, has sown seeds of great doubt and mischief. Did Clegg mislead Cameron and did Cameron fall for that deception? Did Cameron mislead the Conservative backbench to con the parliamentary party into reluctantly supporting a coalition based upon a promised referendum? Or did Brown really offer Clegg a deal based upon a total commitment to AV? Several juries are already considering a variety of verdicts!
There is also rough air surrounding the proclamation, made by the millionaire eco-warrior and Energy Secretary, Mr. Huhne, to the effect that we must plough more resources into the development of the offshore and onshore wind-energy industry at the expense of investment in a new generation of nuclear power stations. With one windfarm already in operation off Herne Bay in my constituency and with the Thanet Windfarm, off the North Foreland and the London Array destined for the Thames Estuary I am a wholly committed supported of offshore windfarms notwithstanding their inherent inefficiencies. I want to see the development of a strong United Kingdom wind energy business.
That said, only a raving lunatic or a doctrinaire anti-nuclear campaigner would subscribe to the view that wind energy will begin to meet our renewable energy needs for the future. It is clear that only a combination of clean coal-fired plant, gas, wind, nuclear and probably hydro electric (including tidal) power will keep the lights on in our hospitals and industry. Time for Mr. Huhne to grow up or move over. A working coalition cannot afford the luxury of permanent opposition affectations in government.
Her Majesty`s loyal Opposition, while kicking at a number of potentially open goals, keeps hitting the woodwork and is scoring low. Those benches are riven with the Leadership election that was bequeathed to them by the Clunking Fist prior to his departure from Downing Street. It is widely assumed that the contest will be between the Milipede Bothers with the arrogant Little Organ Grinder and former Foreign Secretary losing ground to his more likeable, more able and younger brother Ed. On the outside rails Andy Burnham is emerging as more as a class warrior (“I have done a real job and the Milipedes have not”) while Ed Balls appears isolated on the far left and Diane Abbot is marooned somewhere in outer political space. A curious dream ticket between the two Eds, Milipede and Balls, might just give not only the elder Miliperson but, much more important, the Coalition, a serious run for money.
And so, finally, to what may yet prove to be the most far-reaching, the most profound and the most important of this government`s initiatives – the 21st Century Welfare paper. Iain Duncan Smith, having been dumped as Leader of the Conservative Party, has spent the intervening years not only devoting time and attention to his wife, Betsy in her own need but has also produced the “Broken Britain” reports and has now, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, generated a series of proposals for the total reform and rolling back of the Benefit culture that, if seen through, will radically transform society for the better. Iain`s five options embrace, in place of the myriad of current benefits, (1) a Universal Credit, (2) a single unified taper, (3) a single working-age benefit, (4) a single family allowance or (5) a negative income tax.
What goes around comes around. In the 1960`s Tony “The Demon” Barber suggested negative income tax. His principle was that you feed all of the details and numbers into a system that then either takes money from you (income tax) or pays you money (negative income tax). Of course in those days it would have required a computer the size of the moon to have handled that number of transactions for the entire population. Now, you could practically do the job on a Blackberry. Iain. As the natural heir to Tony Barber`s dream, your day ought to have come.
Teachers in Gloucestershire have taken to photographing pupils` lunchboxes to glean evidence of politically incorrect food consumption. While Dulwich Council, throws the book at parents who allow their children aged 5 and eight to cycle unaccompanied to school in neighbouring Southwark the Council is battling against students cycling on the pavements and is trying to drive them onto the main roads. In Loughborough a Father is turned away from a school sports day because, while wishing to observe his own son, he does not possess an appropriate CRB check to permit him to watch others.
In school holidays, Portsmouth has required a Punch and Judy Professor to modify his act and to use a fluffy mop instead of the traditional slapstick! Baby-throwing is also barred because, as the Commercial Manager of the Spinnaker Tower has opined, “some people could be offended”. The Famous Five books have been updated to ensure that “quaint” terms may be understood by today`s juvenile illiterates. So “Mother and Father” are replaced with “Mum and Dad”. (Civil partnerships? Don`t even go there!)
Lynne Featherstone, the coalition Equalities Minister, announces that women should aspire to Size 14 figures. Quite what this has to do with “equalities” I am not sure. Meanwhile Marks and Spencer’s are introducing size 18 uniforms for “bigger students” and a supersize for overweight toddlers whose doting parents feed them on junk food and transport them everywhere in the family 4x4. The European Union spends 11 million pounds on research to demonstrate that “fruit is healthy” and to create a European Superhero under the auspices of the “ISA fruit project” called, in Scottish, “Mr. Fruitness”. This process has taken four years. In about 45 seconds the former nurse, Member of Parliament and Conservative Public Health Minister Anne Milton says it is time to stop calling people “obese” and to tell it like it is. They are fat!
Havering council bans a children`s inflatable paddling pool from the green outside a tower block on the grounds that it presents a fire risk. Islington advertises for a Recreational Walking co-ordinator” and Lewisham wants a “Community Engagement Apprentice”. Somali Asylum seekers are accommodated in a £2million Kensington Town House at a rent of £8 thousand a month because they didn’t like living in “the poorer part of the city”. And if we fail to fly the EU flag or place appropriate EU plaques on projects and buildings funded by the money that we gave to the European Union in the first place then Great Britain faces fines of up to £150 million – or whatever that is at today`s rate in euros.
Congratulations to Chelsea Clinton, or Mrs. Marc Mezvinsky as we must now learn to know and love her. A £3.2 million wedding which included a £7.000 cake catering for some 500 close friends delivered the bride to marital bliss. The event – and the guest list – attracted huge attention because, as one dress designer, who has clearly clothed a lot of Queens, breathlessly told his viewing audience “You see, we don`t really have a Royal family in America.” Now whose fault`s that!