Gale's View from Westminster - June 2013
June. Shock! Horror! Spies spy, Lobbyists lobby and Ed Balls is still in denial over Labour`s Great British Bankruptcy on his watch. Care Quality Chaos, the G8 talks a lot and says very little, The Guides drop God, The Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid will starve rather than eat “Frankenfood” , Chancellor “Jeffrey” Osborne takes an axe to welfare and it`s Arise! Sir Blackadder as Labour`s Luvvie-in-Chief bends a knee towards The Establishment.
“Lobbying will be the next big scandal” says Man David. No, not “will be”, Dave, but “is”. A Daily Torygraph (“Yesterday`s News Tomorrow”) and Salford Broadcasting co-produced “sting” reveals that, in a re-write of the 1994 “cash for questions” scandal a clutch (or should that be “a grasp”) of Members of both Houses of Parliament are still feathering nest-eggs on the back of privileged position. This causes one of m `colleagues to announce that he will not be seeking re-election and another of my (millionaire) colleagues to re-launch a campaign to give the electorate the power to “re-call” MPs whose conduct they disapprove of – such as, presumably, campaigning against the democratically chosen Leadership of any particular political party. So where do we draw the line? It is, apparently, perfectly in order for national businesses – sorry, `charities` - to provide the Secretariat for “All-Party Groups” and to use MPs to `sponsor` lavish receptions on the Terrace of The House in pursuit of the promotion of their highly politically-motivated interests; it is okay for some industries to cultivate the support of Honourable Members via generous hospitality and the occasional `fact-finding` mission to Wimbledon, Ascot, the FA Cup Final, and even( don`t mention Fiji) Foreign Parts, but it is improper, since the Witch finding attention of the Nolan era, for MPs to engage in properly declared interests as consultants. Mr. Speaker Bercow is moved to instigate the withdrawal of no less that eighty of the two hundred Palace of Westminster passes issued by Members of the Lords and Commons and held by lobbyists. Will the passes held by phoney `journalists` be next and can we expect a purge of the parliamentary privileges of the Press? I doubt it! Curiously, though, solicitors and barristers are, almost alone amongst the professions, still permitted to earn a crust while drawing their parliamentary salaries.
Or they were, until the proposal to limit the dispensation of legal aid found itself flying from the parliamentary flagpole. Mr. Secretary Grayling, who in addition to his role as Justice supremo twin-hats as Lord Chancellor, has intimated that a few of our two billion quidsworth of boodle spent on Immigration and Asylum cases and the like will be denied to M `Learned Friends specialising in this hitherto lucrative business. Astonishingly, I hear you say, this proposition is roundly attacked by entirely disinterested and altruistic Judges, the Civil Justice Board, and the Strasbourg-based ECHR whose very existence is “improving the understanding of common principles developed in case law” while, coincidentally, providing a comfortable living, at UK taxpayers` expense, for lawyers defending the `Human Rights` of people who, in most other countries of the World would have long since been deported and in a few of those countries almost certainly executed. Who needs a lobbyist when you have the combined might of the lawyers` trades unions acting on your behalf?
Gay marriage is grinding, if that is not an indelicate way of putting it, its way through the House of Lords. Forty-three religious leaders, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, have written to the Prime Minister to tell him that his proposals will lead to “injustice and unfairness” and that “marriage between a man and a woman is the fundamental building block of society”. In the transient pre-fab world of today`s politics it`s not clear that cornerstones and building blocks, of the kind of which cathedrals were once constructed, have much place. Nevertheless, the Faith Minister, Baroness Warsi, votes against the bill, the Archbishop of Canterbury tells Their Lordships that gay `marriage` will diminish the institution and weaken the family and there are real concerns that Her Maj may, as Head of the Church of England, find her position compromised if she is required constitutionally to give the Royal Assent to the legislation in whatever form it finally emerges from the Upper House. Meanwhile, down at the common(s) end of the Palace proposals to hold gay “marriages” in the Chapel of St. Mary Under Croft (the “Crypt Chapel”) appear to find favour with Mr. Speaker Bercow who gives a gesture towards the site of the first religious establishment upon what was once the Island of Westminster being transformed into a “multi-faith area”. Happily, at least for the moment, the control over the Royal Peculiar of The Chapel lies under the watchful eye of Black Rod, Sir David Leakey and I suspect that hell will freeze over before Rod gives the nod. The Crypt Chapel is, arguably, one of the most beautiful of the hidden treasures of the Palace of Westminster. It has survived much abuse and has been restored to be used ecumenically for regular worship and also for the marriage and baptism of Members of both Houses and their close families. Those who seek to argue that “gay marriages are a civil union that will not be imposed upon the churches, mosques and temples of England” would do well to take heed of the less-than-hidden agenda of those militant homosexuals who seek to carry their interpretation of “equality” to the very heart of faith.
This month, Labour`s re-positioning on the economy. Next month, how to nail jelly to the ceiling. In “tough on spending” speeches the Leader of The Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor seek to set out new stalls. Milipede the Younger backs limits on benefits. Balls agrees to a cap on public spending. This from a party that has consistently opposed the cuts in welfare spending that are now, outside of Westminster, accepted by a majority of taxpaying workers as being necessary, desirable and inevitable. Balls` assertion that We (the last Labour Government) didn`t run up too much debt” casts a little doubt on the economic credibility of the Opposition`s new rhetoric, notwithstanding his freshly discovered willingness to put a lid on State pensions, and the press views this pre-spending-review attempt at `iron discipline` as “policy light”. Which, of course, it is.
The news that the Prime Minister “works in his pyjamas” first thing in the morning borders on too much information. The clarification that he does not actually wear pyjamas at all crosses, I think, the red line of taste and decency and one can only hope that Chancellor George, wandering through the pass door between Number Eleven and Number Ten aft an all-night session on the economy, is not too horrified by the prospect of stumbling across the First Lord of the Treasury in the buff. Not surprising, perhaps, that the Nation`s most famous feline, Larry seeks refuge in the police room while the Chancellor`s own cat, Freya, heads off down Whitehall to the Foreign Office . But back to the Spending Review. After a bruising round of negotiations with spending Ministers and some right-to-the-wire discussions with St. Vincent of Cable (Business and Industry) and Commander Hammond (Defence), Chancellor George finds himself at the Despatch Box announcing some eleven billion pounds` worth of public spending cuts. Pick your own headlines. “War on Welfare” fits the bill. There will, excluding the State Pension, be a cap on benefits and claimants will have to learn to speak English. A three billion pound `joint budget`, designed to improve healthcare and residential provision for the elderly, will be shared between the Health Department and Local Councils – which sounds remarkably like robbing Health service Peter to prop up impoverished Local Government Paul. Council tax frozen for another three years, of course. Another eighteen billion of money saved from elsewhere to be ploughed into road and rail infrastructure which sounds good but, with the bill for High Speed Two rising like an Olympic stadium (currently £42 billion but next week who knows?), may not go very far.
And although the incoming Governor of the Bank of England, Mark “Mountie” Carney, is predicting interest rate rises, the really good news is that the `double-dip recession` did not happen and growth is back on the agenda.
All of this looks likely, though, to leave a hundred thousand or so ex-pat UK citizens without a winter fuel allowance that is worth up to £300 a couple. Quite how this is going to be made to work is beyond my grasp of climate control. The theory is that `regions` with a higher average winter temperature than the warmest UK regions will forfeit winter fuel payments. This is based, of course, upon the thesis that ex-pat UK citizens are all rich, idle, spend their days lying in the winter sun and drinking G&T and do not need the modest sum hitherto available to help to pay winter fuel bills. The facts, of course, are rather different. As I know from my own overseas mailbag many retired UK citizens, having worked and paid UK taxes throughout their lives and in some cases still paying tax in Britain, are now elderly, infirm, living in genteel poverty and are feeling the cold. (My wife and I spent Whitsun, up to June 1st, in mid-France and had a wood burning stove burning day and night throughout the entire break!) I can see this policy being laid wide open to challenge in the Courts. Is Bournemouth, for example, colder than Finisterre? And, if so, during what period of time? I used to be a staunch supporter of our overseas aid policy, believing, I hope with compassion, that as still one of the strongest economies in the world we ought to be able to help the poorest people upon earth. I now feel that if money is tight then our own ex-pat retirees, having paid their dues, are more deserving of financial support than countries that can build rockets, engage in space programmes and develop nuclear capabilities. And, while we`re on the subject of assistance to ex-pats it`s surely time that our overseas pensioners were given a fair deal on pension uprating in those countries where we do not have a reciprocal agreement.
“Meltdown” is an emotive expression but it comes pretty close to describing the performance of the 111 non-emergency medical service. Faced with long delays and an inability to get satisfactory responses those with ailments are taking themselves off to hospital A&E units in droves. I gather the result is pretty commonplace but certainly in my own local hospital patients have found themselves stacked up in CDU beds because of lack of space. The hospital is clogged up with, I suspect, a lot of people who have no need to be there . Still on the healthcare front the Conservative MP Anne MacIntosh and Health Minister Anna Soubry have ruffled a few feathers by daring to assert that job-sharing women GPs are `a burden on the NHS`. The choice of words may have been less than diplomatic but it surely has to be the case that if it is necessary to train two people to do one job than that is, indeed, an additional and unwelcome cost.
Women are making the news at Broadcasting House, also, where the burning question of the day is “Will the new Dr. Who be black, or a woman, or both”? Of less apparent important is the painful issue of the “Don`t Mention It” saga. It seems that the Chairman of the Trustees, Fat Pang, was told a year ago that somewhere in the region of £100 million of license-fee payers` money was going down the swannee on the abortive Digital Media Initiative project. The person who is really in the firing line – or who would be if he had not already passed “ go” and paddled off across the Atlantic with pockets stuffed full of pension fund – is the former Director General, Mark Thompson. Mr. Thompson, it is alleged, misled a Commons select committee when he told MPs that “DMI is already working”. The next time he lands on British soil either Margaret Hodge (Public Accounts) or John Whittingdale (Media) may have some further questions that they wish to put to the illustrious editor of the New York Times. And while they`ve got him in the witness box they might wish to ask him why the budget for the rebuilding of “New Broadcasting House” was allowed to run so seriously over budget. Ah well. It`s only other people`s money.
The Public Accounts Committee is also less than happy with the evidence offered by the outgoing boss of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, relating to the gagging of `whistleblowers`. Small comfort to those who lost children in the Morecambe Bay and Staffordshire hospital deaths cover-up. “Disingenuous” is the word that springs to mind. Of course, a great deal of anguish and malpractice might have been avoided had the regulatory bodies, now enshrined in the grim Care Calamity Commission hitherto presided over by one Cynthia Bower, had not been asleep at the wheel. The ex-CEO and her deputy and, of course, the former Health Secretary Pandy Andy Burnham, on whose watch much of the tragedy unravelled, are customarily to take any responsibility for the failings that have caused so much grief. It is left to the present holder of the Health Secretary`s badge of office, Jeremy Hunt, to pick up the pieces. With considerable candour Mr. Hunt has conceded that he “cannot guarantee” that Health authorities will always tell the truth in the future. There are those who feel that, even under new management, the CQC is holed below the waterline but it may prove to be better to let the existing machinery grind on after a re-bore and service that to reinvest a square wheel.
The domestic storm brewing over Arms for Syria rolled over neatly into the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. At home it became clear that a significant number of Ministers as well as a large number of Conservative backbenchers are deeply unhappy at even the prospect of supplying weapons to rebels who may, eventually, turn out to be still more oppressive than Assad`s regime. At the very least, it is argued, there ought to be a UN resolution before we blunder into yet another US/UK overseas co-production. Russia, of course, is selling fighter jets to Assad in a determined effort to protect Soviet – sorry, “Federation” – access to the Mediterranean but Vlad The KGB Putin did not grasp the hypocrisy of his position during a chilly visit to Downing Street on his way to the Emerald Isle. Entering Number Ten via the back door in order to avoid the protesters outside the reinforced gates the statement from the Leader of the post-Soviet world`s rambling comments about “arming fanatics who eat the organs of their enemies “ was not a little bizarre. Something may have been lost in the translation, of course. Don`t tell me that an ex KGB officer does not speak English but Vlad was wearing very ostentatious headphones to receive simultaneous interpretation. Man David, on the other hand, appeared to take the press conference in his stride without the aid of technology unless, of course, there was a discreet earpiece on the side away from the camera. With or without translation, however, the body language was frosty. Over on the shores of Lough Erne The US, Canada, Japan, France and Italy joined the UK in opposition to the position being taken by Putin but even in the presence of European Commissioner Barrosso , Mr Van Rumpy Pumpy and the inevitable forty-five journalists from the Salford Broadcasting Corporation you have to be left wondering whether Putin even noticed that he was in a minority of one. What was noticed, of course, was that Borat O`Bama kept referring to Chancellor George, throughout the meeting, as “Jeffrey”. This it transpires was a confusion between our Chancellor of the Exchequer`s surname and an American recording artist for who Borat has a liking. A lesser man might have been mildly put out but our Chancellor seems to have turned the embarrassment to good personal advantage. A caution, though: resist the temptation to engage in the offered duet with the American songster!
Why are we surprised that spies engage in espionage? Is that not what they are paid to do? The departure of Edward Snowden, a CIA cyber-wonk, from America and his appearance, clutching a fistful of embarrassing hard drives, in Hong Kong has sent shockwaves through the murky world of spooks. The US has been spying on Americans, it seems, as well as on its allies and, occasionally, on “hostile regimes”. On the basis that the real enemy is within or behind you that seems to me to be possibly shocking to those law-abiding citizens who daily salute the star-spangled banner or the Union flag, but scarcely a great revelation. William Hague found occasion to remind the House of Commons that the boys and girls in the bunker at GCHQ “stopped an Olympic bomb”. That claim, of course, is impossible to either contradict or to justify. Tearing up newspaper and throwing it out of a railway train window to keep the elephants at bay and then claiming that “there are no elephants” as a justification for the effectiveness of this eccentricity is facile but the fact that nothing went bang during the London games must say something for the diligence of our security services. Bless them. Anyway, the aforesaid Edward Snowden, having had his cause espoused by that dreadful suicide-blond Mr. Julian Assange in a manner that has probably done him untold harm, has been transformed from the World`s most wanted man to the world`s most unwanted man. At the time of writing he has moved from China to Russia and is still holed up in Moscow airport. Anyone who has visited the spiritual home of Aeroflot will know that it will only be a matter of time before he is begging the United States to take him home and put him on trial for the theft of a hard drive.
June began with the anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and, therefore, an opportunity to remind us all that there was a time when we gathered in our thousands in the pouring London rain and waved soggy union flags to cheer Her newly-crowned Maj to the rafters. Those unable to make it to the capital clustered round one of the very few huge mahogany cabinets encasing a tiny black-and-white screen to watch the spectacle under the guiding commentary of Mr. Richard Dimbleby. That, of course, was in the days when Great Britain enjoyed the services of real broadcasters capable of offering joined-up speech in Standard English. The bar of chocolate that I was given at school is long-gone but I still have the standard Department for Education (or whatever it was called in those far-off days of real austerity) Coronation Mug of a memento of a wet day and sixty glorious years of Her Maj upon the throne. It has, for Her, been a bitter-sweet month. Her husband has spent some more time in hospital and at his age, for all of her faith and fortitude, that has to be worrying and as any of us would she nipped off to see the old boy on at least a couple of occasions. He is now in very rude health and back at home, which must be a relief. On the fun side the Trooping of the Colour, without the Duke but in the presence of a cluster of Royal Princes on horseback, marked the last official outing for Kate Cambridge before she drew stumps for the duration of her maternity leave. The Birthday Honours list might have caused some wry amusement in Buck House as well. I can imagine Her Maj sitting back and thoroughly enjoying the Blackadder series but the sport that must have been had in approving a CBE for the star of the series, Rowan Atkinson while at the same time tempting that rabid old socialist Tony `Baldrick` Robinson down onto one knee in front of her to pick up a `K` ought to have been wonderful to behold. A very cunning plan.
The highlight for the household, though, was Royal Ascot. Setting aside the march of the inevitable fashion police (embonpoint in, short skirts out) it has to have been a very hard republican heart indeed that did not share in the excitement as Her Maj`s four year old filly, Estimate, with Ryan Moore on board, came from behind to place the Ascot Gold Cup in the hands of a reigning Monarch for the first time. The very broadest of grins suggests that even though her racing manager defied all protocol to grip her arm as Estimate swept past the finishing post, John Warren is more likely to end up with a knighthood than in the Tower of London. Princess Beatrice was characteristically hysterical with joy and Prince Andrew had to be wheeled out to present the cup to a Mother that would, ordinarily, have been handing out the trophy herself. A good day for The Firm.
In other news, Lord Ashcroft`s latest opinion survey reveals that the Mayor of London, Mr. Johnson, now enjoys the support of just one in five Tories as a potential future party leader, which suggests that his assertion “Forget Number Ten, in five years I`ll be retired” may be founded in realism. National rail figures indicate that while ticket prices continue to rise a third of our trains run late and Network Rail is missing all of its punctuality targets. A fine of £75 million is pointless as the public purse pays the money. Better, surely, to eliminate the £350 thousand in bonuses paid to the company`s five top directors. Commenting on the granting of voting rights to prisoners Luxembourg`s ECHR Judge Spielmann tells us that “Britain must either obey or leave”. Be careful what you wish for. Frau Merkel visiting Moscow, may have said that an EU without Britain is unimaginable but we may be nearing the tipping point. Press hysteria over “Frankenfoods” or, more prosaically, genetically modified crops, as Man David announces (shades of John Gummer and beef burgers during mad cow disease) that he will feed genetically modified produce to his young family. The Court of Human Rights has decreed that the families of servicemen killed on active duty will have the right to sue for damages in the Supreme Court. That latest piece of ECHR folly propagated by armchair members of an out-of-touch judiciary may have a superficial appeal but as Defence Secretary Hammond says, making our troops and their commanders risk-averse will damage them. Treasury Minister David Gauke has, under pressure following proposed amendments to the Finance Bill, indicated that a marriage tax allowance will be introduced during the lifetime of this parliament. Why anyone should think that the sum of £150 is likely to drive even heterosexual couples to the altar is beyond me. We ought to be making the whole personal tax allowance transferable between a male husband and a female wife, but it is at least a gesture towards the institution of marriage. The GP`s shop steward, Dr Clare Gerada, predictably accuses the government of trying to ` use doctors as border police` in an effort to clamp down on the `health tourism` that is costing the NHS millions. We could, I suppose, cut GP salaries awarded under the last government to help to pay for this largesse but I doubt that Ms. Gerada would approve of that either. And Buck House will announce the royal birth on social media, we are told, but only once the traditional theatre of the posting of a handwritten note at the Palace gates has been performed.
The Migrant Passport Test has been described as “A bad pub quiz”. Q. What is the name of the official UK flag introduced in 1801? A. The Union Jack. (Wrong. It is the Union Flag). Try some more? When did the first curry house open in London? How tall is the London Eye. In which year did the Emperor Claudius invade Britain? When did Big Ben first chime? Failed? Sorry. You`ll have to go home immediately. (Oh, sorry, I forgot – this is home.)*
Girl Guides under the direction of their CEO Julia “this is the largest feminist movement in the world” Bentley are to drop their oath to God and Country in favour of being “true to myself and to my community”. The ghost of Gill Slocombe, the movement`s first Chief Guide in 1910, will be pleased to know that the oath to Her Maj. Is, at least for the moment, still in. Robert Baden-Powell will be less gratified to learn that Scouts are to admit atheists who will not be required to take the oath to God.
During London Fashion week one hundred male models were paraded through Lord`s Pavilion. And you thought that women were.....oh, never mind. Karl Lagerfeld, as we were on the catwalk, wants to be able to marry his feline, Charpette. Holy Catrimony, you see. (The former Editor of my local paper, one of the last real journalists, wants to marry his goat, but that`s another story).
Under pressure from the likes of thespian Sir Ben Kingsley the European Commission has agreed to exempt theatre lights from the requirement to replace tungsten with eco-friendly LED bulbs. “Being in the LEDlight” doesn`t have quite the right ring about it, does it?
Wetherspoons, the drinks people, want to open pubs at Motorway Service stations. Amidst all of the inevitable brouhaha (you can of course, already by alcohol in motorway supermarkets) there is the glorious thought of the new motorway sign: “The last pint for seventy miles”
With effect from 2016 electronic cigarettes are to be regulated as medicines by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA). In another justification of mission-creep the MHRA claims that their interference will somehow make e-fags “safer and more effective”. How?
A doting mother who created “Princess socks” for her little darling started a craze that swept through a Gloucester Primary school, only to be told that they were to be banned as “a trip hazard”. Presumably the governing body did not have the courage to tell the mother what they really thought about her precocious fashion statement.
2015 marks the bi-centenary of the Battle of Waterloo. The Belgians are tossing £20 million into commemorative events. The Department of Culture are, we are told, reluctant to chip in for fear of upsetting the French. That being so, the Secretary of State ought to take a wander down to the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords where there is what can best be described as “a bloody great mural” depicting the battle, opposite another of the Death of Nelson. We won, both at Waterloo and at Trafalgar.( See “Migrant Passport Test”) When President Mitterrand was due to address both Houses in the Royal Gallery there was a very brief and succinct discussion. Should we cover up the pictures? No.
Earlier in the year there was, in Flixton, Greater Manchester, the most glorious blossoming cherry tree. Trafford Housing Trust have now felled it because “fungus might have rotted the roots”. Now why did not young George Washington think of that?
Cricket lovers have a difficult enough time contending with summer weather but a Norfolk council have now added insult to no injuries by banning the Bacton Cricket Club from using hard cricket balls except in the nets. Anyone for rounders?
The last known Dornier DO-172 has been retrieved from its resting place on the Goodwin Sands. To the untrained eye it looks like a heap of very rusty scrap metal and my son, who has dived on the wreck, describes it to me as being more than a little battered. Nevertheless, the brave team of military archaeologists working on the project appear confident that it can be restored to good order and put on display. How long, then, before its original owners are demanding its return to Germany?
*To spare you the frustration of visiting Google:
The First curry house was introduced in 1810
The London Eye is 443 feet tall
Claudius invaded in 43 AD
And Big Ben first chimed in 1859.
Q. How many people refer, wrongly, to The Clocktower as “Big Ben”.
A. Most of them. But Big Ben is the bell, not the building.