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Westminster View - February 2011

February. 28 days and it seems like a lifetime. Sleepless nights in “God`s Waiting Room”, the legal vultures circle as prisoners demand the right to vote, the revolution rolls on throughout the Middle East and a `biblical exodus` begins, wholesale fuel prices fall as pump prices go through the roof, Ministers cannot sell the wood for the trees, BBC world service cuts as Auntie squanders on, soldiers get the bullet, European time marches on and will Jill and Jill walk up the aisle together?
It used to be the Commons that sat all through the night and I recall fondly still living in Monday while all around us the rest of the world was in Tuesday or, on one memorable occasion, even Wednesday. The date, you see, does not change until the House rises. This time, however it has been those in ermine who have recreated boarding school dreams, dragged out the sleeping bags and very camp beds and partied into the small hours as a newly elevated rabble from “the other place” filibusters its way through the Alternative Vote Bill.  This, of course, is also the measure designed to reduce the size of the House of Commons by some sixty seats and the boyos fear, possibly incorrectly, that many of these could at present be Labour-held.  The crunch is that unless the bill receives the Royal Assent in time it will not be possible to hold the promised referendum on the Alternative Voting system on the same day as the local government elections in May.  And that would not please St. Nicholas of Clogg, or the “Deputy Prime Minister” as he is sometimes known.  Sabres rattle, compromises are reached and at the eleventh hour their Lordships bow to the will of the elected plebs.  Less than forty percent of the electorate will, if they are mad enough to make that choice, now have the power to impose upon us a voting system that has so spectacularly delivered indecisive governments elsewhere!
Comforting, also, to know that if Europe gets its way those voting to irreparably damage our parliamentary democracy could include murderers, rapists and child molesters as well as burglars and car thieves.  The diktat from The Council of Europe, which I am about to re-join as a parliamentary delegate, says via the Court of Human Rights that prisoners must have the right to vote. (As an aside, one of the “judges” that reached this decision is the nominee of a country that has fewer residents than I have constituents!)  It will surprise few in Westminster to know that the miserable and extravagant Department of Justice, agrees with the ECHR.   The sooner that we scrap the DoJ, withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and introduce our own legislation on the subject the better. If that means that we are kicked out of Strasbourg and that a handful of English MPs are denied our “human right” to dine on foie gras and asparagus and Alsatian wines then so be it. Lord Hoffman, with some fourteen years experience as a Law Lord, says that the Court of Human Rights is `out of control`.  The Prime Minister tells us that  that the idea of giving convicts the vote makes him sick, and an unholy alliance between David Davis, the Old Knuckleduster,  and the Man of Straw delivers a back-bench Commons debate on the issue. On an unwhipped division and with Ministers abstaining, by 234 to 22, the House sends a resounding raspberry off to Europe. I was proud to have been one of the tellers for the “ayes”.   Not the end of the matter, of course. The vultures of prey in the legal profession have spotted an opportunity to make a buck and no doubt their bewigged if ill-qualified brethren in the Court of Human Rights will seek to impose their writ but at least the hand of the English government is strengthened.  The longed-for line in the sand?  Possibly.
In 2009 fifty million pounds worth of junk mail thudded onto our national doormats.  By 2014 it is estimated that the Royal Dutch Mail, or Deutsche post, as it will by then no doubt be known, will be delivering two hundred and fifty million pounds worth of the stuff.  That represents about nine million trees and – don`t ask me what anorak dreams up these figures – 16.5 billion gallons of water! 
We might make a contribution towards saving the planet if Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs got its act together and stopped sending out belated and unjustified retrospective tax demands.  They knew, we are now told, that they had screwed up on PAYE collection back in 2008/9 but took no action.  As a result there possibly some fifteen million contested claims for back-payment swilling around in the postal system while, incredibly, the head of HMRC is allowed to remain in his job.
Not content with wasting zillions of pounds of television license fee payers money in its ludicrous intent to regionally diversify the British Broadcasting Cuts Corporation, as Man David now refers to it, is planning to sack 650 staff from within World Service and slash a number of foreign language broadcasts in order to save a paltry £46 million. This is because the responsibility for funding is being transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Beeb.  The management could, of course, reduce their own inflated and undeserved salaries, diminish expenditure on duplication of effort and rail and air and taxi fares and hospitality and pay their stars something slightly less than premier league footballer salaries but it is easier to cut programmes. Is it not? Ironically, this cash-strapped once-proud Broadcasting organisation still manages to send a veritable army of representatives to cover the skiing – sorry, “International Financial discussions” – taking place in Davos.  What Chris Patten, rumoured to be in line to take over as Chairman of the BBC Trust, will make of all this is probably unprintable before the watershed.  Sadly, as long as the present Director General remains glued to his designer swivel chair with Araldite there is little prospect of any change for the better no matter what the enfeebled Trust decrees.
We are living in an age of electronic mass-lobbying. Members of Parliament now receive, daily, dozens of messages forwarded on behalf of PR companies and unelected pressure groups objecting to just about every aspect of government policy.  It is plain from the stereotyped round-robin nature of these communications that few of the “I am one of your constituents” transmitters pumping out this material have actually read the content that they are disseminating and some do not even bother to complete the “Dear  (fill in the name of your MP here) ”…..salutation.  I received a couple of hundred such, orchestrated by one campaigning outfit, in respect of the proposals to divest the public sector of some of our nation`s commercial woodlands and to transfer other and less commercial but environmentally important woodlands to local people, trusts or charities.  No matter that the last Labour administration had sold hundreds of acres of timber without any safeguards over rights of access or environmental or habitat considerations and no regard for the fact that the government had intended to put into place just such provisions and to protect and secure the management and future of our forests and woods for future generations.  The cry went up “Don`t sell our Forests” and the bandwagon, backed by Yesterday`s Telegraph and the Bourgoise Women`s Tabloid, began to roll.  So the benighted Secretary of State for the Environment came to the despatch box, apologised for something or other and put the policy on hold pending reconsideration. A Pyrrhic victory for the campaigners, I fear, but also the thin end of a wedge.
“Once you have given them Danegeld you will never get rid of the Dane…..”. This coalition government has, if we are to stand a chance of restoring the economy, hard times and decisions ahead.  The budget, the Welfare Bill, the Health Service, Defence cuts, education – this list is long and difficult.  It is clear that the way is now open for campaigners to electronically lobby and to use those who will allow themselves to be manipulated, to undermine the entire economic strategy.  There is, I believe, all the difference in the world between an elected Member of Parliament heeding the individual and personal opinions of those who elect him and the orchestrated cacophany of the push-button campaigners.  For the record, I sent a stereotyped but courteous response to each of those – identified as a constituent or not – that forwarded the Woodlands e-mail to me. I invited them to write to me personally and I drew their attention to the Government`s consultation. I also offered to meet and to discuss their concerns with them in the constituency. Not one of these concerned people took up either offer. Make no mistake about it; Parliamentary democracy is under threat from unaccountable, unelected, unrepresentative electronic malcontents.
The wind of revolution sweeping across the Maghreb and into the Middle East has already seen the downfall of Presidents Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. At the time of writing Gaddafi remains to wage civil war upon the people that he still claims to lead but time will tell.  As embarrassing pictures of The Legacy locked in embrace with the Libyan murderer re-emerge and by telephone our “Middle East Envoy” is reported to have told  the deranged President that he is “in denial” , thoughts of pots and kettles spring to mind.
Tunisia, held briefly up as an example of progress, looks rocky again as successive attempts to hold an administration together until elections can be held seem doomed to fail.  I hold no particular brief for the legendary and long-established brothels of Tunis but it should cause alarm bells to ring when the interim government, at the behest of fundamentalists, promises that they will remain closed.  Be afraid. Be very afraid. Iran is waiting in the wings.
The ill desert wind reaches Britain and at the pumps petrol reaches £5.86 a gallon.  It is, of course, the uncertainty of supply that is forcing prices up or, to put it another way, naked profiteering at the expense of the UK motorist. The wholesale value of fuel is down. In mainland Europe retail prices fall by 3% while in Britain they rise by 0.8%. It now costs £90 to fill a Ford Mondeo and with credit card rates at a thirteen-year high of 18.9% that’s a lot out of the family wage packet. Mr. Clogg , fast becoming the Marie Antoinette of British politics, unwisely chooses this moment to suggest, as three million families head into the higher rate band, that “the middle classes will not notice tax rises”.  With the budget just a few feet away we have to look to the Chancellor to come to the rescue of the road haulage industry and the private motorist before fuel prices do serious damage to economic recovery.  It would be tempting, but foolish, for George to hang onto the windfall VAT profits and taxes generated by higher prices.
And still with oil, the US company Chevron, which has owed some £5.30 billion to Ecuador for environmental damage to the Amazon rainforest eighteen years ago, is still refusing to pay up.  Do we hear Borat O`Bama calling for Chevron to put funds into escrow? You bet your sweet bippy we do not!
Back to the desert war.  Saif Gaddafi, the Colonel`s son, broadcasts that “we will live in Libya, we will die in Libya”.  With the help of a few gentlemen from Hereford I am sure that the latter could be arranged but they have been otherwise engaged.  With the armchair warriors of the media screaming that “Britain must do something” to retrieve our nationals from Libya and accusing the Foreign Office and the MoD of dragging their heels, free rein is given to tax-exiles working for oil companies in the desert to complain that nothing is being done to help them.  Curious how people who are using mobile phones to talk to friends and families and who are giving interviews to television and the press are able to say that “nobody is telling us anything – we do not know what is going on”. Even as the gutter dregs of the Fleet Street diaspora are busy flogging newspapers on the back of these stories Special Forces are quietly moving into place.  With much of the evacuation bravely and successfully completed the Press now acclaims “our heroes” who are, of course, the self-same people who were “doing nothing” only a few days before.  Next time Government must, clearly tell the world in advance of any clandestine operations. Why anyone buys or believes newspapers any more I cannot comprehend.
Meanwhile what has been described as a `biblical exodus` of refugees from North Africa streams first into Italy and then, from Libya, into already hard-pressed Tunisia.  The words “humanitarian crisis” are properly used. Britain again assists immediately with the provision of tents and blankets for refugees and commences the task of evacuating by air migrant workers seeking to return home. Those responsible will receive little if any credit in the media for this but may take some satisfaction from being there when needed.
Lynn Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat Junior Minister, intends to try to introduce same-sex religious weddings. Notwithstanding the fact that the legal protections of Civil Partnerships, twenty six thousand of which have been entered into, are available to same sex couples wishing to establish a permanent union it is now, apparently, desirable to seek to impose the “right” to a ceremony upon organisations and religions that still regard marriage as being a union between one man and one woman in the expectation that children will follow from that relationship. Described by some as a proposal for “Marriage Lite” and a “cohabitation law” it is, not surprisingly, opposed by the Church of England.  The first person to voice a robust “no” was the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu and he has been followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who has indicated that he will not authorise same sex “marriages” in Anglican churches.  It will be interesting, will it not, to see at what point Ms. Featherstone decides to enter into discussions with the Chief Rabbi, The Church of Rome and the Imams, to test their attitude towards the proposed legislation.
You are damned if you do and damned if you don`t. Christchurch, New Zealand, is reduced to rubble by a terrifying earthquake.  Buildings are shattered and tens – probably hundreds when all are accounted for – of lives are snuffed out in an instant. With lines of communication literally down Prime Minister Cameron texts his New Zealand counterpart to offer condolences and support. Modern, swift, efficient and, needless to say, criticised by the media as impersonal.  But the message got through the mayhem and that, surely, is what matters?
In these days of austerity it`s comforting to know that the Audit Commission has spent £53 thousand on chairs while embarking on “a long-term initiative to save money”. I suppose you can buy quite a good chair at £236 a pop.
A nurse dismissed for vulgar behaviour has appealed successfully. Standing over a patient she is reported to have said “It`s a long time since I`ve been in this position with a man lying underneath me”.  Happily, the tribunal decided that she was being “merely humorous” but one shudders to think what the outcome would have been had the positions been reversed – if you see what I mean.
Less fortunate was the Mother who tied up her daughter to stop the girl from buying heroin.  The daughter, Tabitha, says that she wishes that she could swap places with her Mother who was gaoled for 12 months for false imprisonment.
More nonsense from the BBC whose executive in charge of “migration” to The North is said to be commuting – from Kentucky!  With items such as the Hampton Court and Chelsea Flower shows due to be produced, conveniently, from Birmingham and Blue Peter moving to Manchester with the BP Garden on the office roof, the BBC exodus is likely to cost a billion pounds in flights, train fares, taxis and accommodation. Still, David Dimbleby, described by Anna Ford as a “charming dinosaur” has been awarded a fat new contract and his producer will be flying South from Scotland to London brief him. Which does not chime to well with the Trust`s view that Radio Four, with ten million listeners, is “too white, southern and elderly”.  Presumably something more ethnic, northern and youthful that appeals to a handful of the young unemployed would be better value for license payer`s money.
The age of enterprise is not quite dead – but we`re working on it. Fifteen year old Sam Jefferies is to lose his paper-round because he is out delivering Fleet Street`s worst at 6.45 am and at his age you can only start work at 7am.
From Cornwall comes the news that nettle beer, made to centuries-old recipes devised before the use of hops became commonplace, is likely to be priced out of existence because, according to the EU, it is “not beer” and has to be taxed at a higher rate. Our friendly HMRC says that “The rules concerning taxation are set out in EU legislation”.  Those are the rules, presumably, that do class German Lager as beer.  Still, for the Cornish it`s not all bad.  They now have an EU designation for Tiddy Oggies.  If you buy a pasty that is not D-shaped and crimped along the curved edge and is not made in Cornwall then it`s illegal. Which is a pity because some of the very best “Cornish Pasties” have, traditionally, been made in Devon.
The Army`s `Career Manager for the versatile engagement long career and service unit` has been sending out helpful texts to squaddies on the front line in Afghanistan.  Bad enough having Taliban bullets whizzing past your head with IEDs to liven up the journey back to barracks without opening up a billet doux from home to find out that you`ve just been given twelve months notice over your mobile phone.
The two Eds, Milipede and Balls, have issued a “speaking form” to colleagues wishing to participate in radio and TV interviews. One of the boxes requires thought to be given to “what we have said before”. Watch out for re-cycled Porkie Pies.
And finally……….

During our Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Pakistan, a few weeks ago, we met with their Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. The only Christian in the Cabinet, he was a good man, dedicated to peace and multi-faith tolerance and co-operation. Earlier this week he was gunned down while on his way to work. His family and friends deserve our thoughts: he must not be allowed to have died in vain.

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