Gale's View from Westminster - July 2014
July. Wimbledon and strawberries, Le Grand Depart, lost paedophile dossiers, the coronation of J.C. Juncker, the “catwalk” (as the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid so delicately describes Cameron`s Night of the Long Knives), even the Assisted Dying Bill, all seem a long way away. The end of life and the end of term are dominated by the murder of the passengers aboard MH17 over Ukraine and the slaughter of innocents on both sides of the Gaza border with Israel. The EU shows twenty-eight faces of dithering impotence and Eastbourne Pier goes up in flames. Happy days.
It is a moot point whether it will be The Milipede, who has not had a good school report, or an opportunist back-bencher, who will first demand the recall of Parliament to debate” the urgent issue of the day.” Recalls were, usually, demanded or instigated by the Government, when the House rose for a full three months and then only to discuss, for example, a declaration of war. The Peacekeeping Legacy, that Prime Minister with a propensity for war and a desire to be seen to be governing, clearly decided that a recall , once a couple of weeks` of freeloading holiday in Tuscany or some such had been personally been enjoyed, demonstrated who was in the driving seat and we can now scarcely get more than a couple weeks into August before the statutory two days` notice is given by Mr. Speaker, the vital maintenance work designed to prop up the crumbling Palace of Westminster for another year is interrupted, carpets are hurriedly re-laid, the canteens and bars are re-opened and Members are flown back, at taxpayers` expense, from yon and hither to participate in a one or two day debate to endorse a decision that has already been taken by government or, more probably, to engage in ritual hand-wringing.
If that sounds cynical then I am afraid it is. Most of us care ,more than a little, about events of great magnitude and humanitarian catastrophe that are taking place and, do not misunderstand me, it is right that the Mother of Parliaments should debate those issues. But let us not kid ourselves that hard decisions relating to war and pestilence are taken on the floor of the House of Commons these days. In a Global society decisions are taken by Governments, particularly those of the United States and Putin`s neo-Soviet Union, by China and sometimes by the United Nations while of course being indecided by a European Union that has exposed its capacity for an inability to act in anything other than pusillanimous national self-interest.
More rant later, but let`s get back to the beginning of the month. A student asked me, at a recent Q&A, why Mrs. May was still in office as Home Secretary. She became, recently, our longest-serving holder of that high office of State since God was a boy and her achievements have been considerable, was the answer that I offered. It has to be said, however, that July was not a great month for the Darling Bud. It turns out that the late Geoffrey Dickens, a “colourful” parliamentary colleague of the Thatcher years, had handed to Leon (now Lord ) Brittan, while Home Secretary in November 1983, a dossier relating to allegations of the paedophile activities of many in high places, including some Members of Parliament and Ministers. Mrs. May was only a gleam in a selection panel`s eye when this took place but the fact that the dossier, and as it later transpires some thirteen others related to the same issues, have `gone missing` from the archives led to an uncomfortable session at the despatch box. As a Member of the House of Lords Leon Brittan is not, of course, able to come to the Commons to explain himself but some pressure was applied by his former Cabinet colleague Lord (Norman) Tebbit in the Upper House for clarification of his position. Not a great deal has been forthcoming and from public appearance it is doubtful whether Sir Leon is any longer capable of contributing much to the debate but the tabloid press and Mr. Plod are unlikely to let the matter melt way once the headlines cease to be dominated by international events.
The Home Secretary`s discomfiture has been exacerbated, also by a fair degree of chaos in the passport office which is, ultimately, her responsibility. Members of Parliament not infrequently receive requests for assistance in retrieving lost or delayed travel documents and on occasions it is clearly the fact that people who have booked summer holidays in January have then left it until late Spring to visit the passport drawer and to discover that their documents have either expired or, worse, that little Jimmy, looking forward to his first chance to sample lager in glorious Ibiza, does not have a passport at all. Security, and the desire to stamp out fraud, have quite properly led to a tightening of the regime and while of course a professional crook, terrorist or spy can buy half a dozen passports in different names from equally professional forgers, the run-of-the-mill illegal immigrant may be deterred by an interview demanding a knowledge of the name of Horatio Nelson`s grandmother or whatever. This year, however, we have faced a backlog of tens of thousands of applications, many made in timely fashion, delayed through sheer volume and partly through industrial action. (A holiday season walkout by staff was described by PCS Union leader Mark Serwotka as being “designed to help the public”!) I can only speak personally but thanks largely to the herculean efforts of one magnificent civil servant in the Minister of State`s office I am not aware of any constituent who has actually missed a holiday as a result of a lack of passport but on occasions it has been a near-run and nerve-wracking thing.
Enhanced air-travel security, particularly on flights to the USA, coupled with proper scrutiny of arriving passengers and made worse by the need to keep an eye open for the Ebola virus are likely to lead, this summer, to long queues at airports and that, no doubt, is another matter that will land on the Home secretary`s already laden desk.
The economy is, according to the International Monetary Fund, in improving shape with the UK and the USA booming while the Eurozone still suffers with Mr. Holland`s socialist France as the weakest link in that flimsy chain. That does not, however, mean that there are enough pounds in your pocket to pay the bills and as a consequence payday loans are an essential fallback for still too many families. We learn that the charming usurer Wonga has resorted to sending out fake and threatening `solicitor`s letters` to those who are behind with repayments. Impersonating a solicitor is, of course, a criminal offence and it would be good but improbable to think that prosecutions of not only Wonga but also Barclays, Lloyds, RBS, HSBC, Scottish Power and Anglian Water and others who are reported to have been engaged in similar practices might follow. I do not suppose, either, that the “Fake Sheikh” , Mazher Mahmood, formerly of the News of the World and now doing “a spot of Kelvin” (Lying in the Sun) will find himself in the dock facing perjury charges after a High Court Judge caught him fabricating evidence, but we can live in hope.
It is, I suppose, fitting that a resident of “God`s Waiting Room”, the House of Lords, should seek to introduce a bill that promotes “assisted dying” or “suicide” as it used to be called until it was sanitised. Nobody wants to see a loved one suffer at the end of life and the argument is frequently deployed that “you wouldn`t let a dog die in pain so why do we allow humans to end their lives in agony” and, while facile, it is an argument with which most of us can find some sympathy. Lord (Charlie) Falconer`s bill has survived its first stages in parliament with the support of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who has changed his ecclesiastical mind on the subject, and the Liberal Democrat Health Minister, Norman Lamb who, although of course unable as a Commoner to speak in the debate, nevertheless voiced his opinion also.
Curiously, while British Medical Journal backs Charlie`s bill the Royal College of GPs and those most likely to be directly involved in assisting dying do not. And neither do I. For intensely personal reasons I came, some time ago, to the view that the system as it stands broadly works and that we meddle with it at our peril. There are many whose cause of death on the certificate may well say “cancer” when the actual death was brought about by morphine poisoning but that, surely, is a question of medical judgement and a far cry from the “assisted” dying that is legal and escalating in the Netherlands. I want for myself, and for those that I love, the right to die with dignity and, if appropriate and possible, at home and supported by proper medical care. If pain control means cranking up the supply of drugs to near-lethal doses then so be it, but the “assisted suicide”, to give it is` proper name, concept is a very dangerous road down which to travel. It is easy to see how playing God can degenerate, in short order, into pressure upon those leading `inconvenient` lives and to the sort of “mass killing” of which the Dutch regulator, Theo Boer, has warned.
I usually agree with George Carey but on this issue I believe that he is profoundly wrong. Changes to abortion law have led, almost, to abortion on demand and there is continuous pressure from within parliament to go further on the basis of “right to choose”. I see the same happening with death if Lord Falconer`s Assisted Dying bill were ever to become law.
I indicated earlier that the Millipede’s end-of-term report had not been good. The Labour Peer, Lord Glasman, contributed to the Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition`s woes by highlighting a “lack of sense of direction” and our Labour colleague in the Commons, John Crudes, charged with the duty of dreaming up manifesto commitments for the 2015 general election, has spoken of bold ideas stifled by the dead hand of the leadership. Never one to miss an opportunity to be `helpful` Lord Foy of That Persuasion, the Peter Mandelson that was, suggests while celebrating the 20th anniversary of Legacy Blair`s accession to the Leadership of the Labour party, that Labour must “target the centre and win on leadership and the economy”. Coming from the core of an administration that brought the nation to its financial knees that might seem a bit rich (or poor, depending upon how you look at it) but there`s not much doubt that his protégé, “call me Tony” has done very nicely thankyou since leaving Number Ten. While the legacy finds it necessary to deny that he is worthy £100 million, indicating that it is in fact a mere £20 million it`s not clear whether that includes the value of his ten homes or not. Either way, the Middle East Peace Envoy felt able to leave that same Middle East in meltdown and to throw an expensive bash back home for Mrs. Legacy`s sixtieth birthday . No doubt the earnings arising from the advice that he will be giving to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on `how to boost the economy` will help pay for the party but there are those who are unkind enough to suggest that as a peace envoy he is about as much use as a chocolate teapot and it`s time to go before any more damage is done.
Back at the ranch The Milipede`s 25-minute “brush-by” with Borat O`Bama during a brief visit to the United States has achieved little if anything save to highlight the Commander-in-Chief`s own weakness while his attempt at self-deprecating humour seems only to have heightened the comparison with Grommit`s Wallace. Rumour has it that my old friend Alan Johnson might be put forward as a stalking horse to change the Labour leadership. My offer to act as your campaign manager still stands, Alan!
Lord Hall`s “committed to transparency” Salford Broadcasting Company has declined to allow the National Audit Office to view documents relating to `fatcat` pay deals and pay-offs within the corporation. (£26 million on golden good-bye`s under Tony Hall in just 12 months). `Access by agreement`, believes the NAO`s Sir Amyas Morse, is clearly insufficient. Legal powers of scrutiny are surely needed but one person who will not be getting embroiled in that row is Lord Coe. The Corporation`s pundit, Lord Peston`s little boy Robert, described Seb Coe as a “shoe in” for the post of Chairman of the Trustees to succeed Lord Patten. That might well have been so and Auntie could certainly do with someone who is used to winning for a change but William Hague`s one-time judo instructor is too fly to take that fall and has his sights set firmly, instead, upon the leadership of the International Association of Athletics Federations for which he is in the running. That means that Seb will not have to worry, either, about trivial matters such as the terminal decline of children`s broadcasting or the Trust`s own report suggesting that too much prime time TV is taken up with soaps and repeats. Never mind. While only the Good Lord knows what effect the appointment of Euan Davies to replace Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight may have but it might enhance the Today programme`s ratings which, after a brief spike, have recently plummeted by four hundred thousand in a mere six months.
A good month for the girls and a not so good one for men in suits .Her Maj launched all seventy two thousand tons and nine hundred and thirty two feet of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth by cracking a bottle of rather good Bowmore Islay Malt whisky over the bow. Whether or not this proves to be the last warship built on the Clyde will depend, in part, upon the outcome of the referendum as British warships are traditionally built in British dockyards and an independent Scotland would, presumably, not qualify. That point will not have been lost on Alex Salmond who was, of course present with his 92-year old father who was on board HMS Indomitable when she was torpedoed in 1943. The shipbuilding issue could also help to torpedo young Alex` independence hopes.
Those aspirations could have been enhanced by the Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow but Salmond`s hopes that the Red Arrows might trail Blue and White smoke for their fly-past were scuppered by one `suit` who not only survived but was elevated in the reshuffle, the new Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. Red, White and Blue or nothing.
Apart from young wannabee minister MPs who sit anxiously by the phone awaiting `the call` from Downing Street, nobody really likes reshuffles. Those already carrying red boxes know that is as likely to be out as up or sideways and the Prime Minister re-shuffling knows that he is almost certainly making more enemies than friends as those making space for new blood harbour resentment and those passed over play the “why her and not me” game. The answer to that question, of course, is that this Prime Minister has had a need of more hers than hims in his Cabinet and Ministerial team. And so. Out went Ken Clarke (Without Portfolio), William Hague, (Foreign Secretary to become Leader of the House before standing down at the next general election) ), Dominic Grieve (Attorney General), David Jones (Welsh Secretary, Owen Paterson (Agriculture) and Andrew Lansley (Leader of the Commons). Also departing were Damian Green (Home Office) and Hugh (now and rightly Sir Hugh) Robertson.(Sport and also standing down in 2015)
Up went Philip Hammond (from Defence to Foreign Office) and Michael Fallon (from Minister of State at BIS to Secretary of State for Defence). Sideways, or down, depending upon whether you buy into the “hand of the King” argument or not, went Michael Gove from Education to Chief Whip.
And in marched the girls. While the tabloid press has treated the reshuffle as a “catwalk” and a fashion parade and taken glee in snapping the occasional glimpse of thigh, Man David has promoted some very bright young women. Nicky Morgan (Education Secretary) and Liz Truss (Agriculture) and Esther McVey are all new to the cabinet, Priti Patel joins the Treasury team as a junior Minister and Penny Mordaunt takes over the brief for Planning and local government.
While none of these, and other, new Ministers will have a chance to change much in policy before the general election Cameron`s personal “night of the long knives” which was more sweeping than expected and sets the tone for what he wishes to be a second term in office with an overall majority.
Even news of the reshuffle, though, was immediately overshadowed by the shooting down of the Malaysian Airways flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine with a massive loss of life. Flying at thirty-three thousand feet and well beyond the range of hand-held ground-to-air missiles hitherto deployed by the rebels is now virtually certain that the aircraft was taken out of the sky by a Russian-supplied BUK 9K37 missile system. Recordings taken at the time suggest that the Russians and the Ukrainian rebels thought that they had scored a hit on a Ukrainian government military transport plane but the tone of comments and accusation and counter-accusation swiftly changed as the true enormity of this crime against innocent civilians became clear. Mr. Putin has, deliberately or otherwise, precipitated not only a tragedy for the nearly three hundred families, including ten Britons, who have suffered, but also a diplomatic crisis that will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects.
President Obama has dubbed this a “wake up call for Europe. While his own impotence has been significant this event has also exposed the inability of the European Union to take swift, co-ordinated and united action in the face of national self-interest and the idea that Europe can or will stand together when faced with a serious challenge has been blown out of the blue sky.
The aftermath of the destruction of MH 17 has been truly horrific with debris and bodies strewn across a wide area for days, accusations of looting and the “grave robbing” of corpses left uncollected, the final “train of death” that transported the recovered remains to Holland while others still lie undiscovered and unaccounted for and the inability of international investigators to gain access to the crash site all scream of the need for European co-operation. Instead, the EU has divided in its willingness to agree to take sanctions, to freeze Russian funds, to ban travel for more than a handful of Putin`s oligarchs and to terminate the sale of all arms to Russia. Instead, national defence-industry, sales and employment considerations have taken precedence alongside the interests of the financial sector and the dependence upon gas supplies from Russia. I cannot see that the former KGB Colonel who now leads the neo-soviet union will take anything but comfort from the inability of the West to respond to this outrage. The Russian economy may be a basket-case but so, surely, is what passes for robust action within Europe and the United States.
And so to Gaza. From afar we watch with horror as women and children are slaughtered. Israel has embarked upon a PR disaster and instigated a humanitarian outrage of monumental proportions with a ruthlessness that even many Jews find abhorrent. The propaganda war is being won by the terrorist Hamas organisation while civilians die. And yet. It is a proven fact that Hamas has used, and continued to use, women and children, schools and hospitals, as human shields to surround the launching pads for missiles directed at Israel while those weapons are smuggled in through tunnels dug under the border and used to perpetrate terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. There is great wrong on both sides but once again the impotence of the United Nations, of international diplomacy, of the scope for peaceful intervention and intercession, has been found wanting. Understandably those that we represent recoil in disgust from what they are seeing on television screens, are condemning those that are portrayed as the aggressors and demanding that politicians “do something”. The point has been made, though, that the western track record of intervention, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, does not exactly inspire confidence. Dictators removed have been replaced with unstable and often equally oppressive alternatives, women and children and civilian males have been killed in what we prefer to call “collateral damage” and to what effect? It is not enough to “do something”. We have to do the right thing and if you know what that is in the case of Israel and the Gaza strip then I for one would very much like to know because I cannot see a glimmering of an answer.
A buyer has paid £2.5 million for Tracey Emin`s unmade bed “installation”. Tracey comes from the Margate that I represent and where there are, I imagine, quite a lot of unmade beds and if you could just get a modest £1 million each for a few of them, say, it would transform our local economy.
Beavers have been found, in the River Otter in Devon, in the wild for the first time in 800 years in Great Britain. The responsible government department, DEFRA, believes that they “may be a danger to other animals”. Given that beavers have effectively been extinct for eight centuries is it not just possible that “another animal” (man) might have been a danger to the beavers?
You possibly are the proud owner of an Apple appliance. Ponder, as you use it, that this company which pays “every penny that we owe” in tax has forked out just £11 million in tax on £10 billion of sales. The Commons Public Accounts committee is sceptical.
British Airways is offering “summer deals” that run from September to December. Accepting that it must be “summer” somewhere during these months it is nevertheless a pity that the airlines largess does not embrace the Autumn half-term holiday – the one time when parents who are not schoolteachers (and therefor apparently allowed to bunk off for weddings and funerals whenever they like) are allowed to take their children on holiday during the shoulder months.
Sacre bleu! French bosses are to be allowed by, Mr. Holland`s socialist administration, to ban wine from the workplace. This is designed to enhance the “physical and mental wellbeing of workers”. The nation that criticises the British for eating to work while they work to eat will have to re-think the menu. Which cordial goes best with escargots?
The move will, though, chime well with the socialist Mayor of Paris, Mme. Anne Hidalgo, who is experimenting with the banning of smoking Gauloise (and all other cigarettes) in the City`s parks.
In Britain it is proposed to introduce a £10 K fine for convictions for drivers who permit smoking in a car with a child. That inveterate smoker Ken Clarke QC has suggested that this law is likely to prove unenforceable and unworkable. Who do you penalise, for example, where a driver is 17 and a smoking passenger is 17?
Stoke on Trent Council has spent £10 thousand of ratepayers` money to produce a DVD indicating how to change a light bulb. The movie, unlikely to become a blockbuster, was completed in 2012 but has yet to receive the light of day. It is awaiting final approval. Now how many civil servants does it take to change a……,…..oh, never mind.
News reports tell us that 0nly 3% of first-time home-buyers are aged between 18 and 30. We also learn that it is difficult to obtain a mortgage after the age of 40 because the applicant is likely to be “too old” to repay the loan. So you have a ten year window in which to buy a house.
Ryanair have managed to take two families bound for Spain on a plane to Latvia instead, in spite of three pre-flight document checks. Your friendly airline says that “it is the responsibility of each passenger to ensure that they have boarded the right aircraft”
Camden Council has produced a four-page staff instruction manual on precautions to be taken when meeting the public. It includes checking for the means of escape.
Public Health England is planning to introduce obesity warnings at supermarket checkouts. A little late by the time that you have reached the checkout, surely?
And that bastion of diversity the BBC has introduced a 31-page questionnaire for would-be employees. It includes queries such as “are you gay” and “did you receive free school meals”? The questionnaire is, of course, “entirely voluntary”.
Sidney Marshall has died in Blackpool at the age of 90. A rear gunner in a Lancaster, he took part in a bombing raid on D-Day. No known relatives but when news got out 700 mourners turned up to give the ancient aviator an appropriate send-off.
Dora Bryan, at the age of 91, has taken her final curtain call. Most will remember her as a comedienne. The discerning will recall the BAFTA best actress award winner who starred in A Taste of Honey.
Jim Nock, OBE. At the age of 79. Unless you live in East Kent you are unlikely to know of Jim but he was the Leader of Canterbury City Council when I was first elected to parliament, subsequently Lord Mayor of Canterbury and Chairman and President of my Conservative Association. I am privileged to have known him and to have been allowed to call him a true friend.
Ashers Baking Company in Belfast has fallen foul of the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland for declining to produce a “wedding” case with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” displayed on the icing. Ashers (named for a verse from the Bible) claims that to comply would offend their Christian beliefs and ethos. The Commission has warned of legal action which is strange as Northern Ireland is the one part of the United Kingdom where marriage has not yet been “re-defined” and still constitutes a union between a man and a woman. This could pose a problem for a Prime Minister who while believing that “commitment to equality is an important part of being British” also writes in the Church Times that “we need to be confident about our faith as a Christian Country”. Square that circle, please.