Wednesday, March 29, 2006

PENSIONS CHAOS

Yesterday my four-year old children were sent home at mid-day without lunch because their school was affected by “industrial action.” At the school’s main gate other children the same age had to cross a picket line to get to their classes. Across Cumbria 27 schools were affected, 14 of them in Copeland. The people who went on strike yesterday have every right to be angry with Gordon Brown and John Hutton over their pensions, but I hope that great care will be taken on all sides not to use children’s education as a pawn in an adult dispute.

There are three points on which I agree with the strikers.

- The first is that everyone is right to be concerned about their future pension arrangements and entitled to lobby to secure the best deal they can.

- The second is that the government has shown bad faith to the public sector in general including local government workers on pensions, and much of the blame for yesterday’s strike rests with the government.

- The third is that there are stressful public sector jobs including some of those affected by yesterday’s strike, at which many people will not be able to work full-time to the age of 65 or older without serious risks to their health. We as a society need to make retirement arrangements flexible enough that other alternatives are available.

However, if we do not want to make the long-term pension situation much worse we have to recognise that the long-term ability of almost every employer in Britain including both central and local government, to finance pensions on present terms is simply not there. After nine years of unforgivable mismanagement by Gordon Brown of Britain’s pensions, present arrangements are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Strange as it may seem, the worst betrayal by this government on pensions in the past year is not the current cack-handed attempt to bring local government pensions more into line with what can be afforded. However strange this may seem to the people who went on strike yesterday, the public sector workers who the government is cheating most disgracefully are the younger employees in the groups who were promised last year that any current employee can retire at 60 on a full pension based on final salary. Whoever is elected at future elections over the next forty years, I do not believe that there is any realistic chance that future governments will be able to afford to keep that promise.

And to make promises to protect future pensions which you cannot keep is even worse that to admit now that you will have to change pension arrangements – at least the people who get the bad news now will have more warning to make alternative provision.

A report published today by eighty pensions experts suggests that the measures proposed by the Turner Commission do not go far enough to put British pensions back on a sustainable footing. They may well be right. But what is certain is that the longer the government dithers, the more painful the necessary measures will become when someone is finally forced to act.

Monday, March 27, 2006

SWIMATHON 2006

I completed the Swimathon in an hour and forty minutes, which represents a twenty minute improvement on last year. I am still collecting sponsorship (so it’s not too late) but would like to thank all the BT colleagues and councillors of all parties (and none) who have already sponsored me.

Helping first-time buyers while protecting the Environment

The difficulty of first time house buyers in finding a home is a real problem in many parts of the country. The problem gets most recognition in the South East, where exceptionally high house prices don’t just crucify young people looking for a home but make problems for entire communities as employers, including public services such as schools and hospitals, cannot find enough staff because people cannot afford to live there. But this is not just a problem in the South East – it also affects many parts of Cumbria where house prices are several times higher than they were in the year 2000.

House prices in villages like Gosforth and the area around Keswick are about as high as they are in many parts of the South East: it is just about impossible for a young person setting up their first home to stay in the area unless he or she wins the lottery or inherits the cash from Mum and Dad.

So I welcome proposals endorsed by Conservative leader David Cameron, to help first-time buyers and ensure that more young people are able to get onto the housing ladder while continuing to protect the environment and the green belt.

Last year, there were fewer first time buyers than at any point since 1980, and a typical first timer is unable to afford a semi-detached property in 87 per cent of towns across the country, including many parts of the Copeland area. The typical first time buyer . In the North West now needs a deposit of £6,335.

While I was planning portfolio holder on St Albans Council I fought tooth and nail to strengthen Council policy on affordable housing, and eventually succeeded in raising the proportion of affordable housing, for which the council asks on major housing development sites, from 25% to 35%. But, both nationally and in most local areas, we need to do more.

The new Conservative proposals, which will form part of the party’s policy review, include:
· Building more homes suitable for first-time buyers, while protecting the environment.
· Reviewing planning rules to encourage the creation of homes with the gardens and parking spaces that families want.
· Expanding shared ownership schemes to more than just a few public sector workers.
· Opposing the Government’s new home sellers’ packs which will increase the cost of selling a home – pushing up prices for first time buyers.
· Making it easier for council house and housing association tenants to buy their own home, with part-ownership as a step along the way.

Nothing in the proposals compromises the long-standing Conservative policy of protecting the Metropolitan Green Belt. We must also protect the National Parks.

The challenges that first-time buyers now face include paying £1,500 in stamp duty; soaring costs of living that make it harder to save for a deposit; and house prices that make it impossible to raise a sufficient mortgage for those on modest wages. Home ownership for those starting out in life, from St Albans to Whitehaven, from Keswick or Gosforth to Sandridge, is in danger of becoming the preserve of a lucky minority.

Wider home ownership is a matter of social justice. Conservatives want to bring down the barriers to getting on the housing ladder, to give families the scope to grow and to fulfil people’s aspirations of having a place of their own, while protecting our environment, our heritage, and the Green Belt. We want to build more homes and make them both eco-friendly and affordable, and give local people stronger powers to decide where they are built.

I am pleased to see that the party is calling for a review of John Prescott’s flawed planning rules, which are resulting in ugly blocks of flats without adequate parking being crammed into suburban communities. We need to allow the market to build the homes that families want – with gardens and parking spaces. And it is ludicrous that, while blaming the national housing shortage on council planning departments, the government is still trying to force down the number of houses which some authorities including Cumbria County Council wish to plan to build.

So far, so easy. Now here is the tough bit. Finding places to build the houses will require difficult decisions. They have to go somewhere, and you can bet that almost every possible site will find someone who doesn’t like the idea of building there. Sometimes those people will have a strong case sometimes they won’t. If we approve every application we will wreck the environment and have no green space left for our children to enjoy. If we refuse every unpopular application we can say goodbye to their hopes of a decent home. The challenge is to strike the right balance.

Conservatives want to see a new model of “near city” living. We want to make as much use as possible of redundant, derelict, or underutilised sites in built-up areas so that the balance between the environment and housing need is maintained. Sometimes this will be controversial. But politicians who try to catch every NIMBY vote and oppose any scheme for housing developments including under-utilised brownfield sites which are not in the countryside - they exist in all parties but in my experience the worst culprits are usually Liberal Democrats – should be asked a simple question. If you are not in favour of building homes on sites like this, does that mean that you want to build in the Green Belt or national parks, or that you are happy to price our young people out of the housing market ?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A non-budget – and an ongoing scandal

Gordon Brown’s tenth budget was something of a non-event – long on political knockabout, short on real action, short on real news. He continues to increase real taxes by stealth using “fiscal drag” e.g. not increasing allowances in line with inflation.

When Brown’s promises are examined in detail they often look more and more hollow. Take the promise to make spending in state schools match what is currently spent in cash terms in private schools.

As the BBC’s chief political correspondence pointed out, If you look for the details of this promise in the Treasury's Red Book – which gives the details of the actual proposals rather than the political rhetoric - and you find that the "long term ambition" to match what private schools spend in state schools comes with no figures attached, no target date and no explanation of how it will be paid for.

In other words this promise is totally meaningless. All the government would have to do to meet it is to increase spending on state schools in line with inflation, and at some point in the distant future it will eventually and inevitably reach the cash amount spent today in private schools, with no real benefit whatsoever to state school pupils.

Meanwhile the row about the funding of the Labour party chunters on. This probably bores many people who not involved in politics, but those of us who do take an interest are practically falling off our chairs with astonishment.

The most extraordinary part of the so-called “cash for peerages row” is not the fact that rich men gave the Labour party money. All political parties have to raise money, and it is not necessarily evil to give money to a political party – we will not be better governed if nobody gets involved in politics and no money is available for political debate.

Neither is it necessarily wrong that some of the people concerned have been nominated for the House of Lords, though it was unfortunate that the public appointments commission was not given a full and frank account of the money they had lent to the Labour party. There have been questions and debates about nominations for the House of Lords from all the major parties and some of the minor ones (there were recently questions over the current nomination by the Green Party) but most of the people nominated have had a distinguished record both in business and in public service.

There are, however, two things which are truly extraordinary about the current saga. The first is that the elected Chairman and Treasurer of the Labour Party, of whom the latter has to countersign the accounts, were not told where £14 million was coming from. Not to publish information which it is not a legal requirement to publish is one thing – to hide it from your own people is another. Home office minister David McNulty was asked on the Politics show yesterday who Lord Levy, Labour’s fundraiser, was accountable to, and replied “He is accountable to the Prime Minister.”

Which brings me to the other extraordinary aspect of this affair – the complete double standards which Tony Blair so often applies.

What really gets me about Tony Blair is not the fact that he makes mistakes – everyone does. It is the sanctimonious way the “New Labour” inner circle are quick to condemn anyone who disagrees with them, including any members of the Labour party who oppose something TB wants, and claim to be specially virtuous, while simultaneously practicing most of the things they condemn in others.

Their default method of dealing with any argument is an attack on the integrity or competence of the person who stands up to them – such as the attack the Labour Home Secretary made on the Treasurer of the Labour party yesterday for standing up to demand the information he needs to do the job for which Labour’s own legislation makes him responsible. Previous victims of the same tactic included a hospital patient in her 90s who was accused of being a racist, rail safety campaigners, and any academic who produces a study with inconvenient results.

But New Labour demand the understanding and sympathy for themselves which they deny to everyone else.

Previously they condemned the lack of transparency in party funding. They made a great show of passing laws to resolve this – but on their own admission, they left loopholes in those laws which they then exploited themselves. And now Blair expects praise for plugging the loopholes!

When Blair first described himself as a “pretty straight guy”, John Major responded that if he was “I’d hate to meet a corkscrew”. Quite.

Friday, March 17, 2006

SWIMATHON 2006

This is Swimathon week, when several thousand people at hundreds of swimming pools up and down the country will be doing sponsored swimming activities to raise money for charity.

This year the main beneficiary is the children’s charity NCH.

Unfortunately neither the Copeland pool in Hensingham (which has some rebuilding work today) nor the Keswick pool are taking part this time. I will be doing the swim in Harpenden. The one participating pool in Cumbria this year is Workington; we’ll have to see if we can get a few more involved next time.

Initially the Swimathon involved a 5,000 metre swim (that’s about three miles for the non-metric amongst us) – there are now shorter challenges for those who are not up to that and a 10,000 metre challenge for those who are exceptional swimmers. I hope to try that in the next year or two but it won’t be this year – I will be quite happy if I finish the three miles.

Anyone who would like to sponsor me, please drop me a line at

charityswim@chris4copeland.com

Friday, March 03, 2006

DON’T MOVE OUR MUMS: HERE WE GO AGAIN

Accordingly to a leaked report, the review group considering the future of maternity services in Cumbria was split about how to proceed, and one of the options they have considered would require about a thousand women each year to travel from West Cumbria to Carlisle to give birth.

One option in the report was to upgrade the maternity units at both Carlisle and the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven. The other option was to downgrade the West Cumberland maternity unit to a midwife-led unit and for deliveries requiring support doctors to take place in Carlisle. Apparently the review group was not able to reach agreement on either of these options and is working on a new proposal.

On the face of it, the arguments for retaining and improving doctor-led units on both sites appear overwhelming. Midwife-led maternity units have been successful in some more urban parts of Britain, but such units are usually within fifteen minutes “blue light” ambulance ride of a doctor-led maternity unit so that patients can be transferred quickly if complications develop. The idea of making such an emergency transfer over 40 miles of single-carriageway roads between Whitehaven and Carlisle fills me with deep unease. It would also require ambulance resources to be made available, which could easily cost £475,000 a year – money which would have to be diverted from other health services.

Then there is the question of whether Carlisle can cope with everything which would be moved there – that hospital is not really big enough for its existing workload.

There would be an enormous impact on children’s services. According to the leaked report, paediatricians advised that moving doctor-led births and post-natal care to Carlisle would require more senior medical staff at that site, and this could not be achieved by moving resources from Whitehaven without risking serious problems with the children’s health services at one or both hospitals.

Apart from these vital medical concerns, many residents of West Cumbria will be concerned about the practical issue of getting the expectant mother to hospital safely and quickly when she goes into labour, and of how the father and other family members can visit the new mother and baby there. If you don’t have a car, visiting on Sundays will be rather difficult.

Doubtless these serious concerns are the reason why the review group did not want to downgrade the maternity unit at Whitehaven. However, I am very worried by the fact that they have not gone for the option of enhancing the maternity units in both Carlisle and West Cumbria. If the problem is one of resources, we must campaign for those resources to be made available. If the problem is recruitment and retention of staff, we must support the Health Trusts in finding ways to make working in the NHS here an attractive option.