Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year's message from David Cameron

David Cameron writes:

2010 will be election year. After all the false starts and speculation, now we know for sure that the country will have a chance to vote for change this year. Within days, the gloves will be off and the arguments will begin. But as we enter this year of intense political activity, I think it's important for all politicians to remember something. While those in the Westminster village might eagerly be limbering up for a frantic few months of speeches and launches and strategies and tactics - and all the hoopla of today's politics - most people in the country will be contemplating the prospect of months of electioneering with emotions somewhere on a scale between indifference and dread: and that is something we need to change. But we'll only do that if we recognise the reasons why politics is broken.

First and foremost it's because the expenses scandal is not a chapter that comes to a close as we move into a new year. It is an ongoing reminder of a deeper breakdown in trust between politicians and the public. And this has many causes. Politicians who think they have the answer to everything and just can't bear to leave people alone to get on with their lives. Politicians who can't bring themselves to recognise any good in their opponents and refuse to work together to get things done. Politicians who never admit they're wrong and never acknowledge that they've made a mistake. A sense that Westminster has become so much about point-scoring, positioning and political dividing-lines that people and their real-life problems are completely left out. These are some of the reasons that politics is broken.

I'm sure I've been guilty of these offences on occasions, and no doubt will commit them again. But we shouldn't stop trying to get it right just because we don't always succeed. Over the past few years, we've tried in the Conservative Party to do things differently. We voted for Tony Blair's school reforms because we agreed with them even though we could have inflicted a damaging defeat on the Government. We've encouraged our parliamentary candidates to set up social action projects in their communities. We've opened up politics through open primaries to select potential MPs and held open Cameron Direct meetings all over the country where people from all parties and none can come and ask me questions. We took swift action on expenses and were the first to pay money back where that was the right thing to do. And we've consistently pushed for TV election debates, whether we've been behind in the polls or ahead in the polls. But there's a huge amount more to do if we want to rebuild trust. So let's try and make this election year the moment to start fixing our broken politics. Let's bring real change to Westminster and the whole political system. A big part of that is about policy: policies to reform expenses and the way Parliament works; policies to redistribute power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street; policies to make government more transparent and accountable.

But it's not all about policy. It's also about character, attitude and approach. It's about how political leaders actually behave, the example they set and the lead they give. It's about doing as well as talking - real social action in our communities, not just pontificating from an ivory tower. And my resolution this new year is to work harder for a new politics in this country. I don't want to mislead people: there's an election campaign coming, and I think it's reasonable for political parties to point out the consequences of their opponents' policies, records and judgments as well as the benefits of their own. The House of Commons - particularly on set-piece occasions like Prime Minister's Questions - is an adversarial place. But let's make sure the election is a proper argument about the future of the country, not some exercise in fake dividing lines. Let's at least recognise the good intentions of our opponents. Let's be honest that whether you're Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you're motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about - and indeed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be.

Of course the area where there is greatest and most sincere agreement between political parties is our shared support for our mission in Afghanistan. I know that we will never take for granted the bravery of our armed forces, and as we prepare to fight the political battles at home, we will keep in mind constantly the humbling courage of those who fight the real battles for us overseas.

So let's make 2010 the year for a new politics. Let's be positive about our own policies as well as pointing out the consequences of our opponents' policies. But above all, let's be honest about the problems facing the country and how we can solve them. Yes, there will be an election this year: that much is certain. And we can be certain too that the arguments will be fierce. But let's make it a good clean fight. And once the battle is over, we will need to rise above our differences and come together because that is the only way - strong, united leadership is the only way - we will sort out Britain's problems, halt our decline, and give this country the success that I know we can achieve.




Watch DC's New Year's message here.

A realistic forecast for 2010 and a "fantasy" one

The New Statesman website has two extremely different predictions for 2010

Peter Kellner the (Labour leaning) Chairman of the Yougov polling company has this message for labour optimists: "Get Real!"

At the other extreme, James Mackintyre, who predicted last year in his Political Predictions for 2009 that

"By the end of the year, the two main parties will have switched positions in the polls, with the Conservatives heading into 2010 languishing below 30 per cent."

gets out his crystal ball again and makes a prediction for 2010 which he himself describes as Fantasy Politics.

I am not sure how serious this prediction is supposed to be, particularly given the title: it predicts a 6th May election (that date is plausible) in which BBC and ITV exit polls project a Conservative majority of 30 to 50 seats but when the actual votes are counted Labour have emerged as the largest party in a hung parliament.

This reminds me of an article in one of the papers just before the 1997 election which suggested that there was some chance that the Conservatives might scrape home in that election. I wasn't certain at the time whether that was supposed to be serious either.

I find it very interesting that the most optimistic projections that anyone in the Labour camp or their supporters feel able to put forward suggest a hung parliament in which no party has a majority.

A hung parliament would be a disaster both for Britain and Copeland: for the country because nobody would have the mandate to take the painful decisions which are needed, for Copeland because it would leave the anti-nuclear Lib/Dems holding the balance of power.

Although the majority of recent opinion polls suggest that the most likely result of the election is a narrow majority for the Conservatives, no election result is certain until the votes are counted and nobody can afford any complacency about the results of the coming election, either in Copeland or nationally. The result could be very close and every vote will count.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A very Merry Christmas to everyone reading this

Complements of the season and best wishes for a very happy Christmas holiday to everyone reading this blog, wherever you are and regardless of what you believe.

A Copeland anecdote

A few weeks ago a Lib/Dem blogger who uses the non-de-plume "Yellow Submarine" posted the anecdote below on a "Political Betting" thread. The following day, when asked which seat he had been talking about, "Yellow Submarine" subsequently confirmed that the constitutency concerned was Copeland.

"Anecdote Alert: I spent a week recently in a northern Labour constituency that survived the 1983 Falklands landslide. Labour activists I went to school with talked openly about being “in deep ****” and ” completely ****ed”. They are fighting for their lives and think there is a realistic prospect they’ll lose the seat.
One particulalry telling exchange was about the “guilt” some canvassers were experiencing because there was so much direct Lab/BNP switching going on they thought it might just save them as a certain sort of person just wouldn’t vote Tory ( This bizarre heirarchy of stigma tells you a lot about some WWC areas). However the most shocking thing about the whole exchange was it became clear after a while that the main purpose of the pub invitation was to get *my* advice on their campaign strategy.

WTF?"

by Yellow Submarine November 9th, 2009 at 9:54 am



With regard to where the BNP vote in Copeland is coming from, there is no doubt in my mind that about half of it is people who otherwise would not have voted. For the rest, the friends "Yellow Submarine" was taking to are almost certainly right that there is a lot of Labour/BNP switching going on. Some of it from people who would never dream of voting Tory.

I expect the result in Copeland to be extremely close, and neither the Conservatives nor Labour can take the seat for granted: it really could go either way.

Bransty Landslip

By a strange coincidence I was on Bransty Hill delivering Christmas cards when I got a message that there had been a landslip at the Bransty cliffs.

Fortunately nobody was hurt.

Went to check: the area is clearly signed. But if you are walking anywhere near the cliffs at Bransty this holiday (above or below them), do take care.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DC on supporting our troops at Christmas

David Cameron writes ...

As the snow falls across our country this week, let's remember the soldiers who are serving in the wind and frost of Afghanistan.

Christmas is a tough time to be away from your family, and for many families, this Christmas will be especially painful as they think of the loved ones they have lost this past year. But every single soldier and all their families should know that the whole country is right behind them and incredibly grateful for the work that they do.

Earlier this month, I made my fourth trip to Afghanistan. As you can see in this video, I got to see a bit of what life can be like for our troops. Just before I arrived, President Obama announced a big increase in American troops for Afghanistan. If you add in the extra soldiers Britain is sending over, we now have the best chance to ensure that our counter-insurgency campaign is successful, deliver a safer country to the Afghan authorities, and then bring our brave troops back home.

One of the best ways of thanking our soldiers is by holding big awards ceremonies like the Sun Military Awards last week. This was the second time that I've been to the Awards - and both times I've been staggered by the stories I've heard. Seeing service personnel like Able Seaman Kate Nesbitt, who ran seventy yards under fire to rescue a comrade, and Royal Marine Ben McBean, who lost an arm and a leg in a Taleban blast and then ran the London Marathon, pick up awards is an amazing experience, humbling as well as inspiring.

We should all take the time to think about our troops this Christmas. These men and women are performing heroics for our country. So let's show our support for them and for the families who miss them at home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The big freeze and Rational Expectations

If you are travelling in the present frosty conditions, do take extra care. I've just got back from a trip to Birmingham on business.

Most people I met on my travels were careful and considerate. There was one lunatic who overtook several cars on the road to Great Clifton at about 6 am this morning, who was travelling well over the speed limit in conditions of total darkness and when there was ice and snow on main roads in the immediate vicinity. One did think "Darwin Award candidate."

But lots of other people were the soul of courtesy, from the police civilian who got out of his car when the A66 was blocked to advise other drivers of progress with sending for snow ploughs, to colleagues at the telephone exchange in Penrith who helped me deal with snow there.

As BT's Business Travel Unit is a great deal more effective at keeping expenses claims under control than the House of Commons Fees unit appears to have been, I had booked my travel well in advance, on trains which I was not able to make, and could have been put to considerable trouble had various officials of the railway companies been the kind of jobsworth who likes exercising authority and being difficult. Fortunately they were to a man and woman very helpful and recognised that the circumstances were unusual because of the very bad weather.

My other thought on my journey today relates to a much misunderstood economic principle - that of Rational Expectations, applied in this instance to travel warnings.

I checked travel conditions on the internet before starting my journey, and today was the only time in my life that I've have done that and subsequently found conditions worse than the warning. Usually the people who compile them bend over backwards to avoid understating the problem.

I should have allowed for the possiblity that just occasionally things might be worse than forecast, but I'm afraid I didn't. And it was for a very simple reason: because the people who predict road and rail travel issues usually err on the side of caution, we are all used to problems not being as bad as expected. And then it is very easy to fail to allow for the possiblity that we might sometimes get an error in the opposite direction. Try as you might, if a forecast tends to overshoot, it's very hard not to at least unconsciously factor this into your expectations.

But as with the boy who cried wolf, sometimes there really is a wolf.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Reliable Sources"

Earlier this evening the Labour PPC for Skipton and Ripon, Claire Hazelgrove, put this comment on Twitter:

"Have now heard rumour from a number of reliable sources of new MORI poll placing the Tories on 37, and Labour on 34. Let's wait and see!"

The actual results of the IPSOS MORI poll concerned, taken some time ago but only published this evening, came out a couple of hours later and were rather different from that rumour: they were


CONSERVATIVE 43% (Up from 37% in the last MORI poll)
LABOUR 26% (Down from 31%)
LIB/DEM 20% (Up from 17%)
OTHERS 11% (Down from 16%)


Which only goes to show that if there is one thing sillier than reading too much into one opinion poll it is paying attention to rumours about an opinion poll.


MORI use different methods to adjust for sampling error to those of other pollsters. For example. they do not weight their samples by past vote, and they only includes those who say they are 100% certain to vote. This means that MORI predictions tend to fluctuate more than those of other polling companies.

So although the actual result of this poll is a nice Christmas present for the Conservatives we cannot assume that the actual position is as favourable as this, and nor can we afford an atom of complacency. There is still everything to play for and no party should take the results of the coming election for granted until the returning officer has announced them.


The other lesson from Claire Hazelgrove's twitter is to demonstrate a pitfall that politicians (and everyone else) always need to watch out for: don't equate "reliable sources" with "people who are telling me what I want to hear."

From the Guardian ...

The Guardian are not renowned for side splitting humour (except occasionally unintentionally) but hat tip to Political Betting for this item from that paper:

An English cat, "One Two Three" and a French cat, "Un Deux Trois" had a boating race. Who won?

Answer: the English cat, "One Two Three."

Because Un Deux Trois Quatre Cinq ....

Friday, December 18, 2009

There is no "honour" in murdering your daughter

News coverage of the tragic story of Tulay Goren, whose father has just been convicted of murdering her, suggests that so-called "Honour Killings" are claiming a victim every month.

It is offensive to call these murders 'honour killings', because there is nothing honourable about them. To kill your daughter or sister can never redeem your family's honour, it destroys it by proving you to be a particlarly depraved criminal.

What is even more extraordinary is that these murders are being linked to the rise in certain forms of fundamentalist religion.

There is no valid religious justification for murder, and the perpetrators of such crimes should not be allowed to hide behind any faith.

It would not justify these crimes if the perpetrators could point to a passage in the Koran or any other holy book as the inspiration for their actions, but in fact it is my understanding that no major faith or sacred text calls on the adherents of that religion to enforce it's precepts by killing members of their own family.

The authorities must work with responsible community leaders - plenty of members of the ethnic minority communities in Britain are as horrified by crimes such as the murder of Tulay Goren as the rest of us - to stamp out this abomination.

Martin Kettle on what the polls are really saying

Hat tip to Mike Smithson at Political Betting for recommending this article by Martin Kettle in the Guardian.

Kettle's article "Not even Cameron can control the politics of anger" suggests that the next election will take place against a backdrop of enormous hostility to government - the present government in particular, but to some extent the whole political system has been discredited and whoever wins the next election will have a very difficult time.

He has some astute comments on the "self deception" of some Labour politicians and supporters who appear to think that the next election is "game on" because a very modest firming of their position has some opinion polls showing them only nine points behind. As he says

"It is one thing to be misled by polls and local elections that are actually in your favour, as Harold Wilson was when he called the 1970 election. It is quite another thing to get carried away – as some in the Labour party are – by polls that are simply not in their favour."

After pointing out that Brown's "class war" politics are likely to surrender the centre ground to the opposition parties, perhaps for a long time, Kettle goes on to conclude that

"In the end, however, not even Cameron can control the politics of anger. As the first election since the expenses scandal, this contest will take place amid a mood of hostility towards politicians that at times seems almost revolutionary in its force, fully encouraged by the media ...

"I believe the modern media now has a collective oppositional self-interest not just to particular parties or class interests, as in the past, but to the very idea of government and politics itself. How far even Cameron can prosper in such a system is one of the many questions that will face him and us in 2010."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cameron visits Barker crossing

David Cameron and shadow farms secretary Nick Herbert were in Cumbria today: their itinerary included a visit to Barker crossing - the new footbridge built by the army in Workington and named in honour of PC Bill Barker who lost his life while saving those of others during the floods.

I was of course pleased to see David and Nick making the effort to visit Cumbria and see the work which is being done to recover from the floods.

One spontanous incident which I found particularly moving happened at the bridge just before DC arrived. One of the people who met him at the bridge was the Brigadier commanding the unit which includes all the regular and TA units in the North West of England, 42 Brigade, which provided the majority of the 200 soldiers who built the bridge. As he was telling us, there were service people from various parts of the country involved, particularly armoured sappers who are used to building bridges for tanks, but also local TA members who were helping their own community.

One of the Workington residents who was using the bridge on her way from Northside to the town centre recognised the Brigadier, and stopped to thank him and his team for what they had done for the people of Workington.

She had just a few well-chosen words to say but they obviously came from the heart.

Monday, December 14, 2009

DC: Labour have lost the right to govern

David Cameron points out that, by their failure to take the decisions the country needs, last week Labour lost the moral authority to run Britain. He writes

"Their Pre-Budget Report on Wednesday was an opportunity to finally confront the biggest budget deficit in Britain's peacetime history. Instead, they put their own political fortunes ahead of what is right for our country. Not only did they decide to carry on their irresponsible spending, but they're actually increasing it next year.

"Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling just don't seem to care about the risks they are running. As I say in this video, it's as if they're a couple of joy-riders in a car smashing up the neighbourhood, not caring about what is going to happen and not caring about anyone who might have to take over the mess they have created.

"It's clear that all they care about now is politics. Just look at the reports about Brown personally overruling the Treasury's advice on the PBR so that he could stick to his wretched political dividing lines.

"And look at the speech Darling gave in Parliament. He said he would increase benefits for some of the most vulnerable people in our country, like the disabled - but he didn't mention his plans to cut those same benefits the year after the election. Then he said that he would protect the NHS, but didn't mention the fact that his national insurance increases - a tax on jobs that hits everyone earning over £20,000 - will cost the NHS almost £450 million.

"If anyone needed one more reason to believe it's time to get rid of the Labour politicians running our country, this week's behaviour gave every reason that could possibly be needed."


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Labour: a party no longer fit to govern

The Sunday Times does not pull its' punches today in describing the miserable failure of Labour's Pre-Budget Report to address the issues facing Britain.

Their main leader article, "A party no longer fit to govern" begins as follows:

"When Alistair Darling delivered his pre-budget report, the public had a right to expect three things. He needed to set out a credible plan to get public borrowing down. He had to be honest about the scale of spending cuts needed during the next parliament. And, if he chose to announce tax rises, they would be for reducing the debt, not spending even more on Britain’s public sector.

"The chancellor failed on all three counts."


You can read the full article here.

Millom Christmas Fair

I took the family down to Millom yesterday to attend the town's christmas fair, held in and around a big marquee in the market square.

The fair was a big success, and was well attended. There was a good variety of stalls and events which obviously represented a lot of work for many people. Fortunately the weather was much better than we have generally been enjoying for the past couple of weeks. My children greatly enjoyed their outing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Sun shreds the PBR

The Sun editorial today "Darling Duds" is very critical of the Pre-Budget Report (and IMHO rightly so).

As they say,

"LABOUR had one last chance yesterday to show it was serious about cutting Britain's crippling debts.

It threw that chance away. And with it may have gone Britain's financial reputation."


and

"Chancellor Alistair Darling's Pre-Budget Report was in reality a Pre-Election Report.

"He set out Labour's political stall while skating around the crushing £800billion Britain owes.

"Faced with disaster in the public finances and the failure of his own projections, Mr Darling might have been expected to change course.

"Instead, the Chancellor buried his head in the sand."


You can read the full article here.

Postscript

A little naughty but their front page today - number nine in this gallery - may also be one of the headlines that people always remember.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Labour puts off the pain until after the election

Today's Pre-Budget Report (PBR) was a disgrace. It was an exercise in deferring the pain of the tough decisions which are needed until after next year's election.

Because the Labour government have failed to take those tough decisions before the election, there will be higher taxes and higher interest rates if Labour win the election.

The central measure was a tax on jobs that hits everyone earning over £20,000 – well below the median wage. That is Labour’s definition of the “well off”.

As George Osborne said, if you want to get ahead, if you want to buy your house, if you want to save for your pension, if you want to leave anything for your kids, Labour is no longer the party for you.

Labour have failed to deal with the £178bn deficit, cancelled the pre-election Comprehensive Spending Review, and instead said that a Labour victory at the election would mean:

£7.8 billion higher taxes - £370 more per family - after the election
Of this £6.5 billion - £310 more per family – is a rise in National Insurance - a tax on anyone earning over £20,000.

Labour’s planned tax on jobs is now £200 a year on someone earning £30,000 a year, or £60 on average earnings of around £23,000

Apart from those areas which are ring fenced Labour's policies mean a real terms 10% cut in all other Departments over just two years.

Other Labour tax rises include

* A £440m inheritance tax rise
* A new £440m phone tax
* £220m on workplace canteens
* a £500m pension tax rise

Yet even with all this pain they have not come anywhere near to bringing their borrowing under control, and the National Debt will now reach £1.5 Trillion within two years.

In the words of the Daily Telegraph,

"Britain will pay dearly as Labour plays politics

The pre-Budget report served an invaluable political purpose. It showed that Labour will, in attempting to save its skin, put sectional interest before the country's interest.

If further proof were needed that Labour is no longer fit to govern, yesterday's pre-Budget report supplied it."


In the words of Business:

Richard Lambert, Director-General of the CBI said that “The Chancellor has made a serious mistake imposing an extra jobs tax at a time when the economic recovery will still be fragile. Increasing the National Insurance contribution will hold back job creation and growth. He has also missed the opportunity to increase the UK’s credibility by reducing the public deficit earlier. We are no clearer today as to how the Government plans to reduce public expenditure."

David Frost of British Chambers of Commerce said that the National Insurance rise is: "Terrible news...It’s an additional cost for business when they can least afford it."

Miles Templeman, Director-Generaleneral of the Institute of Directors: "The key theme of this year's PBR is prudence postponed... A further tax on jobs at a time like this is madness."

John Wright, FSB National Chairman on the tax on jobs: "this is extremely damaging for employment in the UK."

One businessmen quoted on BBC News said that since 2002 Britain had gone from having teh best tax and regulatory regime in Europe in which to do business to number 24 in the rankings.

Two years for new bridges

A report in the News and Star today says that it is likely to take two years until permanent replacements for the Northside and Calva bridges in Workington are open.

Cumbria County Council announced yesterday that it hopes to have a temporary road crossing over the River Derwent by next summer.

Council leader Jim Buchanan said: “We are moving as fast as we possibly can. There is no way that we could move more quickly than we are doing.”

A dozen bridges across Cumbria remain closed after the floods. They include Gote Bridge in Cockermouth, Great Broughton Bridge and Ouse Bridge at Bassenthwaite. CCC engineers have drawn up six options for permanent and temporary road crossings.

We need to hold the government to the Prime Minsiter's promise that the government will meet local authority costs for flood repairs and rebuilding.

Saj Karim on EU help for Cumbria

Sajjad Karim MEP, with his Conservative colleagues Sir Robert Atkins and Jacqueline Foster, have been working to persuade the European Union to provide help for Cumbria in response to the floods.

Saj sent me an email on the subject today and I thought it was worth sharing a few points from that message.


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Meeting with EU Commissioner Samecki regarding Cumbria Floods

Further to my previous update about what actions I have taken with reference to Cumbria, I can confirm that no response has been received from the Government in relation to my call for them to apply for EU funding to assist Cumbria in the aftermath of the devastation caused by the floods.

Yesterday, I met with European Commissioner Pawel Samecki, who is the European Commissioner for Regional Policy. The management of the EU Solidarity Fund is within his remit, so I was keen to meet him to discuss Cumbria’s case and what could be achieved with the solidarity fund to assist Cumbria.

Commissioner Samecki explained that 3.4 billion euros of damage is required before the EU can assist through the auspices of the solidarity fund. The UK Government have to ask for assistance and they have not done so, nor are they showing any indications of an intention to apply. We need to step up and pressure the Government to put in an application. The Government only have 10 weeks from the disaster struck before the window to submit applications closes.

The short term recovery of Cumbria now lies within Government hands, but looking at the bigger picture and at a long term recovery plan; the potential for Cumbria to move to sustainable energy economy is enormous and could play a substantial role in rebuilding the local economy.

Please do keep in touch.



Best wishes




Saj

Sajjad H. Karim MEP
Conservative Member of the European Parliament for the North West of England

A final response to Robin Pitt

Over the past few months Cllr Robin Pitt has made a series of complaints and allegations against an officer of Copeland Council and just about every prominent Conservative in sight.

Not one of those complaints was upheld: as he admitted in the debate on the no confidence motion which was moved against him yesterday, he had no proof to back any of them up.

It is perhaps worth explaining that the justification for moving a motion of no confidence against Cllr Pitt as Chair of Copeland Council's personnel panel is that someone who makes allegations of misconduct against a member of staff for which which he can provide no evidence may not be the ideal person to act as impartial chairman of a body which looks after the interests of council staff.

The debate was an example of the kind of politics in which grown adults act like badly behaved adolescents, and which puts so many people off politics.

For example, before the debate was guillotined, Cllr Pitt repeated a demand that the Leader of the Conservative Group apologise for saying that his (Cllr Pitt's) allegations were untrue. Councillor Pitt demanded this apology on the basis that the council's standards committee had not dismissed his complaints because his allegations were proven to be untrue, but because that there was no corroborative evidence to prove them.

Honestly, how are you supposed to prove a negative statement, e.g. that something never happened?

Because of a clash of dates I had left the previous council meeting shortly before the speeches concerned, but I am advised that Councillor Moore sees no cause to apologise because he was expressing his own opinion that Pitt's allegations were untrue, not claiming that the Standards Committee has used that form of words.

As it happens, I had written an article on this blog on Tuesday 13th June 2006, long before Councillor Pitt had been elected to Copeland Council or turned to the dark side, let alone made the allegations he put forward this year. In an article entitled "Time to rethink the ethics rules" I made a number of suggestions about the Code of Local Government conduct designed to ensure that enforcing high ethical standards does not stop councillors from doing the job they were entitled to do. That post contained several comments about the rights of people who are accused of misconduct, and concerning what should be done to people who make such allegations when they cannot produce any evidence to back them up.

So the following comments, written at a time when I could not possibly have known what allegations Cllr Pitt would make three years later, seem particularly relevant to yesterday's debate.

"Councillors accused of misconduct should be entitled to the same right which the criminal law gives to everyone else – to be considered innocent until proven guilty. If a complaint is made and no material evidence is produced to support it, or an investigation does not establish any wrongdoing or breach of the code, the Standards Board should issue an unequivocal statement that the person who had been accused in the complaint has been cleared.

"Finally, it would be helpful if some disincentive could be applied to those who make malicious or politically motivated complaints. This is easier said than done. In my experience the most common source of unjustified or unreasonable complaints to the standards board is people who were unhappy with the result of a planning application. I cannot see a way of discouraging this which would not also deter people with a genuine complaint.

"However, the second most common source of unjustified complaints is political opponents trying to score party propaganda points. And this would be relatively easy to do something about.

"Knowingly making a false statement in a complaint to the standards board should be a criminal offence, just as knowingly making a false statement on most other official forms is. Complainants to the standards board should have to state whether they are a member of a political party.

"If a member of a rival political party, or an independent councillor, makes a complaint against somebody and produces no material case to support it, then unless there are special circumstances the Standards Board should “name and shame” the complainant by putting a note in the local paper announcing that he or she has been censured for misusing the system by making unsubstantiated complaints.

"Some people reading this may ask if there is a danger that justified complaints might be deterred by such a system. If it were applied to the public in general, there would be. But if it only applies to politicians and members of political parties, the effect would be to make them check their facts more carefully before attacking the integrity of their opponents. And that would be an entirely good thing for the health of local democracy."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Feedback from December Copeland Council meeting

Copeland Council met in Cleator Moor civic hall this afternoon.

The meeting began with prayers for those affected by the recent floods and expecially the family and friends of the late Bill Barker.

The following three hours was, to use a football expression, very much a "game of two halves" with two hours of fairly constructive discussion about positive issues during which most people would agree with the vast majority of what was said on all sides, followed by a fairly nasty final hour marred by some unpleasant party political manouvering.

FLOODS AND INFRASTRUCTURE

It was agreed by councillors on both sides of the chamber that the effect of the recent floods shows how badly Cumbria's transport infrastructure needs to be improved. The need to re-trunk and/or replace the A595 was one, and for a Duddon Bridge, were two of the issues raised.

HOSPITALS

Continued progress on the rebuild project for the West Cumberland Hospital was welcomed but it was agreed that councillors need to be involved in engaging with the NHS trusts about this project and to demonstrate cross-party political support.

PARKS

Copeland council's parks department was congratulated on winning a prestigious national award for the second year running

DILAPIDATED BUILDINGS

A number of buildings in a terrible condition have caused real problems in several parts of Copeland from Whitehaven to Millom, and there has been some progress. Two of these are being improved by their owners, while arrangements are being put in hand to prosecute the owners of two others who have refused to respond to requests to do the same.

There was some constructive discussion of this but one of the Labour councillors from Cleator Moor provided the first sour note of the evening by noting that the former Conservative Club in that town (since demolished) had been a derelict building for a while. Gosh, how funny.

CHOOSING TO CHANGE

A report from the cross-party board which is leading on the "Choosing to Change" programme for reform of the council gave a constructive analysis of the issues involved and the steps being taken to get there. There was some debate on the fact that the board meets in private, but given that it's recommendations will come to the full council in open session, most councillors were willing to give this decision the benefit of the doubt. If the meeting had stopped at this point, without the subsequent events which cast doubt on the seriousness of the Labour majority's commitment to cross-party reform, I would have considered it an excellent meeting.

REPORT OF AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION

Unfortunately the meeting did not stop at that point. Next item was the report of the Independent Head of the Audit committee who has been asked to investigate an incident in which the report of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees had been amended before going to Full Council without reference to the Chairmen of the Committees.

The report made a number of recommendations to move things forward, which most councillors, including myself, supported. Several speakers however, again including myself, were concerned that a couple of sentences in the conclusion of the report could be taken as criticism of a former officer of the council. Although I was and am satisfied that the report was not intended to read as an attack on the officer concerned, we wanted to make the point that we didn't support any such interpetation of what had been written.

Other councillors expressed a similar opinion rather more strongly, and at this point the Labour administration demonstrated that they are not good at dealing with dissent.

Councillor Brian Dixon, the Overview and Scrutiny Chairman who had originally asked for the investigation was half way through his response to the report. He had strong views on the report and they were trenchantly expressed but his speech contained nothing to justify the Stalinist response it provoked.

Apparently incensed at being required to listen to views he didn't like, a member of the Labour Executive popped up and moved that "the question now be put" - e.g. an immediate vote on the recommendations with no further opportunity for debate and without Brian being allowed to finish his speech.

This procedure exists in the standing orders of most councils to stop filibusters and avoid a situation where the same arguments are being repeated again and again. Neither of these justifications appeared to apply today, and nor was it the reason advanced for the motion to block further debate. The proposer of that motion said it was to stop people wrecking the council. However, the motion to proceed straight to the vote was forced through by all but one of the Labour group (one of their councillors abstained.)

In my view this gratuitous cap on democracy was quite uncalled for and left a wholly unnecessary bad taste in the mouth.

PLAY AREA EXTENSION AT CASTLE PARK, WHITEHAVEN

There followed a debate on a planning application to extend the play area at Castle Park. A number of councillors raised concerns which had initially been put forward by local residents, that this could lead to an increase in problems with illegal parking in the area. There was a mostly constructive debate (I was slightly irritated at being described as having said that the council would be encouraging illegal parking if we passed the proposal, when what I actually said was that an increase in that problem might be a result.) It was eventually agreed that the extra play area should be approved but that a number of steps should be taken for more effective enforcement against illegal parking.

MOTION OF NO CONFIDENCE IN THE CHAIRMAN OF PERSONNEL

A motion of no confidence in the Chairman of Personnel was moved by the Leader and Deputy leader of the Conservative group in relation to a series of allegations which he had made against a staff member and several Conservative councillors for which he could not produce a shred of evidence. This motion too was guillotined and voted down by the Labour majority.

A prolonged hung parliament would be a disaster

The arithmetic of the next election makes a "hung parliament" in which no party has a majority a horribly real possibility. While one should always be careful not to over-react to one or two opinion polls, a recent small upturn in Labour support has caused some people in the MSM and blogosphere to speculate about whether such a result is likely.

Certainly David Cameron has always been the first to warn Conservatives not to take victory for granted. Believe me, we don't. No Conservative with any sense will regard the election as being in the bag until the results have been declared.

However, it says something about how desperate some Labour spinners and supporters have become that they are gasping with exitement at polls showing themselves only eight points behind. I remember some Conservatives clutching at straws like that in the run-up to the 1997 election - and much good it did us.

There is everything to play for. But I certainly hope we don't get a hung parliament because this would be a disaster for Britain and for Copeland - in some ways even more disastrous than if the present government, dire as they are, were re-elected.

A prolonged period of minority government would be a disaster for Britain because the terrible financial crisis, in which one pound in every four that the government spends goes staight onto the National Debt, and the annual cost of paying the interest on that debt goes up by £6,000 a second, will take tough measures to sort out. I don't believe for a second that a "hung parliament" would approve the necessary measures.

And a hung parliament would be a disaster for Copeland as well as Britain because it might give the anti-nuclear Lib/Dems the balance of power.

Obviously my preferred outcome would be a Conservative majority government, either straight away, or after a short period of minority administration. If that doesn't happen:

You cannot vote for or against a hung parliament. But you can hope and pray that we don't get one.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Workington bridge named after PC Bil Barker

The new bridge in Workington has been named after hero PC Bill Barker who lost his life while saving those of others.

Where it went wrong for Labour

Hat tip to Political Betting for drawing my attention to an interesting piece by Jeff Randall in the DT, which seemed apposite when it was published last year and seems even more appropriate now.

The title of the article was "Where did it all go wrong? When Labour started telling lies."

The article is worth reading in full but the following words ring particularly true for me:

"No amount of makeovers, re-launches or faked sincerity can change what has occurred. The public has worked out that just about everything Labour had promised on issues that really matter turned out to be untrue.

"For Mr Brown and the entire New Labour project, that is where it has all gone wrong. It is the falsehoods that dumped the party's poll ratings in the gutter.

"Goebbels' comment on the efficacy of propaganda will be familiar to many: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

What is less well known is his qualifying observation: "The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie."

"Labour's big lies on budgetary prudence, educational standards, support for the Armed Forces, the economic benefits of immigration, a referendum on the European constitution (alias the Lisbon treaty), figures on violent crime, weapons of mass destruction, the abolition of quangos, British jobs for British workers and tackling welfare abuse have been exposed for what they were: cynical manipulation of credulous voters."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ken Clarke - "New Labour is dead"

Ken Clarke has a superb newspaper column in the Mail this weekend here.

He argues convincingly that the Labour government's attempt to bring back the class war by attacking prominent tories not on the basis of our policies but on where they went to school demonstrates that they know they are losing the battle of ideas, that they are desperate, and that the ideas of New Labour are being abandoned.

As Ken puts it

"If you can hear the sound of scraping coming from within Downing Street this weekend, it is because the inhabitants of No 10 have now found the very bottom of the barrel.

"There is no surer sign that Gordon Brown has given up on governing and opted instead for base political mud-slinging than his decision to lurch to the Left with that old Labour attack on the Conservatives: the class war.

"The attack on David Cameron's background last week and Labour's assault on the Inheritance Tax package (even though they are implementing a version of it themselves) shows Gordon and his dwindling band of advisers have turned their backs on grown-up politics and settled on the politics of envy as a last resort.

... "this decision is a major strategic blunder which Gordon, Peter Mandelson and the others will soon come to regret. More importantly, it marks the definitive end of the New Labour project."


Ken also points out that Labour's own front bench is as vulnerable to such charges - Labour's Harriet Harman went to the sister school of the one George Osborne attended, Labour's Ed Balls went to the same school as Ken himself. In fact nearly half the Labour cabinet went to private schools - which should be neither a matter for praise or blame, but makes it total hypocrisy for them to criticise the Conservatives for something they share.

Ken concludes

"Perhaps the single most important reason why Labour's lurch to the Left will fail is because modern electors aren't concerned about what school a politician went to, any more than they are bothered about what colour or what gender he or she might be. They are concerned about what would-be leaders will do about the state of the country.

"I would never have come back if I thought David Cameron had anything of the old-fashioned toff about him.

"I came back because he is a positive person, a highly intelligent, dynamic man who has the right ideas and is capable of leading a Government that will help people in every walk of life get out of the mess we are in."

Workington Footbridge opens tomorrow

Pleased to see that a temporary footbridge which has been put in position over the Derwent with Army help will open tomorrow.

This will bring some relief to Workington residents for whom the loss or closure of the bridges has caused considerable difficulty.

However, in Workington and many other parts of Cumbria such as Lorton, the fact that many road bridges are still down or closed is causing considerable difficulty. The floods have shown that we need to have a long hard look at our infrastructure.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Floods appeal passes the million mark

Thanks to the generosity of both many local people and organisations, and others from all over the country, the Cumbria Floods appear raised over a million pounds in the first ten days and is still going strong.

Howver, this generosity is needed. Insurance analysts estimated the total damage from the flooding, public and private sector, as about £200 million.

Some of this will be picked up by insurance, but it will not have been possible to insure many of the flooded properties.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Byran Appleyard on Global Warming in the Sunday Times

Recent embarrassing disclosures about the work of climate change study at the University of East Anglia have touched off a fement of debate in the blogosphere, some of which is hitting the mainstream media, about whether man-made global warming is happening.

Rather too much of the debate on this subject is dominated by extremists on both sides: for example, I greatly dislike the practice of calling those who don't agree that man's activities are causing global warming "climate change deniers" as if they were on the same level as holocaust deniers - e.g. apologists for nazis and genocide.

I thought David Davis got it about right when he said that the evidence for man-made global warming represents a probability of about 80% - e.g. not conclusively proved but certainly strong enough evidence that we cannot afford not to do anything about it.

There is a very good, and in my opinion well balanced piece by Bryan Appleyard on the subject in today's Sunday Times which you can read here.

Reminder: useful flooding contact numbers

FLOOD victims should log on to www.cumbriafoundation.org or call Cumbria Foundation on 01900 820827 to apply for grants.

GRANTS are also available for voluntary groups supporting people affected by the flooding.

BUSINESSES affected by the flooding should contact the Federation of Small Businesses at www.fsb.org.uk, telephone number 01253 336000 or BusinessLink at www.businesslink.gov.uk/northwest or telephone 0845 0066888.

TO DONATE to the flood relief fund go to www.cumbriafoundation.org or send a cheque, payable to Cumbria Community Foundation Flood Appeal, to CCF, Dovenby Hall, Cockermouth, CA13 0PN.

CASH can be donated at Cumberland or Furness building society branches or branches of HSBC.

Hat-tip to Cumbria Newspapers Group's website for the information in this post

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Keswick is open for business (and so is the rest of Cumbria)

After campaigning this morning in Moresby I spent part of this afternoon Christmas shopping in Keswick with the family.

As the Town Mayor of Keswick, Cllr Andrew Lysser, has said

"Keswick is very much open for business. It has been a tough time but the local community has reacted wonderfully and, despite everything, the atmosphere is buoyant."

Prince Charles visited yesterday to switch on the lights in Keswick (he was in Cockermouth today) and pushed the message that Cumbria is open for business.

Keswick was full of shoppers today: the market was thronged with people, and the shops we visited, some of which had been flooded last weekend, were doing well.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bridge Repairs

Engineers from Cumbria County Council, the Highways Agency, and the armed services have been working hard to prevent any further tragedies, survey every bridge in the county which is near water, and look at replacement bridge options both for the short term and the long term.

Just about every thread on Political Betting for the past week has included at least one contributor who asks why Bailey Bridges are not being used in Cumbria.

That was considered early on, and the professionals tell us that Bailey Bridges are not suitable for the particular circumstances of these particular bridges, but that the army will be able to provide some assistance, and today that is happening. Construction work will begin by the army today on a new temporary footbridge crossing the River Derwent in Workington, uniting communities currently cut off on the north and south side of the river following the collapse of Workington Bridge and the footbridge, and by the structural damage making Calva Bridge unusable. It is hoped the new bridge will be completed by December 5.

Structural engineers are due to complete their checks on Friday on around 1,300 bridges which are near water (the county has around 1,800 bridges in total, but 500 are not near water and therefore haven't needed to be checked after the flooding). So far seven bridges have been identified as requiring principal bridge inspections, where divers will assess their foundations to look for scour damage and erosion. An inspection typically takes a day and can only be done once river levels are suitable.

These bridges are:

Holmrook Bridge - Holmrook (Copeland)
Egremont Bridge - Egremont (Copeland)
Broughton Bridge - Great Broughton (Allerdale)
Butt Bridge - Ennerdale Bridge (Copeland)
Wath Bridge - Cleator Moor (Copeland)
Gote Bridge – Cockermouth (Allerdale)
Greta Bridge – Keswick (Allerdale)

A number of other bridges remain closed either because they are clearly damaged beyond repair or there are still safety concerns. Only when engineers are satisfied that bridges are safe to open will they do so. Public safety must be the priority.

Talking about the floods in general, Cllr Jim Buchanan, Leader of Cumbria County Council, told the Cumbrian newspaper group this week:

"It is amazing to think how far we have come in just a week. There's clearly a lot of work still to be done, but the way everybody has clubbed together to get on with the task at hand has been inspiring. With this kind of spirit and 'can do' attitude, we'll get through this. I'd like to thank all of the communities who have been affected for being so understanding about the disruption to their lives and all of the people working so hard behind the scenes."


The following numbers of properties were flooded:

Cockermouth - 885
Keswick – 240
Workington - 66
Ulverston - 30
Kendal & Burneside - 20

There are also a substantial but undetermined number of other properties flooded in isolated areas.

Remembering PC Bill Barker

The funeral of floods hero PC Bill Barker, who lost his life while saving those of others, will take place today at 1pm at St Mary & St Michael's church in Egremont.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holmrook and Wath Brow

Although the Copeland Borough area has not been nearly as badly hit as Allerdale, there have been communities within the Borough which have had real issues.

The Wath Brow bridge at Cleator Moor has been closed as has the Irt bridge at Holmrook - a massive issue both for the village and for South Copeland as this bridge carries the A595 south from Sellafield.

A diversion is in place via Santon Bridge.

Firefighters were in Holmrook all night last Thursday, pumping water from the road and properties.

“We continued pumping all night,” said David Moore, watch manager of Seascale fire station. (Yes, that's the same David Moore who is often quoted on this blog wearing one of his other hats.)

“But at 4am, although the tide had gone out, the river was rising faster than we could pump water away from properties.”

People were told to stay in their homes and sand bags were given out.

Although a number of businesses were affected by the flood they are still open. The local MP visited on Tuesday and stressed that "Holmrook is open for business."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cumbria Flood Fund close to £500,000

There has been a magnificent response by the public and charitable organisations to the appeal launched by the Cumbria Community Foundation to help residents and local businesses who are victims of the floods.

At the time tomorrow's edition of the Whitehaven News went to print this lunchtime, the total donated had reached £400,000. But such has been the generosity of the community that this total is increasing rapidly and by this evening the paper's website reports that it has almost reached the half-million mark.

Cockermouth firm James Walker, a seals and gaskets maker, donated £100,000 to the fund.

Details of the appeal can be found be logging on to Cumbria Community Foundation's website www.cumbriafoundation.org, or by calling the dedicated phone line 01900 820827.

Cumbria County Council has promised £50,000 and Allerdale Borough Council £25,000. Donations from organiations and businesses have ranged from the large, such as the James Walker donation mentioned above and an initial £10,000 from the Cumberland and Westmoreland Freemasons, to the small but still greatly appreciated gifts such as £150 from the East Bristol History Group.

As mentioned on an earlier post there are buckets collecting donations for the appeal in many of the shops and offices in Cumbrian towns such as Whitehaven and Workington. In Whitehaven these include Tesco's Wetherspoons, Crosby's, WH SMith, Burton's, Haven Cafe, Richardson's Wines, Mason's Electrical, North, the Whitehaven News, Morrison's and St Nicolas's: the Reverend Bannister announced on Sunday that all the takings of the cafe at St Nicolas's will go to the appeal.

Other means for anyone who wants to make a donation: you can visit any branch of the Cumberland Building Society and the Furness Building Society, or cheques made payable to the Cumbria Community Foundation can be sent to CCF, Dovenby Hall, Cockermouth, Cumbria, CA13 0PN.

I find it sad that it is necessary to make the following final comment. I have suspended party political comment on this blog - defined as anything attacking or criticising someone because they support a different political perspective - until the end of November because this is a time for the communities of Cumbria to stand united.

I published the details of the appeal in an earlier post, and am repeating them now in the hope that this would encourage people of all parties and none to support the appeal and make it easier to do so, and for no other reason. I would hope politicians of all parties would actively encourage people to support the appeal.

Sadly a sick individual chose to misinterpret this, and made a cheap party political attack on the subject in a comment on the earlier post in which I urged support for the Flood fund appeal.

I have decided that, just as I have not included any partisan material in blog posts since the start of the floods, and will not resume that kind of political debate here before the end of November at the earliest, neither will I allow any political attacks to be posted here as comments either during the same period. That's whoever they come from and whoever is attacked. Any such comments will be removed as soon as I spot them.

POSTSCRIPT - the appeal passed the £500,000 mark on Thursday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cameron visits flood-hit areas

David Cameron visited Cumbria today to see for himself the flood damage to Cumbria and learn about the steps being taken to repair the damage.

His visit took in Cockermouth and Carlisle.

It is very welcome that so many front bench national politicians of both major parties, from the party leaders down, have come to visit the area affected by the disaster.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Keswick and District Forum Cancelled

Due to the flooding the Keswick and District Neighbourhood Forum which was due to take place tomorrow (24th November) has been cancelled.

Cumbria Floods Appeal

An appeal has been launched by the Cumbria Community Foundation to help residents and local businesses who are victims of the floods.

Details can be found be logging on to Cumbria Community Foundation's website www.cumbriafoundation.org or by calling the dedicated phone line 01900 820827.

Cumbria County Council has promised £50,000 and Allerdale Borough Council £25,000.

The leader of Allerdale council, Cllr Tim Heslop, told the News and Star: “We are committed to working together with all agencies on the massive recovery effort that we face in getting the county back onto its feet.

“As well as getting people back into their homes, the future of many small businesses and how we can help to ensure their survival is one of our top priorities.

“We also express our heartfelt thanks to everyone who is working tremendously hard to help others in these exceptionally difficult circumstances - especially those who are coming to terms with their own loss.”


There are buckets collecting donations for the appeal in many of the shops in Cumbrian towns such as Whitehaven and Workington, and from today all the takings of the cafe at St Nicolas's in Lowther Street Whitehaven will go to the appeal.

Alternatively Anyone who wants to donate cash can visit any branch of the Cumberland Building Society and the Furness Building Society, or cheques made payable to the Cumbria Community Foundation can be sent to CCF, Dovenby Hall, Cockermouth, Cumbria, CA13 0PN.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Unsung heroes

There are more people who have behaved like heroes in dealing with the impact of the floods than any list could possibly cover. The first name on the list will always be PC Bill Barker who gave his life saving others, but hundreds of people from the police, ambulance, RNLI, fire brigade, NHS, RSPCA, social services, housing organisations, and voluntary bodies have put in a huge effort.

I'm going to mention one activity which was just one example of a contribution by one particular local community organisation - and not the only thing that particular society has done - to give an illustration of the lengths to which members of the Cumbrian community have gone to help one another.

I and one of my colleagues from Cumbria County Council were in Cockermouth and Keswick earlier today. The bridges in Keswick, open or closed, were manned by people in reflective yellow jackets.

When we spoke to some of them, we found that they were volunteers from Keswick Lions club. The Lions, at the request of the police, were keeping an eye on the bridges to reduce the risk of accidents - for example, on the footbridge over the River Greta to Fitz Park, there were two of the Lions at each end, making sure that no more than two people were on the bridge at any one time.

The Lions kept those bridges manned for a long period today, including through the rain and into the darkness. (Unfortunately there were good reasons why it was not possible to lock them.) With volunteers.

Now there have been many other people, both paid and unpaid, making efforts well beyond the call of duty in Keswick, Cockermouth and Workington. The people on the bridges themselves would not want it suggested that there were not many others whose services were more arduous or important than theirs. (The Lions alone have done a great many other things besides guarding the bridges over the River Greta.)

Nevertheless the fact that one society could turn out dozens of volunteers to man the bridges, sometimes in the rain and dark, to try to prevent any more tragedies as just one part of their contribution may give some idea just how strong the community spirit has been which has helped the people of Cumbria rise to the challenge of dealing with these floods.

Nick Herbert on his visit to flood hit areas of Cumbria

Nick Herbert MP, shadow cabinet member for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, was in Cumbria this morning to see the areas affected by the flooding. He writes on Conservative Home about his visit. Here is an extract.

I’ve been in Cumbria today to see the areas affected by the floods. I arrived early in Keswick where I met officials from the Environment Agency. Although the river levels had fallen considerably and homes were no longer flooded, the damage to homes had been done. And the water which had got into houses wasn’t just from the river – it was foul water which had risen from the drains.

I talked to fire crews who were pumping flood water back into the river, and discovered that they were from Tyne & Wear and Lancashire. They had been called in at an hours’ notice and had been working on the scene ever since, staying at a local hotel. You cannot fail to be impressed by the professionalism of the emergency services when you see them in action at times like this.

I then travelled to Cockermouth with our PPC for Workington, Judith Pattinson. Again, the river levels had abated and a clean-up operation of streets strewn with debris had begun, but hundreds of people had been evacuated from their homes. We went to one of the rescue centres where evacuees were being given a bed and looked after. We talked to some elderly people who were drinking tea and demonstrating a marvellous British stoicism.

As well as local government officials and social services professionals, many volunteers from local organisations such as churches and the WI were there to help. As one shopkeeper who had managed to re-open in the town told me, the community spirit was extraordinary as people stepped in to help each other. A lady described to me how she had just lent clothes to a neighbour who had lost her entire wardrobe to the flood water.

The media’s constant question to me was whether we had any criticism of the Government over flood defences. My response was that this was not a time for recrimination. The Environment Agency officials told me that the levels of rainfall were unprecedented, and local people said they had never seen the river higher. Of course, when an area has flooded twice within four years, we will need to look sensibly at what more can be done to protect the local community. One 88 year-old resident told the BBC that this was the second time she had been evacuated, and on the last occasion it was six months before she was able to return home.

These events will certainly energise debate over the Floods Bill which has just been introduced in the Commons. In spite of the short amount of time available, we will work constructively with the Government to ensure that essential measures to improve flood defence, following the Pitt Review into the floods of 2007, reach the Statute Book.

But now is a time to thank the emergency services for the superb job which they have done, and in particular to remember PC Bill Barker who died during the rescue efforts last week. We must think about the people who tonight cannot be in their own homes, and make sure that we don’t forget about them and the ongoing support they will need in the weeks and months ahead.

Dealing with the floods

There are a number of politically significant things which would normally merit a blog post which have happened in the past few days. However, I am still stunned at the impact on many parts of central and west Cumbria of the floods - an issue which is far from over as it is raining again. Bridges and roads are still in many cases down, blocked, or unsafe. More than seventy families are in emergency accomodation, though the numbers affected are much larger - it's understood that over a thousand properties have been hit by flooding.

This puts the normal party political debate into persective and in the circumstances, I'm not going to be posting anything party political for the next few days.

One thing we can all agree with is that the response of the emergency services to this disaster has been exemplary. Police, fire, lifeboat, NHS, council services and the voluntary sector have all moved quickly to help, co-ordinated their efforts well, and responded magnificently to a very serious set of challenges.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Flooding chaos

My internet connection has just come back up after being down for most of the past 24 hours. One of the bridges in Workington which was swept away last night took with it the cables which supplied much of West Cumbria with broadband.

Spent part of this morning checking the areas of my ward where there had previously been flooding issues. By comparison nearby areas of Cumbria, the Borough of Copeland has not been as badly hit. However, the situation in Allerdale, particularly Cockermouth and Keswick, has been extremely serious.

A brave police officer lost his life while saving those of others in response to an emergency call. Hundreds of people have lost their homes and thousands have been without electricity.

Road and rail services have been seriously disrupted.

Copeland Borough has been giving some help to Allerdale.

At a more trivial level the annual "biggest liar" competition has been cancelled for the first time in heaven only knows how many years.

The work of the emergency services has been excellent and we owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked hard to help the victims of the flood and start to repair the damage.

PC Bill Barker RIP

It has been confirmed that Police Constable Bill Barker from Egremont died in the performance of his duties when floodwaters caused a bridge to collapse under him as he was directing motorists to safety.

PC Barker, who was due to celebrate his 45th birthday tomorrow, leaves a widow and four children aged between 8 and 16.

He was a brave man who gave his life for others. The community of West Cumbria will remember him with pride.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Queen's Speech - a wasted opportunity

The Queen's speech contained a large number of proposals for legislation, far more than there could possibly time to pass into law before the end of this parliament.

One or two are good proposals. Some of the proposed bills set out laudible objectives but would not actually do anything to be achieve them.

But it is a great pity that the opportunity has been missed to pass a law clearning up MPs and Peers expenses. A few weeks ago all parties were saying that they supported the proposed reforms. So why not put them into law? Even if there is no intention to backslide, the impression left with the public will not help restore confidence in parliament.

Three good pieces in the press on the Queen's Speech: Martin Kettle in the Guardian here has no problem with politics if it's smart politics but thinks that Gordon Brown is giving way to fantasy. Kettle argues that smart politics should mean more than using

"the next six months, in and out of parliament, to establish potent dividing lines between what Labour offers to the nation and what it claims the Tories might do. That's important, sure. But Gordon Brown is too focused on it. It's as if he thinks that, if only he can make one more titanic effort, the scales will suddenly fall from the public's eyes and the Tories will stand revealed as the wicked, malevolent force he thinks they are, and Brown will be bathed in virtuous sunlight as the country's great protector. Brown is entitled to think this. But it's a fantasy. Smart politics ought to have a bigger and more supple vision than that in times like these."

The Times leader "Unreal Politics" described the proposed laws in the speech as

... "law as a substitute for action in the vain hope that political chicanery will receive an electoral reward. This is pure cynicicm and merits exactly the reward that it will get. There is little real feeling of direction here, just a few bits and pieces, some good, some bad, and all designed to derail the Opposition rather than change the nation. This is a very diminished idea of politics and so it made for a diminished Queen’s Speech.

There was also an air of unreality because all the hard choices were left over for another day."


But the best comment was Danny Finkelstein who cast a welcome air of reality over the Westminister bubble here, to remind those of us who follow politics that the rest of the country often pay attention to other things.

Complaints against Conservative councillors dismissed

A series of complaints against prominent local Conservatives from defecting councillor Robin Pitt have been dismissed by Copeland Borough Council's standards panel.

Cllr Pitt, now a member of the Labour group, accused a former officer of the council of plotting with Conservative councillors to remove the Leader of Copeland council. He made a similar complaint against the councillors he alleged to have been involved, and against the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Conservative group.

A formal investigation into the allegation against the officer was dismissed, and the standards panel has now cleared all the councillors involved.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

DC on poverty and "The Big Society"

David Cameron's "Hugo Young" lecture was remarkable in many ways. It was a powerful message on what a Conservative government should do to tackle poverty. It also showed that Cameron is reaching out to address the problems of the whole country, not just the Conservative comfort zone.

The speech was warmly welcomed by one of the Labour MPs I most respect, Frank Field. (And no, I don't think Frank is going to defect - unfortunately.)

And now according to an ICM poll in the Guardian, for the first time I can ever remember, the Conservatives came ahead of Labour when people were asked which party had the best policies to deal with poverty.

Here is the text of David's speech.



"There are many things to admire about Hugo Young and his writing. The elegance of his prose. The doggedness of his curiosity. The strength of his integrity.

Above all, you had to read him - he mattered. He understood that the size and role of the state was a key issue in politics and returned to it often - and that is my subject today.

I want to extend and deepen the argument I made in my party conference speech this year, that the size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effect on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.

But I also want to argue that just because big government has helped atomise our society, it doesn't follow that smaller government would automatically bring us together again.

Yes, there are specific instances where the very act of rolling back the state will serve to roll forward society, for example when organisations that have been dependent on the state are asked to go outside government for funding, and thereby improve their record of engaging with the public and society. But I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.

The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is today the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education.

But I also want to argue that the re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives. It must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom. This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.

So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.

PROGRESSIVE VISION
The size, scope and role of the state is of course the scene of a vigorous political debate. But I believe it is pointless to draw dividing lines where none exist - so I want to start my contribution with where we all agree. Ask anyone of any political colour the kind of country they want to see and they'll say a Britain that is richer, that is safer, that is greener but perhaps most important to us all, a country that is fairer and where opportunity is more equal.

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life. Bringing these two worlds closer is a multi-faceted endeavour: moral, social, and of course economic.

Research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In "The Spirit Level", they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country's rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.

Of course in a free society, some people will be richer than others. Of course if we make opportunity more equal, some will do better than others. But there's a massive difference between a system that allows fair reward for talent, effort and enterprise and a system that keeps millions of people at the bottom locked out of the success enjoyed by the mainstream.

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn't mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE STATE
For centuries, the state expanded in order to help achieve a fairer society. This expansion took many forms. There was the passing of legislation - like the Poor Laws and Factory Acts. There was the introduction of financial help - like sickness benefits. There was the empowerment of institutions - such as local authorities being charged with clearing sums. And in one particularly progressive moment, there was the marshalling of the whole power of the state to abolish slavery. All this meant that by the eve of World War Two, central authorities were involved in setting minimum wages as well as controlling rents and helped provide unemployment insurance, pensions, and public housing.

And in the immediate post-war period we saw the creation of the welfare state. Both main political parties backed a comprehensive system of social security that included universal healthcare and education, and unemployment and pensions benefits.

What was the effect of this state expansion? It is difficult to be completely certain because for much of the twentieth century, research on poverty levels used inconsistent measures. But from the evidence we have, we can say with some confidence that that up until the 1930s poverty fell compared to the years before.

Understandably, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, poverty did begin to rise. But during the 1940s there was a fall in poverty of between ten and twenty percent compared to the 1930s. By the 1960s we are on firmer ground, as consistent statistics on household income began to be produced for the first time. And this data shows that between 1961 and 1968, the number of people living in severe poverty fell by 900,000 and the gap between the richest and poorest fell.

So the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful. However, even in this period, it's important to look at the complete picture. Some state extensions helped tackle poverty, others were less effective. Some did so while encouraging responsibility and local pride at the same time others undermined these virtues.

SINCE 1997
But since the immediate post-war period, the most significant extension of the state has taken place under the current Labour government. In 1997, government spending as a proportion of GDP was 38.2 percent. Next year, it is forecast to rise above fifty percent.

Margaret Thatcher's government introduced an average of 1,724 new laws every year. In 2007, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown passed a record-breaking 3,071 new laws. More than one in every three jobs created since Labour came to power have been in the public sector. Funding for the official list of quangos has grown by nearly 90 per cent. And the state and its agencies now collect and store huge amounts of information about British citizens in various databases.

This trend of continuous central state expansion was not politically inevitable. Just as there is a strong liberal, civic tradition within Conservative thinking, stretching back from Edmund Burke through to Michael Oakeshott, that celebrates the small and local over the big and central, the same is true for Labour.

In Hobson and Hobhouse, Labour have a rich intellectual tradition of radical liberalism, a strand of thinking that believes that the state's role is simply to provide the conditions for people to live the good life as they see fit.

But this tradition lost out to another intellectual tradition, Fabianism, which was seen to best meet the perceived needs of the age. This held a more mechanistic view of the state - that it could and should command and control.

And with the pressures of what Tony Blair described as a "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" news schedule, insisting that every day be fought like a general election, Fabianism offered a compelling narrative, one in which every issue demanded government intervention and every problem could be solved by a state solution.

Gordon Brown's Budgets when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer - top-down, fiddling, micro-managing - were the quintessence of this approach.

BIG GOVERNMENT FAILING
So did it work? Did the rapid expansion of the state since 1997 succeed in tackling poverty? Did it reduce inequality? Well, it would be churlish to deny that some progress has been made.

Indeed it would be rather amazing if there had been no progress. In the past decade, public spending has doubled. Health spending has almost trebled.

Since 1997 the Government has spent £473 billion on welfare payments alone - that's as big as our whole economy in 1988. Much of this has been channelled through tax credits and income transfers and as a result, there has been a measure of success in lifting those just below the poverty line to just above it.

But, quite apart from the fact that it turns out much of this has been paid for on account, creating debts that will have to be paid back by future generations; a more complete assessment of the evidence shows something different - that as the state continued to expand under Labour, our society became more, not less unfair.

In the past decade, the gap between the richest and the poorest got wider. Indeed, inequality is now at a record high. The very poorest in our society got poorer - and there are more of them. The incomes of the bottom ten percent actually fell by £6 per week between 2002 and 2008 before housing costs, and £9 per week after housing costs. The number of people living in severe poverty has actually risen - not fallen, risen - by 900,000 in the past ten years.

Youth unemployment has also increased - with nearly one million 16-24 year olds now out of work.

And studies by the Sutton Trust indicate that social mobility has effectively stalled - people are no more likely to escape the circumstances of their birth than they were thirty years ago. If you think about it, these are astonishing facts.

How is it possible for the state to spend so much money, to devote so much energy, to fighting poverty - only for poverty and inequality to win the fight?

Within that broad question, however, lies a more nuanced and perhaps more interesting one.
Not so much: 'why has the state failed to tackle poverty?' but: 'why has the state more recently failed to tackle poverty?'

We know that for a long period of time, up until the late 1960s, the state was broadly effective at tackling poverty and reducing inequality. So why did the state start becoming broadly ineffective?

A big part of the reason, in economic terms at least, lies in the global trend of rising returns to education because of new technologies and globalisation. So while people with good skills are able to benefit and indeed those who can best capture the opportunities of globalisation see rewards that are off the scale, those without are increasingly shut out of the global economy.

A key part of Labour's response to this trend has been more and more redistribution, means-tested benefits and tax credits. They have been trying to swim against the tide. But as we have seen, that approach is reaching the limits of its effectiveness - to put it mildly.

We have surely learnt that it is not enough merely to keep funding more and more generous tax credits. Indeed, the harm that means-tested benefits do to work incentives is beginning to undo the good they do in raising people's incomes.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies observed of the Government's approach:
"Its current strategy of increasing ... [means-tested] child tax credit is effective at reducing poverty directly, but its indirect effect might be to increase poverty through weakening incentives for parents to work."

This is a vital point. We cannot separate the economic from the social, as the big government approach mechanistically tends to do. The social consequences of economic reforms do matter. It is because they include undermining personal and social responsibility that the big government approach ends up perpetuating poverty instead of solving it.

So what's the alternative?
Our answer is two-fold: first, making opportunity more equal - in which education plays the key role and second, actively helping to create a stronger, more responsible society.

MAKING OPPORTUNITY MORE EQUAL
To begin with, we must make opportunity more equal - throughout a person's lifecycle.

That means better early years provision for the poorest families.
It means better education so if families fail, children have a second chance.
And it means better adult education so people without skills can lift themselves up later in life.

This is why, consistently over the last few years, we have elevated three sets of reforms as being of pre-eminent importance in our programme: families, schools, welfare. Focus on these, and you have some prospect of standing up to those powerful global forces that lie behind rising inequality.

But of course it is not simply a question of prioritisation. It is all about the approach you take.
In each of these areas we plan a clean break with the current big government approach.

For families, Sure Start should stay, but it must better involve voluntary bodies and charities and increase its focus on the poorest.

In education, the model of state-run schools, accountable to ministers and education bureaucrats will be replaced by self-governing state schools accountable to parents, with a new pupil premium creating an incentive for the best schools to attract children from the poorest families.

And in welfare, the model of payment by right will be replaced by payment by results, for both welfare recipients and welfare to work providers; and we will extend help to the long-term unemployed left on the scrapheap by Labour.

And we also have significant ambitions for changing the benefit system.

We have set out plans to end the couple penalty in the tax credits system by increasing working tax credits for couples who stay together. As we end the couple penalty, there will be an immediate benefit - the poorest couples with children will gain, on average, £1500 a year, lifting up to 300,000 children out of poverty.

But there are longer-term benefits too.
By incentivising responsible behaviour, the state sends an important signal about families staying together so more children have a better start in life. It is a clear example of our aggressively pro-family, pro-commitment, pro-responsibility approach.

SELFISHNESS AND IRRESPONSIBILITY
This emphasis on responsibility is absolutely vital.

When the welfare state was created, there was an ethos, a culture to our country - of self-improvement, of mutuality, of responsibility.

You could see it in the collective culture of respect for work, parenting and aspiration.
You could see it in the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another; the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds.

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society - and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

Why? Because today the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you're doing it their way.

We can see it most starkly when it comes to children. Through a range of measures aimed at protecting children, the state is actually making them more vulnerable.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority was established to stop children coming into contact with dangerous adults, but by forcing responsible adults to go through the rigmarole of a vetting procedure it will actually reduce the amount of care and love in children's lives as adults will give up volunteering to help children.

The benefit system was weighted to help single parents the most, but by encouraging parents to live apart it denies children a stable family home.

The tick box inspection regime was designed to improve the quality of social work, but by stopping trained professionals from using their discretion and judgement it has harmed children instead of helping them.

The big government approach has spawned multiple perverse incentives that either discourage responsibility or actively encourage irresponsibility. Far too many of the people I see in my constituency surgery are, thanks to the state, financially better off if they do the wrong thing than if they do the right thing.

A couple with no children where the head of the family works sixteen hours a week at minimum wage would be better off if they both just claimed benefits.

Parents with a disabled child could have more money if they put that child into residential care than if they looked after them at home.

The pensioner who has saved their whole life gets little or no pension credit, but the person who hasn't saved gets their income topped up.

And the elderly person who has saved, bought a house and has assets of more than £23,000 has to pay for residential care, sometimes by selling their home, whereas someone who didn't save gets it for free.

This is where the moral failure of the big government approach is most evident.
We hear the Prime Minister talking about his moral compass.

But when you are paid more not to work than to work, when you are better off leaving your children than nurturing them, when our welfare system tells young girls that having children before finding the security of work and a loving relationship means a home and cash now, whereas doing the opposite means a long wait for a home and less cash later; when social care penalises those who have worked hard and saved hard by forcing them to sell their home, rather than rewarding them by giving them some dignity in old age; when your attempts at playing a role in society are met with inspection, investigation, and interrogation, is it any wonder our society is broken?

In this world where state control is a substitute for moral choice and personal responsibility, obligation and duty are in danger of becoming dead concepts instead of living value systems. What has come to matter most is not our place in wider society, but our own personal journey and our right to pursue our own happiness regardless of others around us.

In the words of Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica:
"the state ... has dispossessed the people and amassed all power to itself ... This centralisation of power has made people passive when they should be active and cynical when they should be idealistic. This attitude only makes things worse - the more people think they can't make a difference, the more they opt out from society."

And here lies the rub.
The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them. What is seen in principle as an act of social solidarity, has in practice led to the greatest atomisation of our society. The once natural bonds that existed between people - of duty and responsibility - have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state - regulation and bureaucracy.

STATE RETRENCHMENT
So how do we turn things around?

Some on the centre-right have argued that the answer to the failures of big government is a simple retrenchment of the state. That government should step back and give space for an organic and unprompted flourishing of personal responsibility and civic renewal.

But I'm not sure that is right. Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.

As Francis Fukuyama has said:
"There is a certain assumption that civil society, once having been damaged by the excessive ambition of government, will simply spring back to life like brine shrimp that have been freeze-dried, and now you add water to them and they become shrimp again. It is not something that you can take for granted."

SMART, STRATEGIC STATE
Another alternative has come from the centre-left - what Peter Mandelson described in this lecture last year as a "smart, strategic state".

He said it should be one that uses "existing resources better, connecting up different parts of the government charged with this work and asking what we can do more". He made the case for government to "steer and shape the networks and institutions of a globalised economy and society" so it could better "manage the system so as to minimise and deal with the shocks". And he argued for active policy to ensure "markets function effectively".

Well I think we can all agree with that.
Of course the state should be smart. Of course it should be strategic. But isn't this the very least we should expect from government? I think we should expect an awful lot more.

RE-IMAGINED ROLE FOR THE STATE
Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Nor is it just smarter government.
Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society.

Our alternative to big government is the big society.
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.

We need to use the state to remake society.

REDISTRIBUTING POWER
The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities.

That way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age - the post-bureaucratic age.

In commerce, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, Eric von Hippel, has shown how individuals and small companies, flexible and able to take advantage of technologies and information once only available to major multinational corporations, are responding with the innovations that best suit the needs of consumers.

This year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has shown through her life's work how non- state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems.

So I am confident that a major redistribution of power can really help us tackle our stubborn social problems and our three key approaches will be decentralisation, transparency and accountability. Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.

So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible - as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents.

Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods.

So our new Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to come together, agree on the number and type of homes they want, and provide themselves with permission to expand and lead that development.

Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.

This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.

A necessary counterpart to decentralisation is greater transparency.

That's because information is power, so by giving people more information we give them more power. This is true internationally, where our plans for aid transparency will allow poor people in developing countries to see whether what has been promised is being delivered. And it's true back home, where our plans to publish details of all central and local government spending will not only provide a powerful check on waste, they will help open up the provision of state services to small businesses, social enterprises or charities as they see what is being done by the state and how they could do better.

The third element of the power shift we want to see is accountability.

Today, the relationship between the state and the people it is trying to help, especially the poorest, is top-down, adult-to-child, unaccountable. Here is what we will do for you, take what you're given and be grateful for it.

No. This must change.

We will require the people and organisations acting for the state to be directly accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. They will have to stop treating them like children and start treating them like adults. A good example is our plan to require the police to hold local beat meetings so people can challenge the police, face to face, about their crime-fighting performance, or lack of it.

Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we can give people power over the services they use, over the way their tax money is spent, over how their local area is run.

But the state must go further than enabling these opportunities. It must actively help people take advantage of them. Our enabling reforms depend for their success on a social response: and that is not something we can leave to chance.

How do we get parents to come forward and demand new schools in their area?
How do we make sure people actually go to beat meetings and use them to put pressure on the police?
How do we find successful social programmes and make sure they're introduced everywhere there is a need?

In other words, how do we guarantee that the big society advances as big government retreats?

HELPING CREATE THE BIG SOCIETY
This, then, is our new role for the state.

Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems.

We must use the state to remake society.

We must use the state to help stimulate social action.

STRATEGY FOR SOCIAL ACTION
Social action is already a core part of modern Conservatism. When I was elected leader of the Conservative Party, I asked our Parliamentary Candidates to undertake social action projects in their constituencies.

Today, there are now around 150 of these projects up and down the country. But if we win the election, the role of social action will be transformed. It will become a core part of our policy agenda, because unless we stimulate social action, we will not create the responsible society that is vital for the success of our policies.

Our efforts will focus on three groups.

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS
First, we will identify and work directly with the social entrepreneurs who have the capacity to run successful social programmes in communities with the greatest needs.

Social entrepreneurs like Debbie Scott, whose fantastic organisation Tomorrow's People is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary today and who I am delighted to say we are nominating to join the Conservative team in the House of Lords.

At the moment, the work of social entrepreneurs is disparate.For over a decade, those working in the field have complained about the challenge of growing and replicating successful social programmes.

For example, the Lighthouse Group has a proven track record in getting young people who have gone off the rails and been excluded from school back on track with mentoring and education.

But at the moment, the amazing work of this group is confined to just four cities.

This is the precisely the sort of thing we need to spread across the country.
So we will identify proven social programmes, franchise them to social entrepreneurs with a track record of success and fund them directly from existing state budgets to deliver public services - the same kind of approach we are applying in school reform.

If we find the right people, a relatively small number can make a huge difference.
In America, two thirds of all new job growth is created by less than one percent of the population, the fast growth economic entrepreneurs. It can be the same with social enterprise and social wealth here.

COMMUNITY ACTIVISTS
The second group of people we need to engage in our social action strategy are those I would describe as community activists.

Unlike social entrepreneurs, they do not play a formal role in their communities, they don't have the time or inclination to run a social programme with all the responsibility that involves, but they do want to help.Running parents groups, organising beat meetings with the police, getting people together in a front room to discuss ways to improve the neighbourhood.

All this goes on today, but not enough. We need more community activism, and more community activists. But again, it would be naïve to think this will happen quickly enough on its own. The state has an important role to play.

As Archon Fung, Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard University, has said:
"centralised support" has a vital role in "providing training and other supports... often necessary for local actors to exploit" new opportunities.

Our experience of social action in opposition has shown us the importance of this. People need help to start up even the smallest projects, get the information they need, understand the dynamics of social activism.

This is already happening elsewhere.
Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy has engaged some of the city's most deprived neighbourhoods in local policing strategies, leading to a significant reduction in crime.

And the Harlem Children's Zone in New York has created block captains who have not just made that area safer and a better place to live but also helped set up new schools.
This is exactly the kind of social action we will stimulate here.

MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION
But the third piece of the jigsaw is much harder.

Social entrepreneurs and community activists already exist, they want to do more, and we will help them do it. But the big society also needs the engagement of that significant percentage of the population who have no record of getting involved - or a desire to do so.

The big society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.

But how do we bring this about?
Of course there are no easy answers, short cuts, or simplistic levers we can pull. But there are lessons we can learn from the latest academic research which shows how government, by going with the grain of human nature, can better influence behaviour.

The behavioural psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that one of the most important influences on how we behave are 'social norms' - that is, how other people behave.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued that with the right prompting, or 'nudge', government can effect a whole culture change.

It needn't even involve government doing anything.

For example, if Facebook simply added a social action line to their standard profile, this would do more to create a new social norm around volunteering or charitable giving than any number of government campaigns.

We can also learn from evidence that physical connection is paramount in building trust and strong communities. In a big state bureaucracy, where everything is distant and removed, it is hard for trust to grow. That's why we want to build up strong local institutions which are tangible and where people - literally - come together to meet and mingle.

So we will strengthen civic institutions that already exist - like local shops, the post office and the town hall.

But we can also create new ones. Our plan for National Citizens' Service will bring together sixteen year olds from across the country in a three-week programme where they can learn what it means to be socially responsible, to serve their community, and to get on and get along with people from different backgrounds.

I hope it will help inspire social action and co-operation amongst a new generation of teenagers.

CHANGING WHITEHALL
This new role for government means a new role for Whitehall too - and new skills for civil servants.
They need to become civic servants.

We need people capable of engaging with social entrepreneurs and civic institutions who can agitate and encourage social action, and help people to build the type of sustainable organisations we need.

And if we are to break the culture of charities and social bodies being dependent on the state for hand-outs we need to look at how government can use loans alongside grants to help make them more sustainable and effective, an approach already being used by funders like Acumen Capital in the States and the Young Foundation here in Britain.

CONCLUSION
What I have spoken about today combines optimism about the potential for social renewal with realism about the role of the state in fighting poverty and inequality.

If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility.

We will feel it in the strength of our relationships - the civility and courtesy we show to each other.

Just as we have felt this coarsen in the past decade, so I believe we will feel it change for the better in the years ahead.

And we will feel it in our culture - a new can-do and should-do attitude where Britons once again feel in control of their lives.

This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two. Culture change is much harder than state control. It will take more than a generation. But it is because I believe the appetite for change is there that I know that change will come.

The era of big government has run its course.

Poverty and inequality have got worse, despite Labour's massive expansion of the state. We need new answers now, and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.

That's why it's now clear to me that the Conservatives, not Labour, are best placed to fight poverty in our country"