Sunday, September 30, 2012

National Police Memorial day

Today is Police Memorial day, which was establised a decade ago to remember all police officers who have died in the line of duty. There have been about 4,000 policemen and policewomen who gave their lives for their country since the era of modern policing began in 1829 with the creation by Sir Robert Peel of the Metropolitan Police. There have been twelve scuh deaths this year, most recently PC Fiona Bone and PC Nicola Hughes. In Cumbria today we particularly remember PC Bill Barker from Egremont, who died when a bridge collapsed in Workington during the 2009 floods while he was directing drivers away from that bridge and thus undoubtedly saving lives. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a mau lay down his life for his friends."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ideas for the coalition

One of the problems with most political blogs is that a constructive response to the ideas of rival political parties is rarer than it should be. "Not invented here" is sadly a common aproach.

A glorious exception this week on "Conservative Home" is a piece from Peter Hoskin called Five suggestions for renewed Tory Lib-dem cooperation.

You can read the whole thing here, but the main points are:

1) Political Reform. Two of the big ideas for political reform often associated with the Lib Dems (though one of them was in the Tory manifesto) have been put to bed by, respectively, the electorate in the AV referendum, and by an unholy alliance between the Labour party and a minority of Conservative backbenchers who don't appear to have read the manifesto they were elected on, in the case of House of Lords reform. But Hoskin points out that there are a number of other possible reforms which would be both popular and helpful to the cause of British democracy, some of which the coalition agreement suggests the government was planning to do. These include giving people the power to recall their MPs, (there are government proposals for this, but they could go further,) by shining a light on lobbying, and cutting back Parliamentary perks.

As he says, "A renewed effort on political trust would not only suit the Coalition philosophically, but perhaps also electorally."

2) Civil liberties. Hoskin quotes from a recent article by Dominic Raab in the Financial Times, which included the following: “While Labour circumvented the justice system, the coalition should make it a weapon – lifting the ban on intercept evidence, expanding plea bargaining and strengthening prosecutorial agencies.”

3) Early years care. Hoskin points out that a key priority for the Lib/DEm leadership and members alike is care for children in the early years, as they have a vision of social mobility which "rightly places a heavy emphasis on the “early years”. But, on subject matter at least, this means that there is considerable overlap with the work that the new childrens' minister Liz Truss has been doing since before entering government.

The Lib Dems will not like all of her ideas: they, for instance, seem to place more emphasis on qualifications for childminders. But perhaps, as we saw with the English Baccalaureate, the presence of David Laws in the Department for Education could bring about a solution of some sort.

4) Transparency, spending cuts … and tax cuts?

"It will also be interesting to see what effect David Laws has in his other departmental role, embedded at the Cabinet Office with Nick Clegg and Francis Maude. This department is the one that has been pushing transparency out across Whitehall, often in order to identity waste and have it cut, and the new minister is certainly minded to do more in that direction. In a recent interviews and pamphlets, Mr Laws has been pushing for further cuts, such that state spending is reduced to 30 per cent of GDP, lower than the 40 per cent currently planned. If anyone is to insist that all departments follow the DCLG’s lead in publishing spending data, then it will probably be him. And what would the savings go towards? Deficit reduction, of course — although perhaps, eventually, there might also be room for further tax cuts. Mr Laws, it should be noted, has also been calling for “lower marginal rates of taxation at all income levels”.

5) Employee ownership.

"Another Lib Dem conference motion stands out; this one calling for action on “Mutuals, Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy”. This, you’ll remember, was a policy area that George Osborne was especially interested in before the election, particularly for the public sector, on the grounds that it can help deliver better services at a lower cost — and we’ve duly it seen it acted upon in government. But, when it comes to expanding that work, the policy paper that the Lib Dems have produced to support that discussion is worth a quick read. Conservatives may not agree with all of its proposals — particularly its relentless tendency to enshrine rights into legislation — but there is something there to work on."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The price of our safety


The shocking murders of two police officers today serves as a grim but timely reminder of the price which public servants sometimes have to pay for our safety.

Like every other organisation the police service, and the men and women who make it up, sometimes makes mistakes. But every man or woman who puts on a police uniform is doing so to protect the public and taking some degree of risk to their own safety while they protect ours. And the great majority of our police force are ordinary, decent people, doing their best in a job which can sometimes be very difficult.

We have a largely unarmed police force in this country and a survey in 2006 found that 80% of police officers themselves were opposed to routine arming of the police. I am certain that this is the right policy. It still makes me sad to see large numbers of armed officers around Westminster or outside a party conference, even though I fully understand why the actions of terrorists have made this necessary. But the policy, wise and right though it is, can carry a price.

Today we should remember Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, the latest in a long line of police officers - far too long - who have given their lives for our protection, and all those other officers who have fallen in the line of duty.

And we should be proud of them, and of our police force.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Getting Britain moving - a blitz on Red Tape

It has been annnounced this week that the government will scrap or overhaul over 3,000 regulations in help British businesses recover from the recession.

In these tough times, businesses need to focus on creating jobs and growth without being tied up in unnecessary red tape.

The coalition govenment has listened to business’s concerns and are determined to put common sense back into areas like health and safety to reduce the costs and fear of burdensome inspections.

Conservative Business Minister Michael Fallon has announced that shops, offices, pubs and clubs will no longer face burdensome health and safety inspections. From April 2013, binding new rules on both the Health & Safety Executive and local authorities will exempt hundreds of thousands of businesses from burdensome health and safety inspections.

Health and safety rules designed for businesses operating in a dangerouse environment should never have been applied to those who simply do not face such risks. In the future, only businesses which operate in high-risk areas, or have a poor record, will be inspected.

In addition, from next month, the Government will change the law so companies will only be liable for civil damages in health and safety cases if they have shown to be negligent. This constitutes a welcome change to the current law that businesses can automatically be liable for damages, if there is a workplace accident, even if they are not proven to be negligent.

Conservatives in Government are also taking radical action on red tape in a further measure to boost economic growth. Through the Red Tape Challenge, the government is systematically examining some 6,500 substantive regulations and are committed to abolishing or substantially reducing at least 3,000 of these regulations. Identification of the regulations to be scrapped or overhauled will be completed by December 2013.

Business Minister Michael Fallon said:

“Cutting red tape shows the Government is serious about helping business to flourish. We’re getting out of the way by bringing common sense back to health and safety.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hillsborough


The only good thing about the terrible story of the Hillsborough cover-up is that the truth did eventually come out in the end.

I would like to live in a country where we could take for granted that public servants can be trusted to tell them the truth. A great many public servants - including a much higher proportion of politicians of all parties than is often given credit - are honest and would never dream of countenancing the sort of black propaganda which we now know happened after Hillsborough.

But unfortunately not all. And when ordinary citizens find that the allegations of a cover-up against the South Yorkshire Police and ambulance services, which sounded at the time like partisan conspiracy theories, turn out to be no more than the truth, there is likely to be a loss of confidence which will take a long time to put right.

Ironically, this will therefore make it harder for more honest publis servants to be believed when they are telling the truth - which is a further tragedy.

It is right that there have been a large number of apologies from the Prime Minister down for what happened at Hillsborough and subsequently. It is also right that there should have been calls for justice. But we need to make sure that it is justice and not revenge.

A large number of people stand today with a great deal of egg on their faces for the way they responded to the Hillsborough disaster at the time or subsequently. Some of those people should be held to account, through due process, for their actions.

But there must be a distinction made, between on the one hand those who knowingly sought to create a picture of events which was at best misleading and at worst a dreadful libel against the victims, and on the other hand those who made the mistake of believing people whose word they should have been able to trust.

From the latter group an apology should be sufficient. But for the former group there needs to be an investigation whether criminal or disciplinary charges should be brought.

And football, the police, and the emergency services need to have another look at how we make sure that no repetition of the Hillsborough Tragedy or the Hillborough cover-up can happen again.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Back from the brink


This weekend I came face to face with a friend I had never expected to meet again in this life.

A couple of months ago the friend concerned, who I shall call David (because that's his name) had been very ill indeed. He was not responding well to chemotherapy, and took the brave decision to ask his doctors to cease further treatment so that he could spend what were expected to be his last few days in more comfort. He was transferred to a hospice and his son - who is a doctor, indeed a hospital consultant - emailed his friends that the prognosis was not good and that we might want to send David a final message.

But he had barely arrived in the hospice when David began a remarkable recovery. He was duly discharged from this hospital, was able to attend a meeting yesterday and looked better than I had seen him for years.

Obviously I was very pleased by this: two things I learn from it

1)  Never give up hope: it is a cliche but it's true

2)  The human body is more complex than any of us can understand.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Paralympic Language


One of the things one apparently has to watch when describing the Paralympics is the language you use.

One of the things which the athletes who take part are triumphantly refuting is a culture of low expectations. And I gather that one of the ways these low expectations express themselves, which many people with disabilities parcicularly dislike, is the use of overinflated praise for relatively modest accomplishments.

One of my contemporaries at University combined severe physical disabilities with a brilliant mind, considerable public speaking ability, and a passionate hatred of any form of what was then already called "positive discrimination." He single-handedly caused the defeat of more motions on that subject than anyone else I ever knew. Whenever a fellow-student had proposed a motion in the Students Union of the debating union supporting any  form of "positive discrimination" in favour of a disadvantaged group, he would signal to speak against, make his way to the rostrum on his crutches, and then vigorously denounce the proposal as being against the interests of the people it was meant to help, because "This sort of proposal patronises and harms people like me" as everyone would assume that members of that group who got anywhere had done so through quotas or discrimination rather than their own efforts.

Whether you agreed with him or not, by most human standards he was an extremely brave man, but nobody ever called him that in my hearing. We knew he would think it was patronising and hate it. He earned a place at a Russell Group University and graduated on exactly the same basis as the other students there, and was very proud of it.

I was reminded of this when I learned of the British Paralympic Association (BPA)'s  Paralympics language guide which you can read here.

The problem is that words and phrases which are used in everyday life to denote an exceptional performance may be all too frequently applied to people with disabilities just for showing up. And I'm told that they often resent this kind of patronising approach more than open insults.

Of course the irony is that many people with disabilities, as the Paralympic competitors have been showing us, often merit the use of words like "brave" or "inspirational" in the same way that we would apply them to an able-bodied person, but it is not always obvious whether such language is being used in this way or in the condescending way  they are used to hearing.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A reshuffle story

Many years ago, before mobile phones had become ubiquitous, I was helping to organise - well, to be more honest I was one of the footsoldiers at - a huge all-day fundraising event in a park in the constituency of a middle-ranked minister who I shall call Mr A.

Earlier in the week a certain member of the cabinet had opened his mouth and inserted his foot while giving an interview to a prominent journalist. There had been a couple of days of the most embarrassing headlines, and there were rumours that the cabinet minister concerned might have to resign.

During a lull between events I and a couple of my fellow Young Conservatives asked the local MP what he thought of the affair.

"Let's hope it will all blow over," said Mr A. "The last thing we need now is a cabinet reshuffle."

Pause. Then a big grin.

"Unless I'm involved, of course!"

Then we went back to work and forgot all about the conversation until arriving home several hours later. I turned on the box to find that Mrs T had in fact accepted the resignation of the minister who had made the gaffe. Guess who she'd appointed in his place, when she finally managed to get hold of him ...

You've got it - at the very moment that Mr A was telling us that the last thing needed was a cabinet reshuffle unless he was involved, that was exactly what was happening and, the number ten switchboard was frantically trying to get hold of him to offer him the job.

A BBC political correspondent mentioned that "Downing Street had wanted to make the announcement earlier but they could not get hold of Mr A as he was attending a function in his Blandshire constituency ..."

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

The ministerial reshuffle marks the end of the time several people have spent in important jobs, the apparent conclusion to a number of ministerial careers and the start of a number of others.

Andrew Lanlsey's tenure at the Department of Health was controversial. But I know from meeting him on his visits to health facilities in Cumbria, both when he was shadow health secretary for what amounts to a very long time and when he did the job for real, that he made a huge effort to visit hospitals and listen to what people had to say. The fact that he put forward proposals which were not always popular was because he thought them necessary to improve care for patients, not because he didn't care about or listen to the opinions of others. The legislation is passed now: let us hope that Jeremy Hunt can work with doctors and nurses to make it effective while providing a greater degree of stability to the NHS.

Sir George Young has had a very long and distinguished career, serving as a minister under Mrs Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron and I always found him one of the more intelligent and lucid politicians in any party.

One tenure of office which did not end was that of IDS as Work and Pensions Secretary

I am very pleased that David Cameron listened when Iain Duncan Smith said he did not want to move, and I hope that the PM having listened will not be seen as weakness, because it should not be. IDS had unfinished business with Welfare Reform in his present job and I believe he has a far more important contribution to make to the country in that role than he would have had as Justice Secretary.

Baroness Warsi has been a feisty and vocal voice for the grassroots as Conservative Party chairman, a fact which has not always been appreciated. I hope she can continue to build her career in her new role as William Hague's deputy.

Her successor, Grant Shapps, is a superb campaigner: as I used to live in the next door constituency I am well aware of just how effective his skills at election campaigning are. I hope he can transmit some of his enormous energy to the party.

Patrick McLoughlin is a tough, no-nonsense midlands MP and a former miner who worked during the strike. I have a huge amount of time for him, and I hope he can make some progress on some of the judgement of Solomon issues affecting the Transport department.

There are those who are suggesting that this reshuffle is a marked step to the right. I think they are overstating things. The fact that David Cameron kept Ken Clarke in the cabinet is one sign of this, and several of those who are known to me and have been promoted are not as right wing as their public image or reputation might suggest.

Nor would a huge leap to the right be a good idea. Elections are won in the centre, and the present leadership of the Conservative party is well aware of this.