Saturday, June 23, 2007


In yesterday's Guardian, Lib/Dem MP David Laws wrote of the

"intellectual opportunism and vacuity of David Cameron's Conservative party" (sic).

This from the party that argues in South West England that trident submarines should be refitted in Plymouth, in Scotland that they should be refitted in Rosyth, in Cumbria that they should be built in Barrow, and who voted in Westminster that we should not have trident submarines at all.

For a member of the Liberal Democrats to accuse anyone else of either vacuity or opportunism, intellectual or otherwise, must be one of the most extreme examples of the pot calling the kettle black. So Mr Laws is obviously my first nomination for the 2007 "Pot calling the kettle black" award.

Would anyone like to make any other nominations?

On Copeland Council's response to the Unitary Cumbria consultation

Following on from yesterday's post I want to clarify one point about the Copeland response to the government consultation on new council structures, and particularly about how the Conservative members of the council voted on the motion.

The Conservative Group had a free vote on this issue.

Some members of Copeland Borough Council who are also members of Cumbria County council, both Labour and Conservative, decided that they should not attend the Copeland meeting or should abstain.

The motion presented to the Copeland special meeting had three parts. It endorsed a response which had been drafted by Copeland and other district/Borough councils in Cumbria, suggested that if the Unitary Cumbria proposals do not go forward, that an alternative model drafted by the "Better Government f0r Cumbria" group should form the basis of discussions for an alternative, and delegated authority for preparation of a covering letter from Copeland.

This presented my Conservative colleagues on Copeland Borough Council with a problem. To a man and woman, we are opposed to the Unitary Cumbria proposal, and wanted to vote accordingly. However, we also had serious concerns about the "Better Government for Cumbria" alternative.

Many of the same concerns which we have about the County bid, both as to whether the financial arguments are robust and whether the governance arrangements are adequately democractic and effective, also apply to the "Better government for Cumbria" alternative. Further, the alternative proposals suggest a federation of four "most purpose authorities" for Cumbria, one of which would be a "Greater Barrow" comprising the present Barrow council plus some of South Copeland, and another of which would be a combined "West Cumbria" authority comprising the rest of Copeland and part of Allerdale.

The exact boundaries of the suggested authorities have not been specified, but my colleagues from Millom were understandably upset at being asked to vote for a motion which appears to support pushing the area they represent off to a shotgun marriage with Barrow when there had been no proper consultation with the people of Millom, or anywhere else in South Copeland, to ask what they think of this idea.

If the exact wording of the motion put to Copeland council had included a complete endorsement of everything in the "Better Government for Cumbria" proposals, this would have forced me, and probably most of the rest of the Conservative members of the council, to vote against it.

However, the government consultation currently on the table is about one option - the county's proposal for a Unitary Cumbria. If and only if it is defeated, the option to look at other structures will open up.

The position of myself and most of my Conservative colleagues was to vote for the motion on the basis that we agree with the arguments presented against a unitary Cumbria, and that if it fails, the "Better Government for Cumbria" proposals were only being put forward "as a basis" to prepare a new model of enhanced two-tier working. That is not the same as endorsing every word in those proposals.

Some of my colleages, mostly from Millom, declined to vote for the motion, not because they support the county bid - they don't - but because they do not support the Better Government for Cumbria proposals either.

I respect that position. In particular, there is no way I would vote to transfer any part of South Copeland into a Barrow authority unless extensive consultation with people in the area affected demonstrated that such a proposal had popular support.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Why I don't support a Unitary Cumbria

The government's consultation on the proposal to replace all the County and District councils in Cumbria with one unitary authority closes today. This was my submission, explaining why I do not support the proposal.

Statement of Opposition to the proposals for one Unitary council in Cumbria

I am writing in response to the consultation on new Local Government Structures to oppose the proposal from Cumbria County Council for one unitary council covering the whole of Cumbria.

I believe that Cumbria is far too large and disparate an area for any one council to adequately serve the needs of the area. Cumbria is physically larger than many "sub regions." Such a council cannot realistically be considered "local" in any meaningful sense.

The government has set out five criteria against which bids for new local structures should be judged:

Strategic Leadership
Neighbourhood Engagement
Cross Section of Support
Service improvement

I believe that the proposal fails on all five of these but especially on Strategic Leadership and Neighbourhood engagement.


I am totally unconvinced that the proposal would save money. All too often when structures are changed the net effect in terms of redundancy payments, restructuring, moving costs, and general chaos cost far more than was originally envisaged. It is more likely that a unitary Cumbria would put increased burdens on the local or national taxpayer.

Strategic Leadership

Regardless of whether a new generation of Nuclear plants is commissioned, West Cumbria is, and is likely to remain, central to any realistic national strategy to deal with legacy issues from the Nuclear industry. We are the centre of waste storage, reprocessing, and decommissioning activities.

The community in West Cumbria understands this and is engaging with the issues involved.
Unfortunately, some councillors and communities in the East of Cumbria have proved in recent months that they are close enough to feel frightened but not close enough to be informed about the issues. The existing County council has recently taken some very unhelpful positions, both from the national perspective and that of West Cumbria, about the Nuclear industry.

The Unitary Cumbria proposal risks depriving West Cumbria of its distinctive voice on this issue, with potentially devastating consequences for the local economy in Copeland and Allerdale, and in the process derailing national nuclear strategy.

The Nuclear issue is the most obvious example of an issue where a unitary Cumbria might fail to provide strategic leadership, but there are other similar risks, and these are not simply a case of issues where the East of the county might not understand the West: the same is true in reverse and between North and South of the county. Comparatively few South Lakeland electors would have a good understanding of the issues involved in the Carlisle renaissance, not would people in Workington necessarily have a good knowledge of the issues facing Kirkby Lonsdale.

Neighbourhood Engagement

It is inconceivable that any Cumbria-Wide authority could take decisions affecting local areas without being remote without extensive arrangements to consult local communities through of local panels and fora. Indeed, Cumbria county's bid does provide for such "Community Boards." However, any such arrangements must fall into one of two traps. Either they will be purely consultative, in which case local democratic wishes can and sometimes will be arbitrarily over-ridden by people whose democratic mandate derives from distant communities many miles away and who do not understand the issues. Or they will have real power and autonomy, in which case they can only be a less formal, second-class versions of the district and borough councillors who it is proposed to abolish. It is also clear that the County's bid does not contain a clear explanation or proposal for what local powers, if any, will be devolved to "Community Boards" and what will be devolved to Town and Parish councils, where they exist.

Cross Section of Support

I have yet to meet an ordinary member of the public, not counting councillors or council employees, who is at all interested in the proposal for a Unitary Authority for the whole of Cumbria or who is keen on the idea. During the recent local elections I met hundreds of voters, very few of whom regarded this as a key issue, and none of whom supported a unitary Cumbria.

A MORI poll for the "Better Government for Cumbria" group set up by the districts found that 72% of people asked thought that one council would be too remote and out of touch to be effective, 69% thought Cumbria is too bit a county for one council to offer all services, and 77% would prefer that the existing councils worked together more effectively. I share all these opinions and believe it to be representative of local opinion.

Service improvement

The necessary reorganisation involved in setting up a unitary Cumbria would be a huge distraction from providing better services. I believe the result would be Parkinson's Law on a massive scale.

The one advantage of the proposals is that they would break the hold of the Labour party on West Cumbria. However, while I would like see this achieved through the ballot box, I do not want to see it happen through the creation of an over-large, unwieldy council which is in danger of collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight and will not meet the needs of the area

For all these reasons I urge the government to reject the proposal for a unitary Cumbria

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Plus Ca Change

Just found some old copies of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, saved by my parents, from the day of Winston Churchill's funeral 40 years ago, and the following day.

Naturally there was acres of text about the funeral and about Churchill's legacy - which certainly puts that of Tony Blair, such as it is, into perspective.

But the most interesting thing was how familiar some of the other headlines were.

"Health Service in Crisis" - with doctors and nurses complaining about the mess a Labour government was making of running the NHS.

An item about the (then) new corporation tax - with suggestions about how "Advance Corporation Tax" on dividends would work. Of course, the question of whether pension funds should pay such a tax is currently a live issue. The last Conservative government's strategy to build up pension funds, which was so successful that in 1997 Britain had more money in occupation pension funds than the rest of Europe put together, included such an exemption for pension funds. Gordon Brown helped destroy that position by scrapping that exemption in 1997 in the infamous £5 billion a year raid on pension funds.

A cartoon about attacks on grammar schools, direct grant schools, and public schools - then as now the Telegraph took a very dim view of this!

As the French would say, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

David Cameron on security and opportunity

David Cameron gave a keynote speech in Tooting this afternoon which lays out the principles on which the Conservatives believe this country should move forward and on which we will fight the coming election campaign.

The central message of his speech was summarised in the following two paragraphs

“We’ve prepared the ground by moving to the centre. We’ve laid the foundations with our big idea, social responsibility. And now, with our Policy Groups set to publish their reports, we can move forward to the next stage – showing what we will build for Britain.

“This is my vision. A Britain that combines collective security with individual opportunity. A Britain that achieves these things through social responsibility, not state control. And a Britain where a strong society gives everyone the chance to shape their own life, making the most of all that this amazing country, in this amazing century, has to offer. Our Society. Your Life.”

I think the speech was important enough to be worth posting in full, so here is the complete draft text as issued earlier today

"Very soon, the real battle in British politics will begin.

Tony’s going, and the phoney war will be over.

The British people will have a clear choice.

A choice between two different visions of society.

A choice between two different approaches to running the country.

And a choice between the old and the new politics.

Us against Gordon Brown.

That’s the choice at the next election, and today I want to spell out exactly what it means."

"At our party conference last year I said that getting ready for the responsibility of government is like building a house together.

First you prepare the ground.

Then you lay the foundations.

And then, brick by brick, you build your house.

That is the plan I laid out when I became leader of this Party and that is exactly the plan we’ve been following."

We started by preparing the ground.

We stopped fooling ourselves that we played the same old tunes we’d somehow get a different result.

We remembered the importance of rebuilding that broad Conservative coalition without which we’ve never won in the past.

And we moved this Party back to the ground on which our success has always been built, the centre ground of British politics.

That meant addressing the issues that matter to people today...

…so we became the party of the environment and well-being as well as the nation state.

It meant understanding the real priorities of people today…

…so we put economic stability before up-front tax cuts.

And, vitally, it meant standing up for all of the people all of the time, not just some of the people some of the time…

…so we pledged to improve public services for everyone, not give opt-outs to a chosen few.

Today we’re back in the mainstream of political debate, we’re setting the agenda, we’re winning the arguments - and we’re winning elections.

Nine hundred more councillors this year.

Breaking through in the north of England.

A forty per cent Party once again.

Our party is once again a force that can change our country.

The second stage in building our house was laying the foundations.

As I said at our conference last year, that’s not about detailed policies.

It’s about the idea on which all our policies will be built.

Policies without intellectual foundations don’t stand the test of time.

We’ve had ten years of short-term initiatives announced to get headlines in the papers.

People have had enough of Labour’s fast-food politics: they want something more serious and more substantial.

That’s why we’ve spent the last few months setting out, patiently and consistently, the big idea on which we’ll build our plan for government.

That idea is social responsibility.

It’s the idea that there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.

Social responsibility means that every time we see a problem, we don’t just ask what government can do.

We ask what people can do, what society can do.

That’s the big difference between us and Gordon Brown.

His answer to crime, his answer to education, his answer to everything - is a top-down government scheme.

Whatever the issue, whatever the challenge, whatever the circumstances… it’s always the same.

Under Gordon Brown all we’ll get is “he knows best” politics, as he sits as his desk expecting a grateful nation to wait with bated breath for the latest master-plan to emerge.

He won’t even commit to giving the British people a say over the EU constitution.

I profoundly believe that it’s wrong to change the way in which we are governed without giving people the right to say “yes” or “no”.

Gordon, the top-down days are over.

It’s the twenty-first century.

It’s the age of “people know best.”

Parents know best what works for their kids.

Doctors and nurses know best how to improve the NHS and give patients great healthcare.

Residents know best how to make their neighbourhoods better places to live.

We’re living in an age where people want to control their government, not have their government control them.

Every day in countless ways, people are getting together to work out new solutions to old problems.

They’re getting together online, in community groups, in their workplaces, as friends and neighbours and collaborators.

They want and need a government that’s on their side, that trusts them, that positively wants to put power and control in their hands.

That’s the big difference between us and Gordon Brown.

We get the modern world, he doesn’t.

We trust people, he’s suspicious of them.

We believe in social responsibility, he believes in state control.

So we’ve prepared the ground by moving to the centre.

We’ve laid the foundations with our big idea, social responsibility.

And now, with our Policy Groups set to publish their reports, we can move forward to the next stage – showing what we will build for Britain.

This is my vision.

A Britain that combines collective security with individual opportunity.

A Britain that achieves these things through social responsibility, not state control.

And a Britain where a strong society gives everyone the chance to shape their own life, making the most of all that this amazing country, in this amazing century, has to offer.

Our Society. Your Life.

Collective security and individual opportunity.

That’s the combination that’s right for our times and right for the future.

And it’s a combination that only we in this Party can offer.

First, because we understand that social responsibility, not state control, is the best way to provide security and opportunity.

And second because we understand the deep and important connection between them.

This Party has always understood the importance of security, including a strong role for the state where it has a duty to protect its citizens.

Social responsibility means a strong society where possible; a strong state where necessary.

Today we need strong defences to protect our country - from threats old and new.

That’s why we’re committed to setting up a national border police, with Lord Stevens leading a task force to produce a plan for making it happen.

In the months ahead, our Security Policy Group, led by Pauline Neville-Jones and Tom King, will publish their recommendations.

They will advise us on the steps we must take to protect our country from terrorism, and from the new risks of an increasingly unstable world.

We also understand the need for a strong response to the everyday threat to people’s security that comes from crime and anti-social behaviour.

I believe that Tony Blair’s pledge to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime is his biggest broken promise.

Being tough on crime is not about soundbites and headlines.

It’s about serious long-term thinking: analysing what’s gone wrong with our criminal justice system, and developing serious plans to put it right.

That’s why I’ve placed such emphasis on the need for police reform.

David Davis and his team have produced a detailed and impressive set of proposals.

We’re working on them with the police, trusting in their professionalism…

…asking them to make the changes that are necessary in return for tearing up the pointless targets and paperwork and giving them the freedom to do the job they desperately want to do.

Security is vital in the economy too.

Conservatives instinctively understand the importance of sound money and sensible economic management.

That’s why it is the absolute expression of our traditions, not the denial of them, when we say that we will put economic stability first.

And that’s why we feel so strongly about the way Gordon Brown has wrecked our pensions system, destroying millions of people’s economic security without a word of apology or remorse.

But our collective security is not just about the economy, or crime, or terrorism.

It is also about the fabric of our society. About wanting people to feel a real sense of belonging.

We believe in building a cohesive society, where Britishness means inspiring people with a love of country…

…not bullying them with instructions to integrate, or insulting them with cheap ‘flags-on-the-lawn’ gimmicks.

And above all, our collective security is about the one institution in our society which matters to me more than any other.

That is the family.

Why do I focus on the family?

Why am I so proud of the magnificent work that Iain Duncan Smith is leading in our Social Justice Policy Group, with his final report soon to be published?

Because I believe, as I said in my speech to our Spring Forum in [March], that the greatest challenge this country faces today is reversing the social breakdown we see all around us.

And strengthening families is the best way to do it.

Let’s be clear about this.

It is simply no use talking about opportunity for all unless we give every child in our country the secure start in life that comes from a stable, loving home.

We are far from that position in Britain today, and turning it around will be the greatest challenge – and I hope the greatest achievement – of the next Conservative government.

That’s because ensuring our collective security – whether protecting people from physical harm, providing economic stability, or giving children emotional stability - is not just an end in itself.

It is about creating the platform for the great driving force of Conservatism through the ages – the promotion of individual opportunity.

But I will not allow this Party, or this country, to overlook the connection between security and opportunity.

Only by meeting our collective obligations to each other, and building a strong society, will we create the conditions for every individual to enjoy real opportunity.

Our Society. Your Life.

And what a life it can be if we enable people to make the most of the modern world.

I suppose every generation thinks their time is the most exciting there’s been.

But truly, no generation has ever faced such an extraordinary range of possibilities as we do today.

Of course we can look at the future negatively – the threats of new weapons, of new and dangerous ideologies; the looming catastrophe of climate change; the fracturing of traditional communities and the growing sense of atomisation.

But I am a determined optimist.

I want us to look at the future positively.

Every year we get closer to curing the great diseases.

There are technologies that will give us the energy to power the world without wrecking the planet.

We have communications which overcome every obstacle not just of distance but of culture – making one world.

We see the potential of the future in places like South Korea.

Britain took four hundred years to move from an agricultural to a high-tech economy –
Korea has done it in just forty.

There’s no reason why similar miracles can’t happen elsewhere in Asia – and in Africa.

Peter Lilley’s Policy Group on Globalisation and Global Poverty will have many recommendations for what needs to be done to make that a reality.

The task for this Party is to match our determination to build a strong and secure society with a policy programme that extends opportunity ever more widely…

…with no-one excluded from the possibilities of the modern world.

Here’s how we’ll go about it.

If we in Britain want to be in the fast lane of global progress, we need to improve our own dynamism, our own competitiveness.

That’s the thinking behind Michael Heseltine’s radical proposals for devolving power from Whitehall, so our great cities can get the strong leadership they need to compete on the world stage.

In our economy, we must lead the world in innovation, and stimulate the creation of new businesses and new jobs.

That’s the thinking behind the work of John Redwood’s Economic Competitiveness Policy Group.

But above all, extending opportunity means liberating the potential of our young people, with world-class education at every level.

That’s why we’re developing a robust and radical plan for reforming state schools, addressing both standards and structures.

Bringing rigour to the curriculum and testing.

More setting and streaming, with a ‘grammar stream’ in every subject in every school, so bright pupils are stretched and all pupils are taught at the right level.

Tackling disruptive behaviour by giving head teachers control over discipline.

And making it easier to set up new schools so we get genuine diversity and parents have a real choice.

Stephen Dorrell and Pauline Perry will show in their Public Services report how in schools, just as in the NHS…

…we will replace Labour’s culture of top-down targets and centralisation…

…with a relationship of trust and accountability between those who use public services and the professionals who provide them.

Last week we unveiled proposals to transform young people’s skills…

… not trusting in the bureaucracy of the Learning and Skills Council, but with new professional apprenticeships that engage employers and match the future needs of the economy.

Next week David Davis will launch a taskforce to examine the recent fall in social mobility – and find ways to reverse it.

For us, expanding opportunity means not the backward-looking plans of Labour’s Deputy Leadership candidates - who only see a future for more state-owned and run housing - but helping young people onto the housing ladder through a massive extension of shared ownership and the right to buy.

Expanding opportunity means not leaving up to thirty per cent of men in some of our towns and cities languishing on Incapacity Benefit, as has happened under Labour …

… but our plans to harness the expertise of the voluntary sector in helping people off welfare and into work.

And expanding opportunity means not wasting the proceeds of growth as Gordon Brown has done, but sharing the proceeds of economic growth between better public services and lower taxes.

In all these ways, we will show how we are the Party with the new ideas - the serious ideas - to expand individual opportunity in our country.

And we will show we understand that individual opportunity is not something that can or should be defined by politicians in Westminster.

Your life is just that – yours, not mine.

For many people today, opportunity is not just about more money, it’s about more time with the kids.

It’s about the journey to work, the food the family eats, the state of the neighbourhood.

This is the new politics, a world away from the preoccupations of old Westminster and the political elite.

We’re making this new politics our own, just as we’re setting the agenda on the environment and climate change.

And soon the report of our Quality of Life Policy Group will make another significant contribution to that whole debate.

Right across the range of issues, our policy debate is about to start in earnest.

We will soon be launching Stand Up, Speak Up – a chance for everyone in this country to get involved in shaping the next Conservative manifesto.

We hear a lot about political apathy these days.

Well I want all of you here and all our Conservative friends around the country to stand up and lead the way in getting people involved in a massive grass-roots debate on the future of our country.

Let’s show the cynics some energy, not apathy.

So as we start this great policy debate, we can be clear about the shape of the house we’re building.

It’s designed to deliver collective security, as the platform for individual opportunity.

Security for our society; opportunity in your life.

Not copying New Labour, but learning from its mistakes.

Not abandoning Conservative principles, but applying them in new ways to new challenges.

And in the process making this Party the true force for progressive politics in Britain today.

Our foundations are strong, while Gordon Brown’s are shaky.

Our vision is built on the truth that no politician, no bureaucrat, no government official, can ever achieve as much as a strong society working together.

Social responsibility, not state control.

That’s what we believe, and that’s why we’ll win.

Whitehaven Maritime Festival a great success

I'd like to congratulate everyone associated with the Whitehaven Maritime Festival 2007 for putting on a truly fantastic event.

From the "Grand Turk", a replica of an 18th century ship-rigged sixth rate 22-gun sailing warship, to the Red Arrows and the other aircraft which represented a more modern era, they put on a great display hich was enjoyed by enormous crowds.

I gather the final estimates of attendance have not yet been finalised, but the town was full for three days. A truly great Festival and a credit to everyone who contributed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Maritime Festival

Have been around the Whitehaven Maritime Festival with my family this weekend. The weather has not been brilliant, but nevertheless it has been a superb event. If you have a chance to get to Whitehaven harbour today before the Festival ends, I can srongly recommend it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Buyer Beware: some Digital Recorders won't work in Copeland

Be warned if you live in Copeland and are thinking of buying any TV or recording equipment. Before you spend your hard earned money, make sure you take advice, from someone who really knows what they are talking about, concerning how the Digital switchover in October will affect your new kit.

In four months time, the Whitehaven TV area - which includes most of Copeland Borough - will be the first part of the country where the TV signal goes digital and the existing analogue signal will be switched off. If your TV gets its signal from the Bigrigg transmitter or one of those which rebroadcast the same signal, you will lose the Analogue BBC2 service on 17th October. There will be a month for people to check that they have digital kit that works for the new BBC2 signal, and then the other channels will switch over.

A large area around Millom in the south of Copeland, the St Bees area, and an area around Lowca (including part of Bransty ward) get their TV signal from other transmitters which will not go digital until next year. If you live in any other part of Copeland you are likely to be affected by Digital switchover later this year.

Some people who really ought to know better, such as the Whitehaven local branches of major national chains like Tesco, were still selling televisions this week which do not bear the Digital logo. If you live in the Whitehaven TV area, then within a few months you will not be able to use such televisions without a set-top box (cost about £30.)

And we now learn that several types of digital video recorder (PVR) equipment, which are supposed to be operable after switchover, will not work in Whitehaven. They may function properly in much of the rest of the Border region when those areas follow us by going digital.

The problem was first highlighted by Brooks independent audio and video specialists but Digital UK admit they have been aware of the potential problem for “a long time”.

Among the PVRs that won’t work in Copeland are:

Thomson DHD4000
Setpal - Daewoo

However, no definitive list has yet been made available.

The technical glitch relates to the 14-day onscreen TV guide offered by some models and Digital UK’s advice is to only buy models that have a seven-day electronic programme guide. Digital UK also say it will only affect a minority of models.

Digital UK say they have spoken to all traders in Whitehaven to make them aware of the situation. However, Brooks say a chain store in the town was selling a model that wouldn’t work as recently as last week.

The Whitehaven News asked why no warning was given to the general public since those buying PVRs online would not be dealing with informed local traders. A Digital UK spokesman replied that they wanted to be clear about the precise nature and extent of the problem before making any announcement. He also said some manufacturers may offer a software upgrade to solve the problem.

Trading Standards advise that if the box doesn’t work customers can take it back to the shop and are within their rights to get a refund. A spokesman said items had to be “fit for purpose” which this clearly wouldn’t be.

He said the responsibility clearly lies with the shop who sells an item of equipment, not the manufacturer or Digital UK, to make sure that it is fit for purpose. He also advised people buying any electrical equipment over £100 to use a credit card as this gave added protection.

After The Whitehaven News contacted Digital UK, the organisation said they would now mail all Copeland homes to highlight the issue. Their spokesman added: “We've worked closely with retailers to make them aware and we're confident that they understand not to sell these boxes in the Copeland area. Our simple advice is that anyone whose box has a 14-day programme guide should return it to their retailer or, failing that, contact the manufacturer of the box.”

Sadly this confidence may have been misplaced. The Whitehaven News sent an undercover reporter into Argos. They have one PVR recorder for sale, which is the Thompson DTI6300-16. The reporter asked the sales assistant whether this item of kit would work locally after the changover and were told that it would. Unfortunately this was wrong: that item of kit has a 14 day programme guide and will not work in the Whitehaven TV area.

Dave Simpson, director at Brooks, said: “Our view at Brooks is still to buy any required boxes in advance of October. We still believe most people haven't done anything about the switchover yet, and the fear is that if left too late, then the availability of digital equipment could be restricted. Also, having boxes installed will allow customers to get used to switching from and to Channel 5 when it’s launched in August, which will hopefully ease the anticipated operational problems when October arrives.”

PVRs, costing from £120 to £250, record on to a hard disc. They offer an on-screen TV guide to enable easy recording of programmes. Some guides show listings for seven days ahead, some for 14 days – it’s those offering 14 day schedules that won’t work in Whitehaven. You should also buy a PVR that has dual-tuners.

Thanks to the Whitehaven News for most of the information in this post.

Maritime Festival

The organisers of the Whitehaven Maritime Festival have a magnificent programme of events planned for today and the coming weekend.

The weather is not co-operating today so far, but is expected to improve later.

If you have the opportunity to come and see any of the events planned over the next three days I can strongly recommend them

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Millom and Keswick Job Centres under threat.

This evening I attended the Community Forum in Millom (at Haverigg Cricket Club) and the agenda included the possible closure of Millom Job Centre.

The possibility was described as disastrous by a former Job Centre worker, who stated that there were over 100 people registered with Millom Job Centre and it would be very difficult for these people to get to Barrow to sign on. For those over 25 it would cost them 3% of their jobseekers allowance income to travel to Barrow weekly, and for those under 25 it would be 5% of their income.

Millom is one of five Job Centres under threat in Cumbria; Keswick is one of the others. Proposals to close these centres are currently the subject of consultations with various official bodies such as the County Council. However arrangements to consult the public or actual users of the service are rudimentary to say the least.

One of my colleagues from the Council commented that it was ironic that the Department of Employment is proposing to add to the jobless figures.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Tax Cuts

I picked the piece below up from Iain Dale, who got it from Sarkis Zeronian.

It is worth remembering what happened when Maggie Thatcher cut the top rate of tax in this country from 98 pence in the pound to 40 pence in the pound.

A few years later a Labour MP tabled a parliamentary question asking how much this had reduced the proportion of tax paid by the wealthiest 1% of the population.

The answer must have given the minister who wrote it more satisfaction than any other parliamentary question in history - in fact the effect was to INCREASE both the absolute amount, and the proportion, of tax paid by the wealthiest people.

Because it was no longer necessary for them to send so much of their wealth abroad or employ clever accounting tricks to minimise their income in order to keep more than a tiny proportion of what they were paid, the richest people declared much higher incomes, and actually paid more tax than before.

In other words, if tax rates are ridiculously high, as they were in Britain in the 1970s, cutting them may in the medium to longer term mean more tax revenue, rather than less, to pay for schools and hospitals. The effect is sometimes described by economists as the "Laffer Curve" after the economist who first predicted it.

If you're not convinved, try reading the item below called


Let's put tax cuts in terms everyone can understand. Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to £100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing. The fifth would pay £1. The sixth would pay £3. The seventh would pay £7. The eighth would pay £12. The ninth would pay £18. The tenth man (the richest) would pay £59. So, that's what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve.

"Because you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by £20." Drinks for the ten now cost just £80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men - the paying customers? How could they divide the £20 windfall so that everyone would get his 'fair share?' They realized that £20 divided by six is £3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid £2 instead of £3 (33% savings).
The seventh now pay £5 instead of £7 (28% savings).The eighth now paid £9 instead of £12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid £14 instead of £18 (22% savings).
The tenth now paid £49 instead of £59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free.

But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

"I only got one pound out of the £20," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man," but he got £10!"

"Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a pound, too.

It's unfair that he got ten times more than I!"

"That's true!!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get £10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!"
"Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison. "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up. The next night the tenth man didn't show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn't have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Parliamentary debate: future of local government in Cumbria

Yesterday in Parliament something quite unusual happened: a debate in which four MPs from Cumbria of three different parties all agreed.

Conservative, Labour, and Lib/Dem MPs representing Cumbria came together in an adjournment debate to explain why they oppose the proposal for one unitary council for Cumbria.

I found their comments very interesting so I am posting the record from Hansard of the debate in full, as follows.

Local Government (Cumbria)

Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

This is an unusual debate to the extent that if they can catch your eye, Sir John, four of the Cumbrian Members of Parliament will speak in the debate. Two Cumbrian MPs will not be speaking, not because they do not wish to, but because they are Ministers and so are unable to do so today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) has sent his apologies and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who is a Government Whip, is present, but unable to speak. That is a great pity, because he was, of course, the last directly elected Member of the European Parliament for Cumbria and his expertise would have been very helpful.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) will be able to speak. He has not been in the House for very long, but has made a fine reputation for himself. He is a fine defender of his constituents and, as he was born and brought up in Copeland, knows the area very well. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has agreed to speak, although judging by his press release, I would have thought that this is his debate, and not mine. However, I am very grateful to him for coming today. Furthermore, this is probably the first time in 20 years that my neighbour the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean and I have agreed publicly about anything, although I must say that we work together behind the scenes on behalf of our constituents fairly frequently.

What is the reason for this debate? I am frightened that the Government will make a mistake that willhave an adverse impact for decades to come on the communities that make up Cumbria. That mistake would be to create a Cumbrian unitary authority. I shall provide a brief history of Cumbria—it is brief because the county was created only in 1974 by a Tory Government. There was no logic behind its creation; it is an amalgamation of the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, the county borough of Carlisle, the Furness part of Lancashire, the country borough of Barrow and a bit of north Yorkshire, which was thrown in for good measure. It was realised at the time that Cumbria was a very large and diverse county, and six district councils were created to acknowledge that. I do not want this Labour Government to compound the mistakes made in 1974. Cumbria has never worked well, and I should know. I was a councillor on the shadow authority in 1973 until I resigned in 1988 and had the privilege of being the chair of Cumbria county council for two years. I do not blame the individuals involved in the county—I blame its size.

The Cumbrian bid document is called "One council, One vision, One voice"—Cumbria has always been a bit short on vision. In the document, the county council states rightly that the unitary authority would not constitute a takeover by the county of the district councils, but would be a brand new authority that would take its own decisions. The document goes on to state that the new unitary council would cap council tax rises at less than 4 per cent. for the first three years.

Will the Minister tell us whether those who produced the document have the power to do that?

The documents goes on about the "one voice", but the diverse communities of west Cumbria, Eden Valley, Carlisle, South Lakeland and Barrow cannot speak with one voice. For a start, we have different accents and traditions, our industries are different and we vote differently politically. I am not being parochial; all Iam saying is that the county is too big. Cumbria constitutes 48 per cent. of the land mass of the north-west region. It should be classed as a sub-region. Its largest centres of population are Carlisle and Barrow, which are 90 miles apart. The Minister has a fine reputation as the Member for Basildon—I am sure that she is a good constituency MP—but I wonder what she would say if we proposed to put Basildon in with Brighton, Sir John, or if we put Bournemouth in with Reading. They are 90 miles apart, but we would probably agree that it would not be a good idea.

The Minister has just finished doing an excellentjob as a Minister in Northern Ireland, where local government is about to be reorganised. Northern Ireland is twice the size of Cumbria and has three times the population, and yet seven unitary authorities have been proposed there, each with 60 members, plus, of course, a 108-Member Northern Ireland Assembly.Let us compare that with Cumbria, for which an 84-member council is being discussed. Does that imply—I am sure that she will disagree with this—that Northern Ireland is over-represented? No, it implies that Cumbria would be under-represented.

Let me deal with the 84 county councillors. If we are going to combine the responsibilities of the district and county councils, bearing in mind that councillors can spend up to three hours either going to or coming from a meeting, we will end up with full-time councillors—and poorly-paid full-time councillors, because they do not get paid a great deal. In reality, that will mean that we will end up with retired councillors who will not be representative of the population or plugged into their local communities.

On stakeholder support, let us look at the county council's submission in the document, which contains 12 balloons from a variety of quangos and companies working extensively for the county council. They are supportive of the proposal, although not overwhelmingly so. The results of a MORI poll published today in Cumbria show that 72 per cent. of the population of the county think that a single council would be too remote. People are sometimes sceptical of polls. I asked for a referendum to take place in the spring, on the same day as the local county elections—3 May—but the deputy leader of the county council replied:
"We could not get the paperwork together by that time. There would be a cost. It's like throwing a red herring at moving goalposts"—

her words, not mine. She went on to say:

"It would not be a yes or no answer - and the People would not understand".

Actually, I think that she was too frightened of their decision.

The county council is such a large organisation that the leader of the county could walk the highways without being recognised. I am not being derogatory about the leader; it is such a vast county that a directly elected mayor for Cumbria would not be possible. We have no Cumbria-based media. The south of the county gets its BBC regional news from Manchester and its ITV from Granada, and the north of the county gets its BBC from Newcastle and its ITV from Border Television, which is in my constituency. There are no Cumbria-wide newspapers. There is nothing to bind the county together.

I agree that there should be changes to make local government more effective and efficient.

Personally, I would support two unitary authorities based on the boundary committee's 2004 proposals, which would split the north and the south. However, that is not to be—it may be for another day, but it will not happen now. However, the Government should insist on the district councils and the county council working closer together. They should say to the councils, "We expect you to work together and we will require efficiency savings from you to ensure that you work together."

The Government have often been accused of not listening. The choice in Cumbria is to listen to the quangos and, some of us suspect, the civil servants, or to listen to the Members of Parliament, who know their area and the communities and, unlike the councillors on both sides, do not really have an axe to grind. We will say what we believe is right for the area, and we are the experts on Cumbria. I hope that in July, when the Government take their decision, they will turn down the recommendation for a unitary Cumbria but insist on better co-operation between the districts and the county.

John Butterfill (Bournemouth West, Conservative)
Order. The hon. Gentleman has requested that other hon. Members be called to speak, but there is very little time if we areto hear the Minister reply. I am sure that all hon. Members want to hear her reply, so will those also contributing be extremely brief?

David Maclean (Penrith & The Border, Conservative)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on initiating it. This is a unique occasion. I have never known four Cumbrian Members of Parliament from three different parties to be in complete agreement, and I suspect that if the relevant Ministers were allowed to speak on the issue, they too would be sympathetic to the points being made.

To pick up on the point on which the hon. Member for Carlisle concluded, the views of the Cumbrian MPs are more representative of the feelings of the people of Cumbria than the county council's views. The county council is charging down this route at breakneckspeed without any proper consultation of the peopleof Cumbria. Thank goodness some of the district councils are commissioning MORI polls so that we can get some idea of public opinion. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the stakeholders who have backed the county are in the pay of the county or work with it. They are part of the quangos; they are part of the same bureaucracy. The people of Cumbria have not been consulted. I believe that the people of Cumbria oppose this proposal.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government should make the county council and the district councils work together. Go for enhanced two-tier working. Give them a good slap if they are not working together. The county should be dealing with some of the big strategic issues of inward investment, but are we seriously suggesting that a unitary Cumbria will deal with planning issues in Barrow, Carlisle, Alston and Workington? There will be no savings, because to deal with those matters, it will open sub-offices. Yes, we will lose our district councils, but the buildings will still be there. There will not be a chief executive, but you can bet your bottom dollar there will be deputy chief executives scattered all over Cumbria, as there are at present.

In my experience as a Minister, I have never known any cost savings from local government reorganisation. The Minister should ask her colleagues in the Home Office—the Department responsible for the police. When Cumbria and Lancashire police forces wantedto amalgamate, the savings were initially to be£18 million. Then the figure went down to £10 million. Then the move was cost neutral. Then the cost went up to £5 million, then £15 million and then £22 million extra. The savings that the county projects in Cumbria are bogus; they will not materialise. We will have less efficiency.

Community boards will be created, but what is a community board? There may be 70 or 80 community boards scattered across Cumbria, talking about things, but they will have no money, no votes, no say and no decision. All that will rest with 84 councillors, who will be pushed to the limit to perform their job.

I support the hon. Member for Carlisle on this very important issue. The proposal will take democracy away from the people of Cumbria. Communities will not find themselves as well represented as they are at present, so I say to the Minister: listen carefully to what colleagues are saying.

As a Conservative, I believe that there is only one thing in favour of the proposal in Cumbria, and I deplore it in some ways. I believe that what is proposed would wipe out Labour's power base on the westcoast and in Barrow, but that is not a reason to do it.I have been a Member of Parliament for Cumbria for 24 years. I would like Cumbria to be Conservative controlled, but not under a dictatorship, which this proposal would impose. The proposal is bad for Cumbria, even though my party might end up with political control.

Jamie Reed (PPS (Mr Tony McNulty, Minister of State), Home Office, Copeland, Labour)

This complex issue does not deserve to be subject to indecent haste, but no one—least of all those of us in this Chamber and our constituents who use the councils that we are talking about and the services that they provide—wants the process to drag on indefinitely.
Cumbria is an extremely diverse county, a fact that has traditionally posed a series of difficulties—whether through geography, politics or the nuclear industry—for the machinery of Whitehall but, frankly, that is Whitehall's problem, not Cumbria's. However, the sign of a mature, effective, functioning region or sub-region must be that problems are identified and efforts are made to resolve them for the mutual benefit of all concerned. A former leader of the county council, the late Bill Minto OBE, understood all that when he began the process of council structure modernisation in 1997. In my view, he was the greatest leader the county council has had, and we should seek to apply the wisdom and integrity that he would have brought to the debate to solving the problems before us today.

Essentially, councils exist to serve the public and it is the interests of the public, not the interests of the councils, that must drive change. Let me get to the heart of the matter. Whether they live in Copeland or Carlisle, ordinary people, public service users, businesses and others want better local government. They want local government to be more effective, accountable and flexible. They want local government to facilitate progress, not obstruct it. They despairof the bunker mentality that local authorities often display, passing problems from one department to another, seeking to shift blame and escape accountability. People want their local councils to be problem solvers, not problem avoiders. They probably also want fewer councillors, while at the same time wanting democratic representation to be as local as possible, but that tension must be acknowledged and addressed.

People want their councils to work in partnership with the local NHS to improve health services and health outcomes. They want their councils to work in partnership with business to grow the local economy and to protect and create jobs. They want their local council to be unrelenting in pursuing excellence in schools, in social services and in protecting and serving the elderly. They want their council to provide clean streets, safe roads and value for money through the lowest possible council taxes.

People are right to want all that, and I believe that every hon. Member in this Chamber wants it, too. They do not want locally funded organisations using money that should be spent on local front-line services to fight one another over models of governance or representation. The public will not forgive that; it is not why they pay council tax.

Copeland borough council is a good and improving council, with an excellent council leader, Elaine Woodburn, and chief executive, Liam Murphy. As the MP for Copeland and a former Copeland councillor,I will not countenance moves that lead to the loss of jobs in my constituency or the diminution of services currently provided. Nor will I contemplate any model that facilitates an anti-nuclear agenda or reducesthe unquestionable primacy and moral legitimacy of Copeland borough council and the people of Copeland in matters relating to the nuclear industry.

In truth, both of the models proposed by the county council and the borough councils have some real merit. A solution that will satisfy all parties is waiting to be found, and it is incumbent on the county council and the borough councils to work together, in their mutual interest and, more importantly, in the interest of the council tax payer, to find and implement that solution. The present arrangement is not a good one; it does not serve the public as well as it should. I congratulatethe Government on instigating the process of change.I believe that all parties agree that change must occur—the status quo is not an option. That is the basis on which to move forward. I trust that the Government will make it clear to all the councils involved that they must work together without delay.

Tim Farron (Westmorland & Lonsdale, Liberal Democrat)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate and on being so generous with his time. I will attempt to use it efficiently to give the Minister ample time to reply.

I declare an interest as a member of South Lakeland district council, although I believe that MPs and members of councils, whether county or district, ought to think first of the people who put them where they are, rather than the synthetic bodies to which they happen to be elected. It is remarkable that in this Chamber there are four MPs from different parties all singing from the same hymn sheet. Looking at the issue objectively, I add my voice to the calls opposing the Cumbria unitary bid. I shall concentrate on three reasons and much of what I say will overlap with what we have already heard, so I will be quick.

First, a unitary Cumbria would separate local people from their council. The centralisation of power in Carlisle—no offence intended to the hon. Gentleman who represents that great city—would increase people's resentment towards their local government and their sense of remoteness from it. Not only would the council be remote from its citizens, but councillors would be further removed from the people they represent. Three quarters of the county council wards in my constituency are significantly larger than the average parliamentary constituency. The county council is sensitive towards that line of attack, so it is trying to address it, as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) pointed out, via local boards, but essentially we are talking about mini-quangos that will duplicate work currently done by parish councils but will not be elected and will have no mandate and, in the end, will be even less efficient.

The second reason for objecting to the unitary bid is that the increased sense of remoteness and distance from the electorate is a principal reason why public support, as we have heard, is pretty close to zero. The MORI poll that showed that 72 per cent. of people opposed the proposal understates the level of opposition to the Cumbria county bid. My postbag reflects unanimous opposition. I have not had a single letter or a comment at a surgery that is in favour of the unitary bid—a huge majority of people are opposed to it. The Westmorland Gazette conducted a poll recently and found that readers overwhelmingly oppose the bid.

Thirdly, any attempt to reorganise local government, particularly in Cumbria, must take account of traditional identities and the likelihood of a new system winning the support of local people. With the best will in the world, as we have heard, Cumbriais an amalgamation of the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire over the sands and, in my patch, the West Riding of Yorkshire. Imposing upon the peoples of Cumbria a local government structure that flies in the face of their sense of identity, centralises power and removes accountability is a recipe for failure.

I would support the campaign for enhanced two-tier working, because it could lead to more efficiencies than the county is able to claim for its own proposals. I shall finish by saying that a unitary Cumbria would be a contrived entity. It would be doomed to be the first up for the chop the next time that local governmentis reorganised. On behalf of the residents of my constituency in Westmorland and Lonsdale, I call on the Minister to save time and to put the bid out of its misery now.

Angela Smith (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government)
I thank all hon. Gentlemen for their comments, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for securing today's debate. He has achieved something that does not happen terribly often in the House in that he has secured support from all quarters and from colleagues from all parties.

I do not have time to go through some of the detail, but I should like to comment on some of the things that have been mentioned. My hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle and for Copeland (Mr. Reed), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) have all spoken and put a powerful case for their views on the issue. It is clear that there is a strength of feeling among MPs. I can say that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham)—the silent one who has sat beside me today—has also made his views known to me and to the Minister for Local Government. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who cannot be with us today, has brought a delegation from his local council, Barrow-in-Furness borough council, to see me. Indeed, I shall also have meetings with representatives of one of the other districts and representatives of Cumbria county council.

A great deal of debate and consideration is taking place on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said that he hopes that the Government do not make a mistake. So do I—but I can assure him that whatever the decision, it will be taken after a careful consideration of all the factors, including those that have been raised today.

To give the background, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that in response to the invitation that the Government issued to local authorities, we received a total of 26 proposals from local authorities for the creation of unitary authorities. One of the bids was from Cumbria county council. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today. We are in a legal process and matters of propriety must be taken into account, so I cannot get into the merits of specific proposals. I think that that is understood.

The reasons why the Government judged that16 proposals could go forward to stakeholder consultation were set out in letters that were sentto councils on 27 March. The invitation for bidsfor unitary status was a response to the long-standing debate and consultation on the future of local government. My hon. Friend highlighted that in some cases, the existing two-tier arrangements are not as efficient and effective as we might wish. There arerisks involved in a two-tier structure. There can be confusion, duplication and inefficiency between the tiers. There is a view that in some areas the appropriate way forward is to move to a unitary structure. We are looking to create more focused and better outcomesfor local residents. Allowing councils that wish to take that route to come forward to make a bid is the Government's response to such views, and 16 were shortlisted for further stakeholder consultation.

The 26 proposals that we initially received were whittled down to 16 and we are using a set of criteria to consider them that it might be helpful to explain. A change to unitary structure must be affordable and represent value for money, and costs must be met from a council's existing resources. Proposals have to be supported by a broad cross-section of stakeholders in and partners of the local authority. In addition to the affordability and support criteria, the councils have to provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; give genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and deliver value for money and equity on public services. The 16 shortlisted proposals were examined and taken forward.
We are now in the process of a public consultation, which lasts for 12 weeks up to 22 June. I welcome today's debate as a contribution towards that consultation. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will also make their views known during the more formal process. The Government have said that we would welcome responses to the consultation from key partners and stakeholders in the areas that would be affected by the proposals. That means that we welcome views from local authorities, the wider public sector and the business, voluntary and community sectors, but it is open to anybody who has a comment to make to respond to the consultation. I assure all hon. right hon. Members that we will carefully consider all the views that are put to us before a decision is taken.

I also take on board the comment that whatever happens with unitary structures, if anything, there have to be better ways for two-tier local authority areas to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that. In some areas, authorities have offered to be pathfinders. We must recognise that although a unitary structure would be the most appropriate structure in some areas, it is not the case in every area. We need to see more effective working arrangements that overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency. Those risks must be dealt with.

The process is based on a devolutionary principle. The bids come not from above from the Government, but bottom up from local authorities. That is why we issued an invitation to local authorities to come forward with their views on whether they thought that the process was appropriate for them. Those of us who are committed to the public sector and public service want to ensure that we get the best possible outcomes for local residents, whatever the structures and whatever the outcome of the process. That is why we are asking all local authorities, whether or not they have a unitary structure, to have better working relationships across local government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle asked a specific question about expenditure and read an extract from the brochure from Cumbria county council's bid for unitary status, in which it stated that it would ensure that the rate increase was capped at 4 per cent. for the first three years, I believe. It is for county councils to set their own expenditure plans, but anew authority would have the ultimate say on the expenditure plans because it would be a new authority. The implications of that are being worked through and a working group has been established to look at those specific issues. Key stakeholders such as the LGA and the unions are involved. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill will enable flexible arrangements, subject to its passage through Parliament. At the end of the day, although plans are set by county and district councils, any new authority would have the authority to make its own expenditure plans and to decide on the appropriate rates.

Although I have not had long to speak, I have rattled through. This debate might get the world speed-speaking award. I thank all Members for their comments. I assure them that all the comments made today will be taken into account.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Grammar Schools

Existing Grammar schools are doing a superb job: there is not, and never has been, any criticism from the Conservative Party of the contribution of existing Grammar Schools. There is no possibility whatsoever that a Conservative government would close, limit, or in any way attack the 164 grammar schools which still exist.

As David Willetts said in his speech which started the recent controversy: ‘For those children from modest backgrounds who do get to grammar schools the benefits are enormous. And we will not get rid of those grammar schools that remain."

However, any party which aspires to govern our country in the 21st century needs to address the needs of today's children and tomorrow's children in all the thousands of schools in the country, not just those who have a chance to attend one of fewer than 200 schools.

School Education in this country is a matter for local democratic choice - and after far too many powers and choices have been taken away from local communities the Conservatives are certainly not going to start off in government when we win a national election by taking away another one. So any policy to close, keep, or expand Grammar schools would have to be implemented at Local Education Authority level.

In a relatively small number of Local Education Authority areas, supporters of Grammar Schools have fought off every attempt to close those schools over the past forty years. In those council areas the debate is over and the local Grammar schools won because they have popular support. Even Tony Blair at the height of his power did not attempt to over-ride the wishes of people in those areas. Labour introduced arrangements for a local referendum on proposals to close grammar schools, and in the few instances where pro-comprehensive campaigners managed to trigger such a votes, the grammar schools won.

In the rest of the country the local democratic choice was different and most areas went comprehensive three decades ago. And although there were one or two attempts in the 80's and 90's to bring back grammar schools in comprehensive areas, not one single new grammar school was introduced during the 18 years between 1979 and 1997. In the majority of the country it is the 11 plus which is history.

If we want to address the needs of the vast majority of young people now, we are unlikely to achieve it by re-creating grammar schools.

But we don't have to. A couple of years back Tony Blair proposed one of his few good pieces of legislation, on Academy Schools. The left wing hated it so much that he had to rely on Tory votes to get it through parliament.

We voted for the law which made it possible for existing schools to become Academies, and for new Academy schools to be opened. When we return to power, we must use those laws.

Even this will sometimes be difficult and controversial, as the current debate over a new Academy to be formed by merging schools in Copeland indicates. But by using the laws which are in place now to provide for more Academy schools, we will be able to do more good for more children more quickly than we can possibly achieve by re-fighting the battles of thirty years ago.

Conservative policy is:

1) We believe education is the key to social mobility, and a Conservative Government will focus remorselessly on raising standards for all children. We will do this by giving teachers more power to implement effective discipline, reversing progressive teaching fads in favour of tried and tested teaching methods, and making it easier to create more good schools in the state sector.

2) We support existing grammar schools, and will protect them where they remain. But David Cameron has made it clear there will be no return to the 11-plus where it has long-since disappeared, and that the debate over creating more grammar schools is a distraction from our priority of raising standards for all children.

The new proposals in David Willetts’ speech focused on how we can use the Academy programme to create more diversity and bring in new providers using tried and tested teaching methods. The specific proposals are:

a) Removing bureaucratic barriers to make it easier to set up state schools. Currently there are too many barriers in the way of new schools opening. We are committed to making it easier for parents and others to create new schools if that is what they wish to do.

b) Removing the requirement for sponsors of Academies to contribute £2m, to allow more schools to become Academies. If donors wish to give money to Academies that is something for which they should be applauded. But there should no longer be any requirement for a contribution from an external donor on these lines as a prerequisite for creating an Academy.

c) A single Academy contract for multiple schools to make it easier for outside providers to run nationwide networks of schools within the maintained sector. So far the Academy programme has been used very much for school by school reform. A multi-school academy would cut out the cumbersome process of negotiating contracts one by one, and make it much easier for new regional and national organisations offering a consistent brand of state education to emerge.

d) Inviting new Academy providers to run schools with whole class teaching, streaming, setting and firm discipline so we can show that even in our toughest areas, traditional teaching works. We believe whole class teaching, setting and streaming, and a robust discipline policy are effective ways of improving standards. We will fund a number of Academy providers who commit themselves in their contracts to run schools using traditional ways of teaching, and properly evaluate the results.

e) Commissioning independent research to evaluate teaching methods before they go nationwide so there is a scientific and long-term basis for what works best. We will consult the profession on a new approach to research, independent of Ministers, which evaluates educational innovation before it goes nationwide. Only then will we get proper respect for teachers as a profession whilst also creating a stronger basis for Ministers and the Department to engage with the profession, drawing on evidence of what works.

I believe this is a good, effective programme to improve education for every child in this country which does not in any way weaken or abandon the positive things which the Conservative party has always stood for.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

David Cameron on Nuclear Power

I recently raised the issue of nuclear power with in a conversation with Conservative party leader David Cameron.

Nuclear power is important both to the country as our largest source of low-carbon electricity and to West Cumbria where about 17,000 jobs depend directly or indirectly on the civil nuclear industry. David Cameron confirmed that the Conservative Party supports a balanced energy policy in which our aim is to create a level playing field, but crucially one that gives green energy a chance. He dismissed suggestions that the Conservatives are anti-nuclear, saying that nuclear power would have to bear its own costs but under a Conservative Government would compete on a level playing field with other established low-carbon energy technology. He added that, for all Tony Blair's rhetoric, his policies contain nothing that will make nuclear happen.

I welcomed David Cameron's positive and constructive comments about the future of the nuclear industry.

Energy White Paper

There is much that is good and much that is deeply disappointing in the Energy White Paper.

I welcome the positive noises about nuclear energy. But as both David Cameron and Alan Duncan have pointed out, there is nothing that the government has said which has guaranteed the construction of a single new Nuclear Power station.

For there to be any chance of a private sector investor deciding to put their own money into a new Nuclear installation, they have to have a clear idea of the long term framework, including decomissioning, under which it will operate. That requires a cross-party political consensus. Nobody is going to spend millions on a new plant without an assurance that it will not be cancelled after the next election, nor the goalposts moved in a way which makes it uneconomic.

Which makes it sad that every time there is a nuclear debate in the Commons, the MP for Copeland uses the opportunity to score cheap and silly party political points. He would serve the interests of his constituents better by trying to build a pro-nuclear consensus.

The other major issue for West Cumbria hidden in the small print of the document is the assumption that spent fuel from any new nuclear plants in the UK will not be reprocessed.

If that is taken at face value, it would have massive implications for West Cumbria. Should this assumption be correct, and no reprocessing take place from new nuclear plants in the UK, it is hard to see how the British nuclear industry could market abroad a service which we have rejected for Britain. And no more reprocessing would mean thousands of jobs lost in West Cumbria.

There are people in the nuclear industry who believe it is possible that this paragraph in the White paper should not be taken at face value, that it may reflect short-term political tactics by the government rather than a definite policy, and that there is no decision not to go for reprocessing. They may be right - this government is not exactly known for being straightforward about its policies.

But if this or any other government does want to end reprocessing, they need to spell out how they will help West Cumbria deal with the devastating economic consequences which will follow.