Gale`s Westminster View – Leapday, February, 2012
February. Banks on the rack. Network Rail bosses on the track. An MP on the smack. Christians under attack. High Noon for Huhne. Sarah not tethered. The Families Tsar” takes an A4Exit.
The unions are revolting, Sainsbury`s thinks that workfare is unfair and the might of vested interests combine in their efforts to prevent reform of the National Health Service.
The month begins with the Honours Forfeiture Committee taking the rare step of stripping a Knight of the Realm of his title. Mr. Fred Goodwin, as he is now once again to be known, received his `K` for services to banking but in the wake of the lamentable performance of the Royal Bank of Scotland under the stewardship of Sir Fred the Shred the great man has been reduced to the ranks. Odd, really. It is still in order for Members of the House of Peers, having served time at Her Majesty`s pleasure, to resume their seats in the Lords and there must be literally dozens of people who, having received recognition for long service or good works, are found to have feet of clay. So why pick on Fred?
The answer, of course, is that bankers are now even more unpopular than MPs at the height of the expenses scandals – and that`s going some. Society needs a scapegoat and Fred was the unpopular and arrogant choice. We cannot grasp why, when we have pawned our grandchildren`s plastic teething rings to bail out the financial institutions, when small businesses find it virtually impossible to obtain the loans that they need to expand to create jobs, while the banks are taking in £11 billion more than they are loaning out and still making monumental losses, they are also still paying out vast sums in performance” payments. It is not a question of cutting or waiving” bonuses but of why, under the present circumstances, any bonuses are being paid to bankers (or MoD Civil Servants or anyone else) at all. Bonuses quite properly reward success. Reward for failure is as incomprehensible, to those who work and pay taxes, as raising Welfare Benefit payments by a figure way over the rate of inflation or giving a billion pounds in overseas aid to an India that does not want and does not deserve the money. But back to the banks. Loans to business have fallen in every quarter for the last three years. Last year the Royal Bank of Scotland, which we the taxpayers own, lost £2bn but still managed to shell out £400 million in bonuses. Might that money not have been better spent granting loans to small businesses? I think so, but the decision to retrospectively single out Fred Goodwin for excoriation still smacks of spite.
There has been a rattling of the cage that houses the Executives of Network Rail. It is a moot point whether those commuters from my constituency who daily endure what passes for a rail service south of the River Thames loathe Network Rail or South-eastern Railway the most. They would, though, I suspect be united in a view that nobody running either company should receive a penny more in their pay packets than contracts stipulate. The Department of Transport has, until franchise-renewal time draws mercifully near, little power to exercise over the performance of the train operating company. The Minister does, though, have a vote on the Board of Network rail. Step forward Justine Greening. Without a controlling interest or a veto her scope is limited. But when the Secretary of State makes it plain that she will attend an Annual General Meeting in person to cast her vote against Network Rail`s proposed management bonuses the message sinks in. Collapse of one tranche of unwarranted remuneration. I would not wish to damage her future by portraying her as a latter day Joan of Arc but with this young lady in the Control Tower there might just be hope for the future of the United Kingdom as an aviation hub. She does have guts.
Spare the rod and spoil the child” is an adage more frequently cited by my colleagues on the Conservative benches than by those on the other side of the chamber of the House of Commons. Mr. David Lammy, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham representing the seat of last summer`s riots, has given voice to the politically less than correct view that a certain amount of corporal chastisement might have licked some of his young constituents into shape before they starting chucking rocks at the police and setting fire to people`s homes. Not surprisingly, while the bleeding-heart intellectuals” of the liberal media laid into Mr. Lammy, a poll of those supporting an end to the legal ban on smacking delivered a 60% vote in favour of corporal punishment in some modest form.
Talking of Tottenham, which in a roundabout way we were, that town`s soccer team manager, Mr. Harold Redknapp, is Innocent, OK”. Mr Redknapp found himself in court for alleged tax offences but, proclaiming that I have always paid my taxes and more”, Honest `Arry walked from court without a smudge on his larger-than-life character to create another dilemma. With the departure, in a huff and clutching a £1.5 million payoff, of the England Football team`s less than happy Manager, one Fabio Capello, there are immediate calls for a Brit to fill the vacancy. The People`s Choice” is, of course, Honest `Arry who is already committed to repaying Tottenham`s fans for their loyal support during his time of local difficulty. We shall probably have to await some future episode of North Enders to find out how this particular soap-opera will end. `Arry is not apparently sitting by the phone but politicians are not slow to voice their opinions about this vital issue. Street cred is everything.
In the Law Courts the former Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, finds himself in the dock trying to avoid his ex-wife, Vicky Price, as both are charged with perverting the course of justice.
And that justice itself is under some Scrutiny. The Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, decrees that in order to afford protection for government agencies” it will be in order to withhold evidence deemed, by Ministers, sensitive”, from open Civil Court hearings under closed material procedures”. I am, personally, in favour of the intelligent protection of sensitive information but this direction, coming from a bloke that wants to open up the Law Courts to the three-ringed circus that is Sky Television, seems out of kilter with the drive for transparency” and open government”.
A little light has, though, been shining upon some of the privileges enjoyed by M`Lud. Judges are not pleased at the prospect of having to contribute , for the first time, to their own pensions. That every other form of public sector life is having to pay towards their retirement pot (MPs at 13% of salary) appears to have passed their legal lordships by. Judges, it seems, are a special case” who must be allowed to protect their independence from government”. £102,000 a year for a retired District Judge might just not get the nod from the independent” Court of Human Rights although, upon reflection, I can hear the sound of ranks closing as I write.
Then there is Lord Leveson and his inquiry into the conduct of The Press. Sir Christopher Meyer, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission between 2003 and 2009, tells the Noble Lord that in his view newspaper regulation is as good as you are going to get”. Tiresomely for Sir Meyer” this slightly far-fetched claim is followed smartly by the arrest of five senior Sun journalists, an Army Officer and a Surrey Policeman. The charges, of course, that the hacks had been handing over used fivers to public officials in exchange for inside information. I am quite certain that this could never possibly have happened. It was Sir Paul, now Lord, Condon who, as the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, assured me personally that when Ms. Gillian Taylforth, an actress, was reported by the Press as having been picked up for doing naughty things in a steamed-up Range Rover that information could not possibly have come from the constabulary that nicked her. Perish the thought!
No matter. St Paul of Dacre, that worthy newspaper person, tells Leveson that celebrities cannot turn the publicity tap on and off”. Oh really? Does this mean that any film star, any footballer, any politician, indeed anyone at all who is in the public eye” and finds it useful or necessary to use the media to publicise a cause is, 24-hours a day, fair game for Dacre`s sleuths? Is no public personality entitled to lawful peace and protection from salacious intrusion? Is the sale of The Daily Mail of greater importance than the right to reasonable privacy? The sanctimonious Editor might want to make enquiries of some of his newspaper group`s reporters – particularly those who in previous incarnations have worked for News International – to make quite certain that even this saintly team have not, at any time, waved chequebooks in front of those willing, but only for a price, to blow a whistle. It is frequently said that if it had not been for chequebook journalism then The Daily Telegraph would not have received the Members` Expenses Disc”. That is very probably true, but the fact remains that the paper was buying stolen goods and while I do not in any way seek to suggest that the exposure of this particular scandal was not in the public interest it is a very fine line. It would be better, would it not, if self-interest were removed from the murky world of whistle blowing and reporting.
Did the Press pay the whistleblower” who suggested impropriety within the Back-to-Work contractor A4e? I hope not. It has, nevertheless, become clear that while investigations had been instigated prior to the appointment of A4e founder and boss Emma Harrison as the Prime Minister`s Back-to-Work Tsar” that not insignificant fact was not conveyed to either the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions or to Number 10. With the tabloid newspapers screaming for heads on a plate, fraud enquiries in hand , a fistful of arrests and tales of champagne inducements and forged signatures ricocheting around Fleet Street and the Palace of Westminster Ms. Harrison quits as Tsar and, in short order afterwards, as the Chairman of the company that she founded. Which does not a lot for the cause of getting people back into employment.
Neither does the Right to Work” campaign which more properly ought to be re-named the Right to lie on a sofa watching telly and swilling beer while low-paid taxpayers` money is used to pay me benefits to enable me to continue to sit at home doing nothing” campaign. This outfit, spawned by the Socialist Workers` Party, has managed to intimidate, through direct action”, a number of significant, if managerially craven, participants in the coalition Government`s Workfare Scheme and to persuade them to withdraw from the enterprise. The Welfare and Work project, described correctly by Man David as a stepping stone to work”, is designed to offer young unemployed people not in education or training the chance of some real-life work experience. This is translated, by the SWP, as slave labour” and it is correct that while the participants have had an absolute right to leave a placement, without penalty, during the first week of engagement those who quit later might have faced loss of benefits. The fact is that, as a result of this initiative, a significant number of young unemployed men and women have already been given the chance to get experience and a CV that helped them into full-time employment, some with the companies with whom they had been placed. The concept of any form of sanction for quitting is, however, anathema to the Right To Do Nothing brigade and faced with the possibility that, given the supine attitude of some Captains of Industry, the scheme might collapse the Department for Work and Pensions finds itself, on Leapday, doing a handbrake turn. The Minister of State, Chris Grayling, is no shrinking violet and this change of direction, following a meeting with participating employers, clearly reflects pressure from the Coalition Above. Nevertheless, and however much it sticks in the gullet, it is more important to save the project and give the kids a break than to stick to doctrine and watch the whole scheme founder. A triumph not for direct action but for pragmatism and a sense of priority.
A difficult time to be a practising Christian. Mr Justice Ousely, at the instigation of an atheist ex-councillor and member of the National Secular Society in Bideford in Devon, has ruled that it is unlawful , under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972, to commence that Town Council `s formal business with prayers. I suppose that you could argue that the Speaker`s Prayers” with which every sitting of The House of Commons commences, are not part of `formal business` but they will, says Speaker Bercow, continue to be held and they will continue to constitute the way in which a Member may reserve a seat for the remainder of the day`s business. Two Christian hotel owners, wishing to deny homosexual couples the right to share a bed in their establishment have, however, discovered in the Court of Appeal that Gay Rights take precedence over faith. A moment of light relief, though, when the High Priest of Militant Atheism, Professor Richard Dawkins was asked on the Today Programme to give the full title of his own bible”, Darwin`s Origin of Species. Stumped, the Professor could only mutter Oh God!” In a separate moment approximating a U-turn if not an actual conversion the soon to be outgoing Director General of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation, Mark Thompson, has conceded that there are not enough older women” in broadcasting. One reason may be that in some cases the National Broadcaster pays women forty times less than men for doing the same job but the main cause of this deficit has been the policy pursued by Mr. Thomson and his suits on the Executive floor at Television Centre. Now if only we could put an end to that other PC lunacy, the transfer of demonstrably London-based programmes to the outskirts of Manchester , and return production to the White City empire. A job for the incoming DG, perhaps.
There`s lots more in this short month. Down in the Falklands Senora Kirchner continues to wave the Malvinas” flag while a Royal Aviator arrives for a tour of duty and our brightest and best Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dauntless, steams in under the White Ensign. Rumours of a patrolling nuclear submarine are not denied. Snow comes. The sea in my home town of Poole freezes over, hell does not. Trains fail to run, of course. Snow goes. Junior Liberal Democrat Sarah Tether misses three votes on a three-line whip on the Welfare Bill. Does she resign? Of course not! Francois Hollande is in London to campaign for ex-pat French Presidential Election votes. The Gallic scourge of business and capitalism announces, in terms, that he wants more regulation”. Does Milipede Junior, with whom he is photographed shaking hands, agree? We need to know. The Prime Minister wants to see more women in the boardroom. Health Minister Anne Milton talks of watering down beer to curb the effects of drink. Lord Two Jags” Prescott announces his intention to run as a candidate in the race to become the Police Commissioner for Hull in order, as Thumper” Prescott says, to protect the community and target criminals”. We are facing the worst drought since 1976”, the price of diesel fuel hits a record high at around 145p per litre, and the lady who presided over the failure of immigration controls at the Border Agency, Lin Homer, glides seamlessly through the revolving door, via the Department of Transport, to become the replacement for Dave” Hartnett as the boss of the crumbling Revenue and Customs organisation. And that robust former Primate of All England, George Carey, tells the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom that the concept of gay marriage” is wrong.
And then there`s Health. Far be it for me to suggest that the Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition has misled the House of Commons but he has come perilously close to it. At PMs Questions Milipede The Younger states clearly that 98% of those in the Royal College of General Practitioners” oppose the Government`s Health and Social Care Bill. As it happens I chaired this piece of legislation through both its committee and re-committal stages. This gives me the advantage of knowing the terms and conditions inside out and backwards and at the same time precludes me, by parliamentary convention, from commenting upon it! It is no comment upon the provisions of the bill, however, to say that there are forty-four thousand members of the Royal College of General Practitioners, that of that total just 7% voted in opposition to the bill and that therefore Mr. Milipede is plain wrong. Additionally, I await a response – and hell probably will freeze over before it arrives - from the Head of the Royal College to questions that I have put to her in writing. I asked this lady doctor who, it is suggested, has earned rather more of a loaf than a crust out of the NHS herself, what measures were put in place to ensure that GPs, voting electronically, did not vote more than once. Answer came there none! From local experience, General Practitioners welcome the planned shift of control from non-medical bureaucracy to local control in the patients` interest and are already getting stuck in to the opportunities that this transfer of power and resources offers them. It is the shrill squeal of vested interests from those whose positions depend upon an outdated structure that is no longer fit for purpose, coupled with a breathtaking opportunism on the part of Union-backed Labour leadership”, that has frightened the public. The changes will take time to bed down and there will be, no doubt, fine-tuning needed but the Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley and his Minister of State, Simon Burns, have spent hours in consultation and consequent revision to meet the genuine concerns of healthcare professionals. For the BMA`s shop steward and others to say, at this stage, that they have not been listened to is flagrantly dishonest. And they know it.
In this Diamond Jubilee year the EU Women`s Rights and Equality Committee” is considering constitutional changes including succession provisions affecting constitutional monarchies” which means, in English, giving a girl the right to enjoy a position as first in line to take over as Monarch. As it happens that decision has already been taken in the United Kingdom but what business is it of the Union of Federal Socialist European Republics to meddle in the affairs of our constitutional monarchy?
Labour`s Equalities Spokesperson, Kate Green, has objected to the selling of Top Tottie” beer in the Kremlin Bar of the House of Commons. Slater`s Ales of Staffordshire have apparently supported the marketing of this drink with offensive pictures” of scantily clad maidens and described its product as blond, full-bodied and with a voluptuous hop aroma”. Beer banned, sales nationally doubled. Nice one, Kate.
Were we talking of the NHS? We were. The Health service is now spending £64 thousand a day, or if you prefer about £23 million a year, on translators working in 120 foreign languages. £23 million buys a lot of cancer drugs. I wonder how many of the users of this service pay a penny towards the cost of translation for their benefit.
A security guard at the HMV record store saw a thief remove 20 DVDs before leaving the shop. Guard chases man down street and arrests him. Guard sacked for leaving post.
We have experienced a flake or two of the white stuff in the South of England. After last year`s standstill Heathrow Airport invested, we are told, thirty two million pounds in snowploughs. They then cancelled fifty per cent of flights before this year`s forecast snow had fallen.
Ex-pat UK citizens who have had difficulty in securing payment of exportable disability benefits will take, no doubt, great comfort in the case of the £10 million lottery winner who continues to claim Disability Living Allowance to the tune of some six thousand pounds a year. DLA is not a means tested benefit.
My Peter Pan colleague Austin Mitchell (Labour) who celebrates his 78th Birthday this year, continues to pull his punches. The Liberal Democrats” says the sage of Great Grimsby, are not a grown-up party but a collection of middle-class deviants, odds and sods and those too squeamish or to silly or selfish to join one of the two great alternatives”. When will Austin get to say what he really thinks?
Respite. The BBC`s One Show, Casualty and East Enders are being marginalised to allow the channel to accommodate 2500 hours of live sport during the 17 days of the Olympics. Another legacy of The Games.
The same Salford Broadcasting Corporation sought to introduce a ban on references to Qatada as a fat extremist. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confounded this edict with the broadcast observation that this overweight extremist belongs in a prison cell in Jordan”. You cannot, of course, digitally sanitise live transmissions.
To avoid confusion” over same-sex relationships Stonewall is suggesting that in the yet-to-be-published Marriage Bill the term husband and wife” should be replaced with parties to marriage”. You can see it now, can you not. Do you take this party to be your wedded………”?
The Jubilee is creating more work for the `elf `n safety militia. Displays of bunting, in public places, will have to be the subject of surveys prior to installation. And this is the nation that emerged victorious from the Second World War.
Not content with insisting that motorists must carry breathalysers in addition to all of the current statutory junk the French Prime Minister, Francois Jeune” Fillon is seeking to outlaw the use of the prefix Mademoiselle” and the use of the Nom de Jeune Fille” (Maiden name) on the grounds that these terms are archaic and might convey connotations of virginity”. M. Fillon might have a point under trades description law but Madame D`Armentieres” does not have quite the same ring about it, does it?
The Royal Yachting Association will not be instigating further action against Olympic Sailing gold medallist Ben Ainslie in respect of his altercation with an Australian media launch. And in response to my parliamentary question I understand that the Olympic Organising Committee will be keeping a tight rein on intrusive waterborne hacks during the racing at Weymouth. So, denied their secret weapon, the Aussies will have to try to beat young Ben by outsailing him instead.
At an understated reception in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons an extraordinary young lady gave an extraordinary account of an extraordinary journey.
Felicity Aston lives in Birchington on Sea and she is one of my constituents. A couple of years ago she led a team of Commonwealth women, some of whom from Africa had never seen snow, into the Antarctic Wilderness. This past year, for fun, she trundled a sledge from coast to coast via the South Pole and in so doing became the first woman to effect a solo crossing of the continent of Antarctica.
Asked, at the reception, if she was very brave she said No. I just do what I have to do and keep on going. I have to keep on making progress”. What a role model for the young women to whom, in schools and youth clubs across the country, she delivers her softly spoken can do” message of empowerment.