Gale’s Westminster View – September 2011.
September. The month of uneasy divisions. Sitting either side of the equinox the seasons do not know if it is late summer or early autumn but the winter of discontent comes early for politicians. The House sits, briefly. Do cracks appear in the coalition or is this just pre-conference grandstanding? The Brothers and Sisters of the TUC sit awkwardly in the company of the Red Millipede, their chosen class warrior. North of the Border the Claymores rattle as rumblings of a new” party to replace the Conservatives emerge. Libya faces an endgame. Or a new beginning. The European economy and The Legacy would both appear to be unravelling. And Britain will be re-branded as Great again for the first time since 1983.
In thrall to press criticism of a three month holiday” the House of Commons now sits for a disjointed two weeks with the (English ) return to school. We, and our constituents, all know that Members of Parliament need to spend time in the constituencies and that the post real summer holiday weeks have hitherto offered an invaluable opportunity for school, hospital, local business and voluntary organisation visits. It is also the case that the maintenance of that historic and listed edifice, The Palace of Westminster, takes time and organisation. No matter. In order to satisfy what Fleet Street perceives as public demand” ( I have personally never, in 28 years in office, received a letter of complaint about my recess schedule from a constituent) the carpets are laid back down and the shutters removed and the bars and restaurants re-opened, all at taxpayer`s expense, only to be lifted again for completion of works when we depart for the annual party conferences.
And that`s another bone of contention. The Conferences used to be held in seaside towns, from mid-September through to early October, when the summer guests had departed and leaving relatively low-cost accommodation for massed delegates and a useful shoulder month earner for the proprietors of small hotels and guest houses and cafes.. As this year`s gatherings will have been held in, respectively, Birmingham (Liberal Democrat), Liverpool (Labour), and Manchester (Tory) , cities not renowned for their seaside hospitality, the bottom has been kicked out of the case for later political festivals. With the State Opening of Parliament now shifted from November to May (which is why you have not seen one for a while) the time has surely come for the conferences to be held upon return to school with the House sitting from the end of the conference season through to Christmas and, if you will, a brief half-term holiday to celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow the entire institution to Hades!
Under this system the maintenance of the House would be completed without interruption and the re-sit business” would be taken just three weeks later. Not that the work was not important. Having chaired the Health and Social Care Bill through committee I found myself conventionally non-combatant as this contentious piece of work completed its Commons stages without the much-vaunted Liberal Democrat rebellion and winged its way off to, no doubt, be further shredded by the Lords.
As an adjunct to the bill the doughty Nadine DORRIES sought to move an amendment that would have made disinterested counselling mandatory prior to the approval of abortion. Traditionally, this issue has been the subject of a free vote but the Government made plain its opposition and the measure was lost. It remains to be seen how the administration will react formally to a proposed Council of Europe convention that seeks to prevent the revelation of the sex of an embryo to parents in an endeavour to prevent the abortion of unwanted” female foetuses. I am not at all in favour of the imposition of centralized diktats upon sovereign states but the cry that this should be confined to countries where the abortion of girls takes place” belies the harsh fact that in modern multi-cultural Britain the practise has a foothold. A decision on this is not, at the moment, a government priority”.
The Daily Telegraph, in coalition with the Grand Dame of the National Trust, has continued to wage its Hands Off Our Land” ( Our starting point is not a Nimbi one”) campaign against the first real attempt to modernise planning law since the 1947 Act spawned hundreds of pages of secondary legislation and guidance notes. I am sure that the demonization of the National Planning Policy Framework, to give it it`s appealing full name, has sold a few newspapers and frightened readers who, curiously like most Members of Parliament, love our green and pleasant land, but the idea that Greg Clark (Planning Minister and MP for Tonbridge) wants to smother England in tarmac and housing and industrial estates is to say the least fanciful.. That Greg was the MP who led the charge against Garden Grabbing” and back-land development appears to be immaterial. We have been threatened with building on flood plains”, a developer`s charter”, A green light for Gypsy sites” , a concrete countryside” and much, much more. Plagues of locusts would probably have been included were it not for the fact that the insects would, presumably, find little to feed on in a coast-to-coast urban environment.
Faced with this synthetic hysteria the Prime Minister, no less, found it necessary to point out that, as a rural MP himself, he regards our beautiful British landscape” as a National treasure” which, of course it is. This did not stop the DT from headlining Greg Clark`s concession that the guidelines could have been, and would be following the end of consultation, clearer as Our Planning Reforms Are Flawed” Admits Minister! Were it not for their world class cartoonist, Matt, (They`re changing Farming Today to Building Today”!) I doubt that many Opinion Formers” would any longer bother to read The Telegraph at all.
All of this, of course, surfaced and was chewed over during the two-week session as did and was the report of the Boundary Commission. With the removal of fifty parliamentary seats at the next general election, with some high-profile politicians on both sides of the House facing a contest for somewhere else to represent and with self-interest being what human nature dictates that it is The Boundary Commission Report has eclipsed IPSA (We are building on an impressive start”. Next week How to nail Jelly to the ceiling”) as the tea-room talking point.
At the end of the mini-session the Government`s Citizenship Survey revealed that volunteering has hit a ten year low and we also learned that 36% of the public trust MPs – which is an improvement from 29%. A good time to go On holiday” again!
Curiously, the eleventh of September” does not strike a chord with the public. 9/11”, though, most certainly does and it means many different things to many different people. The World`s worst terrorist attack” and The world will never be the same” are just two of the clichés that I find difficult to swallow. Let me, please, try to explain why.
A long time ago I was working a shift on the BBC`s World Tonight” programme, presented by that consummate and most gentle of broadcasting giants, Gerald Priest land, and I headlined the loss of a jumbo airliner, with its full complement of passengers, as The World`s worst air crash”. In the closest that I have ever seen him get to anger Mr. Priest land told me that You cannot say that: the world`s worst air crash is the one in which someone that you know and love dies”. The carnage of 9/11 likewise. For every single death there was an individually bereaved family with parents, husbands, wives, children left grieving behind. I do not accept that that grief is any greater or any lesser that the grief felt by, shall we say, any one of those bereaved as a result, over many years, of bombings in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world. And The world will never be the same”? For the United States, certainly, a wake-up call. My American friends will though understand, I hope, when I say that until the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the lives that went with it terrorism was largely an over there” thing rather than an on our own doorstep” thing. But has the world changed? Is there greater harmony? More tolerance of others` religious views? Less war? Less torture? Less starvation? I cannot see that until the answers to all of those questions is affirmative it will be possible to lay the ghosts of 9/11” to rest.
But politicians should not sermonize, so back to the three-ringed circus.
The party conferences are set against the backdrop of financial global Armageddon. While Lord Foy of That Persuasion is in the Ukraine announcing that I have come to advise your country” others rather closer to home are wishing that much of the economic advice offered many moons ago had been heeded by those in power at the time.. We shall hear, in due course, how Ed Was it Brown`s or was it Balls”? seeks to claim credit” for saving the pound” and keeping Britain out of the Euro” but the stark fact is that most of those responsible for our own national mortgage are still, by and large, in denial. Whether this is, indeed, a second recession or not depends, I suspect, upon your definition but with Greece leading the charge over the Euro zone precipice, with others not far behind and with £49 billion wiped off share prices in one single day`s trading it is hard to see how even the endorsement by Christine Laggard, as head of the IMF, of Chancellor George`s strategy as appropriate” and the latter`s assertion that there will be no u-turn on policy” may stand up to external pressures. It`s a bit like a submarine. It is correctly conceived and superbly constructed and it is well and courageously manned but the deeper that you are dragged down the more the steel plates creak. Eventually you either head back to the surface or something buckles. It may, indeed, get worse before it gets worse.
The Euro zone staggers towards a second round of Greek bailout terms. Borate Obama, with an eye on his own elections, and the Democrats losing the 9th District of New York for the first time since 1923, announces a $250 billion US rescue package to stimulate his own economy while launching attacks on Greece and France and Germany. Osborne predicts a new EU Treaty within two years” and on the brink of economic crisis” calls for a new euro-plan within six weeks. The Quiet Man, Iain Duncan Smith, accuses the EU, rightly many would say, of too many stupidities and interferences”. Borate again attacks the Euro zone, Christine Laggard talks of a dangerous phase” and, speaking in Ottawa, Man David We are staring down the barrel” actually says we are not quite staring down the barrel but indicates that we are pretty damned close to it as, for the first time within recent memory the FTSE 100 index drops fleetingly below the psychologically sensitive 5000 mark. The G20 meets against a need to find a projected £1.7 trillion to ring-fence the Euro zone against the possible effects of default by Greece and Portugal and Ireland. And Foreign secretary Hague looks upon the Euro as A burning building without any exits”. All of this does have real implications for the lives of real and vulnerable people beyond just the rising cost of living and the falling value of money against income. Andrew Dilnot, author of the proposals to resolve the provision of long-term care for the elderly, predicts millions facing lives of anxiety” if the necessary annual £1.7 billion cannot be found to fund his scheme. In the present climate it seems a near certainty that the reforms will have to be put on hold.
Following the Year of Missed Opportunity Milipede the Younger backs down over proposals to reduce Union voting power at conferences and instead decisively comes out in favour of consultation”.
In Birmingham St Vincent of Cable, never a strong coalition union man, and having fallen out with Chancellor George over the timing of banking reforms, tells Liberal Democrats that we must not provide cover for the descendants of those who sent children up chimneys” which is not only historically questionable but a less than courteous way to describe your senior partners in Government. Warming to a theme of fashionable economic despondency the natural heir to the Clunking Fist`s mantle gloomily predicts grey skies ahead” leaving The Clogg Man , presumably, to offer a solo rendition of Sonny Boy” while reaffirming (for his own followers if for nobody else) that the Human Rights Act is here to stay”. Under the coalition the HR Act may be secure but it would take a brave betting man to put heavy money on The Clogg`s longevity in office as the Leader of his party.
The Eve of the Labour Conference in Liverpool. There was no sound of revelry at night. With head teachers threatening to strike over pension provisions and industrial action gathering as a storm cloud over the 2012 Jubilee and Olympics Mad Hattie takes to the airwaves to announce that public sector strikes over pensions could be justified”. This is the sister who wants to be remembered for bringing about a seismic” change” and who does not want to be seen as a blip” on the radar of socialist history. Ed Balls having removed himself for the running as a future Labour leader (Ed Miliband will be a Labour Leader for a long, long time and a great and successful one too”) and his wife, Yvette Cooper, now firmly in the frame it seems curious that Mad Hattie (Ed will be PM for 10 years”) should be simultaneously supporting Ms. Yvette. Whether such endorsement is a help or hindrance others may judge. We know not a lot of the Milipede philosophy but we do know that he wants to break up the big 6 energy firms”. Now while this may play well with the brothers and sisters and even strike a chord with the populist tabloids somebody needs to ask from where, if the energy firms are to be diminished, will the investment in the next and vital generations of costly nuclear power stations come?
Labour`s own track-record on large-scale public investment is not exactly exemplary. We have schools reeling under the debts of Private Finance Initiatives and twenty or so hospitals facing bankruptcy or closure for the same reason. Public Sector Information Technologies such as the NHS computer systems are way over budget and under-performing and as the Public Accounts Committee, under its (Labour) Chairman, Margaret Hodge, has this month revealed, John Prescott`s FiReControl system of nine regional Fire, Rescue and Emergency centres designed to replace all of our County brigade controls has foundered with eight of the nine buildings empty and costing £4m a month just to maintain. Lord Prescott’s unattractive public defence that ” nobody told me” does not bear scrutiny.( I was myself present in Committee room 13 when a very large number of angry MPs told Prescott`s then Minister of State, Nick Raynsford, exactly how and why this project would end in tears.) Do we really want government – any government – to build our nuclear future? I do not think so!
Although I am invited by a number of ill-informed PR companies to attend functions at the Labour Party Conference I am not accustomed to attending. I am therefore dependant, as are many others, upon press and TV reports for impressions. The Milipede fails to rise to any occasion, Ed Balls tells us that Labour has to rebuild our credibility” and Mrs. Ed Balls gives a fair impression of credibility as a future Labour Party Leader.
And so to Manchester. An October View” may afford the opportunity to comment but in the light of the raspberry afforded to Ken Clarke`s proposal to televise the Law Courts I would lay a small bet that that particular gimmick will be confined to discussion on the Fringe. In response to my parliamentary question asking how this exercise might, given the budgetary constraints already impacting upon the work of the Magistracy, be funded I was told that Additional costs will not be met from the public purse”. And Court Number One at the Old Bailey is brought to you by courtesy of………” I don`t think so, somehow.
Elf `n Safety record 53 accidents a year at their own Executive headquarters. Including one injury caused by a trip over a `Wet Floor` sign.
Australia introduces a ban on BC and AD as potentially offensive, preferring instead BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). How long before the BBC follows suit? The answer it seems, is that they already have and that being so the seven out of ten Britons that may not be churchgoers but who describe themselves as Christian will, no doubt, wish to question why they any longer bother to politically support this jaded institution that is so prepared to cause them offence”.
In the same vein postal workers in Jersey have declined to deliver CDs of bible readings. The forty five thousand free CDs have now instead been delivered by volunteers.
The Olympic Thought police are creating a new vocabulary. Able Bodied” is now translated as non-disabled” and a Carer” is A personal Assistant. And staff are requested to make no assumptions about a person`s gender – however they may be attired.
The famous HP brand of brown sauce, which bears the image of the Houses of Parliament upon its label and was reputedly a favourite of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, has been improved”. The 116 year old recipe, now brewed in Spain for the American company, Heinz, has apparently had salt removed to make it healthier”.
Chancellor Darling`s political memoir and scathing attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Back from the Brink” sold less debut copies than The Great British Bike-Off”.
The new Chief Executive Officer of the cash-strapped Local Government Association, joins the ranks of those earning more than the Prime Minister, on £200 thousand a year. This is an improvement” upon the higher salary paid to her predecessor.
Southwark Council, located just across the Thames from Parliament in London, proposes to replace 400 years of Guy Fawkes night with A Winter Extravaganza” called The Colour Thief” to be held on 4th. November. At a cost of fifty-five thousand pounds this is, though, only a proposal.
The appointment of a woman alto to the 900 year old Lincoln Cathedral`s traditionally all-male choir is described as a betrayal” by The Campaign for the Traditional Church Choir”. Might not their energies be better spent in trying to drum up a Traditional Church Congregation?
A boy of eleven has been banned from a school for wearing the ponytail that he has sported throughout his life. While the short back and sides” tendency may side with the Head teacher this treads on dangerous ground. The boy was asked if this is a religious thing?” Had the answer been yes” instead of the more honest no” then presumably Human Rights would have taken precedence over school discipline.
A Gloucestershire Primary School has banned traditional leather footballs from the playground in favour of sponge balls to prevent injury”, allowing the real thing only for use in football club games – when, presumably, injuries are permitted. A spokesman for the Campaign for Real Education points out that leather has been used for hundreds of years”. Quite so, but they were not so concerned with Health and Safety in the Coliseum.
Members of Parliament know that it is virtually impossible to persuade, on behalf of constituents, local authorities to take robust action against anti-social and noisy neighbours. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Stafford Council prosecutes people for noise pollution. The people concerned are Rag and Bone men, whose traditional cries have caused a nuisance. As one who was woken to the call of Weymouth Mack-reel” from the barrowman I mourn his loss and the loss of the fresh fish that he sold. Nobody, in Stafford, will be allowed to buy My Sweet Lavender it seems.
Richard Scott, a former Christian missionary and a GP of 28 years standing and impeccable practice has been hauled before the GMC for conduct likely to cause a patient distress”. The conduct was the suggestion that the patient might find some comfort in Christ. Until the last election, when the boundary changed, The Bethesda GP surgery in Clintonville was in my own constituency. The practice has a reputation for the strong faith of its practitioners. The patients know and, largely, welcome that fact. The GMC might look to the beam in its own eye before hauling good and dedicated doctors over the coals.
In the cause of what IDS describes as too many stupidities and interferences” EU Civil Servants are protesting at the suggestion that they work a forty-hour week rather than their current 37.5 hours because It would make the job less attractive”. With a scale of perks and facilities that make even the Upper Echelons of Whitehall look impoverished I doubt that there will ever be anything less than a queue for some of the cushiest and most overpaid jobs in Christendom. Some of their practices belong in the EU museum that MEPs have just allocated £15 million of our money to build..
What goes around comes around. When I worked in Broadcasting House in the 1970`s a wag pinned to the newsroom notice board a memorandum” purporting to come from the Director General and requesting that staff desist from making programmes as these impede the work of administration”. The BBC is shortly to publish proposals, under the title delivering Quality First”, for a massive cut in programming budgets. This has not prevented BBC Executives that are themselves paid, presumably, to manage from spending £8 million on strategy consultants in the last year – an improvement” on the £10.9m in 2008/9. Of course, if the BBC had taken the completely free advice offered by MPs at the time and had not embarked upon the ludicrously costly move to Salford Quays in Manchester then a lot of the programme cuts might not be necessary. Lord Patten, please note that we have noted.
A visitor to the Bath Central Travelodge is reported to have found a pigeon`s nest under her bed. The Management`s suggestion, following an assertion that the rooms were cleaned regularly, was that the pigeon must have built its nest quickly”. Fast birds in Bath!
A couple making love on a cricket pitch in West Sussex refused to be deterred or to desist, when observed by two community wardens. This may possibly have been the largest audience on the ground in the course of the season and gives rise to a number of obvious cricketing double entendres but as the column is aimed at a family audience I leave you to fill in your own blanks.
Times are a-changing. The Scout Association tells us that most kids today cannot tie a reef-knot, use a compass, read a map, fly a kite, cook a meal or mend a flat tyre on a bicycle. And consultants have told the Labour Party, which replaced the Red Flag as its emblem because the banner smacked of socialism, that the Red Rose emblem of the Glorious 90`s has wilted over it years in use and is now, as the worst of the three logos, in need of replacement. Perhaps the Scout Association could come up with a suitable alternative as a Party badge?
The chef at Le Bernardino Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan says that with the UN meeting in town he now has more food-tasters and security men in his kitchen than there are clients seated at the tables.
Not surprising. One of the customers is The Legacy. With secret documents emerging from Libya and reports of frequent clandestine meetings with Colonel Kaddafi, not to mention Channel Four`s Dispatches revelations about The Wonderful Life Of Tony Blair our former Great Leader might be spending quite a lot of time looking nervously over his shoulder. Suddenly, the request that his much-publicised first meeting held in a desert tent because it will look better for the cameras” may not seem to have been quite such a bright idea after all. Some people still judge others by the company that they keep.