Gale`s Westminster View – April 2011
April. The Luvvies are out in bloom but Alternative Vote campaigning upsets the blossoms. Euro-judges still want convicts to be enfranchised. Health Service reform goes off the boil and onto the back burner. The ripples of the Japanese Tsunami hit the shores of the UK as car parts are in short supply. The BBC is wasting away. The Arab Spring continues to cost lives and generates a tide of refugees. The Prime Minister pours boiling oil in an effort to calm down troubled waters. The Great and the Good put on posh frocks, the sun shines on and on and Her Maj. enjoys a wedding to which the shower is not invited.
The Alternative Vote Referendum, to be held on May 5th, was part and parcel of the coalition government deal. Never mind the fact that only three countries in the world have adopted, and now want to get shot of, this half-baked electoral system. Never mind that even St. Nicholas of Clogg, that warrior that wants to slay the dragons of first-past-the-post, thinks that it is a rubbish idea. Never mind that even those who most fervently want proportional representation have conceded privately that AV is the worst of all possible worlds and likely to set back their cause, win or lose, by light years. We have legislated for a referendum and, at vast cost, a referendum we shall have.
It is a bloody, awful campaign. Coalition brother stabs coalition brother in the back. The massed ranks of Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth and Sally `Twitter` Bercow are harnessed and sent into battle in support of `Yes`! The black poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, is pictured on inner-city Yes” leaflets but edited out in favour of Tony `Baldrick` Robinson for the Home Counties and another Cunning Plan backfires. Young Loch invar arm-wrestles with Clogg, Danny Alexander, Mad Hattie`s `Red Rodent`, accuses Man George of `desperate scaremongering`, St. Vince of Cable shares a platform, if little else, with Milipede the Younger while the Prime Minister pops up again alongside former Labour Home Secretary John Smoking Jock” Reid and somewhere in there we thought we saw Chris the Huhne and Willie Hague. And the Noes” climb ever further up the poll. Will it end in tears? Will the Coalition survive? Are we doomed to perpetual minority government and third-raters standing at the top of the podium? Will anybody vote? Does anybody care? The answer to this and many other trivial pursuits may be known before the ink on this paper is dry enough to be read!
And just think. We could have spent all of this money on schools, or hospitals, or policemen, or the armed forces, or even (whisper it softly) a referendum on our membership of the European Union. Yes!
The price of a first class stamp hits forty-six pence. That fine creator of the universal penny post, Rowland Hill, must be spinning in his box of first day covers as Postcomm, the Royal Mail watchdog”, tells us that service must be improved”. Start by getting rid of the Chief Executive. Just when we thought it could not get worse than under the Crozier regime, it did. Locally, as a result not of snow but of completely ill-timed service changes, the Christmas mail degenerated into chaos. The metro-centric clots that presided over this debacle are now planning to close two sorting offices and to generate a fleet of delivery vans to fight their way through the already carbon-monoxide filled rush-hour Canterbury traffic to bring our gas bills to us later in the day.
Only the Banking sector comes in for more criticism. Banks have, says the Treasury Select Committee, a stranglehold over customers” and suffer from a lack of competition. The answer, says the Independent Banking Commission, is to break up the High Street banks. We keep being told that the financial services industry is vital to our economy” and that it makes a significant contribution to our national wellbeing but to the layman`s eye there appears to have been, notwithstanding a multi-billion pound bailout that has brought our country to the prayer-mat of penury, small sign of structural or cultural change. The cats are still fat, small businesses still cannot obtain the loans that they need for investment and it is still well-nigh impossible to move an account from one provider to another. And no sound service case has yet been made for the scrapping, in 2018, of the chequebooks that are still used by very many people
The British Broadcasting Cuts Corporation is, they tell us, finding it hard to recruit the right (which presumably means left”) people to their top jobs. The implication is that the restraint that has been placed upon executive salaries (remind me, how many BBC managers earn more than the Prime Minister?) is deterring high-fliers from throwing their cloth caps into the ring. The Guardianistas might just care to consider that there are not many successful media stars in front of or behind the screens, who want to remove their children from London schools, sell their homes, uproot and head off to the communications world obscurity of Media City” at Salford Quays in Manchester. Of course, if Auntie chose not to pointlessly send newsreaders and presenters to far-flung destinations for no useful purpose – a habit that even the Director of News has now recognised as wasting cash – then there might be, more money left to nurture good talent to make good programmes. The BBC may wish to marginalise children’s` programming down into CBBC and CBeebies but when there is talk of axing Blue Peter then you know that times are hard! Those that invested in the billion-pound extravagance of Media City could usefully have taken a look at the mighty concrete empire built upon what used to be the White City dog track and think Wait a minute. Here`s one I built earlier”. Against this background that highly professional broadcaster Michael Buerk launches an exocet. The BBC, he says, is a `left-wing, shallow, politically correct institution populated by autocuties for whom The Guardian is the bible ` Who am I to argue with Mr. Buerk!
HMS Cumberland, known affectionately as The Fighting Sausage”, is home from her last tour of duty. To be decommissioned having engaged in the relief of some of those stranded in Libya she has served her turn and her country well but in her wake the people of Gaddafi`s land still face, particularly in Misurata, a situation approximating hell on earth. The United Nations was right to authorise intervention, of that I am sure. But with senior military personnel openly referring to a new Vietnam” there is no happy ending in sight. A problem without a solution” is the phrase being used.
Demands for the recall of Parliament during the Easter recess, on the basis that military advisers constitute boots on the ground” and are therefore game-changers, were rightly ignored but I fear that there will be more active involvement and the arming and training of the Opposition before Gaddafi makes way for an elected government in Libya. We may yet need the three thousand six hundred soldiers, sailors and airmen due to be retired from our armed forces in September.
In Afghanistan, as we were talking of our armed forces, Captain Lisa Head took the `long and lonely walk` for the last time. At 29 years of age and one of only a handful of women bomb disposal officers, she gave her life doing the job that she was trained to do and enjoyed. Every man and woman who dies on active service leaves behind a grieving family and in Parliament we need to remind ourselves that we must never, ever, take the litany of sacrifice for granted.
The Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, has opined that, in the matter of voting rights for prisoners, parliament is `free to choose`. European judges in the Court of Human Rights (not to be confused with the European Court of Justice) think otherwise and decline the UK`s application to appeal their decision. Lord (Alex) Carlile describes the ECHR as `on a collision course with parliament` and the Kraken of the Justice Department, Ken Clarke, awakens to announce that The UK courts must have the final say” and that the ECHR must have a proper regard for parliament”.
When even the Europhile Ken takes this line it has to be a good time for a eurosceptic `senior backbencher` (as the press say) to re-engage with the Council of Europe and so Mr and Mrs Gale trundle off to Strasbourg. It is well over twenty years since I was last a Parliamentary Delegate to the CoE. Then, there were twelve member countries. Now there are forty seven and the membership includes some states that many of us have scarcely heard of, would find it hard to locate on a map of Europe and have most certainly never visited. Apart from an enhanced battery of simultaneous translators, however, little has changed apart from the technology and the concern about that technology. Finding myself on a committee dealing with a culture report I am confronted by a German parliamentarian who is proposing that we ban the use of all wi-fi in schools on the grounds that the transmissions may fry the students brains. No point, in this humourless environment, in trying to point out that there are other and more popular ways of frying kids` brains so I try to explain that in the UK many rural schools rely upon wireless technology for links to broadband educational services.. To my surprise four other committee members support me but will still lose out to the brain-frying lobby on a vote that is unlikely to have any noticeable consequences.
We do, though, seize the opportunity to explain to the ECHR people that our determination not to give voting rights to prisoners is not a whim of some renegade government but was taken on the free and overwhelming vote of an elected and sovereign parliament. The Judges have impaled themselves upon a hook, and as Lord Carlile says they are, indeed, upon a collision course with parliament and they know it. What is at stake is not whether or not a few short-sentence burglars should be allowed to exercise their right not to bother to vote but whether or not the ECHR or the Mother of Parliaments holds sway in the United Kingdom. I do not actually agree with Ken. It is not the UK courts who must have the final say but the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. This is one battle that we have to fight to the very last ditch and we have, if necessary, to be prepared to withdraw from the Convention of Human Rights and, if necessary, from the Council of Europe itself.
Feminism has widened the poverty gap” says Higher Education Minister David Willetts. He also believes that good exam grades from bad schools are worth more than those acquired at good schools., which will be of small encouragement to bright young people from good schools that achieve high grades and now find their endeavours devalued for university entrance purposes. With the outgoing Director General of a British Chambers of Commerce representing more than one hundred thousand businesses asserting that many school leavers are unfit for work” responsible ministers might wish, as a way of enhancing performance, to consider that the reintroduction of good grammar schools could do more to bridge the attainment and poverty gap and social mobility than the abolition of feminism or the manipulation of exam grade values.
Mass migration leads to a divided society. So, correctly, says David Cameron. It comes as no surprise to hear Vince Cable describing the Prime Minister`s straightforward and unemotional observation as inflaming extremism”. A moot point, perhaps, how long St. Vince will be able to contain himself inside the Cabinet tent but absolutely certain that, faced with an impending wave of migrants entering the southern European states from North Africa and moving through Italy and France towards Britain and with queues forming to board, illegally or otherwise, the Eurostar at the Gard du Nord, this government has to regulate immigration immediately. That, in essence, is what Dave was saying and while Mr. Clegg may choose to dismiss the Prime Minister`s policy intention as `an aspiration` what has been said is correct and not a moment before time. As it is, with effect from Mayday, European migrants from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia will all be able to claim full unemployment benefits, and housing and council tax payment, in Britain. Add that figure to the cost of the 74,500 illegal immigrants that the UK Border Agency tells the Home affairs select committee that it has `lost` and you suddenly realise that this is a lot of taxpayer`s boodle.
As Fortress Westminster prepares for the marriage of the heir-but-one to the throne and his fiancée all talk is, naturally, of the dress. No, not the white, lacy one with the train and the veil and coronet but whether to wear business suits or morning coats. Agonising decisions. In this age of austerity is it right for an Old Etonian to wear Toff Clobber and should Milipede the Younger, spokesthing for the downtrodden and oppressed proletariat, sport anything more grand than sack cloth? Happily, as we now all know, the protestations of the republican spin tendency are brushed aside, common sense and common courtesy prevail, even most of the 850 BBC staff deployed to provide coverage of the event are properly attired for the occasion, the sun shines and it is a good day to be proud to be British.
London Labour are advertising, for July 5th in case you wish to attend, an evening with Ed Balls. Price £55 per head, location Planet Hollywood. From another planet he may be but the man who was once Chief Secretary to the Treasury has used the New Statesman to finally concede that the last Labour Government suffered from a structural deficit”.
Ed has also indicated that we should place a limit on our contribution to the £70 billion bailout of Portugal but fails to notice that it was the Last Labour Chancellor Darling that signed the treaty committing us to this largesse in the dying days of the administration and while negotiations were continuing after the 2010 General election. Sorry” is not in Ed`s vocabulary, however.
Milipede the Younger, ( The bloke whose aides removed the `First Class` seat covers while he was being filmed on a train ), now wishes to be known as Edward” rather than the more downmarket Ed”. This, we are told, is in order that he shall not be confused with Balls.
Note to Edward: When I held a warrant as a Special Constable with British Transport Police putting your feet up on the seat was an offence.
We jest about `elf `n safety and note that Brent Council chose to ban a 400-yard Easter (Christian) parade on account of insufficient time to allow for `consultation` for road closure but the case of a graduate left brain damaged following a delayed response to a 999 call is seriously not funny. Paramedics were close by but awaited a police escort before calling on the patient because the location was deemed to be at a `high risk` address. I seem to recall that our medics on the front line in Afghanistan face some fairly dodgy situations as well but it does not, thank God, prevent them from rescuing and treating battlefield casualties.
The UK has the highest level of single parenthood, at 6.7%, in the European Union so it is, perhaps, a good thing that some thirty five thousand Scouts aged over 14 are to receive sex education. Readers may wish to experiment with design suggestions for the badge! Meanwhile, Robert Baden-Powell might be surprised to learn that the number of girls recruited to Scouting now exceeds the number of boys for the first time in the history of the movement. Lord Baden Powell may, though, while reposing in Elysium, take some comfort from the fact that while his name is properly associated with constructive activities for young people a third of all of today`s children apparently believe that Rudyard Kipling makes cakes!
Thirty thousand census police are now chasing some seven million missing forms. I wish that they would stop harassing my ninety year old Mother who, having completed and posted the document with the assistance of my sister (Ma`s sight is failing) is now being pestered by phone calls and house calls because the Royal Mail have (presumably) lost the document . I do not suppose that all seven million stray forms are sitting in mailbags in some dark corner of a St. Albans sorting office but the Chief Census Constable might care to invite Mr. Adam Crozier in for questioning.
In Mole Valley charity litter-pickers conducting a sponsored clean-up of the countryside are initially threatened with a £95 bill for disposing of bags of rubbish. Avoiding the obvious question why had the local authority not cleared the rubbish as part of its civic responsibility to the council taxpayer” the men in the Town Hall relent. But also issue a warning that in future they require a week`s notice before the Wombles of Surrey venture forth to clean up the neighbourhood.
Useless facts. Britain now has more lawyers than police officers. Borat O`Bama is an American (Official. Next month, the Pope is a Catholic). The first MG cars for 16 years are being made. In China. China (tea services) may not be sold in a teashop run by the Chancellor`s brother, Michael Clarke because he does not have planning consent for `mixed use`. One in six schools have banned the game of conkers for fear of nut allergies and `elf `n safety threatens to outlaw leapfrog and marbles. 47 outlaws on the run, including some rapists, murderers and sex offenders, cannot be named for fear of breaching their human rights. The Courts and Tribunals Service, seeking `the widest possible participation`, has ruled that the inability to comprehend written English shall be no bar to jury service. Holiday camps in Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness have decreed that drivers of fairground dodgem cars shall not be allowed to engage in the principle point of dodgems, bumping. A landowner dialling 999 as travellers cut down his trees for firewood has had his shotgun certificate revoked by the constabulary.
And speaking on the Today programme Mr. Edward Miliband declares that Britain does not exist as an Island”.
This is written tardily, in the wake of the wedding and Spring bank holiday, on the eve of the local government elections and the referendum on the Alternative vote. Today the opinion polls show a majority of roughly two to one against AV. There are no local elections in London and nationally the turnout is expected to be low. There are, however, parliamentary elections in Scotland it is therefore technically possible that the Scots, who use Proportional Representation to elect their own representatives, might swing a UK vote in favour of a system that the rest of the UK does not want. The West Lothian Question” is a misnomer. It is, in fact, The English Question” and sooner rather than later it is a question than an English parliament is going to have to address.