Gale's Westminster View - July 2009
At the time of writing we have lost twenty soldiers in Afghanistan this month, with many more suffering serious injuries. And there are still some days to go before the 1st August.
We all know that soldiers and sailors and airmen die in wars and since the start of Iraq 2 a growing number of Members of Parliament have lost constituents in the two conflicts in which we are engaged. July now sees the start of a third front between the real commanders and the armchair general in the Lords and Commons and Downing Street. Why are our troops there at all? When will it end? Do they have enough equipment? Do they have the right equipment? Do they have enough men and women to do the job? As the month progresses the debate will become more acrimonious. In the meantime we go down to New Palace Yard to offer a homecoming welcome to 3 Commando and as those who we are asking to put their lives on the line in our interests march in through the carriage gates they receive a torrent of screamed abuse from the anti-war campaigners that are still allowed to clutter up parliament square. It's called "democracy" but the protesters will not appreciate the irony of their situation. Not a pretty sight.
On the Home Front the internecine war within the Labour Party rumbles on. Communities Secretary John Denham, possibly with an eye on a by-election in Norwich North later in the month, tells Mad Hattie that she is alienating the Middle Classes with her Equalities Bill. It is already illegal to discriminate on grounds of age, race, gender, disability and sexuality and Ms. Harperson wishes to add social background and, apparently, regional accent to that list. And this from a government that cannot discriminate between right and wrong!
In eighty-eight degrees (in old money) of summer heat swine fever marches onwards and the death toll climbs upwards. Andy Murray pursues his quest to be the first male Briton since Bunny Austin to do anything serious at Wimbledon. He is British on the way up and, curiously, Scottish when he fails. (Now what would Mad Hattie make of that!) His loss comes at a personal cost of six hundred thousand pounds in prize money and, more seriously, the loss of one hundred and ninety thousand pounds in lost sales of strawberries and Pimms! Honourable Members enjoying corporate hospitality at Wimbledon were heard to mutter darkly about the damage to the economy.
In the real world we now face, officially, the worst recession since the Second World War. The National Office of Statistics announces a fall in GDP of 2.4% in the first three months of 2009. There are now 2.38 million people unemployed following a rise of 281 thousand in just three months - the largest increase since 1971.A million people have not worked at all during the twelve New Labour years since 1997, youth unemployment has risen under Blair's New Deal from 665 thousand to a current 880 thousand and seventy per cent of new private sector jobs are now being filled by immigrants willing to work. Some UK citizens with time on their hands are invited to spend an hour posing on the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of Antony Gormley`s "One and Another" artistic event. How long before Lord Saatchi buy the campsite opposite the Houses of Parliament and displays it in New York as a work of art?
The U-turns continue. While announcing that he will not seek to cap immigration, The Prime Minister-in-waiting, Alan Johnson, has scrapped plans to make identity cards compulsory. Having spent two hundred million pounds on the project to date we are now told that carrying an ID card will be a matter of "personal choice". It is about fifteen years since I sat on a Home Affairs Select Committee that recommended the introduction of voluntary ID cards as a facilitating document. (We suggested the use of the single relevant page of the euro-passport as a design). That piece of work cost practically nothing and it’s good to see our ideas being belatedly appreciated!
Talking of passports, the price of the article in the UK has now risen to £77. This, it seems, is due to a projected loss of 400 thousand applications, and fees, arising from the credit crunch and people taking domestic holidays instead of going abroad. Small comfort to those ex-pats trying to get their passports renewed outside the United Kingdom where the cost of travel to a British outpost of empire has to be added to the cost of printing and bureaucracy but the cost of a passport will not trouble the legion of failed asylum seekers, of whom 200 are seriously convicted criminals, who have "gone missing" in Britain.
The other non-applicant for the keys of Number 10, Lord Mandelson of That Persuasion, pulls the plug on the Postal Services Bill as "impossible" due to "a lack of parliamentary time". Following a battering in the House of Lords The Baron Foy, with an eye on the dodgy by-election in Norwich and a General Election sometime before next summer, has faced the reality that the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail will not get past already disillusioned and dispirited Labour troops in the Commons. Unlike The Big Organ Grinder, who is still in denial, he also acknowledges that the country faces a decade of cuts or, as he so elegantly phrases it, "of rebalancing public finances in the medium term".
And Young David has said "sorry" again. We are, as a party, now told that we are regretting the introduction, under Margaret Thatcher, of "Section 28". This was the piece of legislation, passed in the 1980`s designed to limit the propagation of the joys of homosexuality and lesbian love to schoolchildren. Personally, I thought that it was right then, I think that it is right now and I do not feel remotely apologetic about it. That, no doubt, places me in the category of Mp that Mr. Ben Bradshaw describes as "homophobic" and that Mad Hattie, in an unfortunate choice of words, says is "still a drag anchor in the Tory Party"! Much more appealing - to me at least - is Dave's promise to hold a "bonfire of the Quangos". There are, we are told, 40 new unelected non-governmental busybodies more now than there were in June 2007; the Department of Justice, alone, boasts more than 200 such job-creation exercises and they cost us in excess of £34 billion a year. To our shame it was the Conservative Party in office that set up "Government Agencies". These are indeed governmental but they were clearly created with the main purpose of allowing Ministers to say "Notmegov. That's the job of the agency. Com" I see small point in having outside bodies creating policy. That, surely, is the job of Ministers and their departmental civil servants who, collectively, should take the rap when things go wrong. Either get rid of the Agencies or get rid of Ministers. That proposal should concentrate a few minds!
Elsewhere on the Blue Team, Boy George , as aspirant Chancellor of the Exchequer, plans to give back regulatory powers to the Bank of England and clip the wings of the supine Financial Services Authority. Cheer him to the rafters when he does. And William the Hague, as Foreign Secretary, proposes the radical step of "putting Britain's interests first" as an antidote to failed "ethical foreign policy". That reminds me of the chap who stopped a stranger in Whitehall and asked "Which side is the Foreign Office on?" to which the response was "Ours, I hope!" Of course we need to be ethical in our dealings with others but it would be good to have a Foreign Secretary that believed in batting for Britain.
Swine Flu has provided the sort of "crisis” that the Big Organ Grinder just loves. With Health Secretary Andy Burnham gloomily announcing that "if we panic we could bring the whole National Health Service to its knees " while at the same time offering contradictory information to pregnant mothers ("don't get pregnant" strikes me as being a really thoughtful piece of highly qualified medical advice) and refusing to say whether he would take his own children to a football match The Prime Minister ought to be as happy as a pig in swill.. The "Stay Calm, Carry On" message, though, sits uncomfortably alongside a Swine Flu Hotline staffed by barely trained operators virtually dragged in off the streets to man the phones. The Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson has announced that sixty-five thousand people could die of the disease and is scarcely off our television screens between bouts of newly-hatched opinions while GPs are simultaneously displaying "Swine Flu not welcome here" signs at their surgeries and telling us that this particular strain of flu is not much worse than any other. Cherie Blair is reported to have contracted the bug, leading one unchivalrous commentator to suggest that that was hardly surprising as she has had her snout in the trough for so long but elsewhere it has, chiefly, provided a useful early summer stream of copy with which to fill newspapers with falling circulations.
It is, though, the mounting toll of service death and injury in Afghanistan that has dominated serious headlines and thought. The loss of Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior officer to lose his life on active service since Colonel H.O Jones in the Falklands war, alongside 18-year old Trooper Joshua Hammond at the start of the month, lit the fuse paper of an argument that has exploded.
Do we have enough soldiers on the ground in Helmand province to successfully see through the task in hand? Do those troops have the armour and air support that they need? Or are our boys and girls facing risks and losing lives without good reason? That there has been a delay in the delivery of armoured patrol vehicles is a fact. Whether the vehicles on order were really of a second-best design rejected by the Americans is the subject of dispute. The retiring Chief of General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, has said during his final month in command that we do not have enough helicopters to move our forces around safely sand that we need another 2000 pairs of boots on the ground. The incoming army chief, Sir David Richards, agrees that we need 2000 more men in Helmand and a further 3000 more recruits in the army overall.
Former Defence Chief General Sir Charles, now Lord, Guthrie, says that servicemen and women are dying because of cuts and the Commons Defence Select Committee says that the shortage of helicopters is costing lives. Even the outgoing Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown went into print saying that we did not have enough helicopters before, on the instructions of the man in Downing Street, shamefully "clarifying" his position in time to take the sting out of the Big Organ Grinder's assignation with the Press.
Ranged against all of this we have a Defence Secretary who is a decent man but placed right at the bottom of Cabinet ranking and in thrall to the Treasury and the loosely assembled might of "Field Marshall" Lord Foulkes of Parker-Knoll who foolishly dared to suggest that it was General Dannatt who was "giving succour to the enemy"! Comforting to know that The Clunking Fist is permitting another 750 troops to go off the Helmand while up to eight Chinook helicopters are sitting not deployed in the UK due to a lack of crews and spares and software.
A vintage month. Mr. Yvette Cooper himself has, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families Select committee, fuelled the chaos surrounding SATS tests by meddling. (How out of character, I hear you say). On the "set a thief to catch a thief" principle Hertfordshire constabulary have recruited twelve burglars as `security advisers` which rather begs the question "what are crime prevention officers for"? In Norfolk the police are improving community relations by giving compasses to Muslims in custody to verify the direction of Mecca and also found time to arrest a scarecrow. The offending man of straw had been created to advertise, in police uniform, a village fete. It wasn't the uniform that caused the row but the addition of a speed gun that was deemed to be offensively frivolous. The aforementioned village fetes are under threat nationwide as a result of enhanced bureaucracy Organisers now face up to fifteen licenses, legal agreements, forms and certificates to apply for or complete and `elf and safety is set to succeed where Oliver Cromwell failed .. In addition to `E&S The police, Defra, Music licensing and CRB have all muscled in on the act although at present there seems to be no truth in the rumour that Coconut Risk Officers are to be appointed. Give it time,
At Cardiff University Professor Dick Matthews suggests that the system is delivering history numbskulls as a result of "fuzzy, fashion driven intangibles" while Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove announces that he will yet again overhaul the curriculum. He might, at the same time, overhaul my party's policy towards the Grammar School, once the greatest of all promoters of social mobility.
A fifty nine million pound Young People's Development Programme costing £2.500 per trainee, has, according to a BMA survey for the Health Department, led to an increase in teenage childbirth as young people with the instructed skills were shown to be "significantly more likely" to become pregnant. The programme "will not be taken any further". Mr. Yvette Cooper might ponder this as he strives to remove parental right of objection and to make sex education mandatory in primary and secondary schools.
Those with the right qualifications can apply at the JobCentre for an advertised vacancy to host a TV pornography channel. The successful applicant will have to work semi-nude and be required to engage in explicit sexual dialogue. It is a unisex post and the JS is required to advertise "any legal job" into which category this, apparently falls.
England's triumph in the second test match at Lord's, ending a 75-year run of losing to the Australians at that hallowed ground, was not overshadowed by experience at the preceding match played in Cardiff. There, visitors enjoyed the Welsh, United Kingdom and Australian national anthems and two hymns at the commencement of proceedings. Veteran umpire Dickie Bird is reported to have observed that they were lucky to start play before lunch.
After a session delivering election papier mache in the pouring rain in the fair city of Norwich my car blew up and had to be relayed back to Kent. This took eight hours and involved three changes of truck. Courteous and frustrated AA mechanics tell me that EU rules now prevent them from travelling more than 60 kilometres - note the euromeasurement - from their starting point without the tachograph that the smaller trucks are not fitted with. And the purpose-built specialist recovery wheels have now been re-designated and are no longer classed as "recovery equipment" but as "trailers" which attract another raft of regulations. Never mind. One swallow does not make a summer but the Prime Minister must be ruing the day that his self-appointed star-chamber told the excellent Dr. Ian Gibson that he could not stand for Labour at the next General Election. And Chloe Smith as, now, the youngest Member of Parliament, will make a great addition to the Conservative benches when she is allowed to take her seat in October.