Saturday, November 18, 2017

Budget week coming up.

Been watching rugby on TV today, and now just settling down with a glass of wine to write my fortnightly article for the Oswestry and Borders Chronicle. Never totally straightforward deciding what to write about because the Chronicle is not published til Wednesday. Whatever, here goes.

“Over recent weeks, public conversation about British politics has been focussed on two dominating subjects, Brexit and sexual harassment. This week, the main focus must surely move on to matters concerning the economy. Because Wednesday is Budget Day. And this is not easy to comment on today, because I’m writing before I know what’s in it, and it’s probably being read after it has been delivered to MPs in the House of Commons and been published. I just hope I’m not left too red faced by any big differences in my expectation and the reality.

We do know that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond is in a very difficult place. He may well want to increase public spending, but he has no money! UK public borrowing is simply too high. Far too high to allow public spending to be substantially increased. I hear some MPs, especially those on the opposition benches calling for £billions to be ‘invested’ in almost every budget area. I hear calls for an “end to austerity”. These calls are totally irresponsible. I suspect most people know this.

Let us consider the actual numbers. Our National Debt is an eye-watering £1.7 trillion  (£1,720,000,000,000) - plus a variety of off balance sheet debts, that by any normal interpretation are also debts. The UK’s annual deficit is around £45billion (£45,000,000,000). This is how much more the Govt is spending this year that it has coming into the Treasury. It’s all being added to the National Debt. Describing this as “austerity” seems to me to be an abuse of the English language. The reality is that we are living way beyond our means, leaving our children and grandchildren to clear up the mess. It’s a rather selfish attitude.

But there will be increases in spending, as well as various tax changes. I expect some relaxation in the public sector pay cap. It was defendable when inflation was very low, but at present it’s around 3% which may well lead the Chancellor to act. I expect some more money to go to Universal Credit, bringing the time interval before actual payment to be reduced from six weeks. I expect more money to go to the NHS and Social Care. The warnings about winter pressures are too loud to ignore. And there will surely be public money to deliver more housing, especially for first time buyers. If all this is included there will not be muc( scope for anything else.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Loneliness

Went along to an hour long debate in the grand committee room off Westminster Hall today to join a debate on ‘loneliness’. I would like to have made a speech but had not given notice to the Speaker. So many MPs had given notice, so I and a few others in the same boat were limited to interventions. Rachel Reeves, who had secured the debate was generous and allowed me a couple of sentences.
I had but one suggestion to make.
My background before being diverted into public affairs was as a Welsh hill livestock farmer. As a breed, such farmers tend to spend a lot of time on their own. But they do have their livestock for company. Non farmers don’t realise that each sheep is an individual. I ran a flock of around 900, and knew them individually. When the terrible foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak meant that most sheep flocks in the Severn Valley were shot in a mass slaughter, and burnt in massive bonfires on the farm. It had a terrible effect. For weeks, I had fathers of farmers contacting me, asking me to telephone and chat to their sons. It was usually the fathers. I was sometimes chatting to farmers who were in despair until the middle of the night. I used to comment that loneliness can be a silent assassin.
This is all preamble to the point I’d have liked to make. Yes we can have loneliness commissions. Yes  we can have policy statements. I approve. But we can do quite a bit at a personal level, just by telephoning people you know are on their own and lonely. It’s something I do at Christmas. I’ve asked my office manager to put together a list of names, often people I don’t know, just to ring them for a brief chat. I think it makes a real difference to people who don’t have someone to talk to. Ok so it’s very limited in the number I can reach, but I try to persuade others to do the same. It’s a sort of ‘direct action’.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The case for paying up and moving on.

House of Commons is totally submerged in the EU Withdrawal Bill. We have just finished the first 8 hour debate at Committee stage. It’s the first day of eight, to be held over next month or so. The Government carried all six votes tonight comfortably, but there are more difficult challenges ahead. And the Welsh Select Committee, of which I’m a member, also spent this afternoon considering the impact on Wales of the UK leaving the European Union.
We are now reaching the stage when negotiations with the EU are reaching the critical stage. Reminds me of Man Utd ex-manager, Alex Ferguson in late March telling us that it was reaching “Squeaky B*m” time during the final games of the premiership. Even though at present much consideration is being turned to leaving the EU with ‘No Deal’ it’s not what most people want. While I don’t think it would be the catastrophe many predict, it does seem best to me that we should reach a mutually beneficial deal if at all possible. Been my view since Day One. I’ve thought we should have adopted a ‘generous’ approach to negotiations. Importantly I thought we could have taken ‘the high ground’ in granting rights to EU citizens legally resident in the UK without demanding concessions in return. And then there is the money. There’s always the money.
My standard line/soundbite has been that “We should pay what we owe” - without having much idea how much we do actually owe. There are some who think we should pay nothing. I don’t agree that’s feasible. It would guarantee ‘No Deal’. There is talk of paying a divorce bill of £20 billion. There is talk of paying a divorce bill of £50 billion. Must admit I’d be content to support the higher figure if there’s an arguable case to justify it - and if it enabled agreement on a nil or low tariff trade agreement. Accept this is an attitude not widely shared.
Anyway, at long last we are moving on the crucial EU Withdrawal Bill. 6 votes down and no defeats.   Maybe another 50 to go? The Govt has made a good start tonight. But there’s a seriously squeaky time ahead of us. And if the Prime Minister succeeds in delivering an acceptable deal enabling a continuation of trade between the UK and our friends in the EU, she will deserve her place in history.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Message on the Vote Leave Bus.

I try to avoid conversations or discussions about the result of the EU Referendum result on 23 June 2016. I just think that so many look for any media report, which can be interpreted as support for the wisdom of how they voted in the referendum. Almost every report we read concerning the economy is either ‘Bad News’ because of Brexit, or ‘Better News’ despite Brexit. So I generally steer clear in personal conversations. It costs friends! But not this morning. I was drawn in by a couple of friends who are convinced that a majority of the British electorate voted Leave because of a bus that toured the country during the referendum campaign declaring that when we left the EU, we would be able to spend an extra £350 million per week on the NHS. Usually I just mutter to myself along the lines of “that’s cobblers”. It was a campaign slogan, rubbished by the Government and almost everyone else. I’ve certainly made no reference to and not heard others do either - except to also rubbish it. Today, I took on this statement so casually and frequently delivered.
I entirely accept that this figure is not sustainable in a meaningful way. It may be arguable that the payment the UK makes to be a member of the EU totals £350 million per week, but if the rebate and return payments to the UK for specific EU programmes are taken into account, the figure is somewhere between £150 million and £200 million per week, depending how it’s calculated. The point I make is that the message that the bus would have conveyed was that a massive sum of money was being transferred to the EU. There have been little difference in impact if the message on the bus had read £160 million per week or £350 million per week. To almost everyone, it was just a massive sum of money.
But there was one big difference. Those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU were able to rage against what they regarded as a false figure. The Remain campaigners ensured the message on the bus became much the highest profile ‘slogan’ of the entire referendum campaign through endless repetition. It was the Remain campaigners who put the message that a massive sum of money is being sent to the EU every week at the top of the agenda. At the time I thought, and said, and have said ever since that I would not be surprised if the figure was designed to create a row in order to secure attention, through argument and controversy. If it was, it certainly worked.
Now to the final thought I want to ‘float’. Last week the head of NHS England, Simon Stephens said he wanted that £350 million per week for the NHS - a very high profile intervention a few days before the budget. I wonder what the impact would be if the Chancellor were to announce in his budget in a few days time that he intended to do just that. It would involve a commitment to increase the annual NHS budget by about £18 billion from that which existed before 23 June 2016. The Govt has increased the budget by a few billion already, and may well be planning another increase of a few billion in the budget. I also think it’s reasonable to think of Health and Social Care as one budget head. And we know that we should put a quite a few billions more into social care. Of course an extra £18 billion into Health and Social Care would mean reductions in spending elsewhere, but it would be a massive vote winner and shoot the Remain campaigners biggest fox.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Carl Sargeant 1968-2017

I try to write my blog posts about the big issue of the particular day, with an emphasis on Welsh issues. Tonight, I was expecting to write about recommendations to increase membership of the National Assembly to 80 plus, and the fairest way by which they should be elected. I had thought this would be the dominating issue in Wales over the next few days. But my thoughts have been overtaken and totally disrupted in a most brutal, shocking way. A leading member of the National Assembly, Carl Sargeant took his own life this morning. Deeply shocking for those of us who knew him.
I knew Carl quite well. We were Assembly Members together from 2003 til 2007. He was popular across party divides and a good companion in the tearoom. Though he was a big burly man, I found him quite gentle and amusing. I did meet him occasionally after I left the Assembly in 2007, and we would always find time to chat about old times. Even though we fundamentally disagreed about some issues, it never caused the slightest rancour between us. His good nature ensured that.
But we do need to consider the more sensitive aspects of this tragedy. Four days ago Carl had been unceremoniously sacked from his Government position by the Welsh Government First Minister, Carwyn Jones. No argument about this. It’s the sort of judgement political leaders are paid to make. I have no idea why he was sacked, and it seems that Carl had no idea why either. We are just told it was following complaints about his ‘personal behavior’ - thought to be in respect of attitude towards women. Personally, I have no interest in what these issues are, though I’m sure many will have. But there are two glaring questions which will need to be answered.
Firstly, why was Carl not told exactly what he was supposed to have done. How could he defend himself. After all, we have not (yet) reached the stage in British law where an individual is deemed to be guilty until proven to be innocent. It looks to thos e of us gripped by a bit what has happened today that Carl has just but cut off from all support, without even told why.
But it’s the second question that I care most about. When anyone is the subject of a high profile negative media frenzy, it’s tough. Believe me, it’s really tough. Life suddenly becomes desperate, dark and lonely. It’s easy to think everyone is against you. It’s hard to think of the darkness ever lifting. That’s why at Westminster, many of us make a point of chatting to those who are currently in the media spotlight in a negative way. What support did Carl have to help him cope. I hope when we put in place procedures to ensure those who have been abused (and rightly so), we also put in place procedures to provide some pastoral care for individuals, who crash suddenly into a dark place. It’s too late for Carl, but I feel there is a lesson to be learned, and acted on.

Monday, November 06, 2017

New approach to harassment.

Its good that all political parties are agreed about the need to put in place an independent structure to deal with harassment and bullying in the Westminster Parliament. I hope other parliaments in the UK will do the same. The Prime Minister has taken the initiative and other party leaders have responded. Theresa May, whom I think has been quite shocked by what she has been faced with over recent days has moved quickly, and other party leaders have also responded quickly. It’s crucial that everyone who feels they have been subject to harassment or bullying have access to face-to-face support services. Anyone who feels they have been abused needs to know they will be listened to.
When I was a young man, sexual harassment was much more prevelant than it is today. To some extent it was almost accepted as a part of growing up. But thankfully, times and attitudes have moved on. This is very welcome. Harassment is not acceptable today. Its not an issue of morality. It’s an issue about power and use of positions of influence. Today’s announcement from party leaders is to do with promoting a culture of respect.
There may be more revelations of unacceptable behaviour, and it’s important that each case is considered carefully - for the sake of everyone involved. I hope we can all welcome the determination of our political leaders to deliver the message that harassment in all its forms in our parliaments must end.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Let’s not forget the Budget

Sunday afternoon, cup of tea and settling down to write my 400 word column for the Oswestry and Borders Chronicle.

As I set about writing this fortnightly article, which I like to be about happenings at Westminster, the only issue on everyone’s lips is the seemingly non-stop cascade of sexual harassment stories about politicians - of all parties and in all British parliaments. While I disapprove of the usual course of British justice being reversed - with everyone being accused seeming to be deemed guilty until proven innocent! However I do approve of what is happening. It is totally unacceptable for anyone in a position carrying with it ‘power’ and ‘patronage’ to be using that position as a platform for sexual harassment - or any other sort of ‘bullying’ and harassment for that matter.
However, one aspect of the way this ‘harassment’ is being portrayed is mistaken. I don’t doubt that it happens, but in 7 yrs as an MP, I’ve not witnessed it. As a general rule, MPs are ferociously ambitious individuals, and are very focussed on their work. In years past, when votes took place in the middle of the night, and there were not long lens cameras scanning every nook and corner, improper behaviour may well have been more common. It’s a much more rare occurrence today. And so it should be. It shouldn’t happen at all. Everyone at Westminster wants proper reporting systems in place, where anyone guilty of a misdemeanour is held to account. We all want to feel proud to be a Member of Parliament. 
A consequence of the current focus on ‘sexual harassment’ is that it has driven out debate and discussion about the Budget, which takes place on the 22nd of this month. It’s a very important statement of Government intent. The first budget at the start of a 5yr Parliament is more than just about money. It’s about direction. And it’s the toughest challenge facing any Chancellor since the early 1990s. I’ve no doubt the Chancellor would like to take decisive action to boost the economy  has and help the vulnerable cope with the extra challenges they face. But he has to decide where the money is to come from! 
Let’s consider some of the issues that Philip Hammond will need to decide on. The UK Govt still spends around £1,000,000,000 per week more than it has coming into its coffers. This is not as bad as  it’s been over last decade but it still means National Debt is growing ever larger way too quickly. And he will want to promote more housing, help with roll-out of Universal Benefit, boost infrastructure spending, consider lifting public sector pay cap and give yet another funding boost to the NHS. It’s a very difficult circle to square. The future of our country, (as we leave the European Union) depends on the Chancellor getting it right. It’s what MPs should be focussed on.