Monday, March 27, 2017

My Chronicle Column - Terrorism in Westminster

Last week's 'terrorist incident' at Westminster was a surreal experience for Members of Parliament. After driving his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, a terrorist sought to enter the House of Commons armed with a large blade, intent on murder. For PC Keith Palmer, guarding the entrance to Parliament, and for 3 pedestrians on Westminster Bridge it was a deadly terrifying experience which ended their lives. For the families of those killed or severely injured it was a tragic event which will impact on their lives for as long as they live. 

It was absolutely right that MPs continued their work next morning, as scheduled. Terror cannot be seen to win. It’s crucial that we do not over-react, or equate protection from terrorists as increased separation from the people we represent. So we have to be cautious in how we MPs react and in what we say.

Inevitably there will be some changes in security procedures. Actually, consideration of security is ongoing, and not just in and around Westminster, as terrorist attacks evolve to take different forms. While all of us should await results of formal inquires, we can reflect on what we think might be sensible and proportionate changes.

Personally, I would not want to see the policemen protecting the entrances to Parliament to be armed. Parliament must be 'of the people' and lethal weaponry on display increases separation - even if we would become used to it. But while the policemen on guard should continue to chat amiably with visitors, I do think there's a case for a position where an armed observer is always ready to act. I also think that pavements and bike lines should be made less accessible to vehicles being used as killing machines by judicial placing of security safety posts.

Every aspect of the way we all live, as well as how our Parliament functions should be considered for sensible potential change. For example, while I believe strongly in a free press (as far as possible), I cannot help but reflect that the wall-to-wall media coverage of this terrorist outrage is exactly what the terrorist wanted. The main purpose of terrorism is to spread fear, and the most effective mechanism to achieve this is publicity. This is why parliamentarians have to be cautious in how we react and what we say.

The worst culprits of all are internet giants such as Google and Facebook, who hide behind the facade that they don't control content, just providing the platform for the content, no matter how vile. Whether it's content promoting terrorism or paedophilia, this attitude is becoming unsustainable. We must not over-react, but there are some changes that any civilised society should act on. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

This is not the time for a Scottish Referendum.

Wrote an article for this week's Oswestry and Borders Chronicle, only to discover it was the wrong week! So it will only be published here.

  Another big week on the constitutional front. On Friday, Her Majesty the Queen granted Royal Assent to the European Referendum (Notification of Withdrawal) Act. The Prime Minister is now able to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which begins the actual process by which the UK will leave the European Union. Theresa May has said that she will invoke Article 50 this coming Thursday. HMS Freedom is setting sail and We are entering uncharted and uncertain waters.

Much the worst aspect of the discussion since the referendum on June 23rd last year has been the uncertainty created in the minds of non-British citizens legally living in the UK. I've said every time I'm asked, and sometimes when I'm not, that in my opinion there isn't the remotest chance that these much valued people will be asked to leave. It's an irony that the fuss and campaigning done to pressurise the UK Government into unilaterally giving a future residence guarantee has actually caused much of the concern. In fact the UK Government has wanted to sign up to a EU wide 'Declaration of Intent', but we're told just one EU country refused. That’s the EU all over! 

As if the uncertainty involved in leaving the EU isn't enough, the Scottish First Minister has announced her decision to ask the Prime Minister to give permission for another referendum on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom to become an independent country. The Scottish First Minister's contention is that her referendum is linked to our leaving the EU. It looks very much like opportunism to me, hoping the Scottish voters will support independence in a climate of uncertainty which they would not following sober and detailed consideration.

Personally, I've always thought that if a majority of those living in Scotland want to become an independent country, so be it. Like most of us south of Hadrian's Wall, I would be desperately sad to see this happen. I do not think it would be good for Scotland or for the Scottish people. But neither do I think that the Prime Minister should agree to a referendum until the UK has left the EU, and we have at least some idea of what the future holds - particularly what it would hold for Scotland. This time, I do think Scotland's First Minister has made the wrong call. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

PM Statement about the Terrorist Outrage in Westminster

I thought you might like to read the Statement that the Prime Minister delivered to us in the House of Commons this morning.

"Mr Speaker, yesterday an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy.

"But today we meet as normal - as generations have done before us, and as future generations will continue to do - to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid. And our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.

"And we meet here, in the oldest of all Parliaments, because we know that democracy - and the values it entails - will always prevail.

"Those values - free speech, liberty, human rights and the rule of law - are embodied here in this place, but they are shared by free people around the world.

"A terrorist came to the place where people of all nationalities and cultures gather to celebrate what it means to be free. And he took out his rage indiscriminately against innocent men, women and children.

"Mr Speaker, this was an attack on free people everywhere - and on behalf of the British people, I would like to thank our friends and allies around the world who have made it clear that they stand with us at this time.

"What happened on the streets of Westminster yesterday afternoon sickened us all.

"While there is an ongoing police investigation, the House will understand that there are limits to what I can say.

"But, having been updated by police and security officials, let me set out what at this stage I can tell the House.

"At approximately 2.40pm yesterday, a single attacker drove his vehicle at speed into innocent pedestrians who were crossing Westminster Bridge, killing two people and injuring around 40 more.

"In addition to 12 Britons admitted to hospital, we know that the victims include three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, one German, one Pole, one Irish, one Chinese, one Italian, one American and two Greeks.

"And we are in close contact with the governments of the countries of all those affected.

"The injured also included three police officers who were returning from an event to recognise their bravery. Two of those three remain in a serious condition.

"Mr Speaker, the attacker then left the vehicle and approached a police officer at Carriage Gates, attacking that officer with a large knife, before he was shot dead by an armed police officer.

"Tragically, as the House will know, 48-year-old Pc Keith Palmer was killed.

"Pc Palmer had devoted his life to the service of his country. He had been a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command for 15 years, and a soldier in the Royal Artillery before that.

"He was a husband and a father, killed doing a job he loved.

"He was every inch a hero. And his actions will never be forgotten.

"I know the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his family - and to the families and friends of all those who have been killed or injured in yesterday's awful attacks.

"I know also that the House will wish to thank all those who acted with such speed and 
professionalism yesterday to secure this place and ensure we are able to meet as we are doing today.

"Mr Speaker, at 7.30 last night, I chaired a meeting of the Government's emergency committee COBR and will have further briefings and meetings with security officials today.

"The threat level to the UK has been set at 'severe' - meaning an attack is highly likely - for some time.

"This is the second highest threat level. The highest level - 'critical' - means there is specific intelligence that an attack is imminent.

"As there is no such intelligence, the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has decided that the threat level will not change in the light of yesterday's attack.

"Mr Speaker, the whole country will want to know who was responsible for this atrocity and the measures that we are taking to strengthen our security, including here in Westminster.
"A full counter-terrorism investigation is already under way.

"Hundreds of our police and security officers have been working through the night to establish everything possible about this attack - including its preparation, motivation and whether there were any associates involved in its planning.

"And while there remain limits on what I can say at this stage, I can confirm that overnight the police have searched six addresses and made eight arrests in Birmingham and London.

"Mr Speaker, it is still believed that this attacker acted alone, and the police have no reason to believe there are imminent further attacks on the public.

"His identity is known to the police and MI5 and, when operational considerations allow, he will be publicly identified.

"What I can confirm is that the man was British-born and that - some years ago - he was once investigated in relation to concerns about violent extremism. He was a peripheral figure.

"The case is historic - he was not part of the current intelligence picture.

There was no prior intelligence of his intent - or of the plot. Intensive investigations continue.
"And, as Acting Deputy Commissioner Rowley confirmed last night, our working assumption is that the attacker was inspired by Islamist ideology.

"Mr Speaker, we know the threat from Islamist terrorism is very real. But while the public should remain utterly vigilant, they should not - and will not - be cowed by this threat.

"As Acting Deputy Commissioner Rowley has made clear, we are stepping up policing to protect communities across the country and to reassure the public.

"And, as a precautionary measure, this will mean increasing the number of patrols in cities across the country with more police and more armed police on the streets.

"Since June 2013, our police, security and intelligence agencies have successfully disrupted 13 separate terrorist plots in Britain.

"Following the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, we protected the police budgets for counter-terrorism and committed to increase cross-government spending on counter-terrorism by 30% in real terms over the course of this Parliament.

"And over the next five years we will invest an extra £2.5 billion in building our global security and intelligence network, employing over 1,900 additional staff at MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and more than doubling our global network of counter-terrorism experts working with priority countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

"Mr Speaker, in terms of security here in Westminster, we should be clear first of all that an attacker attempted to break into Parliament and was shot dead within 20 yards of the gates.
"If his intention was to gain access to this building, we should be clear that he did not succeed.
"The police heroically did their job.

"But, as is routine, the police together with the House authorities are reviewing the security of the Parliamentary estate, co-ordinated with the Cabinet Office, who have responsibility for the security measures in place around the Government secure zone.

"All of us in this House have a responsibility for the security and safety of our staff and advice is available for Members who need it.

"Mr Speaker, yesterday we saw the worst of humanity, but we will remember the best.

"We will remember the extraordinary efforts to save the life of Pc Keith Palmer, including those by my Right Honourable Friend the Member for Bournemouth East.

"And we will remember the exceptional bravery of our police, security and emergency services who once again ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way.

"On behalf of the whole country, I want to pay tribute to them for the work they have been doing to reassure the public, treat the injured and bring security back to the streets of our capital city.

"That they have lost one of their own in yesterday's attack only makes their calmness and professionalism all the more remarkable.

"Mr Speaker, a lot has been said since terror struck London yesterday. Much more will be said in the coming days.

"But the greatest response lies not in the words of politicians, but in the everyday actions of ordinary people.

"For beyond these walls today - in scenes repeated in towns and cities across the country - millions of people are going about their days and getting on with their lives.

"The streets are as busy as ever. The offices full. The coffee shops and cafes bustling.
"As I speak, millions will be boarding trains and aeroplanes to travel to London, and to see for themselves the greatest city on Earth.

"It is in these actions - millions of acts of normality - that we find the best response to terrorism.
"A response that denies our enemies their victory. That refuses to let them win. That shows we will never give in.

"A response driven by that same spirit that drove a husband and father to put himself between us and our attacker, and to pay the ultimate price.

"A response that says to the men and women who propagate this hate and evil: you will not defeat us.
"Mr Speaker, let this be the message from this House and this nation today: our values will prevail.

"And I commend this statement to the House."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What does Article 50 mean for Welsh Farming?

The Prime Minister announced today that she would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29th. At the time I was discussing the impact of the UK leaving the EU with Welsh farming leaders at Dolgellau. It was a meeting of the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, of which I am a member. Only four of us travelled to Meirionydd, Plaid Cymru's Liz Saville Roberts, Lib Dem Mark Williams and two Tories, David Davies and me. The structure of the meeting was that MPs asked the questions and the panel of farming leaders responded. It's not the only meeting on this issue that we have held. Our aim is to produce a report which will be made public, and hopefully debated in Parliament in a few weeks time.

Agriculture is an important industry in rural Wales, probably more so than in any other part of the UK. It's an industry very reliant on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). While the individual farm payments underpin many farms in rural Wales, it is unfair on those who do not receive the same financial support, and it tends to stifle innovation. Inevitably, those representing the industry will seek vigorously to defend the status quo. Instinctively, I feel the same. After all, am still involved in farming myself!

A major issue to be decided is how EU responsibilities for agriculture policy will be devolved. The devolved governments think everything should be devolved, while I can see all might not agree. It's crucial that we do not create a system where one part of the UK should adopt policies which completely shaft the others. The example I used yesterday was to ask what if the Scottish Govt doubled the suckler cow premium, rendering the keeping of suckler cows unviable in Wales. It was just a theoretical example of "What if".  There will be much discussion of this when the Great Repeal Bill is published.

The issue of greatest concern is the potential imposition of tariffs on UK/EU trade in lamb (and to some extent beef). Wales needs to export our lamb to EU, and we need to protect our beef market from being undercut by beef imported at a lower standard of regulated safety and hygiene than applies to home producers. Another area for important debate. In my view the most important issue for Welsh farming. I was interested to hear both Welsh farming unions see Australian exports of lamb as more of a threat to Wales than those from New Zealand. I hadn't thought of that. For me the discussion, albeit very early in the debate on us leaving the EU was helpful, informative and not as negative as I expected.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Is Remainers Project Fear still bubbling?

The UK leaving the European Union will be a profoundly complex business - underestimated by Leave supporters, and over-cooked by Remain voters. I hear lots of voices (from both sides but mostly Leave) making comment like "We voted Out so just get on with it." Not so easy. I've been an instinctive 'Leaver' since progressing from a 'Not Joiner' in 1973. But even I was deeply conflicted on June 23rd, and might have thought more than twice if the burearocrats who run the EU had offered the prospect of a two-speed Europe as they seem to be doing in response to the Referendum vote. Too late. I've no doubt that if that had been offered to David Cameron, we would not be leaving the EU.

In any case, Theresa May cannot just "get on with it". Too many clever lawyers and politicians still seeking to over-turn the Referendum result are at work. And they will not stop. Yes, leaving is ferociously complex, but I do not believe it's impossible. Despite every conceivable blocking mechanism being rolled out to prevent progress, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be invoked during the next few days. Fortunately, the Act allowing this passed through Parliament unscathed.

There have been two issues debated. Firstly, the rights of non British legally resident in the UK. No-one ever wanted or proposed anything else. Those making this a high profile issue have caused huge concern to those affected. One family contacted my office this week to discuss leaving for Canada because of it. Think I persuaded them to stay. The second issue about what constitutes a "meaningful vote", was to my mind much more serious (though others whose views I respect disagree). What we have now, rightly, is a sound negotiating position. But it does force us to consider facing trading under WTO rules. For some reason this prospect is considered a disaster. But should it? Is this Project Fear again? Must admit to being not entirely sure (no-one is). But I do suspect it will not be as bad as is being portrayed.

Let's consider some of what we know. EU/UK negotiations will be against a background that no further negotiations will take place if it's rejected by Parliament - so negotiations will be for real. It will be against a background of the UK trading on WTO rules if no deal is agreed, which will make both sides search for agreement with more vigour. An agreement will benefit both sides. My understanding, which is likely to increase rapidly, along with that of many others, is that any tariffs are likely to be low on exports to and from the EU. If there is a prospect of real damage to trade, both sides will have an interest is resolving problems. And negotiations will be against certainty, that the UK would be leaving the EU whatever deal is offered. No-one will want a bad deal because we know  'No deal is better than a bad deal.

I do think that as negotiations start, even before they start, the UK should revisit the issue of non British residents. We know no-one is going to be asked to leave. We also know that no legal reciprocal agreement can be finalised until end of the negotiation. But we could make a formal unilateral declaration of intent. I don't suppose we will, but I'd quite like to show up the heartless EU states that won't agree now. Always more comfortable on the high ground, I find.

Whatever, we're off. The starting pistol is about to be fired. For next two years we will be dominated by the intricacies of deliving far and away the most complex negotiations of my time in politics, which is over 40 yrs. Here's wishing all our negotiators a fair wind and good sailing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thinking aloud about Tories taking over Wales

What should be the Conservative Response to the Wales Bill and Devolution?
I only suggested today's fringe meeting to TRG, the Tory Reform Group, for two reasons, one of them rather selfish. Firstly I believe the Wales Act passed in 2017, is a very significant milestone in the history of Welsh governance. It’s easy to under-rate the significance of a Wales Act, because there have been so many, in a relatively short time. But I do think the Wales Act that has most recently made it onto the Statute Book changes the devolution landscape.

The move to a 'reserved powers' model, and the financial accountability which will come from devolution of responsibility for levying 50% of income tax are transformative. And of course it was a Conservative Secretary of State who took this Wales Act through the parliamentary process without any opposition amendments - both unusual and unexpected. We as a Conservative Party need to build on this achievement.

The rather selfish reason I thought I'd like to make a speech linked to our Spring Conference, is that it helps me develop my own thinking on 'What should be the Conservative response to the Wales Act and devolution. Luckily, I'm sharing a platform with David Melding and Daran Hill, two of the most thoughtful and respected political analysts’ active in Welsh politics.

I do think it’s important for the Conservative Party to look beyond the short-term pressures which impact on any party in Government, and for the Welsh Conservative Party to reflect on how we develop a strategy to win future elections in Wales, challenging and defeating the notion that Wales is a permanent Labour stronghold.

Unusually for me, I have written a speech, again for two reasons. Firstly, I feared that 8.00 on a Saturday morning might fail to attract much of an audience. I needed a speech I could circulate afterwards to stimulate discussion amongst some of those who are just about stirring from beds.  And secondly, a written speech allows for amendment and development of my ideas.

Firstly, I think we need to create a structure within our party which develops Welsh Conservative policy, allowing us to look beyond the short-term pressures of Government, and plan how we can move forward to win power in Wales. We need a strategy to end the assumption that too many hold, that Wales will always be run by Labour.

Inevitably there will be differences of emphasis - driven by political realities. But I do think we need a formal mechanism, meeting regularly, including AMs and MPs, plus a representative from the our Party's Welsh Board and the House of Lords to develop policy and set targets based on what we need to do to become the largest party in Wales.

My speech is divided into brief comments on three aspects of what I think the Welsh Conservative Party should do to take power in Wales, one of which is about party structure, and two of which are about policy.
My view it that the Labour Party in Wales is there for the taking, and it's the Welsh Conservative Party that's best placed to take it. We need to develop a narrative that the people of Wales relate to as Welsh Conservative policy. We should not have an Assembly Group policy or a Westminster based policy.  As far as possible, we should have Welsh Conservative policy.

While there may well be differences of emphasis, our aim should be to develop a distinctive narrative amongst voters about what our party in Wales stands for. We need to think about what we want to come to voter's minds when they think Welsh Conservative. Not everyone will agree with this. In practice, I'm suggesting a new body, acting on behalf of the Welsh Conservative Party Board, charged with developing policy. 

The other two, perhaps more significant aspects of my speech are about policy I believe should underpin our drive to become the largest party in Wales, seeking to change the perception that many, far too many Welsh voters have of what being a Welsh Conservative stands for.  We need the people of Wales to see the Welsh Conservatives as unmistakably Welsh, committed to the interest of Wales, and the unique language and culture of Wales.  

It was the Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher which established S4C, with hugely generous funding. It was a Conservative Party which passed the Education Act in the early 1990s which transformed prospects for the Welsh Language. And it's the same today.
It's a Conservative Govt which has just agreed to change the practices of the House of Commons to allow the Welsh Language to be used in Welsh Grand Committee debates - an important statement of our continuing commitment to Welshness. I'm looking forward to delivering my first speech in Welsh in Parliament next month.

If we are to become the largest party in Wales we need those natural Tory voters in rural Wales, who vote for Plaid Cymru to see us as their natural home. Across the world, the parties that are strong in rural areas are usually right-of-centre parties. Our aim must be to offer them the 'Welshness' they relate to.

And secondly, we should emphasise our history as the green policy deliverers in Wales. Nothing is more Conservative than looking after our environment. Our declared mission is to hand on to the next generation a country with a cleaner environment that we have inherited.

There was no greater advocate of this principle than Mrs Thatcher. I'm not talking about 'reform' but about a 'return' to Mrs Thatcher's enthusiasm for supporting environmental principles. And I don't mean shouting about an impractical policy position that some green lobby groups tend to do.  

I think is worth repeating a couple of quotes from Mrs Thatcher's speeches. In 1990 she told the Royal Society.
"We must enable all our economies to grow and develop because without growth you cannot generate the wealth to pay for protection of the environment."
Britain's first White Paper on the environment, Our Common Inheritance, was published by the Thatcher Govt. We were the party that pushed for and secured the Climate Change Act. We have pledged to create a Blue Belt of marine reserves around our Overseas Territories - 4 million square kilometres. We are committed to phasing out energy generation from coal by the mid-2020s.

We know from Welsh Govt stats that the energy and environment sector is the biggest employer in Wales, followed by financial services and tourism (which also benefits from environment protection). Any political party serious about power in Wales must be committed to protection of our environment and landscapes. 

In 1989 she said in a keynote speech "As well as the science, we need to get the economics right. That means first we must have economic growth to generate the wealth to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet and leave our children with the consequences tomorrow" 

I want us to be accepted as, and seen as the party that delivers for 'Welshness' and delivers for the Environment. I believe fervently that the Welsh Conservative Party should be perceived to be "Conservative, to be Welsh and to be Green" -  policy areas where we have delivered, but not sought credit for.

It's time we stated shouting from the rooftops about our commitment to the environment.

With a Welsh Conservative commitment to and focus on our 'Welshness' and 'Environmentalism, we can become the biggest political force in Wales.

Monday, March 13, 2017

April's Law Debate - my speech.

On Oct 1st 2012, I was at home, working on my iPad, when I read a tweet informing me that a 5 year old girl had disappeared after being seen climbing into a vehicle on the Bryn-y-Gog Housing Estate in Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire. There was something about that tweet that led me to immediately sense that this was a serious matter. Within hours the people of Machynlleth and surrounding areas had joined the search for April, daughter of Coral and Paul Jones, who live on the Bryn-y-Gog Estate. Over the following days, a huge number of volunteers, local and national organisations as well as the Police formed the most intensive widespread search I've ever seen. Six days later, a local man, Mark Bridger was arrested and charged with abduction and murder. In May 2013, Bridger was found guilty and sentenced to whole life imprisonment. The sentencing judge rightly pronounced that he should never be released from prison.

The death of April was particularly a tragedy for April's family. It was also a tragedy which touched the entire nation. There was a national, almost world-wide focus on the town of Machynlleth. The search for April, and the truly amazing response by the people of this small market town brought, what seemed like the world's media to Machynlleth. I spent several days in the town myself, and like everyone else, found it difficult to comprehend what had happened and what April's family were going through.

I want to pay tribute as I begin this speech to April's parents and sister, Jazz, who are here today. They have made huge efforts to raise awareness of the widespread availability of pornographic and sexualised images of children. They want to do all they can to prevent other families from facing a similar tragedy, from having to go through what they have gone through.  
These e efforts have culminated in this debate in the House of Commons, following a petition raised  by April's family reaching over 1000,000 signatures. 

The petition which is the subject of today's debate is as follows: We, the undersigned, call on the Prime Minister to make all sex offenders remain on the register for life no matter the crime, for service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images and harder sentences on those caught with indecent images of children.

In preparation for today's debate, I met with Coral and Jazz Jones in Machynlleth ten days ago. We talked through what they expected - what an April's Law might actually be. The petition itself call for legislation, based on three objectives. 

Firstly, and perhaps the most difficult, is to 'clean up' the Internet. It should be our ambition to remove sexual images of children from the Internet. We all know this is not an easy straightforward process. We all know the Internet is technologically fast moving and not easy to control through legislation. But there is a responsibility on Government (and on governments across the world) to do all within its power to 'clean up the Internet' as far as possible. 

Last week we learned of a disturbing report involving Facebook, a giant of the social media world.  A BBC investigative team had used Facebook's 'Report Button' which exists to highlight to Facebook any improper sexual images on its platform that 80% were not removed after reporting. There was simply an automated response stating that the images "did not breach community standards" whatever that means. Included were images of children in sexualised poses, pages aimed at paedophiles, and an image appearing to be taken from a child abuse video. Instead of taking these images down, astonishingly Facebook reported the BBC for sharing them!! 

Now I cannot be certain of the precise truth about what happened. It seems beyond belief. I understand the images have now been removed. What we want is Facebook and every other operator on the social network to be under a legal obligation to always take down such images, constantly surveying what is appearing on their social network platforms, and reporting whoever puts them there to the police (as far as its possible).  We need a law that bans such content and ensures action is taken against whoever instigates it or permits it. And it must make no difference if the offender is a small operator o the biggest companies in the world. 

The second aim of what an April's Law might include would be a stronger process through which the names of sex offenders can be removed from the Sex Offenders Register. Paramount always must be protection of the public. I don't consider myself to be sufficiently qualified to outline a precise process of de-registration, but it must ensure that no name should ever be removed from the Sex Offenders List until and unless there is total certainty that the offender is reformed, and is not likely to repeat offend. I ask whether it is possible to introduce rigour and sympathy into the system by establishing a structure similar to 'magistrate's courts' to adjudge each individual case. The basis on which we judge the suitability of any sex offender seeking removal of their name from the Sex Offenders List must always put first the safety of the public. 

And the third policy area I'd like to say something about is the importance of always putting an offender on the Sex Offenders Register if the offence justifies it. We cannot have a situation where police resources, or pressure on the criminal court system results in offenders not being prosecuted.

Two weeks ago, there was a report in The Guardian on comments by Simon Bailey, the chief constable of Norfolk constabulary and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection. He said that the police were struggling to cope with the huge number of criminals looking at indecent images of children online, and that they should focus their resources on high-risk offenders. That is not good enough. ALL offenders must be looked, not just high-risk offenders. How do we judge between a high-risk offender and a low-risk offender? They are all offenders.

I agreed with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who wrote in response to the chief constable:

“As you will know, for many decades institutions have put children at risk because it was seen as too difficult, not a priority or resources were insufficient to keep them safe. I would not want to see the same happen over online child abuse.”

I absolutely agree with that. She also said:

“This raises some very serious concerns about the scale of online child abuse, about the level of resourcing the police have available for it, about the systems the police has in place to deal with this new and increasing crime and also about the priority being given to it by police forces.”

We regard child abuse as a hugely serious crime and I believe that it is still under-reported. Police forces throughout the country should make dealing with it an absolute priority. Anybody who is deemed to be a sex offender—albeit they might be described as a low-level offender—should be prosecuted.

This crime destroys young people’s lives forever and it destroys families. We all know what has happened in Machynlleth and the damage it has done at a personal level to the family concerned, but this crime is happening in other places in Britain at a different level. We cannot ever say that the resources are not there to prosecute; we cannot ever knowingly allow somebody to come off a sex offenders register until we are absolutely certain that they are no longer a threat; and we cannot ever allow a major company—no matter how big, how rich or how powerful it is—to adopt an approach to dealing with sex offenders that is different to anybody else’s approach.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Budget.

Last week was dominated by the Budget. First chance I've had to comment on it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer told us it will be the last 'Spring Budget'. In future there will be just one budget per year. It will be delivered in the Autumn. I was expecting a fairly quiet, 'not very noteworthy' bit dry sort of a budget. Turned out not to be the case.

Any responsible budget always has to take account of the national finances, the annual deficit and the National Debt, which has reached an eye-wateringly high level. Throughout the current year, the Government is spending/investing over one billion pounds more every week than it is raising. The deficit is predicted to increase next year. This level of borrowing is deeply unfair to our children and grandchildren, who will eventually have to deal with this debt. Despite, the very good news last week that growth was higher than we thought, and the current year's deficit is a bit less than predicted, the Chancellor rightly decided that his budget must be fiscally neutral. Any extra spending has to be matched by spending reductions elsewhere. My view is that anyone opposing tax increases or promoting increased spending must tell us where the money is coming from to be credible.

The main extra spending announced by the Chancellor was for social care with some extra investment in training and education, and some relief for those hit by big increases in business rates. I was particularly supportive of help for social care. We are, on average, living much longer. Inevitably the cost of care through these extra years of life is comparatively high. We should look on the two billion extra (one billion in 2017/18) as no more than a first step. We must also accept that while unemployment is at record levels, our productivity must improve. Investment in training and education is crucial as the UK develops new trading links across the world.

Much the most controversial tax change in the Budget was a proposal to raise Class 4 National Insurance Contribution by 2% over the next 2 years, impacting on the self-employed. There is very public disagreement whether this is a 'broken promise' from the Conservative Party's 2015 manifesto. It's widely reported that it is a 'broken promise' but the Chancellor is adamant that the 'election promise' related only to Class 1 contributions - which is what 85% of the employed working population pays. Interestingly (to me anyway) that in discussion with my accountant today, he said that the accountancy profession had been assuming Class 4 at 12% for years! Whatever, there seems no doubt that the Chancellor and Prime Minister did not see this as a 'broken promise' at all, even if they thought it a difficult decision.

But the bigger question must be whether it's a sensible justifiable tax change. There's no doubt that it's disappointing to the self employed, normally thought to be a group favourably disposed to a Conservative Govt. While I do not think tax policy should be set on the basis of political considerations, I myself have a positive view of the enthusiasm and drive of the self employed. A negative reaction from a group who normally offer support is not welcome to this writer.

But is the Change fair. Usually, we look to the Institute of Fiscal Studies for the authoritative unbiased judgement. Today the IFS has enthusiastically welcomed the change, describing the current system as "distorting decisions, creating complexity and unfair". The IFS also points out that the current rapid switch from being employed to being self-employed is seriously undermining the tax base, and has left the Chancellor with little option other than to do what he did - even if my personal instinct to lower taxes might prefer some reduction in Class 1 NIC as the way to equalise Class 4 and Class 1.  As someone who has always been self-employed, I can fully understand the disappointment. And I can see fierce debate when this issue comes before Parliament in the autumn. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A General Election? I think not.

Lot of discussion around today about whether the Prime Minister might look to call a snap General Election. My constituent and near neighbour, Lord Hague has stirred this particular pot with his Telegraph column today suggesting she should. But Theresa May has said very clearly that she is not going to, and I don't see her changing her mind. She's not a leader who likes to change her mind. In any case, it's not so easy for her to 'go to the country'. We have in place the Fixed Term Parliament Act which stipulates that the next General Election will be held in early May 2020 unless either two thirds of MPs vote for one, or there is a vote of 'no confidence' in the Govt and a new govt cannot be formed in 14 days.

I was never in favour of a fixed term parliament - especially fixing elections at five years. For centuries, the British way was to allow the Prime Minister of the day to decide when to go to the country - usually every four years. Letting it go to five years usually delivers a worse result for the 'hanging on in hope' incumbent.  The voters can see when a general election is needed, and if a Prime Minister is not in sync with the public mood, things backfire.

Bit of a hoo-hah down the corridor as their Lordships pass a couple of amendments to the bill authorising the invocation of Article 50. The actual purpose of course is that they are trying to reverse the entire referendum result, cloaking their tactics in reasonable sounding language. I've written quite a bit about these two issues on previous blog posts. Let's take the two successful amendments in turn. Firstly, there's the position of EU nationals in the UK concerned about being forced to leave. I've said often that there is not the slightest possibility of this actually happening. And must admit I would not be hugely upset if the amendment was not ping-pinged back. But there is another way of looking at this. And it's the Spanish dimension. Huge number of Brits in Spain, many of them there in retirement, creating a disproportionate cost on Spanish health service. That's how they see it. Generally speaking the Spanish in the UK are of working age. When discussion about the residency rights of EU citizens in other countries, maybe we shouldn't assume that the Spanish Govt will want to play ball. Follow the trail of that where you will. Lot of fuss about 'meaningful vote' as well. It's a fairly obvious tactic to ensure our current EU partners play hardball in negotiations. It's making the Prime Ministers job as she seeks an acceptable 'divorce settlement' more difficult. Let's cut the pretence about what this is about - not Parliamentary sovereignty but undermining a referendum vote.

Anyway, back to the likelihood of a general election. If the Prime Minister is not able to invoke Article 50 by end of March, maybe I'll have to write another blog post. But I don't expect that. I expect the Prime Minister to invoke Article 50 in the next week or two. That's when the really challenging discussions for the Govt begin. What we all know in today's politics, that even cast iron certainties can be overtaken in a few days. Best to hang onto your hats.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Letters from my Postbag - 4

Unsurprisingly, I'm still receiving lots of emails and letters asking me to inform the world that I want the UK to remain in the EU. They take many forms. Some inform me that many who voted to leave have changed their minds, despite all polling evidence pointing to the opposite. Some want a second referendum, which I suppose would have to be 'best of three' to be fair! Some want me to demand we stay in the Single Market, which is much the same as not leaving at all. I should begin by restating my position on this issue - just to clarify things.
In 1975 I voted and campaigned for 'Out' of the EEC. Though working constructively with the developing European superpower ever since then, I made no further comment about EU integration until consideration was being given by Blair to joining the Euro. I was fiercely opposed to that, and appeared on panels opposing it. Very grateful to Gordon Brown at the time for scuppering what I thought a mad idea. Later, I was in favour of a referendum on approving the Lisbon Treaty, as were all main political parties. But Labour and the Lib Dems reneged on their promises and it was signed off in 2010, before the Coalition took over from Labour. However, I was not in favour of an In-Out referendum, mainly because I thought it an impossible question for voters to decide on. (I believed the EU would eventually collapse anyway). But David Cameron committed us to one in 2013, which was eventually held on June 23rd. I would have preferred not to have made public which way I voted in the EU referendum, but that was not a freedom available to me, as an MP. As it was, I was heavily criticised for refusing to say anything until the Welsh General Election in May was over. By then, I was so disapproving of both campaigns that I wanted no part in the actual campaigning at all. (Not sure that was the right thing to have done). I just exercised my right, same as everyone else to cast my vote as I thought best for the future of Britain. I have never said I would vote differently.
So it's no use asking me to change my mind, or support some action designed to frustrate the process of leaving. To do that would be an unacceptable breach of faith with everyone who has discussed the matter with me since early 1970s. And I am not in favour of another referendum either. One was one too many.
 There are a few connected issues being hotly debated at present. I will refer to just two of them.
The first is the demand that the UK Govt guarantees the long term residency rights of non British people, legally in the UK at present. This is a hugely important issue to those involved, but not significant from a constitutional standpoint. It will be resolved soon, whether on the face of the bill or not. There is not the remotest possibility that a British Govt would send them home. It's just not going to happen. Personally, I'm not much concerned if the Lords amendment to the Bill in respect of this issue is not reversed.
The second issue seems to me much more imporant, and would be a blatant attempt to scupper the referendum result by making it more difficult for the Prime Minister to negotiate a good deal. Holding a debate on the negotiated terms in 2019 cannot be included on the face of the Bill. How on earth could the Prime Minister negotiate with the 27, if they knew a bad deal would be more likely to result in Parliament deciding that the UK should remain in the EU after all. The amendment us designed to deliver a bad deal. I hope this amendment is not passed, and if it is, that MPs commit to pinging it back to the Lords for as long as it takes. This issue is designed to frustrate the referendum result, and is not acceptable in my view. This amendment is a very big deal.
Perhaps the oddest emails I get are from constituents demanding to know how I'm going to represent the 48%. Simple answer. The same as the other 52%. I've not asked any constituent how they voted in the EU Referendum. Its their business, not mine. And I would totally respect their right to have voted as they thought best - same as I did. I think what they really want is for me to change my position on the UK leaving the EU. Sorry but I''m not going to do that. I try to stand by what I promise. I will represent my constituents as best I can whichever way they voted.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Letters from my Postbag - 3

Over last couple of years, I've had lots of emails and letters objecting to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas in the UK. Still receiving them. Expect a few more following today's news that Shell is bringing in shale gas 'fracked' in the Peruvian Amazon - an environmentally important site. Shale gas 'fracked' in the US is already coming into Grangemouth in Scotland. This makes no sense at all to me - from any standpoint, the environment, the economy or energy security.
My view on recovering shale gas in the UK has remained the same since we first realised there are trillions of cubic ft under our feet. I am supportive of developing a shale gas industry in Britain, if it can be done safely - but it's far too early to know whether this new industry is viable. At present we have no fracking in the UK - one well is currently being constructed in Lancashire and another with planning permission in Yorkshire. It cannot make sense to import shale gas in giant tankers from halfway across the world, including the environmentally important Amazon basin, when we have so much of the stuff under our feet. But of course it must be done safely. Internet based stories about gas leaks are not about the fracking process deep down in the earth, but the transportation of the gas to the surface.
The most authorative voice on environmental impact in Britain is the Committee on Climate Change. It's chaired by the much respected Lord Deben. This body is independent of Government, and is charged with holding the Government to account. The CCCh makes the judgement that well regulated domestic production of shale gas actually has a lower carbon footprint than imported liquified natural gas. The CCCh expects gas to be a major source of energy til 2030s and for heating until 2050s. It's the only way we are going to stop burning coal which the CCCh tells us is 50% more damaging to the climate than gas.
There's been, and remains a great deal of opposition to establishing a shale gas industry in the UK. Local Planning Authorities have been faced by protests which understandably have made them reluctant to grant approvals. The consequence has been that the Government has resolved to fast-track applications to avoid Councils delaying decisions.I still have no idea whether a shale gas industry is viable in the UK.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Letters from my Postbag - 2

Another issue generating much interest among constituents at the moment is the absence of guaranteed rights for EU citizens, currently legally resident in the UK, to remain after we have left the European Union. Huge publicity about this issue today, following the defeat of the Government in the House of Lords yesterday over this issue. Causing much pain and uncertainty - and all totally unnecessary. It causes me a mixture of anger and sadness. It's a row over nothing.
Because my view is that there is not the remotest possibility that a British Govt will insist non British citizens legally in the UK, will be asked to leave post-Brexit, I did think that it would have been sensible to gaurentee the future of these immigrants on June 24th. But equally, I do not think the Government's position on this issue, taking a different view from that which I held immediately after the referendum is at all unreasonable. Let's look at the issue factually.
When the people of the UK voted to leave the EU, a key inflencial factor for many was that in future, the UK would decide its own immigration policy. The long term status of EU migrants resident in the UK, automatically became as issue. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, took the position that she was keen to gaurentee the residency rights of EU citizens in the UK quickly, and sought an early agreement which included the rights of British citizens, legally resident in other EU countries. Regrettably, our EU partners refused to even discuss the issue, until Article 50 has been invoked (still expected to be before end of March). Strangely, the finger of blame in the emails I'm receiving seems to be pointed at the British Government, rather that in the direction of those who are causing the problem! It's the Commission and 'a small number of EU members' are blocking discussion on a deal.
Inevitably, the huge focus being put on this issue by those who want to frustrate the exit of the UK from the EU is causing anxiety and fear amongst EU residents in Britain. Some may be considering going home, causing damage to our economy and our public services. Ironically, those making a major issue of the position of non British residents, are causing more uncertainty and more distress. While other EU states refuse even to discuss this issue before Article 50 is invoked, there can be no resolution. I hope it can be resolved quickly afterwards and we can all agree permanent residency for all EU migrants currently in all other EU countries - as long as they are there legally of course. 

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Letters from my postbag - 1

It's a metaphorical postbag. Usually, it's emails, to which this blog post is a response. I will ask my office to email it out to all those who have written to me about the issue. I simply do not have enough time to respond to all the emails individually. I hope this form of responding will be ok. What I want to cover in this post is the position of refugee children in fellow EU countries.
I first took a close interest in the refugee crisis in Syria several years ago, when being recalled in summer recess to sanction a military strike against the brutal Bashar al-Assad. I could not see how a military strike would help, and needed clarity about what our forces would do. In the event no attack was agreed. But the controversy about the votes that Sept evening caused me to become much concerned about the appalling conditions being faced by several million displaced people in Syria, being subjected to poison gas, mass murder and deliberate starvation. At the time, I supported the UK taking in Syrian refugees, and am pleased we are taking in 20,000 by 2020. My personal view is that we could take even more - not easy because of security considerations. I attended meetings with refugees, and an important meeting arranged by Andrew Mitchell MP and Clare Short, who had both visited the camps in and around Syria. Some time later, I began receiving emails about the plight of refugee children in France, asking for priority to be given to them. I discussed the issue with Lord Dubs, who had been himself a refugee, and who became the focus for a campaign. I met Lord Dubs, whom I greatly respect, but told him I could not agree with him. My view then, and remains my view now is that that every penny the UK can commit to helping with the refugee crisis must be committed to helping on the ground in Syria and in the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. I did agree to vote for what became known as the Dubs Amendment, after a long Sunday morning phone conversation with the Immigration Minister, making it clear I still thought it was wrong. Refugees in France were the responsibility of the French Government, a stat e as caring and humanitarian as the UK.
My views have only become firmer over time. And I was particularly moved when watching an hour long film of conditions in Libya a few days ago, created by Ross Kemp of Eastenders fame. It's a deeply shocking and moving film. Human traffickers are taking the money of hundreds of thousands of people in and around Libya, promising them transfer to the UK, as well as other EU countries - and then sending them all to sea in unseaworthy boats. The occupants of those captured in Libyan waters are dumped without food or water on the Libyan border. Many of the poor souls who reach Med waters are simply drowned. It's a devastating film.
Two further points. The Home Secretary informs us that the French authorities are now opposed to our taking refugees from France, because it's being used by traffickers as a 'sales pitch' to refugees looking for a better life. It's making the problem in France worse. And secondly. There is a real fear that the Libyan refugee crisis is spreading to nearby Nigeria, where millions live in fear of Boko Haram, a brutal terrorist organisation. Bringing refugees into the UK from EU countries not only makes the refugee problem worse, but takes our attention away from the 10 million displaced refugees in and around Syria.
I can support calls that the UK should take in more refugees. Even though the UK has contributed more aid than any other country to bringing relief to the refugee disaster in the Middle East. But every ounce and penny of British effort must go to where the humanitarian need is greatest, and not be driven by where the media are free to capture heartbreaking pictures and stories. I have not any doubt where my duty lies. I am driven only by a commitment to ensure the UK work and investment acheives maximum humanitarian impact.