Saturday, January 20, 2018

The NHS Budget

The National Health Service is struggling to cope with this winter’s pressures. The stark reality is that it will never be possible for the NHS to meet the demands of a growing population, an aging population, and the irresistible costly advance of clinical science. The position is even more challenging when the cost of healthcare is combined with the cost of social care, increasing for much the same reasons - together with today’s growing expectation that ‘the State’ should take ever more responsibility for the frail elderly rather than it be a family responsibility. We must be realistic about that which is possible. 
Let’s try to understand why funding the NHS has become such a challenge in recent years. The NHS was established 70 years ago. From 1948 to 2010, the annual NHS budget increased by an average of 4% per year - in real terms. From 2010, the annual NHS budget has continued to increase in real terms, but only marginally. Because of the reasons noted in the first paragraph, this real terms increase actually puts financial pressures on the NHS which has never happened over an extended period before. The consequence is an inevitability that difficulties meeting the exponentially growing demand would emerge. That’s where we are now, and where we will be next year as well, despite evermore Government injection of more money.
What deeply frustrates all of us is wasted spending. And there has been so much wasted spending. Over recent days, we have seen much written about partnerships between the Public and Private sector to deliver new capital projects. There is nothing inherently wrong about a joint arrangement involving public and private investment, but there were many very bad deals done in the late 1990s and in the early 2000s. We were signed up to spending many £billions on these deals - contracts signed by previous governments that the current Govt cannot escape from. And we see shocking waste closer to home in Shropshire. For example there was the dreadful decision to build the new Women and Children’s Hospital in Telford, which cost £26 million, and will now probably be moved to Shrewsbury. And we have seen over £4 million spent on what’s called a ‘Future Fit’ process, planning for reform - reform that is desperately needed. 4 years later, the ‘preferred option’ has not even gone out to public consultation.
My personal view is that more money (even more money) will have to go into health and social care. It’s what the public say they want. But the Government will have to be open about the consequences of such a decision. It will mean significantly less spending on other budget heads. There are calls for an hypothecated NHS tax. Personally, I see this as just a gimmick to disguise the raising of taxation. If we are going to invest more billions into our NHS, the Government should transfer money from other budgets, and be clear about what is happening.
Any injection of money, no matter how much, will make little significant difference beyond “kicking the can down the road”. Another £10billion and we would in the same position in a couple of years time.
To finish this blog post, I will return to a thought I floated a few months back, when contemplating how we could reduce the ongoing bitterness hanging over from the EU Referendum. The most contentious aspect hanging over from the referendum campaigns is the supposed ‘promises’ on the side of a bus used by the Leave campaign. Forget what it said precisely. Let’s consider acting on what many people believe. Let’s agree to invest £350 million per week more into health and social care that the budget that applied on 23rd June 2016. I accept it might not fully reflect Govt budget priorities. But it would shoot a very big fox that has been causing much damage across our nation since Brexit Day. And anyway, I do think we will not be far short of a cash injection on that scale by actual Brexit Day - whatever date that Brexit Day is.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Rail Electrification in Wales.

I note that on BBC Wales, I have recently evolved into a “Senior Conservative” when my comments have been included in an article about cancellation of Govt plans to electrify the rail line from Cardiff to Swansea. One up from backbencher I think. Usually, I’m a bit uneasy about this sort of coverage, it being a controversial issue. But I’m content that it conveys my opinions. The article followed the latest meeting of Welsh Affairs Committee on the issue last week.
Over last few months, I’ve been considering in detail the Government decision to cancel the electrification of the Cardiff to Swansea rail line, (as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee). Lots of witnesses. This week it was Roads Minister, Jo Johnson. The decision to cancel was controversial and much criticised. But was it the right decision? At the outset of our inquiry I was expecting the Committee Report to be critical of the cancellation, and personally, I felt disappointed by it. However, on more detailed consideration its not turning out quite like that. Not only do I conclude personally that cancellation of the Cardiff to Swansea electrification was correct, but ended up asking myself whether electrification of the Great Western from Paddington to Cardiff was a wise decision. On balance, I still think it was. Just!
The first surprise learned from our evidence sessions came from the National Audit Office. It’s clear that the original decision to electrify the Great Western Line (any of it) was based on highly misleading cost estimates. The decision, in effect, was made not knowing the cost. Must admit I listened to the NAO with wide-eyed astonishment. We are assured by Network Rail that this would not happen now. We must hope not. This week the Minister told the Committee that the cost benefit analysis of the scheme does remain positive, though marginally so. So I can still support the London to Cardiff electrification, though there has been a passing uncertainty about it’s value for money as we have discussed it in Committee.  The estimated costs of the Cardiff to Swansea Line was also hugely underestimated. For me, it did not represent value for money. It’s totally right, in my opinion, that it should have been cancelled.
Let’s consider what we have instead. We will have new bi-mode trains, which run on both electric and diesel. They will be faster, with more seats, and way less disruption to the operation of the line. I’ve not ridden in one yet, but told they are very good news.
And the last point to make on this issue. The advance of technology. The Committee are hoping to learn more about hydrogen powered trains. And eventually battery technology will drive further innovation. If I’m revisiting this issue in 10 years time, you can bet the discussion will be vastly different.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Making International Aid popular.

I am a contrarian. The more that public opinion has lambasted the Government commitment to ‘invest’ 0.7% of GDP in International Aid, the more determined I’ve been to stand behind the policy. I believe it is right and in the UK’s long term interests. I feel incredibly proud that the Parliament I’ve been a member of for the last 8 yrs has met our obligations to the world by meeting the United Nations International Aid targets.
But there are many British people who do not agree. New Minister for International Development, Penny Mordaunt is going to have to make the case. She writes in today’s Telegraph. Rightly, she outlines the threats to the UK from disease, mass migration and wars, which do not respect international boundaries, and the shortsightedness of just waiting til these threats arrive on our doorsteps. Like sitting ducks. Neither does the Secretary of State intend to just sit back and not meet the challenging arguments of those who would dismiss the importance of International Aid. She sets out her argument as backing to 5 pledges to the people of Britain.
She pledges to use International Aid alongside the Dept of International Trade to grow business and investment in developing countries. She pledges not to invest if others, with equal or greater responsibility will not invest. The aim will be to develop skills that enable developing companies to stand on their own. She pledges to reduce funding to those who fail to deliver on targets set. She pledges to invest in programmes like plastic pollution and illegal wildlife trading which matter to the British people. And she pledges to work with other Govt departments to maximise effectiveness of any investment. It seems that Secretary of State Mordaunt intends to be hard-headed as well as generous. We need all the British people to be proud of out investment in International Aid.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Trumpian Hypocrisy

Don’t normally read the Daily Mail, though do take the Mail on Sunday, along with the Telegraph. But did buy today’s copy - to take advantage of a very generous free gift offer of an Airfix kit. Anyway, it was first time for months that I’ve read anything written by Peter Oborne, who used to write for Spectator and Telegraph. Top class columnist. Always worth a read. Headline today read - “The stench of Labour’s hysteria and hypocrisy over Trump”. Like anyone writing anything which can be read as being on Trump’s side, he has to begin by setting out his opinion of the US President, which I repeat here. “Trump is a narcissistic and absurd figure. He is a racist who retweeted videos posted by Britain First, a fascist organisation that all decent people condemn.”
But he does not, and nor do I agree with the campaign to prevent President Trump visiting the UK. The public attitude of the Mayor of London is particularly short-sighted. Anyone would think he was mid election campaign, when irresponsible attitudes are sometimes struck.  Absolutely not protecting the interests of London. And same goes for a whole lot of others who are keen to be seen as ‘virtuous’ by parading their distaste of Trump. Actually, I have little criticism of those who are not in positions of influence wanting no contact with Trump. Every right to express their opinions. Makes little difference on the international politics plain. It’s the rank hypocrisy of opposition leaders that I find so utterly nauseating.
First time I was faced with this sort of choice personally was when Xi Jinping was accorded the honour of speaking in Westminster Hall, as great a privilege as Parliament can offer. Despite Xi making Trump look like and “hand-wringing Liberal” - in Oborne’s words. But of course Xi is totally inscrutable, impressively polite, charm personified and very skilled at manipulating public opinion. I went because a good relationship with China is hugely important to the UK, to our economy and our security. The Leader of the opposition even wore his white tie and tails to attend a state banquet for President Xi at Buckingham Palace. He was right to do so.
Same attitude will be important when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon visits us this summer. Another who makes Trump look like a “hand-wriggling Liberal”. I will treat him as an honoured guest as well, despite the terrible happenings in Yemen. There have been many other high profile visits from leaders who have committed deeply unsavoury acts. It’s always been thus. Across the Channel, President Macron welcomed President Trump with great pomp, while the French people  accepted the importance to French jobs and French security. Generally, the whole of French politics accepted this.
I cannot defend the drivel that the President of the United States, the country which is our most important friend and allay in this unstable world tweets on his Twitter account. But I know it’s crucial for the UK to work for a good relationship with the individual the American people voted to be their President. It matters for the British economy and British security. In fact, the Opposition leaders like Khan and Corbyn know it too. Which makes their public utterances all the more unworthy of their office.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Prime Minister’s New Confidence.

Bearing in mind how difficult 2017 was for our Prime Minister, it’s amazing how confident and focussed she is. It was a genuinely Prime Ministerial performance on today’s media. Mrs Thatcher was known as the ‘Iron Lady’. Well, Theresa May has shown herself to be a ‘Lady made of Iron’. It’s not how you cope when the tide is flowing your way; it’s how you cope when it’s flowing against you. And I sense that she begins 2018 in a far better place than most would have imagined 7 months ago. To me, all those (including the journalists and commentators) who have been part of the the baying mob look rather ‘smaller’ people than they did.
We all know that Brexit will remain a defining issue. There remain many retainers. And much of our media will give massive coverage to them, or anyone, and any report supporting their desire to reverse the referendum vote to Leave, casually damaging the British interest at the same time. For example, very few had heard of Lord Adonis until he resigned from the Gov’t, citing Brexit. Suddenly he was being portrayed as some great guru, though in reality, he jumped before he was pushed, and has never had anyone actually vote for him - ever. But our Prime Minister is not for turning. She has “played a blinder”, and developed a working relationship with the EU negotiators, where the aim is to deliver the best deal for the UK and the EU - ignoring the columns of ill-informed froth. Just getting on with the job. In all of our interests.
Personally, I’m impressed by the commitment to a Northern Forest the PM spoke of today. Combined with the commitments Michael Gove has been making to environmental policy over recent days, the Conservative Party is the genuine party of the environment. Again, it’s important to ignore the gesture politics and virtue signalling of those who would undermine the Government for partisan advantage. Just getting on with the job.
Also, good to see our Prime Minister looking beyond Brexit. There are problems facing Government. The NHS and Social Care, educational attainment, facilitating more private and public housing, and a hundred other issues. It was ever thus. But today we have keyboard warriors populating the Internet, and a main opposition party willing to do and say almost anything for partisan advantage - irrespective of the national interest. It can easily seem that these problem issues are unmanageable. Anyone serving in Govt has to look beyond the Twitter inspired froth, and just get on with the job. Seems to me that’s what the Prime Minister intends to do.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Conservatives must be ‘Green’ and ‘Welsh’.

I have long held two opinions on policy that I believe should form part of the basis of Conservative thinking in Wales. Neither have been ‘mainstream’ opinion in my party. But that’s not stopped me in the past. Theses two opinions underpin my ambition that my Conservative Party should reach out to Plaid Cymru with a view to working more closely together in Wales. Politics is about power, and the only way the Welsh Conservatives will secure power in Wales in the foreseeable future is in partnership with Plaid Cymru. I fully recognise a lot has to change before that can actually happen, but I’m the perennial optimist. I believe it will happen, and sooner that many might think. Lots of Plaid supporters I talk to are instinctively ‘Tory’.
Anyway, the two opinions I advocate are that there should be Conservative commitments to being both ‘Green’ and ‘Welsh’. Because it’s right, and it’s Conservative, as well as being the pathway to power (in Wales). Let’s consider ‘green’ to begin with, mainly because Michael Gove’s speeches this last week so inspire me. I’ve spoken with Michael in the lobby more than once already.  It’s clear that as Secretary of State at Defra, he intends to use the post-Brexit freedom from EU control to redirect policy towards the environment, diversity and animal welfare. There in nothing more Conservative than this approach, than to take care of our world, our environment, and our landscapes. Nothing more Conservative to leave an environment to our children as secure and cared for as our own generation inherited. So often, the Conservative Party has stood back and allowed non Conservative voices, to dominate the ‘green’ agenda with unrealistic woolly thinking that’s high on rhetoric and low on practicality - bunny-hugging and anti business. But this is going to change because of Michael Gove. Last week he spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference and told the farming industry that he was giving notice that (from 2024) financial Support would not be given for acres owned, but to support investment that the public approves of - like new woodland creating public access to leisure and reducing carbon emissions. Look enough to give farmers time to adapt and radical enough to appeal to genuine environmentalists. It’s all rather promising.
 At last years’s Welsh Conservative Conference in Sophia Gardens, I worked with the Tory Reform Group to share my ideas at a fringe meeting. I was joined by Assembly Member, David Melding CBE and political commentator, Daran Hill. It was an early morning meeting and a tidy audience turned up. At the time I felt I was ‘out on a limb’ with my enthusiasms for ‘greenness’ and ‘Welshness’. Since then, the UK Govt has delivered the Wales Act (through Parliament without a single Parliamentary defeat) and changed Parliamentary procedures to allow Welsh to be spoken in the House of Commons (first time will be Welsh Grand in early February). I know there continues to be anti-devolution views in my party, but it’s no longer in the majority. There is no doubt that the Conservative Party in Wales, while being committed to the ‘Union’ is now unmistakenly ‘Welsh’. And we have Michael Gove, who totally ‘gets’ the importance of establishing the Conservative Govt as the party of the Environment. My main Westminster interest is Wales ,things Welsh and the countryside. And I sense it’s all going rather well.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Pumlumon Project.

Between losing my ‘seat’ in the National Assembly for Wales in 2007, and being elected to the House of Commons in 2010, I was a trustee of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust. Always had a great interest in the Welsh countryside, it’s natural appearance and it’s wildlife. Still have. Not in a sentimental bunny-hugging way. The rythym of the natural world is often brutal and cruel. What matters to me is diversity, and how people can best connect with it.
Much the most ambitious project that MWT embarked on was/is The Pumlumon Project. It relates to 100,000 acres within the triangle stretching between Llanidloes, Machynlleth and Aberystwyth, where the Rivers Severn, Wye and Rheidol begin their journeys to the sea. The project involves re-wetting the peat bogs, and connecting existing habitats to create natural pathways. This would, if done at scale, hold back enormous amounts of rain water and melting snow, preventing flooding further down the Severn Valley. At the same time give more support to viable communities, create more natural landscapes, a more diverse wildlife, cleaner water and store carbon.
The area has enormous potential for tourism based on a diverse environment. It’s immediately adjacent to the Osprey observation site on the Dyfi Estuary which attracts tens of thousands every year. The potential is massive for hen harriers, short eared owls and black grouse -and much much more.
Now to the downside. Money. To deliver the project at the scale proposed will cost a lot of money - in my view, probably more than its reasonable to expect the Welsh Govt to provide. It is reasonable to expect part of the reformed post Brexit farm funding to support new practice and support diversification investment, but it’s unreasonable to expect the ‘Welsh’ budget to fund the flood prevention work. All the benefit would accrue to towns in the Severn Valley in England - Shrewsbury, Tewksbury etc. This is why I’m trying to secure a debate at Westminster, hoping to win over the support of England based MPs. Hoping I come up in the ballot for debates soon. And if I do, I’ll be on the phone to Clive Faulkner at the MWT to help me write my speech. I also think I might be interviewed by the BBC on this issue tomorrow. Will keep you informed.