Monday, December 31, 2012

And a Happy New Year to You

Over the next 6 hrs, I intend, accompanied by my wife, to take a drink in the village pub, before collecting friends. The four of us will then return to our home for another glass of champagne. I know this will be frowned on by the Whip's Office as being unacceptably ostentatious. But if its OK for Boris, I reckon its OK for us. And then its on to a dinner party with a larger gathering of friends, where we will see out 2012, hopefully in good spirits. A taxi is booked.

Before setting out on tonight's festivities is an appropriate time to reflect on happenings of 2012 and my expectations for 2013. Despite the remorseless dialogue of austerity, it was mainly a year of joy. At least it was for those of us who are committed monarchists and keen sports enthusiasts. My best memories are of the tubular bells clanging their way down the Thames under typically British cloudy skies and the poetry of David Rudisha's movement as he ran the most perfect race I've ever seen - bar none. Each year has its sad moments as well, and for me it was the service in memory of April Jones in Machynlleth. There is always evil lurking there as well.

2013 will begin well for me, as patients attend the new Renal Dialysis Unit at Welshpool next week - the culmination of much local campaigning and enthusiasm. I am also looking forward to a debate I have secured in the House of Commons on 8th Jan. I am keen to speak well, and inspire others to join in debate on the Liverpool Care Pathway. But I am fearful of a potential vote on Parliamentary boundaries reform in late January. It may be that I will have no choice but vote against my party whip for the first time. Most of my colleagues have done so without serious injury, but I do fear that I would feel it to be an act of disloyalty. Am unsure how that would affect me. I had hoped to end my Parliamentary career without ever voting against my own side. I'm happy to disagree with policy, but to move to the 'dark side' is just not something I do. It will inevitably make me a different sort of MP - whether lessor or greater I do not know.  I also hope that the Gov'ts in both Cardiff and Westminster will accept that it would be an act of brutal anti-democratic vandalism to allow wind farm bullies to impose the Mid Wales Connection on the land where I, and so many others have always lived and loved.

Bouts of ill health over the years have made me realise that I am quite resilient, and that no matter how bleak I sometimes feel, optimism will eventually surface. As we move from one year to the next, it is optimism that grips me tonight. So its a Happy New Year to all who visit this site.

Personal brush with a wind farm bonanza

A dominating issue in Montgomeryshire over the last few years has been proposals to transform the beautiful  landscape of the old 'County' into one dominated by wind farms and associated transmission infrastructure. It has created much social division, splitting communities and families. I have been opposed to the proposal since it was first given substance in 2005 by the publication of Welsh Gov't planning guidance on renewable energy, popularly known as TAN8. This issue has potential to cause huge environmental and social damage to mid Wales as well as inflict massive financial burdens on the local council.

But thus post is about my personal involvement in the onshore wind issue in mid Wales, rather than the issue itself. Normally, I take not the slightest notice when misguided individuals make untrue statements about 'personal stuff' (deliberate or otherwise). None of their business. But on this issue its probably sensible to put things on public record.

Until 2005, I was generally unconcerned about the building of wind farms in mid Wales - though never convinced they would make much impact on our energy needs. It was the 2005 new TAN8 planning guidance which shocked me into outright opposition. The implications of the Welsh Gov't's intentions were horrific - though the wider public did not fully grasp what it all meant 'on the ground' until 2009/10. It was the sheer scale of what was proposed that made me an implacable opponent. Montgomeryshire probably already has more turbines than any other county in England or Wales. The Mid Wales Connection will mean another 500/600 turbines plus 100 miles of cable, 30 miles of which will be carried down one of our narrow valleys on 150' high steel towers to connect with the Grid in Shropshire.

Sometime in 2005/06, the representative of a Spanish energy company knocked on my door, totally unsolicited, asking me whether I would be interested in locating a wind farm on land owned by my family near the village of Llanerfyl. Gamesa seemed a very reputable company, and I learned much about the industry from Mr Partridge, who worked for them. But the proposed site, which covered land owned by 5 different families was one of great prominence and beauty. I could not have prevented the other 4 from going ahead, but I had no intention of joining in, even if it was an issue the family would decide on. I decided to invite the BBC along to highlight the divisions that communities faced - extra income against landscape damage. I will never forget taking the BBC film crew up the mountain, through driving rain and muddy tracks and in a thundering gale. Still laugh when I think about it. Anyway, Gamesa decided to proceed and offered the landowners a 5 yr exclusivity contract - money for nothing! Despite the family involvement, I wanted no part of it, and declined whatever money would have been on offer. Must admit I would have preferred this to have remained a private matter. Its bad for the reputation of a hill sheep farmer to be known to have refused money! I do not know what the other farmers involved did. That's their business. Also, despite my decision to take no part, I decided that I should declare an interest when opposing wind farms in the National Assembly. Not sure there was actually reason to, but its always best to be open. Some people don't understand the principles behind declaration of interests, and made incorrect assumptions. I continued to so declare until it became clear the scheme had no chance of going ahead, and that there was no 'opportunity' of benefit - even though I had no intention of taking it!. As far as I know, Coedtalog Mountain is safe from turbines for evermore.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jacob Rees-Mogg pays tribute to his great father.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has written a nice tribute to his late, great father, Lord (William) Rees-Mogg. Jacob is an unusual but brilliant MP, and I sometimes go into a debate just to hear him speak. He operates at a level of politeness that I can but dream of. Who can ever forget the look of utter shock on his face when Emily Maitlis asked him on Newsnight when he had last sworn at anyone. "I do not think Ms Maitlis that I have ever sworn at anyone in my adult life". Priceless.

Anyway, I considered William Rees-Mogg to be as balanced and able a journalist as its ever been my pleasure to read. I have read Jacob's tribute in today's Mail on Sunday three times, and reproduce here a few of the words used to describe his father's life.

"His reputation as a wordsmith who could produce long and elegant articles was unsurpassed. The bulk of his career was spent with The Times but he was particularly pleased, aged 75, to get a new job as a Mail on Sunday columnist" - which was the first article I read each Sunday morn.

"His family was central to his life. Although very busy, he turned up to childhood events. He was always in the audience at my school plays, and he encouraged all his children in whatever they wanted to be."

"He also had an inspirational faith, which helped him approach death without fear. He believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church and had not only been ready but inquisitive about meeting his maker for many years" - ever the journalist!

"His greatness was in his gentleness, his enthusiasm and his spiritual completeness, more than having known everyone who was anyone for 60 years. May he rest in peace."

I can see Jacob in my imagination saying this words.

Which way forward for the Conservatives.

Ex Tory MP, Paul Goodman is a insightful writer. He believes the 2015 General Election is already lost to the Conservatives - which seems to me a quite ridiculous thing to say, with 2yrs and 4mths to go. Does he not remember the landslide victory that was there for Gordon Brown until he chickened out of an Oct/Nov election in 2007. 2/3 years is an age in politics. But bearing in mind polls which are currently putting Labour around 10% ahead, Conservative appeal to the voters must be a matter of growing interest to us. And its against this backdrop that I read Mathew d'Ancona's observations in today's Telegraph.

To summarise - Mathew believes that the Prime Minister has turned his back on 'modernisation' of the Conservative Party - "the Tories' worst strategic error since the poll tax". These seem to me strange words to write. Lets start with this concept of 'modernisation'. I'm just not sure what it is. Of course there's always a danger of a political party not adapting smartly enough to keep pace with the people it wants to govern, but the Conservative party has always changed. But not just to satisfy short term fashion. That's how we were so successful through the last century. Its still changing. Nothing wrong with a few PR initiatives, but there's no point in carrying on with policies which we can see are damaging to the country and the party. For example, its right that we make commitment to international aid, and make certain its to alleviate suffering or develop capacity for self-help. Its right that we develop renewable energy, but not just chase the cheapest options, sacrificing rural Britain to the Philistines. Its ridiculous to believe open neck shirts and recycled trainers are anything more than a one-day-wonder - a passing fad.

I don't dismiss what Mathew d'Ancona writes. Not at all. Image does matter. The message matters as well as the policy. What matters is that we choose the right message. For example. Personally, I cringe every time I here a Conservative speaking derogatorily of benefit recipients. The reality is that the welfare budget has to cut big-time - but the best way to give credence to a 'nasty party' image is to bang on about 'shirkers' etc. Ian Duncan Smith uses the right language of helping people out of dependency. And its also illogical and self defeating to do anything other than treat our Lib Dem coalition partners with genuine respect. Nick Clegg took a painful and brave decision, for the benefit of country over party, setting aside the cynical opportunism that had typified Lib Dem tactics for decades, and we should respect that. If they renege, it will be them who will be damaged. And there's plenty more.

But then, there is the EU, where its anybody's guess. Prime Minister would find herding cats easier than developing policy on this issue. But I do think clarity will emerge. Its just that the gestation period is longer than we would like. There will be some renegotiation of our relationship with the EU. Germany and France will accept a degree of realpolitik over this. And there will be an in/out referendum on the renegotiated position. The questions are when this will happen and who will be leading the Gov't which arranges it. I am far more optimistic than Paul Goodman that it will be David Cameron.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lets hope the Lib Dems rethink overnight

When I was selected in 2007 to contest Mongomeryshire at the 2010 General Election, I did not want anyone associated with the Conservative Party in Montgomeryshire to say or do unkind things to the Liberal Democrats. Firstly, I wanted the Lib Dem supporters to feel well disposed towards me. There were a few thousand more of them than us at the time. And I don't believe voters respond well to the childish name-calling that passes for much of modern politics in Britain anyway. Its also why I totally ignore the attempts of my predecessor to rile me, except to feel a sense of sorrow. There's nothing wrong with a 'blast' occasionally, but monotonous rudeness besmirches politics and leaves me bored and cold. So It was not difficult for me to sign up to the Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition in 2010. In fact, I rather approved of it. I also reckon that when you sign up to a deal, you sign up to a deal. And I suspect its what the public thinks too. Which is why the anti-Lib Dem nit-picking that comes from some of my colleagues seems to me to be both disloyal and self-harming.

So what on earth are our Lib Dem coalition partners up to today - putting out a press release announcing that advice is going out to all Lib Dem MPs, peers and staff instructing them to 'rubbish' the Conservatives whenever they have the opportunity. Even more pathetically, they are pretending its a'leaked' memo. Its no more 'leaked' than the Sermon on the Mount. And its inconceivable that the Deputy Prime Minister did not approve it before it was 'leaked' - probably left 'accidentally'on his desk. Its just so incredibly childish - and it may well also be self defeating.

I suppose the Lib Dems are in a bit of a spot, and are not sure what to do about it. Well, my advice for what its worth is the same as that given to them earlier this week by Lord Carlile, the most able Lib Dem in Britain today - "grow up". The Lib Dems made a big sacrifice in 2010, acknowledging that their manifesto promises were 'fairy stories' and setting aside 'party interest' in order to form a coalition with the Consevatives to try to bring order to the UKs public finances. That decision has cost them politically, as they must have known it would. The reward should come later, when the job is done. But to decide part way through the deal that they signed up to that they don't like it, will be the worst of all worlds for them. And I genuinely wish the Lib Dems well. Lets hope that like Darragh and Ffion, our lovely grandchildren, they will have forgotten today's silly plans when they wake up tomorrow.

A row over 'Pum deg wyth punt, chwedeg dau'

What are we to make of the little altercation which took place in the Spar shop in Pwllheli today. Many of you will be scratching your heads when you read about it - and you will. Its guaranteed to make all the UK media because it makes us Welsh look silly. The serious point behind it will not be understood at all. No doubt there will be much amusement. This is what I understand happened;

Former Archdruid of the Gorsedd of Bards, 83yr old Dr Robyn Lewis collected up goods worth |£58. 62p from the shelves of the Spar shop. At the till he was asked by a cashier in the English Language for the money. Dr Lewis insisted on being asked for "Pum deg wyth punt, chwedeg dau". There must have been a bit of a stand-off because store manager, Mr Conrad Davies decided to call in the police to sort out the disturbance. To make the situation worse, the first police officer on the scene was a monoglot English speaker - so a bilingual back-up was called to sort things out. It seems all was settled in the end when another cashier, who could speak Welsh asked Dr Lewis for the money in the way he demanded.

On one level this is no more than an amusing little story. I rather like stubborn principled people like Dr Robyn Lewis. He has a reputation for this sort of thing, and took it upon himself to make a point. He wanted to be spoken to in his own language, in his own country, and why not. He would have been completely stuck in Berriew though, unless I happened to be picking up my Telegraph and in a position to help him out. The point he was making is that retail units should, wherever possible, ensure customers who want to be served in Welsh can be.

I have two observations/questions about this. I do think the Spar in Pwllheli could put up a sign identifying a till where Welsh is available. It would be a sensible marketing ploy if nothing else. There would be quite a lot of Welsh speakers in Pwllheli. But the bigger issue for me is that we (Welsh speakers) are being mocked and laughed at in the UK media. I am not at all sure that this type of story is helpful to the Welsh Language.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Agreeing with Archbishop on Organ Donation

I really should try to fix up a coffee with Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales. Despite coming from very different backgrounds and probably from a different location on the political spectrum, I find myself agreeing with him on some fundamental issues. I was not in support of establishing the National Assembly for Wales, while he was - but today we both want it to develop into a stronger 'parliament' now that its been created. I am not in favour of redefining the meaning of marriage, while the Archbishop is - but we both think the Church in Wales should be free to decide, along with other non-established churches. And today he's been discussing with David Williamson of the Western Mail another issue we agree on - disagreement with the Welsh Gov'ts plans to change the organ donation system to one based on presumed consent 'opting out' rather than one based on assumed consent, 'opting in'.

Reason I need to talk this through with the Archbishop is because we arrive at our similar conclusions from very different considerations. And I need to emphasise that both of us are hugely enthusiastic about promoting organ donation. There is a waiting list of individuals suffering organ failure, and there are steps we can take which will make a difference, (rather than just giving the appearance of doing something).  He is deeply concerned that the proposals will change the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state. He's absolutely right about this of course, but my principal concern is that it just will not increase the number of organs available for donation, will waste public money on the wrong solution when it could be so much better used, and may well make the position worse. There is not a shred of evidence that 'opting out' will result in a single extra donated organ. The contrary has and continues to be asserted as fact, without any supporting evidence, and has traction with listeners because there is an instinctive assumption that "it must be true".  Its not.

Another relevant opinion that I share with the Archbishop is that the Welsh Government should be free to introduce 'misguided' laws if it so decides. And it may be that it has the freedom to continue with its determination to introduce 'presumed consent'. But perhaps not. There is a responsibility on those of us who think the change may do harm to the organ donation system to say so. I believe there is real concern within the Dep't of Health that the terrific progress that has been made across the UK since the Organ Donation Taskforce Report was published 3/4yrs ago will be stopped in its tracks. There is also real concern that BME communities will become even less willing to donate - which is a particular problem because its members are physiologically more predisposed to organ failure. Both the Archbishop and I are both very supportive of increasing the number of organs available for donation. Its one of my particular interests as a politician. The Welsh Gov't seems to both of us as 'misguided' and likely to achieve the reverse of what is intended. Its a terrible shame.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lord Carlile tells Lib Dems to 'grow up' over Comms Data Bill

Lord Carlile of Berriew was my immediate next door neighbour for the whole 13yr period he represented Montgomeryshire in the House of Commons. He was also and remains a good friend, and a man whose opinions I have always taken great note of. I suppose you could look on us as a early precursor to the current Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition. I respect his opinion, especially on legal matters. Today its being reported that he has told his Lib Dem colleagues to "grow up" in its approach to the Communications Data Bill. He has described some comments opposing the Bill as "irresponsible". And last week he said that the term "Snooper's Charter", (which is used by many who have contacted me as part of an email lobbying group's campaign) as a "complete traducement of the Bill". He's also makes the point that many private firms collect more intrusive information about us already. None of this surprises me because I met up with Alex two weeks ago for a coffee and discussion about all this.

Now its not only the Lib Dems who are concerned about the proposals in the Communications Data Bill. Plenty of Conservatives are concerned as well. And so are Labour, though Alex tells me the Bill is similar to proposals put forward by the Labour Gov't in 2007. I suppose that's what oppositions do. The reason I'd asked to speak to him about it was that I have an instinctive distrust in 'the state' accessing and holding any information about us that is not absolutely needed. No-one is better placed than Alex is to judge what is necesssary.

Most people who have raised the Bill with me in person (rather than email) have not known much about its content. Discussion seems to dilute their opposition. Gov't agencies already have access to communications data, but the law has not kept up with modern means of communication - mobiles, the web and social networking. The Bill extends powers to take account of modern technology. All it does is require providers to hold records so that 'approved' Gov't agencies can discover 'who, when,where and how' information - without having access to 'content'. Access to the information held would be granted only on a 'case by case basis', approved by a senior designated officer - with the whole process supervised by the Information Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner. Make of that what you will.

The questions we as MPs have to face is whether we are content to allow the Internet to operate as an 'unpoliced space' where criminals are free to roam, and whether the Communications Bill before us strikes the right balance between law enforcement and individual's privacy. Its no surprise that the Parliamentary process is leading to significant changes being made to the proposals. So far I've been publicly wholly supportive of the Home Secretary, even if I've shared some concern privately. Its a difficult sensitive issue

Parliamentary Boundary Reform - Mark 11

Regular visitors to this blog know I am opposed to the way the current parliamentary boundary review is being implemented. If the whole thing is thrown out, it will bring great joy to Montgomeryshire. I will hold a celebratory party for supporters if and when the death knell is confirmed. I suspect it will be celebrated in other places as well, where the relevant MPs are sensibly more cautious in expressing opinions than I am.

So it follows that my eye was caught by today's Telegraph article reporting that 'senior' Conservative Party figures, following victory at the next General Election, would move to redraw boundaries within days of  forming a Government. This is a rather cheering prospect, in that it involves a Conservative victory and the demise of the current proposals. And it foresees a fresh attempt to introduce  much needed fairness into our electoral system. I'd just like to make some suggestions about how reform could be made more palatable next time around.

The way to move forward with more agreement is to set aside all 'party' considerations and allow the Boundary Commissions to do their job - with more freedom than they had, trapped within the straitjacket of the current Bill. Firstly we should abandon the plan to reduce the number of MPs by 50, cutting the membership of the Lords by 300 instead. The Commission could be advised that a decrease in the number of MPs should be proposed where impact would not be too damaging to local democracy. Secondly, the 5% maximum variation in constituency population should be dropped - either by making it 10%, or preferably simply charging the Commission to equalise constituencies as far as it thinks sensible, taking account of population, history, rurality etc.. I do have to accept that the current over-representation of Welsh MPs should be tackled, particularly if the National Assembly acquires responsibility to levy income tax. Probably have some more suggestions as well if the time comes - though I expect these 'senior' Conservatives will take about as much notice of me as last time. Of course this is just me thinking aloud, after a relaxing day or two away from the influence of Westminster.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Connecting with Constituents

Spent this morning at the traditional Boxing Day meet of the Tanatside Hunt outside the Royal Oak in Welshpool. No more than 40 horses this year because it was too wet to ride out on farmland. But around 1000 supporters lining the street. The numbers have been much higher since the ban on hunting with dogs was enacted. This morning, several of the attendees decided to share their opinions with me on numerous issues.

Quite a few wanted to know when the Gov't is going to deliver the promised 'free vote' of MPs on repeal of the hunting ban. Discussion had been stimulated by reported comments from N Shropshire MP, Owen Paterson that there would be no vote in 2013. Though I was very opposed to the ban, and would vote to overturn it, I'm not at all sure that I want a vote. Case of being careful what you wish for. I do think there will be a majority to repeal in this Parliament - so cannot see the point of a vote. It would only give more credibility to the ban. As long as its enforced with common sense, most hunts and packs can just about live with it.

Other issues as well. Serious stick for not deporting Abu Qatada. Bit unfair, since no-one would like to see his back more than me. Couldn't agree with the proposed solutions to the issue! If I did, the Mirror's depiction of me as a "Tory Gun Nut" would seem gentle. But I did agree with the general principle. Same with scale of immigration. for many years its been at an unsustainable level, but not easy to bring control without damaging economy. But again agreed with general principle. Also comments about the ridiculous story that BBC Wales ran recently about Welsh Gov't residual debts following stock transfer of MWDC housing in Newtown. Because I tried to point out how stupid this 'scandal' story was, I am blamed for it, though having nothing to do with. Finally there was much comment about 'scroungers on benefit'. always surprised me how brutal public opinion is. Again its the general direction of Gov't policy, even if not driven by the same reasoning.

Notably, there was not a single comment about 'gay marraige' or the 'Leveson Report'. Now, what messages do I take from all this?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Our Failure to Care for the Elderly

Called in at Welshpool Hospital to visit Cllr Ann Holloway today. She has fallen and lost mobility. Thankfully, she was looking was looking near back to normal - which can sometimes be thoroughly irascible. Miss Holloway had been a great supporter of mine, and for many years nothing has been too much trouble for her. She probably had as many visitors today as Tescos down the road. Anyway, my point is that there is a very good atmosphere at Welshpool Hospital. While I'm not competent to judge about standard of specialist care, I'd be surprised if the basic care was not of a very high standard. But it is not always so elsewhere.

Earlier this week we read of the utterly dreadful cases of poor care at hospitals in Worcestershire. Compensation has been paid to 38 families in acknowledgement of poor care (though legal liability has not been accepted) over a period of 38 years. And earlier this year we learned of the terrible events that happened at Winterbourne View Hospital, And I've learned of other examples since Ann Clwyd MP raised the issue of elderly care in a highly emotional way following personal experience a few weeks ago. Of course, most care in our hospitals is very good, but in my opinion the greatest challenge facing Jeremy Hunt, Sec. of State for Health is raising the bar in how we look after elderly people.

There are so many aspects to this issue. The announcement we're expecting in the Mid Term Review about a cap on care home fees would be good but incidental to delivery of basic care. We need a system of comprehensive unannounced inspection that puts a stop to the examples of appalling care that drags the reputation of the care and hospital services down. What good is conscience-salving £10,000 compensation to the families. We need people who abuse the elderly to be imprisoned - and a whole new culture hammered into our care system.

Other matters flow from all this. How on earth can anyone suggest legalising assisted suicide when this sort of abuse happens - when very vulnerable people are treated as non-human. Where would it lead. And what about the future of the Liverpool Care Pathway, which 'should' be a way of easing the discomfort of people in their last days. How can we have trust in the integrity of the LCP while examples like the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch and Winterbourne keep on happening. Because this is such a toxic and important issue, I have secured a 90 minute debate in the House of Commons on 8th Jan, our second day back, to debate it. I hope lots of MPs will participate. We cannot leave discussion about these important issues to the sensationalist front pages of national newspapers. How we look after those who can no longer look after themselves is a measure of how civilised we are - and at present we are not coming up to the mark.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Is cutting Welfare State to 'help' or 'punish'

Another thoughtful article from Peter Oborne in today's Telegraph - about the appropriate approach to 'welfare' that should be adopted by the Coalition Gov't. Now I don't know how much truth there is in the suggestion that Ian Duncan Smith and George Osborne are at loggerheads over this, or that the Treasury is determined to take over 'welfare' policy - but there is certainly an issue about attitude and language, if not about policy.

The current working/early retirement age generation are probably the most selfish in our history. And Britain is not alone in this. We are living way beyond our means and leaving a terrible legacy for future generations to repair. At the same time, the way we look after those who are approaching the end of their lives is a national scandal. The very young and the very old do not have a loud enough voice. All fair people will surely agree. There is no alternative to the direction of the Chancellor's fiscal policy, even if there is argument about detail. The only doubt I, personally have is that he is not being ruthless or radical enough. Because I believe Gov't should be spending significantly more on various forms of elderly care, there is no choice but to implement major cuts in most other budgets, including the welfare state. So far; I suspect there will be quite a lot of agreement - which may be about to change!

Peter Oborne's article is about 'language'. Now I do not doubt that there are some scroungers and benefit cheats in the land, but I believe most people on benefit would much rather be in work, or would have preferred  to be in work, if they had not become 'programmed' to life on benefit. The IDS approach is one of 'tough love'. We must do everything we can to give people a purpose in life, based on meaningful activity and commitment to others, weaning them off benefit where we can. Which is why work, volunteerism, family etc is so important. Its also why I so much prefer the language (which Chris Grayling used so well before being promoted to Lord Chancellor) about "helping people escape cruel dependency on welfare wherever possible". I really do not care for these disparaging attacks on 'shirkers' and ugly focus on ending the "something for nothing" culture. It might appeal to base instincts but will only breed resentment and won't make a difference. Gov'ts purpose should be to help people, not vilify them. This supposed difference of opinion could be entirely a figment of Peter Oborne's imagination, but if its for real, I'm on IDS's side.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Backing my local Police despite horror of 'Plebgate'.

I like to think I've a good relationship with the Dyfed-Powys Police. I accept that several officers have contacted me declaring their unhappiness about their working conditions and pension entitlements over the last year or so. I'd like to say I agree with them, but it would not be honest of me to do that. The economy that the Coalition Government inherited in May 2010 has meant cutbacks in every area of Gov't spending, and meant very tough decisions, often affecting policy areas that the nation hugely supports. I can't alter that. We have only to read the Archbishop of York's comments yesterday about impact of our reduced spending on our armed forces. But through it all, I've retained great respect for the work that the Dyfed Powys Police Force do. But that can never mean that I cannot question police actions when I'm concerned about them.

And I am much concerned about what has become known as 'Plebgate'. I recall being interviewed on Radio Wales when the affair first broke, 'defending' Andrew Mitchell - not defending the way he had spoken to the police at gates to Downing St., but that I did not think it was a 'hanging offence'. It certainly warranted an apology, some contriteness and perhaps a meeting without coffee at No 10, but not the sack. I admit to a degree of personal loyalty to Andrew because he did come to Montgomeryshire to campaign for me in the 2010 General Election - and a very good campaigner he was too. But for various reasons, in the end his resignation became inevitable. But we now know it should not have been so.

I've watched the Channel 4 documentary on the issue, including the CCTV footage, which shows that there were no members of the public present - contradicting the police version of what happened. Neither did it look as if there was any sort of row between Andrew Mitchell and the Police officer. And we are now told that the email supposedly written by an outraged member of the public who supposedly witnessed the incident, was actually a policeman serving with the Diplomatic Protection Group. This was given to the Deputy Chief Whip, John Randall who handed it on, as he was obliged to do, to the Prime Minister's office. It smells very much like a stitch-up. Our country is indebted to Channel 4's Michael Crick.

This issue is no longer about Andrew Mitchell, though I personally hope he's returned to a senior position in the Gov't. Its about the integrity of the Metropolitan Police. How can we have reached the stage, in Britain, when serving police officers are thought to have tried to 'bring down' a Cabinet Minister' by a 'stitch-up'. When I sat through the Hillsborough Disaster Statement recently which outlined the most appalling behaviour of police officers, I thought it was 23 years ago and could not possibly happen today. But the superficial evidence suggests that on a smaller scale, it may well have done so. This issue goes to the heart of the integrity of the Metropolitan Police and there can be no issue more importent in the in-tray of the Met's Police Commissioner. We must be told what happened. And I suspect no-one feels that more than police officers in Dyfed Powys.

Friday, December 21, 2012

On the Horns of a Parliamentary Dilemma.

Its always been the case that if an MP wants to be noticed, he or she either has to be one of the 'favoured' faces - or one that rebels against the party. The MP who is not 'favoured', and votes consistently with the party whip is normally referred to in derogatory terms in the media as a poodle, and ignored by the 'upper strata'. Which is why yesterday's splendidly ferocious article by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph was a very good read. Now I didn't agree with all of it, but it did give me comfort that there's merit in the way I approach my job as an MP. Perhaps its because of my years playing in the back row with blind loyalty to my team that I would feel sick to the pit of my stomach to step into the opposition lobbies to vote against the Coalition Gov't. The circumstances would have to be extreme. In the two years eight months since I was elected, I have always voted with the Gov't - though I must admit I would have abstained in one crucial vote on Lords Reform, had it not been 'pulled' at the last minute.

The foregoing will make clear to you  how much it pains me to be contemplating voting against my Government for the first time. The issue causing me such distress is Parliamentary boundaries reform. I should take you through the process that has brought me to what I consider to be a very dark place.

I was elected in 2010 on a manifesto which promised to reduce the number of MPs to 585 - though I must admit I did not think this a sensible change to make. No-one took the slightest notice of me. It was a popular promise, because of the utter contempt in which MPs were held in 2010. I also voted for the Bill to give effect to this promise as it proceeded through its Parliamentary stages, which reduced the number of MPs to 600 - while privately making my increasing unhappiness known to my party. I was especially concerned about the impact on Wales of the very rigid constituency equalisation clauses. I feared that the Boundary Commission for Wales would be forced into proposals that would greatly damage Parliamentary democracy in mid Wales. The proposals that eventually emerged were even worse than I had imagined. The impact is catastrophic for mid Wales. Within a short period, MPs would have less profile in mid Wales than MEPs do now - and this is not in any way a comment on the quality of our current four Welsh MEPs.

So what do I do if, as is rumoured I am faced with a crucial vote on the issue next month. If passed, the Montgomeryshire I have known man and boy would be no more. The new constituencies that touch on mid Wales will have population centres elsewhere. My local party association is so horrified by the implications of the proposals that it has told me in no uncertain terms that they want me to oppose the new boundaries. And at a personal level, I would hate to see all the work we have done to build our Association in Montgomeryshire disappear in a cloud of angry blue smoke - because I believe those who have done this transformational work will not carry on. The outcome would be so horrific that I simply couldn't carry on either. The principles which underpin an MP's work are country first, party second and self third - and this change will end Parliamentary democracy in mid Wales as we know it.

 I face some choice. If I vote for the new boundaries, I will be turning my back on all I've worked for in public life and all those I've worked with in Montgomeryshire. If I vote against them by joining Labour in the lobbies, I will be turning my back on the Party I support. This is something to chew over when I've finished with the turkey bones. Looks like plenty of indigestion this Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Abolition of Agricultural Wages Board

Seems there's a bit of a hoohah about today's announcement by Defra that the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales is to be abolished. I arrived home from Westminster at 5.00 to find Radio Wales' Good Evening Wales had been on, wanting an interview there and then on the issue. Thought about 'ducking out' to get a briefing, but don't really like doing that - so took it on. So happens, I do know the issue reasonably well, even if not up to full speed on the day's events. Anyway, even though under the cosh a bit, thought I held my own quite well. Also thought I'd try to stimulate some debate by blogging on the issue.

Labour's Huw Irranca Davies had done a pre-record for GEW in which he seemed terribly agitated about process. Claimed Gov't had 'slipped it out' on last day of term as an amendment to Enterprise and Regulatory Bill. I suppose he was right about it being last day of term. But so what? I can never generate much excitement myself about 'process'. Reality is I've sat through more Opposition hand-wringing on this issue than anything else over the last year. Owen Paterson, new Sec of State at Defra has considered all the responses to the consultation and has decided to abolish the AWB as soon as possible. On balance I agree with him. And having made the decision we might as well get on with it.

Now to the issue itself. At heart the aim is to reduce red tape and unnecessary administration by abolishing the Agriculture Wages Board for England and Wales, together with the 31 associated bodies. Let the industry be free to negotiate its own wage structures, as happens in every other industry - with the National Minimum Wage as a 'backstop' to prevent abuse by the minority. Reality is that most employer/employee deals are negotiated at a level higher than either levels set by AWB or NMW.

Another reason for abolition is the completely different structure of many farm businesses today, which have diversified into non-agricultural activities - resulting in different wage structures operating within the same enterprise. And I'm told the inflexibility of the AWB leads to more short term contracts and less staff development. Must admit I cannot speak with any personal experience here, because I never took the slightest note of the AWB when I employed staff on my farm because I always paid well in excess of any suggested wage rates.

Two other points worth noting. There's been a wide consultation exercise. Big majority in favour of simplifying wage negotiating systems - though a smaller majority favoured keeping the AWB in a simplified form. But a large chunk of this support came from electronic emails organised by something called And then there's the opinion of the Welsh Gov't, which for some reason is vociferous in its opposition to abolition. Now I'm all in favour of consultation with the Welsh Gov't, but not in favour of giving it a veto on non-devolved matters. So there we have it. The Sec. of State has decided, and he's getting on with it.

My 5 minutes in the Energy Bill Debate

Lots of MPs wanted to speak in yesterday's debate on the Energy Bill. Speaker cut us back to 5 minutes just before I was called to speak. Could have done with 10 mins, but managed to make thepoints I wanted to. Had to tidy up one ot two typos but here it is;

"There are two reasons why it is a huge pleasure for me to be called to speak in today’s debate. Firstly, it is a very important Bill. Secondly, today is a significant personal milestone. Precisely 10 years ago, at this time in the afternoon, I was at the Nuffield hospital in Shrewsbury in the throes of a six-hour operation to remove a cancerous tumour from my body. For those who are medically minded, the operation was a lower bowel perineal resection. One would have got very long odds indeed on my speaking in this Chamber 10 years later and representing my constituency of Montgomeryshire, particularly since at the time, it was one of the safest Liberal Democrat seats in the country.

I welcome the Bill and its commitment to energy market reform. Its purpose is to keep the lights on at an affordable cost to the nation, and to control the amounts of harmful gases which, it is said, are leading to global warming. Although I understand that we have not actually had any global warming for 15 years, is remains a laudable aim. It is a complex and wide-ranging Bill, and we can come at it from a variety of angles. I do not want to repeat what other Members have already said, which often happens in the later stages of a debate; I want to put forward considerations that Ministers might take into account when they deal with the implementation of ‘Contracts for Difference’.

I have spoken in this Chamber several times before about my antipathy to onshore wind projects in my constituency. It has been difficult for me to do so without becoming very angry because of the sheer unreasonableness of the situation. My constituency has been very supportive of renewable energy for as long as I can remember. It probably has more wind turbines than any other constituency in England and Wales, and near Machynlleth is the Centre for Alternative Technology. It had general support for renewable energy until two Governments—here in Westminster and in Cardiff—came together to attempt to impose on the constituency the appalling Mid Wales Connection. This project involves between 500 and 700 extra turbines, on top of what we have now, and almost 100 miles of cable, 35 miles of which is to be carried on 150 foot-high steel towers. It has transformed the attitudes of the people of mid-Wales towards renewable energy in general because of its unreasonableness.

It is not just me, as the Member for Montgomeryshire, who feels this way. I would point out to my Rt. Hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the other two MPs representing mid-Wales constituencies, both of them Liberal Democrats, members of his party share my view absolutely. There is a cross-party realisation of the unreasonableness of what is proposed for mid-Wales.

The impact on local democracy is also important. Governments in London and Cardiff may feel that mid-Wales can be sacrificed in what they might term ‘the national interest’. But it is not surprising that the people who live in these constituencies take an entirely different view and feel that we have a duty want to defend mid Wales. The applications by the development companies make no reference whatsoever to principles such as ‘cumulative impact’, to the importance of wild spaces and wild land in Britain, or to the visual impact that their project will have. All these aspects are devastating to my constituency.

A few days ago Powys County Council—the local planning authority—announced that it had set aside £2.8 million to defend its decisions to refuse 5 wind farm planning applications at appeal. Powys county council does not have £2.8 million to spare. It is a small rural council, and this would be devastating for local services. The council therefore asked the Welsh Government if they would help it to defend its planning judgments. The spokesman for the Welsh Government said that the council knew the costs involved when it turned the applications down. Clearly, the Welsh Government view is that the council should take the costs into account and approve inappropriate applications because it could not meet the costs of appeal. That is an affront to democracy.

Another constituency issue I want to raise relates to anaerobic digestion, of which I am a great supporter. Mr Clive Pugh of Mellington in my constituency is a pioneer in this field, into which he invested before the feed-in tariff legislation was enacted. He is currently paid 7p or 8p per unit for the electricity he produces, while all new developments in the field and of the same size are paid 14p per unit. He is a pioneer who put himself on the line, and it well be that he will be driven out of business. We need to ensure that any new system under ‘Contracts for Difference’ takes into account the impact on the pioneers—those who came before."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Discussing Devolution of Power to Welsh Assembly

Mr Paul Silk and Professor Noel Lloyd came along for a friendly chat with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee this morning. All very genteel, but some interesting 'nuggets' emerged. Most discussion was about recommendations already made under Part 1 of his review on how to underpin the National Assembly with fiscal accountability. Very little discussion about Part 2, which will be about what powers should be devolved - in reality what extra powers should be devolved. That's for next meeting with the Silk team.

Best 'nugget' of the lot was Paul Silk's statement that his his Commission intends to look at whether parts of the 'benefits' system should be devolved to the Welsh Gov't. Secretary of State, David Jones told our last meeting that National Assembly powers should be no more than 'tweaked' under Part 2. Well, there is no way, devolution of benefits can be described as 'tweaking'. Clearly, Paul Silk, in his 'quiet but firm' way was putting down a marker. Sounded to me like a direct challenge to Sec of State - very interesting ! Though BBC's David Cornock tells me it was more 'could' than 'would'.

Quite a bit of discussion about devolution of income tax (part thereof). First Minister has tried to reassure all that income tax would not rise. Not sure about this myself, especially since its recommended there be freedom within tax bands. Doesn't look impossible to me that a future Labour Welsh Gov't might fancy putting top rate up to 50p, higher rate up by 1p and cutting lower rate by 1p. Any administration which wants to buy up airports might easily fancy a policy it could sell as "squeezing the rich". Could also see a future Welsh Conservative manifesto arguing that cutting income tax would stimulate the Welsh economy. Unlikely - but very possible. The rest of the Silk Report tax devolution proposals are small beer.

One issue of interest to me was the degree to which borrowing powers are dependent on power to access money for repayment. It will be no use a future Welsh Gov't going to the bond markets without the capacity to raise funds to repay. Only income tax devolution will provide that. Another recommendation of interest is that the block grant problems normally referred to as Barnett Formula issues must be sorted before income tax can be devolved. We' ve been talking about this for 30 yrs already! I see long grass before me.

Paul Silk was clear that a referendum is needed before income tax can be devolved - though I sensed there had been a bit of tension in the Commission over this. Major influence on the Commission had been desire of two main parties in Assembly for a referendum. Must admit I'm not at all convinced by this trend for politicians to set difficult issues aside by 'parking' them with promises of a referendum. We should tell people what we intend to do in manifestos. General Elections should be about policy decisions, not a beauty parade - which is why I'm totally opposed to TV Leader's Debates as well. It was a good interesting session. Perked up my interest in the Welsh Affairs Select Committee no end.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

BBC Wales 'Housing Debts' Story

BBC Wales is running big with a story about long term loans being serviced by the Welsh Gov't, which it has persuaded the leader of Plaid Cymru to describe as a 'scandal'. Such is the attention given to this that we can but conclude that BBC Wales agree with her. So happens I was guest in the studio for Politics Show today, and know a bit (though I concede only a bit) about the background.  And I'm struggling to see anything scandalous at all.

Begin with a bit of background. On 18th Dec 1967, the then Labour Gov't set up the Mid Wales Development Corporation. It was charged with doubling the size of Newtown from about 5,500 to 11,000. Head of this body was the inspirational Peter Garbett-Edwards. In passing, I should say that he inspired me to become involved in public affairs.  He and his redoubtable mother were committed Liberals - which may have prepared me for today's coalition politics! Anyway, the MWDC set about building factories and the key worked housing to attract industry to move in. About the same time, Gov't established the National Loans Fund - which became and remains the Gov'ts 'borrowing and lending' account. In effect Gov't was lending the money to a 'quango' of its creation at terms which are now being described as scandalous. For the BBC story to have any credibility, we would need to know what other similar public sector deals were at that time. Was 60 yrs unusual for public sector housing loans? Was 14% unusually high in the 1970s. (I recall paying that rate on my farm account at 2% over base for several years) No-one then anticipated the 'Brown boom' and consequent financial crash which has delivered much lower interest rates.

Another supposedly 'scandalous' aspect of this is that the assets are not owned by the Welsh Gov't. This is plain silly. The MWDC assets moved to the Development Board for Rural Wales, and then to the Welsh Dev't Agency (following merger- I think) before being taken 'in house' by Rhodri Morgan's 'Bonfire of the Quangos. As far as I can recall, Plaid Cymru backed Rhodri to the hilt. Am trying to scratch my head about what else might have been done. The 'public benefit' is a Newtown twice as big at it was and a Mid Wales economy and population transformed from that of the mid-60s.

The housing developments built by MWDC and finished off by the DBRW,were only ever meant to be owned temporarily. Once 'New Town' powers were removed from DBRW in late 80s, the houses had to be transferred. Most went to Montgomeryshire District Council, with some going to Newtown Housing Association, a social housing landlord run by the tenants. Some have been sold under RTB scheme and a few under something called 'flexi-ownership', a rather complex partnership arrangement. Most of them are still owned by the Council (now Powys CC). As far as I can see, everything is just as it should be, and much the same as most housing authority schemes.

Couple of additional points. Firstly its supposedly 'scandalous' that the Welsh Gov't cannot pay off the debt early because the long term interest rates are so high. If lenders were required to allow borrowers to 'pay off' long term debts when interest rates dropped, the original terms would be much more onerous. These things are worked out by actuaries. And secondly, there's the matter of 'lessons' to learn. This may well be so. There were certainly plenty to be learned from Gordon Brown's disastrous rush into PFI schemes.

The reason this is an issue is that the Welsh Gov't may find itself with borrowing powers in the future. Before launching into this new world, I would expect the Welsh Gov't to take best advice it can get hold of, and do best deals it can - which I've no reason for thinking isn't what happened in the 1970s. And always remember if you borrow money, it has to be paid back. I'd welcome comment from anyone with experience from the 70's.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Agreeing with Archbishop Barry Morgan again.

I didn't attend the statement on gay marriage by Maria Miller, Sec.of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the House of Commons last week. No point is causing myself unnecessary irritation I thought. She would have not the slightest interest in my opinion, and I thought I knew what she would say. But I didn't know - all of it anyway. I expected her to announce that the Gov't intends to legislate to allow gay marriage, including in a variety of religious institutions, but the ban the Church in Wales from conducting ceremonies came as a complete surprise.

Now this has left me a bit torn between two displeasures. As followers of this blog will know, I decided years ago that I would vote against redefinition of marriage (discussion for another day) - so you might think I'd be pleased by this. But its not that straight forward. I would indeed prefer the Church in Wales to decide against gay marriage, but cannot see why it, alone should be banned by law from doing so.

The Church in Wales has been disestablished from the state for almost 100 years. Why on earth should the UK Gov't be banning the Church in Wales, alone amongst many other disestablished churches. It just looks anti-Welsh. I accept that 'the Government' does pass laws which apply to all churches (not allowed to sacrifice virgins etc, - even if they wanted to) but this ban applies only to the Church in Wales. The Church of England is established - so 'fair enough'. In general, my libertarian instincts make me very suspicious of government poking its nose where there's no need. I expect this decision to cause much 'constitutional' outrage, and it may well be reversed.

Yet again I find myself aligned with Dr Barry Morgan - and again, coming to the same conclusion from a different direction. For example, we both passionately oppose changing the organ donation system to one based on opting-out rather than one based on opting-in. The Archbishop's opposition is about 'who owns our bodies'. Mine is that there isn't a shred of evidence that the change will increase the number of organs available. Its no more than a political stunt. And it seems we agree that the UK Gov't should not be banning Church in Wales from conducting gay marriage. The Archbishop seems keen to allow it to take place, while my concern is entirely constitutional. I also believe that where a proposal is not thought through or logical, it will not survive Parliamentary scrutiny.  I very much hope I'm not obliged to vote on this.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Planning in Wales - One Party State Style

Just read reported comments to the BBC from the Welsh Gov't that has left me incandescent with anger. Only in what is effectively a one-party-state would such comments be made in the name of a government. Lets start with a bit of background.

In 2005, the then Welsh Gov't published 'guidance' for planning authorities about how to deal with renewable energy applications. This directed wind farm developers to 7 areas of Wales where permission for their obscenities could be granted. 3 of these areas were in mid Wales. The full implications of this document (popularly known as TAN 8) were not fully appreciated by the local population until National Grid announced their proposals to build the associated infrastructure needed. Unsurprisingly, international energy giants saw £million signs flash before their eyes and piled in with planning applications. Many of us have been horrified by the proposed desecration of our valued landscapes and protested. Powys County Council have considered some of these applications, and have recommended that 5 of them be refused. This automatically triggers a public inquiry.

Public inquires are very expensive. On the one side will be the developers, fattened and bloated on public subsidy (taxpayers and customers money). There is almost no limit to the public's money they have stuffed in their ever open wallets. On the other side is one of the smallest councils in the UK, which can only find the £2.8million the first five applications are going to cost from Council Tax payers. Powys is a comparitively poor part of Britain. Inevitably much of the money will have to be diverted from public services. All this is bad enough (appalling in my opinion), but today's comments from the Welsh Gov't (as reported on the BBC) had made it much worse.

In response to a request from Powys County Council for financial help to carry out its proper role in deciding planning applications the Welsh Gov't says;

"It must be remembered that the decisions to object to the wind farm applications referred to is entirely down to Powys County Council. They were aware of the financial implications when they decided to object to these things"

The position we are in is that councillors serving on my local planning authority are being told by the Welsh Gov't that they should decide applications not on what is right in planning terms, but on the basis of cost - when the developers access the money to pursue their case from public subsidy. And that their multiple applications are driven by Welsh Gov't policy. Its an absolute disgrace. And what will be most disgraceful aspect of all this is that these people will not even understand quite how outrageous this is. Its what happens when one party has been in power for so long, and sees itself beyond the normal democratic process.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Rise and Rise of Owen Paterson

I am a great supporter of David Cameron. Don't always agree with him, but reckon he's a top man. Its necessary to start this post thus because I want to reflect on who would take over if the position were to become vacant. My first choice would be William Hague. Can't think of any competition where I wouldn't vote for William if he were a candidate. But my guess is he wouldn't do it. And anyway, he's needed to continue his brilliant work at the Foreign Office. My second choice is a tougher call. But not if George Osborne cuts off the supply of taxpayer's millions to the subsidy junkies who build and run onshore wind farms. If George cuts off this money tap, he'd be a shoe-in for the top job.

Now to the real point of this post. The Rt. Hon. Owen Paterson, Sec of State at Defra, who is the subject of a major article by Ben Brogan and Robert Winnett in today's Telegraph. Owen is my neighbouring MP, representing North Shropshire. With him, you do get what you see. On the face of it, he doesn't do subtle, but yet, he managed to glide effortlessly through the political jungle that is Northern Ireland politics. The thing is, I agree with Owen Paterson on almost everything. We are both countrymen, and we both love wild creatures - in a pragmatic rather than a bunny-hugging way. We both love deer, foxes and badgers, but accept appropriate culling for the wider benefit of the countryside. A few other things as well.

There are two particularly big areas of agreement that dominate opinion in our constituencies. Firstly, there is the vexed matter of onshore wind farms and associated infrastructure. I suspect Owen shares my view that we should set out to reduce carbon emissions where its reasonable to do so. But not by destroying British industry, or impoverishing lower paid energy users, or forcing elderly people to freeze in their homes, or desecrating some of the most beautiful parts of Britain, or trampling all over local opinion, making a mockery of democracy. I go further - suspecting that some alien brain-manipulating force taken a grip on an entire Gov't Dep't (DECC), infecting it with a form of turbine madness. I desperately hope that new Energy Minister, John Hayes dosed himself with prophylactic medication before setting foot in the office. And then there's shale gas, which could well completely change the energy picture within two years. It would be economic lunancy to turn our backs on it.

The second big area is Europe - where I'm not sure that I am quite the same page as Owen. I am a Eurosceptic who has never committed to an IN/Out referendum - even though I concede that the logical conclusion of my approach may be withdrawal in the end. We will have to develop a new relationship with the EU, as the EU moves towards creating a single state, the inevitable consequence of the reckless decision to create the Euro. The people of Britain will not want to be a part of this new state, and there will inevitably be some redrawing of the relationship between the UK and the EU, which will probably be put to the people in a vote. The issue will be whether the EU Leviathan, so used to swallowing up everything in its path, will contemplate anything but British capitulation, or will it drive on regardless to its inevitable destruction, leaving Britain behind.  Bit like staying in Southampton or Cork when the Titanic sailed.

But there is one area where I do not agree with Owen Paterson. He might be prime ministerial material, but its not on to call Alan Titchmarsh uncomplimentary names. For most of my gardening life, he's been an inspiration, and I cannot think of this great man as a 'muppet.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

St Patrick McLoughlin - giver of direct line to Shrewsbury

No-one pretends the almighty cock-up over the awarding of the West Coast Rail Line franchise was anything but a disaster. Silver linings are hard to find. But today, St Patrick McLoughlin delivered one for Mid Wales and Shropshire. When the direct train from Shrewsbury to Euston was lost, it was a big blow to Mid Wales in particular. And when First Rail 'won' the franchise earlier this year, I welcomed the proposed restoration of the direct link proposed to run from 2015. Went to listen to Patrick McLoughlin, Sec of State for Transport at the Despatch Box today telling us what was to happen from next week. I was primed to challenge the great man over the missing Shrewsbury-Euston link.

Well Santa Patrick had a nice little Xmas present lined up. He'd done a deal with Richard Branson to continue the Virgin contract for next 23 months, including a new direct Shrewsbury-Euston link, running from next year. No more hanging around B'ham New St. Stn, no more limping home on Arriva Trains to Shrewsbury, and sitting there for ages while some mysterious infrastructure changes are made (no idea what but it involves much banging and clanging).

I will probably start using the train again when the direct link is restored. At present, Welshpool is a problem because there is no return train late enough on a thurs to get past Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury itself is discouraging because of the hassle of train changes (which will now end) and by the time you've negotiated traffic to reach Wolverhampton Stn, you're already half way to London. And I see a new Premier Inn is being built nr Shrewsbury Stn to help passengers from furthest reaches of Mid Wales. Next challenge is to provide some proper parking at Shrewsbury. Mrs D once arrived home only to find the car nicked. And accessing the car park by walking across the Dana is too dark and threatening. But today was a good news day for rail travellers from Mid Wales and Shropshire. Instead of laying into the Secretary of State, I just offered to buy him a coffee on the inaugural journey!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Statutory Regulation - Welsh Gov't Style

You really couldn't make it up. And on the day Lord Justice Leveson recommended statutory regulation of the press. OK, he used the gentler, more innocent sounding 'legal underpinning' to make it sound more palatable - but statutory regulation is what it is. We are watching interviews on our screens where worthy sounding people are claiming how there is no danger to the 'free press' we have benefited from since 1695. Well lets just look at the breathtaking stunt the Welsh Gov't has just tried to pull off.

Before the last Assembly Election, Welsh Gov't's policy was to proceed with a targeted pilot cull of badgers in West Wales as part of its strategy to tackle the bovine Tb crisis. After the election, my old friend John Griffiths inherited responsibility for this policy. Now John is a fine fellow in many respects, but I knew immediately that he would not allow a badger cull. So he duly cancelled the policy, and has done something with vaccination instead - which many of us consider to be pointless.

Now to the funny bit. The highly popular Welsh Language soap, Pobol y Cwm, included a line from a distressed farmer disagreeing with this policy change suggesting that the Welsh Gov't "doesn't have the backbone" to carry on, and that the Welsh Gov't "doesn't care about the countryside because there aren't enough votes there". I can imagine this drawing a derisive snort from Welsh Ministers plus an affronted "How dare they"

So we have an official complaint to BBC, S4C and Ofcom - demanding a right of reply and claiming the programme beaches editorial guidelines. Now you might think this is not real - that I'm making it up. But it seems that it is. The only reason I don't claim this is where statutory regulation of the press will end up is that its so utterly ridiculous as to be incredible. "Avin a laugh" readers would think. And what's worst of all is that they will not be able to see it. Lib Dem AM came up with the brilliant comment that the Welsh Gov't will want Derek Brockway taken off air because he looks like the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones. I think this was a joke but.......

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My 'Take' on Leveson - the day before publication.

Lord Justice Leveson has now delivered his report to the Prime Minister. Not sure its an issue that excites my constituents, but its going to dominate 'The Village' for days. On Monday, I sent an article to a national newspaper, which was not published, which represents my 'take' on the issue. So here it is;

 A free press is as important to a civilised society as free-running sewers. Their effect is similar. Neither are looked on with affection and both are capable of carrying deeply offensive material. But try to imagine life without either. All sorts of detritus would be allowed to fester uncleansed. We need a free press to “keep the waters pure”. Thomas Jefferson wrote “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers, or newspapers without a Government, I shall not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I agree with Jefferson. When we consider Lord Leveson’s Report we should remember that another way of describing the ‘freedom of the press to publish’ is the ‘right of the citizen’s to know.’ 

Appearing on the radar of a newspaper can be a very uncomfortable experience. I’ve had my share over the last 30 years. I know what it’s like to be brought low by unfair coverage. Only last week, the Daily Mirror set aside three pages on consecutive days, portraying me as a “Tory Gun Nut” – as inaccurate a portrayal as its possible to make. I’ve had threatening letters and emails giving me both barrels. But I have no complaint. If I allow my quirky sense of humour free rein on twitter, I’m inevitably going to take the odd hit. Anyway, I could see the humour as well as the outrage in the reporting. Anyone who can’t take a bit of stick shouldn’t be in public life - or the entertainment business.

Much of the clamour for statutory regulation stems from the outrage felt about the hacking of mobile phones by a minority of journalists. I felt the same outrage. The nation was rightly horrified. The uprising of public anger is what led to Lord Justice Leveson being asked to hold the inquiry, which has produced the report just presented to David Cameron. But phone hacking is illegal. What happened was an abject failure of law enforcement. Of course the press have behaved badly, and the current system of regulation will have to be significantly strengthened. The press realise this as well. The debate is going to be what form this change takes.

While I am implacably opposed to the state regulating the press, I know there must be change. The people of Britain expect change. It’s not possible to be precise about what this change should be until the Leveson Report is public on Thursday, and we've had time to digest it.. Many will demand statutory regulation of the press (for the first time since the Middle Ages). No doubt it will be dressed up as a 'small step' involving 'statutory underpinning'. It will sound innocuous.They are wrong. I will want to see some form of effective, strong, genuinely independent self regulation, backed up by fines that hurt, and threats of going further if it fails.

If we introduce statutory regulation, even if disguised under gentle weasel words, it will hasten the end of our newspaper industry, already under threat from Internet based news sites. It will tip the balance even more in favour of digital platforms. It will be especially destructive of our much valued local newspapers. It will do harm to our way of life. After digesting the contents and recommendations of Lord Leveson, we will have to do something, but for the future of our civilisation, let it not be statutory regulation.

Not everyone is going to agree with. At present my own party seems split in half. But I'm hopeful that after reading His Lordship's report, there will be a greater measure of agreement.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

More on Votes for Prisoners.

Lord Chancellor made a Statement to the House of Commons today about the thorny issue of 'Votes for Prisoners'. He informed MPs that the Gov't intends to bring forward a bill which includes 3 options for MPs to decide on - votes for those serving less than 4 yrs, for those serving less than 6 mths, and no votes for prisoners at all. (except for those who currently qualify). Lots of us asked questions of Chris Grayling. Its a very important issue.

Its reasonably clear that when the debate takes place, MPs will vote for no extension of votes for prisoners at all. It follows that potentially, after the next election, prisoners could appeal to the European Court, and the UK could well face large fines. Of course the UK could simply refuse to pay the fines. This is what other states could do. But we are the UK - a country rightly proud of our commitment to the rule of law. Some of us are appalled at the prospect of the UK being seen to refuse to accept the law when we don't like it. Impossible to say what impact this would have on reputation.

This afternoon, I asked the Lord Chancellor to do his utmost to avoid this looming confrontation. Root of it is that Strasbourg Court is spreading its wings further, into policy that has been hitherto a matter for national courts. If this process isn't challenged, important parts of our sovereignty will continue to be transferred to the ECHR. Perhaps there would be no willingness to compromise by the Court. But it looks to me, we are heading to a standoff that could mean UK withdrawing from the European Court altogether. Personally, I would see this as a huge blow to the UK's standing in the world, but my feel is that there are a fair few MPs who do not share opinion.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts of Shooting Feral Deer

Voicemail this afternoon. Daily Mirror wants me to ring back. What on earth can I have done now? Hope Phill hasn't messed up my expenses. Perhaps they've uncovered that I once voted for Plaid Cymru before I'd properly grown up. Anyway, nervously rang back. "There's a problem with one of your tweets". Not again I thought. Once had a bit of bother after blogging that Paul McCartney's lawyer looking good after his ex, Heather threw a jug of water over her. Been very careful to avoid trouble ever since. General policy is that 'Boring is Best'.

Anyway this is the offending tweet. "Beautiful antlered stag in the garden, browsing on the shrubs border. "Oooh", said all the family. I just wished I had my 12 bore handy". It seems that some animal rights groups had considered this an offencive comment for an MP to make. I accept that reference to a 12 bore was wrong. It should have been a .22 or some other rifle. Someone I know once did shoot a deer with a shotgun - a truly dreadful thing to do. He never did it again. In the interests of completeness, I should add that I've not shot anything for over 40 years, though I have 'shot at' grey squirrels and a horrid feral cat with an airgun. Always missed. But when it comes to deer in the garden, I can still think about shooting them. I thought it was a Mirror joke to begin with - but No. The complaints were for real. So now I'll be right up there with Prince Phillip in the public consciousness. Unfortunately I do not have a gun, or a gun licence - so it can be no more than a dream. I suppose I could buy a bow and arrow. I am after all the reigning Parliamentary Archery Champion.

Deer are a nightmare in our garden. Escapees from nearby Powis Castle have established wild herds of Red and Fallow Deer numbering thousands. Every year, a few of them sneak into our garden, usually during very early hours, and home in on our most valued shrubs. Adding insult, they normally just spit out the severed bits uneaten. Always go for the variegated Aralias and choicest bamboos. During the spring/summer, I hide a switched-on radio in the middle of the borders all night to put them off. Even change the station to prevent them becoming addicts of certain programmes. Friend of mine told me he thought subjecting them to listen to John Humphrys grilling hapless politicians was more cruel than shooting them. Anyway, I wonder what the Mirror will make of this. Something like "Heartless Tory makes joke of killing Bambi". I expect my career to survive.

Votes for Prisoners

Seems as though we MPs are going to have an opportunity to discuss 'Votes for Prisoners' this coming Thursday. As writing this post, I don't know whether its a 'statement', where we don't actually vote or a debate where we could vote. Doesn't matter for the purpose of this post, because its the principle that I'm reflecting on.

Discussion seems to revolve around three options, one where votes are allowed for prisoners serving less than 4 yrs, one where sentences are less than 6 mths and one where no prisoners at all are allowed to vote (except those on remand). If there's a vote I will probably vote for the third option, but its by no means straight forward. There is a case for allowing prisoners the vote - even is almost no-one in the UK agrees with this and it would make the Prime Minister "physically sick".

The reason I do not support votes for prisoners at all is that I think the people I represent, and the people of the UK are overwhelmingly against it. Gov't should not ignore people's strongly held opinions. But there are two reason's for the alternative view. Firstly, I'm hugely enthusiastic about rehabilitation of prisoners into civilised society - because it greatly reduces the level of re-offending. Gerry Hendry, Governor at HMP Shrewsbury has done magnificent work on this. And secondly, a refusal to allow votes for any prisoners will be unacceptable to the European Court of Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU). The UK has been a leading champion of promoting human rights on the international plain and I certainly would not want to lose this British influence for decency and good in the world. The ECHR is not a "Micky Mouse" body. In fact I think its judgements are part of UK law. Personally, I well understand why some MPs will support 'Votes for Prisoners' but I just do not think this is an issue where the powerful opinion of British people can be ignored. So its still No.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners in Wales

Must admit to never having been a great supporter of the Police and Crime Commissioner idea - though did become more supportive after sitting through the Prime Minister's Statement on the Hillsborough Disaster a few weeks ago. I cannot imagine police behaviour so incredibly awful happening if there had been a head of police answerable to voters at an election - even if it was over 20 years ago. The idea of PCCs was a clear Conservative manifesto commitment in 2010, so I dutifully voted in favour as the legislation went through the House of Commons. Soon as it became an act, I wanted the new system to work as successfully as possible.

Of course yesterday's turn-out was disappointing. In large part this has been because people decided to just not vote, or spoil their ballot papers, as their way of registering disapproval. Personally, I think it would have helped if each candidate had been allowed one free election communication. In Dyfed/Powys we put a lot of effort into helping Chris Salmon engage with voters, but still many felt they knew nothing about who was standing. Its a very difficult job for a candidate to engage with such a large dispersed population. But I do not buy this stuff about low turn-out depriving the new PCCs of credibility or authority. That will depend on the personalities of those newly elected and how well they work with their Chief Constables.

Wales threw up some surprising results - in two of the four elections anyway. Labour were expecting to win three for certain with high hopes in the fourth, but won only one. Very bad day for Labour in Wales. Alun Michael was elected as PCC for the South Wales Force. Had my run-ins with him over the years, but he's a very sound man on law and order. So I reckon he'll do a good job. Big surprise in Gwent where Ian Johnson, an ex-policeman standing as an Independent defeated the favoured Labour candidate. And another surprise in North Wales where Lib Dem member and former Counsel General of the National Assembly for Wales defeated Labour's favoured Tal Michael. The competition in Dyfed Powys was close, with our man, Christopher Salmon just squeezing out Labour's Christine Gwyther.  I believe Chris will be a great success in the job.

Lots of very sensible people decided not to vote, and several thousand defaced their ballot papers. It is their right of course, but I just do not agree with this. The PCCs legislation was properly enacted within our democratic system. Lots of things have become law over the decades that I disapproved of - but I've always voted, and accepted the result of the ballot. That's how democracy works. We now have PCCs in place, and if any of them do not perform as required, those who did not vote will not be in any position to complain. Lets hope that in four years time the turn-out will be nearer the 50% it should have been.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Are MPs allowed an opinion?

Yesterday I wrote that I would vote against redefinition of the word 'marriage'. Only did it because I'd been forced to declare publicly my opinion. Chris Eakin asked me directly when I was reviewing the papers on BBC News Channel on Tues night. I would have preferred not to have been asked, but it was an entirely fair question and not one I felt I could avoid. So I expressed my honest opinion. Worst fears have been realised. I have been widely branded a homophobe, a description I find deeply offensive. It leads me to reflect whether MPs are wise to ever express honest opinions. Probably a better tactic to waffle -be slippery - avoid answering the question.

I've been around a long time, and I'm comfortable with my opinions. And I'm not afraid to say what they are. I'm usually willing to consider amending them if confronted by logical persuasive argument. But since being elected an MP, declaration of opinion seems to cause trouble.  Lets look at a few examples. I am in favour of a pilot cull of badgers. I oppose legalisation of assisted suicide. I oppose introduction of presumed consent into organ donation system. I support stricter rules for abortion. And I oppose redefinition of the meaning of the word 'marriage' to allow gay marriage. I fiercely oppose  mass building of wind turbines and pylons in Montgomeryshire. And much else as well. Made all of this public before I was elected. Now I receive emails from constituents informing me that they will not vote for me again because of one or more of these opinions. I don't object to anyone disagreeing. Because no two thinking people agree on everything, this seems a bit odd. We settle these things by voting on them.

The strongest response so far has been about gay marriage. Some of the commentary has been unpleasantly condemnatory. I have been accused of being a bigot and homophobic. I deeply resent being so branded. Its utterly ridiculous. Gay friends tell me they agree with me. They tell me they resent being used in a rebranding exercise for a political party.

Now here's another opinion. Nothing damages politics more than politicians refusing to answer questions, using a form of words to disguise what they are saying. The curse of modern politics is 'The Line to Take'! I don't much like being given stick on the Internet - especially by constituents. But I think I will carry on trying to be open about what I think.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Is Redefining the Meaning of Marriage Popular amongst Tories?

I am opposed to redefining the meaning of the word 'marriage'. I'm disappointed that the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor are supporting the change with such enthusiasm. When my whip discussed this matter with me soon after I was elected an MP, I advised that I wouldn't vote for it. I will vote against it, even if its a 'whipped' vote (which it probably won't be). This is the second time I have stated this opinion publicly. And its only because BBC News Channel's Chris Eakin put me 'on the spot' in last night's paper review (which was the first time). The Chancellor, for some reason, went big on it for today's papers and I couldn't avoid the issue. The reason I've not chosen to speak on the matter is that I will be accused of being homophobic - which is just not true. If this proposal was going to confer some new right upon gay people I would probably support it. But it doesn't. It just redefines a word which has great meaning for hundreds of thousands of good people across Britain - for no real purpose, other than to convey some ill-defined 'message'. Anyway, I had to say this on national TV last night, so I'm repeating it in a considered way. And hope that I don't have to discuss it again.

But this post is not about the rights and wrongs of redefinition of the meaning of marriage. In the end that will be decided on a majority vote, (which I fully expect to approve the change). Sadly, I will just have to accept it. What this post is about is whether this proposal will benefit the Conservative Party at the polls. The leaders of my party think it will boost our popularity. I don't. So today's spat about comments from ComRes's CEO, Andrew Hawkins about a letter sent by the Prime Minister to my old boss, Cheryl Gillan is particularly interesting. Its also an unusually direct criticism of the PM, accusing him of misleading voters. He says that the letter to Cheryl Gillan used statistics to show that refining the meaning of marriage would make the Conservative Party more popular. However, Andrew Hawkins insists that his polling shows that the Conservative Party loses more votes than it gains, and former Conservative voters are especially less likely to return. Andrew Hawkins also refers to a general detrimental impact on the Party's fortunes. He describes the PM's claims that all polls show more votes support the change in the law than oppose to be simply not the case. I am looking forward to reading reports in tomorrow's papers, challenging these statements. Whatever, I need to have a chat with my old boss about this next week!

Must add that I'm certainly not suggesting that the Government I support should back off doing something because its not popular. Clearly David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne think redefining the meaning of marriage is absolutely the right thing to do. Perhaps where they all live and in the circles they inhabit there are many who agree. Its just that I don't. And I would be genuinely surprised if a majority of Conservatives where I live do either.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Value of the BBC

Quite often, I disagree with the BBC. I think Auntie is biased in favour of European integration, of wind farms, and almost every 'leftie' fad going. In Wales I always think she's is biased in favour of Plaid Cymru. But its never bothered me at all. Viewers and not daft and they allow for this bias. Always feel that if I answer straight, I get a fair deal and get my message across. And anyway, in a few years time she may be biased in directions I approve of. Despite all the above, I have a deep rooted love for the BBC and am very alarmed indeed by much of what is happening at present.

Personally, I did not think that George Entwistle needed to resign. Its a measure of his decency that he has done so quickly. He knows that a great wrong was done to Lord McAlpine by the BBC, and though he wasn't involved in the decision to broadcast the offending edition of Newsnight, he has decided, because he is editor-in-Chief to take the hit. Its tough, but its sometimes what happens to the person at the top.  I just hope that whoever it was took the decision to broadcast is sacked as well. Such appalling journalism cannot be allowed to remain unpunished. It was driven by prejudice, and it must be rooted out.

I am horrified by the idea that Newsnight should be scrapped. Its my favourite programme. Its the only BBC programme I aspire to appear on (but that only happens to Conservatives in the 'favoured set'). I'm very happy with the New Channel paper review every three weeks. Come to think of it, that's my favourite programme. But Newsnight has been a part of my life for decades - even if I do think Jeremy Paxman sometimes poses like a clever dick prima donna. And some of the other presenters sometimes copy. Give me Eddie Mair any day.

Its important to understand what happened. Someone was so excited by the prospect of a mega-scandal linked to the name 'Thatcher' that normal journalistic standards went out of the window. An innocent man's reputation was shredded. Of course there was no intent to lie and defame in such disgraceful fashion, but such was the scale of sloppiness that the person/persons responsible must be sacked.

But this post is about balance and proportionality. The BBC is hugely respected across the world, and is one of Britain's greatest assets. We must cherish the BBC. While we try to ensure standards, lets remember just how important the BBC is. No doubt there will be a few jumping on the 'Kick the BBC' bandwagon. But I'm not. Bad mistake. Sack the offender. Apologise profusely. Learn what went wrong. Move on. Don't do it again. Its like when a much loved member of the family errs. They are still family and admonition must be balanced with rehabilitation. Come on BBC, hit us with quality and make us forget.

Weekend No 1 - Autumn Internationals

Off we go. Autumn internations time. It may be crazy that our top players are playing so much international rugby, shortening careers and diminishing value of club rugby.  But its unmissable stuff. Here's my first round of prediction.

Wales will bt Argentina. It will be tough and close. Wales will miss physical presence of Mike Phillips, though quicker ball could be important. Will miss Adam Jones even more. Could be behind at half time.

England will bt Fiji easily. Don't expect a pretty match.

France will bt Australia in what should be the match of the weekend.

Ireland will bt South Africa by a point. Irish at home are tough nuts to crack.

Italy will bt Tonga.

New Zealand will bt Scotland, though the Scots will do better than expected. I'll want to watch rugby gods, McCaw and Carter playing. Somehow feel the greatest openside that has ever lived is reaching the end of the road. There is only so much even his amazing body can take.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

No Statutory Regulation of the Press Please

Must admit I am not greatly impressed that dozens of my Conservative colleague MPs are leading a public campaign for some form of statutory press regulation. So far its just a letter which has been well covered on ConservativeHome. It seems that there are 42 names appended to some letter, which has clearly been made public - taking a view on this issue before Lord Leveson has reported. This demand for statutory regulation is backed by words of comfort, such as a free free being needed for a free society. Hmmmm. Not convinced.

It may well be that I will eventually sign up to this opinion (in spirit if not in writing) but I want to know what Leveson says first. What on earth is the point of setting up such a high profile and costly inquiry - and then drawing conclusions before its reported. And I'll want to know what Lord David Hunt makes of it before I commit myself. Now I know a bit more about what a press intent of shredding a reputation can do than most. I've taken a fair bit of stick myself over the years - some of which I considered to be outrageously unfair. It upset me a lot at the time. But I always felt it was a price I had to pay as a leading figure in public life. Even though I just took it on the chin at the time, I'd say that most Welsh people didn't believe it. Its just the way it is. I've suffered a lot of very generous unwarranted coverage as well. The swings and roundabouts of public life.

We do not yet know what Lord Leveson is going to recommend - probably some sort of regulation more independent of the press than now. Don't think it can be unfettered self-regulation. After Leveson reports, we will have to look seriously at this. But I will take a lot of persuading that statutory regulation is the right way to go.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Stirred up by BBC on Organ Donation System

Just watched the  BBC's 'Week In, Week Out' programme of last Tues on IPlayer. The subject was one that I had decided not to say much more about - but the programme has stirred me up. This issue is as controversial as it gets - the Welsh Gov't'd proposals to introduce 'presumed consent' into the organ donation system in Wales. It was a very good programme, and I strongly recommend anyone interested in this issue watch it. It builds on a Dragon's Eye programme, also produced by BBC Wales on the same issue last year - the best ever edition of Dragon's Eye ever broadcast.

I have always been in favour of doing what we can to increase the number of organs available for transplant. I share the desire to do what we can to meet the needs of those awaiting new organs. Its just that I have never believed that introducing 'presumed consent' will increase the number of organs at all, and there is not a shred of evidence to support those who claim it will. I always feel a surge of anger (which I've learned to contain) whenever I hear 'spokepersons' stating that the change will increase number of organs available by 25%. It is simply not true. At least the Welsh Gov't Health Minister has started to say "could increase etc" which I suppose is true even if deceptive.

Worth mentioning how impressive former Conservative AM, Jonathon Morgan was on the programme. Class act - clear, concise, confident, and leaving viewers with the impression that his view was based on evidence - the same evidence that informs my view, and everyone else prepared to study it. And it was clear he knew what he was talking about. Must admit I was a bit alarmed that the Health Minister repeatedly refused to use words that would make clear that next of kin's opinions would be over-ruled by clinicians if the Welsh law is introduced. She made herself sound like a politician trying to hide her true intentions. Left me thinking - So much for 'soft opt-out'.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that a change in Wales will damage the entire UK organ donation system. I am reluctant to become involved in what the Welsh Gov't does, but I do have a responsibility as an MP for the UK system. I have no choice but press the Dep't of Health to study the effects and make public what they calculate will happen, including the dangers. Will begin asking questions on the issue in the House of Commons.

Another concern I have is that I cannot believe that the welsh Gov't has competence to pass a law which so clearly threatens the human rights of individuals. If no transplants are allowed to take place without next of kin approval, I can see that the proposal may fall within Welsh Gov't competence - but not otherwise. As sure as night follows day, an organ would be taken from someone who's next of kin objects and takes a case to the European Court of Human Rights. This proposal, if enacted, will inevitably finish up in the Supreme Court. I have taken no pleasure at all in writing this blog post.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Badger Culls, P***ups and Breweries

Yesterday in Parliament witnessed an all-day debate about whether the Gov't's targeted pilot cull of badgers (taking place to establish whether it would help control bovine Tb) should go ahead or not. Interest was heightened because we had Dr Brian May in attendence. After the opening statements the debate was mainly a series of prepared speeches, with very little actual 'debating'. Opinions were being put forward as 'facts' and just repeated ad nauseum, even when it was pointed out they were not factual at all. Mr Owen Paterson, Secretary of State at Defra was reported to have left after 20 minutes having taken as much of it as he could stand - though he claims it was due to diary commitments. What we do know is that around 30,000 cattle are slaughtered every year as a result of the Bovine Tb eradication programme. We also know the cost to Gov't is around £100 million per yr (£1billion over next 10 yrs) and the human cost to livestock farmers in terms of stress and mental pressures is massive. And we also know that badgers suffer from bovine Tb and are carriers of the disease. What we do not know is what part (if any) badgers play in spreading the disease - which is why the Gov't intends to carry out a pilot cull targeted in two parts of England where the disease is most rife in order to find out.

But this post is not about Bovine Tb itself, but about what yesterday's debate teaches us about how to put forward a case to MPs. Its clear that those of us who share my approach to countryside issues have to completely rethink our strategy. Lets look at what happened. I received perhaps 100 emails from constituents opposed to a badger cull in any circumstance. Most emails were exactly the same and had clearly been prepared by some central agency. I did not receive one single constituency email in support of a cull - though I did receive well argued submissions from farmer representative organisations. I suspect every other MP was in the same position - and that everyone who spoke in favour of a cull yesterday was speaking completely against his or her constituency postbag. It's no longer enough for the NFU and others to send us excellent briefing material. They must immediately establish a unit which gathers together a million email addresses and asks them all to write to their MPs on issues that matter to them. No good complain about 38 Degrees. They do a great job for those who have signed up to their agenda. The need is to fight fire with fire. I've already told my local NFU that without a change of tactic, they  might as well wind up their parliamentary lobbying altogether.

And its worth a word about how the Gov't whips handle these issues. Yesterday's debate was a 'Backbench Debate' - and the Whip's Office reckon these debates should not be whipped. This means that since the 'payroll' do not vote on unwhipped motions, the Government will almost always lose if the motion is opposing Gov't policy. It seems the view is that since the vote is not binding, the Gov't should not be concerned. (though I do wonder whether a backbench motion of no confidence in a Gov't minister would remain unwhipped!) I had thought that this did not matter too much because the Gov't could always simply not push it to a vote. But yesterday, Labour got around this by voting both for and against the motion, forcing a division all on their own. Truth is we were comprehensively stuffed. Most Coalition MPs had left the building. I spoke near the end of the debate but had just gone when the division bell rang. The result was a 147-28 defeat for Gov't policy to proceed with a cull. Now theoretically, this has no actual impact on Gov't policy at all, but I'm not at all sure that those who watch proceedings can have a clue what's going on. Personally, last night's vote reminds me of a cross between 'Yes Minister' and 'Monty Python's Circus'.