Friday, December 30, 2016

Trump and Climate Change

Its been a long time since it was deemed respectable in the world of climate change science to question the 'orthodoxy' that climate change is the biggest threat the human race faces, and that it's all a result of man polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions. Anyone not joining in the Armageddon competition of disastrous consequences for our world has been thought anti-science. Even called a "denier", a truly offensive insult bearing in mind the connotations associated with the word. While I've never doubted that our climate is changing, as it always has, and over last few decades has been warming, I do think the anticipation of impending disaster has been overdone. And the vilification of anyone, including scientists who challenge the orthodoxy is .... well unscientific. To win an argument by silencing the other side is no victory at all. I took some stick for simply daring to go to a lecture given my Matt Ridley a few weeks ago.

Donald Trump's arrival in the White House is going to blow this 'orthodoxy' out of the window. Those who think fear of an impending climate change doom has been overdone will be back at the scientific discussion table. Personally, while I've never been impressed by the warnings of "X number of days to save the world" or the calls to wreck our UK economy while other states pay no more than lip service, I do worry about some of what Mr Trump has been saying. He's called 'climate change' a hoax. It's certainly not. He's appointed to key positions men straight out of 'Southfork Ranch'. It's clear that Mr Trump intends to put jobs and economic growth before policies to decarbonise. I wonder if he knows about the Paris Agreement.

We will have to wait and see what Donald Trump actually does in office, rather than what he tells us he's going to do. I would be very surprised if he were to turn his back on policies to limit climate change altogether. Even if he doesn't believe it's for real, I'd expect him to adopt some decarbonisation policy as an insurance against the possibility that he might be wrong. I'm equally sure he will give a bigger platform to sceptics. Our climate change scientists will once more be involved in a debate about science rather than what sometimes seems like a religious belief.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Defence of a Free Press.

A few weeks ago I informed the Whip's Office that I am totally opposed to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. At the time, the Secretary of State was considering whether to give effect to deeply worrying attempt to fetter our free press. Still considering it. And today I read an article on centre page of the Telegraph, where Jacob Rees-Maggie puts the case against far better than I ever could. There will be many more Conservative MPs of like mind. I certainly hope this iniquitous bit of legislation lies for ever in that huge pile of bad ideas that Governments have thought about before discarded after considered thought.

Perhaps I'm an unlikely champion of a free press, bearing in mind the things I've been accused of over the last 30 yrs. But I am. Determinedly so. To begin with, the personal criticism was hurtful. As a young man I was a sensitive flower. But I toughened up. Truth is that only those who think ill of us believe the negative stuff they read about us. But the Daily Mirror did hurt me. When 'Storm Leveson' was blowing its most fierce, the Mirror asked me to write 500 words in defence of our free press. I wrote the article and was rather pleased with it. And then the Mirror dumped me for Paddy Ashdown. I wouldn't have minded if it had been Jacob. But Paddy Ashdown! Yes that certainly hurt.

When I discuss my absolute commitment to a free press with constituents, to begin with they think I'm joking. Section 40 means that anyone can sue a newspaper about something it's published and even if the newspaper was entirely correct, it remains liable for the costs of the complainer. Totally outrageous. As Jacob writes, journalists guilty of writing the truth would be liable for the costs of those who were trying to hide it. Astonishingly, though unsurprisingly on second thoughts this does not apply to the BBC. Nor does it have impact on internet based news sites. The only way for a newspaper to avoid this outrage is for it to sign up to Government approved press regulatory body called Impress, which Jacob tells us is funded by Max Mosley. Section 40 would finish off our free press.

I've had local newspapers contact me about this threat to their existence. The economics of local newspapers has already been seriously undermined by the internet. Coincidentally, I was much interested in the example Jacob used in his article, where his local newspaper reported on the selling of unregulated commercial loans to farmers via a company called Acorn Finance. I have had farmers contact me about Acorn Finance. Responsible newspapers would be put in an impossible position - risk the very survival of the newspaper and jobs of its staff, or just don't report the story. Even if entirely true, it could be bankrupted. As editor, which choice would you take? I hope the Secretary of State will not give force to Section 40. So incredibly UN-British. It would signal the end of our free press.

The Passing of 2016

There will be more reflection on the significance of 2016 than there has been on the passing of an old year for some time. There's significant change every year of course, but not as dramatic as we have seen this year. But it's not so easy to know just what that change is. There is the election of Trump and the vote by British  people to leave the EU. But these are symptoms. The real change is more fundamental than either of them, even if contributing to both.

The biggest change (admittedly from a Western perspective) is the decline in power of the post World War/Cold War/Western dominated 'liberal' alliance. China is on the march and can do almost as she likes in her sphere of influence, and does. Russia likewise. Over the last 5 years, Russia has annexed the Crimea, destabalised Ukraine, and barrel bombed and starved the people of Aleppo, right under the noses of the US. The US is no longer able to dominate as she did post Reagan. Many will see this as positive. I don't. An 'isolationist' US would mean much more instability in the world. That is my greatest fear arising from Trump's ascendency to the Presidency. While we in Europe (including me) see Trump as a dangerous loose cannon, with his finger on military hardware a lot more powerful than cannon, the US voters see him very differently. They saw the Clinton candidacy as "not of them or for them". They decided to go with anti-establishment. Fingers crossed with that!

We are seeing the same in Europe. In the UK, the people went for the anti-establishment side of the argument on June 23rd. The same force will rise in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy elections over the next year. Not sure I'd want to bet much on the results of these. Even if the 'Leavers' don't actually win, they are going to make big gains, and we could well see Italy ditching the Euro (and no-one knows where that goes). Whatever, it was in 2016 that this disillusionment with European integration and the 'establishment' became a force to be feared.

And what can we make of what has happened in Syria. Bashar-al Assad and Russia have waged war, using weapons condemned by most of the rest of the world. Not a thought for the Security Council. Truth is the US with Obama at the helm can no longer impose its will. Lots of others with evil and avaricious intent will have been watching.

Anyway, let us take Mervin King's advice and look forward to the next few years with optimism.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Caring for our aged and frail.

Near everything is easier said than done, even when it's logical and obvious. No more so than the thrust of today's high profile Telegraph coverage of the need to switch some NHS funding to delivering social/nursing/even clinical care at home. Such change means more investment in GPs, more support for social/nursing care and less investment in hospital beds, more specialisation (which can mean more travelling), less investment in extending life beyond the natural end, and more support for social/nursing care in the home.

Let's begin by explaining my interest - beyond the interest triggered by personal experience that we might have with aged family. During my 'wilderness years' (politically speaking) between leaving the National Assembly for Wales in 2007 and arriving at Westminster in 2010, I did some work for a Residential Care Home business - setting up a Welsh management board, a system of lay visiting and a resident advocacy scheme. Learned quite a bit about social and nursing care - enough to know we do not remotely take social/nursing care seriously enough. The voice of the old and frail is not heard.

So what is today's story about. NHS England have divided the English NHS into 44 areas and ordered each to produce a "Sustainability and Transformation Plan" - a crucial programme of reform which will be highly controversial. So much so that I fear the plans may not be deliverable. We have just witnessed the disastrous result of attempted reform in Shropshire (which also serves Mid Wales). We had already received kickbacks on reform of stroke services and I am now hearing concerns about future of radiology. The decisions we face are tough to take but the NHS will collapse under the demands put on it, unless we find a way to not have in our Hospitals those patients who should not be there. The fundamental problem is that we are all living longer, with the more complex health problems that come with age, as well as the many new drugs and treatments which eat great chunks of the NHS budget. And we all know 'protecting' an unreformed NHS  service is the easiest campaign in the world to run for publicity - no matter how long term damaging.

I certainly don't have the answers. Reckon I've gone further than most accepting there's the problem. That's why I was in such despair following the shambolic failure to agree a reform plan for Shropshire and Mid Wales before Christmas. In my view, this is the second most serious issue facing the UK Government up to the next election. (I'm trying not to mention the first for a while). We must find a way of persuading/encouraging families to take more responsibility for care of their own. Some do of course, at great trouble and expense. But some just expect the state to take all responsibility. I did feel ashamed of the way we care for our old and frail, when the company I worked with was going to build two new care homes in India - for the ex-pats. When I asked why, I was told Indian families take care of their own. There needs to be a total reappraisal of all our care systems, with much greater emphasis on the aged and elderly. And if our system of government is too selfish to listen to their voices, think selfishly about the breakdown it will cause to the NHS that serves the rest of us.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Question is - To Hunt or not to Hunt.

You might think that my attending the annual Boxing Day Hunt outside the Royal Oak in Welshpool and voting Leave in the Last June's EU referendum have no connection. From most standpoints they don't. But from one that is particularly important to me they do. I do not care for being told what I can and cannot do by politicians without good and fair reason. Which is why I find the ban on hunting on horseback, with hounds, and being told what we British can and can't do by the European Court of Justice to be equally abhorrent. Even this paragraph, innocent and non-influential as it is, will lead to some informing me of their disgust that I should write or think in such a way. This is what Brexit is doing to people.

Now, I've never been hunting in my life. I never will. I've never been out shooting pheasants, duck, partridge or other lovely birds either. And I never will. I suppose I did indulge in a bit of ' under the radar' fishing over 50 yrs ago, but mostly to eat the catch. In fact I find it difficult to understand how pleasure can be gained by inflicting death or pain on fellow creatures for no practical reason. But I have no objection to others going hunting or shooting wild creatures if this is what they want to do, and if it does no harm to our world. I love foxes and badgers, but I realise too many foxes cause excessive livestock losses, too many badgers may cause spread of Bovine Tb, while shooting and fishing inject huge amounts of economic benefit into the rural economy. This attitude may seem odd and two-faced to some. Certainly is to a section of our population. But I was a hill livestock farmer who every year sold 1000 lambs, 100 cattle and thousands of chickens/turkeys for eventual slaughter. I may be a bit soft hearted, but the killing of animals and birds as part of human activity is part of my DNA.

Thinking about this today because I went down to show support to the Tanatside Hunt, at its traditional Boxing Day meet at the Royal Oak in Welshpool. Seen more horses in the past, but never more people on the street, who came especially to show support. 40 horses and I'd say we'll over 1000 people. The sound of the hunting horn, clatter of hooves and applause of the crowd as the Hunt moves off and up Broad St is highly evocative.

It seems to me that the antipathy to hunting is based on a desire to control the way people think rather than any impact of what they do. There seems to be no real objection to control of foxes by shooting, which in my opinion and experience is far more cruel. There is no real objection to controlling the density of foxes, as long as no enjoyment is taken from it. What's in the mind of those seeking to reduce the fox population bothers me not at all. What's in the minds of those who pay £thousands per day to shoot tame pheasants doesn't bother me either. What's in the minds of those who sit on the banks of rivers to catch beautiful salmon bothers me not. But it would bother me big-time if these activities represented a threat to any of the hunted species. In general, the land management which supports these activities is hugely positive for the natural world.

I thought it a great mistake on the part of a Blair Govt to ban hunting with dogs, creating a nonsense of a law. Blair himself thought so too. But it is the law, and must be obeyed. If there were to a vote in Parliament, I would vote to repeal the Act. But there's not going to be. I did think there would be a change to the 'flushing out' rules to bring into line with Scotland, but ironically the SNP at Westminster would vote against - so it won't happen. What is likely to happen is that 'drag hunting' will continue, gun packs on foot will do most Fox control, badger culling I fear will go partly underground. The amout of cruelty will be higher than it needs to be. The logic of our law will remain a nonsense. And I'll carry on going down to support the local hunt every Boxing Day.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Always look on the bright side of life.

The Archbishop of Wales in his last Christmas Day sermon before retirement will deliver a Hobbesian view of the world as being a "brutal, bloody, divided, torn world." This is only a partly fair analysis. He should have added that the world today is probably less brutal, less bloody, less divided and less torn that it has ever been in history. The world is richer and more peaceful, with less war and less poverty than ever. The Archbishop is far too negative. Don't think I'd want to go listen to his sermon if I lived in Cardiff. I'd prefer something that recognised the good that exists in our world as well as the evil.

The reason the reports of Archbishop Morgan's sermon caught my eye, were the examples he chose as witness to his view. Two of them, Syria and refugees I accept are terrible tragedies. But not the other two, Brexit and Trump - both shocks, but delivered by a majority of voters. It's certainly the case that the losing side in both these referendum/elections are utterly appalled. Cannot believe that voters can be so downright stupid as to disagree. Some of them write to me in deeply offensive terms because I voted Leave. Some just shake disbelieving heads.They cannot be said to believe in democracy if they do not accept the result, and try not to make the best of it. They attribute base motives to those who dared disagree with them. Well, it so happens that I too thought Donald Trump the most vulgar awful candidate I've ever seen, but I accept he won. We make the best of it. Hard to believe but he may turn out to be ok.

I find the continuing campaign to undermine the Brexit vote as rather more dangerous. I've read articles outlining various reasons why over 17 million of us are thought to have voted Leave. We are portrayed as racist, as hate-filled, as right wing headbangers. There may be one or two of course. But most of us just want our country back. We want to decide who comes into our country to work. We do not want European Court of Justice telling us what we can and can't do. Most of us knew we were voting for uncertainty, and perhaps leaving would not be in our short term financial interest - though I'm increasingly confident that might not be the case. It won't stop our media writing the most brain scrambling rubbish to fill its space. I read an article today telling us that The Queen is unhappy that the Prime Minister hasn't informed her of her withdrawal strategy. Laughed out loud when I read that. We will have plenty more of this. In fairness, some of it is quite funny.

It's fairly simple really. Article 50 will be invoked in March. Only limited negotiation will take place during French and German elections. Then we will get down to serious negotiation. Personally, I sense there will a positive approach from both sides, involving the UK joining a European trading block, and continuing some trade at least. But maybe not. That won't be the UKs wish. And if it all fails, we'll fall back on World trade rules. Main reason I'd worry about that is the damage it would do to the remaining EU members economies.

I don't think some of the Leave supporters are being realistic either. I don't expect immigration to fall much in the short to medium term, even if the UK controls it. I expect us to be paying a fair sum to cover liabilities as we leave. I expect some sort of transitional arrangements. But I do expect us to leave, to take back control, run our own laws and become an independent country once again. My vision of our future is optimistic. Now that's a sermon I would go to listen to.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Update on Fracking for Shale Gas in UK

I've given up my practise of always using the term 'hydraulic fracturing' instead of the more perjorative term 'fracking'. I really don't like perjorative terms, coined by opponents, and then adopted by the media as normal. Two other recent examples are "Bedroom Tax" and "Snooper's Charter". Doesnt make any difference of course, apart from very slightly annoying me. And that doesn't count much in the greater scheme of things! Must write about developments involving the Investigatory Powers Act, where I've an instinctive sympathy with opponents.

But back to 'fracking'. Initially, I found it difficult to take a definite view. But after fair bit of consideration became certain that we should establish whether it's viable in the UK to extract the huge amounts of Shale Gas buried deep in the earth beneath our feet. Actually, I'm still not confident that the industry is viable. And that's roughly where I remain, several years later, believing most of the opposition to have been deliberately misleading and in some cases downright untruthful. And it makes little sense to me from the 'climate change' standpoint. But is it viable. We need to know.

Opposition can be loosely grouped under two headings. First we have those opposed to developing a new fossil fuel energy source on principle, believing we should develop only renewables. Yet, the main aim of decarbonisation policy is to stop generating power through burning coal, and the only way to do that is by building new gas fired power stations. And what is the sense of importing the gas to run these new power stations from unstable countries, or importing it from the US, when there's 100 yrs worth under our feet in Britain? What sense does that make as a decarbonisation policy!! When I see tankers of Shale Gas coming into Grangemouth from the US, I just rub my eyes in disbelief at the madness of it.

And then there's the apocalyptic warnings of earthquakes, polluted water supplies and outbreaks of leprosy (sorry, made that last one up). There is nil evidence to support this. I accept that theoretically Shale Gas could leak into the aquifer, but only because of faulty pipework, not fracking. But it matters not to the fracking opponents. It's a subject where rational discussion is pushed aside by a sort of religious fervour.

Anyway, reason I'm commenting today is that this week the High Court ruled that a 'fracking' permit awarded to the drilling company, Third Energy was legal. This is a very significant decision. We now have the first authorised Shale Gas mine in the UK since the moratorium was lifted in 2012. A big step forward has been taken to establish whether Shale Gas is viable in the UK. And that is sensible from a UK economy and a climate change viewpoint.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

New Financial Arrangements for Wales.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Wales published a written statement 'Welsh Government Fiscal Framework'. It is a very big deal for Wales. After 30 yrs of squabbling about the supposed unfairness of the Barnett Formula as the mechanism by which the Treasury calculated a 'block grant' to fund public services in Wales, the Welsh and UK Governments have agreed a new 'fiscal framework'. I feel I've lost an old friend. No more debates about the Barnett Formula. What are we Welsh going to argue about in future Welsh Grands!! Have to find new issues to argue about. Welsh jurisdiction perhaps. I do hope not.

Together with the Wales Bill, we are putting in place much changed governance and financial arrangements. Stamp Duty land tax, Landfill Tax and Welsh rates of Income Tax will become responsibility of Welsh Govt. We're told the new fiscal arrangements will take into account Wales long term tax capacity, and future population changes. I particularly like the mature relationship between the UK and Welsh Govts we've seen in resolving what has been a long term grievance. There will be much work needed to bring these taxation changes in for 2019. Agreeing the principles is important, but so is putting in place the working arrangements to deliver the changes.

Big changes in Welsh Govt overall borrowing powers as well. Up from £500,000,000 to
£1,000,000,000. And the annual limit on borrowing increased to £150,000,000. Daresay there'll still be some nitpicking over details of the Wales Bill, currently at Report Stage in the House of Lords, but I sense it will now go through to the Statute Book.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Keeping the lights on.

Really missing my place on the recently abolished Energy and Climate Change Committee. But am trying to retain an interest in the rapid changes taking place in the energy sector. There's quite a bit of coverage on one interesting aspect in today's papers - the Government's commitment to stop burning coal and how we are going to keep the lights on!!

We know that the 'safety net' is far smaller than it used to be - that's the spare capacity available to electricity distributors from energy generators when demand is high. We are told that National Grid is better able to manage and meet demand today than previously, and that there is no need for a large back-up reserve, and that there is not a problem. I've never been convinced by this. I think there is a problem we're not being told about. And that's why I'm not convinced by the commitment that we'll be off coal by 2025. No chance. Anyway, one of the big generators, Scottish Power is not at all happy that Govt has decided to put available subsidy to ensure supply, agreed on in its annual 'capacity market' into supporting old coal plants, rather than new gas CCGTs (Combined Cycle Gas Turbines). The current price of oil means they cannot be built without long term subsidy arrangements. Of course keeping old coal plants open is a cheaper option, but it looks like short term thinking to me. We need new gas plants, and we need to get on with building them. Gas plants are cleaner, more efficient and more responsive in meeting sudden demand than coal. We cannot rely on shale gas because we don't know if it's a viable source, and surely we're not going to rely on Russian gas, imported shale etc. And nuclear is still a very long way off delivering power to the market. It's also uncertain. I'm meeting Scottish Power in the New Year. No doubt the subject will be the Govt's failure to support new gas powered generation. Promises to be an interesting discussion.

Not many others are voicing the same warnings about the possibility of the lights going out - at the moment. They would certainly be dismissed distainfully by Ministers - at the moment. But let's see what the position is in a year's time.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

21st Century Fox bid for Sky

Over last day or two my inbox has been overwhelmed by emails from constituents deeply concerned about a bid by 21st Century Fox for the 61% of Sky it doesn't already own. Fox has bid £18.7 billion, 40% over the current share price. Appears to be a good offer, which has been accepted. If my inbox is any guide, this is the biggest issue of concern this week, leaving the terrible events in Syria and uncertainties around Brexit way behind. All of the emails are exactly the same, suggesting they are based on a campaign organised by a lobby group of some sort, which is not named. There is no indication who or what is behind the campaign. Now, I think this Fox bid to be interesting, and will share with you the content of these emails ---

 "Dear MP, Today, Rupert Murdoch officially launched his bid to take over Sky. I am one of thousands of people concerned. He already has too much influence over our news. Allowing him to own even more puts the democratic nature of our news at risk, and will be a deeply worrying move. The first step to stopping the bid requires the Secretary of State at DCMS to launch as investigation. She will only do this if there is enough pressure from people like you. So please will you speak with Karen Bradley on my behalf and ask her to refer the bid to Ofcom. There is not a lot of time - in fact only 10 days in which she can refer the bid. Please will you write to Karen Bradley and share my concerns. Please will you let me know her response."

Normally, I don't favour Gov't getting involved in commercial deals, but there are interesting aspects to this deal, and the campaign to stop it. While the emails are personalised against Rupert Murdoch, the bid is actually made by 21st Century Fox. The dominant personality in this company is James Murdoch, who was much criticised after the 'hacking' scandal a few years ago. At the time many concluded he was not a fit and proper person to lead BSkyB, (as Sky was then known). Today he is widely admired as a strong and effective businessman. Not much doubt about his competence today.
Second objection seems to be about media plurality - and the public interest. But this is not so clear cut either. In both areas of its activities, Fox must be under pressure from market changes.  Firstly, the readership of its newspapers in the UK (Times, Sunday Times and the Sun) sales have been falling substantially - as have all newspapers. And in the US film and TV world, viewers are increasingly recording programmes to watch later, fast forwarding to avoid adverts. Fox has to adapt or die. Expanding into Europe with Sky is its preferred route to a secure future. The new business would not dominate as it would have done 5 yrs ago. There are so many other internet based platforms - Google, Facebook and others.

So maybe the threat of media domination and Fox having too much influence over our news is not as real as it would have been in the past. I can well understand why BT don't want another strong player to disrupt its own growing domination. I can also understand why the BBC would not want more well resourced private sector challenge to its liberal view of the world. I will tell the Secretary of State I've received all these letters as I've been asked to do, but not until I know who or what is behind them. Transparency matters to me. Then it's over to her.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dilemmas over Syria

Over last few days, I've received several ever , most of them identical, pressing me to do something about the tragedy we've witnessed unfolding in Aleppo - almost as if we MPs have not been appalled by what we have ourselves witnessed over the last few years. For me to share a view, we need to cast our gaze backwards to get some grasp of background. And let this look back be over the three years I've had some personal involvement, rather than the thousand years that a student of Middle East history might want to look at. Let me start in summer 2013.

In August 2013, the then Prime Minister recalled MPs to Parliament in the summer recess. Like many others, I was expecting David Cameron to seek Parliamentary approval to attack the forces of Syrian President, Bashar-al-Assad, following strong evidence he had used poison gas on the civilian population of Syria. I left Montgomeryshire for London on the Monday of that week expecting to vote against my Government for the first time. There seemed little doubt that Bashar-al-Assad was an evil butcher, did not see how bombing Damascus would improve the position. Several other Conservative MPs must have made similar intentions clear to the party whips. When the Govt motion was eventually tabled, it condemned Assad, referred to the use of military force, but crucially included a requirement that there would have to be another vote of MPs to approve military action. It was a recognition that MPs were not ready to become involved in war in Syria. I was content to support that motion. But quite shockingly to me the motion was voted down. I thought it a terrible decision. When David Cameron stood up in the Chamber immediately after the vote was announced to say "He got it" - what the House had decided. There would be no action against Assad- end of discussion. I just sat in my seat feeling stunned. President Obama was also taken aback and after a telephone call to the Prime Minister also made clear he had no intention of launching a military strike without the UK. In effect, we walked away, telling Assad, Russia and Iran to do their worst. And they did their worst. Recent days in Aleppo may well have been (in my view) a consequence of the 2013 decision. I can be no more definite, because nothing is as it seems or predictable in the Middle East.

Over the last week there has been nothing that MPs could do, except say how shocked and appalled they were by the brutal slaughter, often of innocents, taking place in Aleppo. And we have been shocked. We have had calls for the UK to go in with food drops for besieged and starving people. But the reality is that the food parcel planes would have to go in low and slow, needing Russian/Syrian Govt permission to avoid them being shot down. Permission would have been refused.

The Syrian Civil War has probably been the worst displacement of people since World War Two. I'm not remotely well informed enough to know what would have been the right action for the UK to have taken in 2013 - or to take now. Not sure that anyone knows. But we did not properly discuss it. Bearing in mind the angst that I and many of my colleagues have experienced since that vote in Sept 2013, when Parliament walked away, allowing a brutal dictator to use poison gas on innocent people to get away with it, it's a bit much to receive a pile of emails informing me of the horrors of Aleppo as if it's new to me! It's wonderful news that a ceasefire has brought the slaughter of innocents to a sort of end today, however temporary is wonderful news. Let us pray it holds. It's not the end of this story though.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Black Day for NHS Reform in Shropshire and Mid Wales

About 30 yrs ago, I first met a young consultant named Paul Brown at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. I'm told Paul was a brilliant 'guts doctor'. There is a ward named after Him at the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford today. I met Paul when he removed a coin that our youngest had swallowed with an endoscope - very new procedure in those days. It turned out that he was an enthusiastic squash player. We were well matched, and played each other many times and played for the same Shrewsbury School team in the Shropshire Squash Lg. We became very good friends.

When Paul realised I was involved in public life, he really laid into me about the new hospital that had recently been built in Telford. Paul was totally opposed to it. He had great foresight. He could see, even then, that in a fairly short time, Shropshire would not be able to sustain two District General Hospitals. I lost count of the number of times he told me that by building the Princess Royal, we would effectively, in the long run, be closing the Royal Shrewsbury. I think he was over-egging it a bit to make a point. It was Paul Brown who 'educated' me about the inevitable inexorable move to more distant specialist services and larger 'catchment' areas. Anyway, enough of the preamble.

Around ten years ago,I got to know the Chief Executive of the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals Trust, a good and bluff man named Tom Taylor, who became a friend . It was already clear reform was needed to deliver effective care, and to retain services in Shropshire. He tried reform, with help from me at the time. With little success. Later on he was succeeded by an Adam Cairns, who decided to focus investment on the Princess Royal, including a £28million investment in a new Women's and Children's Hospital. If he had stayed, I suspect, Shrewsbury would have been gradually run down. How I disagreed with Mr Cairns. How glad I was to see the back of him.

Then about 3 yrs ago the new NHS management structure in Shropshire (2 Clinical Commissioning Groups - the Shropshire CCG and the Telford and Wrekin CCG) established a new body (the Future Fit Programme Board) to make a serious assessment of how services should be reformed. It's reported to have cost about £2million - so far. Recently it met to decide and decide it did. Clearly and unambiguouslsly. It proposed that a new Emergency Unit should be built at Shrewsbury, including the Women's and Children's services currently delivered at Telford. It's proposals to reform A&E have attracted a lot of attention and comment, much of it untrue. The recommendation is that the new 'Emergency Centre' at Shrewsbury would deal with around 20% of most serious cases currently going to A&Es, while the other 80% would continue to be treated at what would be called 'Urgent Care Centres' at the two hospitals. The widespread claims that A&E would no longer be available at Telford is untrue and misleading - at best!

Tonight the two CCGs met to consider the recommendation, and despite the huge amount of work already put in, decided not to accept it. Instead they have asked the Future Fit Programme Board to do more work. This is a disaster for the Shropshire and Mid Wales NHS. Already the number of consultants available to man A&E are at the absolute minimum, including (so I'm told) one locum. It's on a knife-edge. I suspect clinicians will be in despair tonight. No-one knows where the process is now heading. ULooks a total shambles to me. No amount of smooth talking is going to cover that up. Suppose we'll have to let the dust settle and regroup. But it's been a very black day for the NHS in Shropshire and Mid Wales.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Boris - a very good Foreign Secretary

In my opinion, Boris Johnson is proving to be a very effective Foreign Secretary. It is great to see Britain's Foreign Secretary making a meaningful impact on the international stage. I should imagine he is doing exactly what the Prime Minister thought he would do when she appointed him. She would not have expected him to suddenly change into a shy retiring super diplomat.
None of us would have expected him to become that traditional diplomat, conversing in the weird language that only other diplomats understand. He does not speak as others would. But we knew that. What our Foreign Secretary does is use language non diplomats actually understand. It's rather sad watching those reporting on the supposed 'gaffes' that Boris has made, completely missing the point. No-one agrees these 'gaffes' are 'gaffes' at all. As far as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen, our Foreign Secretary is saying what most of us think. His assertion that 'Britain is back' in the Middle East will have much positive impact on Britain's status  in the Middle East. That's his job, and he's making a great fist of it. Carry on Boris.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lessons from recent by-elections

Recently, an important by-election was held to select a new Member of Parliament, following the resignation of a sitting Conservative MP, who was dissatisfied with Gov't policy. The result told us much about the current state of party politics at Westminster. And No, I'm not referring to Richmond Park, which told us very little, beyond that MPs who resign and cause what is seen as an unnecessary be-election as well as deserting their party usually lose - irrespective of the honourable nature of the resignation. I am referring to the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election last Thursday when Caroline Johnson was elected as the new Conservative MP. Despite it being a far more significant result than that in Richmond Park, it was almost completely ignored by the media. I'm not keen on commenting on political party matters, because there is such danger that it pollutes with partisanship the factual assessment. But this was an important result on the political barometer.

So let's consider what happened in Sleaford, setting it against the backdrop of typical by-election results. Usually, the party in power loses ground in by-elections. Usually, support swings behind the party most likely to defeat the party in power. You would expect this 'normal' pattern to be reinforced when the sitting Gov't MP has resigned with the intention of inflicting damage on the governing party he was previously a member of. But none of this happened. Caroline Johnson was returned with an astonishingly high vote, bearing in mind the context. UKIP, the party thought most likely to offer challenge actually lost ground. Labour, the official opposition collapsed back into 4th place. (Not quite as bad as Richmond Park where Labour had less votes than it has party members!!). And this extraordinarily good result for the Conservative Party was accompanied by an opinion poll which showed Labour polling at historically low levels. Richmond Park may have excited our London-centric media, and filled our newspapers, but it was the Sleaford result that was the bigger story. Labour is in a desperate place.

Now you might think, that I as a Conservative MP would be entirely content with this position. But strangely I am not. British politics is constructed around an adversarial system. It needs an effective opposition. Currently Labour is not providing that. It's not healthy for the body politic. Some of the very good Labour MPs that I know are in despair. And it's not improving. That is the story of recent by-elections.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

More on Tidal Lagoons

Another good 90 minute debate at Westminster today about the much discussed Swansea Tidal Lagoon. The debate was led by Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Presceli Pembrokeshire, who was supported by almost all opposition parties in the House of Commons. It was a very one-sided debate. The cost hardly mentioned. I'd like to have spoken in the debate myself, but because of my close working relationship with Welsh Office ministers felt it unwise to do so. But on my blog, A View from Rural Wales, I reckon I can get away with it. If I choose my words carefully, I don't seem to land myself in any trouble. And anyway, despite being entirely positive about the proposal, I fear my contribution would have seemed negative - much like that of the only Conservative backbencher to speak, Antoinette Sandbach. Same goes for Minister, Jesse Norman who was responding on behalf of the Govt.
Everyone wants to see the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon going ahead. It's an exciting new technology. The proposal itself is comparative.y small, but can be looked at as a pilot for much bigger schemes around the coast of Britain. Like everyone else, I hope we can find a way of using tidal energy to produce power, and Swansea Bay could be the key.
But it cannot be at any price. Govts cannot do that, and the current Govt has commissioned a report on the potential of UK tidal power from former respected DECC minister, Charles Hendry. None of us have seen this report yet. Despite rumours circulating around Westminster, I have no idea what this report says. The report is into tidal power, rather than just the Swansea Bay project. It will inform Govt's thinking. But as Antoinette and Jesse Norman both said today, (and I would have said if I'd spoken) it has to be financially viable. It falls to Government to always balance benefits against cost, and make a decision based on value for money. Not much consideration of this aspect of the proposal. It's what will matter to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister though. I'm looking forward to knowing what is decided - in due course.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

My personal Brexit wish list.

Hard to make much sense of some of the reporting about the UK leaving the EU. Most of it seems to be a mixture of untruths and make believe. I suppose there's so much media space to be filled, they have to write something. Anyway, just thought I'd add my personal perspective - what I want to see the eventual exit deal deliver.
Now I've no real idea what constitutes a Hard Brexit, a Soft Brexit or a Grey Brexit. No idea where on this spectrum (if it is a spectrum) I stand. Perhaps the reason I'm writing this quick blog post is that it will enable others to tell me where I stand !! Mostly, I think the media coverage is gibberish.
But should begin by setting out the fundamental position. The UK will be leaving the EU, and I would anticipate all involved in this divorce will want as amicable a settlement as possible in the interests of all parties. There are many who voted Remain still doing what they can to frustrate the voice of the people, as expressed in the referendum - while pretending they are not. Luckily we have a Prime Minister made of stern stuff, who is not going to be bullied and browbeaten by these anti-democrats.
Now to the detail of where negotiation may lead. And it's all guesswork of course. Until Article 50 is invoked in late March, we will know little to nothing about any negotiations. But we do have opinions as individuals, which informed how we voted on June 23rd. And I'm sharing mine.
There seem to be four main concerns that influenced our decisions about which way to vote. Only two of them really mattered to me, with one of those being 'the reason' I would always have voted Leave - leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Without this, Britain is not really an independent country at all. Judges might sometimes make us cross, but I can live with that if they are British judges. Dealing with this unacceptable position (to me anyway) seems to feature in everything I hear and read about the Govt's position. Good. Everything else I am more relaxed about. But I am also enthusiastic about the UK being able to trade with any other country or region in the world. I can see that this is a complex and contentious area for debate. But it is important if the UK is to be a genuinely 'independent' state. And it makes good economic sense anyway.
The other two policy areas much discussed and that personally, I am not so fussed about - are immigration and financial contributions to the EU Budget - though I do accept these were probably the two reasons which Leave voters were most exercised about on June 23rd. On both areas, I thought our Foreign Secretary reflected my opinions on Marr this morning. Immigration is important to the UK, but it's currently at too high a level to be sustainable over the long term. The UK Govt should have control over this. But we must not become anti immigration and insular. And there's no reason why the UK should not continue to pay into the EU for something that is important to the UK, on the basis of value for money - a deal not a membership fee.
Not sure whether any of this would be controversial if Liam Fox, David Davis or our Foreign Secretary were to say it. It's not if I say it and it's just what I, a back bench Tory MP thinks. It's what I thought when I voted Leave. But I've no idea what sort of Brexit it is.