Monday, August 13, 2018

Report from Medellin

Report from Medellin.

Medellin is the most stunning place I’ve ever been to. In the early 1990s, it was the most murderous city in the world (over 27,000 murders in 1992 alone). Today Medellin is mainly peaceful. This transformation has involved a truly astonishing level of forgiveness. Equally astonishing is the speed at which the population of Medellin has grown. In 1950 there were around 350,000 residents. By 1970, the population had increased by a factor of 6, and today Medellin has 2.64 million residents - a truly dramatic urbanisation. It’s also become connected to other adjacent settlements taking the total population to over 4 million. 

This population is crammed into a city with more defined dividing lines than anywhere else I’ve known  - leading to huge physical and social challenges that ‘city planning’ has sought to counter. With outstanding success it seems to me. 

Firstly, there is the ‘Rio’ area. The Medellin River runs through the length of the city. The rapid urbanisations had destroyed its natural and ecological value to the city. Today the river valley floor has been, and continues to be transformed. There is more to do. There are impressive buildings, a striking civic centre, and a brilliant botanical garden. All very impressive but it’s not what’s most striking. That’s the connection of this job-creating river central zone to the much poorer population which lives on the steep hillsides rising up from the river. Probably over a million of mostly poor people live in what are shanty developments. Very small self-built houses, with tin rooms, often weighed down by rocks and pieces of wood. No way could this population walk to where the jobs are. The most astonishing aspect of Medellin planning has been the transportation system to connect these people with the more prosperous parts of the city. A Metro, connected to a Metro cable car system, which brings the houses on the hillside into contact with the work in the valley. It’s the equivalent of the tube system in London. The end of the Metro line is at Santa Domingo Cable Car Station high up the side of the Andes. Santa Domingo is also the start Point for another cable car which travels miles through forest treetops across the Andes heights. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of wildness. A journey not to be missed.

The basis of the city planning is transportation up the hillsides by several cable car systems and escalators. And there are parks, offering education and other services around every stop. Planning aimed to serve the poorest people. Farsighted. Inspirational. There are parks all over, promoting environmental awareness and connections across the city. The Parques del Rio Medellin involves recreating the river environment that had been lost. So much I could write about. 

Much of the rest of the world think of Medellin as the home base of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drugs baron ever. It was in Medellin he based his evil empire. He died in 1993, whether shot by the police or by his own hand we do not know. Since his death Medellin has undergone a revolution - in a good way. Led by the people of the city who turned away from violence. The world should know about this remarkable turnaround. 

How has all this been paid for? It’s another remarkable story. Much of it funded by a publicly owned public services company, providing the water, energy, gas and telecoms. The EPM (Empressas Publicas de Medellin) is a dream come reality for Jeremy Corbyn, providing a huge annual payment to the city. 

Of course there are still problems. So many people to be rehoused. I hope they are not simply being piled high in tower blocks, creating ghettos of the future! Hopefully the parks will help prevent this. And every Colombian city will have to manage an influx of desperate Venezuelans escaping the economic disaster in their country. The border is hundreds of miles away but they are to be seen walking the roads or perched on the back of Lorries - mostly heading to Bogata. And while Colombia is a country I could love, its cities are noisy, and over dominated by the motor car, full of wannabe Lewis Hamilton’s in yellow taxis. 

And then there’s the flowers. Incredible flowers, and wonderful wildlife. Every August there is the Medellin flower festival, the best flower carnival in the world. Regrettably I missed it, having to move on to other parts of this fascinating country. Next few days, before returning to Montgomeryshire, I will be in what I’m promised is quieter countryside surrounded by exotic birds and flowers. Next stop Boyaca. But be back home for Berriew Show.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Colombia - County Times

I am spending the first weeks of August in Bogotá, capital city of Colombia in South America. It’s a country not as well known within the UK as its size and importance warrants. Colombia has a population of 50 million. It is bigger than France and Germany combined. Bogotá itself has a similar population to Greater London. It’s a safe developing city, transformed from the danger of attacks and kidnapping that has been a feature of its past. Bogota is built on a high plateau, surrounded by the mighty Andes mountain range providing a spectacular backdrop to the city.  Colombia is a fascinating and diverse modern country with an equally fascinating, sometimes dark history. More British people should visit.

There are two reasons for my being in South America for three weeks this August. Firstly, I have a family interest in that two of our grandchildren are half Welsh - half Colombian. Although they live in the UK and spend much of their time in Berriew, they will always have close family ties with Boyaca, a region of Colombia north east of Bogotá. Family links are very strong throughout Latin America. And secondly, as the UK leaves the EU, I think every politician has some responsibility to use their own capabilities and contacts to help develop diplomatic and trade links with nations of the world beyond Europe.

Colombia, like all of Latin America has a bloody and violent history, particularly as independence was being won through brute force from the Spanish imperialists. Internationally acclaimed author, Robert Harvey, who lives near Meifod has written a book, the Romantic Revolutionary, based on the life of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of much of Latin America. If you want a flavour of the sheer violence and brutality which has shaped modern South America, it’s a must read.

It’s been a historically important week to be in Bogotá. On Tuesday, Ivan Duque was inaugurated as Colombia’s 60th President following a closely fought election, when three men were involved in a bitterly fought contest. There was no violence or corruption reported. Duque is a typically modern politician - charming, engaging, can sing and play football, but with little political experience. He is also closely linked to controversial and influential former President, Alvaro Uribe. So he is an unknown quantity, and faces two huge challenges. Plus several lesser challenges.

Firstly he has to consolidate and take forward the ‘peace process’ which ended a 50 year terrorist campaign by the FARC, (amongst other groups) following an election campaign which has led to concerns about his commitment to it. Hopefully, questioning of the peace accord and implementing adjustments to it does not lead to a resumption of violence. And secondly, President Duque has to take on the drug cartels, and the wanton murder of human rights defenders who challenge the drug cartel’s activities. President Duque will have no choice but take a stronger role in challenging these ‘sons of Escobar’ if his 4 year presidency is to be a success. And on Monday, there was a ‘supposed’ assassination attempt on the life of President Maduro next door in Venezuela, whose history is so intertwined with Colombia. Venezuela is a political and economic disaster, brought to its knees by the policies of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Huge numbers of desperate Venezuelans are crossing the border into Colombia, bringing yet more challenge to Duque. 

Over the last few days I’ve met with politicians of the ‘left’ and ‘right’, the British Embassy in Bogotá, and the important Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. Later this week I will meet with Mayor of Medellin, Colombia’s second city, which is bigger than any other city in the UK, and which this week hosts the week long biggest flower festival in the world. Colombia is a truly amazing country, with a history steeped in tragedy and a future steeped in promise. I believe the UK is well placed to help it achieve its potential.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Latest from Cil Farm and Royal Welsh on Brexit.

Two days at the Royal Welsh Show at Llanelwedd this week - the best agricultural show in the UK. This year, Montgomeryshire is the host County, and lots us have helped raise money to make it a memorable year. And thanks to wonderful weather it has been memorable. Our own Tom Tudor of Llysun Farm, Llanerfyl is the President, just reward for a lifetime given to farming and his local community. The Royal Welsh is a great place to meet old friends and discuss matters of concern to all of Wales - the Politics of Powys, Wales, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. At the heart of all this discussion are those issues that relate to the future of our countryside. Was hoping to talk about something other than Brexit! My hopes were disappointed.

First event was a seminar in the NFU Cymru marquee. Strong panel including Carwyn Jones, Welsh First Minister and presidents of NFU Cymru and UK. And the issue was (you’ve guessed it) Brexit. There was widespread concern about the future. Almost nil reference to the opportunities. After an hour of relentless pessimism, even my natural optimism began to wane. It was obvious to me that the leaders of the farming unions remain deeply opposed to Brexit, as they were when the people of Britain voted Leave in 2016. 

As I listened to the platform presentations (and most of the contributions from the floor), my mind drifted back to the rancorous debate before th e EU Referendum. After listening to the leaders of the farming unions the, I discussed the issue with farmers selling their lambs in the local livestock market. Surprisingly, they were mostly in favour of Leave, despite the uncertainty. I suspect it’s the same now.

I voted Leave myself, despite being consumed by uncertainty. I simply did not want my country to be subsumed in an “ever closer union”. I still don’t. My hesitation in 2016 was because I thought disengaging from the EU would be a very long and difficult process. Nothing since has lessened my uncertainty. But we did hold a referendum, we did vote Leave, and we are going to Leave. Anything else would be a constitutional outrage. 

There are many voices who are calling for a second referendum. There are some in all political parties. I am not one of them. In my view it would be the worst option of all and could well lead to civil unrest. I would prefer to be honest with the people and tell them that Parliament is not prepared to accept their judgement as expressed in the referendum, as hold another one. In my view, the calls for another referendum come from those who do not accept the result of the 2016 referendum. This ‘campaign’ must not be allowed to succeed. 

I was very supportive of the agreement about a UK negotiating position agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers two weeks ago. It wasn’t exactly what I would have wanted personally. I was disappointed that MPs amended the agreement, mainly because it made it less likely to be accepted. We have reached the stage where the intransigence of the EU mean ‘No Deal’ is become a likely option. No-one wants this, but I’ve always thought it a better option than being bullied into submission by the EU. 

Despite the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the EU/UK negotiations, I still feel optimistic and would still vote Leave. The behaviour of the EU negotiating team over the last two years has strengthened my resolve. It may be my bloody-minded streak, or my continued belief in the can-do spirit of the British people. And I think the silent majority feel the same.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon.

So it’s a No to Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon from Secretary of State at BEIS, Greg Clark. Lots of opposition to this decision in Westminster and around Wales today. You really would think it’s a massively unpopular decision. I’m not so sure. The reason the project was refused was to protect consumer’s electricity bills. I suspect the hard working people of Wales, not linked to politics or the media might just take a different view.
I’ve always supported the Government encouraging the private sector seeking new ways of generating renewable energy. But not at any cost - either financial or impact on our landscape. I’ve been really taken aback by the calls for the UK Govt to back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, no matter what it’s cost. I just cannot think like that. I do not think it’s the way a Conservative does think. Not this Conservative anyway.
Personally, I’ve been hoping we could find a way of delivering this scheme, but a few months ago it became obvious to me that it wasn’t a goer. Despite being a supporter of searching for a way to harness the energy potential of the tide, and marine renewables in general, I’ve thought we should have withdrawn support months ago.
Here’s a quote from today’s statement - “The inescapable conclusion of an extensive analysis is that however novel and appealing the proposal that has been made is, even with these factors taken into account, the costs which would be incurred by consumers and taxpayers would be so much higher than alternative sources of low carbon power that it would be irresponsible to enter into a contract with the promoter.
Securing our energy needs into the future has to be done seriously and, when much cheaper alternatives exist, no individual project, and no particular technology can proceed at any price. That is true for all technologies.”
Just do not understand how any Conservative can be in favour of it.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Legalising Cannabis

There was much publicity about legalisation of Cannabis this last week. Two reasons. The Home Secretary signalled a changed approach from Government, introducing some flexibility into Cannabis use for medicinal purposes. And former Conservative Leader and recent Home Secretary, Lord (William) Hague called for Cannabis to be legalised for both medicinal and recreational use. That’s further than I’ve ever gone. William is always logical and worth listening to. On this he may be too far ahead of social change, and public opinion won’t be ready accept it. Personally, I’m open to a review of evidence, including from jurisdictions where marijuana use is already legal. And looking forwards to a discussion with William about this next week. Anyway, here is the column he wrote for the Telegraph last Tuesday, which I’ve just read again. It’s worth reading.

“The case of Billy Caldwell, the 12 year old with epilepsy whose vital cannabis oil medication was confiscated by Border Force officials to comply with UK drugs laws, provides one of those illuminating moments when a longstanding policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date.
That our border officials, with so much to deal with to prevent the smuggling of arms, people, wildlife and much else, should be expected to make off with a medicine that contains a tiny quantity of the psychoactive element in marijuana but had clear benefits for a boy with severe seizures, is beyond ridiculous. It suggests that official intransigence is now at odds with common sense.
Over the weekend, the Home Office sensibly backed down and returned Billy’s medicine. By doing so, it implicitly conceded that the law has become indefensible. It must now be asked whether Britain should join the many other countries that permit medical-grade marijuana, or indeed join Canada in preparing for a lawful, regulated market in cannabis for recreational use as well.
Under successive governments it has been assumed that there has been little alternative to trying to win a war on drugs, cannabis included. Medical advice to ministers has always stressed that limited use of soft drugs can lead to harder drugs and addiction. It has also been one of the taboo subjects of British politics at a senior level, on which taking an alternative view has been regarded as indicating a tendency to weird, irresponsible or crazily liberal opinions.
It’s time to acknowledge facts, and to embrace a decisive change that would be economically and socially beneficial, as well as rather liberating for Conservatives in showing sensible new opinions are welcome.
First of all, as far as marijuana, or cannabis, is concerned, any war has been comprehensively and irreversibly lost. The idea that the drug can be driven off the streets and out of people’s lives by the state is nothing short of deluded. Surveys of young people attest that they find it easier to purchase cannabis than virtually anything else, including fast food, cigarettes and alcohol. Everyone sitting in a Whitehall conference room needs to recognise that, out there, cannabis is ubiquitous, and issuing orders to the police to defeat its use is about as up to date and relevant as asking the army to recover the Empire. This battle is effectively over.
Some police forces, recognising this and focusing their resources on more serious crimes, have stopped worrying about it. When a law has ceased to be credible and worth enforcing to many police as well as the public, respect for the law in general is damaged. We should have laws we believe in and enforce or we should get rid of them.
Just as bad is the next unavoidable fact, that where prosecutions still take place they create burdens on the criminal justice system for no appreciable gain. Tens of millions of pounds are still spent each year in forensics, legal aid, courts, prisons and probation services. Estimates of the savings involved from ending the prohibition on cannabis vary, but can easily add up to about £300 million a year.
In the meantime, something of decisive importance has happened, which for me has tipped the balance of argument. The grey zone of something being illegal but not effectively prevented has permitted the worst of all worlds to arise. The potency of drugs available on the streets has risen sharply in recent years. This has led to an increase in dependency and health problems, but of course people are reluctant to seek help for using drugs that are still illegal. The overall result is the rise of a multi-billion pound black market for an unregulated and increasingly potent product, creating more addiction and mental health problems but without any enforceable policy to do something about it. The only beneficiaries are organised crime gangs. It is absolutely unacceptable to allow this situation to continue.
A major change in policy is therefore necessary. The licensing of medical products, such as Billy Caldwell’s oil, is already allowed in Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and most of the US. Adopting the same approach would be a step forward. But the Canadian parliament is now on the verge of agreeing something much more radical: a legal, regulated market for cannabis for recreational use.
The proponents of this in Canada have been clear from the outset that a legal market will involve licensed stores selling cannabis of regulated strength, with a strict prohibition on sales to teenagers and no relaxation of laws against other and more powerful drugs. The expected benefits include reduced harm and addiction for users, a major reduction in the black market, less pressure on police and courts and tax revenues running into billions of dollars. If this works, it sounds more sensible than the current position.
Can British Conservatives be as bold as Canadian Liberals? We ought to be. After all, we believe in market forces and the responsible exercise of freedom, regulated as necessary. We should prefer to provide for lawful taxes than preside over increased profits from crime. And we are pragmatists, who change with society and revise our opinions when the facts change. On this issue, the facts have changed very seriously and clearly.
For Tories who cannot quite bring themselves to admit that this is all necessary, I leave you with the story of one of our great heroes, William Wilberforce. One of the fascinating aspects of writing a biography of him was the realisation that he was, for his whole life from his late twenties onwards, a daily user of opium. He lived when the dangers of addiction were only just becoming recognised, but finding that opium brought reliable relief from debilitating digestive problems, he recommended it widely while going on to achieve the abolition of the slave trade and become one of the most universally admired figures in British history.
I feel that Wilberforce would have spoken up very quickly for the Billy Caldwells of today. And while not advocating the recreational use of any drugs at all, I think it is right that people of all persuasions should now focus on sorting out a failed policy and an unsustainable law, and replacing both with new ideas that might just command respect and success.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tribute to Jane Harvey

Last week I went to the funeral of Jane Harvey in Meifod. For many years she suffered from the condition, Schizophrenia. I didn’t know Jane well, but her husband Robert has been a source of good political advice and support to me for many years. I was so moved by the tribute, written by Jane’s family that I asked if I could post it on my blog. Schizophrenia is a condition not much understood. Posting the tribute on A View for Rural Wales may extend knowledge and understanding of this cruel disease. With permission of the Harvey family, here is the Tribute. 

“Jane was an exceptionally beautiful woman,within and without.  She was famous for her smile, which could light up a room or anyone she met, precisely because it reflected her inner warmth. In her later years, on hospital admissions, every nurse that met her would call her ‘a lovely lady’ and one even thought she could remember which film she starred in.

Her beauty also reflected her happiness, joy, gaiety, free spirit, sweetness and untameable personality, also her exceptional gentleness and humility. She was completely unpretentious, uninterested in the superficial things of life; there are innumerable stories of her kindness to children and vulnerable people, even when she herself was highly vulnerable.

When well, she never had a cross word to say to anyone. She was, in Winston Churchill’s phrase about his own wife Clementine, ‘a being without an ignoble thought’. Her interests were simple: children, cats, other animals, birds, flowers and trees, which meant that her quarter of a century in the Meifod countryside were a paradise to her; she was utterly happy here. Her nature was pure, innocent and without guile.

The fact that she had a very serious chronic condition, ultimately bringing on three more, did not make her house a place of sadness. The exuberance of her nature and her determination to conquer her disabilities meant she would still walk when she could barely do so and feed her cats when she could hardly bend down. She loved being taken for drives around the Meifod hills, when she would exclaim, ‘who couldn’t believe in God on a lovely day like this?’ as she did on the day before she passed away. She was quietly and devoutly religious. She was also still active in the anti-pylon campaign a couple of years ago. She was irrepressible.

Jane came from Devon, another very beautiful part of the country and was educated at the Sherborne school in Dorset before she met Robert at Oxford where they both studied. Jane was also a talented pianist and singer, performing in a choir in the Albert Hall in London. She was a highly intelligent person with a high IQ but was uninterested in academic work and joined the Foreign Office - in fact the security service, MI6 - as a secretary (a Miss Moneypenny!). She went on to a job as PA to the head of an oil company based in London and then as PA to a famous, but hard-driving industrialist, the then chairman of BOC. She had a wonderful, full young life going to parties, plays, concerts and holidaying all over the world.  She then devoted herself to campaigning and the often difficult and exhausting role of being an MP’s wife, where her natural warmth and approachability made her many friends, both among the constituents and her husband’s political supporters.

But soon afterwards she began to suffer from the symptoms of Schizophrenia - one of the most devastating and life-changing of all mental illnesses. We now know it is not caused by some lurid experience in life, it is simply a malfunction of one of the transmitters in the brain. The illness was diagnosed at one of the most advanced psychiatric hospitals in the world - the Bethlem and its sister hospital, the Maudsley, in London. The illness involved periods of huge fluctuations in her emotions, from over happy to very angry, to crying miserably, plus sometimes paranoia and delusions, but, as was to be the pattern for the rest of her life, after a few months, she recovered to being exactly the same rational, happy, person she was before. The joyous event that most fulfilled her soon afterwards was the birth of her son, Oliver.

Shortly afterwards Jane, Robert and Oliver moved to Montgomeryshire, where Robert hailed from, on his grandmother’s side, and the stresses of life in a big city were lifted from Jane’s shoulders, while Robert continued to commute weekly, then monthly to London. Meifod in history was famous as a place of healing. It is also, as is Montgomeryshire and indeed of Wales, a place of great welcome. Jane was as happy as a lark, although her condition could not be cured and recurred with regularity. The people of Meifod and its surroundings were always understanding and embraced her as one of their own. The family extends its heartfelt thanks to them all.

Even more unexpected was the small army of helpers that emerged from the hills here and the plains of Shropshire. When Jane was first hospitalised in Wales, she entered the then Shelton Hospital in Shrewsbury, then the famous Housman Ward in the grounds and recently the modern Redwoods Centre. The patience, love and care of all the doctors and nurses involved in her care was overwhelming.

Jane’s happiness derived from the happiness of other people and nowhere was this truer than on special occasions like birthdays and Christmases. 

On one occasion, Jane was in hospital at the Redwoods Centre on her son's birthday. It was a Friday, and Oliver had travelled up from London to Shrewsbury, and had said he would try to stop by and see her.

Although it was very late at night and well past visiting hours, the wonderful staff at the Redwoods Centre allowed him to come onto the ward. He had hoped to spend just a few minutes with her and was quite tired from his journey.

When he arrived on the ward, mum appeared from behind a corner with a cake and candles, which somehow herself and her fellow patients on the ward had managed, perhaps illicitly, to procure, a signed card from the nurses and all patients, and some party hats.

In spite of her and her fellow patients’ difficult illnesses, they had evidently spent much time and planning preparing this late-night party on the ward and carried it off with aplomb. It was also the most enjoyable Oliver had ever had, with much cake and laughter had by all.

When Jane returned home, she was not left to her own devices: a pioneering and wonderful outreach and support centre, called Bryntirion, in Welshpool, carefully monitored her condition and supported her for some 20 years under a succession of dedicated, conscientious and hugely competent community psychiatric nurses who became firm friends and should be a model for the rest of the country. We are very touched to see some of them here today.  More recently this was added to by the Crisis Team from Newtown. There were also many dedicated social workers.

In addition, the doctors’ surgery at Llanfyllin was unbelievably sympathetic and professional and again we are delighted to see them represented here. Finally, there were the emergency services. The police were considerate, gentle and utterly professional on the very many times she would call them with her concerns. The Fire Service, on the fewer times they were called, were sympathetic and very cheerful. And finally, the Ambulance Service was beyond praise on every occasion in rushing her to Shrewsbury as her condition deteriorated in recent years.

It did so because of a breathing condition, now known as COPD, but many recognise it as Emphysema, as result of her chain smoking during periods of acute mental illness, despite all the attempts of her family and the nurses to control it. This also weakened her and finally her valiant heart, which had fought and survived four critical hospital admissions in recent years, gave out. But she consciously died at home, not in hospital, as she had always wished, went out like a light, with no pain and was brave, active and happy to the very end.

There are some 600,000 people, one in 100 of the British population who suffer from Schizophrenia. Most are sweet, mild, gentle and intelligent and are only a problem, often a difficult one, for their own families and, as in Jane’s case, can live full, if restricted lives and can enormously enhance those of their families. Too often Schizophrenics are ignored, treated as lepers or regarded as dangerous, although the incidence of violence among them is less than that of the general population.

Jane’s life was cut short before her time but was certainly not in vain either for her family or if it helps to serve to raise the profile of her fellow sufferers and destroy the stigma of Schizophrenia.

Robert and Oliver and all her many dedicated carers were privileged to know her; to love and be loved by her and to care for her, for chronic illness and disability brings out the best in people in the fullest expression of the real love described in St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, read earlier. The more limited life Jane had to live in the past 10 years simply increased the intensity of love she gave out to the small circle fortunate to receive it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

David Davis writes to MPs.

Dear Colleagues,


On Tuesday the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will return to the Commons to take its final steps through our Parliament. It is worth reflecting on the fundamental purpose of this Bill. The Withdrawal Bill is not about influencing the policy choices we make as we leave the EU. It is, instead, simply about ensuring the entire United Kingdom has a functioning statute book on the day we leave. That is an aim on which I am sure we can all agree. Our constituents – whether they voted leave or remain – will rightly expect the Government to provide continuity, certainty and clarity as we leave the EU. And that is exactly what this Bill will deliver.

We have already had over 250 hours of debate in both Houses and reviewed over 1,000 non-Government amendments, and hundreds of Government amendments.

Throughout, we have listened carefully to those who have sought to test, scrutinise and improve this vital piece of legislation. We have already made a significant number of amendments to address the fair concerns which have been raised. And I firmly believe that the Bill is better for it. So, while the fundamental goal of the Bill has remained unchanged, it now rightly reflects the knowledge and expertise of both Houses in that respect.

As the Bill returns to the Commons, it is worth having at the forefront of our minds the state in which it was sent to the Lords. A clean and correctly focused Bill, aimed solely at ensuring that our laws continue to function seamlessly on the day we leave the EU. The Bill that has been returned to us has, in some aspects, been strengthened. But in others, it has become less focused and, therefore, less clear in the goals which it is trying to achieve.

The amendments from the Lords fall into four broad categories. First, there are those which are constructive and genuinely seek to address concerns about certain aspects of the legislation. Second, there are some which seek to address issues which the Commons has already considered. Third, there are certain amendments, while possibly well intentioned, which may hamper our attempts to provide continuity, certainty and clarity via the Bill. And

fourth, there are some changes which simply risk undermining our approach in our negotiations with the EU altogether.

Let me start with this fourth category. The amendments which seek to force the UK to re-join the European Economic Area (EEA) after we leave would involve continuing the free movement of people with the EU and would mean accepting a huge swathe of EU rules without a say on them. That amounts to less control, not more. We have been clear since day one that such an approach is not the right path for the UK to take after we leave the EU. Pursuing it would fail the fundamental tests we have set for our future relationship with the EU – to return control to the UK over our money, our borders and our laws.

Similarly, amendments which seek to encourage us to stay in a customs union are not compatible with our desire to take the opportunity to build deeper links with old friends and new allies across the globe. Nor are they compatible with the manifesto on which the Government was elected last year. We want to ensure that our new customs arrangements with the EU can allow for trade which is as frictionless as possible, while ensuring we can tap into fast growing markets elsewhere and that there is no hard border around Northern Ireland, either between it and the rest of the United Kingdom or North-South. We recognise however that Parliament will want to be kept updated and as such will give our support to the amendment tabled by Oliver Letwin and supported by colleagues from across the Party including Nicky Morgan and Theresa Villiers.

Of course, in any case, this Bill is not the right vehicle for debating these policy choices. Such discussions can and will be had during the passage of other bills. This Bill is simply about making sure that our statute book continues to function after we leave.

One of the most important issues raised by the Lords is the process by which the outcome of the negotiations will be considered by Parliament. While we agree with the spirit of parts of the Lords amendment – much of it mirrors commitments we have already given – there are other parts which risk fundamentally undermining our negotiations with the EU. It would be impossible for negotiators to demonstrate the flexibility necessary for an effective negotiation if they are stripped of their authority to make decisions. That will do nothing but guarantee a bad deal for our country. In its current form the amendment would set a range of arbitrary deadlines and milestones after which Parliament may give binding directions to the Government - up to and including an attempt to overturn the referendum result.

Fundamentally, the British people voted to leave the EU and the Government is delivering on that. Since the referendum, there has been a general election in which both of the major parties committed to deliver the result of the referendum. It is simply not right that Parliament could overturn this. That is why we have tabled our own version of the amendment, which respects the commitments we have made, ensures Parliament can have its say on the final deal, but that we also that we respect the result of the referendum.

On the second category - most notably on the Charter of Fundamental Rights and General

Principles of EU law -  the House of Lords has amended the Bill on issues that the Commons has already considered in detail. We have been clear throughout this process that the removal of the Charter from UK law will not substantially affect the substantive rights that individuals already benefit from in the UK, as the Charter was never the source of those rights. And on General Principles, we have now tabled a further amendment to protect the rights of challenge accrued before we have left the EU for 3 years after exit.

There are also amendments which seem purely technical but which risk significantly constraining the Government's ability to deliver a functioning statute. For example, the amendment on 'enhanced protection' will mean the Government is prevented from acting quickly to update environmental regulations. Throughout this process we have listened to concerns regarding the delegated powers in this Bill, not least on the scrutiny of their use, and we tabled further amendments in the Lords to this end. But we cannot allow for the fundamental aim of this Bill to be put at risk.

The final category of amendments are those that the Government can agree or at least agree in principle. For example, the Lords have flagged important issues regarding family reunification. While we agree with the spirit of these amendments, they required further clarification. Therefore, the Government has brought forward its own amendments to make the amendments more accurate and to enable the Government to deliver the intended outcome in a far more effective manner.

The process around this Bill has been thorough, and inclusive. I have always said that I will listen to members of all sides of our House to ensure we get it right. As it re-enters the Commons we must work together to consider the various amendments constructively but we must also work together to ensure its fundamental purpose is not undermined. I look forward to working closely with you all over the coming days to ensure the UK has a functioning legal order on the day we deliver what people voted for in the referendum and leave the European Union.


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Brexit Week to Come, and the Brexit week that was.

I write this column on Monday morning, before driving down to the House of Commons for a very important week, which could have major implications for our Government and our country. Yet again this week the dominating issue will be Brexit, and in particular, the EU Withdrawal Bill. When this article appears, MPs will have voted anything up to 20 times on amendments to this Bill by the House of Lords. At the risk of leaving myself looking silly, I believe the Government will win every vote, sending the EU Withdrawal Bill back to their Lordships to reconsider their position. I’m deeply disappointed that some of my colleagues are telling the media they are considering voting against the Gov’t. I know loyalty is becoming a devalued commodity in today’s politics, but I find it hard to understand what might drive a Conservative MP to so undermine our Prime Minister, and give succour to those sitting opposite her at the negotiating table. 

What has driven and guided me as I’ve considered the future status of the United Kingdom in Europe has been the aim of making a success of Brexit. I realise there are UK citizens who have differing views on our future in Europe. But in the EU Referendum in 2016, 48% of voters favoured remaining in the EU while 52% of voters backed Leave. So the UK will be leaving in March 2019. Sometimes, I think this stark reality is being overlooked. There are some who have not accepted the public vote in the referendum, either wanting it to be ignored by the Government, or another referendum held in an attempt to reverse it. This is not going to happen. The UK is leaving the EU. We must try to arrange our leaving on the best possible terms, which suit the UK and the EU as far as possible. 

But of course, the UK is not ‘leaving Europe’. All that is happening is that the UK is recovering our ability to control who moves to our country to study, work and to live; to control our own laws, and to stop handing over billions of pounds for the European Commission to spend as it chooses. The UK will remain a part of Europe - we will want to work as closely and positively as possible with our neighbouring countries. We will need migrants from across the world including from Europe to work in our NHS and Social Care services. We will want to trade with the EU.

Even though I hope that this week MPs will have reversed all of the House of Lords amendments, there will be more important debates and votes to come over the next 2/3 years. This week has been about giving some legal certainty to the ‘Leaving’ process. It is, in most part a technical bill, which the House of Lords has used as an attempt to overturn the EU Referendum result. Personally, I think their Lordships were out of order. Their job is to put forward reasoned amendments to improve Government legislation, without challenging the primacy of the elected House of Commons. It cannot be otherwise. For that reason alone, I hope all the Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill will have been defeated by the time this column is published.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Disgraceful behaviour at Shropshire Hospitals reform meetings.

Not time to blog for a while. But was so utterly disgusted that two public consultation meeting about hospital reconfiguration in Shropshire had to be abandoned to protect the staff manning the exhibitions that I’m forced from my hibernation. The joint Chief Executives on the Clinical Commissioning Groups have written a public response. I can only imagine how angry they were. The culprits should be ashamed of themselves. I decided to reprint the letter here.

“We write in relation to your letter concerning the proposed Future Fit programme and the current public consultation which commenced on 30 May 2018.
The Future Fit Programme has been developed by over 300 clinicians, endorsed by a wide range of stakeholder organisations through the Future Fit Programme Board, subject to an independent process review by KMPG and endorsed and agreed by the West Midlands Clinical Senate.
It was also agreed unanimously through the two CCG Boards and assured as fit for consultation by NHS England demonstrably offering a sustainable future for health services for Shropshire Telford, Wrekin & Powys providing a long term vision for hospital based services.
Your contention that the capital funding for the scheme will require cuts in services is demonstrably not true.
The £312m of capital to be provided to the health community will be funded in part by de-duplication of services, the ability to better recruit and retain clinical staff and so reduce significant over reliance on costly interim staffing at our two hospitals.
The business case available on the Future Fit website clearly demonstrates that the hospital will not require income over existing tariff to fund the development.
What is more, both options provide for better outcomes for both planned and emergency care over the current configuration of services. Put simply the plan, and this is true for both options being consulted on, provides for a future that is BETTER for patients, BETTER for outcomes, provides BETTER facilities for staff to work and BETTER facilities for patients to be treated in.
If the proposals did not provide those better outcomes it would not be supported by clinicians, who in their day to day work know what better could look like.
As regards the Princess Royal Hospital site in Telford it is true, should the preferred option be selected, that some emergency patients treated formerly at Telford will now be treated at Shrewsbury, but a significant majority of patients under either model will continue to be treated at the site at which they currently attend.
Obviously if option 2 is selected then the reverse will be true with some emergency patients having to travel from Shrewsbury to Telford.
As regards the Women & Children’s centre at Princess Royal Hospital, the majority of services currently undertaken there will remain there under the preferred option, only consultant-led obstetrics and in-patient paediatrics will be undertaken at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital site.
Obviously if option 2 is selected then the Women & Children’s centre at Telford would be unchanged.
The rural maternity units are not part of this consultation, but any recommendation to amend the maternity delivery model will be subject to public consultation in due course.
This is not expected to commence prior to the closure of the Future Fit consultation on 5 September.
You say that you are ‘open to any set of proposals which will improve the level and quality of care for our patients and communities’.
The Future Fit programme evidentially provides just that.
If you believe otherwise then this should form part of a formal consultation response.
There is absolutely no evidence that these procedures place either patients, or staff, at risk and we are concerned that this may be communicated to the public without any clinical or other evidence to support that statement.
As regards capital funding and viability we would comment as follows.
The pre-consultation Business Case was subject to rigorous assurance through NHS England as to affordability.
This is important as CCGs cannot legally consult on options, or service changes, that are not demonstrably affordable.
As with any major capital scheme, the precise funding nature of the £312m will not be finalised until the Final Business Case.
What we are aware of at this time is that up to £200m will come from Public Dividend Capital, the remainder will come from the Trust’s own capital resources, or land sales, and at least one tranche will come from private finance.
Such mixed capital funding solutions are stated NHS and Department of Health policy.
Lastly we have developed these plans over a number of years precisely as the current state of play of split services across the Princess Royal Hospital and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital site are neither financially, or clinically sustainable.
Put simply we cannot afford them within allocations, and we cannot staff them.
That is why the Future Fit plan provides for a strategic plan that is funded to meet the needs of all the communities of Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin and mid-Wales for now and the future.
We appreciate how much you care for and support the NHS. Its continued existence depends on the backing of people who are passionate about its future.
This is never more so than in the year in which it celebrates its 70th birthday.
Please, though, acknowledge that the NHS clinicians, health experts, managers and staff that have worked so hard on these models for change, care just as passionately as you do.
We do not embark on this difficult case for change because it is easy - it is not - we do so because it is essential.
We have a once in a generation opportunity to transform health care for the people of Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin.
There is a fantastic prize in the hands of the communities we all want the best for.
To run it down now and not seize it, will not just be a matter of an opportunity lost, it will be to condemn local people to a struggling service, in decaying buildings making the recruitment and retention of essential staff all the more difficult.
Objecting to the Future Fit programme thinking something better will turn up is to live more in hope than the reality of what we have before us.
We ask you to re-consider your opposition for the sake of everyone in our county and beyond.
Kind regards.
Yours sincerely
Dr Simon Freeman, Accountable Officer, Shropshire CCG
David Evans, Chief Officer, Telford and Wrekin CCG

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Alfie Evans.

Last week, those of us who try to follow the news agenda had a confusing few days. There were the usual mixture of misleading and simply untrue ‘news’ stories about Brexit. We’re used to that, and have learned to largely ignore it. But in Wales, we did have an astonishingly good news Brexit story. It was really big breakthrough news. After predictions of constitutional chaos and multiple headlines about a “Power Grab” by the UK Parliament, and a bizarre ‘Continuity Bill’ passed in the Welsh Parliament, which led to the UK Govt taking the Welsh Government to the Supreme Court, the Wales Office and the Welsh Gov’t agreed post-Brexit arrangements in relation to devolved powers. Just like that! Defied all the predictions. Until now the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland had worked together. Wales has now left the Scottish National Party to carry on its anti-Brexit campaigning on its own. In Wales, we have agreed a pragmatic way forward, trying to deliver the best way future for Wales, rather than play politics games. And as is usual with very complex issues, the Welsh media largely ignored this most significant news story of the week.

We also had the hugely worrying story about how immigrants who moved to Britain in the 1960s on the Windrush and other ships have been shockingly let down by our immigration system. No-one emerges from this scandal, (because that’s what it is) with any credit. Although it’s impossible to know exactly where ‘blame’ lies, it is clear that managing the UKs immigration system has been a challenge too far for the Home Office. I write this as Amber Rudd resigns over the issue. Personally I am sorry about this. I thought she was the right person to sort out the problem. The position today is just not acceptable. Of course, the UK Government must control ‘illegal’ immigration, but must also do whatever it takes to ensure those immigrants who are today in Britain entirely legally are not in any way disadvantaged. 

But the news story last week which impacted on me most was the circumstances surrounding the death of Alfie Evans, a 23 month old little boy at Alder Hey Hospital who died from an untreatable neurological condition, after his life support was turned off.  Everyone sympathised with Alfie’s parents, who must have gone through the most traumatic of experiences. Its very difficult to disentangle the clinical and ethical issues. Increasingly, developing science means we are going to confront more decisions about when to end a life that is being maintained only by a machine, when there is no hope of recovery. While I do not approve of the behaviour of some of those who protested outside Alder Hey Hospital, I find myself, yet again, conflicted by the proper responsibilities of the family and the state in life and death issues.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

‘Limited, targeted and effective’.

Last week, three of the five permanent members of the Security Council joined forces to conduct coordinated targeted military strikes to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability, and deter their use. The principle partner, delivering about 90% of the bombardment was the US. Britain and France played smaller roles, but their involvement was crucial to reinforce the message the use of chemical weapons is contrary to Chemical Weapons Convention and not acceptable in today’s world. The action was supported by a wide range of countries, including all NATO members plus Australia plus Turkey and others. The military strike was in response to a despicable and barbaric act by the Syrian Regime in Douma, killing innocent people who were seeking shelter from bombardment in underground basements.
There is little doubt that the Syrian Regime led by Bashar al-Ashad was responsible. It has an utterly abhorrent record of using poison gas against its own people. Over recent years there have been numerous examples of chemical weapon use by the forces of the Syrian Dictator, Bashar al-Assad. For a century, use of chemical weapons has been banned as a crime against humanity. Assad is in flagrant breach of international law. The use of Chemical Weapons must be stopped. Every reform in the Security Council has failed, thwarted by the Russian veto. The leaders of the US, France and the UK have done what they had to do.
Before acting, the UK Prime Minister and Cabinet considered advice from the Attorney General, the National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff and received a full intelligence briefing. Theresa May decided to act in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian Regime’s Chemical Weapons capability. There is no desire to intervene in a civil war. There is no desire or intention to deliver regime change. It was a ‘Limited, Targeted and Effective’ strike with clear boundaries designed to avoid escalation and civilian casualties. The aim is to prevent future use of chemical weapons.
In 2013, David Cameron sought support from MPs to launch a military strike against Damascus in response to Assad’s use of poison gas. MPs refused to agree. I thought that a mistake, which led to
President Obama cancelling any action at all.  Last year the US did respond to another poison gas attack with a limited military response. It did not stop Assad. We must hope that last weekend’s military strike will have more effect.
I hope there will also be a new diplomatic effort as well. We cannot allow chemical weapons to become ‘normalised’ as a method of war. Britain has always taken a stance to defend global rules and standards. That’s  what we did last weekend.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

More on Poison Gas issues

Today’s news reports are still focussing on two events involving the use of poison gas, and how we should respond - take action or just wring our hands.
Firstly, there’s the attempted assassination of the Russians, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the streets of Britain. Today the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which so many had called on to make a definitive judgement, backed the conclusions drawn by the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson. I am not sure what we should do about it, except hit the wealthy Russian friends of Putin who operate in the UK. And hit them so hard, they understand the damage that Putin is causing them. I sense that may well happen.
And then we have the use of poison gas against innocent citizens in Douma by Bashar al-Assad. It’s crucial that the response be carefully planned, targeted and effective. Personally, I cannot see any alternative but to strike militarily against Assad and his military capability. He is a monster.
I have been quite shocked by those who seem to take the side of the Russian backed Syrian Dictator. I suppose there always have been a few British citizens who seem to prefer to side with Britain’s enemies. For 100 years Chemical warfare has been unacceptable under international law. Yet there are some who accept that Assad should face no consequence for what he has done. This is normalising the use of chemical weapons in modern warfare. It would be disastrous for our world - a green light to the barbarians to do their worst, if it’s thought the world will just stand by and shake heads disapprovingly when weapons of mass destruction are deployed - and leave it at that.
Normally, we would be arguing for the Security Council to take action, but it cannot because the Russians veto any such action. They are Assad’s protective shield. So the United Nations is rendered impotent.
Many MPs are calling for Parliament to be asked to vote on any decision to join a US led military strike. I am not one of them. Any decision must be based on a careful assessment of intelligence. The Prime Minister cannot share such intelligence publically. She might as well just authorises MI6 to send our intelligence direct to Damascus, the Kremlin and Tehran.
I fully expect the US to launch a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. I also expect the UK  and France to participate. And even though I would wish it otherwise, I will support our Prime Minister in that action if she and her Cabinet decide it should be. Most other MPs will do the same, all of us with heavy hearts.
I realise there will be many who disagree. There are many who think we should “just let them get on with it”. We should not be dragged in no matter what. As if we can isolate ourselves from what happens overseas. There will be many with pacifist principles. I do not criticise their stance. The stance I do question is that of those who insist that chemical warfare must not become common in modern warfare while refusing to support action to support that position. This is a total cop-out. My job as an MP is to face up to choices. And sometimes those choices are bloody tough. They don’t come any tougher than this one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Syria. What now?

Am inspired to comment on what’s happening in Syria by William Hague’s column in today’s Telegraph. Takes me back to the events of 2013, which was the most shocking of my 8 yrs as an MP. It’s the context in which I have to contemplate the current position.
In 2013, Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people and Prime Minister, David Cameron was considering a military strike against Damascus. He was supported by William Hague. Before that summer recess, MPs had insisted that a vote would be needed to authorise such a strike. Parliament was indeed recalled during summer recess. I returned to London, anticipating voting against my Govt for the first time. I informed my whips that I could not vote for action without more clarity about how it would improve the position. I think other MPs must have taken a similar line because when the motion to be debated was tabled the night before the debate, I was satisfied. The motion supported military action against Assad, but crucially, required the Prime Minister to return to the Parliament with more clarity and to seek another vote before military action could be taken. I thought that was acceptable, and voted for it. But (shamefully in my view) MPs voted this motion down. I felt ashamed that some Conservatives had completely undermined the Prime Minisister. The Labour Leader at the time, Ed Miliband had decided to play politics with an issue that should have been above politics and put forward his alternative motion, which was not far from the Prime Minister’s motion. That was defeated as well. I felt deeply ashamed of Labour. I suspect a few Labour MPs did as well. Anyway, Obama and Putin were watching. The former reneged on his ‘red lines’ and decided to do nothing, while the latter realised that Assad backed by Russia could do whatever he wanted. That’s just what he did. The chemical attacks on innocents over the last few days is an inevitable consequence of 2013.
I know there will be many who think the UK (and everyone else except Russia and Iran) should stay out of it. Several of my constituents informedit was their opinion in 2013. Suspect some might feel the same today. I don’t. Non-action can have terrible consequences, as well as action. We cannot wait for the UN to back action because Russia will veto any military response. We cannot allow chemical warfare to become an accepted form of attack, which it will. Of course we cannot be 100% certain that military action will achieve its objective in the short term. If certainty of victory was a requirement of action, military powers who care not about deaths of casualties would always win.
We know that a President Obama would not act. There would just be empty threats. But I do think
Resident Trump may well act. He may well call the Assad-Putin bluff. This is a very hard sentence for me to write, because I know many of my friends and supporters will disagree. But I believe Britain and France should support action led by the US, and be active participants.

Monday, April 02, 2018

How do we power the UK?

Written quite a lot about NHS reform of secondary care for Shropshire and mid-Wales recently. So a change of subject - temporarily at least. Feel a need to return to a subject I used to write about quite a lot. Energy, and where we source it. And ask whether the ‘Russia’ issue make any difference.
When I was young, energy used to be a major part of the UK’s GDP (maybe 10%) - principally coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Today it’s fallen to relative insignificance (maybe 2%). This is largely down to much reduced use of coal and near disappearance of North Sea oil. And our commitment to Paris Agreement on climate change means we’re not going back there. This post is about where (and whether) we should look to re-establish energy as a significant UK industry. I’m thinking next 15/20 years. Even that’s too long a time scale to predict with any certainty. It’s probable that this post would have to be completely rewritten in 10yrs, or even sooner.
In my view, we cannot but go for Shale Gas as a big player. I accept there is uncertainty about this industry, and much opposition, but nevertheless it looks more than promising. I’ve never quite understood the antipathy to shale gas extraction. We know that the initial process of hydraulic fracturing is undoubtedly noisy for a period of around 3 weeks, and generates a fair bit of traffic. No major job creating industry is without some disturbance. The potential is massive - game changing. At worst, there’s enough Shale Gas in the Bowland Basin alone to provide for decades of UK needs. And there are private operators who will put their money in. Are doing so already. We know (even the Climate Change Committee agrees) that there’s a need for gas as a transition fuel from coal to renewables (where we want to end up) and Shale Gas has far less impact on carbon emissions than LNG, which is the main alternative. And anyway, all the LNG we were banking on is being bought up by the Chinese. But since the demise of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee I have no involvement in this debate. Just a residual interest.
I also think offshore wind looks to have a more than promising future. Always used to be too costly, but scale and technology are changing the balance. Almost reached the stage when no subsidy is needed, which is a dramatic turnaround in a year. There is some antipathy to offshore wind but nothing like the  intense opposition to onshore wind, which is even cheaper. I’ve always thought (without actual evidence) that if and when floating turbines become realalistic and economic, the potential of offshore wind is limitless. Another advantage of offshore wind (and shale gas) is that the economic benefit will accrue to the North of England, contributing to reducing the North-South divide.
And the there is Russia. While we might not import much directly from Russia now, we are part of a European energy network which is more linked to Russia. We should not be giving the Russians any leverage over us. It’s not just energy, but security.
There are of course many other possibilities as well. Nuclear may well be a big player, especially if Small Modular Reacters prove viable. Trawsfynnydd could be a real possibility here. Solar will always be a small scale player, made slightly more viable as storage technology develops. Then there’s hydrogen, which could develop as a fuel for cars and trains. That’s enough for this quick blog post, but open to suggestions to amend it.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Shropshire and Mid Wales A&E Reform. ‘Hot’ new Hospital at Shrewsbury

Was expecting news of an announcement tomorrow. But it’s in the Times today. So updated my post

Over the last ten years ( at least) I have been involved in active discussion about what has to be done to deliver a sustainable hospital structure to serve Shropshire and Mid Wales. In fact, I have known roughly what was needed to be done for over 40 yrs ago. A squash playing team colleague, who was also a brilliant Shropshire consultant used to berate me between games about the strategic madness of building a new hospital in Telford to serve Shropshire and Mid Wales in the first place. The area simply did not have the population to sustain two comprehensive District General Hospitals in the long term. He knew I was involved in local public affairs and wanted me to become involved. Paul died young. I hope he’d be pleased with the effort I’ve put in. It is an irony that there’s a Paul Brown Ward at the Princess Royal in memory of the great man.
The population of Shropshire and Mid Wales is about 500,000 and will sustain only one major secondary care hospital. Because of the historic and unwise decision to build the Princess Royal, the only feasible way forward today is to accept the current position and run the two hospitals as one unit operating on two sites, with ‘emergency care’ at one and ‘planned care’ at the other. A new hospital to replace both (which most of us would really prefer) is off the wall expensive. We have known all this for years. Our hospital services have suffered  because we have not faced up to the difficult ‘political’ decisions needed. Millions of precious NHS resources have been squandered as a consequence of ‘political posturing’, sometimes blindly refusing to accept reality. But at long long last, the end is in sight. It’s taken a lot of lobbying and argument to reach today’s position. It’s  also been frustrating enough to test the patience of a saint.
The UK Government has now decided that NHS England will allocate the around £300 million needed to transform one hospital (recommended to be the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital) into a centre for Emergency Care (a’hot’ emergency care hospital) and Theo
 Other (recommended to be Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital) into a centre for planned care. This will  be the biggest investment by NHS England this year. It will be a massive Gov’t commitment to Shropshire and Mid Wales. Everyone who has been involved and stuck with it will be hugely satisfied. After the announcement of the funding, , there will be an implementation process. The first step will be for the local Clinical Commissioning Groups to go out to a 12 week public consultation from about early May - with the above arrangement as their ‘preferred option’. If the public support the ‘preferred option’ (and it would be unthinkable not to) the project design and tendering processes will begin. I can see no reason why we cannot anticipate “diggers in the ground” early next year.
This is what should happen, and what I expect to happen.. Over the 12 week consultation period I will be arranging public meetings around Montgomeryshire to explain what has been a quite incredible journey, over many years, to reach the current position. And how important it is that all of us who want to see a sustainable NHS in Shropshire and Mid Wales actually turn out to vote.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The real story of our economy.

So many try to talk down the UK economy, that I’m using my column to redress the balance. Personally, I believe the UK is in a far better place than the Jeremiah’s so often portray. Wrote this for Oswestry and Borders Chronicle this week.

“The UK economy has grown every year since 2010. It now has a manufacturing sector enjoying its longest unbroken run of growth for 50 years. It has added 3 million jobs since 2010 and seen every single region of the UK with higher employment and lower unemployment than in 2010. It has seen the wages of the lowest-paid rise by almost 7% above inflation since April 2015. It has seen income inequality lower than at any time under the last Labour Government.

Britain faces the future with unique strengths. The English language is the global language of business. The British legal system is the jurisdiction of choice for commerce. London is the world’s most global city and capital of international finance and professional services. British companies are in the vanguard of the technological revolution, while our world-class universities are delivering the breakthrough discoveries and inventions that are powering it. British culture and talent reaches huge audiences across the globe; and our tech sector is attracting skills and capital from the four corners of world. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts more jobs, rising real wages, declining inflation, a falling deficit and a shrinking debt. The economy grew by 1.7% in 2017, compared with the 1.5% forecast at the Budget, and the OBR has revised up its forecast for 2018 from 1.4% to 1.5%. Forecast growth is then unchanged at 1.3% in 2019 and 2020, before picking up to 1.4% in 2021 and 1.5% in 2022.

Our remarkable jobs story is set to continue, with the OBR forecasting more jobs in every year of this Parliament and over 500,000 more people enjoying the security of a regular pay packet. The OBR expects inflation to fall back to the 2% target over the next 12 months, meaning real wage growth is expected to be positive from first quarter of 2018-19 and to increase steadily thereafter. Annual inflation statistics fell 0.3% to 2.7% yesterday. There are more falls to come. 

Borrowing is now forecast to be £45.2 billion this year. That is £4.7 billion lower than forecast in November and £108 billion lower than in 2010.

Debt is being reduced not for some ideological reason, but to secure an economy strong enough to cope with future setbacks. Taxpayer’s money is needed to support our public services and defence, not to be wasted on debt interest. So not all will be used to reduce debt. Since the autumn 2016, £60 billion has been earmarked for new spending, shared between long-term investment in Britain’s future and support for public services. Almost £9 billion extra has been invested in our NHS and our social care system. There is £4 billion going into the NHS in 2018-19 alone.

Taxes have been cut for 31 million working people by raising the personal allowance. 4 million people have been taken out of tax altogether since 2010. Fuel duty has been frozen for an eighth successive year, taking the saving for a typical car driver to £850 when compared with Labour’s plans. The national living wage has been raised to £7.83 from next month, giving the lowest paid in our society a well-deserved pay rise of more than £2,000 for a full-time worker since 2015.

So to the doom mongerers I proffer the old saying “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Votes for Expats

Over the next few months, A View from Rural Wales will be commenting from time to time on the contentious issue of votes for British citizens living abroad. This is because I am sponsoring a Private Member’s Bill, and trying to put on the Statute Book the right for any British citizen living overseas to vote in a British General Election. On Feb 23rd, MPs agreed a Second Reading of my bill and it will go into Committee for detailed debate - probably after the summer recess. I’ve never had as much grateful support for something I’ve done as an MP.
Reason I’m commenting today is that as working my way through stacks of mail (always overwhelmed and usual Sunday/late night work) I came upon a copy of The Times Leading Article of 28th April 2016, giving 100% support to my case. At the time, The Times wanted ex-pats to be given the right to vote in the EU Referendum. I agreed with The Times and others who were calling for that. I think the Govt might have also liked that but it was said to be logistically not possible. The arguments are just as valid today. Here are a few extracts from The Times Leader;
“The 15-year cut-off is arbitrary. The Govt has admitted as much and has committed itself to repealing it.”
“There is a moral duty to repeal it too. The first law granting voting rights to non-resident Britons, passed in 1995, applied only to those who had been abroad for five years or fewer. Margaret increased it to 20 years in 1989. Tony Blair cut it back to 15 years in 2000. Parliament was never able to settle on a natural cut-off date because none existed......the appropriate basis for voting rights is citizenship.”
“Harry Shindler agrees. Now 95, he fought to liberate Italy from fascism. He has lived there since 1982, and has been fighting for the right to vote since 2011.”
“There is no suggestion that those in Mr Shindler’s position have ceased to be British citizens. Britain is their country and they clearly have a right to a say in its future.”
The Govt may fear a Commons vote that would split the Tory Party but that is no reason not to do the right thing.”
When we discussed my Overseas Voters Bill at Second Reading, a handful of Labour MPs tried to kill it off. I don’t really know why. Luckily for me, I think the entire Conservative and Liberal Democrat voice was supportive. We are all on Harry Shindler’s side. He came over from Italy to meet me before the debate. An irony is that Harry is probably the oldest longest serving Labour supporter in the world.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

What’s to be done with prisoners.

When it comes to criminal justice, I’ve often been dismissed by friends as a bit of a ‘leftie’ or even a ‘pinko’. I don’t accept this as fair. I simply want a criminal justice system that works best and reduces the overall level of crime. My usual approach Is not to adopt a ‘kneejerk’ instinctive response to any problem or challenge, but to try to study the available evidence first. As a general rule, this seems a good course to follow before settling on an opinion. This may seem obvious, but my experience is that it’s most certainly not.
First time I encountered my supposed ‘leftiness’’ was when considering the death penalty when I was a teenager. I was fundamentally opposed - barbaric and ineffective. The state doing what it condemned in its citizens. Today it may be the majority view. Certainly wasn’t then.
Anyway, on to today. The Welsh Affairs Committee is looking at aspects of incarceration in Wales, including implications access for prisoners to use the Welsh Language. Today we spent most of the day at Berwyn, the new prison being built at Wrexham. Not spent much time in prisons but I’d visited the old victorian prison at Shrewsbury a couple of times when Gerry Hendry was the Governor a few years back. Always remember the trap door through which the condemned prisoner was ‘dropped’ after being condemned to death. The prison is closed now. The reason I was interested was because Governor Hendry was committed to rehabilitation. I agreed with him that the route to reducing crime was reducing reoffending. He explained how it worked successfully. I thought he was a very good man.
Today, at Berwyn, I learned about how the new prison is being built around the concept of rehabilitation. The staff, from the Governor down, treat the prisoners as equals (in the sense of all being human beings). There’s a big effort to make it seem unlike a prison, with interaction across the entire estate based on normality - as near to live outside as possible within a prison. (You might say the opposite of the shameful behaviour of MPs at PMQs!) And there’s a successful strategy of not making it seem as if there are 2100 prisoners there. The prison is split into 3 blocks of 700, and each of those blocks split up into 11 of what are termed ‘communities’.
Sadly, there remains antipathy towards the prison by some in the Wrexham area, I’m told local media coverage is negative. Despite the massive boost to economic activity in the area. Very strangely, the N Wales Police and Crime Commissioner is anti. No idea why.
I was seriously impressed by most aspects of Berwyn. The one aspect I’m not convinced about is shared cells. The Governor told us this presents no problems at all. In fact he said he thought it was a positive. I’m just not convinced about that. But then I’ve always been a ‘loner’. Personally, I would hate it. Berwyn is a major benefit to North Wales, and to the British prison estate. Have to fix the shortage of space to park cars though.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Tough Negotiations Ahead

I sense that the Prime Minister has moved debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU on today, following the interventions over recent days by former prime ministers, who would have been better engaged playing golf or something else useful. They just devalue their own currency. Be different perhaps if either had left in high esteem.
Anyway, the Blair/Major influence, linked as it was with the EU negotiating positions, seems to be yesterday’s news already. If it ever was news (with the people that is, as opposed to remain commentators).
Our Prime Minister was clear today. The UK is leaving the EU, leaving the single market and leaving the customs union. There will be no ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And no border of any sort between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - even if there will be some form of technology checks at the border, (as Boris suggested last week to much contrived hilarity). I don’t think any of this is open to discussion. The alternative is ‘No Deal’ and no-one wants that. It looks to me like those who don’t accept the referendum result just trying it on.
Now to the stuff up for negotiation. And there’s plenty of scope for debate - room for ‘give and take’.
Firstly, our Prime Minister is right to  acknowledge that the UK cannot have all she wants. We know there will be reduced market access. We need to keep it to a manageable minimum. We know there will be a cost in retaining close alignment in various regulatory bodies, where it suits both sides. We know it makes sense to stay aligned to EU standards and regulations unless there is a very good reason not to. We know it makes sense to avoid introducing any new barriers to trade unless it’s vital to do so. We anticipate that on the day after Brexit, terms of trade will not change much.
Many people I meet want to talk Brexit - and usually to say something about the “mess we are in”. Well I do not buy that - at all. I was not keen on the holding of an In/Out EU Referendum. Too big of a question to answer In or Out. But its what happened. In the end (and it was near the end) I voted Leave. I thought the plague of catastrophes promised by the Remain side was total self defeating drivel, which it was. I did not believe it. But I did think we would be engaged in years of uncertainty. Leaving the EU is a big deal. Actually, the uncertainty and “mess” is rather less than I thought it would be. What I hadn’t expected was the refusal of so many to accept the decision of the people. And the way so many seek to give succour to the other side of the negotiation table when the future of our country is at stake. But the Prime Minister has played a canny hand, refusing to be driven by the media’s thirst for something/anything to feed its pursuit of headlines. She is doing all she can to protect the British interest. She is playing a blinder.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

My reading at St David’s Day Service in Chapel of St Mary Undercroft

Y Darllediad Cyntaf.  Effesiaid 4: 1-7; 11-13.

Yr wyf fi, felly, sy’n garcharor er mwyn yr Arglwydd, yn eich annog i fyw yn deilwng o’r always a gawsoch. Byddwch yn ostyngedig ac addfwyn ym mhob peth, ac yn amyneddgar, gan oddef eich gilydd mewn cariad. Ymrowch i gadw, a rhymyn tangnefedd, yr undod y mae’r Ysbryd yn ei roi. Un corff syth, ac un Ysbryd, un union fel mai un yw’r gobaith sy’n ymhlyg yn eich galwad; un Arglwydd, un ffydd, un bedydd, un Duw a Thad i bawb, yr hwn sydd goruwch pawb, a thrwy bawb, ac ym mhawb. Ond i bob un ohonom rhoddwyd gras, ei ran o rodd Crist. A dyma’i roddion: rhai I fod yn apostolion, rhai yn broffwydi, rhai yn efengylwyr, rhai yn fugeiliaid ac yn athrawon, i gymhwyso’r saint i waith gweinidogaeth, i adeiladu corff Crist. Felly y cyrhaeddwn oll hyd at yr undod a berthyn i’r ffydd ac i adnabyddiaeth o Fab Duw. Y nod yw dynoliaeth lawn dwf, a’r mesur yw’r aeddfedryydd sy’n perthyn I gyflawnder Crist.