Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn: Not fit to protect our nation

Taking the first question at PMQs last Wednesday Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, entirely understandably and I’m sure entirely intentionally posed the Prime Minister a question designed to set the General Election campaign off with a set of themes that the Conservatives will run with consistently until June 8th.

Costa asked Mrs May Strong countries need strong economies. Strong countries need strong defences. Strong countries need strong leaders. As the nation prepares to go to the polls, who else in this House, apart from my right hon. Friend, can provide the leadership that is needed at this time?”

Strong economies, strong defences and strong leaders: very intentionally three strands of one argument that the Tories will be making continually to prove a point that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to govern; Theresa May is.

Traditionally it’s those three themes that pollsters tell us are central to the way we determine who we vote for.

It’s those three themes that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party know that they must be working on incessantly to reduce and eradicate large Tory leads in each area before the first week of June.

So Corbyn’s Sunday appearance on the BBC’s Marr show, particularly when asked about entirely reasonable hypothetical questions on defence, must have had Labour strategists weeping into their Chai Lattes.

Asked about letters of last resort the Labour leader declined to say that he would authorise use of nuclear weapons. Asked about renewal of Trident he shilly shallied, calling for defence reviews. Pressed on airstrikes and whether he would authorise drone attacks on ISIS figureheads he prevaricated offering no real answer.

As every voter, every Britain, knows the first priority of any Prime Minister must be that of the defence of our nation.

I’m certain that the Conservatives, and for that matter Tory supporting media, have long been producing a folder of stories designed to bring Mr Corbyn’s fitness to protect the country into question.

They will have the stories of Corbyn supporting unilateralism; of his historic closeness with members of the IRA; recordings of him calling terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah friends; photographs of him lining up to shake hands with Bashar al-Hassad.

Those sort of things all raise legitimate questions in the minds of ordinary people.

Perhaps the most telling quote from Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on Marr was I’m no supporter or defender of ISIS in any way.”

When an aspiring Prime Minister even has to clarify such a point on national television, to say that he is not a sleeper for those wanting harm to us all,  it’s certainly not unreasonable to have concerns about his capacity to put Britain’s security first.

For countless voters Corbyn’s failings in this area alone will be proof enough to ensure he never has to make difficult decisions that real leaders often do.  

Friday, 21 April 2017

Finances are tight for all but our town halls' top earners - my Catholic Universe column

I was sat a few days ago checking my bank statement when I noticed that my first monthly payment for council tax had been deducted from my account. I don’t know if you are anything like me but it’s only when I compare statements from month to month that I really notice that the cost of things is going up, sometimes a lot more than inflation.

As I looked at my council tax payment I could see that my monthly instalment for my typical house built around 15 years ago on a new estate had increased this year by very nearly ten pounds. Over the course of a year my bill is about one hundred pounds more than it was in the last financial year.

Now in and of itself I don’t have too much of a problem with my council tax increasing. I shouldn’t do; I was one of the very few people that had a direct vote to increase the tax in my county, and vote to increase it I did.

But I do fully understand that for many the tax rise hasn’t been negligible. For ordinary working families trying to make ends meet ten quid a month is noticeable, for the very worst off it can be the difference between heating and eating.

But the demand on public services, and local councils in particular, are tough right now.

Many local authorities are facing massive and rising bills to look after vulnerable children who have been taken into care but even these pale into insignificance when compared to the increasing cost of social care for our elderly population.

It is, I’m sure for all of us, great news that we are living longer, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that more and more of us are doing so managing, in general, with far more complex health conditions; as we get older very often more than one.

Looking after our elderly population is getting vastly more expensive and someone has to pay for it. I don’t mind if that is me through my council tax.

So I understand that as our government battle to reduce a deficit and pay bills that are unprecedented we have to pay a little more, there has to be a little pain for all of us.

But, I must confess, that this week my spirit of understanding has been tested a little, let me explain.
There is an organisation that you may have heard of called the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The stated purpose of the Alliance is to ‘Change the perception that big government is necessary and irreversible’ and ‘to explain the benefits of a low tax economy’.

The Alliance’s website goes on to explain that ‘we achieve this by releasing pioneering research into taxation and government spending…(using) the Freedom of Information Act to uncover information previously hidden from taxpayers.’

I am not the biggest fan of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, sometimes their ‘research’ will question, to my mind at least, public spending somewhat spuriously. But overall they do play an important role in monitoring our public services and this week they published what has become one of their most high profile annual pieces of work; the ‘Town Hall Rich List’.

To summarise each year the TPA analyse the accounts of local authorities to determine who is earning the big bucks. The organisation investigates how many local authority employees are earning more than one hundred thousand pounds a year and in broad terms what they do to earn so much of our taxpayers hard earned cash.

As always seems to be the case the figures are stark.

This year research conducted by the organisation shows that throughout Great Britain 2,314 council officers receive remuneration packages of more than one hundred thousand pounds; in a time of austerity that is an increase of 89 on last year.

The research conducted shows that in one authority alone, the London Borough of Southwark 44 members of staff earned more than the baseline figure.

Across Britain there are 68 councils who have 10 employees each earning £100,000 or more; that's 68 council’s paying at least one million pounds each to the number of staff that you can count on your fingers.

The TPA discovered that during the last financial year the highest amount paid to a single member of staff was the remuneration package given to Dave Smith, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sunderland Council who received a salary and a payoff including pension contributions of £625, 570.

Mr Smith wasn’t on his own though. The Chief Executive at Liverpool City Council received £461, 823; Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Director of Place received £414,100; whilst over in Yorkshire and the Humber the Chief Executive of Hambleton District, yes District, Council received a package of £397,967.

Now not for one second am I suggesting that any of these individuals or any of the other two thousand officers earning the highest salaries have done anything wrong, in fact quite to the contrary I am sure the vast majority of them are highly qualified and exemplary at their jobs.

I am sure that no impropriety has been uncovered from any council officers on the list and if there had been relevant action would have been taken. I’m equally certain that each employee has been paid within the terms of their contract.

But we have to question in this time when so many ordinary families are struggling should so many council officers be getting paid quite so much?

A great many are being paid more than our Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers responsible for the great offices of state. A great many are being paid more than than senior executives at some of our largest companies.

Are these people truly deserving of salaries, in many cases higher than their private sector equivalents; or is there a greater problem with salaries across the public sector?

Does every council need a Chief Executive with a commensurate remuneration package to match it? Or should councils be working together or merging to address just this type of problem?

Does that mean counties and cities and districts are at risk of losing some of their local determination? Or is it that something that most of us would be quite happy to live with?

But if you think that these 2,314 council employees are the sum total of this problem. Then stop and think again.

You see at the same time as the Taxpayers’ Alliance were releasing their Rich List the Association of Teachers and Lecturers were holding their annual conference when the subject of executive pay in academies was raised.

Conference heard how the boss of the taxpayer funded Harris Federation, which runs 41 state schools, was remunerated £425,000 last year; or as the Daily Mail puts it 85% higher than the head teacher of Eton.

According to figures released by the Department for Education in 2014/15 111 academy trustees, largely Chief Executives and Principals – including a number responsible for state funded Catholic faith schools, were each paid more than £150,000.

There is so much more than could be said about remuneration in academies and the independence of trustees making salary decisions and I am sure that in due course this will be a topic that is returned to by the media as a whole.

But for now I will leave you with a thought. As the vast majority of us watch our bills increase, often for good reasons, as and when our highly paid public sector executives depart do we honestly think that their replacements should be employed on the same terms and conditions as their predecessors?

Do we honestly think that we can’t employ an excellent manager for £90 or £80 or even £70 thousand pounds? Is the talent pool in the private sector so poor that we would see an exodus from these public sector employees?

I think not. And you know what? When it was proved not to be the case we would still have excellent people working in our public sector on more than decent salaries. 

Rules for new councillors - my Coalville Times column

This week’s column, it’s fair to say, has something of a niche audience. There’s not too many of you out there who are likely to benefit from my wisdom but nevertheless I think that it is important that I give some advice to a very small subset of the readership of this newspaper.

The rest of you are more than welcome to read along. Who knows, one day you might find yourself in a position where this column is of some help to you.

This week’s column is for those eight souls from North West Leicestershire and a similar number from South Derbyshire who in just a couple of weeks’ time will be elected as County Councillors.

It’s fair to say that a number of those elected on May 4th will be returning members and so for them this column is very much like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. So if you do happen to be one of those lucky enough to win a second or third term there’s nothing to see here, get yourselves back to County Hall quick sharp.

No I’m writing especially for those of you who have won a council seat for the very first time, there may be only a handful of you but for the sake of your sanity please read on.

Firstly, never ever expect to go into your local pub, church or corner shop and not be accosted by at least two people telling you of the state of potholes in their road. You will be forced to go out and see the aforementioned crater and sympathise with the state of highways generally and ‘what does my council tax pay for’ in particular.

No matter the size of the hole, whether it is nothing more than a stone chip loosening from the Tarmac surface or something akin to a meteorite striking a suburban estate road, you will be expected to treat it with the severest gravity and potentially even have a photograph taken of yourself looking very glum indeed for the benefit of the local paper.

As a rule of thumb seek to avoid the photographs; they only come back to haunt you and you soon discover there are actual websites for councillors pointing at things whilst looking very serious.

The same advice includes local residents complaining about grass verge parking.

Except that those who inconsiderately park their cars, damage our grass verges and make our villages such an eyesore are literally the spawn of the devil. Still, avoid photographs.

If you are lucky enough to be elected in a couple weeks please remember everyone thinks you get free food, drink, parking permits and probably dancing girls.  For the most part you don’t, you only get the things needed to do your job, but it’s pointless putting up an argument. You’re fair game now.

Lastly let me mention planning permission.

Now, I know that County Council’s don’t usually deal with planning permission apart from the big stuff like quarries or airstrips but that will not stop everyone treating you as though your remit goes as far down as second floor extensions and car ports.

Without exception, and it really doesn’t matter if an application is just one step up from mud huts or the best one ever made, neighbours will object and want you to do so too.

It doesn’t matter that we need more homes, especially affordable ones – they get the biggest objections, by the way – neighbours will not want them in their back yards.

Residents in your ward will expect you to argue against any and all planning applications regardless of whether their objections have merit or not. The operative statement here being that whilst some objections do many do not.

You will be tempted, no matter what your view really is, to capitulate and agree with the residents – it might be four years away but in a re-election campaign a few votes can swing things. But don’t.

Stand for what you believe to be right. If it’s a decent application that’s mitigated all major concerns have the guts to support it.

You’ve gone into politics to make a difference. The first step is being true to yourself and not agreeing with every NIMBY with a vote.

Who knows? Following my advice might mean you lose next time round but if you do you can look back and know you did things right. That really is what local politics is truly about.  

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Labour activists will battle for every vote, the Tories must match them

Let me tell you something about Labour Party activists; something every Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP member needs to keep in mind as June’s General Election approaches.

Labour Party activists, and I’m not talking about the Momentum / Corbynista keyboard warrior brigade here but the real battle hardened ones carrying the scars of countless election campaigns to prove it, are ferocious. Labour Party activists will go out in all weathers knocking on door after door after door and day after day long before any formal ‘short campaigns’ start.

They are decent principled people who care passionately about their party and will give up vast amounts of their time for their cause. It just so happens, now more than ever, that there cause is the wrong one.

The last thing that Britain needs now is the chaos of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour when it can have the pragmatic maturity of the Conservatives; steering the nation through the tough times of BREXIT negotiation that are bound to be ahead, but that’s an argument for another day.

No, there is a very good reason I raise the subject of Labour Party activists and it is this: they and Labour should not be underestimated.

Sitting here seven weeks out from polling day it is very easy indeed to think that this General Election is a foregone conclusion.

Conservatives can look at the polls, both headline figures and all of those interesting supporting tables, and think ‘this is going to be a walk in the park’.

We can read predictions of notional majorities around the 140 seat mark and get complacent; ‘surely no one of sane mind would vote for Corbyn?’

But the simple fact is that if that happens all of the time Tory supporters are sitting on their hands; whether it’s activists not turning out or Tory voters thinking ‘well, someone else will do it’, Labour will be out in numbers putting the groundwork in and motivating their core support.

Yes, we can argue that Labour's ‘messaging’ is a mess; it patently is.

We can believe that their petard will be will and truly hoisted by that horrible habit that they have of telling voters what they should believe rather than listening to what they do.

But they will be out there until 10.00pm on Thursday 8th June working for every vote they can get.

The reason I say all of this is important. I have an experience of the Labour Party that I simply don’t of the Tories. I am sure there are many amazing Conservative activists too.

No, the reason is a that there is danger of complacency resulting in a hard fought, unprecedented victory feeling a tad lacklustre.

Imagine if at dawn on a warm June Friday morning the news crews are reporting a majority of ‘just 60’. In real terms that would be an astonishing achievement but if you were expecting 140 seats? What then?

Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP activists will be working hard over the coming weeks to prevent a Tory win.

The polls will inevitably get closer.

And the Conservatives? If we want a win that will be remembered for generations then we will have to go toe to toe with them all.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Good Friday walks - my April Community Voice Column

Back in the very early 1980’s, at the age of 8 or 9, my parents decided – they always told me at my request – to move me from Thringstone Primary, where I had started my formal schooling a few years earlier to the Roman Catholic Holy Cross School at the top of Parsonwood Hill in Whitwick.

The move was a massive culture change for me. Having never really having been to church it was, for my very young self, completely alien having to say class prayers at the start and end of the day, at break and at lunch.

My first teacher at Holy Cross was the absolutely fearsome but, as I found out in later life, hugely fun and kind hearted Mrs Wilkins.

Tess is a devout woman who, my class mates told me very early on, would give 10 merits to each of us if she saw us going into church at the end of the school day and who could organise a school mass on Holy Days with the same type of regimen that you would normally attribute to a Sergeant Major. We very quickly learnt what we could and could not get away with with Mrs Wilkins.

If any of the boys, never the girls, were seen as having the right sort of stuff for the priesthood – it seemed to be the aspiration of everyone to have after so many years another priest raised in the parish – then Mrs Wilkins would soon send you off to Father to be enrolled as an altar server.

That point, to an extent, is where today's column starts.

One thing that anyone familiar with religion will tell you is that we Catholics love ritual, the outward signs of faith. Almost universally we love the carols and incense at midnight mass at Christmas time, we adore the seemingly never ending readings and symbolic fires at Easter. And most of us, certainly in my youth, loved the processions which take place, sometimes around the school playing field sometimes through the streets of Whitwick, every May and June.

The ‘Catholic’s marching’ became well known throughout the village. Altar servers and devoted gentlemen in their Sunday best would be seen twice a year carrying banners and a statue of the Virgin Mary through the Market Place. Behind them, in my memory at least, hundreds of the faithful would follow on reciting prayers and singing hymns. It became for me a highlight of the church year.

Of course, probably due to difficulties in obtaining the proper licences and police permissions, eventually these highly public marches stopped. These ‘Marian’ processions don’t have anywhere near the same high profile any more.

I’m delighted to say though that the tradition of processions hasn’t died out altogether though.

For the better part of thirty years annually every Good Friday morning Christians from our villages have taken part in a ‘Walk of Witness’ from the Monastery of Mount St Bernards to St Andrew’s Parish Church in Thringstone.

The walk, which seeks to remember the journey Jesus suffered before his crucifixion has always stopped for a moment of reflection at five further churches along the route.

The Churches Together ‘Walk of Witness’ is one small part that makes our community what it is. Year after year it has taken place whether there has been glorious early spring sunshine or even, one year, in heavy snow.

2017 will be no different. This year’s procession takes place on Good Friday, 14th April, and starts at the Monastery at 9:45am. What better way can there be to start Easter?

And if you’re an Old Catholic like me it will bring all those childhood memories flooding back.

Whatever you choose to do have a wonderful Easter.

May or Corbyn: The question you will be asked a thousand times

If a week is a long time in politics then seven must be an eternity, but that’s exactly the timespan we have to wait for until yesterday’s announced General Election actually comes to pass.

Let’s try and put it into some sort of context for you.

Where I live in Leicestershire if you are a parent your children are currently enjoying their Easter school holidays. Seven weeks is the same time for them to go back to school next week; have a whole half term; followed by another week off and return for another (nearly) full week of schooling all before the General Election takes place.

Seven weeks is a long time, not just in politics.

But I can guarantee you something.

I can 100% positively reassure you that there is one question you are going to be seeing in print, on posters, in social media adverts and be asked personally way, way more than any other question over the next (nearly) two months.

And that question is this:

On June 9th either our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, or current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will walk through the door of 10 Downing Street becoming our next Prime Minister: who do you want it to be?

Or conversely 'who do you least want it to be too?'

Of course the question might not be asked exactly in those words.

You may be asked which leader is most economically competent? Or, who would you prefer to be responsible for the defence of our nation? Or, who would you favour going into a room to defend Britain's interests with Presidents Putin or Trump or potentially Le Pen?

And you will be asked those questions again and again and again.

In the run up to the last General Election Peter Kellner, of pollsters YouGov, told anyone that would listen that no Prime Minister had ever been elected without a polling lead in at least one of two very important categories: best leader or most economically competent.

Kellner warned that Ed Miliband would be defeated partly because he was behind David Cameron in those two areas.

Look at where Mrs May now is in relation to Mr Corbyn. Effectively out of sight on competence, the economy and defence; amongst virtually every demographic group.

Yesterday being interviewed on College Green Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, reminded viewers that voters will have a binary choice on Thursday June 8th between ‘Theresa May’s Britain’ or ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain’.

That is exactly the same thing as the Tories will be hoping voters remember too.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A General Election to deliver a better BREXIT - the most important General Election in our history

So, that's it. Game on.

It could be that Mrs May figures disastrous local election results will signify the end of the fantastical experiment that was Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party - and who wouldn't want to have a tilt at a landslide victory when HM Loyal Opposition are in such a shambolic state?

It could be that the Prime Minister figures that the risk of losing a handful of marginal parliamentary seats to the resurgent Liberal Democrats would be vastly outweighed by the gains she is likely to make in the Labour heartlands.

It's possible that Mrs May looks at the polls; not just the headline figures but 'best Leader' and 'most economically competent too' and figures that there will never be a better time.

And it could be that the PM is banking on significant gains in the local elections in largely Tory shire counties in just over two weeks; the voting public won't make a protest vote just weeks before the big one, will they?

And whilst all of those things may be a factor in her decision it's not the main story; Theresa May is far more patriotic, far more serious than that.

Just weeks ago Mrs May triggered Article 50 to mark our withdrawal from the European Union.

We know that there is two years of hard negotiations to take place and simply put a majority of 17 or so MP's isn't big enough to ensure support for all of the measures she knows she's going to have to implement.

As preliminary talks take place at diplomatic levels take place it's absolutely right that the Prime Minister goes to the country seeking to increase that majority.

The EU Referendum changed politics forever and Mrs May needs to ensure that she has the personal mandate to do whatever is necessary to deliver the best outcome for Britain.

Now Theresa May needs the support of the electorate.

If we give it to her she will win and win big. That is what is needed to deliver the smoothest BREXIT for Britain.

It's time to get behind her, this is the most important General Election in our history