Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tragedy of Paris leaves us facing tough challenges in days to come - my Catholic Universe column

There are sometimes events that happen in our world when  we all remember where we were when we heard of them.

For past generations those events, I am told, were few and far between; VE day, the assassination of President Kennedy, man landing on the moon.

For my generation they appear to be altogether more frequent: the death of Princess Diana, the bringing down of the World Trade Centre, the London 7/7 bombings and now another one.

I shall never forget where I was when I heard of last weeks horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. I am sure every reader of this newspaper in the years to come will be able to do the same.

For me, I was sat in a hotel room overlooking the runway of an inordinately busy airport in Las Vegas, Nevada five thousand miles away from home, my wife and my children. I have never felt so far away.

I’ve written in these pages before about the American media being insular of not telling stories, no matter their gravity, outside the boundaries of their nation. For once I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The national news networks Fox and CNN dedicated their coverage solely to the emerging story. Local network affiliates lead their news programmes with the latest updates.

In a city so dedicated to enjoying oneself tourists were noticeably a little more sombre.

Just like many notable structures around the world the lights of Las Vegas’ equivalent to our own London Eye were changed to those of the French Tricolor.

Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the lights on The Strip’s own scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower at the suitably named Paris Las Vegas hotel were turned off. A small number of people mostly European and lead by our French brothers and sisters gathered to pray and comfort one another.

That a place normally of such excess became a makeshift shrine mirrors the stories of 14 years ago when tourists congregated across the other side of the road outside the appropriately named New York New York hotel with its own smaller version of the Statue of Liberty.

Watching the news and hearing witness statements from those caught up in the Paris atrocities makes it very easy to talk of a fractured world.

It is absolutely clear to us in the west that whilst the vast majority of our Muslim brethren  have no sympathy for the actions of murderers and terrorists there is a small number of extremists who misguidedly espouse that great religion. Those awful people have now misappropriated a region and have renamed themselves, and it, Islamic State.

The reason I was in Las Vegas was to escort my mother and step-father on what will in all likelihood will be their final trip to the United States, a country which they both love.

Whilst both of them, at 79, are in decent health for their age my mum cannot walk any great distance and uses a wheelchair for anything further than a hundred or so metres. I am sure that whilst both of them would love to return in the future once they tick over to 80 years old the cost of travel insurance will become prohibitive.

The reason I tell you this is simple, if not in small part hoping that you don’t think less of me for visiting such an hedonistic place. Accompanying two older people to Las Vegas highlights to me at least the genuine decency of ordinary people.

Time and time again this week I have pushed my mother, in her wheelchair, along The Strip. Time and time again when going through a door or trying to navigate a step strangers have paused their own holiday momentarily to ask if they can help with anything.

These people, more often than not young men and women, are taking a couple of days off from their jobs and could quite understandably be focussed on enjoying themselves to the full but instead at the sight of someone struggling with a wheelchair they pause and they help.

To me those momentary interventions are more than a sign of good manners, although my experience is that most Americans tend to have manners  in bucketloads, they are small glimpses into the genuine generosity of the human spirit.

On the whole our communities are full of good people, our society is a decent one. Of course, not everything in Britain, France or the United States is perfect but it is firmly my belief that we massively benefit from a socially progressive, Christianity derived values culture.

It was a surprise to absolutely no one that in the hours and days that followed those Paris atrocities countless people took the minuscule but in these days important step of changing their profile pictures and saying  ‘we stand together’, ‘we will not be bowed by terrorism’, ‘our way of life, the freedoms, the tolerances enjoyed by us and our neighbours will go on’.

For all of our faults our western way of our life with our values, our democracy, our tolerance is desirable not just to me, a middle aged white man, but to countless millions of others irrespective of their race, colour or religion.

It is a way of life that we pride and it is a way of life that we must, sadly, at times be willing to fight in order to protect.

Following the world changing events on September 11 2001 US President George W Bush in a speech to a joint session of Congress declared that America, and by definition its allies, was locked in a ‘war on terror’.

14 years later and French President Francois Hollande has used very similar words to describe the events in his country.

There is absolutely no doubt that our  western democracies are not ‘at war with Islam’ but with extremists willing to use the name of that religion for their purposes.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear. Defence by military force can be used where the damage inflected by the aggressor is lasting, grave and certain. Force can be utilised where other means of putting an end to the aggression have been shown to be impractical or ineffective, where there are serious prospects of success and where our use of arms does not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated.

In taking on extremists willing to use terrorist tactics against us, who claim statehood for their enclave despite millions of decent followers of Islam trying to escape their control, it is time to think very seriously once more whether the use of force in the air and on the ground is necessary.

Such a step should never be easy to palate but it is right to consider taking it, keeping in mind the teaching of the church, for our allies, for our way of life but most importantly because overwhelmingly we are decent people.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Expecting more for our town

In what is fast becoming a conclusion that is as self-evident as the religion of the Pope or the woodland habits of bears last week the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced their five-yearly review focussing on whether Britain has become a fairer place in the intervening period since their last look at our nation.

Whilst their report shows that there have been ‘winners’ in that period there have also been significant losers.

Perhaps the main headline of their report is that whilst Chinese and Indian pupils perform better than other ethnicities at school Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have seen the biggest improvements in educational outcomes.

The worst performing students across the board? White pupils, especially boys, from poorer backgrounds.

The truth is of course there is absolutely no surprise in the EHCR’s report, professionals have been highlighting the trend for some time.

In December last year OFSTED produced their annual report for 2013/14 for the East Midlands. The executive summary of that document was direct when it said ‘White British children from poor families achieve much less well than others’.

If that message isn’t quite crystal clear enough OFSTED went on ‘Levels of deprivation and unemployment are high in the former coalfield areas (OFSTED’s emphasis), which include… parts of Leicestershire.’

Parts of Leicestershire? I wonder where could they possibly be talking about?

I am hugely proud to live in Coalville and privileged to represent Whitwick and Thringstone at County Hall but let’s be frank. What sort of reputation do we have outside of our immediate area?

How many times have us Coalvillians heard jokes about having six fingers? How often do we hear comments about ‘Coalvile’? For heaven’s sake our town even gets labelled that way on road signs.

Even in the corridors and meeting rooms at County Hall the unintentional, I’m sure, ridicule continues. As long as I serve on the Council I will never forget the comment of a colleague, on record, who represents an area not ten miles away that ‘he didn’t know where Coalville was’. Would anyone make the same comment of Melton Mowbray or Market Harborough? I doubt it.

But we in Coalville are also partly to blame.

I was born and raised in Thringstone and during my entire childhood I was told regularly that ‘education doesn’t matter’. I know I wasn’t alone in that regard.

In our areas of deprivation, and Coalville still has some of the most deprived areas in the region, just how many children are being given that self-same message today?

We must do so much more. Leicestershire’s ‘former coalfield areas’ do have some outstanding schools but our expectations of them have to be at least as high as those in the affluent parts of the county. Without being so the gap will never close.

The aspirations of all parents must be for their children to do every bit as well as those in Market Bosworth or Ashby, and a belief that they can.

Let’s be brutally honest. No one is going to raise Coalville out of being in that losing demographic unless we do so ourselves.

Our town is great but we can be so much better. We all owe it to our children; councillors, professionals and parents to work harder on closing the attainment gap.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Oh, the irony as I find myself rooting for unelected Lords - my Catholic Universe column

Regular readers of this column may well have by now gathered that I have a something of a problem with double standards. I hate them and, although we are all guilty of them from time to time, whenever I see them I try to redress the balance.

Close viewers of Westminster politics will rightly assert that the past week has been a classic for hypocrisy and for me, at least, I think it’s time to set the record straight.

With many MP’s wanting to get home to their constituencies Fridays are usually something of a light day in parliament. They are a day for non-contentious government business and often a day for other matters such as private members bills.

Last Friday was one such day. Labour backbench MP Julie Cooper had won a place in the lottery of private members bills and her Hospital Parking Charges Bill had been scheduled for debate in the chamber.

Ms Cooper’s bill was an excellent one. Carers are undoubtedly some of the most undervalued members of our society, they often carry out untold hours of work looking after the sick and infirm often for hardly any financial compensation.

Had her bill been successful Ms Cooper’s proposed legislation would have saw carers visiting the hospital afforded the ‘luxury’ of not having to pay for car parking. Hardly an extravagant gesture when carers will usually be visiting to provide assistance to their charges but nevertheless a worthwhile one when considering the contribution they make.

The only problem is Ms Cooper’s excellent bill didn’t stand a chance of becoming legislation for one very straightforward reason. A small number of Conservative parliamentarians lead by Tory MP for Shipley Philip Davies had decided to talk the bill out.

To be brutally honest I have no idea what Mr Davies has against providing free hospital parking for carers, it seems to me like a perfectly laudable idea, but last Friday he took to his feet and spoke for 90 minutes to ensure that there was not enough time for a vote to be taken which would have allowed the bill to progress.

The process of talking out a bill is known as a filibuster and has been around since Roman times.

Supporters of the bill, many from the left of the political spectrum, went wild pouring scorn on Mr Davies for his use of this parliamentary tool. How could one man be so callous as to use this awful antiquated device to stop an excellent bill?

And that is where the double standards kick in.

I think Mr Davies is wrong in opposing such a worthwhile bill, something that I very much hope will eventually get picked up by government in order to ensure its success can be guaranteed, but he was entirely at liberty to use the concept of the filibuster.

But my question has to be how many of those castigating Mr Davies would have been applauding American Democrat State Senator Wendy Davis, in June 2013, when she conducted an 11 hour filibuster which made global news to prevent the passing of a bill limiting abortion rights?

How many would have lauded Liberal Democrat MP’s who, in 2007, talked out a private members bill seeking to exempt Members of Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act?

My point is this. Filibusters have been around hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sometimes they help our viewpoint and sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t it should not mean that they become a reprehensible concept.

We shouldn’t castigate Mr Davies for his use of the filibuster although it is perfectly correct to disagree with him on his viewpoint that Ms Cooper’s bill was worth voting upon.

As someone wisely once said we should play the ball, not the man.

Astonishingly however Mr Davies’ use of questionable parliamentary process wasn’t even the most notable occasion that that topic had raised its head this week.

That honour has to go to the House of Lords and Working Tax Credits and I would put a great deal of money on the likelihood that those criticising Mr Davies for his use of obscure parliamentary procedure were joining in the chorus of approval when the unelected peers effectively scuppered the will of the elected House of Commons.

The behaviour of the House of Lords has been a difficult circle to square this week.

We have a Conservative government with a working majority of MP’s who have introduced what even Tory colleagues tell me is an appalling piece of legislation which will only harm the working poor which has nevertheless passed properly through the House of Commons.

For well over a hundred years there has been a general acceptance that the upper house should not hinder the passage of financial bills but seemingly last week it would appear that is exactly what their Lordships did.

Of course no one is quite sure whether they did or not. Surely every departmental bill sent for scrutiny has elements of finance so when is a bill to do with money and when is it not? And, of course, when is a bill a bill and when is it a statutory instrument which has not gone through the same rigorous procedures in the Commons?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have been appalled with the Lords but the simple fact is, it would seem, they did absolutely nothing wrong other than use obscure procedures on this occasion to arrive at exactly the right result providing some much needed relief to some of our nation’s poorest families in the process.

I must say that I’m beginning to have quite an affection for the House of Lords.

Yes, I know they are undemocratic and I understand that overturning the will of the elected chamber is somewhat dubious but there is something slightly marvellous in having the backup of a group of experts, for that is what most of them are, who never have think about being elected so can genuinely look to what is right and wrong rather than popular or unpopular.

It’s comforting to know that the Lords isn’t full of Conservatives having largely been appointed under a Labour or coalition government. Similarly it will be reassuring to know that by such time as Labour take office once more Tory appointees will in all likelihood have gained the upper hand providing an effective block to the worst extremes of the far left.

Just like the leaders of our own faith isn’t it gratifying to know that there are a group of men and women whose only focus isn’t remaining popular enough to re-enter office next time around?

Politics is genuinely a marvellous thing. Decent men and women from all walks of life have entered Westminster largely using processes that have remain unchanged over the years. The reasons they have remained the same is because, on the whole, they provide stable and progressive government.

Even though we may disagree with them sometimes we need to reflect on how decent our politicians actually are.