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

Monday, 17 April 2017

Councillors are overwhelmingly decent - we should be grateful: My Coalville Times column

In just a few weeks time my term of office as County Councillor for Whitwick will come to an end and for the first time in the better part of a decade I will no longer be an elected representative of the people on a highly politicised, district or county council.

As I prepare to step down I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my time as one of your councillors.

I am sure that there are many things I will look back on over the coming weeks with fondness or a wry smile, who knows I may even mention some of them here?

I will remember battles over HS2 and the rail freight interchange near to Castle Donington; I will reminisce about the closure of Snibston Discovery Park and be hopeful for its rebirth in the coming months; I will ponder over the successes of bringing derelict buildings back into use whether that was The Fox and Goose, The Pick and Shovel or in the very near future Coalville’s bus depot.

I hope and believe that as Britain moves out of a decade long economic torpor I stand down, admittedly having played a very minor role, with our district being at the forefront of job creation and new homes. I believe, although others may well disagree, that North West Leicestershire is in a better position than it was at the end of the last decade.

But as I stand down it won’t be all of those initiatives that will be at the forefront of my mind. Let me explain.

A few years ago I was telephoned by a homeowner in my patch who just so happened to have made a planning application. We discussed his plans for some time, I wasn’t on the planning committee at that point, and I told him on a personal level that I didn’t think they should be approved.

The homeowner was incensed and started ranting at me about how the approval of councillors could easily be bought.

It wasn’t the first time that I had had similar comments made to me and I answered in the same way that I always did.

“If you believe that councillors can be bribed so easily then please give me some evidence. There is no room in local democracy for crooks and if you have proof of wrongdoing I will be the first to take the matter further.”

It came as absolutely no surprise to me, and shouldn’t to you, that no evidence was forthcoming. No one who has ever made allegations to me, that this councillor or that officer was ‘on the take’ has ever provided me with one scintilla of proof.

All of which brings me to my main point.

Most people don’t know who their elected representatives are; a few will have heard of them.
When you don’t know someone it is far easier to question their motives, I’ve heard it done many times.

But as someone who knows all of the elected representatives on our district and county councils I would like to make an observation.

There are many councillors with whom I have had disagreements; there are even a very small number I don’t really like (it’s OK the feeling is probably mutual); but I would stake my reputation that the vast, vast majority of those seeking election to the County Council in a few weeks time are doing it for the right reasons.

Most councillors are hugely public spirited, they want to make their communities better places to live.

The vast majority of any party aren’t doing it ‘for the allowances’ but because they want to drive change; they’re even prepared to put up with public ridicule to deliver it. Do you know how scary it can be to knock on someone’s door and ask for their vote?

So in a few weeks time when you go to the polling station to cast your vote please do stop and think for a minute. You may disagree with the candidate or their manifesto; you may think that some of them are stark raving bonkers (a few are); but please don’t for one minute think they are standing for election to pocket a few quid.

Over the past years I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing councillors of all parties; by and large we are very lucky to have the public spirited elected representatives that we do.

I really do wish that those who are so ready to insinuate about how poor our councillors are really took the time to get to know them.
     

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Easter message - compare and contrast with other religions

It's Easter Sunday morning and today Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his Easter video message.

Jeremy Corbyn | Happy Easter | 2017
As millions mark Easter around the world, it’s a time to reflect on the challenges we face and what our response should be.
Posted by Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday, 15 April 2017


And because I'm awake before anyone else in the house I thought it would be interesting to contrast this video with similar messages Mr Corbyn has issued for other religious festivals.

Here's one for Eid.


And another for Vaisakhi

Jeremy Corbyn | Happy Vaisakhi | 2017
I would like to wish everyone in the Sikh community, in this country and across the world, a very happy Vaisakhi.
Posted by Jeremy Corbyn on Thursday, 13 April 2017


Is there a same style of delivery in each video? Does Mr Corbyn seem equally at home with each message?

Interestingly I couldn't find a video for Passover. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

May volunteering says a lot about the difference between her and Corbyn

A few days ago I went to interview a local small businessman for an article I’m writing, as things often do in this type of situation after we had finished the interview proper talk moved on to other issues and we ended up chatting politics.

‘So, what do you think of Theresa May?’ I asked after a few minutes.

‘You know, throughout my life I’ve always been a Conservative voter but Mrs May is different from most Tory leaders: I really like her.’

I must admit it was a comment that didn’t surprise me at all.

Time and time again the same word keeps coming up from people who I speak to; and very definitely not just lifelong Tories. They ‘like’ Theresa May.

And it strikes me that being liked is important.

Since having that conversation I have asked people what it is that makes Mrs May likeable?

It’s certainly not an ability to tell jokes at Prime Ministers Questions; it’s definitely not being a sparkling orator or even necessarily coming across as particularly warm in interviews.

So given that the vast majority of us have never met her why do so many of us profess to liking this woman who can, at the very least come across on television as somewhat robotic?

One Twitter user told me “I could say this, Ken Clark is not someone I see eye to eye with on all sorts of things, same with Croydon North MP Steve Reed but I feel I'd enjoy a pint with both.”

But what makes a politician likeable, I asked? “Thinking about it (I) just have the impression they’re earnest.”

Another Facebook user responded a little differently “I don't think she's 'likeable' - very few Conservatives are, very few politicians generally, to be honest. What she does do is project an image of being a safe pair of hands in a time of chaos, particularly when the official opposition is doing the opposite. The Tories have always excelled at that - 'you don't have to like us but at least we keep the wheels on'. Generally, I think the most successful PMs have been the ones who are least liked... I think that's why she'll win and win big.”

And whilst both of those observations may well be highly accurate it was only when I read this morning’s Times that I think I fully understand why I, and quite possibly others, like Mrs May as much as I do.

If you peruse today’s press, certainly not on the front pages, you will see photographs of the Prime Minister volunteering with the marshalling at her local Good Friday road race, the Maidenhead 10.

Mrs May’s local newspaper, the Maidenhead Advertiser, reports that she “can be seen marshalling the race most years”.

And it struck me being a race Marshall is the epitome of likeability.

As someone who taken part in more than my fair share of road races over the years I know how important voluntary marshals really are.

Marshals turn out often on cold and wet mornings to stand in remote spots ensuring competitors take the right route and encouraging them onwards.

Marshals, especially when you’re near the back of the field as I usually was, make a race, they lift your spirits and the thousands who take part week after week around the country are completely unsung and yet without them races would simply not go ahead.

Marshals literally get nothing from the job they do apart from the sure knowledge that they are helping their community.

And this woman whose day job sees her leading our Government has, most years – long before the paparazzi turned up – given her free time to volunteer.

In many ways Theresa May is living proof of the Big Society that David Cameron espoused but never really bought into.

I would venture that Mrs May’s race marshalling does as much to explain her sense of community as Jeremy Corbyn’s endless taking the stage at protests does to explain his.

One is about actions; one is about words.

I think I know which option most of us ‘like’ more.

And why agree with my Facebook correspondent. I think she will win and win big.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Free anything sounds good - but is it best value for money? Labour's Free School Dinners Policy


I should like, if I may Dear Reader, to start this week’s Easter column with what’s known in the trade as an ‘extended metaphor’.

I shall try and highlight to you how, in many quarters, a seemingly popular idea is invalid by comparing it to something altogether more ridiculous.

Now I must admit extended metaphors can often be a bit clunky, I remember writing one in another publication trying to persuade Leave voters to switch to Remain during the EU referendum campaign by comparing Britain to a magical fairytale land.

Look how that turned out and you can still find my dodgy piece on a major news website!

But today I shall give it a go. All I ask of you, Dear Reader, is to try and stick with me and if you can’t then come back next week when I am sure I will be back to my senses.

Let me ask you how you would feel if I were tell you that I was going to buy you an Easter Egg?

You may well say to me ‘Thank you, that’s very kind’ and go on about preparing Easter Sunday lunch. You might say to me ‘Great, but I didn’t really need one.’

Others still might say ‘Thank, but I don’t really like Easter Eggs’, whilst a few charitable souls may well tell me ‘That’s very kind, but I’m sure others need Easter Eggs more than I do, please give mine to them.’

In short if I were stand at the back of your church this morning handing out Easter Eggs there would be a whole range of responses many grateful and some less so.

The reason that I bring this up is a story which occurred last week of a policy announcement by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Mr Corbyn announced that if Labour were to win the next election his government would introduce free school dinners for all primary school children.

On the face of it ‘free’ anything is a vote winner, we all like free things and when it’s free things for children and hard pressed parents how can it possibly be bad?

But whilst I’m sure that most people would on the face of it like my free Easter Eggs idea when you start to look a little deeper you realise that maybe there would be smarter policies for me and Mr Corbyn to announce.

During the last coalition government, largely due to the junior partner Liberal Democrats, an initiative was introduced to provide free school dinners for infant school children. In terms of simple numbers that initiative has been broadly a success.

In 2014, in the wake of the scheme’s introduction, in terms of pure numbers, 85% of children and their parents took advantage of ‘free dinners’, although take up did vary significantly from region to region. Whilst in inner city London 90.6% of all infant age children received their free meal in more rural and arguably more affluent areas such as the South East that figure dropped by around ten percentage points.

Although figures for subsequent years are harder to come by anecdotal evidence suggests that take up, in some areas at least, may have dropped significantly. A 2015 Daily Telegraph article reported that in places just 30-40% of children were taking advantage of the scheme; in many cases because the children simply didn’t like the food on offer.

And that is the first problem that I face with my metaphorical Easter Egg giveaway. Not everyone likes Easter Eggs and in many cases where that happens many people can well afford to buy Chocolate Bunnies, those ones with the little bell around their neck, instead.

You may well argue though that it is important for people who can’t afford Easter Eggs to get one, and under my hypothetical giveaway I would agree.

You might suggest that instead of giving Easter Eggs to everyone I simply give them to the people who would not be in a position to buy one themselves, I could call it a Free Easter Egg scheme, and then you might point out that isn’t that exactly what we do with Free School Dinners?

But I guarantee you that someone would suggest by giving out free Easter Eggs, which might be different from other paid for ones, it stigmatises those in receipt of the ones distributed for free. You could suggest that for free school dinners too. You could until I point out that these days with the advent of cashless catering and fingerprint scanning no one really know who is on free school dinners anymore.

And then, most of all, I fully accept this is where my analogy falls down you could suggest that a healthy, nutritious err Easter Egg – OK, let's stick with School Dinners - improves learning and whilst it may do even the researchers Mr Corbyn’s proposals rely on suggest that the jury is still out on that one.

But of course, and we all know this, there is really no such thing as a free Easter Egg and this ultimately is where the Labour leader’s plans are most difficult to palate.

For many years many Labour members have had problems with private schools, just like in health care they see the independent sector as a refuge for the rich. They see it as a prime target to be subjected to taxation. If the ‘one percenters’ can afford to send their kids to private school they can afford to pay more is a refrain that you will hear at many a Labour Party meeting.

Accordingly this envy of the wealthy, or perhaps hatred of people who dare to be different, is seen as the perfect way of paying for free dinners for everyone else. So Mr Corbyn  announced that he would raise the £900 million needed for his project by adding 20% VAT on school fees.

Sadly it shows how far out of touch he is with parents who do choose to send their children to independent schools. Mr Corbyn doesn’t seem to understand that many parents don’t send their children because they are rich but because they go without in other areas.

It may be that they don’t go on the family holiday that middle class parents with children at state schools do – middle class parents whose children would under Mr Corbyn’s scheme receive free dinners, it may be that they don’t drive a new car and it very well may be that they are already receiving a significant reduction on school fees.

Mr Corbyn doesn’t seem to get that for a great many parents 20% VAT would be the difference  between their child staying at an independent school or withdrawing them and sending them to a state school, which too cost money to us the taxpayers.

It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that imposing 20% VAT on school fees would end up costing the taxpayer more through children returning to the state sector than it would on paying for free dinners.

And, of course, if we absolutely must tax school fees (which we don't need to do) isn’t there a better use for them than paying for school dinners for everyone? Would that money be best used on children who need it most, you know, perhaps the ones that already receive free school meals?

For a long time now Labour members have been crying out for Mr Corbyn to announce some real policies. The very real problem is that whilst he has done just that it just doesn’t seem very thought through.

It may well be that borrowing my ‘Free Easter Egg’ idea would be more of a vote winner and because I’m feeling charitable, Mr Corbyn, I’ll let you have it and claim it as your own.

Have a wonderful Easter. 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Why the National Trust 'airbrushing' Easter matters

Who could have possibly thought that with Easter fast approaching and a news agenda full of the uncertainty of Brexit and the misery of atrocities around the world that one of the biggest, burning topics around water coolers up and down the country was the story of a treasured institution, chocolate eggs and a heated debate about whether commercialisation trumps heritage.

You wouldn’t for one second have imagined that was going to become a massive issue, but that is exactly what has happened.

It all started with that most innocent of things; an Easter Egg Hunt.

For well over a hundred years now the National Trust has been one of the leading charities in Britain.
The Trust is a massive and powerful organisation. In addition to owning 59 villages and managing 775 miles of our coastline the charity owns and manages more than 350 heritage properties around the nation.

The organisation holds a special place in the hearts of many, many ordinary people. Each year more than 4 million of us pay the fifty or so pounds to join as members; over 60,000 of us volunteer 3.1 million hours annually to help in stately homes and other properties owned by the Trust.

In so many ways the National Trust itself holds a position of trust in our nation. It is a guardian of our heritage, a vital part of our establishment.

I’ve always been very proud to say that my family and I have been members for many years. For as long as I can remember visiting properties has been an indispensable element of our family holidays; it’s been part our children’s education, instilling in each of them a love of our history and heritage; whether it has been watching spring lambing or autumn apple harvesting the National Trust has been an ever present component in shaping not just who we but countless thousands of others are.

And then last week for me, and I’m assuming many other thousands of Christians, the purpose of this iconic organisation and what it represents made me develop something of a sour taste in my mouth.

For a number of years now, presumably to attract in children and their parents the National Trust has run in many of their properties an Easter Egg Hunt. You know the type of thing? Have the kids running around the gardens of one of many magnificent stately homes to expend a little energy and earn the reward of seasonal chocolate treats.

Only this year the National Trust did what many organisations looking for funding do, they went out on the search for a commercial partner and ended up making a deal with chocolate manufacturer Cadbury.

All of a sudden the National Trust wasn’t advertising their Easter Egg Hunt; they were promoting, in the words of their website for the Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate, the ‘Signs of Spring Cadbury Egg Hunt’.

Mentions of Easter, that most wonderful of Christian celebrations, had been quietly and seemingly intentionally dropped in favour of the demands of a sponsor.

As you might expect something of a furore ensued.

A spokesman for the Church of England accused the National Trust of ‘airbrushing faith’; John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York said they were ‘spitting on the grave of John Cadbury’.

Even the Prime Minister got involved telling ITV news “I’m not just a vicar’s daughter – I’m a member of the National Trust as well. I think the stance they’ve taken is absolutely ridiculous and I don’t know what they’re thinking about. Easter’s very important. It’s important to me, it’s a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world. So I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous.”

Now, in fairness, the National Trust chose robustly to defend their position. They argued across their vast website there were over 13,000 mentions of Easter; they said that nothing could be further from the truth that they wanted to ‘air brush’ this solemn time.

But then the National Trust made a revealing claim; they said ‘We work closely with Cadbury, who are responsible for the branding and wording of our egg hunt campaign.’

And I think that in this whole debacle this is perhaps the most important, revealing statement about our National Trust and the world that we live in today.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Trust made a conscientious attempt to remove Easter from their promotional literature or whether it was simply a by-product; although a quick look at their website at the time the story broke would definitely lead you to seeing the confectioner as the key driver.

No, this story really is about the priority that one of, if not the major, custodian of our heritage gives to this most solemn of religious festivals.

The National Trust, even in their own statement, make a clear indication that they were prepared to leave the branding and wording to their commercial partner.

It wasn’t their choice to drop the word ‘Easter’ from their East Egg Hunt campaign, they simply thought that it was an acceptable by-product of a sponsorship deal.

That isn’t what we should be expecting of a charity trusted by millions.

For many years we have seen a commercialisation of Christmas. The Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are coming’ adverts have almost become synonymous with that religious feast.

In fairness if Coke or Cadbury want to drop mention of religious faith from their advertising in many ways that is up to them; in the same way it’s entirely up to us if we choose to buy their products.

But the National Trust is different. History and religion and our faith are indelibly intertwined. In a Christian country it matters that our iconic institutions preserve that relationship rather than selling naming rights off to the highest bidder.

34Would the Trust consider selling the naming rights of their properties? Would they change their guidebooks and brown signs to read ‘Chartwell – brought to you by Churchill Insurance’?

Even though the insurance company and their nodding dog persona would be a fantastic match for the former Prime Minister’s country residence clearly and rightly it’s not something the Trust would even countenance.

For Christians of all denominations Easter is every bit as important as any property and should be to The National Trust too.

Now I have no doubt, for all of the bluster and ‘robust defences’, that over the past week conversations have been had in the upper echelons of the organisation that this type of public relations disaster must not happen again. But that doesn’t mean that we as Catholics mustn’t stay vigilant.

We must defend our Christian faith and this most wonderful and mystical of celebrations from creeping commercialisation.

I do want to say just one thing in conclusion. I’m not going to cut up my National Trust membership card, we trust members are far more sensible than that; we don’t do outbursts of anger.

But I am cross so this year I will send a message to the National Trust of moderate annoyance and tell them in no uncertain terms I won’t be frequenting their tea shops. I will forego the usually wonderful cream teas in order to convey my own quiet protest. I urge you to do the same.

Have a holy and joyous Easter.





Friday, 3 March 2017

Politicians can't just play a 'fake news' card when things get tough - my Catholic Universe column


Last week, in a quite corner of Cumbria, a seismic political event happened. The Conservative Party, the party of Government, won a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Copeland from their official opposition, depending on how you measure these things the first time that such a victory had taken place in almost 140 years.

A seat that Labour had held since 1935 had become vacant by virtue of the fact that the sitting MP, the extremely likeable Jamie Reed, had found himself a new job. The ensuing by-election campaign, from a Labour perspective at least, was one of the most distastefully fought in modern times.

Amidst the leaflets from Labour implying that babies would die if you were to vote Conservative there was great discussion as to whether the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and by extension his party supported the nuclear power industry which so many jobs in the constituency rely upon.

It was a perfectly reasonable question to ask especially considering that there was indeed quite clear evidence to support that in the past, at least, Mr Corbyn had been very much against the industry.

When Mr Corbyn first campaigned to become Labour leader he issued a manifesto document called ‘Protecting our Planet’. The document clearly states “I am opposed to fracking and to new nuclear on the basis of the dangers posed to our ecosystems” before going on to say “New nuclear power will mean the continued production of dangerous nuclear waste and an increased risk from nuclear accident and nuclear proliferation”.

As many readers are aware I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn but it seems to me that he is known for his principled positions and his policy document seems to honour a stance which, whilst I am not in agreement, is equally clear and unambiguous.

I certainly don’t intend on writing a dissection of Labour’s shocking electoral loss here. Those critical of Mr Corbyn will see him as a key reason for the defeat, his supporters will not be swayed no matter the evidence. But I do want to focus on one particular element of the post mortem.

On the Friday morning after the Thursday night before one of Mr Corbyn’s principle supporters, Emily Thornberry MP, was sent out to the waiting media to defend him.

Appearing on Sky News Ms Thornberry said “Word had got out the Jeremy wasn’t in favour of nuclear power. That isn’t true. That’s what you call fake news.”

And it is that term ‘Fake News’ that I want us to consider today.

Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn it was undoubtedly reasonable, given his previous statements on the nuclear power industry, to question whether he was supportive of the main industry and source of employment in that part of Cumbria.

When Mr Corbyn was subsequently interviewed by ITV News in late January he was asked specifically on five occasions whether he supported a new nuclear power plant at Moorside in the constituency. Each time he deflected the question and refused to answer directly.

With both his previous statements and his evasiveness in response to direct questioning it cannot therefore be possibly true that Mr Corbyn’s positioning on nuclear power was ‘fake news’.

In saying it was Ms Thornberry was unequivocally doing something we are sadly seeing more and more of. Trying to claim that undeniable facts are in some way false, trying to blame the media for reporting inconvenient truths.

Of course the spectre of fake news isn’t something that started necessarily on this side of the Atlantic and in many ways the Labour propaganda machine are something of novices.

For real mastery of the term ‘fake news’ we must look to the new President of the United States, Donald Trump.

It is almost impossible to quantify the role that this new term played in the election and subsequent administration of Mr Trump. A quick search on Google for the term ‘Donald Trump Fake News’ will result in over 55 million hits.

Every time the media challenge the Trump administration, often in the face of demonstrable facts, look no further than the question of how many people attended President Trump’s inauguration, spokesmen or the President himself will fire back that the news outlets themselves are being driven by a ‘fake news’ agenda. That they are the enemies of the people.

And, simply put, things are getting far, far worse. Last weekend an off-camera press briefing from the White House press secretary Sean Spicer saw news organisations, largely those most seen to be most critical of the President, excluded from the event.

Respected news outlets as diverse as CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, Daily Mail and BBC amongst others were shut out whilst those seen as more supportive of the administration notably including Fox News and the new media organisation Breitbart, whom President Trump’s closest advisor Steve Bannon is an ex-Chairman, were very much on the list to get in.

There is a hugely important point here. The job of a news organisations is never to acquiesce to politicians but to investigate and challenge.

Clearly all too often politicians would very much like to ignore and deflect the questions that journalists ask of them. It does not however mean that those questions are invalid or that the news that arises from them is fake.

It’s undoubtedly true that news organisations have political stances whether that is the left leaning Guardian through to the more conservative Daily Mail. We can broadly agree with those editorial positions or choose to seek our news from an outlet more in tune with our own beliefs.

What is indisputable however is that each one of those bodies excluded by the Trump administration follow a journalistic code of ethics of properly sourcing and researching stories that has been passed down over the generations.

Each of those shut out organisations has ethical standards far higher than many of the new news media sources that we see proliferating our social media pages and as consumers of news we have duty to give those organisations the regard that they warrant.

It is an extremely dangerous precedent to accept the shutting out of mainstream media from important press-conferences just as it is an inconvenient truth that more and more politicians are decrying stories they happen not like as being ‘fake’.

The Catholic Universe is a publication which has been published for well over 150 years. Every one of us who writes for this esteemed newspaper is conscious of the need for research, for accurate reporting and for balanced commentary. Because of that, I am sure it goes without saying, we are proud of the reputation that we have built for decency and relevance.

Every time that I put pen to paper, or these days start typing, I know that what we are doing is more than ‘fake news’ created to fit in with our editorial leanings.

There is undoubtedly an, at times, awkward relationship between politics and the media. As someone with a foot in both camps I know only too well that sometimes I would like the press to report things I say on different ways just as I would like politicians to give straight answers.

But ultimately I understand that it is far better for us all to have a media who can challenge rather than one in the pockets of our leaders.

‘Fake News’ is, far too fast, becoming the get out of jail card for politicians who seek to deflect their own failings. We cannot  accept that narrative or be fooled by it.





  

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Chips - my Whitwick & Surrounding Areas Community Voice column


A couple of weeks ago I went to pick my daughter up from her dance class. The studio is about a mile from our house and as she left the building on this particular cold, crisp night she noticed that my car was missing.

“How are going to get home?” she asked with a somewhat perturbed look on her face.

“I’ve got a special treat for you,” was my reply “we’re walking.”

Now to the vast majority of 12 year olds walking for pleasure is something of an alien experience but I had a trick up my sleeve. We were going to relive one of my most vivid childhood memories, we were going to stop for chips en route and walk home devouring them, their heat warming our hands as our cheeks froze, the smell of salt and vinegar tickling our nostrils and ever so slightly burning our lips.

I had travelled back thirty years, only this time I was the parent, what an amazing feeling to be making memories from the simplest of pleasures.

When I was growing up my mum used to drag me in tow to her ‘Ladies Bright Hour’ meeting every Wednesday night at Thringstone Methodist Chapel the bribe would be that if I was good I would get to visit Ruby’s for my own portion of open chips for the way home.

By my childhood of course the eponymous Ruby had retired and her shop had been purchased by a young Cypriot couple, Michael and Sonia Demetriou. Today, forty years later, they are still at the shop every bit as much a fixture of village life as Ruby had been in her era.

I went to catch up with the couple who first moved in to start their new lives taking over the long established business on 3rd October 1977, it must have been a daunting prospect considering Sonia had only given birth to their eldest of what eventually turned out to be five children just two weeks earlier.

“Things were certainly different then,” they tell me. “Chips were 14 pence, a fish was just 17p.”

Of course the way that we live our lives has forced changes to the business too. I reminisce about the times as a young man I could stagger out of The Queens Head at nearly midnight and still get some supper on a Friday night.

Michael smiles “Our busiest times used to be late at night when people were coming out of the pubs, but nowadays everybody seems to come at tea time and things drop off after 8.00.”

In the early 1990’s Michael and Sonia took a sabbatical returning to Cyprus for 4 years whilst the shop was run by Sonia’s brother, Clem.  On their return in 1995 the couple planned some major changes to the business, the menu saw the addition of the now legendary doner kebabs and southern fried chicken but perhaps most notably the fa├žade of the shop changed.

An extension brought with it neon signage, now familiar throughout North West Leicestershire and perhaps most notably glorious summer flower displays and at Christmas festive illuminations that are the pride of the village.

But through it all the heart of the business doesn’t change. Fish and chips are still produced in the same gleaming fryers Ruby used in her time. Michael and Sonia, now ably assisted by their son, are very proud of their five star hygiene rating. The quality remains as high as ever, the portions as generous, and you’ll still hear Sonia’s catchphrase “You wanna bag?” as she passes food over the counter to you with a warm smile.

I ask about retirement, their son Andy interjects “I’ll retire before my parents do!”

Michael agrees, the Demetriou’s and this Thringstone institution are planning on sticking around for a long time to come.

Quango scare story must not put us off honouring our local heroes - my Catholic Universe column


You have no idea, dear reader, of the journalistic bullet you have dodged in reading my column this week.


For probably the first time in my life the profession in which I studied and gained qualifications is relevant and I was, until I sat down to write this column, going to to stun you with my knowledge of obscure legislation in order to make the point that the media should indeed turn its attention a little more often to one of the largest burdens facing business in Britain today.


I am talking about our system, to give it it’s proper name, of Non-Domestic Rating; Business Rates to you and me and it’s associated domestic sibling, Council Tax.


Now I worked in the field of local government revenue collection for the best part of twenty years and I literally have forgotten more about it than most of us ever pretend to know. In fairness my memory isn’t what it once was and I am the first to concede it isn’t all that impressive a claim.


Nevertheless, I am sure that none of you will have missed that a Business Rates revaluation is due to come into force on the 1 April and virtually the whole media is railing against the potential damage that it could do to our high streets. For the first time ever my profession is current.


I was going to regale you with the inequity of the business rates system. To tell you that yes, some businesses see massive increases to their rates whilst others see reductions. 


I was going to shock you in the fact that the transition scheme introduced to protect taxpayers from excessive increases is directly funded from taxpayers with significant reductions, that if your rates should have gone down you may never in actual fact feel the full benefit because you are protecting others from increases.


And most of all I was going to tell the current furore over business rates is mainly caused by the scheduled five yearly revaluation having been delayed for two years and posit the question that if this is what it’s like with a revaluation after just seven years what disaster is there going to be when the government finally gets round to revaluing domestic properties after nearly thirty years. It will be chaotic.


I was going to say all of that in even greater depth than I already have. Just imagine how relevant albeit boring it would have been. I was going to do that right up until the minute that I started getting in the mind set to write by flicking through my newspaper and you, dear reader, dodged my journalistic bullet.


You see there was a story in the newspaper which caused my normal placid self to rage, something which I care passionately about and I venture that others may too. Let me explain.


Nearly thirty years ago now, back in 1991, a young girl in my town called Ruth Langham heard about the plight of orphans who to all intents and purposes had been left to rot in run down orphanages in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.


Ruth was visibly moved by the story and like many girls in their late teens and early twenties pledged to do something about it. The big difference was that unlike many girls Ruth actually did.


Ruth worked with children and decided to go to Romania, with the support of her family, to do whatever she could to help the desperate ones she had seen on television.


When Ruth arrived in the country she met eighteen month old twins Dumitru and Ion. The brothers had been born with cleft palates and learning difficulties and Dumitru in particular was in need of an operation.


Ruth arranged for the operation and begun plans to adopt the boys, a pair of infants with complex needs who may otherwise have been left in an institution.


Ruth and her family set up a charity and raised funds to help other Romanian orphans. I doubt that there was anyone in my town who didn’t know her or the amazing things that she had done. She had helped so many people and had become a mum to two children who may well have never known the love that she gave them if she hadn’t done what she did.


Ruth was a real life hero and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought the disease and saw her two sons become young men but then in 2013, aged just 42, she lost her battle.


Of course I knew of Ruth’s remarkable story and resolved to commemorate her memory in the only way as a councillor that I knew how.


I wrote to Ruth’s parents and asked for their and the twins permission to request that a street be name after her as a permanent memorial to her memory and the role that she had played in our community. 


Ruth’s family kindly agreed and now I am very proud to say that my town contains Ruth Langham Court, a small but lasting token to her memory.


It’s often said that to all but our immediate families the legacies that we leave are forgotten within just two or three generations. I firmly believe that for those who make notable contributions to our towns and villages there is no greater honour than dedicating permanent memorials. To my mind at least it certainly beats a developer concocting some ludicrous name to make an edge of town estate seem somehow idyllic.


So you can imagine my anger when I sat down to write this morning to read a story in The Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Streets should not be named after local heroes in case the are later found to be paedophiles, councils told’.


The story outlines how Geoplace, a government quango responsible for the National Land and Property Gazeteer, supported by a spokesman from the Local Government Association have issued guidelines to local councils that places should not be named after individuals in case they are subsequently linked to ‘inappropriate activities’.


The numerous stories that you will find in the media all cite the many sites named in memory of Jimmy Savile which have since been renamed after the revelations concerning his predatory behaviour with young children.


The stories go on to cite the cost to the taxpayer when names have had to be changed.


But I have a message for those civil servants at Geoplace or members of the Local Government Association or indeed councils. The vast, vast majority of those honoured for notable works are not paedophiles but remarkable, inspirational people who have made our communities richer in many, many ways. They deserve to be recognised and we have a duty to make sure their contributions affect future generations.

It is probably fair to say that it is difficult for me to be anti-establishment when by most definitions I am part of the establishment itself. Being a councillor, a writer, a charity trustee does the sort of thing to you.


But every now and then you hear a story which makes your blood boil and this is one.


How can you let the perversions of one man overshadow the amazing work of not just of Ruth Langham but the countless other people memorialised up and down the country for the works they have done or in many cases the lives that they have given.


No, on this one the quangos must be put back in their boxes, the right to honour people should not be removed.


The good news is, the Telegraph reports, that Marcus Jones, the Minister for Local Government is against the guidance but these type of guidelines have a funny way of being adopted by local government, usually in the name of ‘best practice’.


It’s not very often that I urged you, dear reader, to take action but for once please do. Write to you local MP and local councillor and demand that these silly guidelines are given the due consideration that they deserve. 


I would hate it if the next time a councillor proposed naming a street after a fallen soldier they were told ‘it’s not allowed we’ll call it Hedgehog Grove instead’.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Society has changed and now it looks like we love Big Brother - my Catholic Universe column

This week two seemingly completely unrelated issues have caught my attention. Both of them are the type of news story which start conversations in the workplace, or the pub, or the back of church after mass and both seem to be the type that after a brief discussion we simply go on with our lives.

It seems to me however that both stories indicate perfectly the changing society we are living in. Let me explain.

A few days ago the BBC, along with most if not all daily newspapers, ran a story proclaiming that two unnamed schools working alongside the University of Portsmouth had been conducting a research experiment where class teachers had been issued with police style body cameras to see if they helped in controlling bad behaviour.

The story, in some quarters at least, was seen as a direct response to the past criticisms of outgoing OFSTED boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of the curse of low level classroom disruption and the average of one hour a day’s teaching time which pupils can lose as a direct result.

It struck me that such a story is likely to evoke from readers and listeners a black and white, binary response and I undertook to ask people their views on whether such an example of ‘big brother’ watching our children was something that they found palatable. The outcome of those conversations was something of an eyeopener.

I corresponded with a headteacher of a secondary school who told me “Awful idea my concern, teachers will lose professionalism. Reliance on monitoring over than building positive relationships…schools are meant to be strong communities. Not police states”

Another correspondent, a perfectly decent political activist, told me “It sounds thoroughly illiberal, that’s what it sounds…I think parents would be appalled.”

But here’s the funny thing. I undertook to ask a group of parents their views and their response was somewhat different. One mum told me “There is a huge problem now with parents refusing to believe their children are disruptive, blaming teachers and allowing this behaviour. Creating a culture of teachers who no longer teach but spend their days in conflict with children who have no parental barriers…show them the evidence and protect our teachers! No one should fear this unless their children are going to get busted!”

Another mum said “I feel it’s a great idea and an opportunity for parents and teachers to truly analyse behaviour watching it back and in doing so let’s hope they can work together to resolve issues and and importantly support the children demonstrating unwanted and inappropriate behaviours which impact on not just themselves but others too.”

Overall there was far more support for the initiative from, for the want of a better word, ‘ordinary parents’ than there was from political types or education professionals.

Another story has caught my eye over past week too.

Last Monday The Guardian ran an article outlining how under new guidelines NHS hospitals have now been instructed to charge overseas patients for non-urgent care up front.

In a complete about face from current practice from this April onwards hospitals will be asked to check patients entitlement to NHS care and, in the words of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does. So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.

As you would expect with the more politically radical parts of the medical profession a boycott seems to be on the cards. One prominent doctor wrote on Twitter – seemingly forgetting the guidance that the new rules apply only to non-urgent medicine “Well I won’t be asking for their passport before resuscitating them, thanks.”

Whilst another wrote “What the hell? This is absolutely disgusting, the NHS should not be actively working to kick migrants out.”

Now putting aside for one minute the cost to our NHS of the treatment of foreign patients, according to the National Audit Office around £150 million pounds a year goes unpaid with  the expense borne by you and me, there is a wider question as to whether we ‘ordinary’ Brits would be happy to hand over our details to prove that we are entitled to medical care.

There is of course relatively little evidence to determine one way or the other.

Research carried out by the BBC and Ipsos shows that 74% of us are happy with the idea of increasing NHS charges for those from outside the UK. It doesn’t unfortunately go on to say how we might respond when asked for our passports.

Once again I pointedly went out to ask what people I came into contact with thought.

And here is the shocker, time and time again I encountered one very similar answer: “We should have identification cards.” The people I spoke with at least thought it entirely reasonable that we should carry around a document which proves to those in authority who we are.

Now to those amongst us for who memory is no longer our strongest asset I would remind you that indeed Identity Cards very nearly came to pass in this country just over ten years ago.

The then Labour government, whirling in a cloud of anti-terror laws, argued that the benefits of such a scheme would be significant. Indeed back in 2003 61% of those who responded to the Government’s consultation on the introduction of ID cards were supportive.

Of course over the years public support slipped, and even though legislation was enacted by the time the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, the ‘thoroughly illiberal’ programme was cancelled.

But here is the important part ten years down the line less and less of us, it seems to me, are concerned about ‘big brother’ watching us..

If we bother to think about it we know we are caught on CCTV countless times each day, but we don’t think about, because we also know that such cameras play an important part in our lives whether it is helping to apprehend villains  right through to keeping us informed of whether traffic is moving.

To many of us the only time we time we come into contact with biometrics is when we return from holiday and marvel at how quickly we can get through customs these days.

Most of us might think about sinister foreign governments stealing our data but then we think ‘there are 60 million records in this country, why would Russia want my information?’

Most of us understand that there are potential drawbacks to any system but when the good outweighs the bad, as it seems to in our modern day surveillance culture we not only live with it but we accept it.

In the coming months and years we will see far more stories where greater surveillance is touted as a proposed solution. My guess is that society will unflinchingly accept it.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

On joining the Conservative Party - the way forward for me, the way forward for Britain

As a lifelong Labour voter, and some time Labour councillor, I did something today which for many years I thought that I would never do.

I joined the Conservative Party.

For me it is the logical end to a journey which I have been on for a number years.

I want to explain as best as I can what has brought me to making that journey, that crossing of the great political divide.

It can be summed up in three words: decency, principles and self.

Decency

Back in early June 2013 I had been the leader of the Labour group at North West Leicestershire District Council for just over two years. One day I received a letter in the post from, Richard Blunt, my opposite number on the Conservative benches who happened to be the Leader of the Council, about the sensitive planning policy of making provision for travellers, a serious problem facing the district.

Without disclosing too much information because of a lack of local plan the district council had been losing appeal after appeal once planning decisions had been adjudicated by the inspectorate.

The Council leader was understandably concerned about this state of affairs but also acutely conscious of the fallout if his group were to positively address the problem. I was conscious of the need for the Tory administration to move towards resolving the issue, something that would have been difficult for them without cross party support,  and together we agreed that the mature, grown up thing to do for the good of the district was to work together.

I stipulated that given the potential repercussions I wanted my minority group to have equal standing with the Tory administration in a working party we were looking at establishing to work towards resolution on an evidence based basis. To his eternal credit Richard agreed and said he would take our plans back to his group.

On Monday 17th June 2013 I received notification from the Leader that his Conservative group had agreed to our plans, a big concession from them given the natural suspicion between the two parties. All I had to do was deliver the agreement of my group.

But I couldn’t do it. An hour of fierce debate which swayed between ‘it’s the right thing too do for our district’ and ‘let the Tories hang, we will benefit at the ballot box’ eventually came down narrowly on the side of putting perceived electoral advantage over the residents of North West Leicestershire.

I was disgusted that local Labour politicians who purported to be working for their communities would seek to cynically manipulate big issues for a few votes.

The facts stood for themselves, the Tories hadn’t taken such a cynical approach. They had reached out for unity to deal with a difficult issue, Labour had turned their backs.

I resigned as leader of my group on the spot. Of course there was the usual story of ‘work commitments’ but the truth is that was the night I had seen the difference between politicking and decency demonstrated to me perfectly.

Principles

When you become involved in local politics you realise, comparatively, how little power you actually have.

You are bound by the legislation created by higher powers (in particular when they tell you there are things that you MUST do), you are bound by the simple fact that you can’t spend more money than you collect and you are inextricably tied to one simple rule: we govern by consensus and whatever we do must ultimately be acceptable to us, the general public.

I have said time and time again that the easiest thing in the world is to be against things. Evoking that truism that ‘we oppose in poetry, we govern in prose’ running even the smallest of parish councils is constantly a battle of what you want to do versus what you can do.

When Theresa May took to the steps of Downing Street last July she gave a masterclass in that tough balancing act.

She spoke about the steps to improving social justice that had been achieved under the previous government. Indeed, Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nicholls highlighted the work Mrs May  had done personally on human trafficking in his comments on the Prime Minister taking office.

Mrs May spoke passionately about the challenges facing the impoverished right here in Britain.

As a white, working-class boy myself, a boy who went to state school and didn’t go to university I was physically taken aback that the plight of the generations that followed mine in the kind of area that I represent would become, perhaps for the first time, a priority for our government.

Mrs May was speaking to me.

If it takes miles to change the course of a supertanker, just think how much more is needed to change the course of a country.

In that speech on the steps of Downing Street I knew that keeping the country on track, both fiscally or socially, wouldn’t be easy. Change is often glacial, but I heard that the priorities and direction were the right ones for Britain and for the first time as a Labour voter I thought that a Tory, Mrs May, was the right person to steer the ship.

Self

I’m not going to lie. I’ve joined the Conservative Party because I am a little selfish too.

I want the best for me and the best for my family and I believe that now the Conservatives are the best placed to deliver that.

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘just about managing’ and, to an extent, that includes me.

My wife and I work hard. We want a nice house. We want to take our children on holiday once a year. We want to be able to choose to pay for them to do extra-curricular stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s no more than millions of others up and down the country want.

But it’s been tough over these past few years, it’s been tough for others too.

As a County Councillor I know only too well how difficult finances are at the minute. My own council has determined to increase council tax by 4%.  Leicestershire residents will find it tough and I know no one in the Conservative group is taking delight from such an increase.

It shows the difference between the Conservatives who understand the difficulty for working families and Labour who called for an even steeper rise.

It’s the difference between struggling to pay more because you know ultimately it is necessary and that increasing council tax is a last resort and struggling to pay more simply because the council has the power. It seems to me the difference between Tory and Labour right now is an understanding of the lives of those who are ‘just about managing’.

But it goes deeper. I’m passionate that our National Health Service remains free at the point of use, I’m sorry but as long as that continues I’m not wedded as to who delivers it.

I care about men and women who have to use public transport to get to work, I’m not bothered about artificially created politically motivated strikes aimed that hurt them and are little more than stunts aimed at ‘bringing down the government’.

I want to be a member of a political party who understands ordinary working men and women. When I joined I fervently believe that that was Labour. It isn’t any longer.

There is only one party and one leader that has the gravitas, the decency and the principle to make the country stronger for me and my family.

That party is the Conservatives. That leader is Theresa May.