Saturday, 29 April 2017

It's time for a sensible discussion about pensions - my Catholic Universe column

Dear Reader, I must confess to you that I am writing this week's column in something of a rush.

I didn’t plan to be putting pen to paper quite so hurriedly but things didn’t work out so well today. Let me explain.

I’m a creature of habit and I always like to write my column for you at the same time each week. I tend to think, although I’m sure many would disagree, that it’s when my creative juices are flowing most freely.

So I was just about to sit down and start writing today when my wife shouted out that she couldn’t find her car keys. Sadly for me there could be no dispute that I was the last one to drive her car and despite all of vain protestations that “I’m sure I gave them to you” it was pretty clear that I was indeed the last one to see them.

My wife is a delightful woman although it is fair to say it’s best not to upset her and she we already running late for an appointment so dutifully I and my three children, who understand very clearly that a happy Mrs Spence is best for all of us, threw ourselves into find the missing keys.

We searched high and low for the best part of thirty minutes. We retraced our steps, we retraced the possible steps that the dog may have taken if he had found the keys on the floor, we retraced the steps that burglars may have taken if they had broken into the house causing absolutely no damage and left taking nothing with them. But still the keys could not be found.

Mrs Spence was not happy.

And then it struck me. Last night I had been reading an article which told me that burglars always looked for car keys in ‘the usual spots’; by the front door, on the stairs or on a key rack and that it was a good security measure to put keys in places that they would never think of looking.

That’s when I remembered that it might not be a bad idea to look in the lidded saucepan sat on the cooker and at last my dear wife’s keys were found. I expect to be forgiven sometime around next Tuesday.

I tell you all of this for a reason. I normally think of myself as a relatively sound, serious man. I like to think things through and arrive at rational decisions. You might not agree with my views but I like to think that in general I can explain why I do things.

But every now and then, like the story of Mrs Spence’s errant car keys, I do something remarkably stupid; and I must confess that today’s foolish mistake – the reason I’m writing this column in such a rush – was actually the second such error in two days. Let me tell you about the first.

I should have learned long, long ago that there are certain places you look to have rational, deeply thought debates. Those places include formal meetings, council chambers, coffee shops and over a couple of pints of best bitter late into the night in idyllic country pubs.

There is one place however that you should never try and enter into any form of rational debate and that is social media. Facebook is not a place for reason but for herd mentality but stupidly yesterday I forgot that key, crucial point and tried to discuss the funding of pensions with a friend on that forum.
The key problem is that unlike in a pub when you discuss something with a friend it is entirely possible that another friend of theirs may be listening and chipping in with salient points; on social media however ‘friends of friends’ is often code for ‘licence to abuse’.

Political parties of colours love pensioners. If there is one thing that every political activist knows, is taught from the very moment that they join a party it is that pensioner vote. You absolutely know that the vast majority of retired people will turn out on polling day, a sizeable minority regularly as clockwork vote using postal ballots way before then, and that their views will go a long way to determining the final result.

You also know that more often than not younger people don’t vote, that they are not going to determine the victor, and as such if you have a difficult choice to make to put it very politically ‘give to the old, take from the young’.

It’s a mantra that has been followed throughout the years but arguably never more so than with the last coalition government, elected in 2010.

As the austerity agenda kicked in, not just because it was politically expedient but also because it’s absolutely right to protect our most vulnerable and elderly citizens, protections for pensioners became the order of the day.

Bedroom tax didn’t apply to the elderly, neither did reductions in council tax benefit. Older people  still received free public transport, free TV licences and winter fuel payments. As universal child benefit was rightly being cut for higher earners with young children retired millionaires were still getting money to help with their heating although patently many didn’t need it.

But perhaps the biggest protection for older people was the state pension triple lock. The triple lock was introduced in 2010 and was a guarantee from the Tory-lead government that pensions would rise annually by either the higher of inflation, average earnings or at least 2.5%.

Practically, because both inflation and earnings have been growing at historically low rates, retired people have been receiving a 2.5% increase in their pensions. Or to put it in other words their income has been increasing faster than most people.

Now I completely understand that for the poorest pensioners 2.5% isn’t much and making ends meet is tough, but for those better off pensioners with private incomes a question has to be raised about whether the triple lock is both affordable and equitable to others.

The triple lock is going to be a big issue in the upcoming General Election campaign. At the time of writing the Labour Party has pledged to keep it in place for the next five years whereas the Conservatives have made no such commitment although they haven’t said they would repeal it either.

It is perfectly possible to have a rational debate about the triple lock and come to a reasoned position on either side of the argument. I would advocate as budgets get tighter need become more important than entitlement, even with the elderly. On the other hand it could be argued that the concept of means testing is very expensive and universality means greater buy in to ideas from wider society. My point is there is a good debate to be had which would inform how we vote and possible even party manifestos. I’m just not sure that debate can be had on social media.

I made comments to my Facebook friend very much on the same basis as the ones set out above. But social media appears to be the place for ad hominem attacks so consequently I was told that I don’t ‘get anything’, that I’m a ‘bigot’, that I ‘regurgitate arrogant words’, the list goes on.

The reason I raise all of this is simple, Dear Reader, and I know you will understand where I’m coming from.

Politics is about ideas. We have just embarked on a seven week General Election campaign and that’s a lot of conversations, a lot of debates and I’m sure a lot of social media arguments.

Let’s try and be civil to each other. Disagree about ideas certainly but do it with a smile and a belief that the person voicing a different opinion is every bit as decent as we want to portray ourselves. That they are someone with alternative views not a monster or lesser being.

We’ve got a long way to go in this campaign, let’s pace ourselves.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Jeremy Corbyn: Not fit to protect our nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules for new councillors - my Coalville Times column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly let me mention planning permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The polls will inevitably get closer.

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

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Good Friday walks - my April Community Voice Column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever you choose to do have a wonderful Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

But I can guarantee you something.

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

And that question is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

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

So, that's it. Game on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Theresa May needs the support of the electorate.

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

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

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.