Thursday, 30 December 2010

One more Quango bites the dust!

Tomorrow is the last day of existence of the QUANGO the National Women's Commission. It was founded in 1969 by Harold Wilson to, "ensure by all possible means that the informed opinion of women is given its due weight in the deliberation of government". All rather patronising stuff from the 1960s mindset.

It mainly represents women's groups and of course the views of it's commissioners. In 2007, Harriet Harmann reshaped it to be a body that would give her the views of women. Unfortunately, the commission appears to be dominated by middle class women from very privileged backgrounds. Of the 15 commissioners, 5 are very involved in politics, including the chair. 4 are prominent members of the Labour party and another stood for the Greens. Others have strong far left backgrounds. Not uncommon in the women's network but certainly not representative of women as a whole.

Records revealed from 1980 showed that then Government found it's role "extraordinarily vague". The person reviewing QUANGOs at the time, Sir Leo Pliatzky,was interested in getting rid of it. But Thatcher felt it would be too controversial and told him to "leave it well alone".

The QUANGO is like many small Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) that continue despite being well past it's sell by date because it is too much hassle to get rid of it. Last year the WNC had a budget of £661,000. Not a lot in the greater scheme of things compared to government expenditure but there are quite a few similar bodies. I am sure the women's groups will continue to work through groups such as the National Women's register and Women's Aid. It is right that the views of women are represented through the independent voluntary sector which is far more impartial and campaigning. And groups like the Fawcett society will continue to campaign for women's rights. The new Equality Act also opens up new avenues. So half a million saved, only a few billion more to go!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas

Nothing political or very interesting to say so I'll just wish people a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sure Start, uncertain finish

Sure Start centres were built all over England in "deprived" areas. In my own town of Prudhoe there is one in the East End of the town and where I work, in East Durham, there are Sure Starts in most villages and towns. Labour in Government rightly recognised that a child's early development was critical and that helping young mothers have support to get into the job market.

So it set off building a network of over 2,000 centres to provide such support at a massive cost, both in construction and running costs, in wards that on average contain the most people in poverty. It seems like the right thing to do. I work with Sure Start centres in work and in Prudhoe and they are led by dedicated managers and are full of great workers and volunteers. It should work and that was why, despite it being too early for evidence to come in proving the efficacy of the investment, Labour pressed on with more centres.

Now we have over 2,000 centres costing £885m to run nationally (2009/10), so we will be able to see the benefits. A 2006 study said that, despite the centres being in deprived areas, they did not have enough people using it who were disadvantaged. So the government spent £79m on outreach work. Reporting on this in January 2010, the National Audit Office reported that this had not been sufficiently effective and was not "cost effective".

Now the well respected Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University has done a study of 117,000 children starting primary school and reported that, "basic levels of development in reading, vocabulary and maths have remained largely unchanged". The Journal reports that Christine Merrell, who led the research, said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement. Our findings reinforce the concern the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them.”


Labour MPs seem to just want to fall back on anecdotal evidence of their experience that the centres are nice and not admit that merely building centres in deprived areas does not mean that they will be mainly used by middle class savvy parents. I wonder how many years it will be before they can't be grown up and admit that they got things wrong from time to time. During the election, I campaigned a lot on the former Bleach Green estate in Blaydon. It once was a very deprived council estate but is now a very nice private residential estate. The council has put a lovely sure start right by this estate. It is a deprived area but is largely used by parents in the nice estate opposite. It is always the case that even in the most deprived area, there are still sharp elbowed middle class parents.


With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if the government wouldn't have been better at targeting early year development for poorer families more directly in a way similar to the new Pupil Premium, where the resources are directly attached to the people in question. That means that poorer people in affluent areas get support and that silly geographical ward boundaries do not affect service delivery. In Prudhoe, this was shown by a parent who recounted how the Prudhoe Children's centre proposed to charge her more for childcare because she lived in a neighbouring ward, when people over the street (both in the affluent Castlefields estate in my town)  could get a cheaper rate.


However, we now have a massive network of sure starts so we need to make sure they work better at actually equalising the start that the poorest children make as they enter education. Studies show that progress made early makes a massive difference. I would propose that funding for these centres is structured so that the centres with the most quantity of people from poor families (regardless of which area they live in) will get a higher level of support.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Yes to Fairer votes in the North East

The launch of the Yes! Campaign HQ in the North East

I was really pleased to be at the opening of the Yes to fairer votes headquarters in the North East. The office is in Rotterdam House on Newcastle's Quayside and the dedicated North East Yes team have got a great set up. We went onto the Millennium bridge and then back into the office to ring some members of the North East public. Rather randomly, I got a sheet that included David Faulkner, the Lib Dem leader of Newcastle. Unsurprisingly he is backing the campaign.

The really good thing about this campaign is that this is not a Lib Dem campaign. At the launch were Lib Dem, Green and Labour party supporters but most notably lots of people who are new to politics and are not party political. There was a lot of young people from all kinds of backgrounds. I was involved (only a little!) in the disastrous regional assembly referendum, which was lost by a margin of 4-1. The yes campaign has realised that this referendum campaign has to be led by a much broader cross section of society than just politicians. Already it is resulting in a much more high energy campaign.

If you want to get involved and get a fairer voting system that will reduce "safe" seats and make MPs represent more than 50% of the electorate, then get involved. As someone who lives in a constituency (Hexham) that has been Tory since 1924 but where the MP has been elected in recent times on a vote share of 38% and hasn't had the get the majority of voters support for 18 years, I can see the benefits! Visit http://www.yestofairervotes.org/page/s/getinvolved  to get involved

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Prudhoe bridge campaign starts here

I was pleased to see a presentation of the proposed Local Transport Plan at the West Area Committee of Northumberland. I am optimistic that we are going to get a new river crossing into the plan. Under previous administrations, the need for a new river crossing was never recognised.

Anyone who lives in Prudhoe knows the impact that a proper link with the A69, like Hexham and Haltwhistle have, would help the town and residents a lot. The current bridge and road links to the A69 are grossly inadequate.

Getting the bridge on the list doesn't mean it will happen. Far from it. But at least it will recognise the importance of this link for the people of Prudhoe. It's a start and as we say up here "shy bairns get nowt!"

What is the point of the NUS?

Whilst at university, I dabbled in Student Politics. I was elected as a Newcastle University delegate to the annual NUS conference in Blackpool on a massive vote of (I think) 12 votes out of a potential electorate of almost 20,000. I was then driven in a minibus and put up in a three star hotel and wined and dined for four days. As a student this was the height of luxury. At the time the newly elected Labour government was introducing top up fees and the leadership under then president Andrew Pakes was very quiet on the issue. I soon learnt that virtually all the executive were aspiring Labour politicians and not willing to put students needs before their careers (Zoe O'Conell writes excellently about this) .

The current anti tuition fees campaign has been noticeable for how removed it has been from the NUS, which has considerable resources. Many of the most radical students (surely the only way to be as a student?) feel that education should be free. This of course is not the NUS position. The NUS, meanwhile, has spent most of its time beating Lib Dems over the head about their pledges to not raise fees. I am not happy about the coalitions deal on tuition fees but I recognise that Vince Cable and others have won compromises to make it as progressive as it can be.

The NUS meanwhile was emailling the government (see here)arguing that it should not raise the cap on tuition fees but instead raise interest rates on loans, which would hit all, and reduce grants for poorer students. Instead their solution would have actually been more regressive than the current package. Potentially Lib Dem ministers could have honoured their pledge to not raise fees but would have definitely failed in the second part, which was to increase fairness. As a Lib Dem helping people from poorer backgrounds go to uni is probably the most important thing. This package, which isn't ideal, achieves this more than Labours Graduate Tax or even the NUS proposals.

At the end of the day the NUS leadership has no credibility. After my trip to the NUS conference all those years ago, I was so disgusted by the excess and venality of the NUS I joined a doomed campaign to disaffiliate the Newcastle Students Union from NUS. I think students may need to consider whether there is much point to an NUS that promotes an even worse deal than the governments.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Sudan Genocide: we need to act

A drawing by a Darfuri child, showing their village being burnt and villagers being shot as they flee.
copyright - waging peace

I was in London on Monday to attend a meeting of the Lib Dem European Group, which works with other European Liberal Parties. I had the chance to go to a Liberal International British Group (www.libg.org.uk) lecture from Rebecca Tinsley, the inspirational chair of Waging Peace, (www.wagingpeace.info) a small NGO that works to collect testimony an help people suffering persecution in Africa. A lot of its work is in Darfur and in Southern Sudan.

I don't know a lot about the situation here but the testimony is harrowing and also inspiring. The Sudanese government is killing hundreds of thousands of black African people in Darfur and is desperately trying to impede the impending referendum in South Sudan on that region seceding from Sudan. Millions have been killed in the civil war in South Sudan

 The government of Sudan is a nasty Islamic regime, which wants its citizens to obey Sharia Law, even though many of them are not Muslims. Until recently, slavery was acceptable and there is considerable evidence of systematic use of rape and terror against its citizens. The shameful thing is that it is possible that the UK and the US are backsliding on our commitments. George W , ironically did a lot to advance the peace process here. The Obama regime appears to have “decoupled” the South Sudan issue from the genocide in Darfur. That runs the risk of forgetting about human right violations in Darfur in return for allowing the people of South Sudan their democratic rights.

What does the average person know of all this? Well its a long way away and we tend to dismiss Africa as hopeless. But Becky passionately advanced, we are all people and we cannot let governments kill their people without reproach. In Britain, Becky was concerned that the current mantra of putting trade relations first could marginalise human rights issues. I hope not and she has fired me up to find out more about this crisis and see what I can do. I have decided to ask for some donations to charities in Sudan instead of my normal Christmas presents because charity doesn't start at home, it starts with those most in need. Our problems in the UK suddenly seem much smaller.

Monday, 6 December 2010

FA from FIFA: Lets reclaim the beautiful game

I love football and the votes for England in the race to host the 2018 World Cup (just 1 apart from our own) was depressing. To be fair the USA and Australia must be even more perplexed as to how they lost out for 2022 to Qatar, a tiny country with a totally unsuitable climate for the tournament and no profile as a footballing nation.

The chance of a World Cup in England is probably not likely in my lifetime, so lets move to help the game we invented. Not by lecturing FIFA on how it is corrupt and dodgy, in the typically high handed aloof way we love in this country, but by cutting out the cancer in our game.

We have a professional league that is beyond all in its ability to generate money. But lower league clubs have no money and cannot foster talent. Our clubs have ignored FA rules to prohibit profit from owning clubs (that is why FC originally doesn't stand for Football Corporation) and colluded in turning football into a game that only profits a very small clique of mainly foreign footballers and a very small clique of foreign owners.

The book by David Conn, the excellent sports journalist who knows a lot about the murkier sides of UK football, The Beautiful Game, is a great primer for anyone doubting the need for reform.

Call me naive but here are some ideas for reforming the game:

-Bring back safe standing, as seen in Germany, so we can let fans into grounds at prices the working man can afford

-Rule that clubs going into administration have to start at the bottom again, stopping irresponsible spending. The only exception should be when clubs are taken over by supporters trusts, putting power in supporters hands

-The Football League should insist on small suppliers being priority debtors not footballers and other clubs. Maybe then clubs would think twice before selling a player to a financially suspect club.

-Impose a salary cap like in Rugby League and enforce strict points deductions for infringement

-Put in a levy, similar to what existed in racing, on transfer fees that goes to the grass roots game. The Football Foundation, which is funded by the FA and the Premier League, is a voluntary version of this but too often has to play the tune of its paymasters, whose player transfer budgets dwarf its investment in the grass roots talent in this country.

That would be a good start. People might argue that this is an illiberal impositions on the cowboy capitalist world of football but any GCSE economics student knows that markets need regulation. UK football has very little and before we start lecturing Herr Blatter and co perhaps we should put our own house in order.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Now lets have a balanced recovery

Yesterday, I posted about the cautious cause for optimism that the UK economy may be recovering and can stand the projected public sector cutbacks.

However, there is a big “but”. The picture is far from uniform across the country and more needs to be done to help depressed communities, that never saw the fruits of the boom, to develop an indigenous enterprise culture, rather than the only approach that has worked to date, bribing multinationals to inwardly invest.

Inward investment works in the short term but in the North East we have seen many firms come in and then go out as quickly as you can say “Slovenian subsidy”. The Siemens plant in North Tyneside was a classic example. Nissan is a glorious exception but none the less, it constantly keeps the pressure on the UK government for subsidies with threats to move production overseas.

I am not sure that any UK government has cracked how to boost very low levels of business start ups that hasn't just involved heavy subsidy to set up small firms that are not likely to grow to the size likely to produce that much work and probably would have set up anyway.

But somehow we have got to get there, or the North South divide will continue to get worse and our most talented children will move south every generation/ I am not sure throwing money at the problem is the answer but the local authorities need to be given the power to create dynamic areas. Maybe the Regional Growth Fund will help, and certainly the NI exemption in deprived regions is a help, but is it enough?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Europe and the UK economies - room for cautious optimism

If you believe everything the right wing papers and the Labour party say, you will believe that Europe is an economic disaster zone that is going to descend into chaos and that the UK has gone from a visionary economy into a basket case that must get even further into debt just to stop a complete meltdown. Strangely this total change in the UK economy apparently happened in early May 2010.

But strangely, the economic figures keep coming in which contradict this.

In Europe, yes the economies of the delightfully named “PIGS” - Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain look in trouble. But the first three are very marginal in terms of the Euro zone and only account for 5% of the EUs economy. One would have to ask if the Euro is such a bad idea, why Estonia is joining in January.

In the mainstream of the European economy its powerhouse, Germany, has posted quarterly growth figures of 9.5% and 3.9%. Poland is on 5.3% and other countries are posting strong recoveries to get them back to the level where they started at the beginning of the problems.

Even Britain, which suffered such setbacks over the past few years, has posted growth well above predicted levels. Seen in this light, Lib Dem support for spending cutbacks earlier than we thought prudent earlier in the year seems like a sensible change in approach. Fingers crossed but it looks like the Euro zone will be OK and the UK will grow enough to stand cutting public sector spend back to the levels of 4 years ago.

Friday, 3 December 2010

True Grit

I just wanted to pay tribute to the people of my town, Prudhoe, and the dedicated workers at the coal face who have worked for over a week tirelessly to keep it on its feet despite well over a foot of snow and temperatures that hit minus 15 centigrade on Friday morning.

This “snow event”, as I once saw it described in a council report, has been severe and when you live in a town built on a very steep slope, has the potential to cause chaos. At times the major roads were a bit dicey but the farmers employed by Northumberland County Council have done a great job gritting and ploughing the estates. One told me that the diesel in his tractor froze on Friday morning but he patiently warmed it up and got on with it. I am going to find out his name because he has done a superb job on estates in my ward.

The roads are only just passable in places and pavements are still not treated outside of town but residents have also played their part, looking after vulnerable neighbours and digging their streets out.

The only areas in which I think improvement is still needed is in Grit Bins and helping vulnerable residents. The County Council had a problem last year in that it didn't know where all the grit bins were. A lot of work went into logging their location but, for some reason, the bins haven't been numbered to help the residents let the council know where they are when they need refilling.

Also I feel we should help establish a vulnerable people register so volunteers can ensure our elderly and vulnerable people are OK in this kind of weather. I have seen a very successful project in North Yorkshire, where it happens a bit more.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Prudhoe is not on the rocks - Balls to the sceptics

I get a bit sick some times of people (mainly from surrounding areas but a few from Prudhoe) constantly suggesting that Prudhoe is some kind of dead end town with nothing going for it. It has a lot more potential I'll grant people but even today on a very snowy day Windsors Bakery was full of customers buying their specialist breads and the cafe's were full of people having a well deserved cuppa. I popped along to the end of Front Street to that Prudhoe establishment, Balls of Prudhoe. This is a very good fish and chip shop and is a real family business. The Balls have moved in next door and set up a cafe.

Its nicely laid out and was very popular. I couldn't resist the Fish and Chip special, although when I saw one of the specials, belly pork with mash, I was regretting it a bit. My wife had a Jacket (far more healthy!) and it was set out really nice. I fancied a Jam Roly Poly afterwards but was stuffed. So two thumbs up for Balls - a great new venture with a really good Prudhoe welcome.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Swales honours Tuition Fees Pledge

News today that North East MP Ian Swales is breaking ranks with senior Lib Dems and has stated he will vote against the discussed tuition fees rise. Announcing this on his website, Ian said,


I have met with Vince Cable to discuss the proposed changes, and believe that he has done a good job in improving on the Browne review's recommendations. This scheme is more progressive with 20% of students expected to be better off than they are now. However I can't support raising the fee cap up to £9,000 per year.


Ians comments mirror those of Tim Farron, president elect of the Lib Dems, in stating that, whilst Vince has done well to improve on the Labour commissioned Browne report to make it more progressive (especially for part time students),it still is not enough to mean he can break with his pledges made at the election. I agree with Ian.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The future of drug costs under the NHS

The NHS is facing up to radical change and there have been a slew of very important white papers coming out at the moment. The news that the government is consulting on setting up a Cancer Drugs Fund, putting in £200m a year for three years to increase access to cancer treatment, will to many be welcome but represent a small step in the right direction.

But tucked away on page 8 of the report, is an interesting section:

The Cancer Drugs Fund is an interim measure until we can introduce a new value-based approach to medicines pricing


What this means (I think) is that the government is looking to fundamentally move NHS drugs procurement policy from the current NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) approach of considering drugs at the prices quoted by the pharmaceutical companies and deciding if the NHS can afford them. Instead the NHS will be increasingly looking at the value to the patient of these drugs and stating the price level at which the NHS would buy this drug.

So instead of saying that a drug is not appropriate to buy at say £40,000 per year, it will instead say that it would be good value at £32,000 and that we will buy it at this price. This approach opens up the potential to stop the UK pharma companies from holding the NHS to ransom with extortionate prices.

That really would be a revolution.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Oldham - A report from the front

I have spent this weekend visiting my in-laws and helping Elwyn Watkins and his wonderful team in Oldham East and Saddleworth. It's slightly surreal because, whilst the rest of the country is taking a bit of a collective breather from the stresses and strains of a full on General Election campaign, in Oldham the clock has been wound up to May.

For those of you who have missed the news, Labour and its candidate, former MP Phil Woolas, launched a disgraceful campaign alleging that Elwyn, the Lib Dem candidate, was linked to Islamic extremists, even though even they know to be wrong at the time. They also engaged in a lot of very dubious leafleting to (in their words) "target the angry white vote".

The tactic succeeded as Phil Woolas won by 103 votes rather than lose his seat, as was expected.

But the remarkable figure of Elwyn came through fighting for the truth. Elwyn strikes me as a classic Lancashire Liberal (I was labelled this during the Blaydoin campaign but here it is meant as a compliment) - a no nonsense northerner who speaks his mind and is like a dog with a bone when he knows he is in the right.

He took Woolas to an election court, and sensationally won his case despite very high levels of evidence being needed. Woolas has been disqualified as an MP, so a By election will be called soon.

I went down to Oldham, to help and bumped into a lot of familiar faces from the North, all helping. There was also a large coach of people from down south who delivered a lot of leaflets. The election will be hard fought, as all elections are in this part of the world.

So what did I learn? Four things:

1-  Tories in the area are moving to the Lib Dems in their droves. They respect the leadership Elwyn is offering them. A significant amount of Labour voters are also disgusted by the Woolas affair.

2- The seat is a fascinating mix of people with rich and poor, rural and inner city and a wide ethnic mix in the area. You probably couldn't get a more representative seat for Britain. If the Lib Dems continue to do well here, maybe the London media will find their stories of Lib Dem meltdown harder to justify

3 - This is about right and wrong. If Labour win, it will be a green light to parties engaging in lies and dirty tricks

4 - When the orange light comes on my cars' fuel gauge you really need to get to a petrol station. A massive thank you to the pizza delivery lad who gave me a lift to the petrol station when my car ran out of fuel - quite embarrassing!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Sir Alan is no apprentice

I have just returned from the Berwick Lib Dems annual dinner (yes I know, I lead an exciting life). A good night, apart from not winning a prize in the raffle despite substantial financial investment. In particular I was able to have a quick chat with the other Sir Alan, Sir Alan Beith, veteran MP for Berwick.

Alan is chair of the important justice Committee in the House of Commons. As a CAB manager outside of politics, I really appreciated his firm grasp of Legal Aid funding. On Monday, Ken Clarke unveiled a big change to Legal Aid funding, proposing in his green paper to remove much of Housing, Debt and Benefits advice from the scope of Legal Aid. Sir Alan was the first up in terms of questions and his points were all about the problems this may cause to small charities providing this advice. When I had a chat with him, it was obvious that his understanding was deep and that he will be working to help provide something for the  millions of people who need assistance in these areas.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Car Club is really Motoring in Prudhoe

Cllr Alan Armstong, Me and Fiona Hall MEP try the new car out for size
I was really proud to day to launch the new car put into Prudhoe by the Commonwheels car club. The car is parked on Kepwell Bank Top next to the Dr Syntax Pub. Joining me was Cllr Alan Armstrong, the executive member for Transport on Northumberland Council, and Fiona Hall, the North Easts excellent MEP, who tells me she is a member already.

The scheme has been funded by my members capital budget and by Northumberland County Councils transport budget.I was pleased to see that the Council has put up an information board to fill people in about what the car is and how to use it.

These scheme works by people joining and renting the car by the hour for when they need it. All costs are borne by the car club after that. It's a great way for people who do not use a car enough to justify it or who may need use of  a second car occasionally. The scheme only needs 20 regular users and already has 4 people signed up. Go to http://www.commonwheels.org.uk/ to find out more and to join.

The motorist gets a hammering these days but in lots of places cars are the only practical way of getting to where you need to be. I hope this scheme will work and reduce unnecessary car use, help control congestion and reduce emissions. You never know, it could be the start of a much bigger scheme in Northumberland.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Being in or out of the Euro is not the issue - economic competance is where it's at

The more I read of the economic crises in Greece, Iceland and Ireland the more I think that the membership of the Euro is not the key issue when it comes to economic management. German 10 year bond returns are substantially lower than ours. It's in the Euro. Ireland's are three times higher. So are they. Iceland's are even worse. Its not. The key is not running your country like a casino and planning for long term growth in "real" industries that generate growth and are indigenous so invest profits in your country. Britain has taken it's eye off this ball over the past 30 years and it is paying the price. Our economic strategy to focus on service industries was not a strategy it was just justifying the performance of the economy by pointing at the only jobs being created whilst what made this country great withered away.


The Euro guarantees currency stability but little else. If we were in the Euro, there would be similar interest rates, perhaps a bit higher but there would be less quantitative easing so less inflation. It probably creates a climate where you can get away with fiscal irresponsibility for longer but when you are caught out you really get into trouble and the IMF and EU run your economy.

There is no magic wand. Running your economy well will result in prosperity and not doing so will result in crashes and poverty. Even when there is  global slump well run countries come out of them stronger. So the British press need to get away from obsessing about the Euro and having proper discussions about why Britain has fallen behind most other major European countries almost every year for 60 years. But long term growth and economy are a bit boring for our schizophrenic media. Europe and the Euro help countries by providing a stable area to trade in. But if your country is run by economic illiterates like the last government and most other governments before it, it will not help.


It's time for some economic decentralisation, to at least spread the risk and ensure someone in this country gets it right. I hope the current government is getting the idea but some of its "Maoist" (Vince's words not mine!) approaches to RDAs do not encourage me.

Social Housing and the Labour folly of LSVT

I attended a really interesting of Northumberland's Communities and Place Overview and Scrutiny Committee. You won't hear me say that often!

The chair had "called in" the Lib Dem run council executives decision to approve a full merger of the companies that run the old council housing stock of Tynedale and Castle Morpeth with Nomad housing and E5. The executive had driven a hard deal to get good representation for Northumberland but the merger inevitably meant that there was a dilution of some local representation on boards.

The scrutiny committee started with the Tories in a huff (some of them were board members who would lose their seat - and allowances!), calling for a full meeting of the council to discuss the deal, which would of cost thousands and put a favourable deal the housing people had put together with a bank in jeopardy. After examining the committee was almost unanimous (Conservative leader Peter Jackson was alone in signalling his grumpiness) in approving the executives work on this and asking for more pennant representation if possible. Although my suggestion that a councillor should be replaced by a tenant rep oddly didn't go down well with most of the councillors apart from a sole Labour colleague!

However I am convinced the deal will give the new ISOS group the size to build more social houses. A shocking fact about the deal which the former Tynedale Council got with the spin off company it created was that the new company paid so much for the stock it still has not made a profit as a company ten years later and its business plan only allowed 22 new houses to be built in 25 years! The council raised over £30m from the sale of houses. The deal also gave the council a large share of any "right to buy sales".

This £30m of money built Hexhams new leisure centre and the extension to Prudhoes Waterworld as well as kept council tax down but the trade off was a very low level of new houses for the most vulnerable in society. Labour very heavily pushed Large Scale Voluntary Transfer (LSVT) of  council housing stock. Other deals actually cost the councils to take the stock off their hands and were subsidised by the government. The problem is that councils didn't leave much room for new homes to be built.

I hope we can see a lot more homes built over the next few years despite the cut in social housing grants from government. Billions were spent over the last 13 years by Labour but only 13,000 net new social houses were built. So I think we need to try a new tack apart from throwing money at the problem. Local councils need to play their part. I am looking for local land owned by the council so we can see if we can  get some homes built for the thousands of people who are waiting in the area for a place to live.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Euro Sceptics rejoice over Ireland

Well it's clear that the economic crisis in Ireland is absolute categoric proof that the Euro will collapse, that it has made Ireland's problems much worse and that Britain is so much better out of it. Shame none of that is really true.

This isn't an article urging immediate membership of the Euro. It's clear that any referendum would be lost at least ten to one and that it is totally off the political agenda.

Ireland is up to its neck in it for more or less the same reason Iceland got in bother. It's banking sector was far too big for a small country to be able to bail out safely.  But considering how much larger Britain is as a country, if we had continued to spend like Labour and one other major bank, say Barclays, had gone pop last year we wouldn't have been far off where Ireland is now. At least Ireland can fall back on support from the EURO family. We certainly wouldn't be able to this, as we've spent years sneering at the EU.

There is very little chance of the Euro failing. Apart from the fact that the French and German governments wouldn't let it, there are still benefits from being in a currency union, ie the ability to have total certainly about the price of goods you are paying for and selling to countries in the same zone. Nissan in Washington has repeatedly said it would help its business if it had that.

Not being in the Euro means you can devalue your currency, replacing economic austerity with inflation. We have relied on this too often in the UK rather than trying to sort out our low productivity as a country. Leaving the Euro would be the worst of all the options available to Ireland and, despite how much it would excite UK commentators, is unlikely to happen.

When Iceland had its problems, it regretted not being in the EU and the Euro. In the UK, we are on our own. That emphasises more why we need to get on with radical action to sort out our national budget.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Politicians employing your spouse - it's got to end

Channel 4s Dispatches ran a fascinating documentary on EU expenses, which focussed on MEPs. I think many MEPs actually do a great job and it could have done with a bit of balance. But it exposed a number of MEPs who continue to pay their partners as assistants. These included parties across the parties (including North East Labour MEP Stephen Hughes, who paid his wife the highest wage of all the British MEPs). Now I can see how employing a partner could be a good idea, after all the family that works together, stays together. It is some times a winning formula in business, although I think my wife would lynch me after a few weeks!

However, in public life, when you can set the wage of your partner and this comes from taxpayers money, this is not tenable any more. MEPs must bite the bullet, as did MPs and stop this. Councillors should also ensure that their partners are not employed as political assistants, although there's no risk of that in Northumberland as we can't afford them!

Monday, 15 November 2010

well done Tim

I was really pleased to learn on Saturday that Tim Farron had been elected as president of the Liberal Democrats in one of the most closely fought contests for president. The president of the party is similar to the chair of the Conservatives or the general secretary of the Labour party. The post has more importance as it has the democratic legitimacy of  being elected by all party members (and its one man, one vote - not a silly electoral college!)

Tims role is to listen to the party in the country and to take that message back to Westminster. It is also to communicate an entirely Lib Dem vision to the media (ie not a coalition view). Anyone who knows Tim,knows he is well placed to do a good job.

Also I must pay tribute to Ros Scott, the outgoing president. She drove through internal reforms and was a key part of the coalition formation. She also recognised that the party needed a different type of president and took the decision to stand down when her re-election would have been highly likely. I am sure she has a lot more to contribute.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

What we need is less graduates not more tuition fees

I have been campaigning against university tuition fees since I was at university, when the idea was mooted by Labour. I was part of the last generation of students to not pay tuition fees and mourned their arrival.

I was more than happy to sign the NUS pledge, which opposed tuition fees rises, when I stood to be an MP at the General Election. The party nationally were right behind us. I know one MP had their doubts but was urged to sign by our national HQ.

We knew that the Browne report, commissioned by Labour before the election, would be likely to call for a raising in fees. I was reasonably content with the Lib Dem MPs agreement to abstain in the coalition agreement, understanding that Labour and the Tories have always been in favour of tuition fees so it would happen anyway.

There's no point in denying that the party now finds itself in a very difficult situation. Many Lib Dem MPs such as the excellent northern MPs such as Greg Mulholland Tim Farron, intend to vote against the proposals. A promise is a promise and it should only be under extreme circumstances that you break it.

However, I can't condemn Vince and others in the cabinet for trying to make the deal as progressive as possible, Under the coalition agreement, these people could have abstained.  But Vince will argue that, as minister of state in the department responsible for university funding, he had the chance to really influence the legislation for the better. On the positive side there is good stuff about part time students and raising the threshold for paying fees back. But it is not enough to persuade me that this will help encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go. We are at risk of creating a two tier system of cheap and cheerful universities for the poor and more expensive, well regarded ones for the rich.

So is there an alternative? Yes but probably not a graduate tax, which Labour is now apparently committed to despite half its shadow cabinet opposing it.

One of the noticeable features of the last 13 years is the expansion of Universities. Labour set the target of 50% of people going to universities. The percentage of people coming to university from poorer backgrounds rose but most of them are going to the universities less likely to get them the top jobs.

So many professions that were open to school leavers now require degrees. It was only a generation ago that people could become accountants, engineers, lawyers and nurses without attending university. But while it has become essential to get degrees our competitiveness as a nation has fallen.

If the state is to fund university degrees to any extent, it needs to recognise that there are too many university places for that. We need to devise a university system with top universities with the vast number of their students being from state education and open up the professions to apprenticeships and other ways of qualifying.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Left and Right get self rightous about protecting the rich

At the Conservative party conference we saw two major announcements on benefit reforms to help cut the welfare bill in preparation for the new benefit reforms which will bring in a new universal credit but which will probably prove more expensive.

On the one hand we had a cap on benefits at £26,000 (except for disability grants) and the other issue is that we have a stop on child benefits for people paying the higher rate of tax. The first restriction could have an effect on benefit claimants in many expensive areas, such as central London. The second affects the rich. Yes you are rich if you earn over £44,000. There is no shame in saying it. The average household income in the UK is £22,800 (£19127 in the North east) and only 15% earn above the 40% rate.

Opinion polls show both policies are about as popular as benefits cuts can be, with the Sun poll showing approval ratings of  86% and 86% respectively. So which cut are Labour and Conservative politicans and press going apocolyptic about? The cut for rich people. The idea that higher tax payers should recieve benefits (unless they are on benefits) strikes me as absurd. Both Guardianistas and Torygraph readers are going beserk about it. This country is about protecting the priviledge of the better off. It is clear from the reaction to this that both the Left and the Right share this preoccupation. They want a welfare state that covers everyone, rather than one that gives targetted benefits to the poor and needy. Benefits should be a safety net not a free for all.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Olympics 2012 - I wish it had been in Paris

Watching the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony today and seeing the chair of the organising committee being jeered by the crowd, it makes you wonder on the benefits of holding games such as these where you have to build large amount of stadia for that purpose only. I am totally behind our bid to host the World Cup. We have the stadia and every game will be full.


I have always been sceptical of the benefits to Britain of the Olympics coming to London in 2012. What Britain needs like a hole in the head is further centralisation with massive one off investment in London. A games in one of our regional cities would have been wonderful as it would have prioritised sorting out the many infrastructure needs of our great but massively under invested cities. Back when Birmingham and Manchester bid they were not supported by the UK government but we are supposed to get behind London unquestionably.


But we all have to pay for this cost. Although some of the cost is being met by London Council Tax payers, all of the UK are paying for an increasingly large amount of it through Lottery tickets (whose good cause money would otherwise be distributed to other areas) or good old fashioned tax.


When London won the Olympics, I was worried that we would just see London further cementing its position as the financial black hole that sucks up all the government investment, creativity and capital from the rest of the country. When it happened, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) assured us all that all of the Uk would benefit from the Olympics. We even had sessions at the council I'm on to discuss how we could position Northumberland businesses to benefit. Now ODA figures reveal that the North East has won contracts for £9m for the Olympics. Good news, except it is out of a budget of £5.1 billion and it's the lowest investment by some margin in the whole UK.


Of course it was one of the few non Labour MPs in the region, Lib Dem MP for Redcar Ian Swales, who has raised this. He told the FT, “The north-south divide is already very wide. It would appear the ODA has succeeded in widening it further.”


Ian is urging action to ensure the North East receives more benefit before the games begin. In my view the North East should get compensation for the failed promises. We will be paying through our taxes for a massive debt and yet again we will be propping up the South East and paying for the privilege of widening the North South divide.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Well done Ed - now get your backers to start being democratic

A genuine "well done" from this Lib Dem to Ed Miliband for winning the Labour leadership. Well done because I bet £5 on Ed to win when he was 5-1. I'll be donating the £25 to the Lib Dems to help us get our message across over the Labour lies machine!

The Labour party has put up the exact figures for the results of the bizarre electoral college the Labour party uses, where MPs and MEPs, members and Trade Unions get a third of the votes each. In proper democratic parties, party members get one member, one vote. Of course, if that had happened it would be Miliband senior who would be leader. The local constituency Labour parties of Hexham, where I live, and Blaydon, where I stood at the last election, voted overwhelmingly for David. Their turnout percentages were very impressive. Ed is the choice of Trade Union members but the turnout amongst them is laughable,  for example only 6.7% in Unison, the large public sector union - which is not the lowest turnout by far.

Far be it from me to give Labour some tips but I really think they have to engage with their trade union base. Firstly because the unions are keeping Labour financially afloat but also because there is a fundamental problem in grass roots trade union member involvement. I was briefly a shop steward for Unison many years ago and was often irritated that the officials were elected on tiny turnouts and then proceeded to spend political funds to pursue their own political careers. I remember being really cheesed off when I went to see the singer Billy Bragg to find that it was sponsored by Unison and all the top brass had free tickets. It struck me as a case of preaching to the converted as virtually everyone there was sympathetic to the union movement.

Of course it is a difficult balance for Ed as he can't be seen to be a tool of the unions. He really should be challenging the trade unions to reinvigorate their internal democracy.

Then he has to be honest and say what cuts he would have done as part of Alistair Darlings cuts agenda, which as a cabinet minister he signed up to. Local Labour activists now pretend no cuts are necessary, which just makes them look silly.

One thing is for sure. Having won under a form of (admittedly a crazy form of) AV, he cannot be anything but wholeheartedly in favour of Fair Votes in the referendum next May.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Mutually ours: a solution for public sector reform?

Public services are at a crossroads – the Lib Dem conferences fringe events were dominated about the future. Today I am attending a “meet the primes” event for the voluntary sector in the North East . This a curious name for a event organised for the voluntary sector to engage with private and third sector bidders for the larger contracts likely to be put to tender in the North East. This reveals the classic problem that public services are cheaper when put out on a big scale but that innovative local solutions to local need are often best provided by locally rooted organisations.

Many local publically owned and run public services provide excellent services to residents. I would argue that this is despite being part of a government bureaucracy than due to it.

For 3 years I was a trustee of Leisure Tynedale, now the much larger North Country Leisure, which was a voluntary group set up to run the Tynedale districts leisure facilities. It is run by the former director of leisure and I remember him talking of the liberation he felt from being able to run his service like a business when it separated from the council. The charity has repeatedly cut its costs, whilst increasing participation. It has become recognised as a leader in the provision of leisure in the North and has now taken over the running of leisure services in North Northumberland and Copeland in West Cumbria.

The still large degree of subsidy from the local authority has meant they have still had a big say in strategic development but the independence of the charity has meant they have been able to lobby for the council to fund new leisure facilities, such as the extension to Prudhoe Waterworld and the new Wentworth leisure centre swimming pool in Hexham.

Successes such as this across the country has encouraged Tory run Suffolk County Council to go the whole hog and announce that it is going to disinvest and that the council will not directly run anything in four years.

So there are definitely benefits from “outsourcing” but I am worried about the ability of local and national commissioners to effectively tie national and multinational contractors into terms that allow the public body to hold service providers to account and not to overpay for services in the long run. The last governments PFI contracts are a classic example, I worked at a council department where we just couldn't afford to bring in a PFI contract manager with the requisite knowledge to compete with the private sectors team.

I want to see a really vibrant market of public sector provision emerge that has lots of local providers providing innovative solutions with local community ownership.

There is definitely a role for the voluntary sector to take over some services but in other areas there is a real role for the existing staff to tun things. Under Labour, the term “social enterprise” became very fashionable but many of these social enterprises have very loose legal structures and feel very much like pure private businesses. They often are controlled by a few individuals with little democracy. Their not for profit nature is corrupted by being run by and for the high wages of senior managers.

The answer, in part, surely is to embrace mutualism and co-operatives. This feels out of fashion at the moment and bizarrely wasn't heavily promoted by the many ministers of the previous government who were the joint MPs of both the Labour and Co-operative party.

Mutually owned organisations, whether by the public, customers or workers would add the local responsibility we need whilst still allowing public services to be run at an operational level free of the “dead hand” of council bureaucracy. But fostering this new environment will not save as much money as the quick fix of tendering services out to large national charities and companies who can provide immediate lower costs but at a cost to local accountability and ownership.

I still think a lot of public services could follow in the footsteps of former local authority stock transferred out of the state and of Welsh Water which was mutualised after being privatised and is now owned by its customers. The public sector could sell the assets to a new not for profit structure. This would realise capital receipts, free them up from state control and put in a more philanthropic ownership. I still think this could be a very attractive thing to do with Northern Rock.

Anyway here are a few suggestions for the new government and for local commissioners:

  • Let public sector contracts in sections small enough to allow local contractors to tender and place value in the tender spec for local community involvement
  • Make the Financial Services Authority (FSA) more amenable to approving new co-operative organisations
  • Promote potential spin offs of workers into mutual enterprises but accept that it will take a few years for efficiencies to bed in – this is the price you pay for more community ownership
  • Accept that if you fund charities they must be allowed to campaign and potentially criticise the people funding them
  • Don't think that because it is run by the voluntary or co-operative sector it will be cheaper than the private sector, focus on the social capital you are developing



Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why I'm backing Tim

Tim - campaigning in the North East a few years ago
The Liberal Democrats are a party that has a lot of internal democracy, as you might expect. The two positions that all members vote on is Leader and President. Most people know who the Leader is and what they do but the President has been more of a strange post. The President has the job of motivating and working with the party but also of reflecting grass roots feeling to the party establishment.

In the current political climate I think the President also has a role in communicating a clear Lib Dem position that is clear from the coalition perspective. The post has been held by party establishment figures (Simon Hughes MP and Charles Kennedy MP) and also well known activists (Navnit Dholokia and Ian Wrigglesworth for example) and has seemed to change from being a external facing post to beong more of an internal position similar to Tory party chairman (although much more democratic of course!)

Ros Scott, the outgoing president, has done a great job but has said she will not be standing again because the party needs a different type of President. I was really pleased to hear today that Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, is standing for the post. I am backing him. Here are a few reasons why:

- My parents now live in his constituency and I've seen how he has helped turn around a "true blue" constituency into a Lib Dem seat with a large majority (over 12,000) He has done this by working hard all year round and by being a great local activist. The local coucnil has gone Lib Dem too and the local party is energised and enthusiastic about selling the message to local people. If any of this approach can rub off on other areas, we will be doing well.

- As alluded to above, he's a really, really hard worker who is an instinctive Liberal. He supports the coalition but will always fight to ensure that there is a strong Liberal Democrat voice

- He is a genuinely nice guy who, despite being passionate about politics, has a lot of time for his family and for other people. I was once in London and took a workmate out for a curry with Tim and other (nameless!) politicians. She was totally uninterested in politics but Tim got her interest and she remarked what a good communicator he was.

- He is a great public speaker and motivator. At every conference he gives a speech and it strikes the right balance between funny and passionate.

- He knows the North East well, having gone to University here (he was president of Newcastle University Students Union) and having been involved in North East life (he stood for North West Durham many years ago and is an expert on the Rupali menu!). He will come over here and help us get our message across as well as communicate regional concerns to Westminster.

So I think he has the best balance between someone who can act as a touchstone for the wider party, can "walk the walk" when it comes to winning elections and will be a great voice for our cause in the media. You can support him at his Facebook page, http://tinyurl.com/36cryxd

Monday, 6 September 2010

Circular lobbying - is it right for the public sector to lobby itself?

In the North East we have two regional health offices that are increasingly concerning me. Fresh North East, the regional Smoke Free service and Balance North East, the regional alcohol office. Both do good work in terms of raising the risks of smoking and excessive drinking with the public. However, both of these agencies encourage you to lobby central government through your MP.

Fresh have no current campaigns but Balance have a widget for you to send a pre-written email to your MP and MEPs campaigning for a minimum price on alcohol.


Now I have no issue with these issues being raised but as an example, Balance is funded by the Police, PCTs, the Department of Health and the Home Office. Essentially they are being funded these bodies to get you to lobby your MP to put pressure on the Departments in question to bring forward legislation. The ideas may have some merit and it is perfectly fine for people to write to their MP about them. I know that some will say that the Alcohol and Tobacco lobbies have far more money and resources so this is an attempt to redress the balance.

Sometimes it is OK for one branch of government to lobby others, for example for the Local Government Association to put the case for more local government powers to the Department for Communities and Local Government. But I object to this circular lobbying where departmental funding directly finances the lobbying of themselves. Even the Primary Care trusts and Police forces though lack democratic legitimacy and are essentially just a local division of the ministry in question. In this time of tight government budgets it is particularly wrong.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The plague of referenda

An intriguing consultation paper has come out of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). It proposes that if a council wishes to raise council tax above the level that the Secretary of State caps it at then they can ask the people if they want to increase it that much in a referendum.

This is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, it is good to see that the government is considering applying a local ability to circumvent capping of council tax rises. It is wrong, in my view, that the government can cap council tax rises. I think councils would have to have amazingly good reasons to raise local tax excessively but it removes local accountability when they can not do so. One of the problems is that some councils are pretty stale one party states (fortunately not a problem in No Overall Control Northumberland where I am a Councillor!) and do not worry about getting booted out. That however is more of a problem about the unfair electoral system used in Local Government Elections.

However, I am personally very uncomfortable about the increasing use of referenda in a representative democracy where we elect people to make the hard decisions. Electing them and then constantly regulating their behaviour through referenda potentially gives you the worst of both worlds, i.e. politicians who can't do what they want but who can hide behind referenda as a reason for failure.

Interestingly, the power is proposed to be extended to local councils, i.e. Parish and Town councils. Up to now they can increase their part of the precept by whatever they want. In small parishes, this is understandable as they have very small budgets and increasing the precept by a Pound for a band D household could be a 30% increase. However, bigger Town Councils are growing in size and council tax precept. I have seen a few adverts for Town Clerks in this region advertised at £55kpa and some have seven figure budgets and band D precepts of £100+. My Town Council recently increased it's precept by 20%+ despite opposition from the community (and me - I lost a vote for a more modest 3% rise 11-1!). So I think its right in theory that if the secretary of state has capping powers they should include parish and town councils. However looking at all parish and town coucnils and taking a mature view of an acceptable rise in precept would be a nightmare - there are more than 100 in Northumberland alone.

So really I think the problem is that we need to make all levels of local government more democratic with contested elections that are proportional and fair and then let them set what ever tax they want and face the consequences from the electorate. It would help if the tax was a fairer system than the grossly unfair council tax too.

But until that Liberal nirvana happens is this proposal a good idea? Well I can see the good intentions but  I am unsure.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Investing to fail?

At the meeting of Northumberland County Council on Wednesday, we reflected on the County Councils investment last year of £250,000 to help Northumbrian Foods in Amble get a management buy out. At the time councillors knew it was a risky decision and I know many of us thought there was more chance it would not go well than the chance it would be a successful investment.

But we did it anyway, because 200 jobs in a vulnerable town were at stake. It may be that some of the money is reclaimed as the administrators are talking about selling the business but even if it now closes and we knew that this would happen a year ago, I think many councillors may have been tempted to lend them the money anyway. For 200 people and their families they have had an extra year of employment, which at about £1,000 a job is less than what unemployment benefits would have cost.

But that causes people like me problems who believe we should let the market work effectively and that state subsidy doesn't really work. Long term, this kind of support is not the way to turn an area around. We need to look to areas like Germany, where long term mentoring of manufacturing has resulted in a much more resilient sector. But I still think the Council made the right decision.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Is Labour thick or misleading?

Or both? Today I was horrified to read in the Granuaid (http://tinyurl.com/376gqfd) that the coalition government were being condemned from Dennis McShane, former Labour Europe minister, for "opting out" of a EU wide directive on sex trafficking.

Except for when you read the article properly, you will see the UK governments position is much more intelligent. The home office is quoted as saying "The government will review the UK's position once the directive has been agreed, and will continue to work constructively with European partners on matters of mutual interest. By not opting in now but reviewing our position when the directive is agreed, we can choose to benefit from being part of a directive that is helpful but avoid being bound by measures that are against our interests."

So in other words we are using our right to veto UK involvement until we see the directive in full and we then choose to enter into it or not. A sensible thing to do. So in fact the UK hasn't actually opted out. Unfortunately, Labour and the Granuaid  explain this in the text and proclaim it as though the coalition isn't bothered about EU wide sex trafficking. Bad journalism and opportunistic politicking.

Northerners Drink more? So what?

The BBC brings us the news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11138535) that the North West health observatory reports that problem drinking is more prevalent in the North of England than the South. The North East and North West have a much higher prevalence of health problems often linked to alcohol consumption.



Now I'm not going to say that alcohol is good for your health. Far from it. But I really object to the way journalists immediately portray it as a North South divide and then immediately conclude that problems of higher alcohol consumption will be dealt with by minimum pricing.

Funnily enough looking at the graph below (from the BBC website) its interesting to see that Westmorland and North Yorkshire have a much lower level of harm. Its because they are more affluent areas.

















Now look at the map below, based on the Indices of Deprivation, showing roughly which areas of England (and Wales) are richer than each other. Purple areas are the most deprived. So, unsurprisingly it isn't that Northerners are intrinsically more alcoholic. It's that they are poorer and it seems that poorer people tend to self medicate with more alcohol to get through things. It's not surprising. But will minimum pricing stop people drinking? Possibly not. It could just mean Alcohol becomes a bigger part of peoples budget. Hard to say. As a Liberal, I believe that people should be able to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others. Obviously Alcohol consumption harms other people by reducing life span and by the problems in alcohol related violence. But I think the argument is still in favour of personal freedom.

I think it is interesting to see where alcohol harm is disproportionate to poverty. That would take an additional study but it was interesting to read that it was in London where Alcohol related crime was disproportionate. However, having once worked with crime statistics, I would take them with a pinch of salt!

In Scotland, the devolved government has been able to introduce specific initiatives to deal with problems more prevalent in that country, such as Heroin addiction. It would be nice to have more freedom to act on that in the North. But this report does not alter my lack of comfort with the idea that public health bodies can make a poor area as healthy as a rich area. What we need to do to reduce health problems in the North is turn the economy around and reverse the post war slump in the relative prosperity of it. That will need government investment but crucially freedom to let us come up with our own solutions.


Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The North needs it's own parliament

There is something distinctive about the North. As a Lancastrian who has lived on the banks of the Tyne all my adult life, I love it all from the Albert Docks to the Hull waterfront and up to the moors of Northumberland and Cumberland. I have always felt in discussions of Englishness vs Britishness a crucial link has been missed out. Not whether you are from the Government Office region for the North East, North West or Yorkshire and the Humber. I am a Northerner. I always feel like I have a lot in common with people from the north than I have with other people. A certain wry sense of humour and a pride in our heritage.

All very good but what is the political interest? After Labours failed regional project and the overwhelming vote in the North East against a regional assembly there is still a gap in Britain for an effective voice below the nation state but above that of local councils. I was up in Scotland recently for the Edinburgh festival and the sense that you are in a region of the country that makes the best of its membership of the UK but does its own thing when there is a better local answer was strong. Despite the current coalitions good intentions to devolve power to the citizen and to local councils, it is all too easily a power that can be taken away by the next centralising government, which is most Westminster governments after a few years!

I think the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that will replace the Regional Development Agencies will be fine for local business support. However, on areas like how we turn around our great Northern cities, which despite a lot of tarting up of the city centres under Labour lack a strong private sector with enough indigenous companies to mean we can be in control of our destiny, a genuine Northern voice would be useful. A lot of times on issues such as Education and housing the English solution dreamt up in Westminster feels like a solution for London. Until these decisions are taken in the North they will not be right for our distinctive region.

I do not accept the arguments for an English Parliament. There is a need for an English version of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly to help overturn the centralisation of the UK but England is too large and too disparate for an English Parliament to have any use – the problems of the North are too different to those of the South.

Local Councils need more powers and so do individuals but large areas of public policy, Health, Education and Transport for example need a genuinely Northern answer. Ironically, I think the idea might get more buy in from the public than powers for the North East or other parts of the North. On Teeside, there was a large vote against the assembly and we have seen Tees Valley councils wanting an independent voice from the rest of the North East with call for a separate LEP. A wider northern identity might calm fears that the neighbouring town is taking power away and give the area the scale necessary to differentiate it from local areas but to still keep a distinctive voice.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Shocking news

Shocking news from Vigo today, with news of a shooting of one person and the wounding of another in Scafell. During the last election, I spent a lot of time in this area and it is a lovely quiet community where things like this don't happen. Anyone with information is asked to call Northumbria Police on 03456 043 043 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Monday, 14 June 2010

New members and reports from government

I went to the Lib Dems North East regional conference in Gateshead on Saturday. It was very busy, with lots of new faces. Particularly encouraging was the presence of three new Blaydon members who joined during the campaign. They threw themselves straight into the campaign and came along to the conference. Our regional chair reported that during the campaign thousands of new young members joined through the web. And contrary to received wisdom we have since received thousands of new members joining after the election too. Its really encouraging to see this and goes to show that all the tales of mass defections to Labour post the coalition are rubbish. It's really encouraging that the risk we took by joining the coalition is being acknowledged as the right things.

We had reports from our MPs, our MEP Fiona Hall and our Lords team on the coalition and its implications. Fiona made the good point that this is a Westminster coalition, just as we work with others on council and in the European Parliament.

Anyway, we had a very good discussion about how we can get policies that will help the North East economy. We discussed the situation with Northern Rock and how we can try to turn around the legacy of increasing inequality in society that Labour leaves for the new government. It's hard with the terrible deficit situation left behind but I believe that there are actually a lot of opportunities to think about how things can be done better on less.

We also discussed how many lies were spread by the Labour party during the election - people will notice that their pensioners bus passes have not been removed or that poor people still have tax credits.

So despite the general problems this country finds itself in I am encouraged by the great start the new government has made in destroying Labours nasty authoritarian civil liberties legislation.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Europe, the CAP and Conservatives

I was flicking through the channels tonight and came across a debate on BBC parliament. It was a debate between MEPs from different countries about the Common Agricultural Policy. It featured a number of European MEP, among them a UK Conservative MEP. Being very interested in Europe and the European Parliament, which I visited as part of my candidature for the European Parliament last year, which saw our excellent Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall re-elected. Like many, I see the fact that the Tories split off from the centre right grouping in the parliament and joined a rag tag bunch of right wingers to form a new grouping and the antics of populist Conservative MEPs like Daniel Hannan as a sign of negativity towards Europe.

But the Conservative MEP, Richard Ashworth, was full of praise for the Common Agricultural Policy. It was a small price to pay for food supply, apparently and had "an image problem". It was left to the MEPs from France and Denmark to criticise the CAP and the EU for paying the top 20% of richest farmers the vast majority of CAP payments. So I suppose this leaves us with an interesting question on the Conservatives stance on the CAP. Are they for reform, reduction of subsidy and help for smaller farmers or are they happy with the course of the EU in this area at present?

You can catch it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00sn69j#synopsis
and judge for yourself. I suppose it goes to show that the medias line that the Lib Dems are rabidly pro European, the tories implacably Euro sceptic and Labour in between might be a bit simplistic. Or maybe not.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

state earnings link to be restored

I was pleased today to see so many Lib Dem policies in the Queens Speech today. In particular I was pleased to see the proposed Pensions and Savings Bill, which among other things proposes to bring about "the restoration of the link between earnings and the basic State Pension". Long overdue and why labour didn't do it for 13 years is beyond me. It is essential that the state pension rises so I welcome this. Too many pensioners I met during the election were living in poverty. I trust Labour MPs will support this.

The full list of bills and actions proposed can be found here:

http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/topstorynews/2010/05/queens-speech-2010-3-50297

Monday, 17 May 2010

The New Politics - how can we make it real?

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the New Politics in this country. I personally think the new coalition government has the potential to help us get away from the old tribalism and encourage people to think more and condemn less. It, and the country, will only succeed if we listen more and lecture less. That challenge is there for all parties but is of course very relevant to the Liberal Democrats, as a party that has been preaching Pluralistic politics for many years and now has to work out how to practice it.

We in the Lib Dems also have to work out how to fashion a new way to engage with our supporters and then get enthusiasm for our positive political agenda. I was struck at the election during a hustings how we had gone about 20 minutes into the session without any of the three party candidates talking about policy. The debate was focusing on how the leaders did in the debates and how voting for one of the other parties was a waste of time. In addition of course the other two parties returned frequently to the idea that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was of course a sneaky way of supporting their opponent!

I believe that lie has been disproved. As I have detailed in some of my earlier posts, voting Lib Dem this time has meant that a significant amount of our policies are to be put into practice.

It is clear to me that all the parties are going to have to have a rethink about how to engage with voters. I hope that the day of the negative attack leaflet is on the wain. I think there was some evidence during the campaign that this worked less well than before for all three major parties.

Voters are keen for more personal contact and new activists want to do things differently.

I would welcome people getting in touch with ideas of how politicians can engage positively with their communities. I have some ideas, which I will probably pad out in further posts, but I am aware that I do not have all the answers. Contact me at Neil at Blaydonlibdems.org.uk

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Birmingham and back

After the stress of the election, I was hoping for a relaxing Sunday. But it was not to be. Earlier this week, the Liberal Democrats decided to call a special conference so members could have their say about the coalition deal. I felt it was important to go as it feels like we are seeing history in British politics being made.

So myself and three members car shared and went to the NEC in Birmingham. We had about 60 delegates speaking to a conference of over 2,000 delegates. Of those three were unhappy with the coalition agreement. We passed a number of amendments to the motion approving the coalition. This reaffirmed or commitment to a number of issues such as reform of the digital economy act and abolishing tuition fees. Reading the papers, it sounds like there is a lot of dissent in the Lib Dems. Out of over 2,000 delegates called to Birmingham, less than 20 voted against it. All the amendments that were meant to be limiting to the leadership were accepted in full.

A good day to be involved in politics and a good day to be a Lib Dem. You won't see similar conferences in the Tory or Labour party. That's because they are not as democratic as us.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Thanks for the thanks

Well tonight was a great night. About 60 of our volunteers and supporters came along to Blaydon Rugby Club to let us say thanks for all the effort they put into the campaign. Cllr John McClury came up with a very good quiz. Lots of money raised and lots of new members signed up.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A great moment for Civil Liberties

I was pleased to see that the coalition has managed to agree on a package totally getting rid of Labours nasty 13 year assault on our freedoms

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion. A freedom bill to repeal ID cards, and stop the horrible excesses of power under Labour. Hopefully no longer will a peaceful protester be arrested for reading out a list of our war dead.

Our agreement says that we will implement:
  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.

  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.

  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.

  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.

  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

  • Further regulation of CCTV.

  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
Part of why I am a Liberal Democrat as opposed to a Tory or a Labourite is that I believe not in an authoritarian state that knows best. It seems that the Tories have agreed with this agenda. That is good news. Will Labour agree to not reintroduce the database state if re-elected? It would be good to get a cross party consensus agreeing the previous government went wrong here.

The brilliant Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberty charity Liberty said of the coalition agenda,
“We welcome the way that the new coalition has bound itself together with civil liberties. It is Liberty’s job to hold it to its word. We celebrate the end of ID cards."

Green Business support praised by Monbiot

A good post by my friend and fellow Liberal Democrat Gareth Kane, who is a Green business expert.

Does blue + yellow=green business?

In it he references the positive news for green business support.

Respected environmentalist George Monbiot is surprised with the greenness of the coalition agenda:

"So it's better than I had expected. The agreement's environmental policies are more Lib Dem than Conservative, and more progressive than most of the other proposals in the document."

Like me he thinks there "is too much coal in the coalition" but I suppose Blaydons own King Coal (the Labour MP!) may approve if he wasn't so Tribal!

Cables agenda for banking reform

Great news reading the coalition agreements on banking reform:

The parties agree that reform to the banking system is essential to avoid a repeat of Labour’s financial crisis, to promote a competitive economy, to sustain the recovery and to protect and sustain jobs. We agree that a banking levy will be introduced...We agree to bring forward detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector; in developing these proposals, we will ensure they are effective in reducing risk.
We agree to bring forward detailed proposals to foster diversity, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry.

So a levy on the banks to help pay for the mess Labour allowed, a crackdown on the banking bonus culture and in particular a move to promote mutuals. I wonder why Labour couldn't do this already?

I banged on during the campaign on how we needed to get credit flowing to Small businesses. The coalition agreement thankfully talks about this too:

We agree that ensuring the flow of credit to viable SMEs is essential for supporting growth and should be a core priority for a new government, and we will work together to develop effective proposals to do so. This will include consideration of both a major loan guarantee scheme and the use of net lending targets for the nationalised banks.

So not just words, the presence of net lending targets and loan guarantees is a very welcome detail. Vince Cable, the new Business secretary, will do a much better job than the lord of darkness, Peter Mandelson, did on this. It will be a revelation for the Business department to have someone who actually is trained in economics running the department!