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 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.