My relief that the Government has not blocked access to MPs expenses

January 23, 2009

Many people were worried – as I was – that the Government motion to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act might be forced through by Government Whips, as threatened. The High Court has ordered certain information to be published and that is what must happen. It would be wrong for Parliament to act retrospectively to stop this. Of course, publishing 1.2 million records is a task and will cost £2 million, but I think the Courts must be respected. I do wonder if there might not be a better simpler system for MPs’ Pay and Allowances and for making the details public.

I was glad the Government backed down in the face of opposition from all parts of the House and in the country.

But as I pointed out in the debate (click here to see the Hansard), one good thing is that there will now be proper audit with an external element to check the accuracy of MPs’ claims and this is a step forward.

I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which upholds the Seven Principles for Public Life established when the Committee was chaired by Lord Nolan: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership. I was glad to have the chance to make the point in yesterday’s debate on new rules on Members of Parliaments’ allowances that MPs must set an example and follow these high standards.

Our Committee will be looking at the latest changes to the rules in February and considering whether an Inquiry is needed into the whole Pay and Allowances’ System to ensure that the Seven Principles are met. The advantage would be that our Committee is made up of ten independent individuals from many walks of life – with only three political appointees – and could give a fresh insight. The public might also find the system more worthy of respect if independently proposed and approved. It will be an interesting discussion. Parliament is sovereign and will ultimately decide the matter, but the Scottish Parliament did find an independent report on this helpful in making their decisions on their structure of Pay and Allowances for MSPs.

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New social housing in East Herts

January 20, 2009

Last week, Chief Executive of Circle Anglia Housing Association, Chris Ellison took me on a tour of their new building project in Puckeridge, where garage blocks are being replaced by 2 bedroom homes. The homes are well designed with good facilities and gardens and are for local people. The builders, Hills, are doing a good job on what are tight sites for building. These properties are very much needed if the young of the village are to be able to stay there and not move away, as so many have had to do for housing.

We then went with Manager Adrian Green to see what is proposed to improve life in Great Innings South, Watton-at –Stone. Local residents are being asked for their views on what works are needed to improve the quality of life. At one flat block, I was shown where new steps and railings would be put and how the bin store was to be improved. I was also shown the parking problems further up the road, where the grass verges are being ruined and we discussed what initiatives with the County Council Highways might be possible. I was very impressed that the Chairman of the Parish Council, Nigel Poulton walks the estate every six weeks with a representative of the Housing Association. Anyway, good to see some positive action!


My Support for Local GPs

January 19, 2009

On Friday I was presented with an 8,000 name petition by local patients anxious to be able to keep their doctors’ surgery and not wanting the Government’s polyclinics, or local surgeries to be taken over by international companies. The petition was handed over at Nevells Road Surgery by Dr Peter Graves, Chief Executive of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Local Medical Committee Limited and it was good to be able to meet local doctors, including Dr Smallwood and his Partners and in particular Dr Mel Lacy, who was the first local doctor to raise these issues with me.

When I was a Conservative Health Spokesman, I remember visiting Berlin and being told how pleased East Germans were when the polyclinics of the Communist era were abolished after reunification. There are a few polyclinics left in major cities, but most East German patients preferred a more personalised service. I am surprised and saddened that the Government is considering the idea of building its health policy on this outmoded idea. There may be a case for polyclinics in some large cities but it is clearly not popular in our area. Across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire over 92,000 patients have now signed the petition against the Government’s plans.


Equitable Life

January 16, 2009

It has been a long time coming, but I am pleased that the victims of Equitable Life, including a number of my constituents, are to receive some compensation as recommended by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. However the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and I am concerned that the Government scheme seems to be hedged about with all sorts of conditions, and is to be means-tested. Given that the Government has been found guilty of maladministration and refused to pay out for so long, I would have thought the least they could do was to have a fair scheme that will pay out quickly.

The full details are not yet known and we will have to see if the outcome is better than I fear it may be.


Travellers’ Consultation

January 15, 2009

In its latest consultation the Government Office of the East of England is trying to have even more provision for gypsies and travellers in areas where there is officially hardly any calculated need.

So, in North Herts, where calculated need is 1 extra pitch, 21 extra pitches are proposed and in East Herts, where calculated need is 3 extra, 27 more are put forward.

All the common sense arguments have been unsuccessful. So, the proposal is to put traveller provision where it is not needed and where there is no or no substantial traveller tradition. I believe that this policy will encourage new entrants to the traveller lifestyle, rather than helping existing travellers.

There are 12 weeks to respond to this consultation. See their website for details.


Securing a warm house this winter

January 12, 2009

Thank goodness it’s finally begun to warm up.  I for one had had quite enough of that icy chill in the air.

For many the cold snap will inevitably mean higher fuel bills, and I worry that it’s the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest. Over the past few days I have spoken to pensioners in Watton at Stone and Letchworth Garden City about the cost of keeping warm with the cold weather affecting their health and weekly budgets. Indeed I have written to Chancellor Alistair Darling about this.

 We’ve all seen fuel bills rise, but they do not seem to come down quickly enough when wholesale costs fall and despite the Government making some money available for things like insulation, ultimately what we need is lower fuel costs in the first place. The Government needs to sort out its energy policy.

 The Government didn’t want to debate energy policy last year, so it was left up to the Conservatives to arrange a debate on energy security, which we did in June. During the Opposition Day Debate I drew attention to the dire state of the Government’s record on renewables compared with other countries. There’ve been a lot of technological advances made in this area recently (carbon capture and storage, combined heat and power, solar and wind technologies have achieved much greater efficiency), many of them made by British companies, yet the UK has hardly begun to take advantage of them because the Government has consistently failed to make decisions and set a clear course.

 Hopefully Ed Miliband’s new department of Energy and Climate Change will mark a change in Government policy. As this recession kicks in people are going to find it harder than ever to pay their bills, and the Government should respond to this by making the effort to get our energy policy right sooner rather than later.

 Of course much of this pain could have been avoided if only they had fixed the roof when the sun was shining – they could have added a couple of solar panels while they were at it.


Tribute to Helen Suzman

January 12, 2009

I would like to pay tribute to Helen Suzman, human rights campaigner, who passed away recently. Helen used her membership of the South African Parliament to rigorously campaign against apartheid. Unafraid to be a lone voice in the wilderness Helen fearlessly challenged the National Party government week after week, year after year for much of the second half of the 20th century. She was a true parliamentarian, using the Westminster-style system to expose the Government for its misuse of power.

When I visited South Africa on a delegation last year, I made a well received speech about Human Rights and met a number of displaced Zimbabweans. I was saddened to see that despite the efforts of the current Government, much of the poverty and injustice that campaigners like Helen and Nelson Mandela, had fought against still exist. However, the change that has been achieved is remarkable.