Recognition For Prisoners with Mental Health Disorders

March 31, 2009

The saying goes that people in prison are mad, bad or sad. There is some truth in this. When I started work as a barrister I often visited prisons to meet defendants and some were just plain bad. But, I was struck by how many people suffered from mental ill-health, particularly after “care in the community” came in. People who had been in the sanctuary of institutions were finding it difficult to cope in a non institutional world. The other shocking aspect was how many prisoners were illiterate. The average reading age in prison is 11 years. That’s not an excuse. Terrible crimes call for tough sentences and the public need protection from such criminals, but there are vulnerable people in prison who need help to rehabilitate and it is all our interests to help them.

The Centre for Social Justice has recently published a strategy for reforming prisons and rehabilitating prisoners, called “Locked Up Potential”. It advocates policies such as giving prison governors similar budgetary freedoms to NHS Foundation Trusts and shifting the focus of the criminal offender system towards rehabilitation. Iain Duncan Smith is right to focus on this, but the part which caught my eye was the section on Improving Mental Health Care. The report recommends that much greater attention and recognition should be paid to prisoners with mental health disorders.

When I was the Party’s spokesman on mental health I went with Liam Fox to Wandsworth Prison to meet staff and prisoners on the Hospital Wing and I was convinced that good treatment for mental illness is vital in prisons. This latest report calls for early assessment of those with mental conditions and better training of prison staff to ensure “early diversion of many mentally unwell prisoners away from prison to more appropriate facilities”. Ultimately it comes down to compassion. People who suffer from mental illness are sufferers foremost and a caring, compassionate society should look after them, protect them. Some people need the sanctuary of a hospital. Some need treatment. Today that just doesn’t always happen. This report suggests a new approach under the Conservatives and I welcome that.

Teaching Our Children To Win

March 31, 2009

The Conservative Party has just launched its policy on Sport in the UK. The part I like the most is that we want to redesign the UK School Games to become a national Olympic Games-style event. Jamaica, a country which has long over-performed for its economy and population size, has just such an event for youth athletics called the VMBS Boys and Girls Athletics Championships. It’s a fantastic example of youth sport done well, and it’s attended by thousands of kids and lots of the country’s top athletes debut there. I hope a Conservative Government is able to begin such a competition here.

Its clear that after years of disastrous decline under Labour, the country’s approach to sport needs to be radically overhauled. Although we did well at the last Olympics, competitive sport at school has waned as children are taught that “it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part”. Well not at the Olympics its not, and certainly not in the real world of professional sport. If we want to start winning at international events like the Football World Cup, the Rugby Six Nations or the ICC Test Cricket matches, we are going to have to start teaching our children to win.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt sprints to victory

Jamaica's Usain Bolt sprints to victory

Keeping an eye on the endangered Chalk Rivers of Hertfordshire

March 25, 2009

We live in an area of Water Stress in Hertfordshire. On Saturday after I had attended two surgeries in the south of the constituency; Watton at Stone and Tewin, I took the chance to visit two of our local Chalk Rivers, the Beane and the Mimram. The Beane flows from the village of Cromer to Hertford, running beside Stevenage town and the Mimram from the village of Whitwell to Hertford, via Tewin. Britain’s Chalk Rivers are renowned for their purity and the variety of wildlife which enjoys their crystal clear waters, and in a densely populated county like Hertfordshire we are lucky to have such flora and fauna.

There are only 35 Chalk Rivers in whole of the UK, they are located in a broad area stretching from Dorset all the way up to the Hull in Humberside. The Mimram has a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest at Tewinbury with a bird watching hut.

Councillor Nigel Poulton beside the Beane

Councillor Nigel Poulton beside the Beane

The reason I went down to check on the rivers is because sadly each summer these unique rivers face the threat of running dry. Every time we have a hot summer the higher stretches of these rivers simply stop flowing. These periods of drought cause untold damage to the natural environment with the water dependent species being decimated.

At the moment both rivers look fantastic. I took the opportunity to take some photos of the rivers in full flow with my camera, and remarked to local councillors Linda Haysey and Nigel Poulton what a shame it is that in a beautiful county like Hertfordshire we have to fight to protect our precious natural environment.

Me beside the Mimram

Me beside the Mimram

Insecurity from Cradle to Grave

March 20, 2009

Labour’s New Take on Beveridge

There is a danger that all the Government’s efforts to bolster the economy will be engulfed by rising unemployment and the collapse in consumer confidence. We hear a lot about business confidence, but it is consumers who buy the goods and services and if they are so frightened that they stop spending, the situation plummets ever faster downwards.

When President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) was inaugurated on 4th March 1933, it was against the background of the Wall Street Crash and the deepening Depression. His famous speech on the theme “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” outlined that his central aim was to rebuild consumer confidence and he succeeded. He was a new leader and he demonstrated firmness of purpose with a clear sense of direction and optimism, although I should say that a lot of the myths about FDR’s New Deal are wrong. The Americans did not have many shovel-ready New Deal schemes—to use the jargon of the time. But people believed that at last there was a workable plan and steady leadership and confidence returned leading to a revival of fortunes. When we look at the problems of the 1930s and what President Roosevelt did, we find that confidence was right at the heart of what he achieved.

How can you have confidence in Britain’s current leadership? In the Brown Recession, Government bungling has led to a sense of insecurity for all ages. How ironic it is, given Labour’s history, that their new take on Beveridge seems to be ‘Insecurity from the Cradle to the Grave.’ It’s not just that they contributed to the crisis by their raid on pension funds, failing to regulate the banks properly, by borrowing too much and encouraging the public to max out on credit, it’s also the drift over Northern Rock, the inadequate rescue packages for the financial system and the mess over Sir Fred’s pension. It all looks like an amateur production and the impact hits all ages, damaging confidence.

A child born today is already saddled with £17,000 of Government debt. Youth unemployment has risen since 1997 and long-term Youth unemployment will rise faster during the recession. Fathers and mothers face massive job losses. The most recent month’s rise in unemployment at 0.5 per cent is the worst on record. Experts expect unemployment to rise from 2 million to over 3.1 million and reach the highest ever level within a year or so. Yet, the Government just does not get it. The night before the dreadful figures were released, James Purnell MP, Work and Pensions Secretary was reported in the Evening Standard as saying that unemployment was rising more slowly than in the previous recession. Over 500 Jobcentres have closed in recent years and the Government is not ready for the unemployment challenge.

As jobs go and credit is tightened, home repossessions are rising. In my local County Court, the number of Court days available for repossession cases has trebled in recent months.

With very little return on savings, pensioners are badly hit and pension funds’ losses on the Stock Market are worrying for those about to retire. Many may have to look to the Pensions Protection Fund for help if their employers go bust. The Woolworths’ scheme may already be heading in that direction. Over coming months some of our largest pension schemes will have their three-yearly valuations and there will be big deficits. We must just hope that these do not push more companies under or lead to levies on good pension schemes to meet the losses of the bad. The Government has promised to make more substantial increases to the State Pension in the future, but no one knows when. In the meantime they keep using sleight of hand to subtly reduce benefits whilst simultaneously announcing generous sounding increases. So, this year we have seen the Savings Credit cut back, National Insurance Contributions increased, the Carers’ Allowance earnings threshold frozen and no proper recognition of the true rate of inflation for pensioners.

And the actions of Government have been baffling. How can the Government adopt the rhetoric of FDR – New Deal-style infrastructure projects and all – and then suspend 100 of the FE Colleges’ building schemes? At North Herts College they have a “shovel-ready” building scheme with builders ready as promised and now it’s on hold with no visible strategy for the way forward. Many are suggesting that we could tackle fuel poverty and provide energy and environmental benefits by undertaking insulation and Green energy projects, but the Government has rejected the proposals.

We have heard much from Government schemes about how they will help business, such as the Working Capital Scheme, their loan guarantee scheme, jobs schemes, mortgage help schemes, but none are delivering as they should and many have not even started months after the press announcements.

Since November, Conservatives have been calling for a substantial Loan Guarantee Scheme to help small and medium size businesses secure the credit lines they need to retain jobs and stay afloat. The Government have promised to do something, but months later there is no action on the ground. This just will not do. Every month that passes means businesses and jobs lost and confidence eroded. The danger is that with all ages fearful of job losses, home repossessions, incomes in retirement and a slow unsteady Government response, the situation will continue to go from bad to worse. The time has come for new leadership in Britain and a real sense of policy direction coupled with the ability to get the job done. It’s time for the Conservatives to undertake our historic mission of clearing up the mess left by Labour.

Support the FA Respect campaign with Ray Winstone

March 17, 2009

When I was younger, I was joint Manager of a youth football team in Southwark with Labour MP Clive Efford – of course, neither of us was an MP then, but we did try to keep up good standards of behaviour and particularly with the referee. Of course, this is not always easy with young players and the passion football generates. Later, I used to watch my son playing youth football for Royston Eagles and although our Royston parents were well-behaved, I did notice that some teams – naturally from outside North East Herts – had very difficult parents shouting and swearing on the touchline and setting a terrible example. Some were even openly rude to the ref. Now this may be standard fare at some grounds, but it has no place in youth football and I do think some senior teams could do a lot better.

I have always liked Ray Winstone as an actor and I think it’s great that he has done a video as part of the FA’s Respect campaign. Let’s hope it works.

Letchworth Youth Council Visit

March 17, 2009

Last night Letchworth Youth Council came to visit me in Parliament. I always enjoy visits from youth councillors and this one was no disappointment with the young councillors very keen and asking interesting questions: one was about Green Peace, which led on to us talking generally about the rights and wrongs of breaking the law as a means to a just ends. I argued that even if you agreed with some of the aims of a campaign, if everyone went around breaking the law we would be left with chaos. That was why democracy was so important. The discussion then turned to cycle safety, an issue which the Youth Council had recently been considering. We discussed the suitability of the roads around Letchworth for cycling. I supported their campaign for increased cycle ways. I feel that the Heritage Foundation did well to highlight cycling in their Milennium project for a cycle way around the Garden City and I well remember the excellent opening event with Kim Wilde, our local Pop Star and daughter of the legendary Marty Wilde.

I was interested, but not surprised, to hear that only one of the children rode to school in the mornings – we all agreed that more cycle paths would help, but that in a Garden City like Letchworth it was a difficult choice between narrowing the already narrow roads further, or cutting the distinctive grass verges and roadside trees back.

After our chat I then took the Group on a tour of the House of Commons, which ended up in the Chamber, listening to a debate on whether the UK Youth Parliament would be allowed to use the Chamber for their AGM. Some MPs felt this offended tradition, but I was one of the MPs who campaigned with the late Andrew Rowe for a UK Youth Parliament and am glad that it has developed so well. The vote was won, so they will be able to sit on the Green Benches for one day and who knows, perhaps some will return in the future as MPs. I hope so.

Visiting new North Herts Homes Emergency Housing in Royston

March 17, 2009

It was good to visit the Ridgeways Emergency Housing in Royston and to see the extra places, which have been built. This housing is much needed in our area, particularly as the recession is biting and Court possession orders much increased.This enables homeless people to have shelter, while they look for housing with advice from North Herts Homes and the Council, or wait for public housing to come vacant.

There are eight new units and the existing ones have been up-dated. I was able to meet some residents who came from Royston and were finding the accommodation a lifeline. My wife Christine and Secretary Christiane came too in order to see what was available, as they do housing case-work with many constituents needing help.

The rise in rural crime

March 16, 2009

I recently blogged about the fear caused by rural crime and the need for vigilance against it. I called for a strong and visible police presence in our rural areas. I pointed out that ‘neighbourhood policing’ is the current buzz, but it doesn’t sound very rural – what about village crime too?

Figures out today show that the down-turn has seen a rise in violent crime and rural areas are bearing the brunt of this. Rather than saying ‘I told you so’, my reaction is to welcome the fact that this evidence is coming out into the open and to hope that it informs policing. An article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph goes into more detail, reporting that violent crime such as assaults and burglary is up a shocking 20 per cent in the countryside. Neighbouring Cambridgeshire is badly affected. I am going to write again to our Police Authority asking for the Hertfordshire figures and stressing the importance of this issue.

Taking sensible precautions can help reduce the likelihood of being a victim of crime, whether that be rural or urban crime. Getting into good habits such as keeping valuables out of sight as much as possible and keeping a watchful eye out for who is looking at your and your neighbour’s property can all help keep crime at bay. Rural crime has the added dimension that properties are often located out-of-the-way with few people around to witness the perpetrators of violent theft. The prospect that help could be a long way away leads to fear of crime.

I would urge constituents to report crimes, as the incidence of crime reports affects police priorities – the more crime reported, the higher up the scale it goes. I have also been pressing the minister not to cut back on police numbers in rural areas.

50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Tibet

March 13, 2009

This week was the 50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and on Tuesday there was a mass lobby of Parliament by the Free Tibet Group.

I met constituents who are staunch supporters of the Tibetans. They were very concerned about the fate of the people of Tibet and mentioned Human Rights’ abuses during the run up to and since the Olympics. We had a long talk about Tibet, and I was able to say that in the past I had heard the Dalai Lama speak and been introduced to him. I heard him speak at Cambridge University many years ago, when I was a student. He was calm, logical and very impressive. He recognised the power of China. Even after all these years, he is not calling for independence for Tibet, but for more autonomy within China, so that Tibetans can enjoy their culture and religion. David Cameron has recently met the Dalai Lama and my colleague David Lidington, Shadow Minister, has recently made representations to the Chinese at a high level.

Last year at the General Assembly of the Inter Parliamentary Union, the British delegation held a bilateral with China and I was able to raise my own concerns about Human Rights and Governance in Tibet. Sad to say, the Chinese just did not seem to get it. They were banging on about feudal religious practices with no understanding of the importance of a regional culture and religion. Happily, there are now talks between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives and we will have to see if they do any good. It seems odd that a State which was able to provide a separate regional autonomy for Hong Kong is so blinkered about Tibet. Of course, Tibet has important natural resources they want, but it is hard to see why that means the Tibetans can’t fully enjoy their culture and traditions.

Campaigners want a thorough and independent inquiry into the reported excessive use of force, including against peaceful demonstrators in Tibet in Spring 2008 and Britain to establish a Tibet Desk at the British Embassy in Beijing, China.They also want us to appoint a UK Special Representative for Tibet. I have written to David Miliband, Foreign Secretary about these issues, asking his response. Given the realities of power, I believe the only way to resolve this is through dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama. In that light I welcome the new round of talks.

Our policy towards China and Tibet should be hard-headed and practical, and we must deal with the situation as it is and not as we wish it was. But to anyone who has read “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Land of a Thousand Buddhas” and other books about Tibet, visited and admired the peaceful Tibetan way of life or met Tibetan monks as my constituents had, the continuing failure of the Chinese authorities to be reasonable is a source of regret and must hold back that great country’s progress in opening to the World.

Bad news for jobs

March 5, 2009

There are two striking pieces of news on employment today. The latest figures for monthly job vacancies show the lowest figures for years and the Work and Pensions Select Committee of which I am a member has produced its Report on Commissioning and the Flexible New Deal, pointing out that increases in long term unemployment will swamp the scheme if extra funding is not provided.

Ministers like to point to the number of job vacancies as evidence that there are jobs available for the unemployed. Indeed, Conservative Ministers used to make similar claims in past recessions. Whilst true, the vacancy levels now are very low historically. Even as recently as 2007, monthly vacancies were running at 689,000, higher by 200,000.

Yet many of these vacancies are not readily available to job seekers. The National Employers’ Skill Survey shows that thirty per cent of vacancies are in the category “hard to fill” and twenty one per cent are in “skill shortage” areas. Many job seekers would simply not be qualified. There is no doubt that the Job Market is tightening sharply and unemployment will rise.

The Work and Pensions Committee has been looking at the implications for long term unemployment in our Report published today. In 2004 I proposed that the New Deal should be reformed to concentrate on those with real barriers to work and a flexible approach using private contractors – “The New Deal: What figures for the Future” with Mark Waldron (Politeia). The Government is now to implement such a scheme later this year – the Flexible New Deal – but all the evidence is that the scheme will be overwhelmed without more funding. There will simply not be enough money for each long term job seeker to be found a proper job.

Labour criticisms of Government schemes for the long-term unemployed in the 1980s concentrated on lack of substance to the training, advice and placements on offer. It would be sad for Britain if the current Labour Government failed to learn the lessons of past recessions, which they were then so willing to embrace.