I was shocked to hear from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) that 2000 apprentices have been “displaced” i.e. lost their jobs and thus their training. Imagine the national outrage if a university with 2000 students lost their courses. CITB have done well to place about 40 per cent of the apprentices, but you do have to ask if Government should not have a scheme to enable displaced apprentices to at least finish their training regardless. I have suggested this and will continue to press the case.
I have been shocked at allegations that recruitment companies employed by Government have been defrauding the system by forging signatures to show that work has been done when it has not. These allegations need to be investigated by the National Audit Office and those found to have misbehaved should not have Government contracts. I agree with the tough line of our Work and Pensions’ Select Committee Chairman Terry Rooney. Well done Terry!
Yesterday the Opposition day debate on Iraq was held in the Chamber of the House of Commons. William Hague called for the Government’s planned Inquiry into the war in Iraq to be held in an open and public manner and for this to happen as soon as possible with the Panel to include a senior military member and someone with knowledge of Government. I think it would be useful to have a good cross-examining barrister too! This desire for openness was echoed in all parts of the House of Commons with Labour, SDLP,Welsh Nat and others – except the Labour Front Bench. Indeed at one point there was no Minister on the Front Bench to listen to the debate at all. This was sad as the debate was of high quality with many strong speeches.
Many Members pointed out that few expected the issue of an Inquiry to be being debated six years after the conclusion of the war. It should have happened years ago. We Conservatives are concerned to find out if elected representatives and the public of the UK were misled. We want to have a full examination of the road to War, what happened in the War (including equipment supplies) and into the planning and execution of the Peace; and for the Inquiry to hold individuals to account where right to do so. We also think it should be a proper open evidence Inquiry with witnesses expected to give evidence as in a Law Court. Every major speech called for the House of Commons to be allowed to vote on the Inquiry Terms of Reference when decided. It shouldn’t just be a Number 10 Downing Street decision.
British forces have performed fantastically well and sacrificed much in Iraq and we must learn lessons for the future. That is why the Inquiry Panel should have a General or other senior military figure and someone to understand Whitehall procedures.
One aspect I have raised regularly in the House and again yesterday is how any armed campaign should also be focused on turning “military victories into hearts and minds victories”. Tobias Ellwood made this point very well. We must learn from the mistakes in Iraq about how to secure the peace after the war. We didn’t provide support for rebuilding local infrastructure, schools, hospitals and the legal system speedily and effectively enough. In the debate I pointed out that it is vital to put in place a proper civil justice system quickly, so that we do not face again the Afghan situation where the Taliban were left to resolve disputes. Our whole approach must be revised to allow our forces to deliver immediate civil improvements in risky post-conflict situations and allow our development teams to do the more long-range work. Let’s hope we have a good Inquiry and it makes recommendations on this issue.
In fact their decline is so worrying that their case has been discussed in both Houses of Parliament and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs even has a “Bee Health Plan”. So to help do my bit I planted a packet of bee-friendly plant seeds the Save Our Bees Campaign sent me in my garden and my researcher Martin did the same in his flat, and I am very happy to report they have grown into plants and are now in full bloom! According to the campaign these flowers will help make bees healthier, help them survive infection, changing weather patterns and more! Lucky bees.
For more information, why not have a look at www.saveourbees.org.uk
At the end of the first week…
After the next few weeks…
Getting bigger the week after…
One small yellow bud appears a few weeks later…
This week in full bloom!
Yesterday, Conservative MP John Bercow was elected Speaker of the House of Commons. The election of a new Speaker is a time of renewal and I wish John Bercow well as he takes on his big new challenge. The Speaker’s role is to chair the debates in the Chamber of Commons, to act as the House of Commons’ representative with outside bodies (including the Lords and the Crown) and to protect the interests of minority parties in the House.
John Bercow presented a modernising agenda in his application speech. He promised…
– to implement an agenda for reform and for the reassertion of the core values of Parliament,
– to radically reform the system of allowances (he committed to Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations),
– to strengthen the role of Back Benchers,
– to hold the Prime Minister and any successor to his pledge to restore authority to Parliament,
– to enhance the scrutiny of budgets and legislation, both domestic and European,
– to oblige Ministers to make key policy statements in the Chamber of Commons first,
– to be an advocate for Parliament’s political relevance, and
– to serve no longer than nine years in total.
I back these proposals and support a reform agenda, as I made clear in my recent Letchworth speech (see below)…
Speaker Bercow spoke of a “crisis of confidence in parliamentarians themselves” and “the need to move the debate on from sleaze and second homes”. The House of Commons needs cleansing. The new Speaker is a start, but we really need a General Election.
After my surgeries in Letty Green and Watton at Stone on Saturday, it was time for Christine and I to support the fetes in Rushden and Therfield. I always enjoy my Letty Green surgery at the Cowpers Arms. The friendly staff make everyone welcome and the coffee is fantastic. Councillors Michael McMullen and Linda Haysey are on hand to answer council questions. The talk was about speeding locally and I will be taking this up with Chief Superintendent Al Thomas.Watton at Stone is one of my busiest surgeries and I am lucky to have local Councillor Nigel Poulton there to help.
Rushden fete was by the Village Hall and featured some good games and stalls. I was unlucky with kicking the ball through the hoop, the darts and coconuts. The weather held and we were able to buy some plants. It was good to see so many old friends and to hear Chris Whitton on the loudspeaker.
At Therfield, I had better luck hitting a coconut down, which will be good for the birds in my garden. I thought the Rector was brave to man the “throw a sponge” Aunt Sally. Jeremy Rule undertook the golf game and it was good to see the school putting on country dancing. Christine and I enjoyed a scone and tea. New County Councillor Fiona Hill was there as was former Royston Mayor Paul Grimes. Altogether a great day in North East Herts.
The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has today published a report which calls for ‘wholesale change’ in Britain’s political culture with far fewer ministers. The Committee accuses Ministers of short-termism, placing too much emphasis on responding to short-term political and media pressures – and too many new policies, which reduce the government’s ability to follow a clear and consistent direction.
The report recommends:
* Encouraging a tighter, clearer focus in government by reducing the number of ministers and giving greater clarity about their roles and responsibilities to ensure more accountability.
* Decentralising power wherever possible to frontline public service workers and ordinary citizens.
* Greater focus on achieving good standards of basic administration instead of reacting to short-term pressure with piecemeal initiatives or legislation.
* Establishing an independent body with the powers to assess and promote effective performance in government.
I agree with the PASC . When I was Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs I wrote a paper called “20 : 20 : 20” which set out my ideas for a Smaller Government Bill that could be passed in the first year of a Conservative Government. The purpose of the Bill was to reduce the number of MPs, government ministers and the number of special advisers by 20 per cent each.
The number of ministers, Parliamentary private secretaries(Ministers’ bag carrying MPs) and the number of special advisers has rocketed under Labour. I have long argued that we need to reduce the size of Parliament and of Government too.Not only would a reduction in Ministers improve accountability but it would also generate a welcome saving (approximately £1 million) in ministerial salaries. So, well done PASC.
The Office of National Statistics Labour market stats are out today. Despite the Government-funded Economic and Social Reform Council’s report earlier last week saying that we were out of recession, today’s outlook is very concerning. Official figures show that unemployment has hit 2.26m and that the jobless rate has risen to 7.2% – the highest since July 1997. This means that the last few months have seen the biggest fall in employment on record.
Even more worrying is that the unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds is now at 16.6%. Unemployment is a scourge for young people. To have young people, with their hopes for the future, unable to find work and even facing the prospect of long-term unemployment, is bad news for Britain. We want better Government help for apprentices so that they can continue their training even they lose their jobs. We must also find opportunities for them to work so that their newly acquired skills do not get rusty.
The past few weeks have been difficult on many levels. At Westminster, MPs feel a sense of collective shame and remorse that the expenses system could have descended into such a mess. This is coupled with shock and disappointment at those Colleagues – many of whom have had long and distinguished careers in the House – whose behaviour appears to have gone far beyond anything acceptable. Change to the expenses regime has been swift and decisive. David Cameron took a strong lead by restricting the headings under which Conservative MPs could make claims for their additional accommodation and these restrictions have now been adopted across the House. We are all now waiting for the Kelly Report, which will undoubtedly recommend an open and transparent system for the future.
I would like to see an early General Election, but out of this awful mess, we are already seeing some positive consequences. Gordon Brown made an important Statement to the House on Constitutional Reform in a number of areas. There is going to be a national debate over the coming months on fundamental issues such as the power of the Executive, the size of Parliament, the composition of the House of Lords. However, I do doubt whether now is the right time to be considering a move to Proportional Representation – at the end of a parliament and after the governing party has had its worst election results for generations, particularly just after “PR” has let in two BNP MEPs. This issue needs more measured reflection and should not be a desperate last throw of the dice.
Last night, I went to a remarkable public meeting organised by David’s Bookshop in Letchworth Garden City, where these issues and many more were discussed. It was the best political meeting I have been to for many years. Understandably, I was asked about my own expenses in detail and was happy to give clear straightforward answers. But these questions were in the minority and far more speakers wanted to talk about the fundamental issues in our democracy and how change can strengthen it. The views I heard were sincerely and passionately held and arguments were carefully and thoughtfully presented. A spotlight has been shone on Parliament and although it has highlighted shortcomings which need to be sorted out, it has also galvanised the country into thinking seriously and constructively about how the institution can be improved.
To read a copy of the speech I made at last night’s public meeting click here.
Here I am with the new Furneux Pelham County Councillor Leanda Newlyn and the Landlord of the Brewery Tap, Rob Weston.