Meeting the Wilbury Residents Alliance

March 23, 2010

As you will see, when I met the Wilbury Residents Alliance I was concerned to hear that lorries bringing materials to the Hitchin Loop rail works are likely to mount the pavement. It seems that there is not room for two lorries to pass on Wilbury Hills Road without running on the pavement. After hearing this I immediately contacted Hertfordshire Highways to raise these concerns and to ask what their view is of the danger.

Strike Ballot Turnout

March 23, 2010

With strike ballots very much in the news, it is worth considering whether there should be a turn-out threshold for the results to stand. At present a simple majority of votes cast is enough. Given the potentially drastic impact of a strike, there is a case for requiring a majority of those balloted. This would enhance workplace democracy by putting a premium on turnout. Some argue that in a General Election not even a simple majority is required to elect an MP. But there is a difference between deciding on a strike action – yes or no – or electing an individual MP taking account of their qualities and party policy issues. It is noteworthy that in that other area of workplace democracy – trade union recognition – there is a threshold that 40 per cent of those balloted must support recognition. Conservatives introduced modern workplace democracy with the introduction of secret ballots. A reasonable ballot threshold would further encourage turnout and legitimacy.

Is this becoming the Spring of Discontent?

March 19, 2010

In my last blog, I was remembering when the last Labour Government lost its grip on the nation’s finances and was damaged after a welter of strikes in 1978/1979 known as the Winter of Discontent. A number of readers have commented to me that it just does not make sense to strike in the current economic climate with the risk to the employer’s business and jobs. As though the BA strike threat was not bad enough, we now hear of a threat of a first national rail strike in 16 years after the RMT union voted for industrial action. This lunchtime RMT announced 54% of members voted for industrial action over signal workers’ job cuts. Train operators have condemned strike action. Perhaps the unions sense that the government is a lame duck and will be desperate to find a way out, hoping they will apply pressure to meet strikers’ demands. But jobs are precious and the success of business is vital to see jobs created and protected. Strikes damage business anyway, but to strike in the middle of an economic crisis didn’t make sense in 1978/1979 and doesn’t make sense now.

Brown and the Union

March 18, 2010

The last time Britain was in really serious economic trouble under Labour was in the late 1970s. Huge debts led our country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund – the lender of last resort to poor countries. The Trade Unions caused chaos with strikes and the 1978/1979 winter became known as the Winter of Discontent. It was against this background that the public turned to the Conservatives. Part of the national mood was the understanding that Trade Unions funded the Labour Party and that the Labour Government was powerless to stand up to them. Gordon Brown has tried to give the impression that he opposes the BA strike as unjustified. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron asked whether the Prime Minister would advise BA workers to ignore the strike and work normally. He would not answer and wriggled uncomfortably as David pursued the point. This gives the game away – talk is cheap, but the Unite Union gives millions to Labour. If a strike is unjustified as Gordon Brown says, why not say to workers that they should work normally? The answer is that it would upset the close relationship between Union and Labour.

First Class Flights

March 17, 2010

In these difficult economic times, it is important that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. Public Sector Travel Magazine has recently highlighted some of the answers to Parliamentary Questions I have asked about departmental spending on overseas first class air travel. At the end of last year I asked each Government department how much they spent on first class flights. Many departments ducked the question and simply referred me to the list of all departmental spending on travel which does not differentiate between first, business and economy classes. However the results were still illuminating. The total departmental spend on overseas travel amounted to £2.2 million last year with three departments putting their hands up to Ministers’ first class air travel of £17,790.

The fact that an industry website has picked up on this line of questioning is good, as it shows that we have rattled a few cages. As Public Sector Travel put it: “In better times these might have been considered too small in the totality of public spending to matter much”, so it looks like someone is getting the message!

Here are the results of my Questioning, click on entries to see the links to Hansard:

Business Innovation and Skills “Cabinet Office provides an annual list of overseas travel over £500 undertaken by Ministers” £291,616.00
Cabinet “See annual list” £67,559.00
DCSF “See annual list” £40,386.00
DCLG “See annual list” £23,371.00
DCMS “See annual list” £36,373.00
Defence £10,723.80 £84,127.00
DECC “See annual list” £21,700.00
DEFRA “See annual list” £34,508.00
FCO “See annual list” £886,780.00
Health “See annual list” £52,316.00
Home Office “See annual list” £109,642.00
DIFD “See annual list” £326,379.00
Justice £2,040.50 £22,348.00
Northern Ireland “See annual list” £92,712.00
Scotland “See annual list” £12,114.00
Treasury “See annual list” £51,667.00
Transport “See annual list” £30,739.00
Wales “See annual list” £2,978.00
Women and Equality £5,026.00
DWP “See annual list” £23,759.00
TOTAL £17,790.3 £2,211,074

A diary of a week in my life, published in the House Magazine

March 15, 2010

In early March 2010 the House Magazine published a diary of a week in my life, and I thought readers might like to see it as well:

Thursday 4 March

Today is a big day for Tony Wright MP and his Select Committee – it is the Debate on their proposed reforms to Parliament. I am glad to see their ideas – some of which I called for when I was Shadow Leader of the House – are welcomed and accepted. They should lead to Select Committees being more independent and give MPs more say over the Agenda of the House.

I particularly support the idea of electing the Committee Chairmen by secret ballot. This will give the Chairmen their own mandates and enable them to feel confident in standing up to Government as they scrutinise what departments do. I am also a supporter of more public involvement in initiating debate and law making and a better dialogue between parliament and the public is sorely needed.

Later in the day, I am back in Royston to visit Mr Buckley in Kipling Road, who takes me to meet his neighbours and talk over concerns about the proposed development on one side of their estate and the planned railway underpass on the other.

Friday 5 March

Today is Women’s World Day of Prayer and I have been invited to the Central Methodist Church in Letchworth Garden City for the interdenominational Service. It is a brilliant occasion with the service written by women from many religions in Cameroon. Each year a different country takes the lead. Although the service was drawn up many months ago, the congregation are struck by the relevance of references to earthquakes and our thoughts are with Haiti and Chile. Afterwards I was able to talk to many who took part in the readings over a cup of tea and some great cakes – another blow to Lent!

Later that evening, I go to a Conservative event in Royston. It is good to see so many people there and a great deal of excitement about the forthcoming Election. Many volunteer to help with election tasks such as poster preparation and canvassing. Spirits are high.

Saturday 6 March

Today I am going on a training run with Letchworth Garden City’s super-fundraiser Richard Kell. Richard is a fantastic marathon runner who is determined to raise £1 million in a year for Help for Heroes (see more at Next weekend he is running the equivalent of four marathons between four Football league grounds – all in twenty four hours. He will start at Peterborough United’s London Road ground at 3pm on Friday and hopes to arrive at Watford’s ground in time to watch the fixture between POSH and the Hornets on Saturday afternoon. I am glad to support Richard and as I am taking part in the Sport Relief Westminster Mile next Wednesday I am grateful for his helpful tips. We have a good jog round Manor Arboretum in Willian, and although I certainly won’t be catching Richard up in a race, I wish him well!

After the run, I go to David’s Bookshop in Letchworth Garden City – a fantastic bookshop and a great meeting place. I spot a first edition of the 1913 book about Letchworth called “The Garden City: A Study in the Development of a Modern Town” by C B Purdom. It is an interesting read, detailing the first ten years of the world’s First Garden City. I give in to temptation and buy it.

It is good to see my son William later in the day and he offers to help prepare posters tomorrow.

Sunday 7 March

I spend the morning with a team of helpers stripping old Oliver Heald 2005 posters off stakes ready for the latest batch. Then, as there are no offspring at home demanding a family roast, Christine and I sneak off to see if Jeff Bridges deserves his Oscar nomination for Crazy Heart. We usually like to support the privately owned cinema in Letchworth, but for some reason the film hasn’t been on there, so we have to drive from the Garden City to Stevenage New Town. Jeff gives the performance of his life and we are pleased to see the next morning that he has won.

Monday 8 March

I have been trying to improve my fitness for some months and Richard at the gym is pleased with my progress. Unfortunately, my researcher Martin has been to Istanbul for the weekend and brings back the most delicious baklava. That won’t help.

The office is very busy. I am receiving an enormous number of Questionnaires for the Candidate and every charity seems to be encouraging its supporters to email with their own wish-list of spending pledges. They don’t say where they think the money will come from.

I read the papers for the Committee on Standards in Public Life meeting on Thursday, start writing a speech on how to reform employment law to encourage flexibility in the labour market and start researching the Bribery Bill – I am on the Standing Committee starting next week.

Tuesday 9 March

I spend the morning on correspondence and more questionnaires and then go into the Chamber for Opposition Day Debates. I think that Bob Neill opens the Debate about unitary authorities in Exeter and Norwich in a very telling way. I was shocked that the Permanent Secretary had warned the Secretary of State John Denham that his decisions would lead to a strong case for a judicial review. Ministers would normally be very concerned by such advice; in effect the most senior and experienced civil servant in his Department saying that no reasonable Minister could make these decisions! What Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister would have called “courageous”.

I chair the Society of Conservative Lawyers’ Executive Meeting, where we discuss Access to Justice. Many lawyers are concerned that members of the public just cannot afford to bring cases to court. We have seen a surge in membership of the Society lately and I feel it is because Conservative lawyers sense the possibility of change and are keen to be involved in the process.

Wednesday 10 March

Today is the day of the Westminster Mile but first I go into Prime Minister’s Questions. David Cameron is as fiery as I have seen him. He is very annoyed that Labour MPs are shouting that Generals who criticised the Prime Minister for underfunding the Armed Forces are “a bunch of Tories”. The Speaker has to have several attempts at restoring order. Christine tells me it made for exciting TV.

Then I go to Westminster Hall, dressed in my Sport Relief t-shirt, jogging bottoms and red Sport Relief socks, to register and take part in the Westminster Mile, up and down The Mall. I am not the fastest, but I get round and it is good to raise the profile of the Sport Relief Mile on 21st March. Martin has recently persuaded me to invest in a Flip video camera that can be downloaded onto my website. He brings it along to try it out and his efforts – which I think are good – can be seen on my blog.

It is so unusual to have a free Wednesday evening that Christine and I go to The Green Zone, starring Matt Damon, at the Empire Leicester Square. Now that’s what I call a film – all action and Matt’s as good as ever!

Thursday 11 March

Today I am attending a Committee Meeting on Standards in Public Life, where we are deciding what our next inquiries will be about. Then it is back to Royston and more paperwork.

My Westminster Mile

March 10, 2010

Today was the Westminster Mile for Sport Relief and I was delighted to take part. I was never going to be the winner, but that wasn’t really the point afterall. Sport Relief is a great charity and I would urge all constituents to get involved with the many runs that are taking place this year. If you want to see more on this, why not check out my video below.

My training run with Richard Kell

March 8, 2010

Getting ready for my up-and-coming Westminster Mile this Wednesday, when MPs gather to run 1 mile round St James’ Park in aid of Sport Relief,  I went for a training run with Letchworth’s super-fundraiser Richard Kell through Manor Wood in Letchworth. Richard’s ambitions are far higher – to raise £1 million in a year for Help for Heroes by running 12 marathons and other daring feats. Next weekend Richard is running the equivalent of 4 marathons between 4 Football league grounds – all in 24 hours. He will start at Peterborough United’s London Road ground at 3pm on Friday and hopes to arrive at Watford’s ground in time to watch the fixture between POSH and the Hornets on Saturday afternoon. It was a pleasure to join Richard’s training run and I wish him the very best of luck in his year of fund-raising efforts for such a worthy cause.

Registering to vote

March 3, 2010

As we approach this landmark General Election, today’s Electoral Commission Report Completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain found that non-registration for voting is higher among certain groups, particularly young people aged 17-24 years old (56 per cent not registered) and people from black and minority ethnic communities (31 per cent not registered). Changing address is a key reason for non-registration – just 21 per cent of those living at their present address for a year or less are registered to vote. Millions of people could be falling off the register if they move house between annual canvasses. As a result, the rate of completeness of the register may fall by around 10 percentage points between canvasses. I think this highlights the need to put the duty to register on the individual and to do more to encourage youngsters and those from bme communities to register. It is often argued that 16 year olds should have the vote, but the experience of the group immediately ahead of them in age is not encouraging. Plenty of young people are interested in political issues, but they seem to be willing to let their parents decide what actually happens. We felt almost exactly the opposite when I was young. We wanted to vote to achieve change. It is time for the voice of our young people to be heard. They must register and have their say.

Markets take fright at Labour Opinion Poll

March 3, 2010

As soon as the weekend Opinion Poll showed more Labour  support, the Markets took fright and the cost of Government borrowing went up as interest rates rose. For months, the Government has been shielded from the true state of business confidence in their abilities, because the assumption has been that the Conservatives will win and rein in Labour waste and overspending. The Opinion Poll showing just a 2 point lead has shaken them out of this cosy complacency. Now we see the professional investor’s view of Labour – disastrous! Several papers pick up on Ken Clarke’s warning yesterday that a Labour election victory would panic the markets and hammer the Pound. In the Mail, a leader explains why the markets don’t trust Labour. Ken is right to point out the blunt realities. Experts investing funds for their clients including pension funds know that this Government has spent and borrowed even when the economy was doing well. Now there is not enough money left, they are printing extra money to pay for their borrowings. It is like the person maxed out on their credit card simply getting another card and another card. Borrow, borrow, borrow…print money, print money… borrow, borrow is the road to national ruin. It is the historic Conservative mission to save the day after a period of Labour recklessness and we can rein in spending, achieving better value for the taxpayer’s money, without damaging front line services. Britain can’t stand another 5 years of Gordon Brown’s Labour.