Somerset Guardian – 22nd April 2013
Last Friday I was re-adopted by the local Conservative Association to be the candidate for the North East Somerset seat at the next election. The uncertainties over the boundaries meant that it could not have been done earlier and it is a great privilege to be asked to carry on.
In the three years since I was first elected there has been much to do as your representative. I have held about 150 surgeries, spoken in the Commons on nearly 200 occasions, voted in over 700 divisions, sent out well over 10,000 letters and written almost 40,000 words for the Somerset Guardian.
Through activity in Parliament and contacting Ministers I have been able to obtain ‘redress of grievance’ for my constituents. This method of putting right injustices that have afflicted local people was one of the original reasons for calling Parliaments.
Edmund Burke set out the classic definition of a Member of Parliament’s role in his speech to the electors of Bristol when he said: “your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment”. I have been willing where necessary to vote against Coalition policy especially if it is against our interests in Somerset.
None of this has seemed like hard work as it is such an honour to represent the wonderful communities that make up the population in North East Somerset.
The beauty of the county is well known as is the good nature of the people and I am proud to boast about this in my speeches in Parliament. I hope that
I will be able to continue to do so.
Somerset Guardian – 16th April 2013
Wellsway School saw the opening of its new £3.1 million sports hall last week. This impressive facility has a six court hall as well as a suite of fitness machines bought from the Olympic Park and some classroom space.
It was formally opened by Ben Rushgrove who is one of the country’s foremost Paralympians. He won a silver medal in Peking and a bronze in London which he generously showed to the guests and pupils at Wellsway. He is an influential figure who was besieged by admirers after the ceremony with whom he patiently agreed to be photographed. Other parts of the ceremony included some excellent dancing and speeches from pupils. This was done exceptionally well and was an organisational triumph for the school.
Wellsway has a strong reputation for sport and this new hall will enhance its standing. It provides the facilities necessary to produce outstanding results but it is the enthusiasm of staff and pupils alike which will ensure success. This is clearly present and it will be interesting to see it flourish in coming years.
The hall is also available for the community and has been used by 300 residents prior to the formal opening. This is beneficial as it ensures a greater use of an expensive resource especially during parts of the year when schools are not open. It allows continuity for school leavers who will be able to keep up their training immediately after finishing their studies. However, its greatest benefit is in bringing a community together. Sometimes schools can seem isolated places and sharing something like this can change this perception. It allows young and old to come together to the benefit of society generally.
Radstock Journal – 25th March 2013
That the budget was fairly boring is good news in that it recognises the long term nature of the recovery. It was always going to be the case that after fifteen years of boom based on debt the bust would be protracted and recovery slow. Fortunately, the data are now beginning to show that the foundations for recovery are now in place.
The Government’s finances, although far from good, are getting back into a shape that is reasonable. Total spending has fallen from 47.4% of national income to 43.6%. This is still around 5% more than the long term peak in taxation revenues but it is not far off a sustainable level especially when adjusted for the current low point in the cycle. After three years of austerity this is encouraging and it supports the claims in the Red Book, the common title of the government’s budget report, that 65% of the spending cuts planned in 2010 have been achieved along with 90% of the tax increases. Thus austerity is unlikely to get much worse and any slight economic rebound would feed through to the figures quickly. It is right that the Chancellor has not heeded voices on the left calling for more spending or those on the right demanding expensive tax cuts. Neither policy prescription is affordable.
The private sector has also been rebuilding its balance sheet in a difficult time. As it is harder to do this when an economy is weak the degree of restructuring is impressive. Private sector debt as a percentage of GDP has fallen by 40 points from well over 450%. It is still too high but is probably over stated as banks remain reluctant to write off all their bad loans. Households have seen their gearing decline too with debt leverage falling from over 25% to about 20% while interest payments have declined to 5% of income from a peak of more than 10%. This means that the new policy in mortgages is coming at a time when households can reasonable afford to borrow.
Indeed the mortgage scheme, all £130billion of it, could be transformative. It will potentially bring the property market back to life when it is affordable to do so. In real terms the Land Registry’s house price index has fallen by 24.2% from January 2008 so any boost to prices will be from a depressed level. Hence the criticism that it could merely start a housing bubble appears unfounded. This could lead to real economic growth as it allows people to move to find work which boosts activity, moreover when people move house many ancillary expenditures take place.
The minor changes in the budget are welcome even if they will not electrify the nation. The £2,000 threshold for employers’ national insurance payments will help the jobs market and the £10,000 income tax threshold assists those on low wages. It can reduce the money merry-go-round where people are taxed only to be paid benefits with their own money. The move to abandon the carbon levy on some industries may show signs of a more serious energy policy and is a tentative step in the right direction.
Overall, it is the fact that the underlying balance sheet and fiscal data are improving that is most welcome and that the new mortgage policy could lead to a new period of growth.
Somerset Guardian – 19th March 2013
On Monday Parliament decided that the press would be regulated by statute for the first time since 1689. Eight pages of amendments were added to the Crime and Courts Bill to penalise any newspaper that failed to sign up to the state’s approved form of regulation. This is to be arranged through a Royal Charter which will give recognition to one of more regulatory bodies. Newspapers that do not obey face the risk of punitive damages in libel actions and absurdly paying the costs of claimants who lose. The Royal Charter will itself be subject to legislation in an attempt to make it difficult to change.
The press has little sympathy following the telephone hacking scandal and the treatment of some individuals. However, its freedom ought to be precious and is worth defending. This applies to local newspapers as to the nationals. At every level there are the powerful and the sensitive who wish to prevent stories about them being printed. The scandal of the Bath Spa was exposed by the Somerset Guardian and the Bath Chronicle which reported on the story relentlessly holding both the politicians and bureaucrats to account.
There is a great risk and obstacles are placed in the way of reporting. It is not necessarily the threat of direct censorship but it is the self censorship that stops the story that is true but lacks complete proof from being published. Over the centuries the press has gradually gained more freedom, including the right to report on Parliament, which the Establishment has reluctantly granted it. Seditious and criminal libel no longer exist and libel damages have been reined in. This has made us a less corrupt and freer nation. It is sad to see this process reversed.
The Education Service of the House of Commons runs excellent sessions for schools to visit Parliament to discover more about our proceedings. This week two primary schools from North East Somerset have been welcomed. They are both Church of England schools, St. John’s in Keynsham and the Ubley Primary School.
The format of the meetings is that they are told about how Parliament and political parties work. This is an opportunity for them to develop a manifesto, run a mock election and to follow an act of Parliament from its First Reading to Royal Assent. As part of their education this is an immediate way of learning about democracy. It ought to show that Parliament is not a remote body but one that is open to all, some of whom may later want to have a political career.
As the local Member of Parliament I am usually invited to join the pupils for a question and answer session. I enjoy these partly because children speak so directly – I was once asked how much I was paid as an MP. However, I mainly value them because they show how interested at an early stage of their lives people are in politics. As the turnout at general elections has fallen in recent decades it is more important than ever to educate people about the importance of Parliament.
Every day I work in buildings that have been part of our history since the reign of William Rufus, who died in 1100. This is both a privilege and an excitement. I hope that the school children who visit me are similarly inspired.
Recently I was able to visit Kelston Sparks, the earth moving and plant hire specialists. They are based on the site of and old colliery on the edge of Stanton Drew. As you pass them on the A368 between Stowey and Chelwood you would not know that there was a major industrial business tucked away. It is conveniently placed for its vehicles to join the road network and the site is exceptionally clean.
The company, which employs about 140 people, was set-up in 1952 by Kelston Sparks and is still a family firm. It is a major supplier of equipment to quarries and to big infrastructure projects. These include its involvement in the building the Olympic stadium and Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Currently it is looking to get work from the Hinkley Point Power Station and is one of the leading British companies in its field.
The equipment Kelston Sparks operates has a high capital value. This leads to millions of pounds of annual investment and requires a highly skilled workforce to operate the machines. The company, therefore, runs its own training centre for its own staff as well as for other companies in the region. It has recently found it difficult to attract apprentices even though the jobs are well paid and even in the recession secure.
Although North East Somerset is fortunate to have one of the lowest levels of unemployment of any constituency in the country it is still a problem for 911 people. This makes it sad to hear that successful businesses are not overwhelmed with applications. However, it was encouraging to see so good a locally based and flourishing operation.
The ratings agencies are an important part of the financial services system but rarely a competent one. When rating debt they are paid by the borrower not the lender. This creates a conflict of interest as they will not get business from companies to which they give a poor rating will not want to use them in future. This was at the heart of the sub-prime crisis where Triple A ratings were given to baskets of high risk debt in a Humpty Dumpty approach to risk management.
Irrespective of computer models basic common sense ought to have told investors that a collection of high risks cannot add up to a low risk.
This has led to the United States government bringing an action against Standard and Poors for fraud and it is expected that the other two major rating agencies Moody’s and Fitch will follow. This is indicative of the damage done to their reputation for their failure to predict the sub-prime crisis which was, in any case, not unique. In my experience in emerging markets they tend to downgrade countries too late when financial distress is already upon them and are then slow to upgrade. This makes them almost useless predictors of future returns which undermines their whole purpose.
In light of this downgrading the United Kingdom’s government debt (gilds) is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is eye wateringly stupid. Triple A is an indication of the likelihood of default not of inflation or economic growth. As almost all our debt is in pounds and the Bank of England (which is owned by the government) can print an indefinite amount of bank notes there is no risk of default. There can never be any need for a default on domestic debt with fiat currencies. Even the ratings agencies should understand this rudimentary economic point.
Last week I supported the Government in its policy to reduce Housing Benefit for properties that are under occupied. This has dishonestly been referred to as a ‘bedroom tax’. It is no such thing. The Government will not put any tax on bedrooms and these changes to benefit will make no difference to home owners or people in the privately rented sector. Pensioner households will not be affected either.
What then does the policy do? It ties benefit to need for those in social housing. Households in receipt of Housing Benefit will from next month be paid depending on the number of residents and the bedrooms available. Children aged nine or under will be expected to share a room regardless of sex and fifteen or under with a child of the same sex. Couples will be expected to share a room but other adults will be assessed as in need of their own room.
This will lead to a reduction in benefit for some families. It is estimated that 120,000 households have two or more spare bedrooms. However, it does no more than bring the public housing into line with benefits available to rent privately and it recognises that people’s circumstances change. Under occupancy is not just a problem in terms of excess benefit payments but it also means that larger houses are not available for those who currently need them.
Benefits are not there to provide a way of life but a safety net for those who need it. As taxpayers are expected to move when their circumstances changes it is not unreasonable to expect the same of benefit recipients. There are exemptions for the elderly and extra cash to support the disabled and foster parents. Thus the most vulnerable will be protected but so will taxpayers.
Somerset Guardian – 29th January2013
David Cameron’s speech on Europe is a crucial development in our relationship with the European Union. Although this debate is often mired in jargon the basic principles are simple.
Democracy requires that people are governed with their informed consent and that one government can undo anything its predecessor has done. The European Union operates in opposition to these fundamental points. The European Parliament lacks democratic legitimacy primarily because, as the Prime Minister said, there is no European ‘demos’. People identify themselves with a nationality or a region not with this continent.
As a member of the European Union governments can and do bind their successors. Powers given to Europe cannot be taken back under the existing treaties, the acqui communautaire is easy to add to but difficult to reduce and the 1972 European Communities Act has effectively been made superior law.
These problems have led to European actions lack legitimacy or popular support. A referendum will settle the situation for another generation. It is much to be welcomed even for those who doubt the efficacy of re-negotiation. It may well be a pious hope to think that other member states will offer a more limited Europe with the return to our Parliament of decisions over agriculture, fisheries and labour laws. However, in this case we will simply be able to leave and all authority will return to these shores automatically.
The only good thing about the Lisbon Treaty was that it put in an article allowing a member state to leave and to negotiate a free trade agreement. A loose association may be an ideal outcome but leaving altogether is nothing to be frightened of.
Somerset Guardian – 7th January 2013
David Cameron will shortly make an important speech on Europe while the Mail on Sunday reports that support for UKIP could lead to a Labour landslide at the next election. North East Somerset was one of the seats said to be affected by this swing to Euro-scepticism.
There are good underlying reasons for this apparently bleak situation for Conservatives. The limitations of coalition have prevented a coherent European policy from developing. The Lib-Dems are an avowedly pro-European party arguing for closer European integration so each decision becomes a matter for coalition discussion rather than following a clear line.
Europe itself is clearly failing to work. This is not just in the Euro zone which suffers from shrinking economies and rising unemployment but it is also clear that the centralised bureaucratic model of the EU cannot compete with the emerging economies.
There is also no democratic control of policy and law making. The unelected Commission takes the lead while its initiatives to bring Europe closer to the people, such as making 2013 the Year of the European Citizen, are ridiculed.
This has proved fertile ground for UKIP especially as there is no other party of protest since the Lib-Dems entered government. It has allowed them to get 16% in the polls with the strong prospect of topping the European Parliament elections next year.
Although some of this can be dismissed as amid-term problem that will fade it shows the deep disillusionment of our forty years of membership of the common market. We joined a trade association and seem to have got a government. If David Cameron can offer a referendum that the right in British politics can unite around it may keep him in Downing Street in 2015 and Britain free from the shackles of ever closer union.