Saturday, May 30, 2009

South Africa

I have just got back from a short business trip to Johannasburg, a part of the world I have never been to before.

I was hugely impressed with the place, the people and the atmosphere; it is a city that seems at ease with itself, and as often turns out to be the case, feels a million miles away from the image given to us by the media.

There is huge inequality there, as is common throughout the world, but there isn't the kind of unsettling quality to it that you see in some other parts of Africa. The Government of SA really do seem to be trying to do the best for all their people - even the shanties are looking as if serious money is being invested to improve the properties and provide sanitation and electricty for everyone in the city.

I had long talks with people (S Africans are so friendly and open, it's hard not to get chatty with everyone you meet!) and the problems they do have ring strangely familiar. One of my drivers told me about the fact that millions of immigrants have flooded SA from other parts of Africa looking for work "lot's of our people are lazy" he said "so the Somali's come here and get the jobs because they are willing to work hard, and then our people say they are taking all the jobs, but there is work and money here if you are prepared to get up and do the work"

Johannasburg is a wealthy city which looks and feels very American, it's mostly low-rise and very wooded, with spread-out modern gated industrial and residential developments connected by big freeways interspersed with gigantic shopping malls. The only difference is that at most junctions there are scores of animated traders dicing with the cars hawking anything from sunglasses to clothing.

And as a European who grew up at a time that South Africa generally seemed to be a hotbed of racism and inequality I was expecting to see remnants of that today. I thought all the rich would be white and all the workers would be black. How wrong can you get!

I felt truly humbled and astonished at how comfortably the people live with each other today, no resentment on either side, white and black South Africans seem utterly passionate about their shared country.

Quite puts some of our local feuds into perspective, really.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Anthony Steen

As Anthony Steen disappears into retirement many people have asked me what I think of his behaviour because I haven't commented on him earlier.

This is because for a few days before his standing down became public knowledge there was a very great deal of discussion about what the Totnes Association could, or should do if Anthony refused to go. I felt that weighing in publicly in the affairs of a neighbouring constituency would neither be appropriate or terribly helpful while that process was going on, although in private all along I have been saying that he must go .

Now that he has done the right thing and decided to step down I can say what I think, which is that however hard he has worked, however many constituents he has served well over the years it is not enough to justify the morally indefensible and I think his claims were just that, morally indefensible.

Anthony is a wealthy man in his own right and cannot possibly have needed the money so what on earth was he thinking? Perhaps the lawyer in him couldn't separate out the legal right from the moral wrong. Either way he has been the sole architect of his own downfall.

It is not legally possible to force him to repay the money as some have suggested because, as with most of these cases, he was acting entirely within the rules and therefore has committed no offence and breached no agreements, so unless he makes a goodwill gesture (hardly likely, judging by his public comments) there is no way the money can be returned.

But the main thing is -along with two others he is going; and hopefully a few other disgraced Conservative MP's will go as well this weekend because I really do think that this is the best way out of this for Parliaments sake.

But what of his neighbours? I learn that Tory Gary Streeter and Labour MP Alison Seabeck have posted all their own expenses on their websites today, so is clearly nothing to hide there.

Younger Ross is guilty of exactly the same 'offence' as Steen - and as much money, too. No doubt there will be howls of protest from some that he wasn't as 'bad' as Anthony but why? Because he doesn't live in such a big house? Because he used the money to buy fancy mirrors and expensive furniture rather than tree surgeons and water pipes?

And what about our MP? Will he now do the right thing and get on and publish his own expenses? And if not, will his own party take tough action against him?

Somehow I doubt it. Clearly -in spite of Nick Cleggs fine words- they don't have the determination and guts to act and that won't be forgotten by voters at election time.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Relics, on life support.

Conservative Politicians aren't supposed to be radicals. Tradition and maintianing the status quo are supposed to be hard-wired into our DNA.

So I would imagine that I might be a bit of a lone voice in suggesting that the entire Palace of Westminster is dangerously close to making itself unfit for purpose.

The trouble with all great institutions is that over their very long lives they can become self-serving, and obselete. Over the years traditions and customs that were introduced in response to a particular need become pointless and anachranistic and yet our obsession with past greatness means that we hang on to them regardless. We are not alone in this, of course, the great Christian religions suffer exactly the same affliction and as a result suffer exactly the same fate - dwindling engagement by the modern public.

Much that goes on in the House of Commons falls into this category. The place is a labrynthine building filled with obscure and equally labrynthine customs - in many cases that now inhibit free debate and restrict the Parliament from doing what it is supposed to do.

Ordinary members of the public who occasion to watch the proceedings on TV or even more infrequently -visit to watch their law makers at work- see an ancient ritual couched in 19th century language that seems utterly alien and unrelated to their lives.

Like Tower Bridge our Parliament building is a bit of a fraud. It was built in the 1830's, the Georgians created some of the finest archetecture since the Romans but Pugin designed Parliament to look like a building hundreds of years older, a dark forbidding church-like monolith.

Compare and contrast our Parliament with Holroyd House, or the London Assembly Building both modern debating places made for the 21st century. Here you will see (easily- because unlike the unward-looking Westminster- both buildings are light, open, accessible and made of glass) normally dressed people talking to each other in language that you will understand, they sit behind desks, in a semi circle and have modern tools to hand, computers, phones, email to do what they are supposed to do, represent their constituents views.

When the Germans bombed the Commons chamber in 1942 there was a decision to restore the building brick by brick rather than modernise it, more recently another opportunity was missed. The recently completed Portcullis House was built in exactly the same style as Parliament itself, secure and closed - inward looking and private. A modern castle designed to keep it's occupants safe from the hoardes of peasants at the gates. What a pity the authorities didn't form a new light, and open debating chamber when they had the chance.

But the fabric of the structure is less an issue than the activity that goes on there. Because of the raw anger against almost all sitting MP's I have a feeling that the next Parliament will have a record number of freshmen and women taking their place. A new Parliament made up of a majority of new MP's might just be able to bring itself to modernise the practices of the place in a way that no Parliament has done for nearly 200 years, in the process proving to a sceptical public that what happens there is important and relevant to their lives.

I hope so because change has to come. Whatever happens to Speaker Martin this week, whatever they current House decides to do about expenses, mere tinkering at the edges is not enough.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Expenses Row. Why did no-one act earlier?

I have been watching the slow car crash that is unfolding before us that is the expenses scandal.

As MP after MP finds the grubby details of their domestic shopping and furnishing habits splashed across out national and local newspapers they trot out the same lame excuse 'it was a rotten system'.

Well it wasn't as if they didn't have plenty of opportunity to change things. Some of us have been telling them it's rotten since 2002.

After the rules were radically overhauled (read that as 'made much more generous') by the newly re-elected chamber in July 2001 my then MP Michael Trend came to see me. I was, at that time, the Chairman of his local Conservative Association in Windsor. He wanted to discuss using the new allowances to improve the constituency operation which, at that time, was run entirely on donated and privately raised funds, about £500 per month of which came from the MP himself towards the costs of work done by our staff on his non-political constituency business. Using what he told us was a new office costs allowance Micheal said we could enjoy the benefit of having another full-time secretary on site, £12,000 towards the costs of the office premisis and a new computer system all on the taxpayer.

However it quickly transpired that he intended the new secretary to be his wife, a proposal which was immediately vetoed by all of us on the management committee, because we felt it could create intolerable pressures if there was ever trouble between the MP's wife and our long-serving agent Jackie Porter and also because it was a practice we all found unacceptable .

This led to a deeper curiosity about how the new rules worked, we were frankly curious about some of the claims Mr Trend was making for the new system and noted that the Government payments would replace the voluntary donations he traditionally made from his own resources. In short, we smelled a rat.

Weeks of wrangling went by as we tried and tried to get legal clarification as to what the rules were - and to be honest we never did. The green book, any record of expenses and the rules were all still completely secret to non-parliamentarians at that time and we were invited merely to accept the advice of hour Honorable Member, whom we suspected had a hidden agenda. Every time we raised questions about how lax the system appeared to be we were fobbed off or even more often told it was basically none of our business.

Two things then happened which broke our trust. One, we were told that the MP had been employing his wife ever since the new rules had come in and two, we found out that he was trying to force his long-serving veteran Parliamentary Secretary to retire from her job, which she did not want to do.

This was in August, the very month when I was in the process of being selected for the job of PPC here in Torbay. Although none of us imagined I would be selected for the first and only seat I had ever applied for we did agree that if I was, I would hand over the chairmanship to my deputy David Hilton and he then took the reins in September.

As some people may remember within weeks of this details were leaked to the Mail on Sunday of Mr Trend claiming for a second home when in fact he lived and commuted from his house in Windsor.

There was an emergency executive, at which I urged members to take a hard line. The Conservative Party was still only five years on from the sleaze of cash for questions and this scandal would, in my view, have gifted the seat to the Liberal Democrats if Mr Trend were allowed to contest the seat in 2005. Others agreed and when the mood of the local party became clear the MP voluntarily agreed to stand down.

His defence was 'but everyone does it' - and not one of the people in that committee room believed him. How wrong we were!

From that point on I have been a vociferous, public and frequent critic of the whole expenses and allowances regime at Westminster. Every time a scandal has been uncovered, about MP's employing their wives, about MP's claiming for non existant homes, about MP's using our money to fund luxury lifestyles I have warned that the system needs changing before trust in politicians is fatally damaged.

Time and again I have askedMP's to be open, really open, about what they have claimed and what they have spent our money on most of them doggedly refused to do so.

Well as the truth slowly and painfully emerges I can see why.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Who would want to be an MP now?

The expenses row seems to go from strength to strength as the general public find out what some of us have known for a while, the Westminster expenses system is rotten to it's core.

Complaining about it (and believe me, PPC's have been!) has got nowhere, the MP's have simply failed to recognise that the system they settled for in 2001 is wide open to accusations of corruption and abuse.

The essential problem is that most MP's believe they 'should' be being paid a lot more than £64,000. Way back in the mists of time the House agreed to link Members pay to a civil service grade to avoid unseemly accusations of gravy train activity; but then every time the civil service review board recommended a pay rise it was politically inconvenient, so MP's voted against.

Many MP's now privately believe they would be earning nearer £100,000 - and the allowances have become a convenient way to make up the difference.

It's dishonest, if MP's believe thay are worth £100,000 then they should stand up and defend it openly, not hide behind expenses and hope to get away with misleading the public.

Now the whole lot of them are tarred. I went to a wedding this weekend and all anyone said was 'I bet you are looking forward to getting a place in the trough' - and who can blame them for thinking this?

I cannot see any way that this discredited House of Parliament can sort this out and restore public trust. We need an new election, and freash mandates for every MP and then the new Parliament needs a bonfire of the expenses, and not just the housing costs - MP's have appointed themselves a huge staffing liability with some MP's having four or five members of tax paid staff -this is madness, when several MP's manage with one good PA.

It's all got to go, the communications allowance, the office costs allowance, the postage allowance, the IT allowance, the first-class travel, the central London parking costs paid for, the curtains and the CD holders.

Only by proving value for money for itself can any future Government call on the rest of the civil service and public sector to take care of our money.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

It was 30 years ago .....

The 3rd May 1979 was a watershed in British political history, not only the first women PM but the first time in a generation that the direction of political travel changed.

Since before WW1 the country had been travelling steadily leftwards, regardless of the political party in charge. The role of the state in society has grown exponentially after the two world wars, to the point by the 1970's that most people felt things had gone too far.

Mrs Thatchers government was ground-breaking in several other ways, for the first time since Disreali the Conservative party adopted a political dogma - instead of being simply the party of the status quo we became committed to actively rolling back the state and taking Government out of whole areas of British life, car manufacturing, running airlines and telecoms businesses became once again things that people, and not Governments, did.

The BBC ran the election night coverage from 1979 in real time all day yesterday on the Parliament channel.

I did not watch all of it but even in the bits I did see several things became clear:
1) Labour - indeed no-one, had any idea that the Tories would be in office for nearly 20 years.
2) The men of the Left were marginally less keen on the reality of upcoming gender equality than the men on the Right.
3) Everyone looks old for their age.
4) BBC left wing Bias - perhaps journalistic left wing bias, was more obvious then than now.
5) The country was in a worse condition then than now - and yet people seemed less aware of how bad it was, compared to public opinion today.
6) “Who” mattered a lot less than “what” in peoples minds when voting.

But the big lesson for me from 1979 is not the result, it is the quality of politicians and the calibre of their debate.

We absolutely have to restore a functioning democratic debate based on issues and competing solutions if democracy is to have a purpose - and for the population in 2040 to look back and be able to be see a relevance in the 2010 election night.

Too much of modern politics has become about spin and presentation, threats and intimidation about what the altenative might mean, challenging the integrity of one's opponents and digging dirt rather than an honest debate about alternative visions.

That is another, less welcome, Thatcher legacy. New Labour didn't invent spin they simply refined it to a new level.