December. Fuel, healthcare and immigration dominate the early headlines. The death of Nelson Mandela eclipses the news for a week and creates a difficult climate in which good news from the Treasury is also buried . The roof falls in, literally, in Glasgow and in theatreland and metaphorically for Britain`s foremost domestic goddess. A new runway may be set for take-off at Heathrow while plans for the Boris Island airport are stalled and Gatwick is grounded in less than festive season fashion. The British, as usual, never stop talking about the weather.
Yesterday`s front pages are tomorrow`s cat-litter while in the wreckage people`s lives and families are ruined, sometimes for ever. The horrific crash of a Europcopter EC 135 into Glasgow`s Clutha Vaults packed public house, leaving the pilot, two police officers and six others dead at the start of the month and the night, later, that the house was literally brought down during a performance of “the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time” at London`s Apollo Theatre, have been a stark reminder of how one minute`s relaxed pleasure can turn unexpectedly into the next minute`s terror and tragedy. At such times politicians can only really offer platitudes and sympathy while the families of those injured and the bereaved are left to face the harsh reality once the media circus has moved on. It always seems, to those on the outside looking in, to be so much “worse just before Christmas” because we are all supposed to be enjoying ourselves and anticipating a happy holiday period but the fact is that these events are personal, individual and as devastating in their own way, whenever they happen, for relatives as the death of “another soldier” in Afghanistan. At the end of the day there is no comfort in numbers.
Westminster is still buffeted in the slipstream of the Milipede`s assertion that a Labour government would “freeze fuel prices” for a few months. We have talked previously of the vacuous political opportunism of this gimmick but it is a sign of the coalition times that politics is reactive. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who in a former incarnation had something to do with The City and with oil, summons the Big Six companies to Lambeth Palace for a chat. Recognising a heavyweight when they see one the companies, who despatched minions to face MPs, turn out their top brass in person to meet with the Primate of All England.
The last of the Big Six fuel companies to announce its tariff, EDF, indicates a self-imposed price-freeze to the end of 2014 but although the Government plans to roll back the `green levy` to the tune of £50 per household it becomes clear that those shrewd enough to have taken out fixed-price contracts are likely to miss out on the largesse. We can claim though – and of course Chancellor George does just that – that the fuel duty freeze imposed on petrol prices has meant that it now costs £11 less to fill a family car than it would have done under Labour`s fuel duty escalator. Her Majesty`s Opposition do not take kindly to being reminded of this fact. Not game, set and match but as the Chancellor suggested, time for “new Balls please”.
Bad news, I fear, for the Salford Broadcasting Corporation (of which more later). The economy is improving. The Chancellor`s Autumn statement has been trailed and dissected in advance for days. Austerity until 2018? Probably yes. Welfare payments are still unaffordable. A £100 billion cap? In fact, one of the most popular of the Conservative wing of the coalition`s policies has proved to be a ceiling on benefit payments which, although still too high at £26,000 ( representing a pre-tax earned income of at least £35,000), makes sense to hard working taxpayers who, while earning less themselves, are footing the bill for others to not work. The `Quiet Man` , Iain Duncan Smith, who has become a lot noisier of late, tells the nation that `the dole` “is not a lifestyle choice”. IDS needs to be careful though. Fiddling the temperature figures to deny qualifying ex-pats the right to Winter Fuel Allowance is not clever and that sort of politics could undermine his hard-earned reputation for honesty and decency. Just because the Secretary of State says that he is right does not necessarily make him right. But back to the Autumn Statement. Life expectancy by 2040, our children will be gratified to know, will mean that we shall need to be working into our seventies. As it happens, some of us are already doing exactly that but I can already hear the anthem on the terraces..”Work on, Work on, with hope in your heart and you`ll never work alone..........”. The Chancellor has, though, been careful to rightly credit a “hardworking British people”, whose households and lifestyles have been paying the price for Labour`s profligacy, for the fact that the UK economy has turned a corner. Employment is now, at 30million, at its highest level since records began and the greatest rise in jobs filled has been outside London. While he intends, again rightly, to continue to reduce the cost of bureaucracy and waste, he has also managed to shine a glimmer of Conservative light through the darkness with the introduction of a very modest tax break for married couples. The standard of living in Britain is now once against amongst the highest in Europe and the UK`s financial performance is on track to lead that of France and even Germany. It would be wrong to try to claim that we are out of the woods – we are not – and although we apparently managed to spend at a rate of £40 thousand per second in the pre-Christmas shopping rush it will still be some time before `the ordinary household` really begins to feel more prosperous but the movement is at last in the right direction, as Lord Peston`s little boy will no doubt take pleasure in telling you!
Regular readers of these scribbling will know of my continuous striving to remain fair, impartial and non-partisan. I do not enjoy kicking a man when he is down but it has to be said that the Shadow Chancellor`s response to the Autumn Statement was truly awful. So bad, in fact, that it led that Cassandra of the Labour Party, John Mann to opine that Mr. Balls` mistakes were “harming Labour”. The lugubrious Mr. Mann, who seems to spend a great deal of time criticising others while basking in a glow of personal self-righteousness, happens, also, to be a member of the Treasury Select Committee and we therefore have to assume that he has some specialist knowledge of matters fiscal. If Mr. Mann has given the Black Spot to comrade Ed then those of us who regard ourselves as his friends (and curiously but genuinely I happen to be one of them) will have to try to protect him. The Tory party needs Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor.
Matters of hospital healthcare and immigration are, with a little help from the Bourgeois Women’s` Tabloid, conflated. We are once again told that Accident and Emergency services will become choked with patients as winter rolls on and that this situation will be exacerbated by the hordes of Bulgars and Roma who will pour into the United Kingdom once the Euro-barriers are lifted at midnight on New Year`s Eve. It is certainly the case that given the difficulties of obtaining a GP appointment any time between now and death, a situation arising from the ludicrous contract entered into under The Legacy`s last Labour administration, people are heading straight to hospital with minor ailments. There has, we are told, been an eighteen percent increase in the number of visits to A&E in the last twelve months and that probably fifty per cent of the 22 million visits are not warranted.
What is clearly also the case -0 and this is where the `immigration` card gets played, is that health tourism is on the rise as, for example, pregnant ladies from the African continent head for these shores to give birth under facilities provided and paid for by the British taxpayer. In the wake of this multi-million pound scam the government is at present in the process of legislating to tighten up the rules requiring migrants and visitors to our shores the pay for health treatment. That, of course, has generated howls of objection from the GPs trade union, the BMA, and from hospital administrators who have hitherto failed to collect monies quite properly due to the NHS. I may be a bear of little brain but why it is beyond the realms of possibility to insist upon the production of a certificate of health insurance, or an EU health card, as well as a passport, before allowing people to board transport to the UK is beyond my limited comprehension.
As Her Maj says sometimes at the end of the Royal Address to both Houses of Parliament, “other measures will be laid before you”. St. Vincent of Cable has somehow equated Man David`s approach to “The Immigration Issue” with Enoch Powell`s “Rivers of Blood” speech, but then St. Vince generally does a good line in hyperbole. The fact is that, having extended Labour`s restrictions on migration from Bulgaria and Romania by the maximum two years permitted under EU “free movement” law we are now faced with the inevitability of more nationals from Eastern Europe coming to the UK to do jobs that UK citizens will not do for wages that UK citizens will not work for. (Dominos Pizza Company says that it has a thousand jobs to offer but “Brits don`t want the work”). All of those incomers will ,of course, require accommodation, healthcare and, in the case of young families, education. In order to deter those who the Daily Mail tells us are only coming to “exploit our benefit system” ( as opposed to highly-trained pickpockets and other undesirables) we have belatedly rushed through regulations designed to prevent the aforesaid incomers from claiming UK benefits for the first three months. Additionally, Home Secretary May is proposing a cap on the total number of immigrants from within the EU. St. Nicholas of Clogg, for once whingeing from the same song-sheet as St.Vince, helpfully says that this will be illegal. The United Nations Commission for Refugees, at its meddlesome best, has already announced that the UK is seeking to `stigmatise` migrants and that is just the warm-up act. What is pretty certain is that all of this will be referred to the European Court and that the UK will, in its customary fashion (unless it is seeking to deny ex-pat UK citizens the right to vote in our general elections) lose.
This leads us, in a meandering sort of way, to Judge Judge. The former Lord Chief Justice, relieved of his wig of office and now just Lord Judge, has opined that “legal decisions should not be exported”. Had he said this a little more loudly while LCJ it might have been more helpful but I am sure that he felt constrained by the burdens of legal responsibility placed upon his gowned shoulders. Anyway, we are where we are and with the ECHR still determined to compel the UK to grant voting rights to convicted criminals and the House of Commons likely to tell the ECHR to take a running jump, if only to deter the Prime Minister from being “physically sick” at the aforesaid prospect, the crunch is coming. The Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling is, to re-cycle one of The Legacy`s favourite phrases, “ a pretty straightforward kind of guy” and if he says that he wants out of the ECHR then he probably means it. The Court and the Council of Europe, of which we were one of the founding nations, were, of course, established in the aftermath of the Second World War and designed to prevent the kind of abuses of `justice` that led to the holocaust. They were not meant to be allowed to intrude into every orifice of the jurisdiction of a sovereign state. Secretary Grayling wants our Supreme Court to be supreme and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of both sides of the House of Commons agrees with him. If we have to pull our delegation, of which I am a member, out of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe then so be it. Old Windy`s Almanac predicts a serious move towards the introduction of a British Charter of Fundamental rights to replace the United Europe version.
A small and largely unreported Gale arrived on December the fifteenth in the form of my youngest son`s first child but the real weather has brought, I fear, rather less joy to the festive season and for once we are justified in talking obsessively about the weather. What has proved to be just the overture hit the country at the end of the first week of the month, as storm-force winds battered North Wales before ripping across the land through Kent and Essex and Norfolk and Suffolk. The Thames barrier has been raised more times recently than was predicted for the first hundred years of its lifetime and in some coastal towns and settlement the first evacuations were advised. We watched the screens in helpless sympathy as cliff top homes in Norfolk were claimed by the sea in cliff falls and shared disgust as, under these frightful circumstances, wrecked homes were looted during their owners` absence. All of this, though, proved to be the curtain-raiser for hurricane Emily and successive storms that have brought down trees and power lines, flooded homes, breached sea defences and claimed lives across much of England. We were fortunate, in our corner of Kent, to be spared the worst effects of the elements that have torn through the County and have destroyed not just Christmas but homes, businesses and livelihoods for very many people. It is now, it seems, almost mandatory to seek to blame somebody for what used to be known as `Acts of God` and while I understand the frustration of the woman who accosted the Prime Minister during his visit to a flooded Yalding, in Kent and railed against his failure to “do something” the fact remains that it is not possible to realistically protect against every eventuality or caprice of nature. Yield to demands to protect one town with enhanced riverbank defences and you may, as one of my own constituents running a riverbank pub observed, simply cause other flooding further downstream. Once the storms have literally passed it will, of course, be necessary to learn lessons from the events of the past few weeks but in the interim I think that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Environment Agency and to the police, the fire brigades, the RNLI, the search-and-rescue and other emergency services and to the operatives of the power and water companies whose own family Christmases have been put on hold as they have risked life and limb to seek to preserve the safety of others. I have waded thorough flooded homes and seen personal effects, the photographs and irreplaceable family heirlooms, that have been lost forever and I have smelt the stench of food left rotting in powerless refrigerators and it is hugely distressing and none of it is pretty. At the end of the day, though, what matters is life and I would not personally wish to see one linesman die in order to try to restore power a few hours earlier than might more safely be the case.
In other news, and just before the House rose for Christmas, Howard Davies published his interim thoughts on the future of aviation capacity in the South East. This generated more heat than light as speculation about an additional runway at Heathrow was put firmly back onto the agenda and Boris Island appeared to be a marginalised also-ran. I have some sympathy with Mayor Boris` sense of frustration arising from the delay in reaching a decision until after the next general election but none with his dream of a new hub airport for London that would inevitably be delivered far too late to stem the business that is haemorrhaging from Britain today. We need and answer and a solution, There is one available and it is available now.
The trials and tribulations of the Saatchi household and their employees has occupied many gruesome tabloid column inches. At the end of the day Saatchi himself has been left looking tired and old and spiteful, his employees have been acquitted of the offences of which they were charged and the `Domestic Goddess` has, despite accusations of drug use that emerged in court, apparently survived with her reputation enhanced but left with a strong feeling that she, as a witness, has in fact been herself placed on trial. The matter of witness protection, in its much broader sense, is something else that the Justice Secretary will need to take a long hard look at. He might also, in the wake of the `Marine A` trial for murder, want to review the manner in which even those convicted of crimes are named. That the serving soldier was found guilty of murder in Afghanistan is unassailable and for that he was sentenced to some ten years in prison. But should, given the circumstances, his wife and children have been placed in harms` way as a result of the naming , `in the public interest`, of the serviceman involved? I think not.
Never one to ignore a passing bandwagon Mr. Farridge has seized upon the Countryside Alliance threat to withdraw support from the Conservative party if measures to repeal or reform the Hunting Act before the next general election. And so we find our hero clutching the inevitable drink and grinning inanely for the benefit of passing cameras while chatting with a supporter of the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent Hunt. Neither the Alliance nor the MEP appear able to grasp the fact that the British parliament is a democracy based upon numbers in the voting lobby and that there is, at present, no majority (either for or against) to revisit the Hunting Act and it therefore simply cannot and will not gain any traction during the lifetime of this parliament. Of greater significance is Farridge`s assertion that Britain should be taking in refugees from the conflict in Syria. Setting aside the man`s otherwise expressed views about immigration this has to be populist opportunism at its absolute worst. There are estimated to be some two million displaced people in Syria and surrounding countries and it would be interesting know, as a rebuttal to the charge of pure tokenism, exactly how many, and from which sides of the civil war, of those people Mr. Farridge would wish to see invited to come to the United Kingdom. This Country is already contributing more in aid to the cause of supporting refugees from Syria than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together and a Member of the European Parliament doing the job to which he has been elected and for which he claims expenses might be better employed asking why Europe, with its ludicrous “External Action Service” that employs some 3500 people, is not doing more to match the effort and resource deployed by the UK.
Speaking on “Points of View” Lord (Tony) Hall, the present Director General of the BBC, says that “We will own up when we are wrong”. The Commons Public Accounts Committee has described the Corporation , in a scathing report, as “broken” and suffering from “failure at the most senior level”. The current Chairman of the Football Association and former DG of the BBC, Greg Dyke, who departed from Auntie under something of a cloud, has described the Chairman of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation`s Trustees, Lord Patten, as “ a busted flush” and believes now – although I do not recall this being his view while he held office himself – that the national broadcaster should, like all others, be regulated by OFCOM. The BBC has announced that from henceforth `people` rather than committees or `boards` will carry the can for the Corporations efforts. So, notwithstanding the momentous nature of the event, was it proportionate for the BBC to devote over 100 programmes to the death of Nelson Mandela? Or to send 140 journalists and production staff to cover a funeral that was already well covered by the SBC and other broadcasters? Or to lead its news bulletins with the death of a convicted train robber about whom the BBC happened to have made a two-part series? Or to give airtime on the `flagship` Today Programme to allow Anjem Choudhary, an advocate of militancy, to not condemn the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby? Or to spend further £500 thousand of licence-fee payers` money on making `cosmetic changes` to a new Broadcasting House headquarters only recently re-opened following a refurbishment costing many millions of pounds? Greg Dyke`s view may be jaundiced and the PAC report may be harsh but the time has surely come for a complete cleanout of the stables both at Trust and senior management level.
Her Maj must have been relieved to have Prince Harry safely back home following his excursion in the Antarctic. The race to the South Pole with his “walking with the wounded” team of recovering service disabled may have been abandoned in competitive terms because of safety fears generated by weather-induced stress but they still walked a walk that few upon the planet have even contemplated and, after a three-week trek, reached their destination. More worrying perhaps, for a Granny, must be the prospect of William and Kate breaking with royal tradition and flying together with George to New Zealand. Modern, certainly, but it is unprecedented for two generations of heirs to the throne to fly in the same plane. None of that, though, dampened the obvious joy displayed in the Christmas message and if some of the thirty visitors on the Sandringham Christmas guest list had to share bedrooms in the `bachelor wing` of the property then Her Maj was nevertheless clearly delighted to have her newly extended family around her. The Gales know and share the feeling.
Mayor Boris, subjected to an LBC IQ test on questions to which he should have known the answers, managed to get not one response correct. Not commenting, the Prime Minister said “Let Boris speak for himself”. It looks as though he just did.
The Church is introducing an I-Player App. for mobile phones. There is, it seems, a demand for a `digital presence`. Behind the curve, perhaps, as there already very many currently worshipping the cult of the I-God.
Ladies of the night in Paris are reported to be complaining of a threat to their livelihoods following a proposal to fine their customers. In characteristically French fashion the men employing the tarts` services ( they clearly do not do PC either) are to be fined fifteen hundred Euros if apprehended while there will remain no punishment for soliciting. Caveat emptor.
`Elf `n safety in Neath in South Wales have insisted that the Mary riding upon the donkey in the town`s traditional nativity parade must wear a hard helmet. Riding boots and a high-viz shawl next? And a pagan witch has won fifteen thousand pounds in a discrimination case against employers who objected to her taking hallowe`en off to celebrate Wicca-style. In Neath she would probably have been fined for not wearing protective clothing as a substitute for nudity or whatever is properly not worn on these occasions.
An 86-year old lady driving a Renault Clio in my home town of Poole, in Dorset, has managed to jump the gap over a still-open Twin Sails new lifting-bridge across the harbour in true James Bond style. I am relieved that my Mother, who still lives in the vicinity and is rising 93 , gave up driving shortly after her ninetieth birthday but I have fears for copycat `Hell`s Grannies`. Great advertisement for the Clio though.
The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, asserts that grammar schools are “stuffed full of middle class kids” and do not contribute to social mobility. As the product of a boarding grammar school that gave houseroom and education to young men from every walk of life I can only say that, for good or ill, I would not be where I am today were it not for the education and affection that I received at Hardye`s School in Dorchester and that in my own prejudiced opinion Sir Michael`s view reflects the bureaucratic and elitist rubbish epitomised by liberal socialism.
A reprieve for analogue radio. The powers that be have caved in to common sense and postponed the switchover to digital-only radio transmission. This means that for the foreseeable future AM/FM will survive and the excuse for the BBC to kill off the long-wave broadcasts enjoyed by so many Brits and others around the globe is, for the moment at least, removed. Suzy and other long-suffering wives are going to have to put up with Test Match Special for a little longer. (But don`t mention the Ashes. As my youngest son, Tom, has said on Facebook, there will be a lot of bar staff in Central London exercising bragging rights today).
“Customer service is our priority” says a Marks and Spencer that has permitted Muslim store staff to decline to serve pork or alcohol products. Moslem community leaders have criticised M&S pointing out, rightly, that most large chain stores manage to accommodate religious requirements within a plethora of till outlets that do not offend individual sensibilities.
Researchers at the Nottingham University NHS Trust have found the time in the course of their busy schedules to determined that Secret Agent 007, aka James Bond, was an alcoholic. Having taken six months to analyse 19 novels they have revealed that Mr. Bond consumed an average of 92 units of alcohol a week as against an NHS recommended maximum of 28. Without wasting an inordinate amount of time on research myself I would hazard a guess that Bond was also a womanise, though which has a more deleterious effect upon health I am, of course, not qualified to judge.
Is there no limit to academically generated nonsense? The University of Bangor in North Wales seems to be propagating the view that in addition to health warnings on blank cigarette packets there should also now be a caution on every individual fag. As a non-smoker myself I nevertheless believe that there is a limit to the extent to which the State, even with the best possible of intentions, should meddle with individual choice. Surely there must be a `human right` to self-harm?
Mr. McCluskey`s Unite union is, apparently, offering free lessons to immigrants on how to claim benefit provided that they agree to join the union – and, presumably, pay their dues out of taxpayer funded benefit payments.
Cotton paper banknotes have been in circulation since 1853. Within three years they are due to be replaced with polymer substitutes. This not only gives a whole new meaning to `paying with plastic` but also, as the new notes will be easier to wash cocaine from, redefines `money-laundering`.
The Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, wishes it to be known that terms such as `muffin tops`, `thunder thighs` and `bingo wings` are offensive and must be banned. Having reached an age and a girth that demands that I have to be very careful where I wear my mankini I can only concur.
Such is the complexity of modern waste disposal that Southampton`s local authority is contemplating “education visits” to errant householders in need of advice as to how to use a dustbin. I have a better idea. How about Southampton University offers a degree course, available free to every ratepayer, in “how to segregate refuse to a level that will satisfy the rubbish police”. They could even go further and offer a PhD in Domestic Recycling. Stupid of me. Of course there almost certainly already is one.
In a “helpful” political intervention, Lord Foy of That Persuasion (the former Peter Mandelson for the befit of newer readers) has noted that “Ed Balls is better in government than in Opposition” adding that the Milipede will “either have to break the Union stranglehold or lose the next general election”. His colleague Lord Putnam has gone further, indicating that Labour will not win with Miliband. Good to have friends in the Upper House.
Becoming the nation`s junior Scrabble champion, thirteen year old Jack Durand says that “my favourite words are those that score the most points”. No flies on that lad.
Absconding from detention, a prisoner has requested a transfer from Hollesley Bay open prison (known in the trade as `Holiday Bay`) because he feels that the ready supply of drugs inside the establishment is prejudicing his rehabilitation. Women and mobile phones – presumably necessary to order the drugs – are also, he says, available.
Actor Peter 0`Toole at the age of 81. Those who knew him well are surprised and delighted that the body of the man who will always be remembered as Lawrence of Arabia survived the punishment to which the hell-raiser subjected it for more than four score years. In whatever hereafter he joins Richard Burton and Richard Harris there will be quite a party.
At 87 the voice of BBC sport during its heyday, David Coleman, has switched off his lip-mike for the last time. The man behind Grandstand, Sportsnight and Question of Sport will also be remembered for his relaxed on-air gaffes, immortalised in the Private Eye `Colemanballs` feature. Others will continue to goof-up at the microphone but he was the original and the real thing.
Towering over the month`s news, over Africa and over much that represents the civilised world has been the 95 years of Nelson Mandela. I was present, as an official observer, for his election and I have on the wall of my office in the House of Commons the ANC “ Mandela for President” poster as a constant reminder of what the Long Walk to Freedom really means. I have also visited the cell, on Robben Island, in which he was held for so many years. I hope and I pray that the road via freedom fighter to peace and reconciliation that Madiba chose to take will not be abandoned and that his legacy, which is still very fragile, will not be squandered.
“The most powerful weapon is not violence but talking to people”. (Nelson Mandela 1993)
Those ex-pats who have taken an interest in the campaign to secure voting rights in perpetuity for citizens of the United Kingdom will be pleased to note that my old friend Harry Shindler, who at the age of 93 is resident in Italy and still fighting tirelessly for this cause, has received the MBE in the New Year`s Honours list. The award was made for his contribution, as one of the surviving members of the Anzio campaign, to the ex-service community. I hope that nobody is under any illusion that this well-deserved `gong` will buy off Harry`s determination to be allowed to vote in the next General Election. It will not!