Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A bizarre debate!

I took part in a very strange debate this morning about the key issue of how many houses are going to be built in the South West in the next 20 years and where they should be built. The figures and plans are in a document called the 'draft regional spatial stratgegy for the South West', on which an 'independent' panel has now produced a report to the Secretary of State. For South Gloucestershire the plan means an extra 30,000 plus houses (or roughly 'four Bradley Stokes'), an increase of about a third on the already large increase proposed by the Regional Assembly. Out of the blue, an extra 5,000 houses was announced for North Yate.

A lot of MPs turned up to speak and I spoke about the implications of the Yate plans for the local roads, health services and environment. I pointed out that Yate town council was refused permission to speak to the Panel and that this 5,000 number appeared to have been plucked from nowhere.

The Housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, replied that she wasn't really allowed to say anything and that initially her ministerial brief for the debate was entirely blank on the subject! Apparently the reason is that the Secretary of State is acting in a "quasi-judicial" capacity - ie it is a bit like an MP trying to tell a judge to find someone guilty or innocent! She did however promise a 13 week consultation period - but only after the Minister has made up her mind!

Incredibly, the only elected people who have had any regional say in this whole process - the Regional Assembly - are being abolished. We do have a "regional minister for the South West" (prize if you can name him...) but he didn't turn up. We have been promised "regional select committees" which could do some of this scrutiny work, but they haven't been created yet.

It is astonishing that key strategic decisions (as well as very local ones, apparently) are being made in this way with virtually no democratic scrutiny. This one will run and run.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Prime Minister's Questions - Live (almost!)

I've just been sitting in the House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister's Questions, and have come 'hot foot' to the HoC library to report back on what happened.

The way PMQs work is that the first question is always asked by a backbencher who has come first out of the hat. Today it was a loyal Labour backbencher who had clearly been 'lent on' by the whips. He asked a toadying question which enabled Gordon Brown to list the Government's achievements on the economy. MPs on all sides groan when we go through this charade.

Then we have David Cameron who has up to 6 goes. He went on Northern Rock. There's lots to criticise but the Tories have no answer, so we had a stand-off where DC kept asking questions and GB kept saying - do you support us or not? Neither would answer the other.

One interesting bit of Parliamentary protocol was breached incidentally. The custom is you address the Speaker, not the other person. So when you say "you" you mean the Speaker. But this looks a bit daft on the TV. Any ordinary MP would not be allowed to get away with this, but DC repeatedly said: "you have dithered.. " etc. so that the TV clip would be more effective than "The Rt. Hon. Gentleman has dithered..." I would guess a note from the Speaker's office may go out reminding DC not to do it again.

After a couple of backbenchers, Nick Clegg came in with another serious question, this time about home repossessions. Gordon Brown has no real answer on this as many thousands of people are clearly going to lose their homes this year. His feeble second response was to quote from the 'calamity Clegg' document prepared during the leadership election (surprised he didn't use that last week) which demonstrated he had nothing of substance to say. Whilst it got a good laugh inside the House (as Chris Huhne was sitting next to Nick), I suspect that 'real people' who are concerned about losing their homes will be more impressed with Nick raising the question that with GB's response.

We then had a run of backbench questions covering everything from Peter Hain, inflation, the murderer let out on bail, Devon naval base etc. A rather 'well built' Labour MP said that "whilst he didn't anticipate much demand for his kidneys and liver", he hoped the Government would get on with presumed consent re organ donation etc. Susan Kramer was called on spec. (as she wasn't on the list - shows the merits of 'bobbing up and down') and asked about Heathrow expansion, but got a patronising response from the PM.

After half an hour I'm not sure we know much more than we knew before. The Tories will clearly be probed hard about Northern Rock, especially if they have to vote on legislation to Nationalise it. Nick did well again and seems to be getting through his ordeal by fire, and I think the PM will have to come up with better responses on these serious isssues.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Farewell to the village post office?

In the next few weeks we are expecting to be given a list of the post offices in 'Bristol & Somerset' (which in Post Office terms is apparently where I live) which are to face closure. Apparently the sub postmasters and postmistresses who are on the list have already been told, but - in the typically Stalinist way that the post office is run from on high - have been sworn to secrecy on pain of losing redundancy payoffs!

The battle to save our post offices is going to be an uphill one - Central Government has decided it doesn't want to keep subsidising post offices on the present scale, and the national target is for thousands to go; it's hard to see in this context that the 'consultation' on the closures is going to be very open; it may be possible to make a particularly strong case for an individual office, but even then there is nothing stopping the PO from coming back with a replacement closure proposal.

The Govt. say that post offices are losing money (which some are, but some are profitable) but neglect to point out how their own mismanagement of the network has been a large part of the problem. The whole fiasco over forcing pensioners and others to have their money into a bank account cost sub post offices a fortune, and other government departments have steadily been undermining the post office too. If we want a comperehensive post office network, as I do, then Government needs to start being part of the solution and not always part of the problem.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Getting to grips with a new brief...

I don't recommend you trying, but if you wanted to write to me formally, I am technically now the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Energy, Food and Rural Affairs - the office team are now demanding bigger business cards!

One of the challenges is getting my head round such a huge brief, and one of the best ways is to chip in on 'bite-size' topics. Today I had to respond for the party to a 90 minute debate on the issue of fuel poverty - very topical given the huge hikes in fuel prices by NPower recently.

A lot of good points were made in the debate, and I highlighted the vital importance of energy efficiency and energy conservation. In short, it makes no sense to pay people more and more benefit so they can afford to pay high fuel bills when a lot of the hot air goes straight up through the loft or out through draughty windows or doors! If we can improve insulation then we can cut carbon emissions and also save people some money - a real 'win win'.

One issue that came up was the position of people who use pre-payment meters. My instinct was that people who use these meters are being ripped off and that cutting the charges on these meters would be a good answer to fuel poverty. But it turns out that things are not quite that simple.

First of all, some companies actually charge the same tariff on prepayment meters as on other customers (despite the higher costs), and many consumers actually prefer a prepayment meter as it helps them to budget. Second, many of the "fuel poor" are not on prepayment meters and many of the people on prepayment meters aren't "fuel poor" So, perhaps surprisngly, if you forced companies to cut costs for everyone on a meter, and to find the money by raising the cost for other customers, you would probably hurt more people living in fuel poverty than you would help!

It just goes to show that when you tackle a new subject you have to be a bit careful about jumping to conclusions.

Friday, 4 January 2008

When is a consultation not a consultation?

I've come to the conclusion that the word 'consultation' is probably the most misused word in public life.

As a Liberal Democrat I'm very much of the view that people should have control over the public services which affect their daily lives. But the reality is all too often that because those who run those services are convinced that they 'know best', any consultation that takes place only happens when the powers that be have already made up their mind.

This reflection is brought to mind by (at least) three examples:

a) new nuclear power stations - the Government has allegedly been listening to the public about whether or not to have new nuclear power plants; it got taken to court after the first consultation was so obviously flawed, but the second one has been completed and - guess what - they've come to the same answer!

b) resident scheme managers (aka "wardens") in South Gloucestershire sheltered housing schemes - residents have been 'consulted' about changes to the services they get, and in some schemes the wardens are highly valued and do excellent work; but guess what - the results of the 'consultation' is that all the resident scheme managers are going to have to go; so what was the point of the consultation?

c) Frenchay Hospital - no blog posting from me is complete without me banging on about Frenchay, but this was a classic; the public were polled by an independent polling organisation about where they wanted their new hospital; the public of South Gloucestershire and Bristol said Frenchay - so the health planners went for Southmead anyway!

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that we should decide everything by a simple show of hands. But if you say you are going to consult people you should do it early in the process - ie before you have made your mind up - and should only do so if you really are willing to change your mind as a result of what people say. Otherwise the cynicism that is already very pervasive about our public life will only get worse.