Friday, 19 September 2014

We need an English Parliament (in Bradford)

I remember, prior to the 2010 General Election, speaking with Eric Pickles at Party Conference about the 'West Lothian Question'. Eric's view back then was that the question wasn't really a problem and explained - accurately - that it wasn't exactly a burning issue on the doorsteps. You typical Tory voter wasn't going to add 'English Votes for English Laws' to the things they wanted from a new Tory government - certainly not compared to the urgent job of sorting out the economy and mending the train crash that was Labour's management of government finances.

I think that has changed. Not as much as people think following the sensible decision of Scottish people to reject the blandishments of Alex Salmond's rose-tinted independence. But next election, for the first time in a long while, the asymmetry of the UK's constitutional arrangements will be an issue in England especially if we assume that the process of delivering on the devolution promises to Scotland is under way.

Two questions need to be answered - probably on the same timetable as Scottish 'DevoMax'. Firstly are we content with constitutional asymmetry and secondly, having answered the first question, giving the precise details of any new constitutional settlement for the UK. In both these questions the real issue isn't about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland but is about England. If we reject asymmetry meaning that all the devolved elements of the UK have the same powers and the same relationship with the UK government, then the question for England is whether we have a single English Parliament or a series of regional assemblies.

If we accept asymmetry then the picture for England is more complicated with options ranging from no change at all through solutions founded on English MPs 'double-hatting' to Spanish-style regional mayors or greater devolution to local councils. The problem here is that we retain resentments since one area gets more power or cash, or else we create a series of demarcation disputes between UK and English laws, between differential devolution to regions or sub-regions and between the devolved assemblies and areas without comparable levels of devolution.

Much though there is some appeal in 'home rule' for Yorkshire, I don't see regional assemblies as a solution - firstly because we immediately face boundary issues and secondly because devolution from a UK government to individual regions effectively abolishes England (at least in constitutional terms). If there is to be devolution to regions, sub-regions, cities or shire counties then that should be a decision for an English Parliament.

It seems to me that a 'four nations' solution matches local expectation but also opens up reforms focused on a more federal arrangement for the UK - this might include the numbers of UK MPs, the role (and means of election) for the House of Lords and the promotion of new locally negotiated arrangements for local government. Although giving English members of the UK Parliament a secondary role as an English Parliament provides a quick fix, it also raises some challenges in terms of administration even while it resolves the issue of law-making. Put simply there would be a Scottish government and a Welsh government but no English government - we could find the situation where a Scottish education secretary can't vote on the laws but is in charge of their implementation in England. The 'West Lothian Question' won't have been answered.

It seems that the Conservative Party is committed to seeking a resolution of the question - albeit with a preference for a Westminster solution rather than an English Parliament. However, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats seem to want this with the former wanting some sort of gathering for the great and good to decide on a new constitution (or not) and the latter wanting to abolish England.

For me, the answer has to be an English Parliament with the same devolved powers as those given to Scotland. And, of course, that Parliament should be in Bradford.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

A comment about grooming...


During a long conversation with an educated, intelligent Pakistani man that ranged across many subjects - Gaza, Kashmir, education, anti-semitism to name a few - the matter of grooming arose. And this man made a very interesting point - not an excuse or even an explanation but something worth thinking about as we consider our response.

The man - around my age - observed that Pakistani families and especially Pakistani men have no idea how to discuss matters relating to sex and sexual relationships. There is no concept of the father taking sons aside to talk about sexual behaviour or even about 'the birds and bees' for that matter. Nor, beyond the bare teachings of Islam, is there any discussion about sexual mores in the madrassah or mosque.

This isn't the full answer to what this man called 'a male problem' but it was a perspective on the matter of street grooming that I hadn't considered - we have a load of young men (and not so young men) from right across our communities who are, for the lack of parental attention and education, sexually stunted.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

When voting matters, people vote...


I've said this for years. While others fret about turnout, participation and engagement, I've argued that people aren't voting because it doesn't matter to them. When it does matter they will vote:


Taxation without representation - haven't we been here before? Labour and saving the high street


The Labour Party wants to extend the scope of things called 'business improvement districts' (BIDs) - organisations of local businesses that are (subject to a poll of local businesses) able to levy a charge on all businesses in an area for the purposes of improving that area. These BIDS are popular with high street regeneration folk and are usually managed by a private business organisation.

It seems that, flush with the success of these organisations, Labour's resident 'experts' on saving the high street have come up with a wheeze to make BIDs even grander:

An advisory group created by Labour to consider the future of the high street has recommended that it looks at introducing a new levy on residents to fund a major expansion of Business Improvement Districts, which manage local areas.

In its report, which has been seen by The Telegraph, the High Street Advisory Group recommends “diversifying the application of BIDs, including the ability to assess property owners and residents” and says that “new tools will need to be explored which diversify income streams”.

Now there are two things that are utterly wrong with this proposal - even if you set aside the nonsense that yet another tax is the solution to anything. Firstly, taxation is bad enough when government is doing the levying but surely allowing a private organisation to levy the tax runs totally against the principle of good governance? And secondly, don't we have at least a tenuous attachment to the idea that taxation goes hand in hand with representation?

We could talk at length about high streets but these proposals represent a step beyond local businesses agreeing to a local levy (and for the record, I find the idea behind BIDs coercive and hard to defend) - every tax should be levy by a body over which those being taxed have some control. This is a fundamental tenet of democracy and if you ignore it the result is the dumping of tea in the harbour.

However, and in the interests of bipartisan policy-development, I have a wonderful solution to the dilemma. It doesn't require any new legislation or any new organisations. This solution has been tried and tested over many decades. It has its limits and its problems but most of the time it works. It also meets those tests - representation, democracy and public accountability - that we should apply to bodies that levy taxes. These are hundreds of these bodies across England ranging in size from a few folk meeting once a year to large organisations employing full time staff.

The bodies are called 'parish councils' (although you can choose to call them town, community, village or local councils too).


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

On our relationship with public health...


In an excellent piece on vaping and e-cigs, Clive Bates describes our relationship with public health - or rather public health's relationship with us the public:

They are the ‘public’ in public health. They should be a matter of professional interest to you.  In your profession,  you need to understand them and why they do what they do, in order to make professional public health judgements. You need to do this with high standards of professional conduct and to approach them with humility and empathy. You probably have something to learn and you might even get to understand what inspires them. But they have no similar obligation to you. They have other jobs, other lives and no professional need to understand you or engage with you. If you think “there is a lot of mistrust & misunderstanding on both sides” that is your problem, not their problem.   Their interest in you, if any, is that you might spoil what they are doing, that you are making provocative or unfounded remarks about them or what they do, or you are dismissing their experience as mere anecdote.

I do feel that this fact about relationships is a lesson for public servants everywhere and especially those in public health who seem to believe they have some sort of duty to remove our rights to choose.


In which a Liberal Democrat describes conservatism but doesn't know it...

David Boyle used to live in Crystal Palace, a fact that automatically puts him in my good books. Except you don't live in Crystal Palace but in Penge, Sydenham or (if you're in SE20 and posh) Anerley. But David has moved down into the South Downs - he doesn't say where but he does describe the place and it will be familiar to many English people:

My town is outside the commuter belt, one of the advantages of being impossible to commute from, and it is in some ways a step back into a bygone age.  People are patient and polite in the street.  There are four banks in the thriving high street.  There is an effective and forward-thinking GP practice.  The local library is open six days a week.  There are more cubs, scouts and beavers than most people could count.

I sat in church on Sunday, marvelling at the full pews, the identically dressed, healthy-looking people on final salary pensions, the contingent in RAF uniform for Battle of Britain Sunday, saluting as we sang the national anthem.

David, welcome to Conservative England. It is a lovely place filled with lovely people who care about where they live and the people who live there. However, David denies this essential fact saying that the place isn't 'naturally conservative' because it has green action groups and solar panels. As if looking after the place we live isn't the most deeply conservative thing we can do. One of the glorious ironies about green politics is the manner in which it has been captured - and corrupted - by the metropolitan left rather than living in it natural suburban conservative home.

The place David describes could be one of a hundred or more small towns and market towns across the English shires. Places filled with people who, like David, have chosen to live there and who have the time, money and commitment to fill parish councils, voluntary groups and churches with vibrancy and activity. And overwhelmingly these people vote Conservative - indeed are conservative.

Since David fails to full grasp the essence of conservatism - preferring the urban liberal myth that somehow conservatives believe in plutocracy - I can help him with a quotation from one of the two great conservative poets, Rudyard Kipling. Sweetly this quotation is about the place Kipling loved more than anywhere - Sussex:

GOD gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belov├Ęd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good. 

That, David, is what being a conservative is about and your new - conservative - neighbours demonstrate that love of place and people every day.


Monday, 15 September 2014

...if you're going to leave please don't slam the door on the way out


It's Saturday night, we're at one of the barrel-top tables in The George and we get to the moment in the evening when we talk about something other than the day's football results. It's a bit of a ritual - somebody will say, 'perhaps we should talk about something other than football' and we do. And often the topic is political - partly this presents a chance for me to get a gentle ribbing but mostly it provides a sort of half time breather before returning to the travails of Leeds United or the correct pronunciation of Louis van Gaal.

So we talk about the Scottish independence referendum. This isn't a detailed debate - more what d'you think, 'yes' or 'no'? And the consensus is essentially that we'd all rather Scotland didn't pack its bags and leave because, despite all the banter, we rather like the place. But, if Scotland insists on going could they not slam the door on the way out.

The problem is that we also know that Scotland - should the vote be 'yes' - has every intention of not only slamming the door but also kicking over the bins and pulling the gate off the hinges. And then coming back the next day to go round the house with little labels saying, 'that's mine, that's mine, I'm having that'. The idea that Alex Salmond would negotiate in good faith is as ridiculous an idea as believing that the moon is made of green cheese or that Newcastle United can win this year's premier league.

Today several thousand people have gathered in Trafalgar Square clasping their flags and slogans to - politely - encourage Scots to stay with the United Kingdom. In doing so, a lot of people who don't have a vote on Thursday about something that will profoundly affect their country are making the point to Scots that, whatever is said about oil, hospitals, bank notes and bagpipes, we really are stronger as a united kingdom.

Sadly an all too typical Scottish nationalist response is this sort of tweet:

Tory toffs? I had a good look at the picture and saw a lot of ordinary people taking time out after a day at work to urge Scots not to be daft enough to vote for secession. But it suits that nationalist agenda to argue that anyone in a jacket working in London is a 'Tory toff' - a statement only an inch or two away from the related argument that all Tories are English and 'we don't like Tories do we'. And this soon slips into saying that all the English are Tories.

Some argue that it's not England or the English that Salmond and his pals dislike so much but this abstract thing called 'Westminster'. Except that such language is whistle-blowing in the direction of anti-English sentiment - if there is a problem with the sense of entitlement that goes with modern representative government, please don't tell me that it's resolved by moving the location for that sense of entitlement from SW1 to EH1.

In the end I'm with the view of most folk down here. I like Scotland and the Scots, admire the passion for place and the sense of nation but believe secession would be a grave mistake that future generations of Scottish people will come to regret. But if the Scots insist on going, do so quietly without demanding that the country you're leaving gives you everything you have now plus a whole load more. Independence means just that, it means the good and the bad, the tough choices as well as the promises of eternal happiness. What Scotland can't argue for - although this is core to the SNP argument - is for it to have its own apartment, car and wardrobe courtesy of an English sugar daddy.