Friday, 27 March 2015

So long, farewell, au wiedesehen, goodbye … (to quote a fleeing former Austrian nun.)

The end of a Parliament reminds you of the end of school. There are a few differences. Instead of having to pass exams to return to class after the summer break, it’s the ordinary voter who gets to decide whether they want you back, and your chances of being expelled are far greater. But for some it’s graduation time as we move on to other things and other places, escape back into the real world, cut and run in advance of an anticipated political massacre, or just simply retire.

There are a few of us in that last camp and I’m one. So this will be my last ever MP’s blog.

Thursday was a slot for valedictories. It’s an opportunity for those leaving to express a few choice words and just a chance to thank constituents for putting them there in the first place. People tend to think of Parliament as a place of skulduggery, bar-room brawls and deep-seated nastiness. Happily that’s incorrect.

I’ve spent 10 years as an MP, which is a pretty good run following on from a few decades of wider public engagement including being a county councillor. After my time building up two businesses, I could scarcely imagine I would end up as a ‘late starter’ on the green benches. It has been an extraordinary privilege. I hope that I’ve been able to represent the interests of hard-working people of this town and improve their lives a little.

I also hope I’ve improved the situation for small businesses and for those young people seeking jobs who initially failed to find one. Nine years on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has confirmed the remarkable energy that SMEs possess, if only Whitehall could remember to lay off the red tape, and big business remember to see them as a resource and a partner rather than a nuisance.

I am most proud of creating the Northampton Alive project which will come to be something of an exemplar in the years ahead. Building new facilities and expanding on our strengths.  It’s sister project Challenge 2016 focused on our county’s NEETs (young people seeking employment, education or training)  and when we launched the campaign there were over 5,600 young people in our county looking for a job, and that figure has been reduced to a little under 1,500. It’s real tangible practical successes like that which make the long hours and travel worthwhile, seeing real change to ordinary lives.

Incidently many people told me that young people weren’t aspirational. It’s surprising how aspirational they become – when they’ve got a job.

Will I miss being an MP? Of course I will. But at least you’ll be spared the prospect now of my ever appearing doing Strictly Chron Dancing again. By the way, I lost half a stone practising for that great event instigate by the Chronicle and Echo newspaper and I can hear many of you thinking that my waistline could benefit for a similar opportunity again.  

Let me conclude by saying that I have been immensely proud to be a representative of the people of Northampton South and I have been very grateful for the kindnesses I have received from the many thousands of citizens I have come into contact with. Thank you for your support and your patience. It’s been a hell of a ride and I wish for you every joy and happiness in the year ahead.

Monday, 23 March 2015

My thoughts on the Budget

On Thursday, I spoke in what will be my last speech in a major debate in Parliament. It was on the economy, an issue that touches us all. It’s where mistakes damage communities, upend families, and break hopes and aspirations, so obviously it’s an area we all want to get right.

That’s why on balance I’m glad we got the Budget we got from the Chancellor. There are always going to be areas where we could wish for more – or, in the case of tax levels, less. Taken in the main though, this week has been an object lesson in the differences between the two main parties, between a rational and cautious approach to public spending by the Conservatives (and, to be fair, the Orange Book faction of the Lib Dems) as contrasted to the spend-til-we-break attitude of Ed Balls and his debt cohorts.

I was reminded in that Parliamentary debate of something my grandmother used to say: “You have only two options when you’re in financial difficulties: earn more or spend less.” It’s a plain truth we need in this country to keep reminding ourselves.

Labour under Blair got into debt difficulties because of two main reasons.  In the first place they were hooked on public spending, thinking always that the solution to a problem is not to fix what’s bust, but to throw more money at it. One of the consequences of that has been to inject increased middle and senior management into what was the public sector, not for them to conduct necessary reform but simply to keep tabs on the money sloshing around.  That in turn led to wage inflation and the long term costs of the system becoming increasingly untenable.  So the spending part of what my gran used to say certainly never worked out under Blair, and I can’t see that they’ve learned the lesson since.

The other side was over the ‘earning’. It looks in retrospect as if Mr Blair got hooked on the City without ever really understanding it, seeing in Private Finance Initiatives a blank cheque book but not the wider account that it serviced.  So instead of a tottering housing bubble that the banks faced, New Labour generated a public sector bubble.  NHS spending increased on New Labour’s watch by a factor of 2.9.  But you’d be hard pressed to say that the provision of health care and the way people were looked after by the NHS got three times better. As a number of scandals had revealed, in some places it got catastrophically worse.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t value the work of health care providers, and we all have our own personal experiences and friends and family who have received outstanding professional care by some wonderful people. But with a million people employed by the NHS, and other departments like education being funded in the same way, the subject is not about individual healthcare staff.  Good government is not about how much you spend, it’s about how much you spend well.  If in a Venn diagram of a department the latter forms a small circle inside a bigger one, then there’s money that clearly could be doing a better job helping people somewhere else. That might include being back in our own pockets, for us to choose what we do with it and where to spend it.

This should be basic common sense, but I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of it in the coming years because of an increasingly salient fact. We have not ended the deficit. The national debt is still going up. We are still not living within our means, and we have still more belt tightening to come.

Unless that is you want myopically to borrow even more, and with debt repayments trim the bone with your fat when you are forced into making even bigger cuts down the roads. Ask the Greeks how that is working out for them.

Let’s just put the sums into context. Imagine you dropped a pound coin into a piggy bank once every second, paying off the national debt one coin at a time.  It would take you 11 ½ days to get through one million pounds.

The national debt, despite the cuts so far, is still going up and is now in the order of £1.5 trillion. Using some quick back-of-a-cigarette-packet maths (easier in the future owing to plain packaging), you’ll be finishing off with your piggy bank deposits on a national debt level in around AD 49,700. 

By that stage, the Niagara Falls will have eroded around nine tenths of a mile, the moon will be orbiting 590’ further away, and three scheduled Ice Ages will have happened.
Personally, I’d rather not plan repayments on that sort of schedule.

The UK will only be able to repay its debt if its economy is robust enough to allow it. It will find it easier to pay if the economy is growing, and thus the share of the debt to the economy is dropping. For these reasons, recognising the deficit as a problem is not enough; having sound policies across the board are essential.

Local Enterprise Partnerships are just one tool in the Chancellor’s armoury. They are a helpful environment where SMEs in particular can collectively secure the local economy, and larger businesses feel encouraged to expand into their immediate environment. The work done by the team in our local LEP has been heroic. It is often thankless, but I doff my hat to them now. They can be particularly proud of the Challenge 2016 project. If mistakes by government lead to all those terrible things I said at the start of this post, a programme like that can generate so much good.

Whoever wins the General Election, and from an economic vantage point as well as many others I pray that it is the Conservatives, Northampton will still have a lot going for it. It has an outstanding set of business pioneers and diplomats standing up for it. I know we’ll weather through.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Who said “they’re only in it for themselves”

I think it’s fair to say that not many people spend a great deal of time watching Parliamentary debates. That is understandable when you consider how long the House sits and how hectic life can get – most people have a demanding job, family commitments and countless other obligations so it’s little wonder that four full days of Parliamentary debate can fall by the wayside. Journalists do a good job condensing a parliamentary week to keep the public informed, but I always found it a shame that for a lot of people, their only exposure to their Parliament is the circus that Prime Minister’s Questions has become.

When I first entered Parliament I was asked to become a member of the Conservative Business team and I thought that this would be the start of a frontbench career. I appeared on the frontbench in a Westminster Hall debate and my Labour Ministerial opponent said he thought this would be the first of many frontbench appearances. Sadly it turned out to be the first and the last. Oh, what the nation might have missed.

Instead I was elected leader of the Conservative Group of the Business, Innovations and Skills Select Committee and became its longest serving member since having devoted 9 years to that body. I acted as an All Party whip on the Crossrail Bill committee for two and a quarter years then chaired a Hybrid bill Committee made up of members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons on the Rookery South Power station issue and was appointed a British Parliamentary delegate to the Council of Europe.

For four days a week for the last ten years my Westminster office has been all hustle and bustle. Whether it’s speaking in the Chamber, my various committee work to a hundred other things, Westminster is certainly the most visible part of a MP’s job specification.

But there is a whole other side to a Member’s job that doesn’t quite get the recognition that it deserves. Reviewing the casework database in my constituency office I found that I’ve dealt with nearly 13,000 cases, approximately some 20% of the electorate of Northampton South.
In my Northampton office we have dealt with over 5,000 immigration matters, with 3500 other assorted problems and nearly 4500 constituents who were directed to the appropriate bodies so that their concerns could be properly dealt with. I have held 213 advice surgeries at which over 2000 people came to see me personally and altogether we created some form of positive outcome in 42% of all cases brought to the office.

It’s also interesting to note the range of issues that have crossed my desk over the years. Whether it is the repatriation of British subjects stranded overseas, expediting visas, assisting with delayed passport applications, handling police complaints, tackling social housing repairs and upgrades, addressing complaints via the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman, chasing delayed disability benefit assessments, managing disputes with the Child Support Agency, tackling overdue student finance payments, supporting school place allocation difficulties – and much more besides.

When I look back on my record in Parliament it is not the 855 contributions I have made in the Chamber, nor the work we’ve done in the almost 200 BIS Committee meetings I’ve attended since 2010. It’s having had the opportunity to represent one half of my hometown in our parliament for the last 10 years.