Debates and responses/£50 if you MIGHT vote Tory/in defence of Anna Soubry

Hi all,

I’d like to make some promises on consultation which many MPs and candidates would think unwise. The reason I’m making them is that I’m tired of people saying that politicians are unapproachable, indifferent and remote. Politics in Britain has become too much a trench war between rival bands of professionals who have never done anything else.

I’ve worked in the private sector for 18 years, for an NGO for five, and run my own business twice. Nobody would tolerate the sort of behaviour that has become the norm in politics: the reply a month later that doesn’t answer the question.

Let’s have some service standards.

Debates

One of the weird things about politics is that you’re effectively on a 5-year contract with very little supervision; at the end of the period, you’re either reappointed or fired. You send out a newsletter and broadcast your views from Westminster by email, but you don’t really have to get challenged locally.

Incumbent MPs like to profit from this – they can get coverage anyway merely by saying they support this or oppose that; challengers get less coverage. So traditionally, sitting MPs refuse debates. Ms Soubry has refused my renewed invitation to debate the NHS or HS2 or anything else before the election, and introduced a new condition for debating: not only must every candidate be selected first (the LibDems are still to announce) but she is now only willing to debate when the election manifestos for all candidates have been published.

Thus we have the odd position that the former Conservative Minister of Health is unwilling to debate health in her own constituency until UKIP, and the Greens, and the LibDems, and the Justice for Men and Boys Party have put forward their manifestos and are ready for a 6-cornered tangle. National manifestos are always interesting, but in the last resort we shouldn’t need the parties to tell us what to think. Just like Mr Cameron, she’s (successfully) sought the support of the Green candidate in evading an earlier debate. She’s also declined a proposal by the NUT to take part in an all-party discussion of education chaired by a local head teacher.

This is all silly. Politicians who aren’t willing to debate with opponents are like bake-off contestants who draw the line at cake. If we’re reduced to regurgitating national manifestos, why have local candidates at all?

Service standard 1: daily online debate

So I’d like to promise some innovations. One I’ve done already – opened my website www.nickpalmer.org.uk to discussion by anyone. It’s the only politician’s website in Broxtowe that allows the readers to argue back. You can post a reply to any message and it will appear on the site after a short delay. Agree or disagree, put alternative ideas – it’s a free country and you’re entitled to put your views. Just a couple of riders: I won’t publish spam, illegal content (porn links etc.) or commercial adverts, or attacks on other people (I don’t have time to get into the right of reply cycle). Within reason you can say what you like about me. The website is billed as “A home for intelligent political dialogue” and that’s what politics should be about, rather than just everyone broadcasting in one-way monologues. Why not try it now?

Service standard 2: annual report-back in every town

Next, if I’m elected, I will have at least one report-back public meeting every year in each of Beeston, Stapleford and Kimberley. These will be primarily formatted as Q&As, and will happen regardless of what controversies are raging nationally. Anyone will be free to take part, regardless of their views, and there won’t be any charge beyond a voluntary whip-round for the cost of the hall. The first one will be this July, so we can discuss the Government formed after the election and the first post-election Queen’s Speech.

Service standard 3:  a personal response in reasonable time

Tired of form responses? If I’m elected and you need a response from me, I will normally send it within three days. Not a form letter or email saying “I’m very busy and I’ll get back to you”. A proper, personal reply.

MPs get two kinds of email or letter. One is a question or proposal about policy. Why is the Government doing X? Why isn’t it doing Y? I’ll think about the arguments that you make, and give you a personal reply, not a blah statement written a 25-year-old special adviser about why my party’s policies are wonderful. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you frankly, and try to find out – and that may take longer, but I’ll keep you posted. If you persuade me that a policy needs to change, I’ll argue for it in Parliament. If you don’t persuade me, I’ll explain why I disagree. Sometimes we will fail to agree and I hope we will respect each other just the same.

Alternatively, if you have a practical question (when will my road be repaired? Why is my pension late?) then I’ll pass it to an assistant immediately. We’ll tell you at once – within three days, as noted above – what we’re doing to investigate. We’ll get back to you as soon as we find the answer.

There are exceptions. Now and then I’ll take a holiday. Sometimes MPs get enormous letters – 10 pages of handwritten argument raising 15 different issues. As soon as the MP replies, they may get a further 10 pages by return of post. So if you raise lots of issues at once, the replies will be proportionately slower. That’s not because I’m reluctant to respond, but I need to respond to other constituents too. Also, some problems are insoluble and I’ll have to say so (I was once asked if I could change someone’s postal address from “Nottingham” to “Nottinghamshire” – the answer is no, I can’t). And if a constituent writes again and again on the same issue with the same arguments, I’ll refer them back to earlier answers.

MPs typically get up to 100 queries a day. The thing is, if you don’t deal with them, next day you have 200. Hiding behind a standard form letter doesn’t solve the problem – the pile just builds up and you end up not answering substantively at all.

Please note that I’m not promising to agree with everything. I’m a long-standing left-of-centre politician: I am biased to public services, to fairness and tolerance and equal opportunity. But I also like to think I have a mind of my own – not every left-wing idea works, and not every other idea is bad. I won’t do whatever the whips tell me, and I won’t do whatever you tell me.

If you vote for me, you’re engaging me to put my mind and energy at your disposal, not to slavishly follow every twist in public opinion. But I recognise that there are lots of things that I don’t know from personal experience, and I won’t fob you off. I’ll listen; I’ll try to help.

  1. £50 for thinking of voting Tory

An interesting new initiative: people aged 25-45 who live in Broxtowe and have not ruled out voting Conservative were invited to a two-hour discussion in Beeston last Tuesday, and offered £50 for attending. With the almost limitless funds provided by hedge funds, the Conservatives are able to afford this sort of thing, though if say 200 people turned up it’d cost a handsome £10,000.

  1. In defence of Anna Soubry

Several people have asked me what I think of a Daily Mail report claiming that Anna Soubry used a particularly offensive word in the Commons. I think it’s unlikely she used that particular word – she has a history of four-letter outbursts, but I believe her rather than the Mail. In any case I’m not standing against Ms Soubry because of any difference of personality, but because of disagreement with her policies and her political approach. I hope we can both keep the campaign at that level.

Best wishes

Nick

 

Posted in Broxtowe | 4 Comments

Personal manifesto part 3 – The NHS crisis – and how to tackle it

Hi all,

Following the earlier pieces on the economy and training, I want to discuss the crisis in the NHS. Everyone agrees it’s a crucial issue, since at some point we are nearly all going to need NHS care. And most people agree that the service has deteriorated under the current Government. If you’re in doubt about that, see the recent report from the independent King’s Fund. They say:

“Radical changes to the way the NHS in England is organised have been ‘disastrous’ and ‘distracted’ from patient care. The coalition government’s changes wasted three years, failed patients, caused financial distress and left a strategic vacuum.” Chris Ham, the chairman of the Trust, comments, “People in the NHS focused on rearranging the deckchairs rather than the core business of improving patient care. That’s contributed to the increasing waiting times and declining performance that patients are experiencing.”

A picture tells a thousand words: the graph shows the number of people waiting more than 4 hours in A&E under Labour (red lines) followed by the increase under the Conservatives and LibDems (blue lines). As you can see, the number is now approaching 4 times the level when the Government took over.

NHs waiting times

 

 

 

 

 

What is causing the problems? Three key elements:

* Social care has been underfunded, so that people who could have been looked after at home but are not well enough to look after themselves are being taken into hospital

* GP surgeries in many areas are overloaded (60% of patients say they wait more than two days), so people give up waiting and go straight to A&E

* Staff morale is depressed by massive organisational change, including privatisation to profit-making companies of sections of the service.

In this area, Labour has extensive plans already announced, and I’ll discuss those first, before adding points that I want to champion personally.

What would Labour do?

The headline commitment is to recruit 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more family doctors, 5,000 for home care workers and 3,000 more midwives. It’s important to note that this is made up of several stages, since we can’t instantly magic up fully-trained professionals when the Government has been running down the training facilities. Home care workers can be trained relatively quickly, doctors much less so.

The first element, which will bring quick relief, is to attract back professionals who are already trained but have moved outside the NHS – either to work for agencies or to put their careers on hold for personal reasons. The NHS spends a fortune on hiring agency staff from private agencies for peaks in demand: it is a false economy not to employ them full-time within the service. In addition, constituents tell me that it is unreasonably hard for nurses in particular to return to the service if they have let their registration lapse. We should make it as easy as possible.

The second element, frankly, is international recruitment. See my last comments on this – if we are short of doctors and nurses because we’ve neglected training, we’re cutting off our noses to spite our faces if we refuse to recruit from abroad. While we fix the training pipeline, we need to do it.

The third element is of course to reverse the disastrous cuts to training. The plan spreads over 10 years to have its full effect, and doctors in particular will only come into the system in a second Parliament if they start training this year. All the more reason to reinforce the process now.

The Labour increases in funding are drawn from clamping down on tax avoidance and raising the tax on tobacco companies’ profits. Note that this increase is to be directed at the care sector as much as the NHS itself. The plan is not to open vast new wings of hospitals, but to reduce the need for hospitalisation.

Personal notes

An area which I would champion if elected again is mental health. I’m not a mental health expert, and if elected I’d want to be guided by those who are, but I’ve followed a number of cases quite closely and there are some obvious problems. If you have a broken leg, you can be pretty confident that you’ll be treated well, once you’ve sat out the waiting time. If you have a panic attack, it is much less certain.

First, the system isn’t geared to handle sudden mental crises. If you have a panic attack in the middle of the night, the options are in many cases either to ring 111 and await a useful call some hours later, or to ring 999 and be rushed into A&E, where you may be surrounded by people with all kinds of conditions – which is exactly what you don’t need.

Second, the level of support varies greatly between areas. The crisis resolution/home treatment team in our area is based at the QMC, and there seem to be other crisis teams scattered around with varying mission statements and scope. They operate mainly through GP referral, and seem not to be well-known to everyone suffering mental difficulties – as with other parts of public services, the system usually depends on people taking the initiative to seek help, and people in difficulty are often not able to be proactive.

Third, it’s evident that different people respond to different types of treatment, and a good range of options is needed. Some areas are distinctly better-developed than others, with CBT and other “talking therapies” less readily available than they should be, so that patients who could be helped are just getting by on pills while they wait for more effective relief.

I don’t want to generalise too much here – many patients are getting very good support, and some conditions are terribly difficult even with good care. But the service needs champions in the House of Commons, and it’s something that I should like to do.

What about a debate?

Finally, as we approach the election, I should like to renew my invitation to Ms Soubry to debate these matters. I was recently told that her office had said it was not usually her policy to share a platform with me, but she has fiercely rejected that as a lie.

Well, it’s easy to clear that up. It’s a matter of record that she declined to debate me in the constituency on health when she was Health Minister, responsible for some of the policies described above. If she is willing to debate with me now, let her choose a time and place in March, before we get into the election campaign with the general hustings. Is she willing to defend her government’s health record, or not?

Best wishes

Nick

Posted in Broxtowe | 6 Comments

Personal manifesto part 2 – Training, immigration and a proposal

Hi all,

After the brief diversion last week to deal with partisan squabbles, I’d like to return to the positive policies which I’d like to argue for if elected again. This week, I’ll look at immigration and training, issues which are in my view more closely linked than is generally realised. As with my economic discussion last time, I apologise for length – but if we want politics that go beyond sound bites, we need a space for serious discussion.

Why don’t we train the nurses we need?

Let me give a specific example. We have a shortage of British-trained nurses; that’s why the NHS is highly dependent on people born elsewhere. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing – if you’re ill and someone is looking after you well, it would be perverse to demand to see her passport. However, it reflects a training problem in Britain. The number of nurses rained in Britain has fallen steadily, by over 10,000 since 2010. And my understanding is that the Government is reducing the number of training places for nurses further, to save money. Consequently, NHS managers are actively recruiting in Eastern Europe, with a 50% rise in foreign recruitment last year. It is often cheaper to take someone who has already studied nursing abroad than it is to train people already here. The details are here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/nhs/10828893/Number-of-foreign-nurses-up-50pc-in-a-year.html

This is short-sighted, isn’t it? It’s also why anti-immigrant parties are a distraction from the real issue. High immigration of workers doing skilled work is not a cause of economic problems but a symptom of a poor educational system. It’s ridiculous and unfair to blame Romanian or Bulgarian nurses for agreeing to come and fill a gap that we create ourselves. They are helping us out and if we need their help they should be welcomed with open arms. The problem is not that we should be scared of Bulgarian nurses; the problem is our unwillingness as a country to train people who grow up in Britain adequately.

Who is to blame?

Who should we blame for this? Not really the NHS manager – faced with a shortage of skilled staff, what is he supposed to do? The immediate problem is the Department of Health, making false economies in training. More widely, it’s all of us, choosing to elect politicians who focus on short-term benefit. Because there is no doubt that training people ourselves instead of importing them is the more expensive option, and perhaps we could knock half a penny off tax if we relied even more heavily on bringing people in to fill the gaps? But if we do, then we will end up with an under-skilled population, desperately dependent on immigration.

This is not only a nursing issue. Unlike many MPs and indeed Ministers who have spent their entire lives in politics, I’ve worked in industrial management. There is a widespread perception that colleges and universities are not producing graduates with the essential skills in sufficient numbers.

But you can spin that round and see it from the student’s viewpoint too. Going to university these days involves taking on debt up to £20,000, depending on the length of the course. Without being quite sure that this will lead directly to a good job, that’s a scary thing to do. Perhaps it’s better to take a less skilled job and not incur the debt? Yet that, too, leads Britain down the path of a low-skilled, low-wage economy – just the kind of strategic mistake that I discussed in part 1 of my personal manifesto. Is it a sensible ambition to be cheaper low-cost suppliers than China? No.

A better approach

Towards the end of my last time in Parliament, I proposed that the Government should promote university-employer partnerships, with the following elements:

The EMPLOYERS in each sector (public or private) would specify the broad outlines of the training that was needed in that sector and was currently forcing them to recruit abroad

The UNIVERSITY or other further education establishment would develop courses in consultation with the employers to meet the need

The EMPLOYERS would agree to cover a part of the student fees for an agreed number of students following these courses, and would commit to offering a trial 6-month contract after graduation to students passing the course at a required level

The GOVERNMENT would act as facilitators, providing model agreements that had worked well in other areas and sectors and insurance against failure by any of the bodies involved to deliver their obligations.

Of course these arrangements would be optional for both sides, but there are clear advantages.

Who would benefit?

The STUDENTS would benefit from the reduced course fees and have the (non-binding) option of trial employment immediately after graduation. The major concern of students that they will accumulate debt without being able to enter the job market afterwards would be removed, so long as they completed the course satisfactorily, and the level of debt would be reduced.

The EMPLOYERS would have a steady flow of graduates broadly meeting their needs, at modest cost to them compared with the cost and uncertainty of overseas recruitment.

The UNIVERSITIES and other FE establishments would attract additional students and increase their performance in placing students in work after completion.

Why are the possible snags?

When I proposed this, there was a lot of interest, and many people were disappointed that the initiative stalled when I lost my seat. But there were three objections. First, universities were concerned that the employers would make over-prescriptive demands which didn’t reflect sensible educational approaches – for example, that Microsoft would want all students to learn nothing about non-Microsoft software. To meet this objection, the detailed design is left to the university – the employers can only set the broad outlines of what they want (which will still be much more relevant than a random course in, say, Bulgaria).

Second, universities worried that this employment-focused approach would distract from more abstract subjects for which no obvious employment was in sight – theoretical mathematics, for example (which was my own PhD subject). I think that it’s important that we also provide opportunities to study abstract subjects, but it’s reasonable that we try to provide a link to employment where possible. I have never directly used my own PhD, but the course trained me in analytical thinking which has benefited me throughout my life, and I don’t think that people like me who want that will disappear just because there isn’t a direct job link.

Finally, it’s possible that a company offering a job might go into liquidation before the student graduated. But that’s why the scheme is sector-based, so that a number of employers are involved – and the government could provide some insurance backup for the sector to ensure that the commitment can be delivered.

Of course, the 6-month contracts don’t guarantee permanent employment. There is no longer such a thing as permanent employment! But countless studies show that getting into the job market is the big hurdle for young people, and 6 months is enough to find their feet and either build a good relationship with the employer or have the time to look around for alternatives.

Why hasn’t it been done?

When I described this idea before, several readers mentioned existing schemes that do exist and work quite well – for example, a Scottish university works with the computer games industry to teach students the skills needed for computer game design (which may sound frivolous but is a major industry now and an important export earner, much larger than the film industry). However, there is no national scheme, and Government is essentially passive.

There is nothing especially party political about all this. Both public and private employers would benefit, as would universities and students. But just because it doesn’t fit neatly into one or another ideological approach, no party has adopted it.

When I argue that Parliament needs more MPs with experience of normal working life, I’m not just making a self-interested point. The thing is that people who have never worked in industry or public services don’t necessarily realise what the practical problems are. If you elect me in May, I intend to return to pressing this issue – regardless of which party is in Government.

That’s part 2 of my personal manifesto. Part 3, next time, will deal with health. Thank you for reading this far! Feedback, as always, is very welcome.

Best wishes,

Nick

 

Posted in Broxtowe | 7 Comments

MP’s quarrels – and a question

I’d have liked to put forward part 2 of my personal manifesto this week, focusing on training and immigration, but since Ms Soubry has complained that I’m silent about issues she raises (“there is silence from the leadership of our local Labour Party and their candidates seeking your vote”), I’ll reply.

First, what’s it about? Ms Soubry has written repeatedly about local borough and town councillors who she doesn’t like. There have been two specific incidents and one non-incident:

a)      A constituent used a rude word on Facebook about the council leader. He responded using another rude word.

b)      Someone interested in trams who lives in London asked councillor Richard Robinson if he could post his comments online under a pseudonym (I’m not clear why he wanted to). He said yes, he could.

c)       There was a rumour that Kimberley Town Council had run down its reserves.

Ms Soubry says she is “shocked” that the council leader hasn’t resigned and she has also demanded the resignation of Cllr Robinson. With two Green Party members, she also seized on the rumour about Kimberley and demanded an investigation. Then she went further. Ordinary councillors are paid a modest sum (less than £4000/year for the basic job) so they have day jobs like everyone else. Ms Soubry approached Richard Robinson’s boss (also an MP, but with no conection to Broxtowe) with a suggestion implying that he should sack him (“A number of my constituents have contacted me … asking why he remains in your employ”). That is in my opinion quite nasty; I don’t allow political rivalries to spill over into private lives and I don’t think MPs should do so.

What about the issues? Yes, I think it’s undesirable for anyone in public life to swear in public as it gives a bad example, and I think that everyone should be advised to post under their own name unless they have some justified fears. But we all slip up occasionally in one way or another. Indeed Ms Soubry has given an interview where she swears repeatedly, using the same word that she supposedly thinks should be a resigning issue for the council leader. Moreover, when the criticism is wrong no apology is forthcoming. Kimberley Town Council asked for an external audit to check the rumour, which found it was nonsense: the council was congratulated on its good management and healthy reserves of a quarter of a million pounds. Ms Soubry has ignored this, and instead turned to embracing the Greens on other issues.

Now the Tory-Green tactical alliance isn’t mysterious. Just like Mr Cameron nationally as he tries to avoid the debates, she hopes that they’ll help split the left-of-centre vote. At the last election, they siphoned off 0.8% of the votes and she won by 0.7%. The Green party in turn likes the publicity she gives them. Political parties do this stuff, shrug.

But I have a basic question about all this. The job of Broxtowe’s MP is to represent Broxtowe, isn’t it? Not to get into mud-wrestling with individual councillors. Not just to represent the MP’s party as always right. While all this has been happening, Broxtowe’s central government grant was the worst in the entire country, and Ministers and the Government Inspector have waved through building on Green Belt land by Stapleford and Toton and approved the development of an open-cast mine by Trowell. Is it too much to ask that Ms Soubry could herself concentrate on representing Broxtowe’s interests more effectively?

If I’m elected in May, I’m not going to spend any time whatever having a go at individual Tory councillors: on the contrary, I will, as I always have, try to work with all councillors sensibly. If there’s a Labour government that does something unhelpful to Broxtowe I shall say so and oppose it openly. The job is to represent Broxtowe in Westminster, not to represent any party’s narrow interests in Broxtowe.

That’s enough about that. With the election just over 3 months away, I’d like to get back to discussing positively what I’d like to do as Broxtowe’s representative in the next 5 years. Perhaps Ms Soubry will do the same? Or will she just go on complaining about local councils?

By the way, although the LibDems still haven’t picked any candidate, our high profile as a super-marginal seat has attracted an eccentric-sounding party. The ”Justice for Men and Boys Party”, which markets itself as anti-feminist, is putting up Ray Barry, leader of “Real Fathers for Justice”. I think we may see some additional strange candidates!

Best regards

Nick

 

Posted in Broxtowe | 18 Comments

Question for Mr Cameron: where’s our utility price cut?

Following my non-political update on Beeston development, this is a political question. WHY is the Government allowing the utility companies to sit on the huge drop in oil prices without cutting domestic energy bills? In the last year, wholesale energy costs have fallen by up to 20% (and they’re continuing to fall), without a single price reduction to households.

Contrast this with the petrol price war that’s building up, and the position is obvious: whereas filling stations are in fierce competition, the domestic energy market is broken, since each supplier is content to pocket cost reductions without bothering to pass them on.

Isn’t there a regulator? Yes, it’s OFGEM. They estimate that the Big Six suppliers have doubled their profit margins in the last year. So why don’t they take action? Because the Government has explicitly decided not to give them the power. On June 18 2014, Labour proposed that “the energy regulator for Great Britain be given powers to force energy suppliers to pass on price cuts to consmuers when wholesale costs fall, if suppliers fail to act”. Conservative and LibDem MPs, including Broxtowe’s MP Anna Soubry, voted to reject it. OFGEM the regulator is specifically forbidden to regulate: they can observe, comment, complain – but not take effective action.

The proposal to give them effective powers is being put forward again by Labour on Wednesday. Will the Government accept it? Will Ms Soubry support it if they don’t? I very much doubt it.

And yet, if wholesale prices rise again, what do we think energy suppliers will do? They’ll put up prices in a flash.

The Government grumbles that the economy is recovering but voters aren’t grateful. But the problem is exactly this kind of asymmetry which prevents recovery from working its way to households. When the interests of big companies are involved, the Government is willing to help. When it’s ordinary households, they are sadly AWOL. And, frankly, an MP who always votes with the Government whether they’re right or wrong is unable to shift policy by an inch.

Best regards,

Nick

 

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