Thursday, 31 October 2013

Syria chemical weapons now almost all destroyed = very good news

Syria's declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has been destroyed, the international watchdog says.
This comes a day before the deadline set by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The weapons have been placed under seal, an OPCW spokesman said.
Inspectors were sent to Syria following allegations, denied by the government, that its forces had used chemical weapons in civilian areas.

The inspections were agreed between Russia and the US after Washington threatened to use force in Syria.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the BBC's Lyse Doucet that it had not been difficult for Syria's government to meet its obligations, as some had initially feared.
"I hope those who have always thought of us negatively will change their minds and understand that Syria was, is, and will be always a constructive partner," Mr Mekdad told our correspondent.
Now that the equipment has been put beyond use, Syria has until mid-2014 to destroy the chemical weapons themselves.

Tristram Hunt car crash Newsnight Interview
I have just watched the Hunt car crash last night on Newsnight ....its not a good week for the unqualified teacher who is the new Labour spokesman on education: click on the link above and you can judge for yourself, and the article is by an advocate of free schools, Toby Young.
Paxo asked the Shadow Education Secretary at least five times whether he'd consider sending his own children to a school that employed teachers without QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) – and we know he would because he told the Daily Mirror he would on Monday. But he refused to answer and ended up looking like a fool.
Hunt's difficulty is that the policy is absurd.
How can he insist that state schools only employ teachers with QTS when he was taught by teachers without QTS, he himself has taught in state schools even though he doesn't have QTS and – as Paxman knows – he'd be quite happy to send his own children to schools that employ teachers without QTS?

Egger Engineering Academy - another step in the skills revolution

There is so much that is happening on skills, apprenticeships and training in the North East at the moment. Ten days ago I helped Michael Egger open his new Academy in Hexham. It is incredible and full of locals people learning key skills in their home town. I add this on to the great work of Northumberland College, the doubling in apprentice numbers locally, and the many chances being created by local businesses and I see local jobs being created in niche engineering and specialist skills that will provide the growth we need. I met several of the lads who are in their early stages of the apprenticeships and they were all loving it.
Full story here:

Gordon Brown describes himself as an "ex politician" even tho he's an MP!

Bizarre tales from Qatar where the great spender from Kirkcaldy, our former PM who coined such memorable phrases as "no more boom and bust" and being if favour of "light touch regulation of the City" described himself as an ex - even though he still is an MP - albeit we never see him in the House of Commons: the man should resign. He gives MPs a bad name.

The Journal v Newcastle United will end badly for the club

Newcastle United v The Journal is definitely not a score draw. The football club has opened hostilities on the Journal, Sunday Sun and Chronicle over their recent coverage of the protest at the club’s management.
Newcastle United’s head of media stated because ‘the turnout at the march renders your extraordinary coverage completely disproportionate’, all reporters from the Newcastle Journal, Chronicle and Sunday Sun are banned: he added -
‘…the club’s owner, director of football, board of directors and team manager have reached a unanimous decision that the three NCJ Media titles, The Chronicle, The Journal and Sunday Sun, will not be permitted access to any media facilities, press conferences and player interviews at Newcastle United indefinitely and with immediate effect’

The editor of the Chronicle said of the ban:
‘We may be banned but we won’t be gagged. We all want Newcastle United to be successful but it would be nonsense to pretend the fans are happy about what’s going on behind the scenes....It’s important for fans to know that our coverage is informed and independent. We’ve no intention of allowing the club to dictate what we can and can’t print.’

NUFC have to accept that they are in the public domain, and their actions are fair comment. The relationship will get worse if they refuse to let the papers cover the team from up close. It creates a siege mentality.

I get plenty of criticism, and occasional praise, from papers, but provided it is not personal abuse or attacks on my family I accept that by choosing to do a public role my actions as an MP can be criticised; your actions as an MP in the decisions you make as a legislator are fair comment, and my views on how well or badly I have done are often interpreted in a different way by the media. That is their call and their job.
NUFC saying that people have no right to comment adversely - even if a bit over the top - is ill advised, and smacks of throwing your toys out of the pram. NUFC are wrong, and deep down I suspect they know it. Or to put it into football parlance - this is fantasy football thinking at its worse - or possibly playing the man not the ball?
To see what the Chronicle said see here:

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Being a moderniser means making work pay - and that includes the living wage

Mary Riddell in todays Telegraph has a nice piece where she describes me as a moderniser:
The reason is the work that I am doing championing the living wage and looking at ways to incentivise employers to pay a living wage. As Mary writes today:
"Some onlookers, noting mounting chatter around the Treasury, think there is a chance that Mr Osborne will shortly promise to legislate to raise the minimum wage. Other MPs, while doubtful that he would go so far, think it likely that he will either adjust National Insurance or take all minimum wage earners out of income tax by raising the threshold to £12,500."

Ed Miliband switched his energy supplier - after criticising the policy

Bizarre day at PMQs today when it was revealed that Miliband was taking the advice he derided so strongly only last week: this from todays debate

David Cameron:
"What we need in the energy market is more competition and lower levies and charges to drive profits and prices down, but what we have learnt in the last week is this: competition should include switching. At the Dispatch Box, Ed Miliband, said:

“I will tell the Prime Minister what is a con: telling people…that the answer was to switch suppliers”.—[Official Report, 23 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 295.]

However, what have we found out over the last few days? The right hon. Gentleman switched his supplier. Yes—he went for one of these insurgent companies to cut his bills. Is it not typical? The right hon. Gentleman comes here every week and attacks Tory policy; then he goes home and adopts Tory policy to help his own family."
Even from Ed this was a special U turn

Labour Councils back HS2

HS2 is supported wholeheartedly by Labour councils in the north east. Their MPs need to back it too:
Nick Forbes, Newcastle Councils leader was down in London yesterday. I did not discuss it with him when I saw him yesterday but todays story in the Journal is interesting.
The Journal reveals that he wrote to Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh warning that the HS2 rail line was a “once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment for the whole of the UK, and, in particular, the North of England”.
But he said it needed “ongoing commitment from all the main political parties” to go ahead.
The letter is part of a campaign by Labour leaders in England’s major cities who are increasingly worried that Labour’s sudden U-turn over the project known as High Speed Two or HS2 is putting it at risk.
Gordon Brown’s government announced in 2010 that it was committed to building a new high-speed rail line.
But Labour now says it is not convinced the line should be built - even if costs don’t rise any higher than the current budget of £42.2bn, which includes £28.2bn for the line and £14.4bn in contingency funding.
In his letter to Ms Creagh, seen by the Journal, Coun Forbes urged her “to give a very clear commitment to the growth and rebalancing of the UK economy which HS2 will bring”.
He said: “HS2 will bring economic regeneration and opportunity to cities and regions across the UK, in particular driving growth outside of London and the South East - making best use of what cities and regions across the UK have to offer.”
He urged her: “In the Core Cities we are already doing our bit but councils and businesses need to move forward with confidence in the future of HS2. So, I urge you to give the clearest commitment that we can all plan for future, sustainable growth supported by HS2 and wider transport investment.”
The HS2 line would run from London to Birmingham and then to Manchester and Leeds.
Trains from Leeds would transfer to the East Coast Main Line and continue to Darlington and Newcastle.
More details here:

Tony Blair on Labour spending and having a real job before being an MP

Interesting Question & Answer session at Queen Mary, University of London, where Blair expressed his regret that Labour had not cut spending before the recession struck. The Labour Fundamental Spending Review, which Blair says “didn’t really go anywhere”, offered an opportunity to make savings. Instead, it was sunk out of anti-Blair spite by Gordon Brown – with Ed Milband and Ed Balls in his coterie.
Blair made two key points:
1.The Brownites, who now run the Labour Party, blocked a real opportunity to save taxpayers’ money.

2.There has been structural waste in the system for years – so austerity is possible and desirable, separately to the savings forced on us by the downturn.

Neither of these messages sit comfortably with the two Eds. They were part of the group that blocked these savings, weakening our position when the financial crisis struck. They knew savings were possible back in 2005 but have spent the last eight years claiming the opposite.

I did like the former PMs last grenade into Balls and Miliband’s fishpond:
“I advise any young person who wants to go into politics today: go and spend some time out of politics. Go and work for a community organisation, a business, start your own business — do anything that isn’t politics for at least several years.”
My track record prior to politics is on my website - I consider jockey, businessman, lawyer and sometime cook and charity activist, and councillor a good cross section of training. No prizes for what the two Ed's did before being MPs

Monday, 28 October 2013

Westminster this week

Home office questions at 2.30 today, followed by the statement by the PM on the European Council. I am on the immigration Bill committee throughout most of Tuesday and Thursday, albeit there are crucial debates on several key issues like HS2 in the main chamber on Thursday. I have several key meetings on fuel prices and on Tuesday there is a key briefing on the progress made towards the LA7 = the key amalgamation of the 7 local authorities in the north east. I am a big supporter of the proposal, and will do everything possible to make it happen.
In addition there are several meetings on the skills agenda, and with the all party group on apprentices, which I am helping a lot
Several constituents also coming to Westminster this week.
Please come down and visit us - parliament belongs to us all!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

East coast mainline and HS2

I have known tins of sardines that are less packed than the 4.25 from Newcastle to London kings cross that I am on as I write. Before you ask I am in second class - have never travelled on a train in first. There are literally dozens of people in every carriage sat on the floor with other standing perched over the top of them. People are left stranded on the platforms at Grantham and other places because the train could literally take no more people.
This is not because of the storm - it is merely the regular fate of the Sunday traveller, with engineering works, cancelled trains, etc. Last Monday my labour colleagues and many other MPs were delayed by the disruption to the lines leading to a 7 hour plus journey. I have been repeatedly delayed whilst commuting up and down and have stopped travelling when on a deadline as I am all to often delayed. Several of my colleagues are now flying, including myself on several occasions, rather than take the train, although I would prefer to take the train. I do not blame the train staff, who are very apologetic and frankly resigned.
There is much dispute on whether politicians should leave this state run service as it is, or else try and get it run by a private company. The length of the franchise is key to the amount of investment. The journey from London to Manchester on a virgin train is light years away from the east coast experience.
I have been to several transport seminars recently, and spoken to several key train experts. The view of one and all is that we should not keep services like east coast as a state run service. I can say very robustly that no one on this train wants to keep it is way. As my neighbour said unprompted to me - "the truth is this is British Rail."
He is right. This service was nationalised on 14/11/09. I urge anyone to compare this define with the service that Virgin rail provide on the west coast. The difference is clear.
This week we are voting on HS2. I will be supporting it. I have met the original architect, Andrew Adonis, and been to several briefings. I would urge labour MPs to put aside party politics and support it. These projects need cross party support, and I will be seeking to persuade conservative colleagues as well.

A working weekend and the calm before the storm here in Northumberland

Since arriving on Thursday I have been out and about every day, and with events on all 3 evenings - in Prudhoe Friday night, and on Thursday and Saturday in Ponteland - albeit last nights concert in aid of the great north air ambulance and children north east was a pleasure. True credit to the Pont Charity Group, and particularly Bruce for making it happen. I will report on the Haltwhistle day on Friday in due course, when I can download the pictures, but my thanks to everyone at Sainsburys, in particular.
Today is very much the calm before the storm - a crystal clear still and sunlit autumn morning... With the threat of serious weather on the way. I am off to the Falcons Rugby today before an earlyish train back to London as I have a big week tomorrow with lots of home office work.
Please remember to check the weather forecast tomorrow if the storm does come and be careful. Storms like this can be a killer.

Good days Campaigning yesterday in north northumberland

I got in the car and drove north to knock on doors yesterday in 4 separate villages, primarily in Byrness, but also briefly in Rochester and Otterburn, before spending the last hour in Kirkwhelpington. I also attended the brilliant bring and buy sale at Byrness village hall.
There was much criticism of the wind farm proposed by the forestry commission. Also many complaints at the failure of the county council to grit the road up to the border at carter bar. The cafe owner at Rochester compared the state of Northumberland's roads and the Scottish road over the border - highlighting both the fact that the lorries are struggling to get up the hill to carter bar, in the absence of grit, and that the moment you cross the border the roads are pristine even in the worst weather. I will take up all the points raised with me yesterday.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Birney Hill recommended for refusal

Click below to view the
The application will be heard at Hexham Mart on Wednesday 30th October at 6pm. The meeting is open to the public. I have just spent the morning reading the report; anyone who doubts that the planning process is not thorough should read the document. It is an extensive appraisal of everything from government and local policies on planning, and a discussion of the merits and defects of the planning proposal; the conclusion is a refusal on the following grounds.
"1) The proposed construction of residential development on this site would represent inappropriate development in the Green Belt which, by definition, is harmful and contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework and Policy C17 of the Castle Morpeth Local Plan. In addition, the proposal would result in an inefficient use of valuable Green Belt land with a development that would average less than 3.5 dwellings per hectare. The applicant has cited a number of very special circumstances that they feel would justify allowing the development to take place as a departure from Green Belt policy. However, on balance it is considered that none of the circumstances cited by the applicant, either individually or cumulatively, would be sufficient to override the fundamental policy conflict in this case.

2) The development of up to 280 houses on open and undeveloped farmland which lies outside of the defined settlement boundary for Ponteland would

result in a significant urbanisation of the site and demonstrable harm to the landscape character of the open countryside contrary to the NPPF and Policies C1, H16 and PC1 of the Castle Morpeth Local Plan.

3) Insufficient information has been provided to allow for a proper assessment of the archaeological potential of the site contrary to paragraph 128 of the NPPF.

4) The applicant has failed to adequately demonstrate that surface water from the development could be disposed of in a manner which would not increase flood risk elsewhere contrary to the NPPF and Policy RE5 of the Castle Morpeth Local Plan.

5) The applicant has failed to provide sufficient information to allow the likely impact of aircraft noise on the amenity of future residents of the site, and the potential impact of the development on Newcastle International Airport’s Instrument Landing System, to be fully and properly assessed contrary to the advice set out in the NPPF."

Saturday in Tynedale

Byrness, Otterburn and the surrounding villages feature on a busy day in the North today. I am hoping to go to the church of St Francis bring and buy sale in Byrness, at 2, and meeting locals as well as knocking on doors in the village, before heading off to other villages south of the village. I will be holding surgeries in Otterburn and then heading to Ponteland in the evening.
There is also a litter pick in Horsley in the morning at 10 and in Wylam there is a jumble sale at 2 in aid of project Gateway in Africa.
Hexham Market is on all morning in Hexham - try and support it! We need to buy local and support our local producers.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Short Report of West Wylam Residents Meeting Friday night

Good near 2 hour meeting of around 25 local residents, councillors, the police and the reps from Norhumberland Water tonight in Prudhoe. We discussed many things including the Old Hospital site, the changes to the Duke's plans for the area below Front street, the County Council's green belt plans, and the possibility of developing the Eastwood site. In addition, we discussed issues and outcomes arising out of my recent survey of Prudhoe.
The police gave a very helpful update and were much praised for their ongoing work.
Likewise it was good of Nothumberland Water to come along and explain the extensive work they are doing both to improve present drainage and sewers in Prudhoe, notably the work above the castle and by Castelfields, and the way in which they are taking a more robust stress test of future applications for housing and any other developments.
There is a future meeting both during the day and the evening of the 7th November to discuss future housing plans.
In addition we discussed energy, local problems with highways and on footpath parking, and so much more. It is really important that we do two things. I am keen that local people use the best offices of the MP to deal with local issues. More importantly I am keen to work with the two local county councillors to ensure that we get the best possible local outcomes. Most importantly locally to west wylam we need to find a way forward to use the Eastwood site. I believe it is key to the future prosperity of the local area. Certainly it cannot be right that it continues to sit idle.

Good class meeting at Dame Allan's school

Yesterday I popped in to chat to pupils interested in politics, and law, as part of our efforts to speak to all of the schools in the area. I really like the sessions as the questions are always fascinating. We discussed everything from Ed Miliband to Ukip, immigration to the economy, cuts in military budgets to how we get young people motivated and interested in politics.
The best discussion was a 10 minute free flowing debate on the merits of local and regional banks. I hope I convinced them that we need banks in the community, run by locals and serving locals. We discussed at length the German Sparkassen model. Apologies on the first version I misspelt the school name! iPads and autocorrect....

Air Ambulance awards - honouring our heroes

On Wednesday I had the great privilege of Chairing the judging panel for the Air Ambulance Awards of Excellence 2013. On the panel alongside me was Bill Sivewright, Chairman of the Air Ambulance Association, Peter Norton, CEO British helicopter Association, Mark Docherty, NHS Commissioner, Tracy Hughes of the RNLI, and Steve Parry who acted as the Independent Secretary to the judging panel. I do this in my capacity as Chair of the All Party support group for Air Ambulances in the House of Commons. We did a lot of per reading and judging before our panel met in the Commons. I had to cut short my input due to parliamentary commitments, but the team did well in my absence and had my choices as well. 
There were a number of outstanding applications for a variety of awards ranging from Outstanding Young Person, Charity Staff Member of the Year, Paramedic, Doctor and Pilot of the Year, Campaign of the YearSpecial Incident and the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The panel had a number of very difficult decisions to make but, after much thought and consideration, a shortlist was agreed upon. The awards will be presented at an Awards dinner on Monday 18th November in Central London where all the finalists and winners will be recognised for their outstanding work and dedication to the Air AmbulanceAssociation. I am doing everything possible to be present and presenting at the dinner.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tackling Off Grid heating issue locally in Tynedale

Last week I continued the campaign to address the problem in the House of Commons at DECC Questions. We are working on a pilot project to address the lack of off grid heating during spring cold snaps that have caught some of local residents out. I have to draft a paper for DECC on this issue, and have already discussed it with one local representative who was at the recent Off Grid meeting with the Minister, but the principle is clear. The Q and A went as follows:

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
What steps his Department is taking to ensure that residents of Northumberland who are off the grid have sufficient support during cold weather this winter.

Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Conservative)
The Government want everybody to be able to access secure and affordable fuel supplies for heating their homes. This year’s “Buy oil early” campaign was launched on 11 September to encourage consumers to stock up early and join oil-buying groups, where cost savings can be found. I will continue to work through the all-party group and the ministerial roundtable on off-gas grid issues to see what further action is required.

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I thank the Minister for that answer. Our concern should particularly be for vulnerable residents caught out by sudden spring cold snaps. Does he agree that there is scope for a pilot project in Northumberland in which a consortium of oil-buying clubs, parish councils and credit unions could be funded to assist such residents?

Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Conservative)
Yes; we very much welcome the development of local initiatives that can help promote a more affordable supply of heating oil to consumers. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend’s final proposals for a pilot project in Northumberland and will then ask my officials to consider what support might be made available to assist him in taking it forward.

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 17 October 2013, c879) If anyone is interested in being party to such a pilot they should get in touch with the London office and we will give more details.

Thursday and Friday Diary - Haltwhistle and Prudhoe dominate

Today I am heading north first thing for surgeries + meetings in Northumberland and going to Dame Allan School in Newcastle to meet teachers and talk to the School Law Club. In the evening I will be having further meetings in Ponteland, and then am speaking at a dinner at the Golf Club.
On Friday 25th I am all day in Haltwhistle spending time at Haltwhistle Medical Centre to get a better understanding of modern Primary Care. I have spent more time in hospitals as a jockey and ill politician, but am looking forward to my second visit to the HMC.
At lunchtime I will be in the Pillar Box cafe in Haltwhistle's Main Street if anyone has an issue that they wish to raise, between 1-1.30
In the afternoon I will be dropping in on the Whistle Art project to meet Alison and the team, discuss their progress, and see the latest exhibition. Later that afternoon I am taking up a long overdue invitation to go round the Halty Sainsburys: looking forward to meeting the staff there.
That evening I am driving back to Prudhoe and will be knocking upon doors in Prudhoe before going to the West Wylam Residents’ Association at The Manors. I have been several times before but hope to see lots of locals there, whether they have general questions or specific surgery issues.
My apologies to those who would have liked me to be in Westminster at the debates there, but my Thursday / Friday diaries are pre booked long before we are told of the Backbench debates, and I simply cannot be in two places at once. Some time ago I decided to be in Northumberland for the Thursday / Friday slot as I will not be able to be there at all for Thursday and Fridays in November as the House is sitting 3 out of 4 Fridays. Both debates in the House today on APD and the Bully Banks are important but all constituents who have contacted me know my stand on both issues.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


Last Friday I popped down to the Mart to meet the team behind Farmwatch. They are doing a great job in difficult circumstances and tight budgets. We had a good chat for nearly an hour and I learnt about the work they are doing, and objectives for the way ahead. It seems to me that certain things are crucial: we definitely need farmers to be more vigilant and defensive of their property, and to remember to report in both losses asap so that police can action the crime, and also sightings of unusual events or people in rural areas. We need to ensure that the tight police budgets are split fairly and equably between urban crime budgets and rural crime budgets. And we need to increase existing networks of information to be shared with the police. Oil buying groups should be sharing their email lists with the police and providing farmwatch updates as it quite clear that theft of oil, diesel and petrol is on the rise and a real problem in rural areas. The hunts are already very good at this. Oil buying groups should be chatting to their local police officers and see how they can work together to stop rural crime.

We should support the police, particularly when things go wrong

99.9999% of the police are straight as a die. I have worked with the police as a lawyer, councillor, community activist and MP for over 20 years and they are honest, hard working, do a job that is extremely difficult, and face down things that the rest of us would struggle with. They have my full support. My point is that they particualrly have my support when others are criticising them as a force as I suspect will happen today.
They have also coped with a significant reduction in police budgets, due to the tough financial times, extremely well. Crime is down. I spoke to my local inspector last week and local rural officers. They are doing a great job
However, it would be niave not to accept that now is not a good time for the police's general reputation, following the Andrew Mitchell saga.
On any interpretation some officers on duty at Number 10 that night / subsequently have behaved badly, and the 3 officers who went to his constituency office for a meeting may have subsequently given a version of events different to the tape recorded version that Mitchell made of the meeting.
Was there an agenda linked to the police reductions in budget, and pensions review? I do not know. Have people been dishonest or worse? I cannot tell.
There are lots of apologies being made to Andrew Mitchell at the moment, and rightly so. Even Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, tweeted “It seems Andrew Mitchell has been stitched up. I am sorry I believed the police and The Sun.”
The Labour Party has already taken down its Plebgate website where they ask: “Who do you trust – the Police or Andrew Mitchell?” This was one bandwagon the Leader of the Opposition was very unwise to jump on, but the harsh reality is that if a group of policemen say one thing and a politician says another who would you believe normally? Certainly if there was not video evidence at number 10, and a tape recorder in Mitchells office would we still be debating Mitchells innocence? I think not.
This incident at Number 10 and thereafter was not normal.
I confess that I believed the police at the time, and not Andrew Mitchell.
But again I do not want the story coming out of today or future days to be an attack on the police generally. The rank and file in Northumbria do a brilliant job and will I suspect look upon the actions of some of their fellow officers with surprise and emotions probably a lot worse than regret.
But the message is simple: bad apples do not spoil a barrel. The police locally and nationally are a lot bigger, better, honest and professional than this sorry episode, and the few bad apples.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Immigration Bill passes through the Commons

Today the Immigration Bill had its second reading in the Commons. This marks another important step in our work to clear up the mess we inherited from Labour, by building an immigration system which is fair to hard-working people and legal immigrants, while cracking down on those who are here illegally.

As things stand, it is too easy for people to live and work in the UK illegally and take advantage of our public services. The appeals system is like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders, with almost 70,000 appeals heard every year. This cannot be right. It is too difficult to get rid of people with no right to be here.
This is not fair to the British public and it is not fair to legitimate immigrants who want to come and contribute to our society and economy. The Immigration Bill will stop immigrants using public services where they are not entitled to do so, reduce the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK, and make it easier to remove people who should not be here.

Specifically, the Immigration Bill will make it:

i. easier to identify illegal immigrants by extending powers:
• to collect and check fingerprints;
• to search for passports;
• to implement embarkation controls; and
• to examine the status and credibility of migrants seeking to marry or enter into a civil partnership.

ii. easier to remove and deport illegal immigrants by:
• cutting the number of decisions that can be appealed from 17 to 4 – preserving appeals for those asserting fundamental rights;
• extending the number of non-suspensive appeals – where there is no risk of serious irreversible harm, we should deport foreign criminals first and hear their appeal later;
• ensuring the courts have regard to Parliament’s view of what the public interest requires when considering Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights in immigration cases; and
• restricting the ability of immigration detainees to apply repeatedly for bail if they have previously been refused it.

iii. more difficult for illegal immigrants to live in the UK by:
• requiring private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, to prevent those with no right to live in the UK from accessing private rented housing;
• making it easier for the Home Office to recover unpaid civil penalties;
• introducing a new requirement for temporary migrants who have only a time-limited immigration status to make a contribution to the National Health Service;
• prohibiting banks from opening current accounts for migrants identified as being in the UK unlawfully, by requiring banks to check against a database of known immigration offenders before opening accounts; and
• introducing new powers to check driving licence applicants’ immigration status before issuing a licence and revoking licences where immigrants are found to have overstayed in the UK.

The Home Office has produced a series of factsheets that cover the detail of each of the measures in the Immigration Bill. These can be accessed online at collections/immigration-bill

The Immigration Bill builds on the immigration reforms we have implemented since 2010. These reforms are working: immigration is down by almost a fifth since its peak in 2010 and net migration is down by a third. We have reformed the Immigration Rules to cut out abuse where it was rife, while at the same time maintaining the UK’s position as an attractive place to live and work for the brightest and best migrants.

We will continue to welcome the brightest and best immigrants who want to contribute to our economy and society and play by the rules. But the law must be on the side of people who respect it, not those who break it.

Congratulations to local Tynedale businesses up for North East Tourism Awards

The awards ceremony is next month but I am delighted to see nominations for
- Best B and B: the Carraw Bed and Breakfast on the Military Road. I have met the owner and he runs a great B and B in a glorious location high on the Military, right next to Hadrians Wall.
- Best Holiday / Caravan park: Leaplish Waterside at Kielder
- Taste of England AND the Pub of the Year: the Feathers Pub [again!]
- Visitor Information Provider of the year: Northumberland National Park
More details here:

If you have not been you need to go to each and every one. They are all winners in my view.

Free Schools: Laws and Browne are right - Clegg is wrong

I am amazed at Nick Clegg's about turn on free schools. He has supported them wholeheartedly before the 2010 election and ever since. Now he is undermining them. He is manifestly wrong. David Laws and Jeremy Browne have made it clear they disagree with their boss.
Last week I was in the chamber to support David Laws, the Liberal MP and the Schools Minister. I like David, and he certainly impressed our teachers when he visited Hexham QEHS this summer.

The background to the Q and A was the problem with one free school in Derby, over which the government is rightly taking action. Our exchange went like this:

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I welcome the action taken in respect of this school and the fact that the majority of the 170 free schools are outperforming local authority schools. Does the Minister agree that one bad apple does not spoil the barrel, and has he learned anything about Labour’s policy on free schools?
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 17 October 2013, c895)

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the shadow Secretary of State who speaks for the Opposition on these matters has not concluded that the Labour party’s last academies programme was deficient because some of those academies have failed. There is a basic lack of logic in Labour’s position and an ideological resistance to innovation in the school system.

As to Labour they backed them last week and have now come out against them.

I suspect that David Laws is at one with Michael Gove and surprised at his boss's change of heart. Gove is Education Secretary, Laws is schools minister – and here’s the official statement from the department which they run:-

‘Free schools are raising standards and giving parents more choice. They are run by teachers – not local bureaucrats or Westminster politicians – and are free to set their own curriculum, decide how they spend their money and employ who they think are the best people for the job. This Government is not going to take these freedoms away. Independent schools have always been able to hire brilliant people who have not got QTS. Free schools and academies now have the same freedoms as independent schools to hire great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists so they can inspire their pupils.’

The DfE also released the following information, to combat the criticism of Clegg about ‘qualified’ teachers.

Non-QTS teachers: The successful independent school sector has always taken the opportunity to employ teaching staff who do not hold QTS. Ensuring the highest quality of teaching is paramount to the success of each school. Head teachers know this, which is why we trust them to employ staff that they believe to be well-qualified for the job. All schools continue to be held accountable for the quality of teaching through Ofsted inspections and the publication of school performance data.

Going forward I am a fan of free schools and academies. Up to last Sunday David Laws and Clegg were too. We now have a bizarre situation where David Laws is being undermined by his own boss. I fully understand we are in a Coalition but there is a real issue here and Laws is definitely right.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Meeting our 3 Euro election candidates in Newcastle last Saturday

Conservative MEPs are delivering for Britain in the EU parliament.
They have managed to
- secured a historic budget cut = the first ever reduction of the EU budget. 
- cut red tape and secured exemptions for small businesses 
- reformed the fisheries policies to end the immoral discarding of healthy fish
- led the campaign to prevent the travelling circus to Strasbourg
- strengthened language requirements for medical professionals coming to the uk
- avoided the euro bank bailout
- a referendum lock on further power transfers
Only the Conservatives are actively negotiating the powers of the EU and getting us a better deal.

It was good to hear from Martin Callanan, who does a great job as our MEP, and the two other candidates Ben Houchen and Andrew Lee. We have 7 months until the EU election on May 22 and I shall be campaigning hard for Martin and the team.

For those who have not heard Martin speak there are still places at our dinner in Hexham on Saturday November 16, which is taking place at the Hexham racecourse. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Our next Local banking conference in London on 6 November

On Wednesday 6th November I will be hosting another local banking conference. The last one was such a success in Gateshead that we are expanding it to London. The speakers line up is even more stellar, including Sajid Javid, the Treasury's rising star; I am meeting with Anthony Thompson tomorrow in the House to fine tune the programme.
I am certain that it is only when we have true competition from challenger and other banks will we be able to get real choice on the high street and internet for banking services.
I want a bank that is in the community, for the community. We are not far off.

Westminster this week

Home Office duties dominate the week for me.
The Immigration Bill is before the House on Tuesday and I will be present pretty much all day. There is also the possibility of questions to the Health Secretary, and a chance to get in at international development questions.
I also have multiple meetings and commitments including a meeting with representatives from the Northumberland National Park, where we will be meeting the new Minister and discussing priorities, and a couple of key local issues, and one piece of casework, but my main concern is the proposed wind farm on the edge of the park, north east of Kielder.
I am also involved in the judging of the Association of Air Ambulance awards on Wednesday.
I am then heading north Thursday morning for a variety of surgeries, events and commitments later this week and this weekend, which means I will not be in the House on Thursday or Friday.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Zero Hours

Whilst zero hours contracts can work for some professions, many of them are used to exploit workers, especially the low paid, and those must be tackled.
Like so many of these issues, when they were in Government Labour did nothing, indeed they even published a white paper on the issue praising the flexibility of zero hour contracts offered to business. 

Even today Labour run Council's such as Northumberland County Council continue to employ almost 100 people on so called zero hour contracts.
I am personally very proud of my record in fighting for the lowest paid and being a leading champion of the living wage here in the region. You can read more about that fight here;

Sadly Labour are more interested in trying to score party political points rather than focusing on the very serious issue of workers being exploited.

Hexham Hospital New CT Scanner

Tynedale will soon benefit from a new state-of-the-art CT scanner at Hexham General Hospital thanks to a substantial investment from Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. Work will begin next week to install the new CT scanner, which is one of the most advanced pieces of equipment available anywhere in the world and will provide the fastest and highest resolution imaging for any patients who need a CT scan.
The new scanner, worth over half a million pounds, is part of Northumbria Healthcare’s commitment to developing local healthcare services. It will help medics at the hospital to diagnose a range of conditions.
The investment comes as Northumbria Healthcare continues to expand the services at Hexham.
Technology changes very quickly and we need the very latest diagnostic equipment in Hexham.
I am advised by the Trust that there will be slight disruption to the usual services as we install the new scanner but it will be fully operational by 25 November.
I for one will certainly be popping in before christmas to see the new bit of kit and to meet the teams in charge.

Britannia Hotel, near Newcastle Airport for a Conference for me all day this Saturday

Much to do if you are out and about in Tynedale but I would really recommend
- St Cuthberts autumn fair at Haydon Bridge at 10, followed by the opening of the new village hall at Bardon Mill at noon.
- this Saturday there are also coffee mornings in several of the villages, notably Haltwhistle and at Acomb there is the Women's Institute annual poppy coffee morning from 10 am in the village hall. They are wonderful ladies and it is a very worthwhile cause.
- in additon there is the pop up gift and craft fair in Bellingham.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Tynedale Hospice at Home event in Hexham last night

Rob Caskie delighted hundreds with his tales of "Going South with Scott and Shackleton" in Hexham yesterday. He spoke for over an hour without a note, yet all of us present would happily have listened for a further hour so fascinating was his tales of heroism, endeavour, comradeship and bravery. He started with Scott and his doomed journey to the south pole - highlighting the fateful decision to take 5 not 4 men on the long push south, and the toughness of these men who died on a march of incredible distance and difficulty. Then on to Shackleton, whose legendary expedition with the ships the Endeavour, and then the lifeboat the James Caird, on a journey from the Antartic to South Georgia defy belief for their standards of seamanship, fortitude and courage. Whilst talking of the heroism of these men we forgot that Rob was doing it all without a single note. He is an epic storyteller. If you have not listened to him talk on his British tour there is still time. Check out his website here:

As for last night my thanks to the sponsors, Armstrong Watson, Ward Haddaway, and Youngs RPS. Most of all our thanks and support to Tynedale Hospice at Home. To all of the volunteers - many of whom I chatted to - and the staff, and Brian of course, who make such a difference at such a difficult time. This is a wonderful charity that I am proud to have supported in the past and will do so in the future. Our hope is to get Rob to return next year and talk about Rorkes Drift. I have heard him do this and amazingly it is even better than last night! But for now if you want moe info about Shackleton, the unsung legend, have a read here:

If you have not read it - the famous Advert for Shackletons men is worth a read.

Analysis of Hexham and North East jobs figures

Wednesday we saw some more positive jobs figures from the independent Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is, of course, important to say from the outset that there is much more work to do. Until we significantly reduce long term unemployment, youth unemployment and the North East’s historically high unemployment levels, then our work will never be done, but the plans as set out in the Adonis Report will help hugely.
The key figures are:
Since last month:

- Unemployment in Hexham, the North East region, and in the UK as a whole, is down significantly

It is more important, however, to look at long-term trends.

Since the Government came into office in May 2010, unemployment in the North East region is down by 1,600. Unemployment has dropped by 17,000 (18%) since the February 2012 peak and is on a downward trend. In Hexham, that figure is down 20% in Hexham in the same period, and is down 8% since May 2010.

In relation to youth unemployment, since February 2012 it is down in the region by 7,675 (24.5%). In Hexham and during the same period, it is down by 25.4%.
These are positive and welcome figures. However, behind these figures are lives, families and jobs. The Coalition Government and I are not complacent, and we must carry on the good work already started.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Northumberland Green Belt News - several thousand homes planned in first report

Pleased to see a Conservative female MP, Eleanor Laing, appointed Deputy Speaker

I am pleased that the whole of the House of Commons has elected a female Conservative MP, Eleanor Laing, to be the new deputy speaker. Eleanor, a mum and long standing MP for Epping Forest, got 273 votes from her colleagues, beating six other candidates to the post. The veteran MP for Northampton South, Brian Binley, came second with 240 votes. Eleanor is a passionate Scot, and we will miss her both in the trenches and in the Better together campaign.
Eleanor praised the sensible way this short 10 day contest has been conducted in her last offical words in the house till 2015.

"May I also … thank each of the other candidates for the demure and pleasant way in which this election has been conducted and may I thank the house for placing their confidence in me to let me become part of your team? Thank you."
The MP had kept her canvassing short and sweet, saying that "if the sound you like best is your own voice, you shouldn't aspire to sit in the Speaker's chair". In hustings on Tuesday, she pledged to "stand up for the interests of backbenchers of against overpowering governments of all political colours".
Commiserations to all the other candidates who would have done a good job.

£20 Grand spent by Salmond on a doc that did not exist? You can't SNP make it up!

Can the SNP prove a separate Scotland would automatically inherit the UK’s EU membership and opt-outs? They have admitted it would not. Worse still they have spent 20 grand of taxpayers money fighting in court when asked to show their advice. Then they admitted they had no such advice. Why then fight the case!! It is bizarre.
This row is now widening and is all about the SNP inability to join the EU, and what kind of country an independent Scotland would be. 

During an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil in March last year, Mr Salmond appeared to confirm that he had sought advice from his law officers on this issue, saying: “We have, yes, in terms of the debate.”
Unsurprisingly people wanted to see that advice and did a Freedom of Information request
The FOI commissioner agreed and ordered the SNP government to disclose it.
But in July 2012 the Scottish Government announced it was appealing this ruling by the FOI commissioner that it disclose whether or not advice had been sought.
Ministers then used taxpayers’ money to contest the case all the way to the Court of Session but then dropped their action in October that year after admitting the advice did not exist.
Now the figures have emerged. According to a parliamentary answer, the Scottish Government’s legal costs totalled £3,960 and law accountant fees were £1,680.
In addition, Scottish ministers agreed to pay the Information Commissioner’s fees of £13,812.92.
A total just shy of £20 grand!

Now they admit spending a load of money protecting a document that does not exist.
The reality is that if they fail to tell voters what kind of independent Scotland will be then voters will wonder where they are going.
Full story here:

Prisoner Voting Decision - now for parliament to act

The Supreme Court yesterday dismissed appeals from two prisoners over the right to vote under European Union rules. Convicted murderers Peter Chester and George McGeoch had argued that EU law gave them a right to vote - even though they cannot under British law.
The Supreme Court disagreed, finding British law trumps Euro law.
Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons that the ruling was "a great victory for common sense".
For an objective view of the Supreme Court's judgement, this is the take of the BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman who said: "Critically it ruled that EU law did not provide an individual right to vote, paralleling that recognised by the ECHR. Eligibility under EU law is a matter for national parliaments."

Going forward parliament has to decide if the blanket ban stays or we address prisoner voting for prisoners with as less than 4 year term or less than 6 month term. I see no prospect of a 4 year exemption applying but I could see short term prisoners of less than a month possibly getting a postal vote. There will be a vote on this within a year. I should point out several European countries, the USA and Japan all have a blanket ban. The key point is that all agree it is a matter for the individual countries to decide, not the EU. The question is whether a prison sentence meansd you lose your democratic right as well?
As always I welcome the views of readers / constituents.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Pennine Ale from Allendale arrives in Westminster

Northumberland has come to Westminster as the Strangers Bar, which is 25 foot by 12, and located in the basement of the House of Commons now sells Allendale's wonderful Pennine Ale for a limited period only. Full story here:
My plan is to entice Boris into the House of Commons for a pint of Allendale's finest. After a week in China drumming up business for the UK he will need a decent pint of bitter on his return!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Deputy Speaker Hustings and election

The Speaker and his deputies really matter to the smooth running of parliament, the need to hold the executive to account, and the importance of backbenchers being heard. On these last two points John bercow has been a brilliant speaker. He has been a massive improvemenet for backbenchers like myself who traditionally would not get heard for 6 months plus. He adores the House of Commons and does a difficult job as well as he can. There is no doubt that MPs would try the patience of a saint, and John is not a saint, so I forgive him his occasional upsets! Also, like Judges he is not allowed to talk back and must take all the slings and arrows in silence. This is not easy for anyone in such a high profile job.

Tomorrow, all MPs will elect a new Deputy Speaker to replace Nigel Evans, who has had to resign. The convention dictates Nigel's successor must be from the governing parties. David Amess, Henry Bellingham, Brian Binley, Simon Burns, Nadine Dorries, Eleanor Laing and Gary Streeter are standing. Liberal Democrats are eligible to put themselves forward, too, but it seems none felt they could command sufficient support.

Today, I went to the Hustings organised by Dods in the House of Commons. I should stress that I am not canvassing for any particular candidate - I am way too busy. The candidates spoke for 2 miunutes and took short questions from journalists and MPs. The candidates have already addressed the parliamentary parties, and had to all present to the Labour party in a slightly surreal counter intuitive election contest, as all MPs vote on the replacement [I would vote on a Labour choice].

The press tomorrow will be full of the hustings: all are colleagues, good candidates, and nice people. Elinor Laing was good, Burns likewise, although a sign fell down halfway through his speech; Binley was decent and solid, and has rightly made the case that he would stand down if Nigel were acquitted. Although I like her I do not believe Nadine Dorries is the right choice for this job. I could not stay to hear David Amess, who I hear was funny and capable, but the two standout candidates for me on the day were Gary Streeter and Henry Bellingham, whose odds have been shortening by the day, with Elinor Laing close behind.

Gary rightly made the point that a good speaker is like the referee of a football match: if they are good noone notices them. Gary is a self effacing veteran of the House and has 21 years experience on all sides of the fence. On balance he will get my vote tomorrow.

Congratulations to Keith Cockburn, Scottish Conservative by election winner in the Borders

Three weeks ago I gave a hand in the Scottish Council by election in Tweeddale. I am seen outside the Gordon Arms Pub, on the campaign trail in West Linton, with key local helpers. I am pleased to say Keith won last Thursday, thanks to a lot of hard work, a great team effort, and because he is a great local candidate. Full details of Keith's win here:

Help for Air Ambulances

The Air Ambulance APG annual meeting took place today in the House and we discussed in particular how we can improve the level of helicopter access to major trauma hospitals and the developments in co-responding by the 3 main emergency services in conjunction with AA. Attendees included cross party MPs and Lord Tebbit. All officers of the All Party Group were reelected, with yours truly as Chairman, and the intention is to bring all the Air Ambulance organisations together at the House of Commons next year. The good news is that the Association of Air Ambulances is really beginning to help MPs of all parties understand the issues and complexities that go with the provision of this wonderful service.
I am attending the AAA National Conference on Monday 18th November 2013 at the Millenium Gloucester Hotel in London; for full details see the following link

The rest of the day has been devoted to the Anti Social Behaviour Bill, the hustings for the Deputy Speaker, casework and meeting the National Autistic Society.

Grown in Britain

Great meeting today celebrating our forests, woodland and trees and the products we can make from the wood they produce. Owen Patterson came along and was presented with the Grown in Britain report.  Check out the outstanding website:

Grown in Britain celebrates the products we can make from the wood they produce. It is an incredibly positive movement that is bringing together:

•The environmentalists and woodland owners who contributed to the policy shaping work of the Independent Forestry Panel
•The contractors, builders and retailers who want to buy, use and sell more British timber and wood based products.
•Woodland managers, public and private agencies who want to see many more of our woods managed to produce sustainable and legal sources of wood.
Their aims are:
To create a new and stronger market pull for the array of products derived from our woodlands and forests.
To develop private sector funding that supports the planting and management of woodland and forests through funding from corporates as part of their corporate social responsibility
To connect together and harness the positive energy and feelings towards our woodlands and forests that many in our society share to create a strong wood culture. A wood culture that captures personal health and fitness, well-being, community and encourages the use of more wood and forest product.

Grown in Britain is tackling every barrier that gets in the way of these aims. It is building on and bringing together the great work that is already being done by so many individuals, businesses and groups and it is relentlessly seeking solutions that will make a real and sustained change to the whole sector.

I had the chance to talk to representatives of the timber businesses that affect us in Northumberland and to talk to Alastair Kerr, who does an outstanding job as the Director General of the Wood Panel Industries Federation. I am utterly committed to supporting our forestry, timber and chipboard businesses that make a massive difference to the British economy and Northumberland in particular.

Wear it Pink! Do something to help beat breast cancer on 25/10

Every one of us knows someone who has suffered from breast cancer.

I recently joined the fight against breast cancer by taking part in Breast Cancer Campaign’s biggest (and pinkest) fundraiser, wear it pink day. Over the last 10 years wear it pink has raised a staggering £23 million and on Friday 25 October 2013 people will come together in schools, colleges and businesses throughout the country to raise vital funds for Breast Cancer Campaign’s lifesaving research.

The reality is that every year in the UK around 50,000 women and around 400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly 12,000 women and 80 men die from this disease. This is why we need to support Breast Cancer Campaign’s fundraising efforts so they can continue to fund research which will one day lead to a cure. So join me, wear something pink on the 25th October and donate £2, it’s really as simple as that. You can give more, or do more, if you want!
If you want to get involved and have not already done so contact: or call 0800 107 3104. Breast cancer is a terrible killer. I am delighted to support the efforts to beat it.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Education Statement by David Laws today on accountability, and destination measures

I was in the House today for the announcement by David Laws of the product of the
The full text of the statement is here:
Hansard will be live tomorrow as to the question I raised and his answers both to me and others.
The measures were welcomed across the House by Labour as well as the Coalition.
For me the key points were:
- a change to the present system of accountability discourages schools from focusing on the lowest attaining pupils.
- changes to floor standards to measure performance in a fairer way, to take into account a school intake
- more information to be published
- schools that overachieve will not have to do an Ofsted inspection the following year  

Opening Engineering Facility and Training Academy opening at EGGER on Friday

Hexham will see new jobs, apprenticeships, and investment in both an academy and local people unveiled this Friday. I am very excited to be part of this opening. EGGER employ over 500 people locally and is the key employer in west Tynedale. I have been round the site many times and met the teams.
EGGER is the largest manufacturing employer in all of Northumberland and is part of a Europe wide business. They have invested tens of millions of pounds into the the Hexham site in recent years.
The site provides one of the most technically advanced wood particleboard plants in Europe.

The opening of our new Engineering Facility and Training Academy will help develop skills, and underlines the companies commitment to investing in the area, their ongoing operations and their employees.
The training academy will allow them to continue developing apprenticeship, graduate and employee training schemes.
The way out of the recesssion is through good local businesses investing in their site, their products and most of all their people. I am really pleased for everyone involved and looking forward to meeting all the employees on Friday.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Westminster this week

The Crime, Anti Social Behaviour and Policing Bill is up for debate for 2 days on Monday & Tuesday in the Commons. I will be helping in this Bill, but have a variety of key meetings as well:
- I am the chair of the All Party Group for Air Ambulances, and we have a meeting this Tuesday,
- I also have key constituency calls to action by phone, notably with Northumbria Police officers on a couple of ongoing cases in Hexham and Haltwhistle,
- I hope to be meeting key representatives of BT on Wednesday, where I will be raising local phone failures we have suffered in parts of Tynedale, particularly Hedley, where the campaign goes on for a better service.
- I have question 9 on fuel poverty and credit unions at 11.30 in the Commons on Wednesday and will be hoping to catch the Speakers eye at PMQs
- there are also a number of other smaller debates I will keep an eye on

Thursday I really hope to be slipped to come north, albeit the House is still sitting, where I have a number of appointments and meetings on Thursday, Friday and all day Saturday. The EGGER academy opening is the key event on Friday. The evening diary is yet to be confirmed but I know I have appointments / events on Thursday and Friday. With a little bit of luck I might make the pub quiz in one of my local pubs down the road on Friday night.

Rory Stewart Guest Post - Crossing Borders and tracing our history

Rory is one of the brightest of all our intake and wise on history. He is always worth reading or listening to and we enjoyed a great day hiking together recently at Epiacum. This is us shaking hands across the border between Cumbria and Northumberland. Enjoy his post. 

RORY Writes: "Cumbrians and Northumbrians must have felt isolated and marginalised fourteen hundred years ago. Agriculture had collapsed around them, the population had plummeted, there had not been a new road or stone building constructed in two centuries. Education, industry, and trade had collapsed. We were one of the most underdeveloped places in Europe or Asia.  But within just two generations our remote, sparsely-populated area was producing the greatest art, spirituality, and scholarship in Europe. Why? I wish I knew. But it was in part because our rural isolation was a strength not a weakness.We were transformed, first, by a new faith. Christianity arrived in heathen Northumbria and Cumbria in two ways: with charismatic Irish ascetics, travelling on foot; and with horse-born Bishops sent by the papacy. We were ideally placed to combine these rival traditions because we were always a frontier zone. When Hadrian’s wall was manned, we were half part of Rome, half outside it. We were never part of Roman urban civilisation – our landscape and culture was more like ‘barbarian’ 
Ireland. But we were surrounded by the great walls and forts of Rome, and had touched a wider European civilisation. We were transformed next by our curiosity. We sent scholars to Rome, and eagerly copied down all the knowledge with which they returned. When a Syrian arrived, scholars assailed him with so many eager questions, that a witness compared him to an old boar, fending off a pack of puppies. We learned from the best musicians, masons, glaziers, and scholars on the continent. We studied crisp carving, and orthodox images from foreign sculptors. Then we surpassed them. On the Bewcastle cross, for example, we worked a sun-dial across a petal, invented unprecedented flowers, and filled an entire frame with a mystical checker-board. But the dignity of the figures, and proportions of the composition, remained in the best classical tradition.
We were transformed ultimately by our capacity to use with confidence the energy of different traditions. We preserved some of the tone of our own pagan past. We emulated the purity and spirituality of Irish Christianity while abandoning its most outdated and discredited customs. We 
followed the latest models of Rome, but we lived ascetic lives, which world-weary Romans had thought no longer possible in the modern world.  Within forty years, as the Mediterranean declined, Northumbria and Cumbria were producing the greatest artists, scholars, missionaries, and statesmen in Northern Europe. Bede, the greatest historian of his age, and one of the finest late writers of Latin prose, came from a culture which had been, not long before his birth, almost illiterate.
St.Cuthbert – an Anglo-Saxon monk, born in what we now call Scotland, dying in what we now call England – was the ultimate symbol of our Middleland civilisation. He retained an almost pagan delight in animals – he was fed by sea-eagles, and communed with ravens. According to an eye-witness, he stood all night up to his neck in the sea to pray, and at dawn, otters came to lick the frozen saint back to life. On that island he suffered alone as a Celtic ascetic. But he had a great reverence for scholarship, acknowledged he was part of a broader European civilisation, and died as an orthodox bishop, encouraging his disciples to follow the customs of Rome. It was because of men like this, that the pope, looking for a missionary, turned to Northern England. This was why Charlemagne’s chief of staff was a Northumbrian.
Our Golden Age has never been easy to admire, or even remember. It left no Ziggurat of Ur, no Machu Picchu, or pyramid. Many of its most distinctive contributions lay in advances in religion and theology, which we struggle to understand. Even its most famous treasure – the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne gospel – is not a public monument; it is a hand-written book in an alien language: the turn, of each page, hides the last, as it reveals the next. All that remains of the seventh century Hexham Abbey – once the greatest building of its kind north of the Alps – is a narrow crypt, made of grey-stone lifted from Hadrian’s Wall. Of the major Anglian monastery at Dacre, fit to be visited by Kings, no trace remains beneath the stone beasts in the churchyard. Yet, no other civilisation has come so quickly, from rural isolation, to dominate the imagination of a continent. None has made such unpromising conditions a more rapid catalyst for seriousness, and greatness. It was a golden age lived to its fullest in places, not just without cities, but without buildings: in the red sandstone cliff walls of the Eden, right down to Wetheral, or on the island in the lake at Derwentwater. At Lindisfarne it is easy to be transfixed by the ruined priory, with its purple columns, tapering, like sandstone pillars, scoured by desert winds. But that building was constructed centuries later. The real essence of the Northern renaissance lies further out to sea, in the faint shape of Inner Farne: a place defined by the iridescence of the water at first light, by seals, and by birds. St. Cuthbert’s final home."