Saturday, 30 November 2013

Will words, emotion, facts or commitment sway the choice in the Scots Referendum?

Brilliant assessment of the Issues to be decided on by Fraser Nelson in his article this week - extracts of which I set out below:
"Conventional wisdom in Westminster is that Alex Salmond has already lost next year’s independence referendum. His White Paper, launched this week, was widely derided in London as fatally wounded by its rich mixture of fantasy, mendacity and cliché. But this misses the point. The White Paper was never intended to be read: that’s why it is 670 pages long. It exists to help the SNP duck questions, not answer them. “That’s page 216 onwards,” said Sturgeon, when asked about Scotland’s future in the EU. But there are no answers on page 216, or any other page: the White Paper creates the fiction that answers exist.
The EU question, incidentally, ought to crush the debate. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, had just reminded Scots that breakaway countries must reapply for EU membership – which needs unanimous approval by 28 member states. Spain can be expected to wield its veto: if it allows Scotland back in the EU, then it can expect the Basques and Catalans to attempt a similar manoeuvre. The SNP’s key assumption – of automatic EU membership – had been comprehensively demolished.

The SNP White Paper is a confidence trick, intended as a fat prop to be brandished in debates. It ought to have been torn to shreds by the unionists. There is much to get stuck into. Among the grievances listed in the SNP’s White Paper is the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in state schools. It is certainly a scandal: studies show that, in Scotland, the richest fifth are educated as well as Finns and the poorest as badly as Turks. But it’s hard to blame London: education has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament for 14 years. It rejected Tony Blair’s reforms, and the notion that pupils should be able to escape to new academies or free schools. This is the paradox of devolution: home rule has meant less freedom.

The SNP’s White Paper also bemoans the appalling health outcomes in Scotland. Again, rightly: life expectancy in certain Glasgow sink estates is lower than in Afghanistan. It’s not genetic: a boy born in the city’s lush suburbs can expect to live as long as a Swede. But health, too, has been devolved for 14 years. The Scottish Parliament used its powers to reject modernising measures and keep NHS Scotland in its unreformed glory. The result? A 2010 study by the London School of Economics found that NHS hospitals in the North East of England treat “about twice as many patients as hospital doctors and nurses in Scotland”.

Rejecting reform has come at high price for Scots – and yet this is precisely what the SNP proposes now. It wants more money, less reform. Its White Paper threatens to halt Universal Credit, a revolutionary welfare measure aimed at ensuring that work always pays. It’s hard to portray this as an English plot: the agenda can be traced to Iain Duncan Smith’s visit to Easterhouse, an East Glasgow housing estate. There, he saw how an unreformed welfare state was incubating the very poverty it was intended to eradicate. Abandoning these people by deeming welfare reform too difficult, as the SNP proposes, is the most anti-Scottish policy imaginable.

Yes, it’s easier to give up on welfare reform, but is it patriotic to do so? And are the poor of Dundee really so different to those of Liverpool? If you were to list the top 20 problems that Scotland faces, not one of them would be rectified by independence. This is the great weakness in the SNP’s argument – it promises a world of constitutional pain, for no benefit. It has no credible solutions, and is trying to disguise the fact under 670 pages of bluster.
The case for the Union is far stronger than that for separation – but that won’t matter, if it cannot be articulated with the requisite passion and force. The coming referendum is not about the Barnett Formula, or dividing oil wealth. It’s about saving the most extraordinary country ever created, whose joint intellectual and military endeavours exported the modern notion of freedom and won two world wars."
I agree with all of this - I consider it vital that we preserve the union.

Argentina threatens companies pursuing legitimate trade in Falklands with prison

Argentina triggered a fresh diplomatic row this week over the disputed Falkland Islands after the country's Congress passed a law that establishes criminal sanctions for the "illegal exploration" of hydrocarbons in the Falkland Islands waters.
This is yet another attempt at intimidation.
You can normally link it to bad news in the Argentinian economy - it works along this line:
Things go wrong in Argentina - the Argentinians say something or do something against the Falklands. Full story here:

I am pleased to say that I am due to go to the Falklands for four days in late January as part of a cross party delegation [2 government, 2 opposition MPs] invited by the Falkland Islands Government. I am much looking forward to the trip and to be able to support what the islanders are doing.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Ofsted inspections in Northumberland

I was disappointed to receive news that two of our schools in Tynedale have got a negative report from Ofsted. These schools are Otterburn First School and Prudhoe High School. I have not visited Otterburn First, so I cannot comment on the specifics of the report, although I will try and visit soon. However, I know Prudhoe High School exceptionally well and have visited repeatedly. The school has my full support and I have made this clear to the outstanding headteacher Iain Shaw. I am certain that the school will return to positive reports very shortly.

This is the statement that I gave to the papers:
"Prudhoe High is an excellent school and one I am proud to visit regularly. It is a school with brilliant teachers and a wonderful head teacher in Dr Iain Shaw. This a setback, but I have full faith that these specific issues can be resolved and we can move on. Prudhoe provides excellent teaching for its 1000 pupils. Well over 60% of pupils attained five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and mathematics last year. In fact it is way above the national average for those key qualifications of English and Maths with more than 75% getting a GCSEs grade A* to C in Maths. That is what really counts.

With our campaign for a new building being successful, things are really positive for the schools future once these concerning but very resolvable issues have been resolved."

Review of the week

I always try and update on who I have met with during the week in westminster and I realise I have not had a chance to update on meetings with
- the police federation, with whom I had a good opportunity to listen to their concerns and requests with an all party group of MPs in London. I have today received an update from one of my local Inspectors in Tynedale so I will try and find the time to go the station and discuss ongoing developments with the Inspector and local constables before too long.
- Separately I was humbled to attend the Parkinsons Uk event in the House - the stories told were particularly moving. I also spoke briefly in the Water Bill debate, of which I will blog more later. Finally I popped by the "safer eyes, safer roads" campaign last week, which is a good campaign which I do support.
- Finally it does appear as if the Referendum Bill will go through today - notwithstanding the delaying tactics of many local Labour MPs.

European Referendum Bill may .... pass through House of Commons today

Once again we return to the Commons to support my friend and colleague James Wharton, MP, who is trying to get into law the commitment to a referendum of the British people. Sadly the Labour party and some of our Liberal colleagues are keen to prevent the people having a say. If you want to watch Labour prevaricating all day tune in to the Parliamanet channel at 9.30

War Zone Rape

Yesterdays announcement by William Hague in the Commons spelt out just what a horrendous issue this is and that the UK Coalition Government is leading the way in combatting this horrific crime against women; theharsh reality is that sexual violence particularly against women is part of the process of too many of the conflicts around the world. Drawing attention to this state of affairs, highlighting commitments to stop it and setting out specific measures can only help and I welcome the Foreign Secretarys commitment on this issue. Full story here:

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Transcript of Debate on creating Skills and Apprenticeships in N East

My thanks for all the help in the drafting; the full transcript is here:

Fly Grazing of horses on public / private land - a bigger problem than we thought

This week I took part in my Conservative colleague Damian Hinds debate on this issue. The full debate is here:
I was not able to stay and make a speech but made the case that the Animals Act needs amendment, so that this problem is not shunted onto Local Authorities and local farmers.

Britain is at the heart of Typhoon Haiyan aid to the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan is one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record to make landfall. More than 13 million people have been affected and more than 4 million people have been forced from their homes.
What happened in the Philippines is an absolute tragedy. You can see the devastation, the suffering, and it’s quite clear that we are going to need long-term help for those people.  The British Government has already pledged over £50 million, which makes us one of the most generous donors anywhere in the world. But it’s practical action that’s needed as well. Not only are we getting water, shelter and medical supplies to thousands of people in desperate need but British equipment and personnel will help clear the roads so international humanitarian relief can get to where it needs to go.

An Antonov aircraft arrived in Cebu on 20 November from Amsterdam, bringing vital aircraft unloading kit that will double the amount of aid that can flow through the Philippines' Cebu airport. The kit on board, funded by the UK, included a main deck loader which can be used to unload heavy equipment and aircraft pallets from large aircraft, as well as a forklifts, a tow tractor, a 4x4, pallets, oil and tools.

HMS Illustrious and her 900-strong crew has now arrived in the Philippines. She is equipped with a large flight deck, seven helicopters, medical and engineering capabilities, and the means to produce fresh water. Helicopters will be used to assist with the distribution of food and water to survivors stranded in remote locations.

The UK’s total contribution is more than £50 million, which will help get shelter, clean water and emergency supplies to up to 800,000 people. This includes:
- matching the first £5 million donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal for the Philippines, ensuring leading charities have the resources they need to help victims of the typhoon and make the public’s generous donations go even further;

- £8 million for the Rapid Response Facility so partners on the ground can provide crucial humanitarian aid;

- £3 million to fly vital supplies such as water purification kits, cutting equipment and medical support, as well as teams of humanitarian and medical experts, to flood hit areas;

- at least £5 million for the deployment of MOD assets to support the aid effort; and

- £30 million to support the UN and Red Cross emergency appeals for the Philippines. The funding will be used to deliver vital supplies to more than 500,000 victims of the Typhoon Haiyan and support UN and Red Cross teams working on the ground as they coordinate the international relief effort.

- UK flights carrying urgently needed supplies are arriving in the Philippines. Eleven flights have now landed at Cebu airport, carrying nearly 700t of shelter kits, hygiene kits, water and sanitation equipment. This includes three RAF C17s and eight commercial flights, six of them carrying UK aid from the government and the other two equipment and supplies for the Red Cross.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Scotland day in Edinburgh and Westminster

A Low key launch yesterday for the Scotland independence campaign. I have written repeatedly of why I am a passionate Unionist, but in no way could the SNP campaign be described as being based in the real world.

Scotland will face £6 billion of extra taxes according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts, if their country’s Government is not simply to borrow the money instead - and we know that did not work well for the last Labour government. But instead of that happening, the SNP say Scotland’s economy will grow at two per cent more than that of the United Kingdom in the next 50 years, an achievement that no European country has clocked up in the past 50 years, all whilst the decline in north sea oil will suddenly and inexplicably be reversed.
The new country will automatically be able to join the EU if it wishes. No Scottish defence jobs will go, all pension liabilities will be sorted, and the NHS will continue as is in an indpendent Scotland.... this is la la land politics.

No wonder support for independence in Scotland stands at about 30 per cent in the polls. No answer on the currency, the costs of separation, etc. I could go on. So today I was pleased to meet, and support, many of the key producers in Scotland, when they held Scotland day in westminster hall. None of the businesses I met were speaking up for the Independence campaign.

Good news as Oil Price falls - petrol costs so dependent on easing middle east tensions

My constituents want cheaper petrol and diesel, and the biggest issue in price of these items is the base price of the commodity. The price per barrel of oil is key and the Middle East problems of Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran - amongst others - have massively affected the oil price.

The immediate impact of the improvement in relations with Iran was a reduction in Brent crude oil as it fell by around $3 per barrel; the historic nuclear deal drawn up between Iran and the major world powers has eased oil supply worries. The deal curbs the Middle Eastern regime’s nuclear enrichment activities in return for a partial lifting of trade sanctions for a six-month period. It prevents Iran from enriching uranium to weapons-grade level, eases sanctions and affects us as consumers here in Northumberland and around the world.

The accord should unlock 800,000 barrels a day of global supply by next year in a market of 89m, rising over time as foreign firms return and the country’s ruined oil industry comes back to life.
The analysts Citigroup said the Geneva deal should cut global oil prices by $13 over time, enough to depress Brent crude below $100 and US crude below $85.
The reason for the agreement is becuase of nuclear weapon concerns. But the consequential benefit will be felt in the North East

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

My thanks for help writing the speech on creating skills and apprenticeships in the N East

My thanks to everyone who has got in touch with ideas, opinions, comments and contributions, in particular Accenture's Bob Paton, Ross Smith of the NECC, the team behind the Adonis Report, the local employers like SCA, the team at the Department for Business, the FSB, and even the team at the Department for Education who heards about the debate and were keen to plug their early years apprenticeship bursary scheme.
Bob Paton is both my constituent, and the key driver of the dramatic rise in apprenticeship numbers at Accenture in the North East. He took specific time out of his busy schedule to come to Westminster to brief me today.
The debate is 11am in westminster hall. Still drafting as I update the blog - the key is to try and condense all that there is to say on such a subject into less than 15 minutes, which is the time limit of the speech.  

Hexham should get its Council Tax Benefit Support Grant from Northumberland County Council
23 minutes in yesterday I raised the issue of the council tax benefit support grant, following representations made to me by the Hexham Town Council last week.
Last year, quite rightly, the NCC passed over a Government grant to all parish councils; in the case of Hexham it was £23227. On any interpretation this is significant money. Other parishes would be similarly affected by such a crucial change.
This year the Northumberland County Council has stated it is not going to pay over the grant it is going to receive from Government = the same amount as last year.
They have no right to do this and I have raised this in person and in the House of Commons with the Minister. His answer is crystal clear and NCC are in the wrong.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Guest Post by Boris Johnson on Scotland& why we are Better Together

I could not have put it better myself....
Boris writes: "I have a faded sticker on the back of my car that reads: I (heart) Scotland. I have a feeling it was stuck there by some fellows from Strathclyde police when they came down to help with the Notting Hill carnival, and I keep it there because it reflects my general feelings. I (heart) Scotland in the way that so many of us Sassenachs do: you know, fabulous place, lovely people, gorgeous purple moors, great white beaches and an incomparable contribution to Western thought and civilisation, from Adam Smith to Andrew Neil.

I (heart) Scotland so much that I once made a doomed attempt to become rector of a Scottish university, in which I destroyed a massive poll lead by announcing that I was not only English but in favour of top-up fees, and ended up coming third and having beer poured over my head. But still I (heart) Scotland. I (heart) the bagpipes and the porridge and the view from Arthur’s Seat and swimming with seals and the funny prehistoric cows with ginger fringes and the see-you-Jimmy tam-o’-shanter that I keep as a memento of one holiday; and so I find it positively (heart) breaking to find that serious people are now worried that the union between England and Scotland – a gigantic political fact for 306 years – is under threat.

Never mind the sentiment, the fuzzy warm feelings I have about the place. Whatever happens, tourism will continue, after all. We are on the verge of losing something even more precious – to both Scotland and England – and I don’t think people have woken up to the full lunacy of what is afoot. In its desultory complacency, the conversation reminds me of some middle-aged couple deciding to get divorced. All they can think about is the liberation – the new beginnings, the excitement. So more and more English people are thinking, what the hell: if the Scots want to walk out, why don’t we just let them?

We won’t have to subsidise them any more via the Barnett formula, people think; and there are plenty of Tories who secretly agree with John Major, and reckon that getting rid of all those Scottish Labour MPs would be a fine thing for England and the Conservative Party. As for the Scots — well, I can see the attraction: your own nation, your own government, and the chance to join the ranks of those small and dynamic countries that seem to be happiest and most prosperous.

What both sides are forgetting – and they have this in common with divorcing couples – is that it may look OK on day one, but on day two the lawyers come in. There is the division of property to work out, the rights of access to be determined. The longer the marriage has lasted, the more there is to unpick, and the more hellish and self-flayingly painful the whole process becomes.

After three centuries of union, England and Scotland are not just woven together by sentiment, but by a cat’s cradle of intricate legal and political ties. Fibre by fibre that would have to be sliced apart, and the result will be agony and endless recrimination.

On Tuesday, the Scottish government will publish a vast White Paper explaining how on earth it is supposed to work. So here are some of the questions I hope that document will be able to settle. We are told that the proposal is that Scotland would keep the Queen as head of state and the pound as the national currency – though presumably both of these commitments could be varied by a future Scottish parliament.

But on what basis does Scotland get to keep the pound? Will they use sterling informally, just as some Latin American countries rely on the dollar? And why should the Bank of England take any notice of Scotland in setting monetary policy? Why should the governor travel to Edinburgh and be interrogated by Scottish MPs? After independence, after all, he will owe his appointment entirely to an English-Welsh-Northern Irish government. Or will Alec Salmond come south, and sit in an ante-room in Threadneedle Street, hoping for an audience?

Then there is the basic question of what this independent state of Scotland is supposed to be, and how it is meant to relate to the rest of the world. We are talking about a secession from the Union of the United Kingdom, and many EU diplomats have now made it clear to Salmond that this is exactly the same as seceding from the EU. If the Scots wanted to remain in the EU (and they seem, for some reason, to think this is necessary) Scotland would have to seek an immediate accession – and the question is: who would conduct the negotiations?

Why should this be done by UKrep, the UK office in Brussels, when Scotland has voted to leave the UK? The Scots would have to equip themselves instantly with a new cadre of diplomats. There would have to be a Scottish foreign office around the world – wouldn’t there? And if not, why not? What about Britain’s nuclear missiles, and the need to use submarine bases in Scotland? What about Scottish regiments in the British Army?

There are endless opportunities for confusion and bickering. Then there is one final point that no one seems to have grasped: that this is not just the end of the United Kingdom. It is the end of Britain. Yes, of course, there will still be an island called Great Britain, the largest in the British Isles. But Britain as a political entity will be annihilated. This very name of our nation only gained currency after the Act of Union, and makes no sense with the top section lopped off and “independent”.

And then what? What happens to British sporting teams? What happens, for goodness’ sake, to the “British” Broadcasting Corporation? Nobody has the faintest idea. I am appalled that the pro-independence vote is up at 38 per cent. We need someone — the Americans? — to step in as a kind of marriage guidance counsellor and tell us to stop being so damn stupid. Divorce will diminish us both. It will be unutterably wretched and painful, and it will eliminate the most successful political union in history."
PS My thanks to the Telegraph for the original production of this article - obviously BoJo did not just write for the blog! But it is a matter of time!

Good news that pay day lenders are being better regulated

Pay-day loans will be capped to stop companies charging huge amounts of interest and help people stay out debt, the Government announced today.

The Treasury will introduce a new law and the level of cap decided by the new regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
Full story here:

Westminster this week

Monday nights are always late night sessions till 10pm+, and this week we are debating the Water Bill. I have been asked to meet several people arising out of our campaign for local banks and one of those meetings this week is with Lord Glasman, the Labour peer. I also have at least 4 constituency casework calls to make today.

Tomorrow is Health questions, the second stage of the Gambling bill, and there is a meeting withChris Grayling's team to sort a visit to the north east. Tuesday is packed with meetings, and I am also being asked to speak in the horse chipping / fly grazing debate in Westminster hall at 2.30, but I will also try and meet with the Northumbria Police Federation who are in the commons that afternoon, even if only briefly.

Wednesday I have my debate in the House on skills and apprenticeships at11am, and then will speak in the debate on economy in the afternoon. I have meetings with the Alzheimer's Society that afternoon and then am seeing Education Secretary Michael Gove briefly in the evening.
Thursday is a Casework day in the office, and Friday we are again debating the European Referendum Bill of James Wharton, my fellow north east MP.

The Iran nuclear deal is not perfect but the world is now a lot safer

Nobody should pretend that we are out of the woods yet. To hear President Obama on the news last night was to think that everything was sorted, full stop, no need to worry. He overstates the case, and over simplifies - but then TV demands it's leaders, and very junior bods like me to communicate the message in 10 seconds. It is hard not to over simplify.
But to have a deal where Iran stops its nuclear programme and the west alleviates the sanctions is a huge step forward. Full credit to all the diplomats involved.
Although Syria, Egypt and other countries have major conflicts and problems, I am strongly of the view that Iran is the key to peace in the Middle East. We are definitely heading in the right direction.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Preparing for the skills and apprenticeships debate on Wednesday - what would u raise?

I have a debate on Wednesday at 11.00 in the commons on "creating skills and apprenticeships in the north east". It is a subject I am passionate about. I am writing the speech today and tomorrow and welcome constituents and commentators thoughts, as Matt Hancock, MP, the skills and enterprise minister, is responding on behalf of the government. Matt was with me in the north east earlier this year, when we held an apprenticeship summit at Northumberland College. On the same day we visited Newcastle College, to which I have returned again, trying to promote the skills agenda that has the potential to transform the North East.
I will be making a number of key points for sure:
- I will look at what we have done in the past 3 1/2 years, whether it is the doubling of apprenticeships, the improvement in job numbers, my experience as an employer of an apprentice,and the many conversations I have had with businesses who are trying to increase their skills base. I have spent a lot of time at Egger in Hexham lately, both on the factory floor, where I helped the team on E line, or at the opening of the Engineering Academy last month. I am also a big supporter of the Journals apprenticeship campaign.
- I also will be talking about the work of the LEP, and more specifically the Adonis Report, and addressing what it is employers and businesses in the North East have said they need here to provide the jobs that we all so want.
- finally I will be examining the north east skills pilot that Dept of Business have just started in the north east - it is a huge step forward.
I could go on but the purpose of this blog is to ask for contributions, whether it is from NECC,the LEP, local papers, individual businessmen or women,employees, apprentices, think tanks or commentators. I would be disappointed if I got no response, but you all know my email, or can put a comment on the blog.

North east economy and business prospects given a detailed + positive review

The sad demise of the Co-Op Bank shows why we need local community banks

If ever we needed reminding of why the German Bank Model of the Sparkassen - in the form of local community banks that look after their area and who do not do speculative and risky lending - then the disaster of the Co-Op is the best guide. First and foremost, this is a disaster for members. On this point I will finish but let us first look at the history.

In years gone by, the Co-op, that pillar of the mutual ideal, was seen as reassuringly solid, and secure. Its shops and funeral services were deliberately lacking in ostentation. Its bank was boring, too, regarded by the outside world as a risk-averse repository for the monies of charities, non-governmental organisations and people who didn’t really like the idea of banks – but accepted the need to have one.
When the banking sector crashed in 2007 the staff and customers of the Co-operative Bank could stand back, tut-tut and shake their heads, sure in the knowledge that their forebears, the thrifty weavers who in 1844 created the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, were up there in heaven, shaking their heads, too. And then along came Paul Flowers. Rarely does that insatiable beast known as the 24-hour news cycle enjoy fare as rich as the Reverend Paul Flowers. Clerics have often been exposed as possessing feet of clay but the rotund Methodist minister, former Labour Councillor, advisor to Ed, director of the Co-Op Bank in 2009, and its chairman shortly thereafter, before becoming the architect of the Bank's downfall ... is in a league of his own. I genuinely do not know where to start on his fall from grace.

However, he has my sympathies, because when the media get their hooks into you it is not pretty, whatever his misdemeanours. I am certain he has very good qualities and will be very sad now.
But the reality is that the UK mutual sector is now damaged by two spectacular collapses. The UK’s oldest mutual insurance company, Equitable Life, was brought low by promising more than it could afford to pay out to policyholders and savers. I have spent countless days as an MP trying to help those who lost their life savings in Equitable Life. The mutual sector’s largest bank, the Co-op, has just reported large losses, insufficient capital and a Chairman who lacked the qualities of mind and character to be a successful bank chairman. It is not bust but in real trouble needing a bail out.
Noone could have a problem with a good well run mutual. This recent history should, however, be a warning of the special risks mutuals can pose. With no shareholders to provide capital and insufficient conventional profit reserve some financial mutuals can be very risky. However, if anyone came to our London Local Banking Conference will know – there are always dangers when the pursuit of profit becomes the motive of the business. Profit should result from a good service, knowing your customer and knowing your market. I again make the point that not one of the German Local Banks went bust and have actually increased bank lending in the recession.
As to the Labour party, Ed Miliband has to answer for the millions of unpaid Co-Op lons to the Labour Party, the £50,000 donation to Ed Balls, and why these moneys are linked to the recent meetings with Flowers. As to Balls the scene last Wednesday with my colleague Jason McCartney, who is a Co-Op member had to be seen to be believed. For my part this does, however, strengthen the case for Local and Community banks - not weaken it.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dozens of West Northumberland schoolchildren, parents and teachers come to visit the House of Commons

Yesterday I welcomed around 30 children and almost as many parents and teachers to Westminster. Almost everyone came from West Northumberland villages, with the connection being that everyone was linked or went to the First Schools at Greenhead, Herdley Bank or Henshaw. The House of Commons was sitting so we were not able to take them into the Commons chamber, but we were able to show the parents and teachers around the House of Lords, the beautiful Crypt chapel, Westminster Hall, Central Lobby and around the endless corridors and rooms that make up this amazing Victorian building.
Sadly for our guests Pete, who works for me, and myself were the tour guides - and we are not a patch on the professional guides albeit we probably give a more colourful version!

The children held a mock election and elected Sophie as their Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, there was great competition to be Minister for Sport [presently a post occupied in real life by Carlisle born Helen Grant].
We then all squeezed in to Committee Room 6, where I attempted to answer the questions of both the adults and the children.
The issues raised included criticisms of the state of the roads, potholes, failure to grit, and a lack of bus services, particularly to villages like Halton Lea Gate. The children asked a number of questions from how to ensure that youngsters have a chance to farm in the future, to a strong request for improvements to Haltwhistle Swimming Pool. I will try and answer these questions more fully if any are sent in.

As always I would urge everyone concerned or wanting answers to send me the questions formally by letter to
- 1 Meal Market , Hexham , Northumberland , NE46 1NF
Or Email:

Because of the difficulty in trying to look after so many I did not get a chance to talk to as many parents or the teachers as I would have liked to have done but a number of things struck me:
- the children were beautifully behaved, notwithstanding their age and tiredness. A real credit to parents and teachers. Not every pupil visit by children a lot older has gone so well...
- although I had helped several of the people who came in the past I am still amazed at how little constituents use their MP. As I said yesterday - if you have a problem or complaint please use me - I work for you all and will simply try and do my best to solve your problem or at the very least ensure you get a fair hearing.
- the tales of the trial of Charles 1st and the description of the suffragettes breaking in to the House of Commons for the national census always moves people.
- finally it is clear that the proposed move to Primary status was popular among many.

Hull is the next City of Culture, and this is great news

Some have criticised the whole concept of a City of Culture but I manifestly disagree. I think it is great that we are celebrating our cities in this way and the effect on Derry / Londonderry and Liverpool, to take but two of the recent winners of such awards, has been tranformative in so many different ways.
Hull is bold, quirky, and different, but in a very good way. Don't take my word for it - listen to the great poet Philip Larkin who wrote:
"Hull is a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance."

Hull has inspired not just Larkin but other poets like Andrew Motion, great bands and it has the sea on its doorstep, defining so much about the town. I look forward to visiting again soon and wish the town well with its preparations towards the celebrations.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Christmas Ice Skating, Markets and Great Shopping Weekend in Hexham this weekend

There is a real Christmas buzz to Tynedale as the ice skating rink, christmas shopping and so much begins in Hexham. On Saturday there is the Countdown to Christmas Market.  

JFK - 50 years on - still missed and still a legend

No American President has ever led a country like Kennedy did, or inspired them by word and deed, as he did in the early 1960's. He died 50 years ago today. If you doubt this have a look at some of the great things that he said:

At his inauguration:

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

On finding solutions to problems:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

On those who resist change:
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

On handling tough times and a crisis:
“When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Yesterday, another iconic President in Barack Obama honoured JFK as America mourned the loss of this great war hero, statesman and catalyst for so much change in the world.

Kennedy would be a very old man now in his 90's. But America and the world lost a lot when it lost him, and his equally able brother Bobby, a few years later.

In 2013 Anti slavery laws are needed in this country

The reports from London of the terrible case of the 3 people allegedly detained against their will for years again shows why we need more robust laws in this country on human trafficking and modern day slavery. This is an issue that my boss, The Home Secretary is taking very seriously and the law is coming soon.
The report below is sobering to an extreme:

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Hedley Village phone and internet meeting with BT

The village of Hedley is idyllic, has one of the finest gastropubs in the country, and is full of people of character and resourcefullness. Yet they continue to be denied any proper phone and internet connection - something that has been going on for years. I had a fairly stormy meeting with BT yesterday after their key representative came to the House of Commons.
The village’s situation is unacceptable and dangerous, especially in cases of emergency. I have met with locals, eaten in the pub, and spoken to the Parish Council representatives. We have also surveyed the village. They have provided a litany of dozens of complaints, with broadband being almost non-existent, and constant disruptions to phone lines. All of these have been given to BT.
BT Openreach needs to invest in upgrading the old telephone cables, something that I know their own engineers want to see.

The Journal today gave a full report of the story:

The Journal wrote: "One of those complainants is Helen Greer, who runs the village’s award-winning gastropub The Feathers Inn, recently named among the top 20 in the UK.
She says poor connection has had a huge negative impact on her business.
“Our business relies on us taking reservations over the phone,” she said. “But we often can’t take bookings because we can’t hear people. Our broadband connection is slower than dial-up so relying on internet bookings is no better. Earlier this year we had no phone connection for up to six weeks, which was unbelievable. We have people from far and wide wanting to visit us as we’ve won many awards for the quality of our food, but what’s the point if they can’t get in touch?

“There’s a BT Openreach van in the village every week patching up a problem somewhere but it would be money better invested if they just replaced the old telephone cables.
I’m hugely grateful to Guy Opperman for tackling this problem head-on and taking it to the House of Commons. I just hope he can help us get this finally sorted."

For my part, I will update as the campaign continues, but I did ask their representative, why anyone would stay with BT given its woeful service, in the absence of improvements. In the meantime I cannot recommend the Feathers Inn more highly.

First anniversary of the new laws on stalking coming into force

These new laws are preventing lives from being ruined or even more seriously affected by stalking. Today the House is debating the changes brought in by the law, celebrating the tireless work of support groups, charities like Protection Against Stalking, Napo, and others, and the work of the police / CPS to bring perpetrators to book. There is more to be done but it is good that parliament is recognising that this a very serious offence. Great speeches from all across the house.

The process of finding peace with Iran is worth the effort on all sides

In Geneva, the west is limbering up for another round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear project.
Real progress is being made and a definite thaw exists between Iran and Barack Obama and our own Prime Minister.
Yesterday at PMQ'S the PM explained how he had spoken directly with President Rouhani for the first time. He has become the first UK prime minister in more than a decade to call an Iranian president.

It is a good thing that they have agreed to continue efforts to improve the relationship between the UK and Iran. In the meantime representatives from Iran and the P5+1 group of nations will begin a new round of negotiations in Geneva on Wednesday. Iran is the key to an improvement in the peace of the middle east.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Ashes begin! I am beyond excited

Huge good luck to the lads. I wish I was there but will be glued to the tv most nights and early starts

Humshaugh Village Shop scoops Prime Ministers Big Society Award

The Big Society Award comes as the volunteers celebrate four years since they took over the shop. Since 2009 they have refitted the shop and organised a volunteer workforce of 50 people to run the business. It is open seven days a week, serving the needs of the community and raising significant profits that are re-invested back in to the community through over £18,000 worth of grants to local projects.

The Prime Minister David Cameron commented today:
“Humshaugh village captured the spirit of the big society when they were faced with the closure of their only village shop. Local people got together to keep this hub of community life open and four years on its still going strong. I’m delighted to be recognising the hard work and dedication of Humshaugh Community Ventures with this Big Society Award.”

Chairman of Humshaugh Community Ventures Dick Moules said:
“I am absolutely thrilled that the community of Humshaugh has been recognised with a Big Society Award. When we took over the village shop we never dreamt that it would lead to this. It is thanks to the many volunteers giving a few hours a week that we are able to support a wide variety of village groups and individuals. This award recognises their hard work and dedication and makes it even more worthwhile.”

If you have not visited you have to go:

The annual profit from the Humshaugh Shop aims to assist groups, organisations and individual residents of Humshaugh of any age to undertake projects that benefit the community through grants. Grants can also be made to organisations outside of the village that undertake projects which will benefit the Humshaugh Community.

Heating Oil
Since November 2011 Humshaugh Community Ventures runs an oil buying group. There are now 165 members covering households within a five mile radius of Humshaugh saving members a total of over £18,000 each year.

Electric Car
From November 2012 to May 2013 Humshaugh Community Ventures Ltd. leased an electric car to the village as a trial. The trial proved a success and they are now exploring how to purchase/lease another.
The Big Society Awards were set up by the Prime Minister in November 2010. The aim is to acknowledge individuals and organisations across the UK that demonstrates the Big Society in their work or activities. In so doing, the aim is also to galvanise others to follow.

The award focuses upon three specific areas:
Outstanding Contribution to Community
- People, projects and organisations that enable communities to drive change themselves
- Projects and organisations that allow the community to identify solutions
- People, projects and organisations that inspire others to contribute to their community

Improving Lives and Society through Innovation, Collaboration and New Partnerships
- People and organisations taking new approaches to public services
- Successful collaboration and partnerships between public, private and voluntary sector - working together to benefit communities

Engaging in Social Action
- People, projects and organisations taking action in their community
- Working together for social change (e.g. through creating groups, campaigns, movements)
- Generosity of time, money, skills and other resources – in support of social action

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A culture change in the NHS - where views of NHS staff matter as much as the bosses

Today the House of Commons discussed the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Inquiry [the Francis Report]. The neglect and abuse at Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2008, which led to the unnecessary deaths, has already been well documented.

The tragedies that took place in Staffordshire saw a culture where mistakes were covered up. But the £13m Francis Inquiry, published at the start of February, and this response from the government, has been aimed at tackling the wider cultural problems in the NHS.
Everyone accepts that the massive masjority of NHS care is outstanding but all involved are human and there will be mistakes. Howe they are dealt with, and the support given to whistleblowers, will be key going forward.
The full answer by the government is very detailed, but the key recommendations are an acceptance of Francis findings and specific measures to ensure that:

Hospitals will have to produce quarterly reports on how they are handling complaints and clearly set out how patients can raise them.

• A legal duty of candour on organisations to be open and honest about mistakes.
• A criminal offence of wilful neglect to hold staff to account.
• A "fit and proper person's test" so managers who have failed in past will be barred from taking up posts.
• A care certificate to ensure healthcare assistants and social care workers have the right skills and training.
• Every patient should have the names of a responsible consultant and nurse listed above their bed.

Mr Hunt added: "Today's measures are a blueprint for restoring trust, reinforcing professional pride in frontline staff and above all giving confidence that they will be given the best and safest care and the way to do that is to be completely open and transparent.

If you want to see the live TV link of my Question and Answer on the parliament channel go to the following link: my contribution is at 14.08 and 50 seconds:

Full report of today as per the BBC is here:

Paramedics, Doctors, Pilots and Heroes amaze us all at the Air Ambulance Awards

Everyone walked away very humbly last night after the Air Ambulance Awards of Excellence, where we heard tale after tale of heroism, medical excellence, teamwork, and incredible fundraising and flying skills.

The event brought together shortlisted candidates from associations across the country to recognise their fantastic work of the past year. The Masters of Ceremonies presenting the awards were the wonderful double act of Louise Minchin, BBC Breakfast presenter, and GP / comic/ Private Eye journalist, Dr Phil Hammond.

I chaired the judging panel that met on the 23rd October and had the honour of reading all the applications. There were some remarkable and humbling accounts of professionalism and composure under the most challenging of circumstances, as well selfless charity and commitment to the organisation. Despite all the noteworthy applications, we had to choose winners and the full list of those awarded were:
Air Ambulance Paramedic of the Year
Graham Chalk – lead paramedic and Clinical Liason Officer with London Air Ambulance. Since 2004, he has personally selected, trained and mentored all paramedics seconded to London’s Air Ambulance.

Air Ambulance Campaign of the Year
Devon Air Ambulance

Air Ambulance Pilot of the Year
Neil Jeffers – from London Air Ambulance who regularly navigates one of the busiest air spaces in the world and is a keen fundraiser, having run eight marathons in six days in the Middle East!

Charity Volunteer of the Year
Jenny "Chopper" Ashman – the longest serving volunteer awarded with over 20 years service, fundraising in excess of £1.7 million!

Air Ambulance Doctor of the Year
Dr Anne Weaver – as lead clinician at London’s Air Ambulance, Anne has been involved in many high profile operations including the London 7/7 bombings and the recent Woolwich incident.

Charity Staff Member of the Year
Janice Flower – from Essex & Herts Air Ambulance, took over a stagnant lottery scheme and turned it into a great success with membership rising from 19,000 to 93,000.

Special Incident Award
Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance – helped in a unique industrial accident.

Lifetime Achievement Award
Dr Gareth Davies – 20 years service to London Air Ambulance and the wider emergency health care service. By far the biggest cheer was for Gareth Davies, who has truly changed the world of Air Ambulances.

AAA Chairman’s Award

Clive Dickin – outstanding service as National Director of the Association of Air Ambulances

Outstanding Young Person of the Year Award
Poppy Young – joined the Essex & Herts Charity to raise funds in various ways. She has written her own children’s stories endorsed by Royalty, politicians and celebrities.

It was notable that those invovled in the 7/7 bombings and the recent Woolwich atrocity
 were particuarly commended
.After the awards Dr Phil gave a speech / comedy routine; I promised not to repeat too much of his best material but the occasion he sewed a glove to a parients head, and his disastrous temproary misdiagnosis  in his Bristol STD clinic will live long in the memory.
Amongst the all anecdotes and jokes about life at the coalface of primary care provision over the last 20 years, he made the serious point that transparency is key to the future success of the NHS, an apposite point in light of the Statement that was made in the Commons today regarding the Government’s response to the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry.
It was an excellent evening and fantastic to applaud the outstanding work undertaken by the Air Ambulance Associations all across the country. Congratulations to all those nominated and the winners. Keep up the good work, and make sure you contact and use your MPs to help achieve the local change that you seek. I walked home feeling very humble.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Residents Survey 2013 - fill out online.

It is really important your local Councillors and I are working hard on the issues that matter to you and your family.

So if you've got disastrous roads, your worried about housing, or think your paying too much for parking - our 2013 residents survey is 
your chance to let us know.

You can fill out the quick survey online by clicking here:

Westminster this week

The PM is making a statement on the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka in the Commons today. I am very supportive of his decision to go and to shine a light on what took place on all sides in the past. There is no doubt that things have dramatically improved in Sri Lanka since the civil war has ended, but the PM was right to say what he did.

Tomorrow is the last day in the Commons of the Immigration Bill before it heads to the House of Lords. I will be in committee from 8.55-5pm, and trying to pop in to the chamber when I can.
Wednesday I have multiple constituency based meetings on various issues, notably:
- a meeting with BT over the inadequate phone provision in Hedley,
- a meeting with Calor Gas,
- a further meeting with the Living Wage Foundation
and also a coffee with Canon Graham Usher who is attending parliament that afternoon.
Wednesday night I am once again helping candidates at a Women to Win mock selection meeting.
Thursday I have Defra questions and then Home Office business in the Commons as there is a debate on stalking. Friday we are all here for James Wharton's European Referendum Bill.

During Friday I am also looking forward to welcoming pupils and teachers from the Greenhead, Gilsland and Herdley Bank Schools to the House of Commons.  

Helping to host the Air Ambulance Awards tonight

Today is the AAA National Conference at the Millenium Gloucester Hotel in London; for full details see the following link
The daytime is the hard work - comparing best practice and a series of workshops to improve the health outcomes for patients, and the operability and efficiency of these great charitable organsations up and down the country.
In the evening we have the gala dinner, when I and others will be involved in the awards to the key stars of our Air Ambulances - including the outstanding doctor, paramedic and pilot, along with the best fundraising and other campaigns. I was on the judging panel and it was not easy. More details tomorrow.  

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Children in Need in Hexham - thoughts on a great day

What a day! A day long celebration across the county saw Pudsey all around Hexham, gungings galore, huge amounts raised for charity, and so much more.

The glorious, but well organised chaos, of live TV was seen by all of us as we prepared for the final take which saw poor Charlie Charlton, of BBC Radio Newcastle fame, being gunged, much to the delight of the crowd. Thankfully we saved the beautiful blue coat she was wearing (which had been given to her by her mum!) and her shoes and microphone, before she had her hair rearranged by gunge. In prep for that live segment I was meant to be given 3 envelopes to open, but they got lost, so we wrote on three bits of paper that were crumpled up. It was like blue peter, but brilliantly carried off by the professionals.
The effort put in by the Hexham community has to be recorded. The individuals and organisations are too numerous to name but in particular the organising committee, the town council, and all the people who volunteered to be gunged for charity. The stallholders and shopkeepers were fully supportive of everything that was going on and all the stores I popped in to said what a great night they were having.
For my part I cannot thank enough all the people who gave money when I asked them. The biggest cheque was from Egger for £500. But everywhere I went yesterday people were putting coins in my bucket. I do not know how much I raised but it is likely to be many hundreds of pounds.
Highlights of yesterday were my time shadowing Barry, the chief Porter in the Hexham Hospital. I learnt a lot from the ground up as to how the hospital runs and the little things that make it work. There is pretty much nothing that Barry does not know about his hospital.

Loved my time as a Waiter / sandwich maker at Mucho Gusto. Managed to be the creator of a new sandwich "the Pudsey Special" a winter warm sandwich that has to be tried!

Working at Egger, on E line with Sam, and the team was good, and I got a much better understanding of the complexity, skill and sense of teamwork that comes with the running of a line and the testing process that goes to ensure that the product is up to scratch. Aside from seeing all the businesses and public sector organisations at work, I also did some work as a Politician, doing the day job in interviews on BBC Radio Newcastle, and doing several mobile surgeries, and a drop in visit to all the team working so well in various roles at Adapt on Burn Lane.
I will blog more on the lessons learnt and the people I met over an epic day, but my thanks to all the people who opened their doors to me and welcomed me into their businesses and organisations.

Scottish Independence - when will Salmond say how much it will cost?

The current independence debate, I believe, is not about patriotism; many Scots I met in the summer made the point that you are not a “better Scot” if you support independence, or the status quo.
But we, and in particular, the Scottish people, do need to know the price tag of independence. Setting up a new Scottish state from scratch will not be cheap. The SNP White Paper must tell us how much it will cost us to set up.
The SNP Government are promising more and more ‘goodies’ for an independent Scotland. But people arent daft: they know everything comes at a price.
So I want to know how much we are expected to pay to go it alone as an independent state. Rather than making empty promises, the White Paper has to tell us how an independent Scotland would fill the black hole.
On the pound: Alex Salmond's assertion that the pound was “as much Scotland's as it is the rest of the UK's" is not backed up by international law.
The White Paper must therefore set out a credible Plan B on currency, because the current plan would not work.

On currency union with the rest of the UK. The UK Government, and plenty of others, have pointed to the challenges of currency unions between different states. You only need to look at the Euro area to see that everything can appear fine in year one, and how quickly circumstances can change.
It is highly unlikely to be agreed, not because of any malevolence, but because it wouldn't work.

On pensions, SNP ministers should say how much more pensions would cost each individual if Scotland leaves - it will defintely go up.

This is a decision for Scotland - but it needs to be made on the basis of the facts.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Getting stuck in for Children in Need

Let is not be said I'm not working hard for Children in Need this year - I will hopefully taking on 12 jobs over 12 hours, with other events in between. I will have my fundraising bucket with me at all times.
I will start my day trying my hand as radio presenter in Newcastle, before heading to Hexham to teach a class at St Joseph's Middle School.
From there I will be working as a Porter in Hexham Hospital before taking lunch time orders at Mucho Gusto in Hexham.

I will finish the working day at Hexham's iconic Egger Factory and serving on the till's in the town's Tesco store.
It's often said MP's don't have a proper job so I though this would be a good way to get out there, roll my sleeves up and hopefully raise a bit of money for Children in Need along the way.

I have taught before but not in a Hexham school so I hope the class treat me gently; I have visited St Jospeh's before and luckily for me they have always been very well behaved!

My full itinerary is below:

9-10 - Radio Presenter @ Spice FM

9,30 - 10.30 Market trader @ Hexham Market Sq

10.30 - 11.30 Teacher @ St Joseph's

12.00-1.30 - Porter @ Hexham Hospital

1.30-2.30 – Waiter @ Mucho Gusto

3-4 - Visit to Adapt/West Northumberland Food Bank

4.30-5.30 - Factory hand @ Egger Factory

6-7.30 - Checkout Assistant @ Tesco

7.30 Onwards: manning a stall at Children in Need live from Hexham Market Place

The full hexham schedule is here:

Home Affairs Select Cttee chair, Keith Vaz praises my book, Doing Time, in the Commons
It is a good exchange. Not sure I agree with the answer of the Minister. I find it bizarre that a labour politician and I are on the same side of the argument on this issue of stopping drugs getting into prison.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

My debut as a Children in Need presenter on the Sunday Politics
From 58min20sec into the programme you can see my short interview of the BBCs Richard Moss, Children in Need style....

The Sill Project is progressing but road improvements should happen too

In the summer a group of locals contacted me about the speeding and safety on the Military Road. As a result we held two separate meetings, including an round table at the Twice Brewed, with lots of locals, councillors, businesses, and representatives both from the Park and the County Council Highways department. To be fair NCC Highways have been very cooperative.
We managed to persuade the Northumberland County Council to team up with Northumberland National Park to conduct an assessment of the safety of the junction down to Vindolanda, and to look at improvements to safety of the Military Road, and surrounding area.
I have long taken the view that whatever happens with the Sill Project [which I fully support] the surrounding roads need improvement and safety measures. The speed in particular of drivers past the Twice Brewed is frequently in excess of 80-90mph. I have raised this with the Council and the Police and action definitely is needed.
As always I welcome further thoughts and opinions - simply email in and I will make sure that it is passed on. When I did the last blog on this issue in the summer many contacted us.    

The Valley Junction 397 Restaurant in Jesmond in line for a Cobra Good Curry Award

Everyone knows that the Valley has several great local curry restaurants. I had the Valley in Corbidge down for the Westminster Curry Awards last year, and I hear that the Valley Junction 397 restaurant in Jesmond will shortly receive a major award from the Cobra Good Curry Guide.
Receiving the new award will place The Valley Junction 397 amongst the curry industry's most elite restaurants. It is one of just 16 Awards to be presented by the Cobra Good Curry Guide in the whole of the UK.
I have not been to the Junction 397 but The Valley in Corbridge is very special to me - and I love its iconic location - right on the railway station. Amongst other awards it won the Most Innovative Restaurant for its Passage to India service, in the British Curry Awards.
If you like curry, and like trains, and not driving after a few well earnt Cobras.... the Valley in Corbridge is the place to go.

Hezza weighs in behind HS2 with force

Heseltine, one of the big beasts of government over the last 40 years yesterday made the case for HS2. Speaking at the Royal Town Planning Institute, the former Transport Secretary said that the new line is about spreading prosperity and doing ‘the right thing’ for our country:

‘HS2 is about our country’s competitiveness for a half century or more. It is about so many more people sharing growth that has, for too long, been concentrated on London and the South East. It’s all about drawing together our economy as a whole as well as improving our access to the enlarged, and enlarging, home market of Europe. It is not about 30 minutes off London to Birmingham.’

On the Today programme yesterday, Heseltine explained why HS2 is key to reinforcing Britain’s buccaneering spirit: ‘Here’s a really imaginative project in order to try and do something to rebalance the United Kingdom. I personally have given a lot of my time in politics to try and achieve precisely that sense of adventure, that sense of expansion, that sense of can-do back into those great towns of the midlands and the north that made this country in the first place.’

Heseltine has form with big, unpopular infrastructure projects. As the man behind the redevelopment of the London Docklands and High Speed 1, Heseltine believes these projects are about more than economics; social and environmental well-being are just as important.
When presented with the poor cost-benefit analysis of HS2, Heseltine said ‘this is all mumbo-jumbo. The guys with slide rules, they don’t know’. In his lecture, Heseltine suggested that if he had predicted the 2012 Olympics in Stratford, the O2 in Greenwich or HS1 40 years ago, he would have been ‘carried off by men in white coats’. Sadly, many feel the same way about HS2.

By using his own historical examples — which ring true — as well as offering suggestions for bringing down the costs (unsurprisingly, he’s advocating Urban Development Corporations in the appropriate areas), Heseltine could be paving the way for a new cross party consensus on the project.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

No plans for a Tattoo as yet - but have sneaking admiration for David Dimbleby at 75

Aged 75 the veteran broadcaster has just got a tattoo. He is one of the oldest first timers, but joins a list that includes Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell and King Harold. Churchills tattoo was of an an anchor on his arm.
I was curious to read that tattoos were introduced to the UK as a result of Captain Cook's South Seas adventures. I have no plans as yet, but never say never...
The full story is here:

Assessing the European economic prospects makes grim reading for some

The latest European Union economic forecasts for the EU estimates that unemployment will be
- above 12% in Italy,
- above 11% in France,
- above 25% in Spain and
- above 17% in Portugal for the three years 2013-15.
The average rate in Euroland will be around 12%. Only Germany, has a rate near 5%.
Outside the Euro the UK, Denmark and Sweden are forecast to have unemployment below 8% for the same time period. This is an improvement from where we were as a country.

Jobs in the North East have grown consistently over the last 18 months, and whilst there is much to be done, it is noticeable that our prospects considerably favour us here when compared to the Euro countries, with the possible exception of Germany.
They forecast an overall fall in output and incomes of 0.4% this year for the Euro area.
In contrast they expect better results from the non Euro countries. The UK is expected to grow by 1.3% and 2.2% (3.5%), Sweden by 1.1% and 2.8% (3.9%) and Denmark by 0.3% and 1.7%.(2%)

The reasons behind the differences are worth analysing. The Euro countries have a balance of payments imbalance, poor business performance, and banking / credit problems. More importantly they did not get their economies into line, so some states have built up large trade deficits which they can no longer finance or afford. The result of both these errors is a recession machine.

Meanwhile Sweden, Denmark and the UK, the three higher income countries out of the Euro, can follow policies that work better for them. They have 3 years of superior growth to look forward to as a result, according to the EU itself.
If you want an example of Miliband's Britain then you only have to look at Spain and France - countries where the tough decisions have not been taken and where growth and jobs remain a distant dream.

You cannot influence the Sri Lanka Commonwealth summit if you do not go

This weekend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will take place in Sri Lanka. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will represent Her Majesty the Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister, and William Hague will represent the Government.
There has been understandable concern about the location of Conference, given the Sri Lankan government’s poor record on human rights. The decision that Sri Lanka would host CHOGM this year was taken in 2009 under the previous government, and reaffirmed at CHOGM in Perth in Australia in 2011. Changing the 2009 decision would have required a consensus among Commonwealth member states, and it was clear from our discussions with them that there was no widespread support for a change of location.

The government believes that attending CHOGM is necessary to support the Commonwealth as an institution that greatly matters to Britain, to try to ensure a positive outcome from the meeting, and to put the situation in Sri Lanka firmly under the international spotlight.

The plans during the summit reflect these three objectives:
i). the future of the Commonwealth as an organisation is far more important than the location of any one meeting. We are determined to support its future development by participating in the meeting and promoting an ambitious outcome. The Commonwealth consists of 53 independent member states representing nearly a third of the world’s nations and over two billion people. It has some of the fastest growing economies trading over $3 trillion worth of goods and services each year, with intra-Commonwealth trade valued at around £250 billion annually. It is an increasingly valuable diplomatic and trading network for the United Kingdom, but our influence and role within the organisation depends on us valuing and taking part in its discussions.

ii). this year’s CHOGM will discuss issues that matter greatly to the UK and to the world including a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, which focuses on eliminating absolute poverty, and ensuring Commonwealth Values such as the rule of law and good governance are at the heart of the next development framework. We will also discuss expanding international trade with other Commonwealth states, which would create many new opportunities for British businesses. 

iii). we are determined to use our attendance to urge the Sri Lankan government to make real progress on human rights, reconciliation, accountability and political reform. The Prime Minister will visit the North of Sri Lanka where much of the conflict was focussed - the first time any Head of Government from any country has visited that region since Sri Lankan independence in 1948. We will meet people on all sides of the conflict including of course the Tamil community. William Hague will meet journalists and activists and hear about the challenges they face and how the UK can best support reform in Sri Lanka, and will also hold a public event on the need to investigate and end the sexual violence against women still prevalent in the country.

There will be some tough conversations on the need for the Sri Lankan government to make progress on the disappeared, investigations into human rights abuses, guaranteeing freedom of expression and stamping out intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders - including bringing those responsible to justice. Some recent progress has been made on the settlement of internally displaced people from conflict, infrastructure development, demining, reintegration of ex-combatants and holding of Northern Provincial Council elections in September which the Commonwealth observed. We will acknowledge this progress and urge them to go further.
Agaiun the crucial point is that if you do not go you have no influence.

Monday, 11 November 2013

William Hague's statement today in the Commons on Iran negotiations and Syria

Congratulations to Will Nicholls on his photo book on the Northumberland red squirrels

Locals, including myself, have seen Will Nicholls, who is only now 18, blossom as a brilliant wildlife photographer; he presently has a studio in Allendale, but is a regular at the shows, notably the County Show, where his specialist photos of red squirrels are both brilliant and very popular. He used to be ferried to the shows by his mum but is now fully independent. He is one of the best wildlife photographers I have ever seen.
Will is off to study zoology at university, with the aim of making a career as a documentary film maker.
“I am very into the science behind what makes a pretty picture. For example, a picture or a film may capture some amazing behaviour of a species, but I like to find out why they do this.”
Will has just completed his first book, On the Trail of Red Squirrels, published at £25 by Northumberland-based Wagtail Press.
Full story here:

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Westminster this week

Tomorrow I have an early start in Westminster, with a stack of casework for constituents; I also have to write my monthly Morpeth Herald column, the regular Home Office Monday meeting with the boss, and education questions at 2.30. I would like to speak in the rehabilitation of offenders bill in the late afternoon / evening session but may not be able to spend the 5 hours required in the chamber, although my book "Doing Time" specifically is based upon the need for rehab post release, the need for Payment by results, and the importance of multi agency work to combat a relapse into crime.
On Tuesday I have the immigration Bill committee all day, and a couple of other meetings squeezed in at lunchtime. On Thursday I am travelling north for a day in Haltwhistle followed by a full day for children in Need on Friday. Saturday I have a busy constituency day followed by a dinner with Martin Callanan, our MEP in Hexham, with dozens coming.

The improving dialogue with Iran is the best news for world peace

In Westminster it is Iran and it's aspirations to have nuclear weapons that have long been the concern. When I visited Israel in 2012 a similar concern was raised as Iran's nuclear ambitions were seen as the single biggest threat to Middle East peace. 
Now at last we are edging closer to a deal following talks in Geneva, whereby Iran could freeze expansion of its nuclear activity in return for limited relief from international sanctions which have been in place for years. The key western countries led by the USA have failed to reach a deal thus far but there is a breakthrough in sight. Iran has clearly changed. Both in politics and rhetoric. 
The two sides will meet again on 20 November.
John Kerry said the US was "absolutely determined" that the deal would be a good one.
"Some of the most serious and capable, expert people in our government, who have spent a lifetime dealing both with Iran as well as with nuclear weapon and nuclear armament and proliferation, are engaged in our negotiation," he said. "I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region. "
Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that a deal could be reached. The outline of an agreement was "on the table" and it was vital to keep up momentum, he said, although he acknowledged current talks were "formidably difficult". Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said all sides can "build on" the dialogue in Geneva and there was "the impetus to reach an agreement". Meanwhile, a member of Jordan's ruling family has said there is the potential for a "really serious breakthrough" at the next scheduled talks on 20 November.
What struck me today at the remembrance service in Northumberland was the prayer we all said, after the laying of the wreaths: "Let us pray for the peace of the world. For all who work to improve international relationships that they might find the true way to reconcile people of different race, colour, creed and ideology....and that men and women may live in security and peace." 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday in Northumberland

Please make sure you make time to pay your respects at 11am tomorrow. There is the traditional amazing ceremony in Hexham, organised by the Hexham Town Council, but this year I will be in Ponteland. I am trying to visit a different town each year and have spent the last 2 years in Prudhoe and Haydon Bridge.

Our hidden church gems - Northumberland's St Andrews, Shotley, comes in at number 5

Good to see the Telegraph recognise the wonderful St Andrews in Shotley as one of the 10 best "hidden" churches. Coming in at Number 5, is the wonderful old Anglican church standing in an isolated position at a height of 960 feet on Greymare Hill at the very southern most point in the county. It is designated by English Heritage as a Grade II listed building, and is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. I have yet to visit but am much looking forward.
St. Andrew’s offers panoramic views for miles around. The church itself, built in 1769, is in a simple cruciform style.
In the churchyard, to the northeast of the church, is the Hopper Mausoleum, which is a Grade I listed building, built in 1752, with beautiful statues. Also in the churchyard are three Grade II listed buildings - these are a hearse house, the Chatt headstone, and the Gibson headstone.

My Church Times article on why the church should set up local community banks

"The Archbishop of Canterbury made good headlines, in July, when he stated that he wanted to use credit unions to compete Wonga out of business.

He was right when he championed the cause of credit unions, who do a great job up and down the country to help people through tough times. But the key question is this: does a credit union have the muscle to take on the pay day lenders? In their present form, they do not.
But a local community bank would.
It is the state’s responsibility to look after those who cannot look after themselves. This includes trying to protect the most vulnerable from financial exploitation. However, there remains a gap in today’s society that is being filled by Wonga and their payday cousins. What can churches and local communities do to protect and empower the most vulnerable in society? I believe that local banks are the answer, and the Church can do much to found, support, and drive them forward.
The Church has fought a long and determined battle to defend the poor from excessive interest rates. Indeed, The Archbishop’s comments promote a revitalised approach to the importance of the local economy envisaged in Deuteronomy 23:20:

‘You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you.’
In other words, a local perspective on the economy requires a more compassionate approach to lending and vice-versa.
We may not be able to completely abolish interest, as in Leviticus 25:37 or Exodus 22:25, but we can harness the central message by doing all we can to abolish predatory interest.
The Archbishop wants to compete the payday lenders out of the market from a Christian perspective. This is possible, but credit unions will not do the job. It is right that there are many different practical and relatively immediate measures currently being taken to address the problem of high-cost credit. We can restrict advertising, implement a greater degree of financial education, do more work on shared data, address interest rates and improve debt advice. But this is not enough to address the fundamental problem. People often need short term lending.
Local Banks have all the flexibility, the clout and the borrowing power of a bank, as well as all the sympathetic community approach of a credit union. The Church has done a commendable job in calling for banking reform: now it has the opportunity to lead it win local communities.
In June 2013 I held a conference in Gateshead with 170 delegates looking to set up local community organisations to address the lack of community lending. They wanted to facilitate this through local, trusted providers, rather than by faceless organisations, based in London, and run by computer models not people.

A local bank, with a local manager, will mean a return to relationship based banking - one which understands local people. The Archbishop calls for a "local and not London-based” financial system, and that this concentration in London is one of the ‘great dangers of the current mess’. He is right.

There are few things that greater symbolise our sense of compassionate community than the local congregation. As such, the church is better placed than almost anyone to lead a local banking revolution. The Church has for millennia preached an incredibly powerful message of thrift and charity. But isn’t the message of Scripture also one of empowerment?
For far too long the UK banking sector has been dominated by the six largest banks which have over 75% of the UK current account market. Two recently went bust. In Germany, 75% of bank lending is by the 400 local banks - called Sparkassen, which have all thrived in the recession because they are locally based. We need to be offering people a genuine choice away from the status quo, forcing banks to serve the people - rather than the other way round.
The kind of long-term community banking that the Archbishop mentioned has disappeared from our high streets and rural communities. That has had a detrimental effect on the ability to lend and to get credit. As a result local people turn to pay day and high cost lenders.

Local banks would invest back into local businesses and initiatives, restoring a sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship to rural areas. The rebirth of rural communities depends on us addressing this head on. How can we love our neighbour, whilst leaving them at the mercy of a distant and uncaring banking system or worse in the form of pay day lenders? I am keen to see a Holy Alliance of church, community groups and credit unions come together to address the problems that we all see. For me, the choice for the church is one of action or assistance after the event. The latter has been the traditional role. My argument is that the church is uniquely placed to offer credit services and compete the pay day lenders out of existence.

The Government has done their bit by radically changing the onerous regulation - we passed the Financial Services Act 2012, which allowed local organisations for the first time to set up and compete with traditional big 6 banking. The Government has cleared the way. If the Church feels that there is something wrong, something exploitative in the current system, they are now empowered to give body to that vision of a more compassionate, Christian economy.

Local authorities, churches and individual businessmen, with a philanthropic philosophy for their local community, are beginning to answer the call, giving everyone a stake in their own community. This is vital in restoring local pride.
To compete predatory credit providers out of the market the most effective way to live out this principle is for churches, which truly care for and understand the local community, to set up local banks. They represent a more comprehensive and accessible evolution from credit unions, empowering the church to protect the most vulnerable in society - who should only be indebted to the local community. This is not just rhetoric: I am holding a second conference on November 6 in Whitehall, bringing together businesses and local organisations with one clear purpose. We need local banks for our local communities. With God's good grace I have no doubt we can make it happen."

This is my Church Times article (although behind a pay wall):

Friday, 8 November 2013

Whatever u r doing for Children in Need u need to be in Hexham on Nov 15

Hexham is Children in Need Central on Friday the 15th November and we have a multitude of planned events to raise money, celebrate the North East and Tynedale in particular, and showcase Hexham. I am doing my bit with a series of events throughout the day in Newcastle and Hexham designed to raise money for Children in Need.
It is not too late to plan an event!
What you have to do, come what may, is come down to Hexham for the events that are going on Friday afternoon and evening. More details in the Courant and to follow on the blog in the next few days.

Christmas Card Saturday

I purchase and then hand sign over 800 christmas cards - but I could not do this without the dedicated team that assemble each year over a long Saturday afternoon in November. That Saturday is this coming Saturday. After my morning surgeries I will join the team in Humshaugh when we stuff, label and stamp the cards I have signed. We gather around a big table. Some of the team involved are in their 80's. All are full of wisdom, steeped in Northumberland history, and the chat as the light fades, and the task ends, is always fascinating.
It is an event that I always look forward to, as for me it signifies that Christmas is not far away. The cards once signed, labelled and stamped in a military operation are then taken to the post office for the first week in December.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Jockey AP McCoy one win away from 4000 =the stuff of legends

The greatest ever steeplechase jockey is AP McCoy. He is now one win away from his 4,000th win after a victory at Chepstow yesterday. AP is the 18-time champion jockey. He could reach the unprecedented milestone today at Towcester, where he has two rides.
The Northamptonshire track offers free admission to racegoers and is expecting a bumper crowd, with the possibility of sporting history being made.
As my old friend the BBC racing correspondent,Cornelius Lysaght, puts it:
"While 4,000 sounds colossal, it really is - nearly 1,500 successes more than any other rider over jumps. Once upon a time to get to 'a mere' 1,000 was considered something very special. To an extent, as there's no question of him getting to the milestone and then abruptly retiring, this is just a number, but when you get to such a landmark, whether it be in sport or business or marriage, it's a good time to celebrate.
I dare say McCoy himself would like to just get on with riding minus any hype, but racing is understandably keen to shout about one of its own who is unquestionably one of Britain's most extraordinary sportspeople.
Nearly 4,000 winners and 18 champion jockeys' titles over nearly two decades in - and this is crucial - the most perilous of sports where you 'play' not only with animals, but followed around by an ambulance, is indeed a colossal achievement."

For my part I am lucky to have known, followed and admired AP - he is a genuinely great man, and a supreme horseman. We will never see the like of him again. I wish him well today.

UPDATE: AP does it! Great news that he won at Towcester today

Improvements on the Hexham High Streets

A bit more retail cheer for Hexham with new retailers moving into town: a new branch of Costa Coffee has opened at Meal Market, Millets has reopened on Fore Street and the new Next store next to Tesco is proving really popular. In addition, the improvements to the County Hotel and the extensive work on Boots are great to see.