Friday, April 29, 2016

Differing interpretations of compassion.

"So many corpses are now being washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean that they have stopped making the news". That's how Fraser Nelson begins his excellent article about desperate people (incl children) seeking refuge in Europe in today's Telegraph. I had decided to write no more on this issue, but this article so closely reflects the view I've taken since the beginning of the Syrian conflict that I just had to draw readers attention to it.

People smugglers work under the radar. They don't issue press releases and photographs to make life easy for the media. They don't want to 'make the news'. They prefer to be out of sight- and out of mind. It's one of the greatest new evils of our time. "It's grown to become a huge industry worth about £4 billion a year. This trade in human lives is greatly helped by the prize dangled by panicked politicians that those who survive the journey, and end up on European soil will be granted Asylum. It's a promise born of compassion, but has helped to lure hundreds to their deaths."

Like Fraser, I consider any criticism of our Prime Minister on this issue to totally misplaced. No country has done more to alleviate suffering in Syria, and across the world than the UK. No Govt has made a greater commitment to international help - in the face of constant enemy fire from UKIP, the Daily Mail and others. No politician I've worked with has shown more compassion to desperate people in foreign countries under threat than David Cameron. Britain is giving £2.3 billion to those fleeing war in Syria. The Royal Navy is doing what we can to save people  from the waters of the Mediterranean when the traffickers promises lead to thousands stranded at sea, or in the sea. The UK has given more aid than the rest of Europe put together.

Fraser uses well researched numbers. Syria has 5 million refugees. There are another 7 million displaced from their homes in Syria, forgotten and ignored by the world. These desperate people don't 'make the news'. In Jordon, there are 600,000 Syrian refugees in desperate need. They don't 'make the news' either. The UK Govt is committed to taking 20,000 refugees from the Syrian border. And last week announced we will take another 3,000 unaccompanied children from the area who are on the United Nations 'at risk' register. This is the far and away the most effective, humanitarian, compassionate response - even though I personally would support an increase in the 20,000. 

If politicians bowed to demands from the House of Lords and opposition MPs that the UK take unaccompanied refugee children from France, I would not be desperately distressed. It may help some people. But I do know it would not be the best response to a truly awful situation. It would be allowing compassion to be overtaken by pragmatism and public pressure. It would be to satisfy a demand "to make the news".

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Prejudice.

"Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". I don't know who said this (could have been the great bard himself) but I've always thought it to be very true. Two people can use the same words, but the context and tone can attach different meaning and different levels of prejudice to them. It's also the case that the meaning of words have changed over time - where what was entirely acceptable 50 years ago is today deeply offensive. Its also true that accusations of prejudice are made against people, where no prejudice exists, because no prejudice was meant. It's not straightforward. I'm always very careful before accusing anyone of prejudice. I feel that I have to assess what they were thinking to know if it was good or bad.

But sometimes there is no doubt at all. Today's performance by Ken Livingstone was truly awful. I have many friends in the Labour Party. They must be absolutely appalled. Thank goodness for John Mann MP who let him have it 'both barrels'. I've always found anti-semitism to be the worst prejudice of the lot. Perhaps this is because I've taken a lot of interest in the Second World War, and the particular evil that was Hitler. I really hope we never see Ken Livingstone given any sort of prominent position or public platform again.

"Bombing Syria"

When discussing the Syrian refugee tragedy over the last few days, I quite often hear the comment "Well you voted to bomb Syria" - as if it was linked to the refugee crisis. Reality is that British involvement in the Syrian conflict has been entirely positive in reducing the refugee problem. And as a point of fact, no MP voted to "Bomb Syria". Let us consider what has actually happened, rather than what is said to have happened.

In late summer 2013 MPs were recalled in the summer recess to debate whether the UK should respond militarily to the use of poison gas against his own people by Syrian leader, President Bashar al-Assad. It was widely thought we were going to be asked to give authority to bomb Damascus. At the time I asked as many constituents as I could reach what they thought before deciding on my approach. On the Monday, I travelled to Westminster expecting to vote against my Govt for the first time. This issue was more important than party loyalty (which I also think is very important). I could not see how firing rockets into Damascus would improve the tragedy that was unfolding in Syria. In the event several other MPs must have taken the same view, because when the motion we were due to debate was made public the night before the debate, it did not give authority to make any military strike. It condemned Assad, spoke of an intention to launch military action, but crucially required another vote of MPs to give authority for action after a stronger case for it was made. It specifically did not give authority for military action. In my view, and shamefully, Ed Miliband decided to put forward an alternative motion which, in effect, said much the same thing in - dividing the House. In the event both amendment and motion were defeated. The Prime Minister announced immediately there he had received the message of the House and would be no strike against Damascus. At the time, I thought to end consideration of the issue to be a mistake, though it may be that time has shown it not to be. Though you never be certain about what might have been!

Since the summer of 2013, Daesh, an appalling murderous group of terrorists has prospered, taking over large parts of the Middle East, including Syria. Daesh is truly evil and must be defeated. (I refuse to use the term Islamic State, regarding it as an insult to Islamism). Daesh is a threat to the world, recognised by almost every country in the world - including Putin's Russia. And then year, MPs did vote (by a huge majority) to give authority to pursue Daesh into Syria, and play a part in defeating these terrorists by cutting off supplies to their front line. To describe the UK's military support as an "attack on Syria" is bizarre. The reality is that the UK decided to act militarily against the enemy of Syria. And with much success. Daesh has now retreated significantly, alongside effective involvement by Russian forces. 

Of course the conflict has not ended, and there remain uncertainties. Daesh are reported to be moving activities to North Africa. No doubt there will be other votes and much disagreement about best way forwards in the future. And no doubt there will be mistakes. The only point of this post is to paint an more accurate background to UK military involvement in Syria, and challenge the incorrect notion that MPs voted "to bomb Syria". 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why I oppose taking Syrian refugees from France

Over the last few days I have received 31 email from constituents critical of my opposition to the UK Govt, allowing 3000 unaccompanied refugee children to enter the UK from France. Those sending these emails accuse me of acting shamefulIy and inhumanely. There has also been a vitriolic deeply offensive campaign of abuse on Twitter expressing the same views. I disagree with this criticism. I think it is not based on even a basic understanding of the issues involved. Now I'm not that bothered about the Twitter trolling, but I have written a standard response to the 31 constituents who have contacted me by email. And I've posted it here.

"I have been considering the proper response to the refugee situation in Syria for months now. It is the worst refugee problem I've ever known, and probably ranks second only to World War Two.  It's why I've discussed it with politicians (Conservative and Labour) who gave been out to the refugee camps on the Syrian border, where there are millions of refugees surviving in the most appalling conditions. In Syria itself, hundreds of thousands have been murdered, sometimes by poison gas. We're told 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and around 40 towns the size of Malada are besieged and being starved to death. 500,000 being starved to death!! This is why I've believed the UK must do everything possible to help them. The best support the UK can give is to use the international aid budget to help in the camps. The UK is incredibly generous. I am very proud of this.

I've also believed the UK should offer a home to some of the refugees, and was saying so well before it featured as a leading item on UK News. Though I accept what we could do would be no more than an example to the world rather than anything having more than a minuscule impact. 

But I have never supported the UK taking refugees from France or other European countries. Bearing in mind how much abuse I and other MPs have received by taking this view, it would have been far far easier just to take 3000 unaccompanied children from France. But I also know it would be totally wrong. It would be setting aside my clear judgement about the best humanitarian response, just for an easier life. That is not what an MP should. We are elected to do what's right.

France is not a third world country. France is a modern compassionate European country, similar to the UK. Syria is a war zone, where refugees and children are living under constant threat of death, in truly appalling conditions. Any willingness by the UK to take in refugees should be focused entirely on the Middle East and North Africa. That is the best humanitarian response. And it's also the case that taking refugees from France will inadvertently give encouragement to the refugee traffickers and criminal gangs sending desperate people across the Mediterranean, putting their lives in great peril. It did not need a photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Mediterranean beach to tell me that. I already knew that. 

If the Govt position changed, to accept Lord Dubs latest amendment, it would indeed make life easier for me. And of course it would be welcomed by refugees in France. But it would be wrong. It would be totally wrong. It would be running away from responsibility in the face of criticism. I simply cannot do that. Sorry this has been such a lengthy email.  
Best wishes, Glyn"

Friday, April 22, 2016

Best Care for Vulnerable Refugee Children in Europe.

This is a very difficult post to write. It's a politician's responsibility to consider long term consequences alongside instinctive short term humanitarian responses. Doing what is right can sometimes not be the same as that which constituents are calling for. Responding to the plight of vulnerable refugee children in France (and other European states) is just such an issue, and a major challenge for our Government.

Like many MPs I have received emails, perhaps 30 or so (mostly as part of a lobbyist's campaign) asking that I pressurise the Government into giving vulnerable unaccompanied children who are currently in France a home in the UK. And vote accordingly. I'd love to agree, but I cannot, because it would be the wrong thing to do.
 
I have long called for the Government to allow more Syrian refugees into the UK. And long before a photograph of a little boy drowned on a beach touched our national consciousness. I accept that we have to be very wary of terrorist sympathisers taking advantage of the 'cover' provided by refugees, but I do think we could and should do more. Many people disagree with me on this issue. 

However, I do want to acknowledge that the Govt has listened to calls from MPs, the House of Lords and the public about the relocation of unaccompanied children from within Europe. The Govt tells me it has considered how best the UK can provide assistance and protection to unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and other regions of conflict, and to those already in Europe.

Identifying and responding to the needs of vulnerable and at risk refugee children must be a clear priority for any government. The starting principle must be that the best interests of children are put first, and any policy that places children at additional risk or encourages them to place their lives in the hands of the people traffickers and criminal gangs must be avoided. In any response, it is vital not to inadvertently create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead, putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous sea crossings to Europe. We must never inadvertently help the criminal traffickers.

Since the beginning of the conflict in a Syria, my view has been that the UK should respond to the desperate tragedy arising from conflict in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) by taking in more refugees. Even though any resettlement programme by the UK can only make a minuscule impact on a humanitarian problem of such a scale. I am pleased that the Govt has just announced the launch of a new resettlement scheme to resettle ‘Children at Risk’ from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It's important that we set an example to the world. But let us not pretend it's anything but a drop in the ocean. There are millions of refugees in camps on the Syrian border. They are huge numbers being slaughtered or just starved to death. There are 10 million displaced Syrians. It is a tragedy almost beyond comprehension.

On the UNHCR’s recommendation, the new UK scheme will not just target unaccompanied children, but will extend to all ‘Children at Risk’ as defined by the UNHCR. And it will extend to 'at risk' groups and nationalities within the region, not limited to Syrians. Through this category the UK will resettle the most vulnerable children accompanied by their families where the UNHCR deems resettlement is in the best interests of the child. Several hundred individuals will be resettled in the first year. 3000 will be resettled over the lifetime of this Parliament, most of them children. This will be in addition to the resettlement of 20,000 Syrians under the Syrian resettlement scheme already agreed.

There are several other UK initiatives as well. For example, experts in dealing with people trafficking will be sent to Greece to support vulnerable groups, including children. This will ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible. This is in addition to the work undertaken by the Anti- Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to visit hotspots and assess what more can be done to ensure unaccompanied children are protected from traffickers.

And the Department for International Development (DFID) has created a £10 million Refugee Children Fund specifically to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in Europe. This will be used to support the UNHCR, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee. The overall aim will be to help children reunite with family wherever possible.

I fully support Government action to tackle the global refugee crisis, in particular by helping children at risk. And I fully support taking action where it has the most impact in region. I agree with all those who have emailed me about the importance of helping vulnerable children, and offering more opportunity to come to live in the UK. But the greatest need by far is to help vulnerable children in the MENA region. 

UPDATE The House of Commons comfortably defeated what is called the Dubs amendment which proposed bringing unaccompanied refugee children into the UK from France. I have received genuinely offensive communications from a few who seem not to realise the amount of thought and preparation which supports my position. I do think the Dubs amendment has helped the position, leading to Govt willingness to work with the UN to take in more refugees from the camps, where millions are living in appalling conditions. I cannot support taking refugees in from France, which is a sympathetic country, inadvertently giving encouragement to traffickers sending refugees to death in the Med, at the same time as moving our focus from the millions being killed, starved in camps on the Syrian border. And if Im to be condemned for that, so be it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What is 5th Carbon Budget.

Its so easy to fall into the trap of using acronyms and language only a tiny minority of people can understand. No-where is this more prevelent than in Climate Change/Energy speak. So from time to time I'll try to explain an issue is ultra simplistic language. Today's phrase is 'The Fifth Carbon Budget'.

The 2008 Climate Change Act, one of the most important acts passed during the 13 yrs of Labour Gov't committed the UK to reducing carbon emissions by at least 80% compared with 1990 levels. This is a very big ask, which needs a complete rethink about how we live. In order to ensure current Gov't's accept responsibility for this today, the 2008 Act requires Gov't to set 'carbon budgets' in law with specific emissions reduction targets (stepping stones sort of) for each 5 yr period leading up to 2050. These 'carbon budgets' are progressively more restrictive caps on emissions. Gov't is currently working on setting the 5th Carbon Budget to cover the period from 2028-2032. The Act requires Gov't to set 'carbon budgets' by 30th June in the 12th year before the beginning of the period in question. The means setting the 5th 'carbon budget' by 30th June this year.

There are two parties involved in negotiating the precise carbon emissions targets - the Government on the day and the Committee for Climate Change. There is a formal timetable in the process of setting the binding target. The carbon emissions reduction anticipated during the 5th Carbon Budget is likely to be about 58% below 1990 levels. 

Hope those who didn't know much about this issue now know what we are talking about when reference to carbon budgets crop up in conversation.! 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Assembly Election.

Not many people are fully engaged with the Welsh Assembly elections being held two weeks on Thursday. UK politics being dominated by the EU Referendum. As expected. Which is why I was so disappointed the Referendum is being held on June 23rd rather that later in the year. Though I can understand why the Prime Minister did it and wants it behind him. But I'm engaged with the Assembly Election - which is one reason why, on principle, I'm not telling anyone which way I will vote on June 23rd until after May 5th.

I am giving my full support to Russell George in the election to choose a Montgomeryshire representative in our National Assembly for the next five years. Over the last five years, Russell has worked hard for us, and fully deserves to be re-elected. It's no surprise that there is great enthusiasm amongst local campaigners to knock on doors for him. The campaign is going very well. We are also supporting Chris Salmon in his campaign to seek re-election as Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed/Powys. Chris has also worked conscientiously and deserves another term.

But how is it going at a national level. Not been the best of recent weeks for Conservatives across UK. No good pretending otherwise. Been turbulence at Westminster on several fronts.  And the referendum divisions seem more pronounced in my party. UK sovereignty is an issue we really care about. I also think the Referendum is giving UKIP a public awareness boost. Most polls suggest UKIP will take 5 Assembly seats, all 'regional list' seats. While none of this is helpful to my party's cause, I still think the Welsh Conservatives will have a successful election.

So what's going to happen in 18 days time? Not much doubt but that Labout will lose it's overall majority in Cardiff Bay - despite the helpful noises and squabbling down the other end of the M4. Can't see Plaid going into full coalition, even if the numbers may make that the obvious option.  But could be some sort of confidence and supply deal I suppose. But my guess is Labour will try to run a minority Government if it can - depending on the results of course. Polls are sometimes wrong!! I'm hopeful that the Welsh Conservatives will hold off the Plaid challenge to be the official opposition. Andrew RT and his team have done that rather well. Too much of an unknown to know what any UKIP AMs will do. Oh, and I reckon Gary Price is in with a really good chance in Brecon and Radnorshire. And maybe the mood music will change over the next two weeks! 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Montgomeryshire Health Service - Update.

Health is a devolved issue, but since most of our A&E and elective care are delivered in Shropshire, health remains a key issue for Montgomeryshire's MP. So I'm blogging about the subject. And it's not very positive about the way things are going.

Throughout my life, most people of Montgomeryshire (except for the Machynlleth and Llanidloes 'catchments') have depended on the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital (and increasingly the Princess Royal at Telford) for A&E and secondary care. These two hospitals are run as one trust. Western Montgomeryshire look to Bronglais at Aberystwyth for the same services, and the Tanat Valley look to Wrexham Maelor. Because of clinical advances in NHS provision, and the development of separate English and Welsh NHS structures, there is growing pressure for fundamental change - firstly within Wales, and secondly within Shropshire.

Let's consider position within Wales. In today's NHS world, a District General Hospital needs a far larger 'catchment' area to be sustainable. The current Bronglais 'catchment' has too small a population to support a full range of services. Many of us suspect (including me) that the Welsh Government would like to see the population of Newtown orientated towards Bronglais (rather than Shropshire) - though this is not a publicly declared position. Certainly no-one has raised this with the people of Newtown. Personally, I do not think the people of Newtown would be happy with the idea at all. Must admit I have not the slightest idea what the Powys training Health Board thinks - which is the way it's been for several years. Get more information out of the North Korean Secret Service. No confidence at all that this body is fighting our corner. 

In Shropshire, we have not much idea where structural change is heading. There was a recent major exercise referred to as Future Fit which cost £2million (I think) and sunk into a quagmire of indecision. Not sure where we are now. I've certainly heard nothing official. So it's crystal ball time. Firstly, the commissioning structure seems to have changed. The two Shropshire based CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) seem to gave been semi-merged, which might be good. A plan is being considered, which involves A&E at either PRH or RSH, though with some similar services being available at an Urgent Care Centre developed at both hospitals. There's some ill-defined talk about a 60%/40% services split between both sites. I have little idea what this means in practice. The provision of Urgent Care Centres around Shropshire seems to have been dropped. Of greatest concern to me is that I'm told the cost of delivering the 60% is significantly cheaper at Telford than at Shrewsbury. What I do know is that it would be a disaster for Montgomeryshire if Telford got the nod. 

And then we have primary care. The previous strategic plan envisaged about 40% of those currently turning up at A&E being diverted to Urgent Care Centres, which seem to gave been dropped from current thinking. I cannot see how GPs can pick up this workload. Over stretched already. So where are these patients going to be treated? I'm looking forward to having latest thinking shared with MPs. After all, it's us who are going to be at the heart of the campaign to secure the funding needed to take forward the plans finally decided on. I suspect there will be an update on thus post in a few weeks time. Really hope so.


Gov't spending in Wales

This post follows discussion at my 'community meeting' in Berriew last night. It's not researched, so may be 'best guess' in places. Am willing to amend if I have anything wrong. It's a post for those who are not expert in public sector finance - which is almost everyone!!

Let's begin with the Barnett Formula. Most people have heard the term, but know not what it is. In 1978, Joel Barnett was the Treasury Minister responsible for allocating public spending across the four nations of what was then a non-devolved UK. The Formula was based on the then populations of the four nations of the UK. It was meant to apply only for a short period - but its still going strong 38 yrs later!. Lord Barnett himself has dismissed the formula attached to his name as unfair, especially to English regions.

A more fair and sensible way for the Treasury to allocate state spending would be on the basis of relative need - and the needs of Wales, Scotland and N Ireland are higher than England. Very difficult and contentious to do though. The reality over many years has been that both Scotland and N Ireland have received more than what's been fair, and Wales less. We do not know by how much Wales has been losing out, but a few years ago, respected Welsh economist Gerry Holtham calculated it at around £300 million per annum - not a hugely significant figure in the greater scheme of things. A generally misunderstood way the formula works (and because of what services are devolved) the 'underfunding' figure has reduced as total UK public spending has decreased over recent years. At present Wales received about £115 for every £100 spent in England, which about matches Wales' needs. First time for decades this has been the case. There is now no gap between the comparative needs figure for Wales and the actual budget. There is now no longer a Barnett 'deficit'.

Which is why the recent Treasury commitment to a ' Barnett Floor' matters. It's a Treasury commitment to maintain the Welsh 'block grant' to Wales at the current level (or higher) for the next 4yrs. It also means a commitment beyond 4 yrs will be a significant manifesto issue at the 2020 General Election. I cannot see any party in 2020 not committing to maintaining this new 'fair' level of Welsh public spending. Wales should receive it's fair level of Gov't funding from the Treasury into the future. It seems that for the first time since Lord Joel Barnett was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1978, Wales is treated fairly.