Sunday, April 29, 2018

Alfie Evans.

Last week, those of us who try to follow the news agenda had a confusing few days. There were the usual mixture of misleading and simply untrue ‘news’ stories about Brexit. We’re used to that, and have learned to largely ignore it. But in Wales, we did have an astonishingly good news Brexit story. It was really big breakthrough news. After predictions of constitutional chaos and multiple headlines about a “Power Grab” by the UK Parliament, and a bizarre ‘Continuity Bill’ passed in the Welsh Parliament, which led to the UK Govt taking the Welsh Government to the Supreme Court, the Wales Office and the Welsh Gov’t agreed post-Brexit arrangements in relation to devolved powers. Just like that! Defied all the predictions. Until now the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland had worked together. Wales has now left the Scottish National Party to carry on its anti-Brexit campaigning on its own. In Wales, we have agreed a pragmatic way forward, trying to deliver the best way future for Wales, rather than play politics games. And as is usual with very complex issues, the Welsh media largely ignored this most significant news story of the week.

We also had the hugely worrying story about how immigrants who moved to Britain in the 1960s on the Windrush and other ships have been shockingly let down by our immigration system. No-one emerges from this scandal, (because that’s what it is) with any credit. Although it’s impossible to know exactly where ‘blame’ lies, it is clear that managing the UKs immigration system has been a challenge too far for the Home Office. I write this as Amber Rudd resigns over the issue. Personally I am sorry about this. I thought she was the right person to sort out the problem. The position today is just not acceptable. Of course, the UK Government must control ‘illegal’ immigration, but must also do whatever it takes to ensure those immigrants who are today in Britain entirely legally are not in any way disadvantaged. 

But the news story last week which impacted on me most was the circumstances surrounding the death of Alfie Evans, a 23 month old little boy at Alder Hey Hospital who died from an untreatable neurological condition, after his life support was turned off.  Everyone sympathised with Alfie’s parents, who must have gone through the most traumatic of experiences. Its very difficult to disentangle the clinical and ethical issues. Increasingly, developing science means we are going to confront more decisions about when to end a life that is being maintained only by a machine, when there is no hope of recovery. While I do not approve of the behaviour of some of those who protested outside Alder Hey Hospital, I find myself, yet again, conflicted by the proper responsibilities of the family and the state in life and death issues.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

‘Limited, targeted and effective’.

Last week, three of the five permanent members of the Security Council joined forces to conduct coordinated targeted military strikes to degrade the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability, and deter their use. The principle partner, delivering about 90% of the bombardment was the US. Britain and France played smaller roles, but their involvement was crucial to reinforce the message the use of chemical weapons is contrary to Chemical Weapons Convention and not acceptable in today’s world. The action was supported by a wide range of countries, including all NATO members plus Australia plus Turkey and others. The military strike was in response to a despicable and barbaric act by the Syrian Regime in Douma, killing innocent people who were seeking shelter from bombardment in underground basements.
There is little doubt that the Syrian Regime led by Bashar al-Ashad was responsible. It has an utterly abhorrent record of using poison gas against its own people. Over recent years there have been numerous examples of chemical weapon use by the forces of the Syrian Dictator, Bashar al-Assad. For a century, use of chemical weapons has been banned as a crime against humanity. Assad is in flagrant breach of international law. The use of Chemical Weapons must be stopped. Every reform in the Security Council has failed, thwarted by the Russian veto. The leaders of the US, France and the UK have done what they had to do.
Before acting, the UK Prime Minister and Cabinet considered advice from the Attorney General, the National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff and received a full intelligence briefing. Theresa May decided to act in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian Regime’s Chemical Weapons capability. There is no desire to intervene in a civil war. There is no desire or intention to deliver regime change. It was a ‘Limited, Targeted and Effective’ strike with clear boundaries designed to avoid escalation and civilian casualties. The aim is to prevent future use of chemical weapons.
In 2013, David Cameron sought support from MPs to launch a military strike against Damascus in response to Assad’s use of poison gas. MPs refused to agree. I thought that a mistake, which led to
President Obama cancelling any action at all.  Last year the US did respond to another poison gas attack with a limited military response. It did not stop Assad. We must hope that last weekend’s military strike will have more effect.
I hope there will also be a new diplomatic effort as well. We cannot allow chemical weapons to become ‘normalised’ as a method of war. Britain has always taken a stance to defend global rules and standards. That’s  what we did last weekend.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

More on Poison Gas issues

Today’s news reports are still focussing on two events involving the use of poison gas, and how we should respond - take action or just wring our hands.
Firstly, there’s the attempted assassination of the Russians, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the streets of Britain. Today the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which so many had called on to make a definitive judgement, backed the conclusions drawn by the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson. I am not sure what we should do about it, except hit the wealthy Russian friends of Putin who operate in the UK. And hit them so hard, they understand the damage that Putin is causing them. I sense that may well happen.
And then we have the use of poison gas against innocent citizens in Douma by Bashar al-Assad. It’s crucial that the response be carefully planned, targeted and effective. Personally, I cannot see any alternative but to strike militarily against Assad and his military capability. He is a monster.
I have been quite shocked by those who seem to take the side of the Russian backed Syrian Dictator. I suppose there always have been a few British citizens who seem to prefer to side with Britain’s enemies. For 100 years Chemical warfare has been unacceptable under international law. Yet there are some who accept that Assad should face no consequence for what he has done. This is normalising the use of chemical weapons in modern warfare. It would be disastrous for our world - a green light to the barbarians to do their worst, if it’s thought the world will just stand by and shake heads disapprovingly when weapons of mass destruction are deployed - and leave it at that.
Normally, we would be arguing for the Security Council to take action, but it cannot because the Russians veto any such action. They are Assad’s protective shield. So the United Nations is rendered impotent.
Many MPs are calling for Parliament to be asked to vote on any decision to join a US led military strike. I am not one of them. Any decision must be based on a careful assessment of intelligence. The Prime Minister cannot share such intelligence publically. She might as well just authorises MI6 to send our intelligence direct to Damascus, the Kremlin and Tehran.
I fully expect the US to launch a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. I also expect the UK  and France to participate. And even though I would wish it otherwise, I will support our Prime Minister in that action if she and her Cabinet decide it should be. Most other MPs will do the same, all of us with heavy hearts.
I realise there will be many who disagree. There are many who think we should “just let them get on with it”. We should not be dragged in no matter what. As if we can isolate ourselves from what happens overseas. There will be many with pacifist principles. I do not criticise their stance. The stance I do question is that of those who insist that chemical warfare must not become common in modern warfare while refusing to support action to support that position. This is a total cop-out. My job as an MP is to face up to choices. And sometimes those choices are bloody tough. They don’t come any tougher than this one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Syria. What now?

Am inspired to comment on what’s happening in Syria by William Hague’s column in today’s Telegraph. Takes me back to the events of 2013, which was the most shocking of my 8 yrs as an MP. It’s the context in which I have to contemplate the current position.
In 2013, Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people and Prime Minister, David Cameron was considering a military strike against Damascus. He was supported by William Hague. Before that summer recess, MPs had insisted that a vote would be needed to authorise such a strike. Parliament was indeed recalled during summer recess. I returned to London, anticipating voting against my Govt for the first time. I informed my whips that I could not vote for action without more clarity about how it would improve the position. I think other MPs must have taken a similar line because when the motion to be debated was tabled the night before the debate, I was satisfied. The motion supported military action against Assad, but crucially, required the Prime Minister to return to the Parliament with more clarity and to seek another vote before military action could be taken. I thought that was acceptable, and voted for it. But (shamefully in my view) MPs voted this motion down. I felt ashamed that some Conservatives had completely undermined the Prime Minisister. The Labour Leader at the time, Ed Miliband had decided to play politics with an issue that should have been above politics and put forward his alternative motion, which was not far from the Prime Minister’s motion. That was defeated as well. I felt deeply ashamed of Labour. I suspect a few Labour MPs did as well. Anyway, Obama and Putin were watching. The former reneged on his ‘red lines’ and decided to do nothing, while the latter realised that Assad backed by Russia could do whatever he wanted. That’s just what he did. The chemical attacks on innocents over the last few days is an inevitable consequence of 2013.
I know there will be many who think the UK (and everyone else except Russia and Iran) should stay out of it. Several of my constituents informedit was their opinion in 2013. Suspect some might feel the same today. I don’t. Non-action can have terrible consequences, as well as action. We cannot wait for the UN to back action because Russia will veto any military response. We cannot allow chemical warfare to become an accepted form of attack, which it will. Of course we cannot be 100% certain that military action will achieve its objective in the short term. If certainty of victory was a requirement of action, military powers who care not about deaths of casualties would always win.
We know that a President Obama would not act. There would just be empty threats. But I do think
Resident Trump may well act. He may well call the Assad-Putin bluff. This is a very hard sentence for me to write, because I know many of my friends and supporters will disagree. But I believe Britain and France should support action led by the US, and be active participants.

Monday, April 02, 2018

How do we power the UK?

Written quite a lot about NHS reform of secondary care for Shropshire and mid-Wales recently. So a change of subject - temporarily at least. Feel a need to return to a subject I used to write about quite a lot. Energy, and where we source it. And ask whether the ‘Russia’ issue make any difference.
When I was young, energy used to be a major part of the UK’s GDP (maybe 10%) - principally coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Today it’s fallen to relative insignificance (maybe 2%). This is largely down to much reduced use of coal and near disappearance of North Sea oil. And our commitment to Paris Agreement on climate change means we’re not going back there. This post is about where (and whether) we should look to re-establish energy as a significant UK industry. I’m thinking next 15/20 years. Even that’s too long a time scale to predict with any certainty. It’s probable that this post would have to be completely rewritten in 10yrs, or even sooner.
In my view, we cannot but go for Shale Gas as a big player. I accept there is uncertainty about this industry, and much opposition, but nevertheless it looks more than promising. I’ve never quite understood the antipathy to shale gas extraction. We know that the initial process of hydraulic fracturing is undoubtedly noisy for a period of around 3 weeks, and generates a fair bit of traffic. No major job creating industry is without some disturbance. The potential is massive - game changing. At worst, there’s enough Shale Gas in the Bowland Basin alone to provide for decades of UK needs. And there are private operators who will put their money in. Are doing so already. We know (even the Climate Change Committee agrees) that there’s a need for gas as a transition fuel from coal to renewables (where we want to end up) and Shale Gas has far less impact on carbon emissions than LNG, which is the main alternative. And anyway, all the LNG we were banking on is being bought up by the Chinese. But since the demise of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee I have no involvement in this debate. Just a residual interest.
I also think offshore wind looks to have a more than promising future. Always used to be too costly, but scale and technology are changing the balance. Almost reached the stage when no subsidy is needed, which is a dramatic turnaround in a year. There is some antipathy to offshore wind but nothing like the  intense opposition to onshore wind, which is even cheaper. I’ve always thought (without actual evidence) that if and when floating turbines become realalistic and economic, the potential of offshore wind is limitless. Another advantage of offshore wind (and shale gas) is that the economic benefit will accrue to the North of England, contributing to reducing the North-South divide.
And the there is Russia. While we might not import much directly from Russia now, we are part of a European energy network which is more linked to Russia. We should not be giving the Russians any leverage over us. It’s not just energy, but security.
There are of course many other possibilities as well. Nuclear may well be a big player, especially if Small Modular Reacters prove viable. Trawsfynnydd could be a real possibility here. Solar will always be a small scale player, made slightly more viable as storage technology develops. Then there’s hydrogen, which could develop as a fuel for cars and trains. That’s enough for this quick blog post, but open to suggestions to amend it.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Shropshire and Mid Wales A&E Reform. ‘Hot’ new Hospital at Shrewsbury

Was expecting news of an announcement tomorrow. But it’s in the Times today. So updated my post

Over the last ten years ( at least) I have been involved in active discussion about what has to be done to deliver a sustainable hospital structure to serve Shropshire and Mid Wales. In fact, I have known roughly what was needed to be done for over 40 yrs ago. A squash playing team colleague, who was also a brilliant Shropshire consultant used to berate me between games about the strategic madness of building a new hospital in Telford to serve Shropshire and Mid Wales in the first place. The area simply did not have the population to sustain two comprehensive District General Hospitals in the long term. He knew I was involved in local public affairs and wanted me to become involved. Paul died young. I hope he’d be pleased with the effort I’ve put in. It is an irony that there’s a Paul Brown Ward at the Princess Royal in memory of the great man.
The population of Shropshire and Mid Wales is about 500,000 and will sustain only one major secondary care hospital. Because of the historic and unwise decision to build the Princess Royal, the only feasible way forward today is to accept the current position and run the two hospitals as one unit operating on two sites, with ‘emergency care’ at one and ‘planned care’ at the other. A new hospital to replace both (which most of us would really prefer) is off the wall expensive. We have known all this for years. Our hospital services have suffered  because we have not faced up to the difficult ‘political’ decisions needed. Millions of precious NHS resources have been squandered as a consequence of ‘political posturing’, sometimes blindly refusing to accept reality. But at long long last, the end is in sight. It’s taken a lot of lobbying and argument to reach today’s position. It’s  also been frustrating enough to test the patience of a saint.
The UK Government has now decided that NHS England will allocate the around £300 million needed to transform one hospital (recommended to be the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital) into a centre for Emergency Care (a’hot’ emergency care hospital) and Theo
 Other (recommended to be Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital) into a centre for planned care. This will  be the biggest investment by NHS England this year. It will be a massive Gov’t commitment to Shropshire and Mid Wales. Everyone who has been involved and stuck with it will be hugely satisfied. After the announcement of the funding, , there will be an implementation process. The first step will be for the local Clinical Commissioning Groups to go out to a 12 week public consultation from about early May - with the above arrangement as their ‘preferred option’. If the public support the ‘preferred option’ (and it would be unthinkable not to) the project design and tendering processes will begin. I can see no reason why we cannot anticipate “diggers in the ground” early next year.
This is what should happen, and what I expect to happen.. Over the 12 week consultation period I will be arranging public meetings around Montgomeryshire to explain what has been a quite incredible journey, over many years, to reach the current position. And how important it is that all of us who want to see a sustainable NHS in Shropshire and Mid Wales actually turn out to vote.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The real story of our economy.


So many try to talk down the UK economy, that I’m using my column to redress the balance. Personally, I believe the UK is in a far better place than the Jeremiah’s so often portray. Wrote this for Oswestry and Borders Chronicle this week.

“The UK economy has grown every year since 2010. It now has a manufacturing sector enjoying its longest unbroken run of growth for 50 years. It has added 3 million jobs since 2010 and seen every single region of the UK with higher employment and lower unemployment than in 2010. It has seen the wages of the lowest-paid rise by almost 7% above inflation since April 2015. It has seen income inequality lower than at any time under the last Labour Government.

Britain faces the future with unique strengths. The English language is the global language of business. The British legal system is the jurisdiction of choice for commerce. London is the world’s most global city and capital of international finance and professional services. British companies are in the vanguard of the technological revolution, while our world-class universities are delivering the breakthrough discoveries and inventions that are powering it. British culture and talent reaches huge audiences across the globe; and our tech sector is attracting skills and capital from the four corners of world. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts more jobs, rising real wages, declining inflation, a falling deficit and a shrinking debt. The economy grew by 1.7% in 2017, compared with the 1.5% forecast at the Budget, and the OBR has revised up its forecast for 2018 from 1.4% to 1.5%. Forecast growth is then unchanged at 1.3% in 2019 and 2020, before picking up to 1.4% in 2021 and 1.5% in 2022.

Our remarkable jobs story is set to continue, with the OBR forecasting more jobs in every year of this Parliament and over 500,000 more people enjoying the security of a regular pay packet. The OBR expects inflation to fall back to the 2% target over the next 12 months, meaning real wage growth is expected to be positive from first quarter of 2018-19 and to increase steadily thereafter. Annual inflation statistics fell 0.3% to 2.7% yesterday. There are more falls to come. 

Borrowing is now forecast to be £45.2 billion this year. That is £4.7 billion lower than forecast in November and £108 billion lower than in 2010.

Debt is being reduced not for some ideological reason, but to secure an economy strong enough to cope with future setbacks. Taxpayer’s money is needed to support our public services and defence, not to be wasted on debt interest. So not all will be used to reduce debt. Since the autumn 2016, £60 billion has been earmarked for new spending, shared between long-term investment in Britain’s future and support for public services. Almost £9 billion extra has been invested in our NHS and our social care system. There is £4 billion going into the NHS in 2018-19 alone.

Taxes have been cut for 31 million working people by raising the personal allowance. 4 million people have been taken out of tax altogether since 2010. Fuel duty has been frozen for an eighth successive year, taking the saving for a typical car driver to £850 when compared with Labour’s plans. The national living wage has been raised to £7.83 from next month, giving the lowest paid in our society a well-deserved pay rise of more than £2,000 for a full-time worker since 2015.

So to the doom mongerers I proffer the old saying “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”