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Olly's Army

Baroness Grender talks to Paul Waugh about the merits of the Second Chamber, the ‘incumbency factor’ – and why the Lib Dems are up for...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

“You’ve got an awesome, kick-arse woman like Martha Lane Fox in there. And then you’ve got some of the oldest, most experienced politicians who you frankly last saw on Spitting Image – and actually thought were dead.”

Olly Grender’s views on the House of Lords are nothing if not candid. Nearly a year after she was ennobled, no one could claim that she’s been seduced by the traditions of the red benches.

“Everyone describes it as a very polite place and individuals within it are polite. But then if you stand up as I did and speak out against Betty Boothroyd’s ‘constitutional outrage’ of Tina Stowell being ‘in attendance’ at Cabinet, then it’s a lot of people baying, basically. You just have to be quite thick skinned,” she says.

“What I would say is that it desperately needs to be elected and it should be elected. You almost want to say ‘right, so we are really angry that everyone around the Cabinet table is now elected, is that what we are angry about? We are angry because an unelected body doesn’t have representation there?’ Sometimes I sit in the chamber and when I see it is described by many others as [Parliament] ‘at its best’, I struggle to understand that phrase.”

In a political career spent both behind the scenes and on the media, Baroness Grender of Kingston-Upon-Thames has never been afraid of speaking her mind. And as the General Election looms, her frank advice will certainly be heard loud and clear by the Lib Dems in coming months.

Reunited with Paddy Ashdown, her former boss and fellow Lords sceptic, Grender has been appointed ‘Political Co-ordinator and Director for Special Projects’ as her party gears up for one of the toughest electoral campaigns in its history. Ashdown and his loyal lieutenant want their army of volunteers to dig in deep in their current 56 seats, while taking the fight to other key targets.

Her multitasking will be stretched to the limit as she juggles her election post with her duties as a full-time working peer. But although her frustration with the Lords is palpable, she points out that the Upper House (which she prefers to call the ‘Second Chamber’) can effect change in a way the Commons simply can’t.

“Because you don’t have guillotines, because it’s a committee of the whole House, because anyone and everyone can get involved, because you can spend a good proportion of time on each amendment, that is where I think the Second Chamber is superb,” she says. “I’m conscious that our dirty laundry gets sent through to the Lords and then it gets starched and pressed and returned in a good condition.”

Typically, however, she has a caveat. “I think where it doesn’t necessarily work is with some of those set-piece grandstanding speeches. Sometimes my heart sinks a little bit if I’m hearing someone talking about how the economy worked in the 1970s – partly because I’m not entirely sure why we need a 30th speech on why the economy did or didn’t work in the 1970s.”

One area where she’s trying to drag the law, if not the Lords, into the 21st century is on the issue of ‘revenge porn’. Acting on a campaign launched by party member Hannah Thompson, she is currently trying to amend the Justice Bill to make the publication of private sexual images a criminal offence.

“It’s a generational issue, a lot of people won’t understand. But in the world of instant [communication] and smartphones, a lot of people own a lot of images. There are terrible websites like MyEx.com where people publish photos and say ‘this woman is a slag’ and stuff like that. It’s really, really nasty stuff. And it’s out there and it means that your friends, employer, can see. It’s a very brutal thing to happen.”

The Ministry of Justice is looking at the proposal. “There’s some debate about how you can ensure that it’s seen as a criminal act, and of course in the House of Lords for every peer there are 17 lawyers. So that will be much debated,” she says.

But the Baroness hopes the practice can become law in the next few months. “And it should, because it is on the increase. And it is a form of abuse. It’s not even that it’s a form of sexual abuse, it’s abuse against an individual.”

Grender is undoubtedly one of the strongest female voices the party has. But she’s more aware than most that the Lib Dems’ image among women has been undermined over the past year by the Lord Rennard controversy.

“Will it have a long-lasting impact? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s been damaging and divisive in the party but I think we are where we are and we all need to just move on.”

As someone who’s known him for years, was she shocked by the claims? “Yes, I was shocked,” she says. She has not spoken to Rennard about the allegations and has said nothing publicly until now. Does she agree that the party could have done more to listen to the women who made the complaints?

“Oh yeah. Here’s the thing. I think that politics is going through a transition and I see it as a really good transition. And the silver lining out of what is no doubt a dark cloud for our party is that no woman will put up with any kind of behaviour that is inappropriate and will know that there are now all sorts of structures in place,” she says. The new anonymous helpline and support staff at Lib Dem HQ, plus heightened awareness, will all make a difference.

“I think that all institutions are going through turmoil and I’m glad they are. Is it fast enough for me? No. But am I delighted that it’s happening? Yes.”

Did she ever suffer from harassment herself? “Yes, from an MP. Who’s now dead,” she reveals. “When I first started working in Parliament in my early 20s, I would say that I had no idea I could complain that I was being sexually harassed by somebody who was a Member of Parliament. It just didn’t even occur to me. And I’m really pleased it now occurs to people.

“And by the way one of the most sexist places I thought at the time was the Press Gallery. I was a person going round as a young female and I’m delighted that the Press Gallery has changed as well.

“I wouldn’t say that it in any way held me back from anything that I wanted to do, and I would say that in contrast, for that one person there have been 200 people who have promoted and supported me in an amazing career that my party has given me. I’ve just had an extraordinary career.” 

 

 

That career began when Grender was a young activist in Kingston, acting as agent, leafleter, occasional candidate. Christened Rosalind, she tried to say her own name but the word came out as ‘Olly’. “I’ve been called that ever since,” she explains.

“I could have changed it back, but it just stuck.” Ever the party hack, she also points out that when she first got involved in campaigning, a shorter forename came in useful. “It was less Letraset on leaflets for letterboxes. ‘Rosalind’ – too many letters!”

She didn’t go to university, opting instead to become a party researcher, and within a couple of years her talents were spotted by Paddy Ashdown. First as his speechwriter and then as his communications director, she fought alongside him in the trenches at the 1992 general election. After working for Shelter and public affairs firm LLM, she became the Lib Dem pundit of choice for Newsnight, alongside Tory Danny Finkelstein and Labour’s Peter Hyman. When Nick Clegg needed maternity cover for his deputy comms director in Downing Street, Grender was the natural choice.

“I would say that the work-life balance in No 10 was much, much harder than it is being a peer,” she says. “That was very, very demanding and I really didn’t see my little boy at all.”

In parenthood, as in her politics, she again defied the odds. After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth at the age of 43. “I had IVF and a 7% chance of success, according to the HFEA figures at the time,” she explains. “I did do everything I could to make sure it was successful, no alcohol for two years, no caffeine.” She adds swiftly: “Don’t worry, I’m back on the booze again.”

Grender’s main task from now to May is to help the Lib Dems fight their key seats against a combined onslaught of Labour, Tory and UKIP, all seizing on voter disillusionment with Clegg and his party.

With a string of experienced MPs standing down, from Alan Beith to Malcolm Bruce to Don Foster, is there a danger that the party is losing its crucial incumbency factor?

“There are some great models for MPs standing down as incumbents and someone coming in and taking over their seat,” she smiles. “Just one I’ll pluck out of the air randomly: Sheffield Hallam maybe?”

Yet the Lib Dems have again come under fire for the lack of women in their ranks. She says the ‘Leadership Programme’ has worked in getting women candidates selected in winnable seats, but stresses there’s a bigger problem. “The critical issue, and this is where we struggled in 2010, is getting them elected. And that requires money,” she says.

All-women shortlists have been avoided by the party, though “both Nick and Paddy are minded to have a look at this” after 2015, Grender says. But is she personally keen on the idea? “It’s not that I’m not keen, it’s that I would need to see the science and be persuaded that that’s the issue. I think the issue is money, money, money.

“It’s about proper decent funding of female candidates. Because to stand for Parliament you give up so much, it costs you personally, it costs you in terms of your kids, it costs you in terms of your salary. What Labour have always had is a way of bumping up salaries via trade union funding to help people overcome this.

“If you want loads of people to get involved in politics, somehow you have to find ways of ensuring that people on very low incomes feel engaged and involved and that is wider than us.”

In the absence of state funding of political parties, an idea which she says seems “almost impossible” given government austerity, wealthy donors are the only solution.

Lack of funding prevents diversity among not just MPs but peers, she adds. “What you don’t get is a hairdresser, what you don’t get is a bus driver. And why don’t you get those people? Because it’s unaffordable for most people to do this kind of thing unless you are relying on a partner.

“A salary in the Lords alone, a bank won’t accept it as payment for a mortgage. It varies dramatically because you clock on when you sit because it’s an allowance rather than a salary.”

Grender’s Lords allowance is supplemented by her major role working at Lib Dem HQ alongside Ashdown. And it’s clear she’s happy to be back in partnership with the former party leader.

“It’s a riot, we share an office. Paddy and I get along very, very well. You just have to read his acknowledgment to me in his latest book to understand. It’s so funny, it says something like ‘I am sure that Olly has not read a single word of this book however she was kind enough to put up with my rantings and ravings while writing it and lent me her red pen!’ I think almost every acknowledgement of almost every book Paddy has ever written, somewhere there’s a reference to me that makes me sound like a complete dweeb.”

Grender insists all of the trials and tribulations of Coalition have been worth it. “While we’ve had ups and downs in Government and we’ve had trust issues, we’ve stuck to our word on tax threshold, we have delivered something that has been dramatic in terms of the value you place on work rather than the value you place on personal wealth. I think that’s been transformative. As has the pupil premium. I sit on a board of governors and I know how significant it has been.”

But given the state of the polls at the moment, does she have a sense of cold realism about the months ahead, or a dogged optimism?

“There are very few Liberal Democrats I know who are pessimists,” she replies. “I think if you believe in Liberalism there’s such a streak of optimism about you anyway. And also we are real grafters. If you’ve grown up through the grassroots as I did in Kingston or Paddy did fighting again and again and finally winning the seat after so many goes, there’s just this sense of the fight in you. And we all have that.”

“People say ‘isn’t it grim at the moment?’ And you think ‘pfft!’ We are in government right now, in government. Ed Davey, Vince, Nick, these people get to pull the levers of power. I talk to Labour Members who have lost power and they feel it. What you want in politics is to deliver things.”

And as for the task ahead, Grender is irrepressible. “There’s the question ‘do you want to be involved in the next general election, isn’t it going to be a real rollercoaster?’ To which the answer is ‘oh, you bet! You bet!’ I think that reflects almost everyone I know in the party.”   

 

GRENDER ON...LORDS ETIQUETTE

“It’s no more or less polite than the Commons. I think it’s overblown, this business about politeness.”

GRENDER ON....LORDS REBELLIONS

‘There are some times when you know you are going to enhance negotiations and other times when you are going to damage it.”

GRENDER ON ...BEING A PEER

”It’s easier being a peer than an MP. I’m still slightly surprised I'm in the House of Lords. I’m a kind of backroom person."

GRENDER ON...NEWSNIGHT

“A little confession, I normally watch Newsnight while I’m washing up and filling the dishwasher, it’s an efficient use of time."

GRENDER ON...HER PARTY JOB

"I've worked in Government, and at HQ and in the Commons. So I’m the person who can cross all divides. That’s really important."

 

 

 

Laws Abiding

David Laws has his hands full as a minister and chair of the Lib Dem manifesto group. Having outlasted Michael Gove at Education, what...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

Michael Gove is gone but not forgotten in the Department for Education. Its ground-floor reception area has an impressive gallery of photos of every single Secretary of State since 1944, from Rab Butler onwards. But Nicky Morgan’s picture is for some reason missing, and instead Gove continues in his place as the most recent incumbent. His image stares out at visitors as if he’d never been away.

For David Laws, the departure of his former boss was something of a mixed blessing. As Schools Minister, he often shared his Tory colleague’s passion for higher standards and radical reform. Yet given Gove’s poor image among many teachers, his removal has allowed the department a fresh start in selling Coalition – and Lib Dem – achievements. Asked if the building is a happier place without Gove, Laws laughs. “It’s a different place without Michael,” he says. “Michael and Nicky are different personalities. Obviously, having a Secretary of State who has been involved in the education space, leading for his party as well as in Government right back to 2007 meant that you had somebody who had been through a lot of these arguments before.

“Which is different from having a Secretary of State who’s fresh to the area and is obviously going to take a while to consider a lot of the policy challenges and decide on what the forward agenda is. So that is absolutely bound to create a change in the atmosphere. But I got on with Michael very, very well, even when we were having arguments. We had a lot of similar aspirations; we fell out over a few things – over oversight of academy chains, over qualified teacher status and around Ofsted. But we were never unable to deal with each other on a personal level. He is a charming and humorous and well-educated and fascinating member of the Government. I really enjoyed my time working with him here at the Department.”

Is it true that Gove’s poor ratings among teachers and some parents undermined his own efforts to tackle disadvantage? “He certainly prompted among people in education a very strong, gut feeling which, if I can put it this way, wasn’t always favourable,” Laws says, diplomatically.

“It did strike me that even when there were areas where we were working in close agreement or where he shared an aspiration to tackle disadvantage, that wasn’t the image of him you saw in the outside world. And once people in politics get an image of an individual, good or bad, it can be quite difficult to shift.”

Ever since he played a leading role in the creation of the Coalition back in 2010, Laws’ own image as a smart, hard-headed pragmatist has endeared him to Lib Dems and Conservatives alike. Highly rated by both Nick Clegg and David Cameron, his loyalty was repaid with a swift return from government exile after his expenses controversy. He’s thrived at the DfE since 2012 and has in recent months found time to lead party policy for the next election, as chairman of the Manifesto Working Group.

The education policy most dear to many Lib Dem hearts is, of course, the pupil premium. Laws is in no doubt about its importance. “I think personally the pupil premium, and the impact it will have over the medium term and long term, is the biggest and most important thing that we have done in Government by a mile. The tax allowance policy is very popular, but I think this will be the most transformative of all the things we’ve done,” he says. “I think it’s exciting to be a part of this, championing and implementing the pupil premium. Not only because we can see the money on the ground, but because we can see the way in which it has changed the whole mindset of schools about disadvantaged youngsters.

“I went into one of the schools in my own constituency recently and went into one of the teaching rooms where they had got on the wall all of their data monitoring of the pupil premium pupils. Photographs of every single one, a life story for each one. And the focus that they now had on them, compared with what they would have had two, three, four years ago, it’s transformative.”

Yet while he’s as proud of the policy as any in his party, he’s also keen on ensuring the money is well spent and tracked by hard data on performance. Evidence so far is thin, but Ofsted reports suggest attainment gaps are beginning to narrow between poorer pupils and their wealthier peers. Laws says that because pupil premium was only rolled out fully this year, he’d be “deeply suspicious” if the data suggested “the world had changed” on attainment. “But the data is good, and it is improving,” he says.

Crucially, the pots of money come with the requirement that schools have to show it is making a difference in Ofsted inspections, the minister says. “They are really conscious that not only have they got the money, which they welcome – it’s probably the most popular thing by a long, long way that we’ve done in education since 2010 – but also the accountability.”

The impact of the premium on school budgets is “enormous”, Laws points out. It is now worth £1,300 per pupil per year, and in schools with 80% of children eligible for the cash, that’s a big chunk of extra funding. But what about the criticism that the cash has only helped make up shortfalls in budgets from other Coalition cuts, and that some schools spend it on maintaining staffing levels rather than driving up performance?

“You’re quite right, the budget for the Department would have been considerably smaller had it not been for the presence of the Lib Dems,” he replies. “Right back in the negotiations in 2010, we insisted on the pupil premium being delivered in a real, tangible way. And without that we just would have had a frozen cash budget, in which case the real budget of schools would have been declining year on year.”

But he says that while the DfE is not prescriptive about how schools spend their extra cash, the Ofsted inspections – with a right to review how underperforming schools are using it – will ensure taxpayers get value for money. “It’s freedom with accountability,” he says, sounding every inch the Orange Booker.

 

 

The minister is also keen to highlight the enthusiasm among young graduates who now want to become teachers. A recent DfE recruitment advert showcased ‘Mr Burton’, one of the stars of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire. “There are lots of people who do want to go into education,” Laws says. “Not necessarily because they want to get paid as much as they would in investment banking, but because it’s a highly motivating and inspiring career where you can really change the world and people’s lives for the better.”

As a former investment banker himself, those words could also be applied to his own decision to swap the City for politics back in the 1990s. And another education policy area where the Lib Dems have been trying to ‘change the world’ has been in tackling homophobic bullying in schools, following up on the party’s 2010 manifesto pledge to step up efforts on the issue.

Laws, along with other education ministers, took part in the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign last month to highlight homophobia in football. The Stonewall initiative was a huge success, but Laws knows it will take time to change attitudes. “I think there are causes for optimism, but these things do take time. A lot of this depends on attitudes and culture and those things don’t turn around on a dime,” he says.

“But the pace of change in attitudes in wider society over the last few years has been quite rapid. If you think that we have had a coalition government led by a Conservative Prime Minister that has legislated for equal marriage, most people wouldn’t have guessed that such a thing could have happened even in the last parliament. There’s now a campaign in sport and things like football that have been closed areas in the past, so all of that suggests things are changing quite rapidly. And young people’s attitudes I think are changing more rapidly than older people. But I’ve no doubt it’s not universal, and it would be unwise to take for granted that there isn’t prejudice still in some schools and institutions.”

The Lib Dems’ policy of tax cuts for the lower paid has been central to their mission in Government over the past four years, and increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500 is a key plank of the pre-manifesto Laws and Nick Clegg recently unveiled. George Osborne has been keen to present tax cuts for the low paid as a Conservative agenda, but on welfare policy and spending, Laws makes clear that he and the Chancellor have not seen eye to eye. And with the Tories proposing further deep cuts in welfare after 2017, the dividing lines between the two parties are clear, he says. “One of the risks the country would face if they return a Conservative majority government is that a lot of these extreme cuts would then be more easily implemented.”

Instead of more cuts, the Lib Dems propose a range of wealth taxes, from pension reliefs to capital gains tax. With Labour now also shifting towards a mansion tax, it’s hard to distinguish between the two parties on that policy. And there are plenty of other areas where they appear to be converging: scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners, compulsory sex and relationship education, more money for housebuilding and opposing welfare budget cuts. Does any of this open up space for a Lib-Lab coalition after 2015?

“No, I don’t think so,” Laws says, firmly. “The Labour party has converged towards us on things like the mansion tax. But on some of the other really big issues there’s still a big gap, and the biggest one of all is on the critical issue of deficit reduction.

“We are saying very much we want to finish off the job, that we want to deliver the existing coalition plans to balance the current budget by 2017/18 and the Labour party are saying ‘well, we will look to do this by the end of the next parliament”. The parties disagree on increasing the personal allowance too. “So on the economic agenda there is still quite a big gap,” he says.

So would it be a dealbreaker in any coalition negotiations if Labour doesn’t sign up to the Coalition deficit-reduction plan? “The economy is absolutely central territory,” Laws replies. “It’s an issue of critical importance, not just with Labour but also with the Conservatives. Because we are also parting company with them post-2017 on welfare.” He adds that the Lib Dems also differ with the Tories on wider spending: “We don’t just want everlasting austerity. We also want to borrow for productive capital investment.”

Ever the pragmatist, Laws stresses that the main factor driving any future coalitions will be the electoral arithmetic. But if there is another hung parliament, he believes that at least the parties will have more time to come to a deal. “I think that last time the circumstances were peculiarly favourable to getting decisions taken quickly because we did have a backdrop of economic crisis. We hadn’t seen a coalition like this before; there was a lot of pressure to form a government very, very quickly.”

He adds that each party will also want to look carefully at any deal offered. “We have a lot of scrutiny in the Lib Dems, but I suspect in any other potential coalition partners, the backbench MPs won’t be as compliant as they were last time where they were just essentially letting all their leaders make the decisions,” he says. “So I don’t think the process can be shorter next time. I think there will be pressure for it to take 24 or 48 hours longer. It could be useful for us to take a little more time. But I’m not in favour of going on for ever. Unlike the [Belgians] we don’t want to be waiting for a year.”

It has been claimed that in those frantic five days in May 2010, Gordon Brown at one stage offered to stay on as PM until a new Labour leader was elected. Would Nick Clegg be open to staying on as DPM while a Lib Dem leadership race was conducted as a condition of any Lib-Lab deal? Laws smiles. “I think that we’ve got a leader who we are proud of who will lead us into the next election, lead us into any coalition talks if there are any, and we won’t be looking for any advice from other parties about who we should have as leader.”

Laws certainly used one infamous piece of advice from Labour to the Coalition’s advantage back in 2010: that Liam Byrne letter to him, declaring ‘there is no money’ left in the Treasury. “It did end up being totemic of the condition of the public finances that Labour left to the UK Government,” he says. “I’ve now had the National Archives ring me up to ask for copies of it. It can sit next to the Magna Carta!”

The publicity severely damaged Byrne’s reputation, as much as Labour’s. As Gove has also discovered in recent months, it proved that Laws can fight his corner as fiercely as anyone. “I felt marginally embarrassed about the amount of publicity that it got. But politics, as I know, is a tough old affair. And I think that it was a risky thing to joke about for a Chief Secretary leaving the public finances in the state that they were.”

Michael Gove, his former ally in the DfE and now Chief Whip gearing up for possibly the roughest election campaign in years, probably couldn’t have put it better himself. 

 

LAWS ON… THE PUPIL PREMIUM

“The awareness of teachers and headteachers about attainment gaps and their determination to close those gaps are much greater than they have ever been before.”

LAWS ON… CHILD POVERTY MEASURES

“We came up with a very good suite of child poverty measures. I was very, very disappointed indeed when this was vetoed by the Treasury.”

LAWS ON… THE RICH

“A part of the process of deficit reduction will have to be through a higher contribution from well-off taxpayers, either through wealth taxes or some taxation of income.”

LAWS ON… FIRMS PAYING THE LIVING WAGE

“It may simply be that they take a decision to prioritise the lowest-paid employees, and their pay increases, over the rest of the workforce.” 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Ollerenshaw: When we start - literally - undermining property rights, is it any wonder the eco-warriors are having a field day on fracking?

Significant questions about the community benefits of fracking remain unanswered, says Eric Ollerenshaw

 

Could the Bowland Basin spark the north-west’s version of the Texas oil rush? This geological feature, with its promise of lucrative shale gas deposits, extends from the Irish Sea across much of Lancashire and even into parts of Yorkshire. In my constituency, some 23% of the land is open for licenses to test and explore for possible fracking sites.

According to one estimate there could be up to £366bn of recoverable gas across the basin, with this new industry promising to bring new jobs and be a game-changer for cheap and secure energy in the UK, as it has been in the USA.

But the UK is not the USA. One of the major differences is that British landowners and householders, unlike their American counterparts, do not own the mineral rights under their land. The fact there will be no direct financial bonanza from drilling under their land has actually taken a while to be widely appreciated.

Now the proposed Infrastructure Bill could remove even the age-old right to withhold permission for drilling under your property. This rather heavy-handed manoeuvre simply reinforces a suspicion that the Government is bowing down too easily to the international oil and gas companies.

When we start (literally) undermining property rights, is it any wonder the conspiracy theorists and eco-warriors are having a field day?

Even leaving aside the much-discussed environmental considerations, legitimate concerns of residents about the effects have to be met with something more than just an appeal to understand our national interest and energy needs. That’s why councils and MPs have been working on a cross-party basis to try to secure assurances of a better deal for Lancashire.

So, we are told areas to be fracked will now get a financial return after all. Companies have pledged to provide ‘community benefits in areas where shale is commercially extracted’, which will apparently comprise £100,000 for communities near exploratory wells and 1% of revenues for every production site. On top of this the Government has now promised local councils will get 100% of business rates – a welcome, if late, addition to the financial promises.

This all feels rather confusing, and a number of significant questions remain unanswered. Most notably, who are the ‘community’? Those on top of the actual fracking process? The local government ward or parish in which it takes place? And how are the financial benefits going to be distributed – by household? Through the council? Can it be spent on anything or will the companies decide? Who is guaranteeing they will pay up? And is 1% really enough of a return?

But perhaps the most significant concern is this: what guarantee do we have that a future Secretary of State for Local Government will not take these financial rewards into account when it comes to deciding on central grants?

If they do, we could find ourselves in a situation where nothing extra will have been gained. That issue could be addressed if revenues are paid into a kind of Trust Fund for Lancashire, along the lines of the Shetland Charitable Trust, to ensure benefits are maintained for the whole county. Only through such safeguards can this new industry begin to be sold to local people. 

 

Eric Ollerenshaw is Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood 

 

 

 

Patrick McLoughlin: We're getting ready to keep Britain moving this winter - whatever the weather

We must heed the lessons of the extremes of recent winters if we are to cope better in the months to come, warns Patrick McLoughlin

 

September is upon us once again. Memories of summer holidays are fading, nights are starting to draw in, and ministers are turning their attention to party conference season. But for the Department for Transport, September is also a time of preparation. This is when we get ready for the winter months ahead, so our transport network remains resilient in bad weather and travel disruption is kept to a minimum. Last year, I was reliably informed that our salt stocks were at a record high and we were extremely well prepared for the snow… Well, I’m pleased to say that our salt stocks are still at those same record levels!

For while 2010 will long be remembered as the year of severe snow and ice, last winter was the wettest on record. From the St Jude storm on 27 October onwards, seemingly unending heavy rainfall, high tides and flooding inflicted significant damage to our transport infrastructure across many parts of the country. Our rail network was badly hit, particularly in the south-west and most dramatically at Dawlish. Many local roads also took a battering, as did some of our ports as the result of turbulent seas and powerful tides, and Gatwick’s North Terminal was partially closed in the busy runup to Christmas.

We’ve provided help to clear up the mess and improve resilience for the future. That’s included £31m for ten rail projects across the south-west, £183.5m for councils to undertake urgent road repairs, and £2m to help our smaller ports get back into working order. In this year’s Budget we also announced a new £200m pothole fund – that’s enough to repair over 3m potholes across the country. And thanks to the efforts of an army of transport engineers – like those who rebuilt the vital Dawlish link in just a few months – much of that unprecedented damage has now been repaired and, in many instances, infrastructure has been made stronger.

The consensus among the scientific community is that extreme winter weather may become more common in future, so it is important that the country is as prepared as it can be. That’s why I commissioned Richard Brown, with excellent support from Brian Smith and John Curley, to undertake a review of the resilience of the transport network to extreme weather events. Their final report was published in July and looked at the impact of extreme weather on roads, railways, ports and airports.

The report was as comprehensive as it was far-reaching. It made some 60 recommendations for action by transport operators and central and local government. These ranged from short-term practical steps – such as those designed to improve basic maintenance of ditches, drains and vegetation – to longer-term recommendations, such as those on the economic signals and legislative provisions which have a bearing upon the resilience of our transport system.

As the report found, there is no silver bullet or single, instant solution that will make our transport network more resilient. What’s required is that everyone involved learns from what happened last year: that the likely impact of severe weather is anticipated, what’s needed to improve resilience is better understood and that services are brought back to normal more quickly.

We have been working over the summer with operators, local and central government to ensure the report’s recommendations are acted upon and we all have the right winter management plans in place. Whilst we cannot say with certainty what the coming winter will be like, it is possible that very severe weather may cause some disruption. If that happens, we will be doing everything in our power to fix any problems, minimise disruption and help keep Britain moving.

We can all take steps to ensure we are better prepared for the rigours of winter weather, from making sure our car tyres are in good order to draught-proofing rickety windows. From October this year, look out for the ‘Get Ready for Winter’ campaign. It is a partnership between the Met Office, Government and the voluntary sector, and will provide all the information that’s needed to help you survive the frosty mornings, snowy days and longer evenings in front of the fire over the coming months.

Patrick McLoughlin is Transport Secretary and Conservative MP for Derbyshire Dales

 

 


 

 

 

Elizabeth Truss: With the right approach Britain can remain a leader in the field

Safeguarding the UK’s ecological balance is vital to our economic prosperity and wider wellbeing, says Elizabeth Truss

 

 

 

Since Coke of Norfolk sparked the agricultural revolution with the development of crop rotation, Britain has been leading the world in the way we grow, produce and eat our food. From the hi-tech labs at John Innes developing the latest strain of disease-free tomato to the gastropub, Britain is a leader in the field. We also play a major role in thinking on air, water and conservation.

This strength is vital to our economy and security. At its most basic, good flood defences, protection from disease outbreaks and food security are vital for investment into the UK. But it is about much more than that. We know how much we all benefit from a high-quality natural environment. People want to understand where their food comes from and have a better connection with the countryside where it is produced. They will increasingly choose where they live and work accordingly. And in raw economic terms, the share of GDP represented by food and drink is growing rather than declining. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. The whole industry, from farm to fork, contributes £97bn to the economy and employs 3.6m people.

As Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I want us to lead the world in this vital area. Our producers must have access to the latest techniques and the best skills. We need to make sure that the best use is made of our land, instead of pushing production overseas through perverse incentives. We should look at the countries that are becoming more competitive and learn from them – as well as the most productive sectors in the UK – to enable producers and manufacturers to do more and do better.

There has been a welcome revival in local food, whether it be the Large Black pig in Norfolk, Wensleydale cheese from Yorkshire or Cornish sardines. It is fantastic to see a step towards a rich food culture, away from the identikit food that bedevilled postwar Britain. We want to do what we can to promote it, increase consumer information, and highlight the benefits of shorter supply chains – eating locally and seasonally. This is about more than just the fantastic taste; it is about identity and connection to our landscape. In the Norfolk Brecks, unique flora and fauna coexist with arable and pig farming. Nearby in the Fens, the black fertile soil – a result of the draining of the land in the 17th century – is perfect for the protected designation Fenland celery.

We are making it easier for government departments, schools and hospitals to buy top-quality local produce, opening up £400m of new supply opportunities to British farmers. In the Defra canteen, we will now be eating British bacon – not Danish bacon – and we are also bringing the benefits of high-quality British food to people across the globe. We’ve been opening overseas markets from the US to China to Japan, increasing exports of UK food and drink by 7% since 2010.

Our consumers must have confidence and clear information about the food they buy. We are cracking down on food fraudsters trying to mislead the public with a new Food Crime Unit. We have improved country of origin labelling – from next year pork and lamb will have this label, following on from beef in 1999. We are enhancing food education so children understand where food comes from as well as nutrition and how to cook it. More consumers are choosing to eat high-quality British produce, with a 10% rise in British beef on sale at supermarkets this year.

We want farmers to be spending their time producing top-quality food, not form filling. I have called for an urgent review of the arbitrary three-crop rule which is part of the Common Agricultural Policy. We want farmers to be growing what the British public want to buy. Our earned recognition scheme means fewer duplicate inspections, saving taxpayers’ money and farmer time. 

Maintaining our natural environment is vital to our country’s future. Over this parliament we will have planted 1m trees, have developed natural corridors and seen thousands of species better protected. We will shortly be completing further work to support bees and pollinators. Water is being better conserved and cleaned up. Defra has world-leading scientists informing policy, and I want the wider public to understand the science that underpins our work to support the natural environment.

Maintaining our biosecurity is vital to keeping our environment as disease and pest-free as possible, and to stopping invasive non-native species entering the UK. We take action pre-border as well as at the border in order to protect our native plants and wildlife. At the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency we have protected the number of veterinary staff and improved coverage to ensure we are resilient in the face of threats.

Earlier this year, we experienced the wettest winter in nearly 250 years. Our flood defences were battered by months of heavy rain. It is critical that those who work the land are involved in the solution, and that is why we are supporting Internal Drainage Boards and making it easier for farmers and landowners to play a role. We have protected frontline flood staff at the Environment Agency and increased our capital investment in flood defences. We are spending £3.2bn in this parliament compared to £2.7bn in the previous parliament, and have also set an unprecedented six-year capital spend commitment right up to 2021.

With the right approach we can continue to be at the forefront of global developments and ensure that in the years ahead we maintain our resilience, improve our natural environment and grow our food.  

 

Elizabeth Truss is Environment Secretary and Conservative MP for South West Norfolk


 

 

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