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On a scratchy mobile phone line somewhere in the suburbs of Mumbai, a desperate mother of baby twins told me a sorry story. Priya, a pharmacist from London, had been stranded in India for almost a year with her husband Pete and their babies. All they wanted was to come home, but they were trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Their plight began in October 2013 after they had twins in Mumbai via a 25-year-old surrogate at a top fertility clinic. After years of infertility, the arrival of the babies was a dream come true – but what happened next illustrates the urgent need to reform UK surrogacy law.
I came across the couple while researching a programme I was making for Radio 4 last month about people in Britain who have children via surrogates. Few MPs are familiar with this unusual way of having a baby, but the practice is gaining ground among those suffering from infertility in the UK. Westminster needs to catch up.
Surrogates act as ‘tummy mummies’ for women unable to carry pregnancies themselves. They agree to hand over the baby to the ‘intended parents’ immediately after birth. In the UK, they can’t advertise or be paid. They may come to a private arrangement, but it’s highly risky for all concerned. The gestational mother retains all legal rights, even if the embryo is not biologically hers, meaning she can refuse to give up the baby at any stage. If the intended parents change their minds, the gestational mother is left with a baby she never planned to keep.
In the US, the legal framework is much tighter, giving all parties clear rights, but the cost is enormous, driving desperate British couples to seek cheaper alternatives in the developing world. Priya and Pete (not their real names) went to India as a last resort after undergoing years of expensive unsuccessful IVF treatment in London.
It’s an increasingly well-trodden path. Indian clinics have high success rates and surrogates are well paid and cared for. Intended parents pay around £20,000, compared to well over £100,000 in the States. In theory, it can work well.
However, as I discovered while researching my radio programme, surrogacy overseas can also go horribly wrong – and not just in extreme circumstances such as the case in Thailand involving a baby with Down’s syndrome. A growing issue is red tape in the UK. Priya and Pete are among a number of British couples recently to fall victim to the long-running troubles at the UK Passport Office.
She wept as she told me how they had gone through their entire life savings, lost their jobs in London and were now in danger of losing their house as they waited, and waited, and waited for the Home Office and Passport Office to issue their twins with passports. It’s a prrocess that used to take three or four months at most; now it seems indefinite.
The twins spent their first birthday without their mother, after she flew home to London in a desperate attempt to sort things out. That’s when we spoke. Afterwards, I helped connect her with her MP, Mary Macleod, who put pressure on the relevant authorities. It seems to have worked. The babies now have passports and are on their way home. No convincing explanation was ever given for the year-long delay, but evidently the problem was not in India but at the UK end.
Some changes to surrogacy law are afoot. From 2015, women who have babies via surrogates will finally be entitled to paid leave from work in the same way as other new mothers and those who adopt. This corrects a longstanding anomaly. But much more needs to be done to encourage surrogacy in the UK, and spare people the agony, expense and legal minefield of going overseas.
Isabel Oakeshott is a political journalist and commentator
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
When Vernon Coaker visits the Cenotaph this Remembrance Day, it will be a time for the private reflection of a nephew as much as the public duty of a politician. “Lots of people will have their own personal stories”, the Shadow Defence Secretary tells The House, when asked what the event means to him. “For me, it’s my uncle.”
On 6 June 1944, Sergeant Vernon Coaker, a 23-year-old commando from the Devonshire Regiment, was killed in a D-day assault on the small French town of Le Plein. After struggling ashore with heavy kit, Vernon and his comrades mounted bicycles – “he’s a commando, and he’s wheeling a bike!” the Labour MP says, almost unbelieving – and made their way through difficult and often swampy conditions to the target. Despite meeting heavy resistance on the road into the town, they succeeded in taking control of several buildings. But as darkness fell, the structure they were sheltering in was hit by mortar fire.
“He’s the iconic figure for my whole family,” Coaker says, after proudly retelling his uncle’s incredible story. “I’m named after him. So even though he died 70 years ago, and I never met him, it’s him I think about. That’s what it means for me.”
2014 of course not only marks the 70th anniversary of D-day, but also the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Remembrance events across the country commemorating these two tremendous moments of history have captured the public’s imagination beyond all expectation; just this week, thousands of people have filed past Paul Cummins’ poppy collection at the Tower of London, and over the course of the installation’s run, the organisers say, more than four million people will have been to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British life lost in the war.
Coaker himself recently visited the display with his wife and was “amazed” to see so many thousands of people “inspired to visit, reflect and remember” the conflict. “There’s been a reawakening, if you like, of a sense of national pride. In a proper sense, not the jingoistic, nationalist sense, but patriotic,” he believes. “Talking to other MPs and the public, everyone’s noticed that the numbers of people who attend remembrance events has risen dramatically. And what’s really noticeable is the numbers of young people who are involved in that and want to know and understand about previous conflicts – the First World War, the Second World War, the Falklands – and also the modern conflicts we’ve been involved with. I think it’s made people realise that speaking about patriotism, speaking about pride, is something that we should all do and can do. And you can see that.”
The final withdrawal of British troops from the most recent of those conflicts last month adds another layer of significance to this year’s Remembrance Day, he continues. “The pullout from Afghanistan, that makes it real for you. I think the fact that there’s been these modern conflicts, and the number of people killed in that conflict and in Iraq, makes it real as well, that sacrifice.”
Coaker says the Armed Forces can be “incredibly proud” of the work they’ve done in Afghanistan, not only in ensuring the country is “no longer a safe haven for terrorists”, but also helping to bring about improvements in political stability, health and education. But he says while the UK will continue to help Afghanistan’s development following the withdrawal, it’s now equally important to shift focus and ensure those troops coming home “are given the support and care they need”. “Some of the people who are veterans now have got decades of life in front of them. You can have quite young veterans. And it’s the job of the country to honour those people who’ve served it. That’s a really important point of principle that we have to actually put into practice.”
The Defence Select Committee last week sounded a warning note about the scale of the challenge facing the MoD on armed forces welfare, publishing a report highlighting the “shocking” backlog of claims for war pensions and compensation payments. The MPs also expressed concern about the long-term impact on troops deployed to Afghanistan, and warned of the need to combat PTSD, domestic violence and “hazardous levels of alcohol consumption” among veterans.
Meeting this huge challenge, Coaker says, will be front and centre of Labour’s offer on defence in 2015, with pledges to enshrine the military covenant in the NHS constitution and make discrimination against service personnel a specific offence already announced. As the military operation in Afghanistan fades from the public eye, he warns, support for those who fought cannot be allowed to slip from the political agenda. “That’s something we must ensure doesn’t happen. Just because something isn’t in the headlines doesn’t mean that the duty of care doesn’t go away.”
The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has also reignited the debate about the size and purpose of Britain’s armed forces, amid warnings that cuts to the MoD budget and the reduction in troop numbers would make a similar long-term commitment to ‘boots on the ground’ all but impossible today. Reports emerged last week that the MoD has been warned by Treasury officials it could even face a further round of heavy budget cuts, of around 7.5%, after 2015/16. The Government played down the story, and neither the Conservatives nor Labour are likely to go into the election pledging heavy cuts to defence, both parties preferring to delay final decisions until after the next Strategic Defence and Security Review due later in 2015. But it’s clear there are more difficult choices to come.
“We’ll look at what the budget will be in the spending review,” Coaker says of the prospect of further cuts, pointing out that “whatever happens, Britain will remain one of the foremost countries in terms of the money it spends on its military”. But, he adds, where the previous SDSR in 2010 was mistakenly based on belt-tightening, the primary focus of the coming review must be a much wider discussion about Britain’s role in the world, as well as its security needs. “What do we want to do? What are our objectives? That’s the debate that’s got to happen,” he explains. “From that, you then say ‘well, this is the capability and the capacity we need to do that’. The country then makes a choice about what it wants to fund and what it wants to do. But that’s the starting point.”
Through its membership of Nato, the EU and the Commonwealth, as well as its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain is still one of the countries best placed to play a leading role as an influential power, he says. But too often “the people who have the least confidence about Britain’s place in the world are ourselves”.
“From my point of view Britain is still, without being jingoistic about it, a significant global figure, and has an important role to play,” he says. “That doesn’t mean every time something happens Britain should go and do something about it. But I think it’s important that we recognise that.”
At a time when many “want Britain to turn in on itself”, he warns, politicians – and particularly the Labour party – have a responsibility to make the case to the public for an outward-looking and engaged UK, whether that involves playing a leading role on humanitarian work, helping to tackle Ebola in West Africa or taking military action to deal with Islamic State (Isis) in the Middle East. “I think it’s incumbent upon politicians,” he says, “to make sure that they explain to the public much more clearly, and in a much more focused way, what the objectives are sometimes of what it is that we’re doing, and what we’re trying to achieve.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a heavy toll on the British public’s appetite for military engagement abroad in recent years; polls last summer showed Britons opposed air strikes against the Assad regime by a majority of two to one, and while support for strikes against Isis militants in Iraq is higher, surveys show it is still some way short of a majority.
Intervention in the Middle East has of course been a particularly sensitive issue for a Labour leadership struggling to reconcile a party still bitterly divided over the 2003 Iraq war. But Coaker is clear that while the Labour leadership was “very much in touch” with public opinion on the decision to oppose military action against Assad, it would be a mistake to interpret the move as a retreat towards isolationism. “Not choosing to intervene militarily with respect to Syria doesn’t mean the Labour party is in a position where it would never support intervention,” he says, pointing to Ed Miliband’s backing for recent strikes against Isis in northern Iraq. It’s a case the party should be more willing to make to the public, he believes.
“The Labour party has always been an internationalist party, proud of its international traditions and its international responsibilities. I think it’s about restating that case and making that case to the public. There’s a difference between wanting to intervene everywhere, and saying to people ‘in these circumstances, we think it is right that Britain operates and works with others to deal with the common problems’. I think it’s a matter of talking to the public about it and being clear about what it is our role in the world is now, as the world changes.
“I think people are really well informed about some of the conflicts and some of the challenges. What people want is for politicians to say what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and how using the military will actually help achieve that. There is a need for that much more careful explanation and analysis when we commit people. And, once the military has done whatever it can do, what then are we trying to achieve?”
In the case of the current military intervention in Iraq, he says, the ultimate aim must be to “create the space” for a long-term political solution to the country’s instability. Is he confident that those lessons have been learned from the UK’s last military intervention in Iraq?
“The important thing about military action is, what are the objectives? There is a military objective, but there also has to be a political objective running alongside that,” he replies. “So the building of a political system, political stability alongside the military, is crucial. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq now, one of the first actions that took place alongside the air strikes was the change of prime minister, to bring in a prime minister who would be much more inclusive of the Sunni parts of Iraq. What you need is for the Iraqi government to take responsibility for ensuring you bring about peace and stability, and to demonstrate to the Sunni people across Iraq, as well as the Shia population that dominates government, that they can bring about the state of Iraq that they want. That is an essential way of building a more stable and secure Iraq in the future, alongside the defeat of Isis.”
But Coaker is clear that this victory will not be achieved quickly. With both Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and US Secretary of State John Kerry predicting a ‘two or three year’ campaign, is Coaker prepared for a long-term engagement lasting well into a Labour government after May’s election? “The reality is they’re a serious threat to us, both in the region and across the globe, and we need to make sure that we combat them and take every necessary step to ensure that happens, for however long that takes,” he replies. “If we win the next election, we will continue to battle against Isis and ensure that we see that through.”
Asked if Labour support for air strikes against Isis could extend to Syria, he stresses the major differences between the situation in Damascus and Baghdad. But his response is also notably qualified. “We’ve made clear our position as it stands at the moment,” he says. “We’ve supported the air strikes in Iraq; we think the position in Syria is a lot less clear. For our part, in the present time, it’s clear that our concentration and focus is on Iraq.”
But alongside military action to tackle Isis overseas, he warns, efforts must also be stepped up to tackle the group’s ideology and propaganda here in Britain. While the most immediate threat comes in the form of British jihadist fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, Coaker says stopping potential recruits “being radicalised and going in the first place” cannot be overlooked. “There is obviously a threat to our country from terrorists, and you have to look at how you deal with jihadists that return,” he says. “But there’s also a big question about what you do to try to prevent people being attracted to go and fight abroad, in a way most of us find unbelievable. We saw recently the four or five from Portsmouth. What’s happened there? What intelligence can we learn from the fact that five people went there? The estimates of people who have gone shows there must be people who, for reasons that are difficult to comprehend, are thinking about doing that. And we need to work with the intelligence services, the police, education, civil services, with the communities themselves, to see how we can support them on that.”
The security services have reportedly warned the Government that their ability to fight Islamist terrorism could be hampered if the UK pulls out of the European Arrest Warrant, with Mark Field – the Conservative MP and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee – even claiming last week that MI5 fear jihadists returning to Europe would view Britain as the EU’s “weak link” and the best place to “go to ground”. David Cameron has promised a Commons vote on opting back in to the EAW this month. But, while the vote will certainly pass, as many as 100 Tory MPs are expected to rebel.
“The Government is in an incredibly weak position on this,” Coaker warns. “We’ve been very clear that we’re very supportive of the European Arrest Warrant. From our point of view, acting in the interests of the country and in the interests of the security of the country, it’s crucial. It’s about keeping our country safe.
“But it’s apparent, given the level of disaffection about the European Arrest Warrant there is on the Conservative benches, that he’ll need the support of Labour to take it through. I think that’s an important point for us to remember.”
And the difficulty the Conservative leadership has gotten into over the EAW is just one part of a much wider problem with their attitude and strategy towards international institutions, he warns. “They’re going around saying ‘we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that’. And we have few friends because of that attitude. It’s very difficult then to try to negotiate with people, when you spend all of your time saying they’ve got it all wrong. If you’re a strong partner, somebody who says ‘look, we support the European Union, but change needs to happen’, then you’re in a much more powerful position to negotiate and to come to a reasonable settlement. But the Prime Minister has got this wrong; it’s much more about appeasing his own backbenchers and Ukip than pursuing the national interest.”
And while a divided Conservative party engages in narrow infighting, he continues, it’s only Labour that can offer the outward-looking – and patriotic – vision Britain needs to succeed. “It goes back to what I was saying before. We are a really important power in Europe. An important power in Nato, and the UN. But you do that through building strong relationships. It’s not contradictory to be a proud, independent country, but also one that has strong alliances and strong friendships and is willing to work and cooperate with others, in each other’s mutual interests. That’s a powerful thing to be, and that’s what we stand for.”
This explicit talk of patriotism is not something you hear every day from Labour politicians. But from the armed forces to Britain’s commitment to international aid, national pride is something Labour must not be afraid to embrace, he says.
“Labour has always been a patriotic party. We’re always proud to stand up for our nation, and we’re the party that says that strongly and loudly. We’re proud of our country, proud of the role we can play across the world. Proud of what we’ve done with our armed forces, but also proud of what we’re contributing to West Africa on Ebola.
“I’m not saying we should be fervent nationalists. But we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about these things and be proud of what our country stands for. We should be proud, and we should speak openly about this pride.”
Few infrastructure projects in recent years have been so divisive. Depending on which side of its tracks you find yourself, High Speed Two will either be a long-overdue and vital boost to the UK economy, bringing the country’s rail network into the 21st century and leading to the creation of a new northern powerhouse, or it will be a political ‘vanity project’, sucking much-needed investment from elsewhere, inflicting irreparable damage on Britain’s environment and leaving behind a £50bn white elephant.
It’s more than five years since the project was first proposed, but ‘Stop HS2’ posters can still be found in shop windows and on front lawns from Camden Town to the Chiltern Hills. A YouGov poll just last week showed public support for the scheme had slipped to its lowest level yet, with just 22% backing phase one of the project, and 55% opposed.
But one thing is increasingly certain: HS2 – or phase one at least – will be going ahead. The project’s Hybrid Bill passed its Commons second reading in April and is now chugging its way through committee stage, on track for likely royal assent in 2016. And as the team at HS2 Ltd begins to take shape, the man charged with turning the project into reality is in bullish mood. “This is about creating a world-class railway that the country’s going to be really proud of, and can say ‘that is better than anything you’ve seen around the world,’” Simon Kirby, the chief executive of HS2 Ltd, tells The House. “This is really mobilising now with some pace. We’ve got one person a day joining the organisation. We’re recruiting 36 senior positions at the moment, right across procurement, design and construction areas. We’ve made some senior appointments, we’ve got an office in Birmingham which we move into next July, which will be the construction headquarters. So it’s really moving on.”
Kirby took up the reins at HS2 Ltd last month after spending a decade at Network Rail where, as the organisation’s managing director for infrastructure, he oversaw some of the biggest upgrades to Britain’s railways since the Victorian era, spearheading the Thameslink programme and the refurbishment of King’s Cross and the Forth Bridge. His immediate task in his new job, he says, is to turn the embryonic planning team into a genuine “design and construction organisation” capable of delivering the project. “The process so far has obviously been focused on the planning, the build, the railway itself. What I want to do now is look much more about ‘what does the service proposition look like in 2026? What’s the experience going to look like? What will the trains look like?’”
The idea, he explains, is to mobilise the design of these elements “much earlier” than in comparable projects, including Crossrail, to avoid costly problems later down the line and ensure HS2 can hit the ground running once construction begins in earnest in 2017.
“What we are doing is we’re going to spend longer in the design and planning steps, less in construction, and that’s why we’re really mobilising the team now,” he explains. “It’s much earlier than other programmes. The Hybrid Bill is still in the Houses of Parliament, and we’re targeting the end of 2016 before royal assent. Instead of the programme then starting to mobilise design at that point, we’re doing it much earlier. So when we get into things like ordering rolling stock in three years’ time, we’ve really thought through what the outcomes are going to be.”
While Kirby is the first to accept the project is sensitive, he’s unapologetic about its necessity and the benefits it will bring the country. “We’ve got to consider that the route goes through communities, it goes through countryside and we’ve got to respect people who live in those areas. I fully respect and fully understand some of their views,” he says. “So we’ve got to do it as considerately as we can, but we’ve also got to take a view that the economy and growth for future generations is based around having infrastructure that will support that. The need and the case for HS2 is very much based around the future growth of the country, and I think all parties now have an understanding that investing in future infrastructure is the only way of underpinning the future growth of the country.”
But it’s far from just environmental groups like the Woodland Trust and nimby campaigners opposing the plans. The Institute for Economic Affairs, a free-market thinktank, has also rubbished the proposals as a “headline-grabbing” waste of public funds which, they say, would be better spent on upgrades which deliver higher returns. And in a report last year, the National Audit Office said the business case for HS2 had been “poorly articulated”, warning it had “reservations” about claims that faster journey times would boost regional growth. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin responded to the report by admitting that promoting HS2 on the basis of speed had been a mistake, describing the proposed 20-minute cut in journey times between London and Birmingham as “almost irrelevant”.
Kirby remains understandably reluctant to criticise the early publicity job done by his predecessors, but says that for him, the case for HS2 has always been about improving capacity and connectivity rather than speed. “Whether it was communicated well at the time, I don’t know – I wasn’t around. I wouldn’t want to criticise people because hindsight is an easy thing. But certainly the case for High Speed Two is much more about the capacity argument than the speed argument,” he says, adding that “in a sense”, even the choice of the name High Speed Two itself was “unfortunate”. “But it would be a bit of a long name if you put all the benefits of the programme in. My business cards aren’t big enough for that…”
Key to the business case for High Speed Two is fare affordability, with ministers long insisting the network will not become ‘a rich person’s railway’. Commuters travelling on domestic services on HS1, the Channel Tunnel fast link between Kent and London, pay much higher fares than those using the regular network, but the Government has promised HS2 passengers will not face a ‘premium’. Does that mean fares for HS2 will be equal to their equivalent conventional rail services?
Kirby says he hopes fares will be “comparable” with those of “the faster inter-city routes today”, but admits that with decisions on things like transport devolution still to be made, it is difficult to “speculate” about the situation in 2026. “Today there is variation in fares between long distance, short distance, what part of the country, and they’re set by a mix of government and in some cases regional decision makers. So who knows, with all the discussion with devolution, where we’ll be in 2026? There is a lot of choice, there is a lot of time to change decisions on fare pricing before 2026. I wouldn’t want to speculate on that.
“The key thing, from my perspective, is High Speed Two needs to be an affordable product. To enable the growth we’ve targeted, it needs to be comparable with other railway routes. And that’s what it will be.”
With public support flagging, Kirby is also more aware than anyone of the importance of delivering the project on time and within budget. He says Ed Balls was “absolutely right” to insist, in his conference speech last year, that the project cannot be given a “blank cheque”. “We’ve got a budget, and we’ve got to deliver within that envelope,” Kirby says. “That’s a basic requirement, and something we’ve just got to do as a professional programme management team. And that’s really why we’re mobilising much earlier than Crossrail did.”
Delivering the project on budget and within the timescale set out is particularly vital, he adds, to ensure phase two of the project between Birmingham and the north enjoys continued political support. The Hybrid Bill passing through Parliament only covers phase one of the project between London and the West Midlands. Is he confident that the political will for phase two will be maintained in future years?
“There is a case on its own for phase one,” he says. “I think this is about really professionally delivering phase one, within time, within budget, and support will grow. I think it’s down to keeping momentum and keeping confidence in the programme. That will keep support for phase two.”
But he also reveals he is looking into how work can begin earlier on the second phase. The current plan is to open the Y-shaped lines between Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds in 2033, but Kirby believes there is scope to open parts of the line “incrementally” before that date. “When we deliver phase one [in 2026], you’ll be able to get a high-speed train from Euston to Glasgow, Euston to Manchester, Euston to Liverpool, where it will go on a high-speed network to Birmingham and then it will branch off to the normal lines used today. So the impact of shorter journey times and more capacity is created in 2026,” he says. “But the second phase and how that is then introduced, I think there is a lot more work that can be done on bringing some of that in earlier. So the benefit is not sort of 2026 and then the 2030s. It’s something that will grow incrementally.”
While a project on the timescale of HS2 brings with it difficulties, it also represents a “massive opportunity” to change the nature of the construction industry itself, he continues. “It’s not just about creating great infrastructure – it’s about how we do it. The Olympics and Crossrail have done some really good work in the use of UK-based companies and apprenticeship programmes. But we can go one step further, because of the timescale of the programme. We’ve got an opportunity on phase one to create 2,000 apprenticeships; we’ve got the skills college being built in Birmingham and Doncaster. And those girls and boys who join those apprenticeships, we can create careers for them because of the timescale of the programme. Phase one creates 40,000 jobs, and working very closely within the industry will enable us to do things that other programmes just haven’t been able to do, because we’ve got longer to plan and do them.”
One area Kirby is particularly keen to look at is diversity in the construction industry. “If you go to any rail or construction industry event, you know they are not diverse groups of people,” he explains. “So how can we attract girls in schools today to pursue engineering careers, to contribute to HS2? It’s something we’re very focused on.”
The organisation has launched an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy, alongside its education programme aimed at stimulating young people’s interest in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and moves to encourage girls to consider a career in the field. Latest figures show women make up fewer than 20% of people working in rail, and just 4.4% of the sector’s engineering workforce.
“We want the best people we can get on this programme, and if it’s not a diverse team, by definition we haven’t got the best people we can get,” Kirby says. “When we open High Speed Two in 2026, I want the industry to look back and say ‘yeah, that’s the programme that changed the type of people we have in construction’.”
For Kirby, HS2 is far more than just a major rail project – it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform how we build infrastructure in this country. It’s a bold aim. But as HS2 Ltd takes shape, Kirby is as confident as ever that he can keep the project on track.
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
My eyesight has been improving,” says Danny Alexander. “They say you get more long-sighted as you get older, and I was slightly short-sighted to start with. So maybe that process has delivered a short-term benefit.”
It’s a typically matter-of-fact, cost-benefit analysis from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when asked just why he no longer wears glasses.
His changed image became the subject of fevered speculation in Glasgow after he delivered last month’s party conference speech without specs, tie or jacket. Talk of a future Liberal Democrat leadership bid, fuelled by praise from Nick Clegg, was rife. But today as he sits in his Treasury office, Alexander’s message seems to be ‘what you see is what you get’, in many senses of the phrase. And while he can see clearly now, the reins – on spending at least – haven’t gone.
With the Autumn Statement just weeks away, he’s firmly focused on keeping costs down, while proving to the voters that the Lib Dems have been key to the recovery.
Yet although he’s never the type to go on a spending spree, Alexander’s work overseeing infrastructure projects allows the Coalition to point to areas of targeted investment to help growth.
Just back from visiting an HS2 site, the Chief Secretary makes clear that he will have much more to say in December about the progress made to date on roads and other building schemes.
“The National Infrastructure Plan [unveiled last year] has been a brilliant innovation of this government. One of the things I want to use it for this year is really to show how much has actually been delivered, projects started, projects finished, projects getting under way.
“There really is a step change in the attitude and the delivery of infrastructure projects because people can see this is a long-term plan for the railways, roads. But the other thing is that having set out those headline budgets, I want to be able to try and fill in for people as much as possible what the strategy would mean in practice.”
Alexander makes plain that road-building will be a priority, not least on routes like the A303. “In the south-west, it’s a key economic artery. That route and others around the country, I want to use the Autumn Statement to set out this is what we are going to do over the next five to 10 years and this is the vision for what we actually want this route to be,” he says. “The Chancellor has been talking about the ‘northern powerhouse’ and all that. I want to do something similar for some other parts of the country. There are six routes which we identified as ones that are of major strategic importance to the country. The A303 is one, the A1 north of Newcastle is another, the A47 is a third.”
For the first time, he says full detail will be given in the Autumn Statement. “We want to fill in some of those gaps, give some more detail, not just objectives but detailed plans for what we can do.
“The important thing about what we did in the 2013 spending round was really to match what we’ve been doing with the railways on the roads. So the railways have got the largest programme of investment now since Victorian times. That really is delivering now some significant changes to the rail network.
“But our road network has been really neglected since the 1970s. You’ve had 30 or 40 years of nothing much happening. We set out some pretty chunky sums of money for the roads, growing over the course of the next parliament, and I want to fill out for people what we are going to do with that.”
Acutely aware that the next election will be as much about comparing the Coalition’s record with Labour’s as a future programme, he says that even in austere times it’s been possible to find cash for schemes that help the economy. “The road investment is about saying the quality of our infrastructure is actually one of the areas where the UK has fallen behind. Back in 2010, we were 33rd in the world league. That’s just not good enough for a country that aspires to be the best place in the world to do business. And roads have been a weak spot for a very long time. I want us to be near the top of those league tables and that will take years and years and years to do.”
As the clock ticks down to next May, there have been reports recently that George Osborne is preparing a ‘giveaway’, even if some Whitehall departments have missed their savings targets. One newspaper even quoted a friend of the Chancellor saying: “George’s view is, ‘I can put my hand down the back of the sofa and come up with a few coins. Let’s make sure they land in the right parts of the country.’”
So, are there any holes in the sofa hiding some coins? He laughs and points to the threadbare settee and armchair in his office. “There’s a hole in that chair, but it obviously hasn’t been replaced because that wouldn’t be in keeping with the general run of austerity,” he says. “Departments have to live within their budgets – full stop. But at every fiscal event, Budget, Autumn Statement, we look at what are the things we want to do to take our economic strategy further, what are the things we want to do to help people with the cost of living. But in each and every case when we come up with an idea like that, we have to find a way to pay for them. There is no point someone coming up with an idea for what they want to do unless they can also say ‘here’s how we will pay for it’.”
The FT also reported recently that Alexander had used a recent Cabinet meeting to warn colleagues that they may have to rein in spending once more. Is that true? “I’m not going to comment on what’s said at Cabinet meetings, that’s not my style,” he replies. “What I would say is that the most important priority we started this parliament with, the reason we formed the Coalition, was to get the public finances under control and maintain that control. And right now there are some risks around. You look at the eurozone, you look at tax receipts, which are not picking up as fast as the economy is recovering. We have to be alert to those risks and we have to make sure that the country is in a position to get through those things.
“And so my first priority for the Autumn Statement, the Budget, for as long as I’m in government – because I believe this is profoundly in the interests of every person in the United Kingdom – is to make sure that we deliver on the objectives we set out. And that has to come first, before all sorts of other things that different people might like to do. If I’m often the bringer of unwelcome tidings, well, so be it.”
Chief Secretaries are certainly harbingers of doom for high spenders. But what does he say when ministers tell him that there’s no more fat to cut, that further cuts would eat into the bone of services?
Alexander is as firm as ever, clearly immune to the ‘bleeding stumps’ waved by some departments. “There won’t be another spending round till the next parliament. My experience has been that actually when you sit down and look at how efficient government is, you find there are ways to improve. I remember back in 2010 people telling us ‘you will never meet your objectives on government efficiency’. Actually, we’ve over-achieved, and Francis Maude and his team working with the Treasury have done a really good job on that. And they now say to me we think we can do even more in the next parliament.”
Given his stress on only committing to promises that can be funded, what did he make of the Chancellor’s recent Tory conference pledge to offer £7bn of income tax cuts in the next parliament? Has he had the chance to rib his colleague about ‘unfunded tax cuts’? “I have made the point, yeah,” he smiles, before quickly adding: “I’m not going to go into the conversations we’ve had.”
He does, however, attack the Conservatives for “unfairly saying that they want all the burden to be done through spending, and particularly through welfare savings on the working poor.”
To shift the balance would be to undermine one of the Coalition’s main achievements, he argues. “The basic way that the impact of deficit reduction has been shared across society, with the wealthiest part of the population paying the greatest share of their incomes, there aren’t any other countries that have achieved that. And it’s something that I’m pretty proud of.”
While regarded by many as the ‘axeman’ of the Treasury, Alexander is also seen by his own party as the man who has led the charge to raise more from the wealthy through tax loophole crackdowns, capital gains tax and pension reliefs. “I think as a party we don’t get enough credit for the work that we have done to rescue the British economy,” he says. “That is my work here on spending and on raising money and things like delivering the income tax cuts, Vince’s brilliant work on industrial strategy, apprenticeships, further education, on science policy. It’s Ed Davey’s brilliant work on making sure we’ve got the biggest amount of investment in renewable energy that we’ve ever seen in the country’s history. Look at what Nick’s done to champion the regional growth agenda.
“I don’t believe that the recovery would be as fair or as balanced or as sustainable as it is without the Liberal Democrats. I think that is something we need to shout about from the rooftops. It’s something that I intend to spend the next six, seven months doing, in TV debates and other things.”
Alexander will certainly get an unprecedented national profile if the TV debates go ahead. This month it was confirmed that Nick Clegg had decided to make Alexander the party’s ‘Shadow Chancellor’ for the general election campaign, a role last held by Vince Cable.
But just how difficult will it be to really go for George Osborne’s jugular, having spent the past four years working with him hand in glove? “Of course these TV debates are a new challenge for me personally. It’s something that I’m looking forward to, but we have a lot of work to do to get it right,” he replies. “Will it be difficult debating with George? No, absolutely not. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last four years arguing with George, maybe we are going to see some of those in public for once. I relish that. I think that we have got the best message, I will have the best message. We are the most economically credible party. I get on well with George. We get on well together, that’s important in a coalition to be able to work effectively with people. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have differences that can be exposed in those debates.”
It’s unclear which of his colleagues will pretend to be Osborne in any role-play ahead of the TV debates. Tim Farron famously played the role of Nigel Farage as part of Clegg’s prep for his bout with the Ukip leader this year. Alexander reveals that he has past experience of taking on another persona. “When Nick was leader and I was his chief of staff, I used to play Gordon Brown in the rehearsals we did for PMQs every week,” he laughs. “I have a very good Gordon Brown impression.”
In his own conference speech this year, Clegg revealed that the Chancellor had privately objected that raising the tax threshold by £1,000 would result in a ‘Lib Dem Budget’. Was that true? “It was a massive increase, that’s what we had wanted to do. We had to fight very hard to agree that. We had to agree some very important things.” Including the cut in the top rate from 50p to 45p? “The stuff on the top rate I was happy to go along with, because it’s economically rational and it was in the context of other measures which asked the wealthy to pay much more. But that was a big thing for the party.”
So was it a Lib Dem Budget or a Tory one? “He delivered a Coalition Budget. All of these Budgets have had as much of my stamp on them as his. That’s the way it should be in a coalition.”
Yet with the election looming, some Lib Dems feel Alexander should perhaps have done more earlier on in the parliament to differentiate the party in the Treasury from the Tories.
Vince Cable has recently suggested that tax rises could further sharpen the dividing lines. He told Newsnight during the party conference that the current 80-20 split of spending cuts and tax rises would have to change in the next parliament. How surprised was Alexander by that? “I think what he’s saying is basically the approach we are adopting. The Conservatives have said all of this has to be done through spending cuts. Vince is absolutely right to say, as I would say, that we have to be careful about where we find those savings.
“But as I said in my conference speech, my priority is to use tax as the instrument to make sure that the overall balance is fair. I think 80-20 broadly achieves that, 78-22 or 79-21, that doesn’t bother me.”
Would going any higher in the tax stakes send out the wrong message about the Lib Dems? Alexander is firm. “My own view as the person who has spent time in government actually looking at all these budgets is that the remaining savings can be safely achieved with that sort of balance overall.”
Is the danger he’s worried about that the Lib Dems would be seen as a party of tax hikes rather than sensible spending? “To my mind, it’s much more about what is the right way to handle this in terms of having a deficit-reduction programme that is sustainable and delivers results for the country. All the evidence is that that sort of balance that I’m suggesting is best.”
But what about Cable’s claim that some departments would be hammered by the 80-20 split, particularly those which aren’t ringfenced such as the armed forces, police, local government and others? “Well, it’s logically correct that if you protect one department then you are making savings elsewhere. In my view, the protections are a statement of the bleeding obvious.
“No one in their right mind would be able to or wish to cut the health budget in real terms given all the pressures there. And that’s by far the largest chunk of public expenditure. International aid is a political commitment and one I’m passionate about. That’s a political choice, and one of the consequences is that you have to look harder at other areas.”
The party certainly changed tack this summer when it unveiled a new golden rule to allow borrowing for ‘productive investment’. Alexander underlined the approach in his conference speech. “What we are saying is our first priority is to finish the job, dealing with the structural deficit by March 2018. Once that first task is complete, then we put in place a new set of fiscal rules, and number one would be getting the national debt down as a share of GDP to a sustainable level by the mid-2020s, that sets the framework. But provided you are meeting that goal, then borrowing for the most productive investment is the right thing to do. I’ve seen in government the difference we can make with targeted investment in infrastructure. And the more of that we can do as a country the better.”
Just how well the Liberal Democrats will do after May will determine whether they can keep on affecting big decisions on tax and spending. And although the Deputy Prime Minister is secure in his post until then, speculation has centred of late on who will succeed him.
In his own speech in Glasgow, the Lib Dem leader all but anointed his former chief of staff as a possible successor, heaping praise on him as the man “responsible for the really tough job of repairing the damage to our public finances”. Alexander’s profile has certainly increased in the past year, so much so that a photo of him strolling in the Highlands went viral on Twitter, courtesy of a ‘Danny Walks’ meme. “The Danny Walks thing was hilarious,” he says. “I was at the Sheffield Lib Dems dinner and someone at the next table said ‘have you seen all these pictures?’” He decided to join in, tweeting his own version. It all stemmed from him adopting a Facebook profile photo from one taken by the Sunday Times for an interview. “When I saw it in the paper I thought it was one of the best pictures that I had seen of me,” he smiles. “I’m not that photogenic, so when you see a good one you want to make the best of it.”
As for Twitter, are other ministers a bit too nervous of it? “I’m a bit nervous of it, but I’ve tried to conquer my nerves! It’s a good way of communicating, a lot of people don’t necessarily realise as a politician all the different things you do, it’s a good way of showing people what you’ve been up to.”
And although it sparked an over-excited reaction, his decision to drop his tie for his conference speech was a deliberate move to soften his image. “I am much more relaxed than people think I am, and I wanted to show it,” he says. “And it actually made me more relaxed in delivering the speech and made it a better speech. I don’t wear a tie unless I have to. I think when you are amongst friends at a party conference, it’s not one of those occasions when you have to.”
He dismisses as “trivial” the attention he got for ditching his specs. “I just don’t need them. I don’t need to wear glasses to see you or things in this room. I still wear them if I’m addressing a big event or if I’m driving my car, I hate contact lenses.”
But with David Cameron and Boris Johnson recently starting to wear glasses, isn’t he heading in the opposite direction? “As in many other things…” he jokes.
He may or may not be heading in the direction of his party’s leadership. But for Danny Alexander, being more long-sighted is clearly the future.
ALEXANDER ON…FUEL DUTY
“I’m a Highland MP, if you live in my constituency a car is a necessity. It’s been one of the biggest hits on people’s budgets.”
ALEXANDER ON…LIB DEM AVIATION POLICY
“I personally don’t think there would be any merit in coming and having another debate about it in spring conference next year.”
ALEXANDER ON…PRIVATISING THE HIGHWAYS AGENCY
“That’s not an option I am particularly interested in.”
“The Tories’ maniacal focus on Europe is very much anti-business, anti-growth.”
ALEXANDER ON…THE OTHER PARTIES
“Labour and Conservative parties are feeling increasingly desperate about the election next year and they are both lurching in directions that are increasingly economically incredible.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
As a keen cyclist, Mary Creagh is used to the odd puncture. But on a train journey this year, she was surprised to find herself on the sharp end of a different kind of commuter experience.
“I was on First Capital Connect and there was a wire sticking out of the seat that punctured into my leg,” the Shadow Transport Secretary explains. Like a growing number of passengers fed up with poor service, she took direct action by taking a photo on her smartphone of the “evil metal spike”.
“I’m a live-tweeter and I tweeted it. You don’t want some little child getting their leg ripped open,” she says. “There was an immediate response [from the company]: ‘What’s the number of the carriage? We will take it out of service’.” The firm also asked if she was OK and offered a helpline if she’d damaged her clothes.
The story is the perfect vignette of Creagh’s hands-on approach to her brief, trying to get companies to change their ways through a combination of passenger power, digital transparency and political intervention. And with transport emerging as one of the hot topics in key marginal seats ahead of the General Election, the Wakefield MP has been nothing if not active. From taxi safety to rail fares, from bus service cuts to devolved powers for cities, her office seems busier than Clapham Junction.
Born and raised in Coventry, Creagh spent eight years as a London councillor before becoming MP for her West Yorkshire seat in 2010. Since taking up her current brief last year, she has been struck by just how different the capital’s transport network and powers are from other parts of Britain. Nowhere is that difference more stark than in bus services, she says.
“The rest of the country comes to London and cannot believe that fares are cheaper in London than they are elsewhere. They are 35p to 40p cheaper than in places like Wakefield to go longer distances, and it crosses all modes.
“You’ve got an Oyster card that works on Underground, Overground, absurd cable car, trams, on everything. We don’t have that integration in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, the north-east. It’s a huge problem and it is holding our city region economies back.”
In Lord Adonis’s recent devolution report, the Labour peer was clear that Whitehall should be devolving about £2bn of the transport budget. Creagh admits “that’s quite a big chunk of my change going out” of the DfT, but says it would be worth it. “Other European cities are much better at allowing cities to grow,” she says. “We have a very disjointed process.”
In the 2008 Transport Act, Labour made it easier for local authorities to pursue a ‘quality contract’ with private bus companies and the north-east is the furthest ahead of other areas in trying to make it work. Creagh hints that a new Labour government would introduce further legislative change to make the contracting process “faster, easier, less risky to take that step”.
“The mechanisms haven’t been there for Midlands and northern authorities to come to the Treasury and argue their case for funding. I think the regulatory framework isn’t there for them to say to bus operators ‘this is how we are going to do it and these are the routes we want to run’. I’m very keen to see that.”
Creagh says that in Wakefield, local bus services to semi-rural areas are effectively a skeleton service before 9.30am and after 6.30pm. Across the country, there are “absurd” services where some rural areas have “one bus out on Monday, and a bus back on Wednesday”. Since 2010, some 1300 bus routes have been axed nationwide, she adds. “In places like North Yorkshire, it’s a wasteland. It’s a real pity, it cuts off people’s access to shops, GPs, work, education.”
And yet bus companies receive nearly £2bn in public subsidy. It’s money that Creagh is determined to target to improve services. “So we are looking as part of our zero-based review at the subsidy that goes into buses; at the fact that it is allocated on miles not passengers carried. We have to look at reform.”
At the same time services are being cut, bus fares have risen by 25% since 2010, five times wage levels. Yet some companies like Stagecoach in Tyne and Wear are making 28% margins, she says. So is the bus market outside London a ‘broken market’? “What market? There was a flurry of competition in the 1980s and in the end it settled down into six big operators with a few regional players and smaller operators,” she says.
“I want those small operators to stay in business. I like competition, but the question is how do you get competition that works in the public interest? You can only do that if you plan centrally, and the deregulation model says the market will provide.
“You need an internal cross-subsidy in the market…that should grow the market share. Nobody thinks there’s a problem getting a bus in London. There’s no stigma attached to it. You go on the new bus, admiring the beautiful design of the seat, cursing the fact that the windows don’t open upstairs…but it’s an iconic thing.
“There’s a feeling outside London still that if you have a choice, you don’t choose the bus. And it’s because the information isn’t necessarily clear, the times aren’t regular, it’s not just a ‘turn-up-and-go’ service, it’s not integrated with railways, there’s no real-time information, different firms don’t accept each other’s tickets.”
In the capital, bus ridership has also soared in part because new smartphone apps allow passengers to know exactly when their bus will turn up. Outside London, “bus companies won’t give that information…[and] the same goes for rail companies.
“Transport for London has released that data and apps have flourished. We’ve got a problem in a digital age where we have got operators who feel that they own it [the data] even though we are putting in a lot of subsidy. I’m very keen that we have real-time information available for people and there is none of this ‘we own it, you can’t have it’ business.
“It should be a passenger-focused transport network, not a producer-focused transport network.”
One particular area where Creagh would like more transparency is in train companies’ services for disabled passengers. She says disabled people are not aware that under the passenger charter they are guaranteed a seat in standard class on a train. “I met one lady in Stevenage paying £7,000 for a first-class ticket into London, more than her mortgage, so that she could be guaranteed a seat. And she didn’t know of her rights. It’s just incredible.”
There’s another example too. “People don’t know that if their local station is inaccessible for them then the train operating company will pay for a cab to take them to the nearest accessible station. It’s the best-kept secret on the railway. Every time I tell people that, people are grateful. The train operating companies are like ‘we don’t mind paying that’; I go ‘why is it a secret?’.
As for the new threat to taxi firms in London, Creagh is wary of the new app-based firm Uber. She is pleased TfL has referred Uber to HMRC for possible tax avoidance, and has concerns too over its protections for women travelling. “We can’t stop new technology but what we have to do is make sure people get home safely every time.”
But the Shadow Transport Secretary seems keener on car-sharing apps, such as that run by French firm BlaBlaCar, which offer a cheap, environmentally friendly way to travel from city to city.
“Isn’t it just like hitchhiking, but match-made? I used to drive hundreds of miles a day to work in Cranfield [School of Management, where she taught entrepreneurship]. I had a rule which was as a single woman driver, I always stopped for a hitchhiker.
“They were all men. I would always pick them up, and nothing bad ever happened. I never picked up a woman hitchhiking. I stopped on the hard shoulder once to pick some guys up going to Millwall. Their coach had broken down and I thought, ‘these guys have got to get to the match and I’ve got an empty car’.” She smiles: “In the end I had slightly too many people in the car…but they were so happy.”
Creagh also has fond memories of her youth and car-sharing. “I didn’t have a car growing up and I spent a lot of my life waiting at bus stops, and our family was always incredibly grateful when neighbours would stop and give us a lift. So I think it’s good karma,” she says.
“I’ve had times when public transport has let me down and I’ve had to hitch as a young person. You are relying on the goodness and the kindness of strangers to get you home safely, and 99.9% of people are actually really nice.”
The absence of a family car growing up also meant that a teenage Creagh took to two wheels. “I had a yellow racer, BSA was my first bike as a 16-year-old. ‘Bloody Sore Arse’, that’s what I used to call it,” she laughs.
“Cycling when I started in this country used to be what people who didn’t have a car did, I did it not because it was trendy. Now it’s become a sort of…for some people it’s an ideological symbol, for others it’s a sort of status symbol and they are going round on bikes worth more than my car. We have the full spectrum. But with just 2% of people cycling in this country, it’s just not good enough.
“I want to see cycling planned into A roads when we are designing our new roads. It can’t be an afterthought; it can’t not be segregated. I think people want to feel physically separated.”
Many people take up cycling to save on the cost of travelling to work, and for Creagh, tackling fares is central to Labour’s ‘cost of living’ narrative at the next election. So just how many marginal seats does she think will be affected by the fares issue? “I’d say about 20,” she replies. “Reading, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Peterborough, Stevenage; three in Brighton; Crawley, some of the Kent seats, are all in there.”
One Kent seat in particular has of course had more attention than most lately: Rochester and Strood. What more does Creagh think Labour should be doing to combat Ukip?
“We need to be talking about our plans to have an economy that works for working people, our plan to raise the minimum wage to £8, to end zero-hours contracts, to tackle agencies who only recruit from overseas,” she says.
“We have a good suite of policies and when we talk to people about them, they think ‘yeah, all that should be done’, but it’s like they haven’t heard us saying them. Ed and Yvette have both been out there giving a whole series of speeches on immigration; I think we now need to translate it into campaign materials, leaflets.”
She also believes her party has to be comfortable with the issue. “We are the Labour party; we do like talking about the NHS, and we are right to talk about the NHS. Perhaps there are some colleagues who feel nervous talking about immigration. I certainly don’t.
“I think immigration has brought enormous benefits to our country and we should continue to be a welcoming, open society. But we also need to acknowledge the strain on schools, public services and the fact that people want to feel that people have put into a society before they start taking something out.”
Creagh adds that “nobody’s in love with politicians at the moment and we are branded as the Westminster elite”. Yet when asked if she’s optimistic that Labour will win the next election, she replies: “I think we can, I think we will.”
And while Ukip is a danger, she believes Europe will be more the Tory party’s undoing than Labour’s. “I think by-election behaviour and European election behaviour is different to general election behaviour,” she says.
“We are not complacent, but Farage is running rings around David Cameron and the Conservatives are changing positions more often than the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has got more positions than the Kama Sutra at the moment, depending on who he’s talking to.”
When it comes to transport policy, Mary Creagh has certainly been trying to run rings around the Coalition herself. And as one of the most prolific tweeters in the Shadow Cabinet, she has again been busy on social media, chivvying both ministers and train companies. In the past week alone, she’s tweeted her thoughts on HS3 and ‘stealth fare rises’ and urged Virgin Trains to open up first-class carriages to delayed passengers forced to stand in standard class.
On her Twitter profile, she is a self-styled ‘cyclist, cook, wife, mum, fruit grower, Labour MP for Wakefield and Shadow Transport Secretary’. But if Creagh’s campaigning can help swing 20 marginal seats, at least one of those job descriptions could change next May.
CREAGH ON… FUEL PRICES
“We are in a situation similar to the energy companies where prices rise like a rocket and fall like a feather.”
CREAGH ON… TAXI DEREGULATION
“We have to make sure we keep the rogues off the road.”
CREAGH ON… MINICAB APP UBER’S TAXES
“Let’s have a look at this. TfL have been quite activist on this, which I welcome.”
CREAGH ON… SAFER CYCLING
“We will have a renewed focus on HGV safety and also in Brussels looking at lorry and cab design.”