Tuesday, 31 March 2009


I’m not a fan of swimming against the tide, because it’s an energy-intensive pastime and in politics you have to take people with you if you’re going to be effective. But I can’t help thinking we’ve all got rather too hysterical about MPs’ pay and expenses in recent days.

I don’t wish to exonerate Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty or any other MPs who have submitted dubious expenses claims. There are bad apples in every barrel, and I don’t know whether they count as bad apples or not – we have a parliamentary standards commissioner to judge that. What I do know is that being an MP is a fiendishly difficult job, and that people need to understand that before they condemn MPs for what they earn and claim.

When you’re an MP, your life is barely your own. You’re expected to be on call pretty much the whole time, you’re every move is monitored, you can’t even get irritated with an overzealous parking attendant without someone seeing it and citing it as a bad example of how to behave. The hours are long, job security uncertain, and the privacy virtually non-existent, to the point where it can drag in innocent victims like an MP’s partner and children.

It’s better for those in the south-east, because they spend less time travelling than those from further afield, but it’s hardly surprising many spouses end up working for their other halves – it may be the only time they see each other! I’ve never met an MP of any party who hasn’t had moments of wondering whether it’s all worthwhile, nor a parliamentary candidate who hasn’t questioned whether he/she is a mug for standing (this mug included).

You may say it’s a voluntary profession that one doesn’t have to apply for. But many people go into politics to do some good and are then sucked into an artificial world where the original aim gets lost in the mire of political mechanisms. So if they’re paid £63,000 a year and are allowed to claim some expenses, is the system really at fault, just because a few people abuse it and one prominent MP’s husband watches a couple ‘adult’ films?

Of course we could pay MPs the average salary of around £30,000. But then a lot of good people will decide it just isn’t worth the hassle, we’ll end up with a worse House of Commons intake, and we’ll be moaning about the quality of our politicians even more than we do at present. Do we really want that?

I’m not saying nothing should be reformed. MPs must stick to the letter and spirit of the rules, and the idea that MPs with London constituencies should have second-home allowances is ridiculous and open to abuse.

But let’s get our priorities right. Most MPs are clean, and paid less than their counterparts in other countries (and MEPs). And if we’re going to have a go at Jacqui Smith, it’s much more important to condemn her actions over holding suspects without charge, ID cards and other threats to our civil liberties than whether she’s signed an expenses claim that includes a couple of films her husband watched that we wouldn’t want our children seeing.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


When a decision is made that seems so utterly mind-numbingly wrong, it’s always good to ask – as dispassionately as possible – why it was made. After all, if it was that wrong, why couldn’t everyone have seen it?

I find myself in this position over the fact that the incinerator in Newhaven that will soon burn much of the county’s rubbish has finally got the go-ahead. This is a quite appalling decision, which is no better for the fact that we have had several months to steel ourselves for it.

Although Newhaven is not in Wealden, Wealden is most assuredly affected by the incinerator. This is both in environmental terms (lorries thundering through carrying hazardous waste, airborne pollutants being blown north, etc) and through the cost that will affect every council tax payer in East Sussex (the latest estimate for the incinerator is £145 million – more than double the original figure).

The list of reasons against it runs to much more than I can write here. There is a better and more environmental option proposed and costed by the Liberal Democrats for dealing with the county’s waste, the county council’s contract with its waste management company seems likely to limit the incentives for recycling just when we need them most, the incinerator will be run on mains water despite being by the Ouse estuary, the waste will be brought in – and hazardous ‘bottom ash’ shipped out – by lorry, despite a railway line being right there ... the list is endless.

So why is it happening? The answer appears to be an old-fashioned belief among the county council officials who devised the incinerator scheme in the mid-1990s that a single waste contract with a high level of incineration offered a better way of getting rid of waste than a series of smaller-scale solutions. Add to that a handful of lead county councillors who never grew up with the environmental threat and thus saw waste disposal purely as ‘the right mechanics for the right price’ and it’s easy to see why incineration seemed attractive. If you then put several years’ work into a project and fear it coming to nothing just as we’re threatened with punitive fines for missing landfill reduction targets, it is understandable you should want to salvage it.

That’s why I don’t condemn the Conservatives who run County Hall for incompetence. But they can be legitimately attacked on two fronts:

Firstly, they were anti-democratic over the whole planning and consultation process by riding roughshod over 16,000 legitimate objections (yes, 16,000!). Secondly, they have been gutless in the face of changing realities that should have told them to seek other options for waste disposal – even the Tory-controlled West Sussex County Council has now abandoned incineration, so it’s hardly an issue of political ideology.

We need a shake-up at County Hall! And that shake-up can happen on 4 June when elections to the county council take place. Even those in the Conservative heartlands of north Wealden and much of Rother should be as alarmed about the incinerator as the poor souls of Newhaven, albeit for different reasons. We all need to send a warning shot across the bows of the county Tories that we need to face down the environmental threat, not add to it.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


I don’t know if it counts as self-fulfilling prophecy or built-in flaw, but my blog last week appears to have made worse the very thing I was trying to avoid!

I was trying to warn against the dangers of the political classes getting so consumed with their own personal battles that they overlook the problems they’re supposed to be tackling. By saying this in relation to the provision of youth facilities in Hailsham, I’ve rather reinforced the point, though take no satisfaction from it.

As the prospective LibDem candidate for the next general election, should I be aware of every detail of an internal row that took place over six years ago? Perhaps I should, though I felt that would mean looking back rather than forward, if not be a form of navel gazing.

But clearly feelings still run deep from ructions dating back to 2002. So deep that when I put out a press release asking the county council’s senior official in charge of youth affairs what he’s planning to do to address the fact that the county has closed two youth facilities in Hailsham, it reignites passions to such an extent that, instead of supporting the call, certain people felt the need to accuse me of ‘misinformation and scaremongering’ when I was clearly doing no such thing. That is very sad, and I can’t help feeling it fails the youth of Hailsham.

A point I made in last week’s blog is that I think the work of Hailsham Town Council, including that of Ian Haffenden and Nick Ellwood, on youth facilities is good. I’ve spoken to Laura Murphy about this, and she agrees. She has also acknowledged that her original fears from 10 years ago about the town council taking over 1 Market Square have proved groundless, though she says it was something of an act of faith given that the council had no previous experience in purchasing and running such a facility. In view of the duties on councillors to exercise due diligence, I find her original doubts understandable – even if I can’t judge whether I would have shared them or not – and it’s good she’s willing to acknowledge that it’s worked out well.

I realise that disputes can cause a lot of resentment, and who am I to say that people should let bygones be bygones when they may feel very hurt by things that happened? But is this a reason to sabotage a call for the county council to explain what it intends to do with regard to replacing the youth club at Hailsham School and the young persons’ area at Hailsham East Community College? Surely not.

I hope everyone who has the interests of the youth of Hailsham at heart is as concerned as I am that these facilities have been lost, and that all the head of children’s services at ESCC can say is that he’s ‘listening’ (he may have said more, but unfortunately he hasn’t had the courtesy to reply to my letter). I hope also that we’re not going to be seduced by the £800,000 promised by the county council until we know how much, if any, will go to Hailsham.

These are the problems we should be tackling. Not everyone may wish to work with everyone else – irrespective of what party (or none) they belong to – but we shouldn’t work against the best interests of positive action.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Something has happened in Hailsham this past week that highlights exactly what is wrong with politics nationwide.

One of the growing problems in Hailsham is the amount of ‘low-level’ crime involving young people that’s making life a misery for many residents. The fact that in the past two years we have lost the youth facility at the Hailsham East Community Centre and the Hailsham Youth Club at the community college is no coincidence.

So I wrote to Matt Dunkley, the head of children’s services at the county council, asking what plans he had to tackle the issue of youth facilities. To put a little pressure on him to come up with something meaningful, I put out a press release saying I’d written to him and making the point that doing nothing was not an option.

I wasn’t born yesterday so didn’t expect this to achieve great results on its own – it was aimed at creating some momentum. What I also didn’t expect was a vehemently angry reaction by two leading members of Hailsham Town Council, Ian Haffenden and Nick Ellwood. They put out a counter-release accusing me and one of our Hailsham county council candidates of ‘misinformation’. Well I wish it was misinformation, because then we’d still have the two youth facilities that have most assuredly disappeared!

I have a problem here. One of the central planks of my involvement in politics is that I want to work towards better politics. The idea that ‘our side’ has everything right and ‘the other side’ has got everything wrong is a nonsense. When we discuss problems in groups, we work towards solutions, not towards being able to say with righteous indignation ‘they’ve got it wrong’. It should be the same in politics.

I believe those who have lost faith in politics as a means of good governance have become disillusioned with the bickering, point-scoring, playground mentality that characterises Prime Minister’s Questions. They want people of different persuasions to work together to find solutions.

So how should I react to Messrs Haffenden and Ellwood? I’m aware they’re former LibDems who don’t hold much of a candle for their erstwhile colleagues, but I wasn’t around when they left, so I start from scratch with them. I’m also aware they have been doing their own work on the youth issue through Hailsham Town Council, which is good.

But they have put out what by any standards is a spoiling press release, which has led to the story being reported in the local press NOT as a call for improved youth facilities in Hailsham but as a spat between two warring political factions? It has made me very angry, but if I say that, am I engaging in exactly the kind of slanging match that drives people away from politics and keeps voting rates dangerously low? That’s my dilemma on this.

Mr Dunkley’s response to my letter – delivered incidentally to the media rather than to me – was that the county council is ‘listening’. This is OK-ish, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need more youth facilities in Hailsham – not an excessive amount so we spoon-feed teenagers, but more than we have now. All of us have a role to play, but we must fight the problem, not each other.