Saturday, July 14, 2007

BBC's Hard questions after fabricated trailer of the Queen

Anyone who has ever managed anything has probably experienced it; something that you are theoretically responsible for but actually delegate suddenly goes pear-shaped. When that happens the manager can get unfairly blamed, when really its all the fault of another party, and this is the line that appears to be being taken by the BBC in the current royal row. Let's examine this excuse for a moment though. First of all the footage of the Queen apparently walking off in a huff was fabricated. Someone, probably in the independent production company hired by the BBC, sat in an editing suite and deliberately put it together. It wasn't an accident. Then it was sent to the BBC, which might have required the connivance of more parties depending on what sort of editorial control procedures that were in place at both the production company and the BBC. So, already we are way past a mistake and into the realm of deception and maybe conspiracy. On arrival at the BBC the footage was seized upon and spun by Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC1, to journalists with language about the Queen 'losing it'. Worse still it led some BBC News broadcasts. All right, but it could still be the fault of the production company right? Well, no. There is a simple rule in journalism that stories, especially major stories should be checked and this was major enough to lead broadcasts. The footage was clearly not a continuous camera shot and so had been subject to editing but no-one picked up the phone to the Palace or the artist who was taking the Queen's portrait. Instead in their eagerness to rubbish a woman who has unflinchingly served her country for over 50 years the BBC called a press conference to spread the story as widely as possible with Fincham taking a gloating lead. So, even if the production company was solely responsible for the fabricated film, the BBC is at fault for unquestioningly pushing the lie because it made good TV and never mind the truth.

Well now Fincham has apologised but the BBC Trust, to its credit, has asked the Director General for an full explanation. All I can say is that it had better be good.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Planning Law fiasco in the Green Belt

For those of you that don’t know, Basildon has a problem with unauthorised development in the Green Belt and has been trying for several years to enforce Planning Decisions to clear several sites. Ordinary people whose communities have been blighted by such development cannot understand why despite repeated votes at Council, and judgements from Planning Inspectors such sites remain occupied. The reason is simply that Planning Legislation in the UK has loopholes that can be exploited to tie Local Authorities up in a succession of legal processes, each one of which further delays the process of eviction. If the claimants have access to legal aid, which they often do, then the process can go on for quite some time, and it has. John Baron MP has attempted to clear up the legislative mess by drafting and submitting a bill, but the Labour government has showed no interest whatsoever and it was lost. So, Basildon Council is out of pocket hundreds of thousands of pounds over several years of legal combat and we have made only slow progress towards a final solution.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the Council have effectively caved in, quite publicly stating that they wouldn’t have borne the cost of enforcing Planning Law. Well, Conservatives are different. We don’t think that the Law is an optional extra or that we should only enforce it when it is easy. We certainly don’t think that those that break the rules should prosper at the expense of those that do.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Brown cashes casinos out

A few years ago a paper crossed my desk at the Council. Did Basildon want to bid for one of the 16 large casinos or the super-casino? I gave the matter some thought, about 10 seconds thought actually, then I said no and moved on to something more important. Now I am not a moralist about gambling, I don't like it much, and I have never set foot in a casino, but I'm a Tory and freedom of choice and all that. If someone wants to build one in Basildon then I'll consider it, but I wasn't about to engage in some expensive bidding process for the right to get one. Casinos aren't that wonderful and they certainly aren't a launch-pad for regeneration. Put a Casino in a depressed area then you get some jobs as waitresses and croupiers, but the glitz stops one street away from gambling, and there is no evidence that they attract much in the way of secondary commerce unless you do the whole Las Vegas thing. More importantly, the American companies that run large casinos have the most sophisticated marketing on the planet and it is expressly designed to separate people, often very ordinary people, from their money. Large US-style casinos mean more gambling, much more gambling in fact, with a certain increase in all of the associated social problems.

What was always astonishing was that the supposed party of the working class was helping large foreign companies fleece them. Labour MPs, including one G. Brown esquire, voted this through the Commons and, ironically, it was the Lords that stepped in to block Blair's little scheme. Now Gordon Brown has killed it dead. Getting the Gambling Bill through would have taken years of legislative ping-pong between Lords and Commons. In political terms it's not worth it, so the Casinos go, and it's all dressed up as Brown's puritan upbringing and a dramatic break with the past. Everyone wins, except for the American casino executives that is. They probably feel like asking Prescott for their cowboy outfit back.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

John Baron takes on Gordon Brown over the Unpublished Iraq Dossier

The Government is appealing against a ruling by the Information Commissioner requiring the FCO to release the John Williams draft of the dossier used to brief Britain into the Iraq war. The Government had argued that publication would discourage civil servants and advisors from giving free and frank advice, but the Commissioner overruled this concern, pointing to the public interest case for disclosure. We do know from the Commissioner that John Scarlett requested the John Williams draft and that it was used in the production of the dossier – contrary to the Government’s claim that the work was redundant by the time Scarlett started writing the dossier. It is clear that Spin doctors were on the inside of the drafting process, making suggestions and writing parts of the dossier, and the Joint Intelligence Committee was not given an opportunity to approve or sign off the final document. So, today at PMQ’s John Baron, MP for Billericay, challenged Gordon Brown to come clean as to why the Government has refused to publish the first full draft of the Iraq Dossier written by a spin doctor in the Foreign Office.
The Prime Minister has talked much about the need for openness and transparency in politics, can he therefore explain why his Government continues to defy the Information Commissioner by refusing to publish the first full draft of the Iraq Dossier produced by the Foreign Office Press Officer John Williams on the 9th September 2002 - one day before John Scarlett produced his first full draft? Does the Prime Minister not believe that actions speak louder than words?
Gordon Brown replied by saying that the matter would be considered by the correct procedures in due course. John was not impressed. You do have to wonder at the government's desperate efforts to keep the document hidden. It's either a general culture of paranoid secrecy, that hasn't changed a jot under Gordon Brown, or they are hiding something.

Thames Gateway policy set to Change?

I went to the Thames Gateway parliamentary reception last night. This is basically a networking event in London for all of the people involved in the Thames Gateway to meet and chat. For the unitiated 'Thames Gateway' is a term for the large scale development area on both sides of the Thames extending from London to the sea. The idea is to build somewhat over 100000 homes, with supporting commerce and infrastructue and it was originally Michael Heseltine's idea, though since eagerly siezed on by the Labour government. Anyway, Yvette Cooper her shadow Alistair Burt both spoke and the message was pretty much business as usual, but I wonder. We have an announcement today that local Councils will be able to borrow to build housing, and the recent disasters must prompt some thought on the advisability of building on flood plains. Both of these have the potential to reshape policy for the Thames Gateway, especially if Councils can effectively become developers. As ever, we await the fine print.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Labour Councillors defect to a Conservative Party that Cares

Five Southall Labour Councillors have defected to the Conservatives in the run up to the Ealing Southall by-election on the 19th of July. This is obviously good news for the good guys, and it certainly means that the local Conservatives and candidate Tony Lit are doing something right. It also has a greater significance; all five are from the Sikh community and they clearly feel that in 2007 it is the Conservative Party led by David Cameron that stands for what they believe. That ethnic minority Labour Councillors find a better home in the Conservative Party says volumes about the success of the Cameron project. The Conservative Party was never racist, or as uncaring as it was portrayed by opponents, but it did allow itself to persist with an agenda too wedded to economics and not enough to people. That has changed since 1997, and even more radically since David Cameron’s election. In political terms today’s Conservatives are taking on the Labour Party where they live; on health, on social justice, on community cohesion.

Quite right too.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Conservative Social Justice Policy Group backs marriage

Marriage is a good thing. Married people are happier and married couples are vastly more likely to stay together than unmarried cohabiters. This is important because every serious study has shown that on average the children of stable couples outperform those of single parents in every measurable regard, from increased educational attainment and better mental health to reduced chances of using illegal drugs or ending up in jail. So, marriage is good for individuals, children, and a society that has to pick up the pieces when children go off the rails, but current government policy ignores all this. The tax and benefit system is not just neutral on marriage, it actually discriminates against it, and the explanation appears to be that successive generations of politicians have been keen not to penalise single parents, and not to tell people how to live their lives. They have half a point about single parents, most of whom are single through bereavement or desertion, not because they are feckless, and of course when a relationship is abusive it is sometimes better that it ends. However they have no point on the handing out of lifestyle advice; if people can be told not to smoke, drink or use hard drugs then the government has a perfect right to point out that bringing up children by yourself is to be avoided if possible, and the tax system should reflect that.

It is with this background that the Conservative Social Justice Policy Group has reported. This has many recommendations, but a key proposal is simply that the tax and benefit system should encourage to stay together and marry. This is not driven by a moral crusade, and it is put forward in the full knowledge that MPs, and the rest of us, are fallible human beings whose relationships don’t always work out. That hasn’t stopped them recommending what is right, and I have no doubt that this will become Conservative policy for the next election. The question is if the Labour government will stick with a benefit system that encourages people to do worse by their children.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Basildon Business Awards

Basildon District is an amalgam of ancient communities like Billericay and Wickford, and Basildon New Town. The men and women who built Basildon up from the immediate post-war period to what it is today were just fallible human beings. So, they got a lot wrong, including building poorly-designed housing estates and erasing much valuable pre-New Town architecture from the map in their enthusiasm for the New. They also got quite a bit right though, especially in terms of building up a community from scratch and in providing the right infrastructure for business and enterprise. This is why Basildon has the largest employment zone in South Essex, and why it is home to many dynamic businesses, and that is what we celebrated at the Basildon Business Awards on Friday. This was a very enjoyable event indeed, with MPs, Councillors, local business and many others all there to see the best of Basildon Business rewarded for their success. As has become traditional, it was loud and glitzy, but it really worked in capturing the spirit of the District's business, which provides jobs and prosperity for so many.

If you read some commentators you would be forgiven for thinking that everything is always awful. Well, it isn't, and maybe we should say so a bit more often.