Friday, 14 December 2007

Fraud... who pays? who cares?

Today's news is that benefit fraud is costing British tax payers neary £3 billion a year. To put that in context the total amount paid by all tax payers in council tax in the whole country is only around £20 billion - Wouldn't you love it if your council tax was 15% lower? £3 billion is a lot of money and they're only the ones the government knows about.

For the past few months as a councillor I've been following the benefit department. So far this year this one tiny council has sucessfully prosecuted 17 benefit fruadsters and each time I give a quote to the local paper. I often wonder if this makes a difference - but today I learnt that it does. Amongst this morning's christmas cards was an anonymous letter from someone who says he/she has seen my press statements and he/she tips the council off to another 4 potential fraudsters. Thank you, who ever you are, for your letter. Little things like this if multiplied across the country would make a big difference.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Another death on the road

Tragically there was another death on my local road this weekend. This now makes 22 deaths in under 10 miles in 10 years. It's a small rural road never designed for the traffic it sees today. Similar stories are repeated on rural roads all over the country.

Strictly speaking roads issues are outside my "job" as a district councillor but I've spent hours on the phone today to the public campaigners, MPs, Parish Councillors, Senior Councillors - in fact anyone I can find to help add weight. Tonight's news is the Highways dept are going to consider dropping the speed limit on the whole road. This will be a small victory for those of us who have been campaigning for improvements - but the price of yet another fatal accident is too high.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

A night on the town - with the police

On Friday I joined Cambridgeshire police – just for a night! The Southern division covers a huge rural area, from Littleport north of Ely to the borders of Bedfordshire, Essex and Suffolk. In my rural area people often complain that there are not enough police around and say they are all in the City centre, so I went to the City and joined the “Reactive Team” there as a civilian observer.

We started at 7pm and one of the 4 cars was immediately dispatched to help the rural team 20 miles away – blowing the myth that the police don’t come out of the City.

Over the next 8 hours we were always busy. My own team of two dealt with 5 anti social behaviour reports, stopped a street fight, and arrested one of the “most wanted” from the earlier mug shots. We went to track down a suicidal young girl and a possible domestic violence case. At 1am we dumped our hastily bought supper and blue lights flashing raced across town for another suspected robbery. This on what I was told was a “quiet” night…. I finally peeled off home to bed at 2.30am.

At the sharp end I saw that the police are working enormously hard, with great professionalism and in a huge variety of cases. From what I saw and heard I believe they are under resourced. It is (still) a small minority of people who cause most of the crime and its up to the rest of us to help the police by reporting what we see, taking care, and giving them our support.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

My bank account

My bank account details have just been lost in the post by the tax man. I'm fuming and worried. The child benefit papers were thrust in my hands within hours of giving birth by a helpful district nurse several years ago - every mum I know signed up. None of us ever thought the government would show such disregard of our confidentiality.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Vicky's Campaigns

Lots of people ask me what a local councillor does. We are all different. My passion is campaigning, often for issues outside the closed remit of "local councillor". I've added a list of campaigns with links to a story on each, you can see some of the history, what I've done or am doing and an update.

Police Resources

This autumn chief constable Julie Spence hit the national headlines by highlighting the funding pressures of Cambridgeshire Police.

In the North of the County there is one of the most rapidly growing immigrant populations in the UK. Bridging cultural differences costs the police time and money.

The South of the County is one of the fastest growing areas in the UK. The number of houses in South Cambridgeshire has increased by 7% in the past 5 years. However the number of police officers has actually dropped. There are additional PCSOs – they do a valuable job but they do not have the same training or powers as police officers and are not available after midnight. The police desperately need additional manpower to keep up with the growing population.

I have highlighted this in a motion I brought to our council. Now as a council we are supporting the police in their plea for funds. Over the next few weeks I am going to be spending more time with the police to understand their problems better.

p.s. for my night out on the town with the police see here

The Girubuntu Orphanage in Rwanda


This summer I joined 43 Conservatives working on 20 different voluntary projects in Rwanda. The world is a much smaller place than it was when I was a child. I have learnt that if we are to make it a safer place for our children then we must do our part to help reduce war and poverty.

Rwanda is a country that has been to hell and back. It is rebuilding itself. When you ask local people in Rwanda how you can help they continually ask you to act as their voice in the west, making sure that people understand the importance of peace and international development.

I have done radio interviews, been interviewed in local papers and by the end of January I will have spoken to many voluntary organisations across Eastern England about our experiences in Rwanda and what we can learn. I continue to raise funds for the Girubuntu orphanage.

p.s. update I've just heard from a local business that is going to sponsor £10 towards each child in the orphanage for a special Christmas. THANK YOU

Helping Junior Doctors


I first got involved in helping Junior doctors in February 2007, before the scandal of government incompetence hit the papers. I'm not a doctor but many members of my family are fortunately they are all now more senior and not directly affected but their colleagues are.

This is the doctors campaign but I have helped support them. I’ve joined doctors in their mass lobby of parliament , been interviewed in the media, raised the issue at Conservative Spring Conference and advised doctors on how to get their message across on national TV. Quite apart from the trauma that thousands of doctors have suffered, the cost to the tax payer of wasted medical training is outrageous. The incompetence of Labour on this issue continues.

Safety on the A 1307

The story of the A1307 is repeated on many roads across the country.

21 people have lost their lives in the past 10 years in a 10 mile stretch of road. It’s a rural road and was never designed as a major truck route for commuter traffic between two of Eastern England’s fastest growing centres. As you drive along the road you see memorial after memorial to the people who have lost their lives.

The road traverses a county boundary. The new houses are in one governmental district but the infrastructure impact ricochets across neighbours. Cars don’t stop at county boundaries but due to complex planning procedures money often does.

Working alongside the campaign group Access 1307, the local MP Jim Paice, and many local residents we have been campaigning for safety improvements. Improvements to the junctions are key but many of the fatalities are due to high speeds. Earlier this year we surveyed every household in the area on their views for reducing the speed limits. Local residents want a lower speed limit. I’ve been on the radio, the papers even the TV.

Last night we heard that part of our campaign has been successful and the speed limit on the road will be reduced in part of the area. This is welcome but it only covers half of the route. I will continue to campaign for improvements along the whole of this dreadful road.

Update here

Saving Milton Country Park


I’ve learnt that politicians whether local or national are rarely given thanks in public. I can’t tell you how much this letter in the local paper lifted my spirits.

Milton Country Park is a much loved open space and nature reserve just outside Cambridge. Over 90,000 visitors use the park each year – but the park had become
increasingly expensive for the cash strapped council to run and was threatened with closure. Within weeks 10,000 people signed a petition demanding that the park remains open, hundreds wrote to me, my email box went black.

As the councillor responsible for the park I am determined that the park should not close but find a long term future. Working with the save the park campaign, voluntary sector organisations, council officers and other councillors I’ve spent a year trying to find a new owner for the park. I’ve been interviewed by BBC TV news (twice), the paper and radio stations regularly. I am delighted that the Cambridge Sports Lake trust are planning to take it over. Their plan is to combine the Country park with an International rowing lake and triathlon training area on adjoining land. This was never meant to be easy but work is on track for a final agreement to be signed early in the new year.

Improving Rural Transport

Petrol prices are rising, in 3 year traffic is up 30% through the villages and congestion is increasing. Yesterday it took me 45 minutes to travel 4 miles, this was in the countryside outside the city boundary. Is there a better way?

The ward I represent as district councillor is the most rural in South Cambridgeshire. It’s also the most deprived when it comes to public transport. There are buses, they are subsidised by the County Council. In the daytime they are often empty. Many of the residents commute to Cambridge – but there is no early morning or evening bus for commuters. Is there a better solution?

Information from the bus company and the County Council is erratic… but the last thing we need to spend money on is a hoard of bureaucrats riding the buses to collect data. We need to understand what users think of the service and what they want. Too often public services are supplied by well meaning councillors rather than demand driven.

I’ve launched a survey with our local MP Jim Paice to find out what people think of the buses. If a commuter service is available will people use it? I hope we will get some decent feedback and provide what the public want with their money.

Sometimes I get involved in an issue and don’t know quite where it will take me. This is one of them.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Round the world with the Conservative Women

It was a truly inspiring day at the Conservative Women’s Conference today. We learnt about the amazing work that women are making to rebuilding African nations, Zainab Salbi inspired us with her simple, effective ideas for helping women in war zones, Lord Melchett from the soil association and Tom Burke from Rio Tinto were thrown question after question about how to help protect our planet from the rain forest destruction via Chinese consumption to what we put in our own fridges.

David Cameron brought the conference back home with a hugely sensitive speech and array of policy suggestions to confront the shocking statistics on rape in the UK.

I'm not a fan of "wimmins" groups but the Conservative Women’s Association showed that they not only care about these issues but also want to know how they can help

As Christmas looms I'm sure we all wanted to ask Iain Dale where he got that tie… it could save me a lot of time in my Christmas shopping. But somehow there were more pressing questions.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Medics of the past, present and future

Last night, on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, I joined the West Suffolk Medical Society as a guest at their annual Armistice dinner.

This dinner has a powerful history. During WW1 the local doctors divided into a group who went to the front line, and a group who stayed behind, caring for both sets of patients. At the end of the war the home-based colleagues passed the medical practices back to the returning doctors. They were under no obligation to do so. In 1920 the returning doctors held a dinner to thank their civilian colleagues. The following year the dinner was reciprocated. The dinner has been held every year since baring a break during WW2. Now it alternates between the hospital doctors thanking the GPs and vice versa.

It is a rare treat for hospital doctors and GPs to get time together to talk about the past, present and future of their profession. Their common complaint was political interference. Dr Jeremy Webb, the Chairman, read memoirs of a Medic from WW1. Back then conditions made it almost impossible for the doctors to make any medical difference but the moral boost of their presence was enormous. On the front line today our Army doctors regularly save lives in seemingly impossible cases. Whether in a war zone or back at home we all want well trained, excellent doctors.

Professor Dame Carol Black, Chairman of the Joint Royal Medical Colleges was the guest speaker. She warned that this summer's fiasco over junior doctors is likely to get worse. Since 1997 the number of doctors being trained has risen from 5,000 to 7,000 each year - at the same time more of the doctor's traditional roles are taken on by other professionals. Many of the next generation doctors will not find the jobs they have been trained for. The Department of Health has no coherent forward looking policy yet one is desperately needed. Training each doctor costs the tax payer £250,000 and many of our best junior doctors are already going overseas. On top of this the DoH appears to have put its head under the sand regarding immigration and foreign doctors. These are all complex and sensitive issues, that need the medical professionals to work together - but this need leadership from government too - and that is sadly lacking.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Community service offenders are above picking up litter

There's been a lot said about rubbish recently - bin taxes, fly-tipping etc.

The verges have just had their autumnal haircut. Far from leaving the area neat and tidy the mowers have uncovered the trash discarded by motorists - bottles, bags, and I can't politely describe what else. This evening I spotted 4 rats in 400 yards.

I stopped and picked up some rubbish myself. I asked the council to send in some extra manpower. They will send bin bags and neon jackets for a community litter pick. I suggest contacting the probation service to see if some of those on "Community Service" sentences would help.

I'm told litter picking is 'demeaning' and 'beneath what offenders should be asked to do', and not therefore appropriate for those on community service.

So its OK to pay a council employee overtime to collect litter, its OK for those who care about their community to collect litter. But for law-breakers who are told to serve the community it is "demeaning". I guess that's why there is so much rubbish.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Feedback from the Marginal Seats


Today I went to Harlow where the Labour MP's majority is only 97 votes. Robert Halfon the Conservative candidate has been in the press this week pointing out the huge amount of public and trade union money that Labour MP's have to help defend their tiny majorities.

There are two council by-elections in Harlow this week. I arrived to find a wonderfully well organised Conservative campaign HQ. Great candidates, well marked canvas cards, many various leaflets and good coffee. One team was running a street stall collecting support for a EU referendum, others were canvassing and delivering leaflets.

On the streets I met committed Conservatives and long term Labour voters who want a change. Sadly I also met two families who say they've had enough and are emigrating. One was a GP taking his family to Australia.

The issues were the same as I find everywhere, immigration, crime, underfunded roads and services, young people with drugs and alcohol in the woods, families struggling to make ends meet.

Over lunch, I met up with Robert and Alistair Burt MP (he's just such a nice man). Alistair reminded everyone that all council by-elections are critical at the moment. If Gordon won't give us a general election then at least this is a chance for people to send him a message. If you want to make a difference, get out to your target seats and join them for a day - you will return home happy!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Where did all the nurses go?

The reports that have appeared about Maidstone hospital have been utterly shocking. Many months ago I wrote that bed cuts were adding to C-dif mortality rates but I have struggled over the past few days to understand why nursing standards appeared so low.

Until I looked at the numbers.

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust
Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting Staff

2004/5 1,722 2005/6 1,543 2006/7 1,420

Thats a 20% cut in nursing staff in two years. From a hospital that claimed "cuts would be made by reducing use of bank and agency staff" How many times have we heard that across the country?

As one nurse has blogged recently "My ward is 35 beds general surgery, general medical, high dependency as well as 10-15 care of the elderly beds. We get one nurse and one or 2 assistants. Five years ago it was 4 and 3 and all the patients were taken care of." I know its more complicated than this but I would like to know what has happened to nurse/bed ratios across the country.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Petty Party Bureaucracy of Local Government

At the beginning of August the council received a letter from our local regiment explaining the losses that they were suffering in Afghanistan. They wanted to set up a fund to help victims and families. I spoke to the council's cabinet and we agreed on a £5,000 donation. A small amount of money but a start - it would have been nice to get the money committed before the rest of the battalion returned home... and the head of the army has asked local councils to help welcome troops home.

I discussed it with my Lib Dem opposition who thought there was nothing wrong.

Skip forward to end September, after weeks of bureaucratic dithering, I'm told the donation is outside "policy" but that I, as portfolio holder, have the right to go outside the policy. So I approve the donation.

8th Oct (yesterday) - I am told that my decision is being "called in for scrutiny" by various Lib Dems and Independents - This will delay the decision until earliest November 16th.

Today, after begging for the decision to be scrutinised earlier, it is clear that the only way to make a quick decision is if I renege on my original decision and bring the whole issue to a full debate of all 59 councillors on Oct 18th. The Chief Exec is going to need to write a full paper for the full council.

All we wanted to do was send a message of support to our troops on the ground.... but even this is tied up in red tape, petty squabbling, time wasting and over-complicated protocols.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Postoffice Closures


My local Cambridgeshire postoffice is a key part of my life. Every morning I buy my paper and pick up a loaf of bread. I join local businesspeople in the queue to send letters or parcels and, as we are 10 miles from the nearest bank, the cash facility is vital. Older people collect their money and the doctors' arranges for prescriptions to be dropped off there too. Last Christmas I wrote about the bravery of the post-master when they were robbed. The shop and the postoffice are joined at the hip. I, for one, am prepared to pay slightly over the odds on each transaction for this service and I know many others would too. It saves me miles of travel.

Today I visited post-offices in Lincolnshire that are on the list for possible "closure". The public have been offered a 6 week consultation... but one postmaster told me he thinks the decisions have already been made. The option "let us know how much it might cost to keep our post office open" is not available. How can something be called a consultation if there is no means to negotiate?

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Enjoying Party Conference

Its been a busy couple of days at the party conference in Blackpool.

Yesterday I spoke in the health debate about hospitals. After all my parents were hospital doctors, my sister is a hospital doctor and I even sleep with a hospital doctor (my husband!). I therefore join patients in fighting for our hospitals.

I was incorrectly introduced as being from Grantham (not my mistake and sorry) - but I did want to tell the conference about hospital cuts in Grantham, where the Conservative MP recently switched to the Labour party. I said "Emergency surgery's been cut, A&E severely cut, the stroke service is facing cuts and as for the maternity service - they are still talking about those cuts. If that's how Gordon Brown treats his new friends I'm staying right here."

It is utter madness to be building thousands of new homes and then cut our most essential services. We have had similar cuts threatened in rapidly growing Cambridgeshire.

I was delighted to hear that the Conservative manifesto will include a promise not to close maternity or A&E services. My husband, a cancer specialist, is regularly frustrated that he can not prescribe the latest drugs to patients. He was pleased to hear the promise that the approval process for cancer drugs will be speeded up.

I went to a very poorly attended fringe meeting on Immigration. This is a huge concern all over the East of England. I said "We know how valuable migrant workers have been and don't want to send people back to persecution in countries like Burma or Zimbabwe but it already feels that our roads, housing, hospitals, police can't cope - uncontrolled immigration is a great worry for our services." I'm pleased to hear our pledge to bring back immigration controls.

On tax it was good to hear that first time buyers should be excluded from stamp duty up to £250,000 and inheritance tax thresholds raised to £1 million. This will help young and old. They are policies that I played a part in forming when I worked on the tax reform commission last year.

At other fringe meetings I heard about the disgrace of our prison service - It's not working when 2/3 of those released re offend within 2 years. We need not only to solve prison overcrowding but also to make sure those released are not just sent back into their old ways. I spoke to a PC last week who had just re-arrested a criminal with 26 previous convictions - and this was a 23 year old.

Finally I gave David Willetts a gentle handbagging on grammar schools. I know that in many parts of the country pupils don't have access to grammar schools and we must make sure they all get the benefits of education that fits individual pupils - however in many other parts they are working and if it ain't broke don't fix it!

Election or no election

I never thought that Brown would call an election for Oct 25th -- it is half term and the last thing busy mothers need. He knows that those mums votes are preciously sought after. November 1st though is after half term and the children will be back at school.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Who will lose their right to vote....

I've just been talking to the elections officer.

She in the middle of putting together the new electoral register, effective from 1st December. (Have you returned your form?) In my rural district there are about 105,000 voters, she currently estimates that 10,000 people have changed their addresses or are new on the role. But currently those new details don't stand. i.e. approx 10% of the voting population in this area are affected.

If an election is called now Gordon Brown has to give 18 working days notice. Each of those 10,000 people will then need to be written to asking if they want their new details to be the ones that stand. If they do they have to write back with a deadline 11 working days before the election. (Not a lot of days there...) If someone has moved within the polling area they can still vote as if from their old address - but many may not have.

The postal votes will be complicated too. Under new rules every postal voter's signature has to be crosschecked with their application form - the computer program to do this is not finalised and where the constituency boundary crosses a district district boundary each vote will need to be hand checked. From my own experience over the past year this covers a lot of constituencies.

Sounds like a paperwork nightmare and room for quite a lot of people to lose their vote.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Update from Grantham and Stamford


I've been up in Grantham and Stamford quite a bit this week....Spending time meeting local people and listening to their issues.

At Grantham Hospital I spoke to members of staff. It is clear that the uncertainty has had a huge affect on morale. It's a great hospital. I saw where my sister-in-law had her first breast lump removed (she's now clear), where my nephew goes for his ENT appointments, and where the midwives cared for my niece.

As a local councillor I'm used to fighting the government for services in our rapidly growing towns. Grantham is planning to be a growth area. It is utter madness to be building thousands of new homes and then cut our most essential service.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Another Spin

Gordon has become famous for announcing money that isn't really new money at all. I just recieved this from the council tax collection team.

You may have heard on the news that the Government has announced a Council Tax 'rebate' for personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is actually going to be in the form of a payment of £140 made direct to the personnel by the MOD at the end of their tour of duty, rather than a discount against their Council Tax account. Which means that we will not be involved in the administration in any way.


Question: Who is paying for this? ... sounds like it might be coming from the MOD budget which means that it's money off other things like buying decent equipment. Just spin...

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Fighting for the NHS

So Gordon says he will fight the next General election on the NHS - You bet he will. Hospital closures, hospital cuts, 10,000 doctors marching through the streets of London, mass protests outside Westminster and all over the country. He's been in charge of all the money for the last 10 years has he really spent it well?

He will also have to fight the next general election on crime and policing, the economy, and the failures of immigration. Back into your Red Corner Gordon .....

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Thank you to the police....

Thank you to chief constable Julie Spence for
putting her head above the parapet today
. Even the Guardian agrees that pressures of immigration are putting huge new stresses on our public services. When a professional police officer says we have a problem we should listen.

Cambridgeshire has the 2nd lowest funded police service per head - followed only by Lincolnshire. Last night I attended a packed meeting of a "community neighbourhood policing panel" in Cambridgeshire. There were representatives of 18 parishes from tiny villages to city outskirts. Everywhere there were stories about escalating antisocial behaviour, needless vandalism, dangerous driving, syringes on the football pitch etc. A small minority of people causing increasing chaos for others.

Yet again there were many stories of people just not bothering to report crime anymore... and the number crunching statistics don't reflect the problems that are seen by residents.

Judging from the bags under their eyes, our handful of police officers are working their socks off .... but there simply aren't enough of them to cope.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Where's Goodtime Gordon Gone?

In the past few months we have seen Gordon everywhere but suddenly he's gone. We are in the midst of the first run on a UK bank in memory and Mr Prudent has disappeared ...

I actually feel sorry for Alistair Darling who has looked (literally) like a badger caught in the headlights. I hope that the guarantee offered tonight does stabilise the immediate crisis. But whether or not the queues at the Rock disperse many homeowners across the UK are facing mortgage increases they never contemplated and the trust of ordinary savers has been broken (again).

No doubt when England win the Rugby world cup (ever positive here) Gordon will be back... Has Mr Prudent become "Goodtime Gordon" - your fairweather friend?

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Not Again

We are all keeping our fingers crossed for farmers today but Foot and Mouth affects are widespread. Jo's new business offers "local food" to restaurants - she has enough supplies for just a week. The butcher's shop say they have enough British produce for the next two weeks - then they need to start importing.

Interestingly, whilst the bigger farmers have been kept in touch by regular messages from the NFU some others have told me about a silence from Defra. Down the road Robert has half-a-dozen pigs. He has had no letter, email or any other correspondence at all warning him what precautions to take if, god forbid, the disease becomes more widespread. It is now 7 weeks since the first case .... you would have thought a letter might have been sent. I wonder if there are others in Robert's shoes?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Cash for Pregnancy?


The latest suggestion that the government is going to give pregnant mums up to £200 cash towards "healthy food" received heated debate on comment boards yesterday. "Definitely not", "total stupidity", "another ruse to get people to vote Labour" were just some of the early thoughts.

The policy is mad.

It is medically flawed. If the aim is to get pregnant women to eat well then the critical point is the first 3 months of pregnancy - but the suggestion is this money will be given at 29 weeks ie for the last 3 months.

It provides no guarantee that the money will go where it is needed. Why give the money as cash? When I was pregnant with number 3 all I craved was chocolate - I would probably have spent it all on Dairy Milk, would that have been a good use of tax-payers money? There is already a "healthy start" voucher system for people on low incomes. This has replaced the old welfare food scheme whereby mums were given free formula milk and is helping to encourage mums to breast feed.

It's hugely expensive. I've seen estimates from £70 million to £140 million EACH YEAR. Why give a professional mother on £60k a year an extra £200? Why not direct the help to those who really need it? By the time a mother-to-be reaches 29 weeks pregnant they should have seen their doctor or midwife at least twice. I can see complete sense in giving some help, for medical reasons, to mothers who are seriously struggling to feed themselves properly at this stage but that is a small minority.

There are much better things to do with this money. Brown could buy decent equipment for the troops in Basra or Afghanistan. He could use it to keep our maternity wards open or to recruit some of the 5,000 midwifes that the Royal College of Midwifes say are needed over the next few years. Incidentally, I spoke to a senior midwife this morning. She was rushing off to do extra hours covering sick leave because yet another of her colleagues has broken under the stress of overwork. As a midwife she said this policy sounds like complete madness - yet again the government is not listening to professionals.

However, if you view this policy as a nice populist Brownite election bribe, helping all those cute little babies ... then you completely understand why he is doing it.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Should children be forced to re-sit a year?

Applogies for fewer blogs recently but as every parent knows those last few days of the summer holiday can be rather full on.

Back at the school gate today I spoke to mothers about the Conservative suggestion that if a child fails its final year at primary school they should retake the last year. We already know that 4 out of 10 children are not reaching basic standards by the age of 11. Last week we heard news that standards for 7 year olds also appear to also be dropping.

The overwhelming reaction from parents I spoke to on the proposal for "retakes" was positive.

One teacher I spoke to went on to explain the boredom that many first year secondary school pupils face when they have to "waste a year waiting for others to catch up". She agreed that some children who are capable of doing better but not really trying may benefit from this additional pressure. She also pointed out that some pupils will always struggle for various reasons. They also need to be cared for - but there are fewer options available with fewer special needs schools.

Over the summer I spoke to French teenagers. Pupils in France are often made to "redouble" a year. It was clear that these teenagers didn't want to get left behind by their friends. They said the threat of retaking a year spurs them on. It also allows a pupil who has been unwell or missed school for other reasons the chance to catch up. I was impressed.

I like this policy - whats your view?

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Putting the food on our plates

This weekend there have been calls for a national watchdog to monitor the supermarkets and the food on our plates. Though I believe in free markets I do think the big 4 supermarkets could do with more watching. I've written about my bug-bear of food labelling before.

Wanting to know more about how farmers have coped with the terrible weather and how the food chain works I went to visit a friend who is a Lincolnshire farmer.

Taking valuable time away from his combine (and given the wheat price it is really valuable this year), Robert took me to see his main crop potatoes. Flooded out in one area, blight in another, but most of his crop looks like it may still be OK. He's been lucky, many other crops have not survived so well.

He said if I wanted to really understand the chain I needed to see the packager so off we went. Multi million pounds of cooler sheds, grading and packaging machinery, as well as fleets of HGVs all to prepare exactly the size, shape and blemish-free produce that we consumers expect to see in our plastic bags. The supermarkets do weald enormous power, they push it down to the packagers and processors, they push it down to the farmers. Farmers markets are good but only serve a tiny minority. I realised that as long as the majority of consumers continue to expect "perfect" looking produce on the supermarket shelves it comes with large scale centralised packaging operations - and the downside is all those lorries.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Benefit Fraud makes me livid

As a local councillor I'm delighted that the council has just prosecuted yet another benefit fraudster. In this case an unemployed woman claimed over £6,000 in housing and council tax benefit before a sharp eyed council officer spotted a huge plasma TV through the window and a nearly new car in the drive. It turns out her partner had been living in the house all the time. This is the fifth such case our single district has dealt with in the past few months - and people are getting away with this up and down the country. I don't think the courts are nearly tough enough - yet again this woman has got away with a spell of community service.

Benefit fraud makes me livid. It's stealing. Stealing from every one of us who pay our tax each month. I loathe paying tax anyway, every time I look at my payslip I wonder where has all that money has gone? It wouldn't be so bad if I really believed that the money was giving children a fantastic education, making sure a doctor will be there when I need them or even given to those who really need it. But the idea that it has just been siphoned off into some fraudsters pocket is just too much.

Last year the government lost £2.5 billion in frauds and errors. Frighteningly the amount lost in frauds (that we know about) was only £690 million of that amount. The rest was all due to "errors". It's my money, your money and is not working.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Bring it on Gordon...

In the news today is the story that the Conservative Party are preparing for an Autumn election - should the PM decide to call one. I for one say "Bring it on Gordon".

OK Gordon has had a boost in the polls but I don't believe that he will do as well as he thinks.

From first hand experiences of recent parliamentary selections, I know that the Conservative Party is well armed with an troop of outstanding candidates in many, many constituencies. Candidates who bring wide ranges of different experiences to offer their country, often with strong local roots and, vitally, candidates who are prepared to roll up their sleeves to help others.

Pictured here are Maggie Throup candidate for Solihull and Mary MacLoed candidate for Brentford and Isleworth, giving up their Saturday to come and help me work on the preschool for orphans in Rwanda. Both are constituencies I know well and both candidates will make outstanding MPs for the people they seek to represent. They are not alone. So go on Gordon, give us the chance to paint our own country just a bit bluer.

P.S I've realised that I haven't posted many pictures of the Rwanda trip and everyone in the street asks how it went. So here are just some of the many that show some of the children we helped and some of what we all did.... Thank you for your support.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Whats happening in the world of money?

I’ve watched the roller-coaster of the financial markets over the past days. What does it means for “normal” mortgage holders and pension holders.

Politically the Labour Party are playing up memories 1992 and the disasters of Black Wednesday. Alistair Darling has repeatedly said that the UK “economy is strong” and we should not worry.

I am worried. The financial world has changed a lot in the past decade and the risks we face are very different.

1. Borrowing, whether through mortgages or loans has ballooned. A small movement in interest rates takes more out of the pay packet than before. We are more “sensitive“ to ½ or even ¼ interest movements than we were a decade ago. Fixed rate mortgage deals mean for some there is a time lag before the pain bites. But it does bite. One of the results of the recent market volatility is that mortgage rates in the UK for higher risk (generally lower income) house-owners have climbed again.

2. Savings have also dropped from historic averages of around 8% of income to nearer 4% today. Savers have less put by to help withstand market fluctuations. The risks of investments are also very different. “Investment Funds” are now much more intra-invested across the globe, frequently in complex debt instruments as well as traditional shares. On one hand this has brought “diversity “ opportunites for savers on the other had means that domestic markets are more susceptible to crashes in other overseas markets than in the past.

The trigger for the current market turmoil was the crash in the US subprime mortgage market. People on low income were encouraged to borrow too much, had problems meeting their mortgage payments and that market has crashed. It’s easy to point the finger of blame - in reality many things could have tipped this turmoil. There has been a bull market, many fund managers have taken more risks in many different markets.

3. As we are seeing the markets can become highly volatile even when there are few underlying changes to companies’ business performance or the economy as a whole. As some markets started to drop, others also spiralled as highly complex investment funds chased “liquidity" and had to sell off other seemingly unrelated investments to meet requirements of their own investors and the ratings agencies.

The “Fed” (US central bank) and the European Central Bank have pushed liquidity into the system in the past days, and for now the markets are a bit better. There are still risks in weeks ahead as it becomes clear who has been hit by this volatility.

What does this mean for regulators and for government? Mud-slinging at hedge funds and rating agencies could appear tempting, as would weighing in with a clunking fist of regulation. However regulation and extra controls can also limit growth - remember lots of people, from different income spectrums, have benefited from the growth in the markets over the past few years, as has the whole economy of the South East of England. Pension funds desperately needed the chance re-grow and businesses have also benefited from increased availability of funds.

As the markets have grown in complexity so has a level of self-regulation through rating agencies and market forces. It would be inconceivable for any government to try to emulate that regulation today. Many of those who have lost out in hedge funds are highly sophisticated investors capable of understanding the risks they were undertaking. Just one of the suggestions in the Conservative Policy document “Freeing Britain to Compete” is that these investors should be free of regulatory interference to take their own decisions on risk.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is an increasing gap between those who are aware, educated, and connected to this complex market and its risks and those outsiders who are not. We must forget the low-income mortgage borrowers in the US who were encouraged to take on debts of 100%+ of their homes whose losses triggered this crisis. It is right that those on the outside (often those who can least afford to lose) should be properly informed about the risks they are taking on. Regulation of financial advisors, and mortgage lenders is important but, as in all sectors, regulation should be targeted towards helping to manage sensible risks without stifling opportunity or becoming overly burdensome. Redwood and Wolfson's report this week on competitiveness does not call for an end to all regulation - but to make sure that regulations are disciplined, costed, regularly reviewed and where practical phased out by competitive pressures and market awareness. It is this balance of regulation that is wrong in Britain today.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Back in the UK....

It's good to be home.

From Rwanda I travelled for 36 hours to the west coast of Ireland - a place where my family have holidayed for 36 years. When I was a child this was a deeply poor area. Children piled out of cottages with no shoes, donkeys were still used as transport and rocky hilltop "fields" were tilled by hand. I nearly bought a house there 10 years ago - I can't afford to now - Ireland today is a very wealthy country.

I have seen that Ireland's economic boom has been partly due to international aid but it has also been thanks to great education, hard working people and low tax policies.

Its always interesting to see how ones own national news is reported from overseas. I'm returning to a stock market crash, hiking interest rates, foot and mouth and a fight about congestion charges.

In Ireland traffic is a huge problem. I hate traffic jams. They are a waste of time and, in an economy, time is money - but I'm not convinced that conjestion charging is the solution - unless coupled with massive improvements to affordable public transport. I haven't seen that commitment from our government.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Update from the Rwanda project

For the past two weeks 43 of us have been in Rwanda, working on 20 different projects across the country.

Yesterday we completed my project at the orphanage. We have restored 4 classrooms and built a new one. We have installed electricity, running water and water collection tanks. The genocide survivors now have new cooking and washing facilities. We have built benches, furniture and a climbing frame.

82 children aged 2 to 8 attend school here every day, over half are orphans. When we arrived the only teaching aids were hand drawn posters and the pencils were sharpened with a bare razor blade. I went shopping with one of the teachers. They now have footballs, skipping ropes, pens, sharpeners, calculators, protractors, and each child has their own note book. Thank you to everyone back home who sponsored this equipment.

I also visited a secondary school. It is holiday time yet in one of the classrooms a crowd of 20 pupils had gathered. They were teaching each other physics for their equivalent of GCSEs. Despite extreme poverty there is a huge willingness to learn in this country.

We should not assume that just because a country is behind us economically that they are backward. One seven year old showed me her school work. Her mathematics is way ahead of that being studied by my own seven year son old in the UK - and he is meant to be on our "gifted and talented" program!

Small things can make a huge difference here. Teaching aids are very limited. The school "library" consists of two shelves of ancient books and the headmaster teaches chemistry by showing the pupils his one test-tube and flask, he can not demonstrate an experiment let alone allow them the chance to practice one. We showed the primary teachers how to make alphabet building blocks and let the children use them to form words, they were delighted. We showed these to the government minister - the idea will now be copied.

In Rwanda we have found a deep sense of community - on the last Saturday of every month every person helps in a community clean up so the streets are exceptionally clean. Plastic bags are banned, and everything is re-used. The prison needs no guards as if people "escape" they know they will be returned by their neighbours. Given the terrible history of this country I expected to feel a bit unsafe - yet actually we have all commented that we feel very safe.

Kigali, the capital city has a growing population as people are drawn in from rural area. The mayor describes her biggest issues as Urban Planning, Sanitation and Infrastructure - almost identical to the biggest issues that we deal with on my local council in a growth area back at home.

There are enormous problems here but there is also an overwhelming desire to find solutions.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Water...

From here in Rwanda we are hearing stories of the terrible floods back at home and I've just seen the weather forecasts for the UK.

On our orphanage building project we also have a water problem. It is the dry season and it hasn't rained since early June. Three days ago the local water standpipe ran out and now we are having to bring in water from a well 2km away - remember this is in the capital city. Making cement and concrete is very challenging. Two of our volunteers went to collect water from the well this afternoon and were immediately surrounded by a large crowd - they had never seen white people doing everyday work like this.

The project is going very well. After an 11 hour day today we have now nearly completed the restoration of the old classrooms and the roof is going on the new one. Yesterday I helped the children to put hand prints along the wall of their school. These children have never held a paint brush. We had great fun - though washing 80 pairs of hands in an inch of water was a skill! Today David Cameron came to join us, worked hard and then added his hand print.

We have been making letter building blocks for the children. When I showed these to the teachers they were delighted. With so few teaching aids really simple things like this will make a difference. Some of the original genocide orphans came back on their day off work today and helped - there is a very strong feeling of voluntary and community work in this country.

At dinner last night we had a debrief from each of the 20 projects that are going on with our group. Everything from GPs working in isolated rural villages and lawyers helping to rebuild the legal system to cricket and football training to microfinance to IT and marketing classes. I feel very honoured to be here.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

guest blog from Rwanda

I have asked Peter Wilding to "guest blog" tonight....
Back from the project, the team is exhausted and dirty and looking forward to a curry tonight. These forty volunteers are doing 20 big schemes and are learning so much of the how to's as well as the what for's of this biggest political social action exercise. Me, apart from carpentry, painting and digging on site and seeing how the whole thing is developing the other wonders of being here is that I've lectured the Ministry of justice on English law and helped to teach the fledgling cricket enthusiasts here the marvels of the great game. Next week, the orphanage will be opened, the Ministry will know what's what about contractual drafting (happy days!) and we'll be opening up a new cricket academy. Best two weeks ever, with some lovely, committed and fun people. Ciao.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Learning from Rwanda

I believe I have learnt more about the realities of living in an emerging country in the past 3 days than I did in 14 years working on emerging market projects as a banker in the City of London.

Yesterday we ran out of paint at our pre-school project so I went with Eugene to get some. Buying a pot of paint took 1 1/2 hours.. then you have to go to another shop to buy a brush and another for white spirit or parafin. These sort of logistics challenges are faced every day - even in the capital city of a country like Rwanda where actually the economy is improving.

On a more practical level I have been taught plastering skills African style by some of our local workers and Kudogo, one of the orphans still living at Girubuntu, has spent the past 3 days glued to my MP colleagues who are teaching him carpentry.

The children have finished their exams - yes even the 5 year olds - and have had a couple of days off. We will all be working really hard over the weekend to get the classrooms ready for them on Monday morning.

p.s. I've been trying to upload some pictures but there is no Broadband here and the pc keeps crashing. Nicola, who came here to teach music, as found herself teaching excel and word every day to 40 pupils in their late teens and twenties. The class shares two ancient computers. She made them some cardboard keyboards last night - they are over the moon! What a different world.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Update after day 3

Our project in Rwanda is now moving incredibly quickly. A bit of background information. The Girubuntu project was initially set up in 1994 to provide an orphanage for survivors of the genocide. Some of the orignal survivors still live at the site, others come back during university breaks, others have moved on. Also on the site is the pre-school, currently for 80 children most of whom are orphans themselves.

Yesterday I met the children. At the pre-schools I have helped in the UK a lot of time is spent in play. We believe that children will learn a lot about themselves, the world, and how to interact with others through playing. In the UK children have lots of time for academic study later. However here in Rwanda I have been told that 50% of children never even finish primary school, therefore the teachers try to really teach these tiny pre-schoolers as much as academic work as possible even at such a young age. They are also being taught English and French - even though outside school they speak "Kinynaranwda".

The state of the "classrooms" was really sad with crumbling walls and leaking roofs. Working alongside local people we are completely refurbishing the existing classrooms and building a new one to allow the school to grow. We start at 7am each morning. I have been plastering, helping to put in new electrics and planning decorations which I hope will be fantastic.

It is an incredibly interesting country and with 20 different projects going on at the same time the conversation over dinner each evening is non-stop. Some of us are working with the country's top lawyers, some are working with street children and there is everything in between. What an opportunity to see a country through so many different peoples' eyes.

Monday, 16 July 2007

First impressions from Rwanda

We arrived in Kigali this morning. The countryside is incredibly beautiful from the air, a mosaic of terraced hills. I sat beside a Californian on the plane joining a safari to find chimpanzees and gorillas. First impressions are of a very tidy, well organised city. Helpful, friendly welcoming people.

After a quick briefing and a bite to eat we all disappear off towards our projects only a couple of hours behind the others. The project at the Girubuntu orphanage is so inspiring. In a tiny group of decaying classrooms 80 2 ½ to 6 year olds come for lessons each morning. I meet the teachers and the other volunteers. Together we discuss how to brighten up the old rooms whilst concrete is being mixed for the new classroom. We set about pulling out rusty nails and plastering. I am told the children are really excited about this project. Tomorrow I will meet them.

Half way there?

We arrived in Nairobi last night - luggage everywhere (though sadly not Kitty's bag), queues for everything. The landing lights have not been working in Mombassa for 2 days so a group of fiesty Brits on Safari are camping in the Departure lounge. Three hours after landing we are packed of towards a hotel but when we get there find its fully booked. Eventually at midnight we find some beds.

We understand that the team in Kigali decided to go to the local church yesterday. The service lasted 4 hours and was very moving. I guess we can cope with a few delays at the airport!

Sunday, 15 July 2007

update from Heathrow

OK so we are off... leaving soon... we will get stuck in Nairobi tonight, so I don't know when I'll write again. People open up when in thrown together like this. I have met lots of interesting passengers and heard their stories. Mark who came to the UK as a refugee from Burundi 9 years ago and is returning to visit his brother, Ruth the African banker who has just been seeing her son graduate from Kent university - last month her daughter graduated in the US. Clearly a bright family.

Buzz (yes really) works for Save the Children in Nairobi. He spoke about how important it is in relief work to have good information. He suggested we try to find out how the rural economy works in Rwanda - peel back the layers and really understand how people live. I haven't even left the UK and am learning already.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Out to Africa

Today I was meant to be leaving with a group of MPs, councillors, and conservative party supporters for our voluntary service project in Rwanda.

OK so one of the first things we have learnt is that getting there isn't that easy. The flight to Nairobi was cancelled. 8 of the party were put on another flight, 5 have gone home for the night and 3 of us are sitting in a Heathrow hotel with 300 other passengers waiting for a new plane at 6am tomorrow. Everyone is pretty frustrated.

I'm here with Nicola, a flautist, who will be running a music program in a school. In her bag are 30 recorders and recorder books. Kitty will be in Butare where she will be working on a VSO project with young people. Her backpack is stuffed full of condoms and educational leaflets.

The problem is that though we will get to Nairobi, we will undoubtedly miss the connecting flight to Kigali tomorrow and the few flights are always very booked up. Nicola has been on the phone to Kenya airlines at least 15 times today ... everyone is trying hard but working in areas with difficult communication links is challenging.

All packed up and ready to go


Tonight I will be flying out to Rwanda with a group of Conservative supporters for two weeks of VSO supported work. I will be helping to build a pre-school in an orphanage.

Clearing the desk before going away is always busy - but its been a very busy week.

We have found a potential partner to save our Country Park from closure. My Council colleagues will vote on it this week.

We have recruited a new senior officer to help keep put the council on a solid footing. We asked each of the candidates to give us a presentation on local government funding. There are huge uncertainties about the future, they all predicted that money will be tighter for all councils - what will this mean for local people and their services?

I'm off to a country where funding is really tight. Over the past week I have carried a sponsor form with me to raise money for the equipment at the orphanage. Everyone has given so generously. Thank you. I will be taking much needed funds with me and hope to be able to keep you up to date here.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Why be a local councillor?


"Why on earth do I do this?" were my thoughts last week when the latest cabinet agenda arrived in my pigeon hole. A 354 page long document covering everything from food hygiene to balanced budgets to how people might ever find a home. That's a lot of reading.

The council cabinet is a mixed bunch; Ray and Nick are farmers but David is a university lecturer, Mark helps run one of the local hospitals and Sue is so much more than a retired nurse, Simon does all this whilst still running his business and Daphne was a hard working councillor when I was still at teenage discos.

We had the meeting today. The agenda is laced with decisions that aren't really decisions at all but things we have to do to comply with the latest government directives. A lot of paperwork and thought about how the decisions in Westminster affect us on the ground. Every one of those Westmister downloads costs money here too.

In between those there are real decisions, things to debate to listen to. We listened and learnt. Total time spent in council offices 7 hours.

Tonight I went to two local parish council meetings. From road safety to affordable housing, from flytipping and grass cutting to the white paper on planning issues and putting the roof back on the community hall, these are local issues but important issues to the people who live here.

Tomorrow I will return to council offices for another session looking forward to the year ahead. I've just finished page turning the budget documents in preparation. I'm glad I've had all those years in banking.

This Thursday and Friday I will be attending interviews for a new senior council officer - many of the existing staff are coming up for retirement at the same time. We need to get the right person to get the job done.

Not every local councillor can give the same time to their role - but that is respected. It's more important that the councillors are a mixture of different people with different interests, and we all bring those interests. So like many local councillors I give my time this week willingly.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Taking to the Skies

Today must have been the first day for weeks that it didn't rain here. We joined many hundreds of others for a wonderful day out at the Duxford Air Show.

A few thoughts -

The flight of 8 spitfires brought memories flooding back to my older neighbours in the crowd. The fact that these planes are still in the skies today is largely due to the hoards of volunteers who give hours of their time to our museums.

My children were terrified by the sound of just one F15 bomber flashing past. The US Airforce captain over the tannoy told us of the thousands of sorties these planes have flown in Iraq. Children in year 4 and above are taught about the blitz have acted out being evacuees from that war - but few children are being taught about the wars British troops are fighting in today.

There were sideshows, history, aero-dynamics and wingwalkers. It was a great day out (see the big smile) but going to an event like this is incredibly expensive. The ticket prices came in at £99 for a family of six (deep intake of breath at the kiosk). This museum though could not survive without these revenue busting spectaculars and it was a day that my family will remember.

Many museums have become more accessible since the introduction of free entry and I would like to see every child have access to the education they provide - but museums can't stand still. At what point does it become more than an educational day out and become an entertainment? If museums want to offer something a bit more of the latter from time to time then they need the option to be able to charge for it.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Planning for Rwanda

I'm getting my things together for the trip that I will be making to Rwanda in a couple of weeks. I will be joining a group of Conservative MPs, Councillors, Candidates and party members for a fortnight of VSO supported projects. The aim is for us to learn about what it is like at the frontline in one of Africa's most troubled countries and to understand the need for sustainable aid.

I feel hugely honoured to be included on this trip - and in case you wanted to know we are all paying our own way from our own purses. A different sort of summer holiday.

I've chaired a community pre-school here for 3 years and will be helping to build a pre-school attached to an orphanage in Kigali. I will be taking with me photos of what works and doesn't work in pre-school buildings in the UK, I've start to collect some toys, books and games to put in my luggage. I feel like a pin cushion from all the jabs.

This weekend I was given a list of equipment that the pre-school needs urgently. Everything from tables and chairs to cups and pencils. If you would like to help sponsor any of the equipment we need please do email me. vford@btinternet.com

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Story of a Selection

I spent today at the Parliamentary selection for Gillingham and Rainham. Over the past few weeks its been a pleasure to meet some wonderful people in Medway and see how they are working together for their towns.

As one of the finalists I can say that this selection was incredibly fair, good humoured and well run. I was asked many times what I thought about local candidates. In my view, the best candidate for a seat remains a local candidate but only if they are also an excellent candidate. It is also possible by hard work and integrating into a local community to become local - after all that is what most of us outside politics do when we move house!

Outside the meeting room we heard the laughs and cheers during Rehman Chishti's questions. He has great empathy with, and confidence from, local people.

Reh stood in the last general election as a Labour candidate against Francis Maude, chairman of the Conservative Party. He has since joined the Conservative Party. He stood under the Tory flag and won in this years local elections. He is an excellent local candidate and was today chosen to stand for Gillingham and Rainham, a key target seat, and his home from birth. He will stand and he will win.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Call for Doctors to fight Westminster by elections

I have just received this by email re the parliamentary by-elections coming up in Sedgefield (Tony Blair's seat) and Ealing.

"RemedyUK are looking for doctors with local connections to either of these two constituencies to stand as candidates to highlight the threats to the NHS. If 'your' doctor fills that criterion and would like to find out more, do get in touch."

RemedyUK is the organisation of junior doctors founded in February to help highlight the crisis facing our doctors. They now have over 9,000 members.

Back in March when I tried to get junior doctors to speak out about the problems of the NHS they were told that if they got political in the media their jobs would be on the line. Now they are hoping to fight what may be the most media intense election battle ever seen in the UK.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

What the Doctors said

Yesterday the Conservative party announced their policies for the NHS. I had been invited to the Royal College of Physicians. What do the doctors have to say?

At dinner I sat amongst consultants, all in their 40s – the new generation of senior doctors. An oncologist (cancer), cardiologist (hearts), gastroenterologist (tums ‘n bums), and a leading businessman who, as a volunteer, has spent the last 6 years on the board of his hospital trust.

“What’s wrong with targets?” I asked.

“They’re not all bad” said the Guardian reader. “Waiting lists are shorter – patients have to be treated within 18 weeks – soon it going to be 11 weeks. That’s much better than it used to be.”

“But they are easy to manipulate” said the heartman “If I see a patient in my clinic 6 weeks after the GP wrote to me I can give them a simple drug and tick, the “treatment” has started. I haven’t cured him but I’ve met my 18 week target. The patient still waits 6 months for the proper treatment that they really need but that doesn’t appear on the target”.

“Those long hours in casualty waiting rooms have gone. Now everyone is seen in 4 hours” said another.

“Yes but…” said the businessman “my hospital used to see everyone in 4 ½ hours anyway. The doctors said there was no medical benefit from cutting the 30 minutes off the end, but the government said we had to. It cost us £16 million to meet that target. We could have spent that money on making real differences elsewhere.”

“So what do you want?” I asked

Here was the list… at least part of it.

Managers and Politicians who listen to the doctors, Fewer central government directives, More local and regional decision making, More front line professionals involved in those decisions, Doctors to be involved in the design of their buildings and resources, Less rigid targets instead more flexible “thresholds” that really make a difference to whether patients get better.

At the weekend I met a group of leading Surgeons. “I had dinner with Andrew Lansley this week” said one “He knows his stuff. He really listened.” It’s a long time since anyone said that about a Health Secretary.

As for what they said about MTAS – that’s another story.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Too English for my own Country

A Cambridgeshire MP has just revealed that local people are being turned away from local jobs because they cant speak Polish ... so they won't be able to fit in with the other people on the assembly line. See Here.... This has to be wrong.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Saving our Open Spaces


Since December I've been spearheading efforts to find a new owner for our Country Park. Many people have worked hard, 10,000 have signed a petition, funds have poured into our parking collection boxes.

I'm delighted that we have now narrowed negotiations down to 3 potential "owners" - the National Trust (who manage other open space nearby), The local Cambridge Preservation Society (who have been looking after local green areas for 80 years) and the Sports Lake Trust (who are fundraising to build an Olympic size rowing lake and running local sports charities --- gold medals will come from them). There could not be a stronger group. There is still a lot of work to do and funds to raise but protecting our green spaces for the future is vital so it's worth the work!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Aid to Trade

As the G8 leaders get together again two years after their pledge to fight world poverty it is time to reflect on whether western governments have even started to meet their ambitions.

This morning I was listening to a debate on the Today Program between Bill Nighy, who had just returned from Tanzania and Professor Paul Collier the Director for African Studies at Oxford.

They agreed that aid is key but only part of the solution, aid helps prevent people from dying today but we also need to help people to help themselves, to help them set up sustainable economies. Trade Policy, governance (ie preventing corruption) and security were described as the "Big 3" problems that we in the west need to help.

12 years ago, after the fall of apartheid, I led the first financing of a South African company by the international banking community. Getting money out of banks then for African companies was like pulling teeth - but we did raise £100 million for Eskom, the electricity company. The money was earmarked to spend on bringing electricity to the townships to enable people to start to set up their own small businesses. Over a decade later this company is the 7th largest electricity producer in the world, but it still has problems meeting demand in the winter and there is still terrible poverty even in parts of South Africa let alone the continent.

I am ashamed that, like many, I don't know much about aid, trade and life in some of our poorer countries today. That is why I'm delighted to be travelling to Rwanda this summer with a group of other Conservative MPs and party members who want to learn more. I will be helping to build a pre-school at an orphanage.

The trip is entirely self funded - when I went to get my jabs at the clinic today I was asked if I needed a receipt .... what for? this is a voluntary project. I don't expect the taxpayer or a worthy charity to pick up the bill for me. I will give my time and come back with invaluable experience that I hope to be able to share.

I would also like to travel out with a back pack of kit for the pre-school to help it become more than just a building. If any reader would like to make a donation towards toys, games, books and balls then please do contact me.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Time to talk


Today I was invited to be the "guest" for the weekly chat show on our local hospital radio. The hospital has over 1,100 beds and judging from this weeks news a patient in most of them.

I arrived, took my place in the normal juggle to find a parking place, and was taken down into the bowels of the hospital. Here a group of volunteers run the radio program. They have no idea how many people listen in, but they get many thank-yous. I was told by a doctor that little things like the radio station can make a difference to those "trapped as a prisoner in their hospital beds".

I was asked to speak about the plans to save our country park, I discussed our new towns, the pressure from rising house prices and we also discussed the role local councils have in trying to protect the environment.

I had been asked to chose some pieces of music. I'd heard that many patients like a bit of classical from time to time but are to embarrassed to ask - so I obliged - the final tune was the wonderful Radio 4 theme tune (alas no more) that crescendos to a finale of Rule Britannia. There, with the wonderful band of volunteers from different nations all contributing to their local community, I was proud to be British.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Where did all those skills go?

Two years ago I stood outside the gates of Longbridge when 6,000 people lost their jobs and MG Rover folded. I was the Conservative Party Candidate and it was the eve of the general election. I had met many of the employees, many of whom were highly skilled engineers and designers.

Today car making has re-started at the plant and 130 people are employed there. Where did all those skills go? - mostly overseas or to work for non-British designers. Many of the less skilled workers still don't have proper jobs.

Before Rover folded I ranted about lack of support for British industry. At the time I was frustrated because the local police force had just bought a fleet of foreign produced Volvos. I believed that there was no excuse - British businesses should be able to develop and engineer products as well as our European competitors. If we weren't our government should be concerned about it.

Also today there is the story that we will be sourcing our next Aircraft Carriers from the French. At £3.9 billion, this is one of the largest capital purchases that Mr Brown will make and will involve much highly skilled work. Of course assembly jobs will be assured as this will take place in the neighbourhood of Mr Browns own constituency. But the loss of highly skilled work is a lost legacy.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Every Child does Matter



The government flagship on education is that "every child matters" yes they do.

This week I returned to my favourite pre-school. Like many other mums, during my own children's pre-school years I struggled to find the right balance for my children whilst I was working. 7 out of 10 mums now work, possibly more.

After many false starts I finally found the right formula for my family. A community run, open door, affordable, fun, playing and learning environment that kept my children in their local community. The staff are hugely experienced and largely parents themselves. This pre-school also allowed me totally flexible 9-5 childcare by its links to the local out of school club. I became the chairman of the governing body and have seen how this pre-school allows parents to re-engage their professional skills in the workforce whilst having utter stability in their child's care.

Every year we have been brought children with "special needs". These were often children who, even aged 2-3 had already found other childcare environments had failed them. For example, Charlie who had two older siblings - both autistic. When he came to us he couldn't look another child in they eye, let alone play or interact - he was set on a dangerous rail track for his entire education. A year later Charlie was playing happily, chatting with friends. I have learnt that extra help at this age can redirect a child and set them up for life. I also learnt that every child can be educated at their own level - but not if one only relies on government funding,

I have also learnt that without amazing volunteers and staff these charities would fold. We've been fundraising for four years to build the children their own outside play space and garden.

We tick all the right boxes. Special needs, extended schools etc etc but everytime we are promised government money the goal posts move. The volunteers feel like giving up. We've built the garden but the funds promised for equipment and plants have not turned up. This week I cut the ribbon on an empty garden it could be so much better. We owe our children more than this. Come on!

Monday, 21 May 2007

What do the police do?

I spent this morning at one of those "partnership" meetings that we local councillors attend. This was about crime attended by local police and their bigwigs, the senior firemen, probation service, health service. Lots of council officers, a few councillors. I do believe that everyone there, including the police, wants to make life safer.

But - here are the shackles

From "this summer" under a new white paper these partnerships are to be given more "Scope" - we must look at crime and antisocial behaviour and substance misuse and behaviour that adversely affects the environment???.....

However - funding has been cut... last year this partnership had a small pool of money that was given to real community projects. They made a difference; fitting door chains on the homes of the elderly, getting disenchanted youths do work experience as firemen, buying a few cctv cameras, a cop car, a police bike and a fire alarm for the farmers that constantly find their stacks on fire. This year there will be effectively no funding for these projects.

The government has a new approach the "Community Call for Action" which sounds great - from April any community can call for us to do action... but there is no guidance and no cash promised so how does one answer the call?

So instead the partnership monitors the statistics as required by the Home Office. "We're a low crime area" I'm told. "We have more PCSOs" I'm told.

How do I explain that to the families of the 21 people who have needlessly sacrificed their lives on my local road. Local people just want a few cop cars out there getting people to slow down. Death on the road is not a crime statistic. PCSOs can't give you a speeding ticket.

How do I explain it to the parent at school whose kid was nearly run over this week? That doesn't appear in the crime stats either.

How do I explain it to my fellow councillors who are noticing a rise in kids causing arson and fearing a hot, dry, tinderbox of a summer.

How do I explain it to the farmer who was robbed. The burglar was not the brightest button. He took what he wanted and left the remainder down the road but on part of the same farm! Whilst dumping it he left some papers including his name and address. What more evidence does one need. That was last August. The police finally went to arrest him this week (May). He was out.

I am guilty. I made this meeting last longer that it would have done ... but I'm simply not prepared to sit there and only listen to the "home office" questions and not the community's concerns.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

A bit of a laugh.....

I do enjoy halowe'en with the children... so I couldn't turn down the offer to be a spooky internet ghost of the enviroment minister.... the Ghost Cabinet launches today.

boys things...

I met the chairman of school governors today at one of those partnership meetings we local councillors go to.

Before we even sat down he explained "I have a problem. Its largely a male pupil problem. Sorry (smile).. but it is."

He then told me that he was desperate to find hands on training for young men who are dis-enchanted with the classroom and want something to do - "there are no apprenticeships" he explained.

We are a "growth area" thousands of houses are being built. I suggested we approach the developers at the nearby building site and see they can offer a few hours of work experience. Reaction - WOW - AMAZING - YES - WHAT A GREAT IDEA.

Of course then Health and Safety is brought up.

Later I spoke to a Tory Councillor in Birmingham whom I know as fought for similar projects. He has sorted out the following. 1. The local higher education college now run their building skills courses from on site in their regeneration area, 2. their local housing association now take on local apprentices, 3. their council house maintenance company now employ local apprentices.

Next I spoke to a neighbour who is currently paying a bricklayer £200 a day - he's a very good bricklayer. Its not a bad job.

I hope something good will come from today.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

A little too late - and not enough


Patricia Hewitt has finally agreed with every person in the Health Service that the new medical training system is a disaster. If only she had listened back in February when it all started.

All the doctors I have spoken to say just want to treat patients - they dont want to have to do this.

Its only 10 weeks before 22,000 doctors are due to change jobs in every major hospital in the country - a bit late. Doctors have had to cancel operations due in August as they know already there won't be enough staff.

Today the doctors start their legal challenge against the goverment with a Judicial Review. Good luck to them all, we need them back in our hospitals.

Views from the East


A busy day yesterday - at lunchtime I was the guest speaker to the Conservative Women's Association in Rochford and Southend. This very well informed and active group meets every month bringing different speakers from across the UK. They wanted to hear about my experiences campaigning across the country. I spoke about the Junior Doctors campaign, our local campaigns for safer roads and the country park as well as political campaigns.

They told me the problems they face in Southend - its a small unitary authority and like others has found it very hard to meet the ballooning costs of social services. "Its the hidden population" they said "we know Southend is growing, doctors surgeries, schools and houses are all full - but as many of these people are recent arrivals they don't appear in the statistics and we don't get funding to help them". Immigration again.

In the evening I was the guest speaker for the Abridge Conservative Supper Club near Epping. They have now been meeting for 30 years and must be one of the oldest such clubs in the country (though their members were far from old!) The last female politician to speak at their club was Ann Widdecombe and many had recently been to another dinner with William Hague as the speaker. No pressure then! They were a great crowd. Epping conservatives like my own local group have recently taking control of their district council. Their first action was sorting out the bins. Our Conservative politicians must make sure they deliver excellent, value for money services at a local level. Unless we run our councils well how will we be trusted to run the country.

Again the questions came into a long exchange about the pressures they see from the increased population. Not surprising given its all over the news at the moment. Not only housing, but infrastructure, schooling and health services. Interestingly it was the people who had come to the UK from other countries in the past who are most concerned about current immigration / migration pressures. They have worked hard and contributed to this economy, they say that those arriving today must do the same.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

How Green is Brown's Eco Town

There's lots of local consternation about the spin put on Brown's EcoTowns in the weekend papers. Here and Here.

The first of these towns will be Northstowe - which just happens to be in my district council's area and the council has been working on this for four years so this is not a great new idea from Mr Brown. As I am a cabinet member on that council I will pick my words carefully.

First claim "homes will be zero-carbon". Its a lovely aspiration which everyone would like to achieve but actually the current plans are more like 10% energy from renewable sources. Zero carbon homes would be very expensive so Brown will need to follow this up with lots of money.

Next claim "These towns are to be built on brownfield sites". Northstowe will be built on land previously used by the MOD at Oakington. A small part of it has been built on before - but land used by the MOD as the green spaces around aeroplane landing strips is also defined as "brown-field".

Next claim "combining the environment with housing" and "They will take as their model Poundbury, the village created in 1993 by the Prince of Wales in Cornwall. " - I've been to Poundbury (actually it's in Dorset). I was impressed. There is lots of open space. Northstowe was initally meant to be 8,000 homes. At 10,000 homes there will be far higher densities of housing than Poundbury. Plans for open spaces, a country park and undeveloped countryside "green seperation" between the town and the existing villages could all be much more difficult to fit in.

Another claim "The towns will have new road and rail links and will include zero-carbon schools and health centres." Actually the main road to Northstowe comes off the notorious A14 at its most congested stretch. Work to improve the A14 will not even start until AFTER the first residents have moved in. There are no rail links as such planned but a guided bus way will take people down the old railway line and then join buses on Cambridge's streets. Yes it will have a health centre but the local hospital, Hinchingbrooke, faces a deficit of £49 million and is currently undergoing public consultation about how to strip £14 million from "costs"...........

We do need affordable housing, housing for young people, for young people to be able to get on the property ladder. Cambridge house prices been showing some of the biggest hikes in the country. We want these houses to be as eco friendly as possible. I also want local people to still have a say on planning. As a councillor I know that to get this we have to work with the government. If Mr Brown is to make this his personal "flagship" he is going to have to address some of these concerns.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

The Blair Legacy - what has it given me?

10 years ago I walked into an election night party crammed full of my university friends. As I entered Sam, the host, took one look at me and declared to the crowd "You voted Tory didn't you". I was the only person in that room who had not voted for Tony Blair.

Having said that the next day ,as I watched Tony arrive at number 10, I was caught up in the hope, hope for a new vision, for investment in trains that worked, hospitals and schools that we needed. I was prepared to pay Tony's taxes if they rebuilt Britain.

This week I sorted out some papers and found my great-grandfather's obituary. He had been involved in local government in Cambridge for 52 years from 1892-1944. He founded the school dental service that was then adopted nationally (today we fight to find NHS dentists), he worked to improve housing for young people and secured playing fields for schools. He fought to expand the hospital and give it sound finances. Today, 100 years on, I am still fighting the same battles as my great grandfather.

What has Tony given me personally? This week, this month, this year.

OK money has been spent on health - but not sensibly. Today I've been discussing our council's response to the proposals for "saving" one of our local hospitals. All of the proposals involved cuts - some of the "cuts" are spun as "restructurings". We are one of the fastest growing parts of the country, we need more health services not less. Couple this with hearing that we are now the worst European country for Cancer care (my husband's speciality) and that our doctors and nurses won't receive the same training he did - I am let down. 10 years ago I gave birth to my first child. I speak to midwives now and am glad that I am not testing the maternity services of today.

Education 20 years ago as a student I used to go into classrooms as a volunteer to help with the gifted mathematicians in local primary schools. Back then the teachers had time to greet me with a plan for the lesson, had time to suggest activities, to get feedback, to plan the next week's session. Today I still help as a volunteer and run a maths-games club at a local school - the teachers are wonderful but they are more stretched- they just don't have the time. It is my view based on personal observations that the education of our nations best and brightest has gone backwards.

Trains, Roads, Transport Tony, if you had told me you were going to build trains and roads that worked I would have happily given you all the tax you wanted. Instead I still sit in traffic jams. Wasted years, wasted time, wasted chances.

Northern Ireland Tony's final glory - peace in our nation. I grew up in Northern Ireland. I know what it is like to be in a classroom when a bomb blasts the glass through the windows. Omagh, my town, was ripped to pieces after the first peace agreement was supposedly settled. It is a wonderful hope that no child of today should have to face that fear.

When I was a child if we drove across the border it was like stepping back in time, roads were dreadful, rural homes were lucky to have ropey electricity and dodgy water. Even 20 years ago, as a student, Dublin showed the visitor the three Ds: Drugs, Drunks and Deprivation. There was a huge income differential between North and South. In my personal view, that differential caused much of the tension. It has changed so much. The South is now the wealthy nation - economic tensions have been removed.

"Peace" in Northern Ireland was started by John Major but in war-torn areas history is hard to put behind you and a change of government and time from Tony did help. However, I believe that the final "peace" has more to do with the booming economy of the South leapfrogging that of the complacent UK.

I could go on........ crime, interest rates, litter, industry, Iraq, defence, but it's enough of a rant already.