Richard Willis's Blog

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The Uncertainty of the New Year

new-yearThe end of one year and the beginning of the next is always a strange time.  I listen to the news reviews of the year and can’t believe that some of the things talked about happened in the year gone by – they seem longer ago!  It was the year of British triumph at the Beijing Olympics (19 golds);  Russia’s invasion of Georgia;  Barack Obama’s emergence as Democrat candidate and then victory as President elect of the USA;  the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London;  and of course the financial chaos leading to collapse of major finance names such as Lehman Brothers and the near collapse of AIG and British banks like Northern Rock, Bank of Scotland and Bradford and Bingley.

What will 2009 bring? Some things we know for certain: we will watch the inauguration of the USA’s first black President in January;  there will be European elections and local elections in June;  there will be a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty;  and a Presidential election in South Africa.

Some things look likely:  a final withdrawal from Iraq of British forces looks to be on the cards;  there will be further conflict in the Middle East;  further turmoil on the financial markets;  and a further decline in house prices.

Some things we can only hope for:  a peaceful and stable Iraq;  the removal of Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe;  a Brit winning Wimbledon;  a breakthrough in treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Whatever 2009 brings, we can be sure that no-one will have foreseen most of it.  Unfortunately I don’t think that 2009 will bring us a UK General Election and Gordon Brown will therefore struggle on, trying to make his mark, up against the ticking clock of electoral doom.

For many 2009 will bring fear and uncertainty as the recession bites and all politicians must continue to do everything we can to make people’s lives that bit better. Spare a thought for those in our armed forces who will have to take their turns in trouble spots around the world during the course of the year and try to find a few pounds or pence for the charities that support them.

I hope that the New Year is good to you and your family!

December 31, 2008 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

Value for Money?

cashI am struck by the number of people who don’t realise that Councillors are not full time employees of the Council.  Over the Christmas break I have spoken to two individuals who firmly believed that their Council Taxes go to support luxurious lifestyles of elected politicians and that if only we “took less” then Council Tax could be lower.

It is certainly true that there are some authorities where the Council Leader gets paid what amounts to a salary. The Leader of Cardiff Council was awarded £60,000 in 2000 and Northumberland’s Leader attracted controversy earlier this month with a proposal to increase his leaders pay to £27,000 next year, making a total of £39,000.  However, most Councillors get paid a fraction of that.

The basic allowance for a Reading Borough Councillor is £8,385 per year (or £698.75 per month before tax).  Some Councillors also receive “Special Responsibility Allowances” – details are here.  As a Vice-Chairman of a Scrutiny Panel I also receive an additional allowance of £1,217; so my total income as a Councillor is £9,602 per year before tax and national insurance.  It is possible to claim transport costs and (if you have children) a carers allowance but I have never claimed these.

In return for my allowances I am expected to give up, on average, about two evenings a week on Council business and a Saturday morning every month for my ward surgeries.  However, sometimes I can have a meeting almost every night of the week, with some going on until gone 11pm – that is after a full day at my normal place of work.

I am certainly not complaining.  After all, I chose to stand for election and take on this task but I hope that you can see that being a Reading Borough Councillor is certainly no short cut to riches. 

December 30, 2008 Posted by | Local | Comments Off on Value for Money?

A New Cycle Map for Reading

cyclingThose who follow Reading politics will know that I and the Conservative Group have been keen advocates of improved cycling facilities in and around the town.  It is pleasing to note that elements of our Transport Manifesto have been adopted by the Labour administration, including an updated Cycling Strategy and a Cycling Forum (known as the Cycling Liaison Group). 

It would be churlish therefore not to plug a consultation that the Council is undertaking on a new Cycle Map for Reading.  They are proposing new “branded, colour-coded cycle routes with new signs and maps to help people decide where to go”.

There are two drop in sessions in the Civic Offices to demonstrate the plans:

            Thursday, 8 January 2009, 4pm to 7pm, Council Chamber, Civic Centre

Monday, 12 January 2009, 12pm to 2pm, Mezzanine Meeting Room 1, Civic Centre

 

I do hope that many people will take this opportunity to have their say.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | Local | Leave a comment

Clarke in or out?

clarkeThere has been much speculation in recent days about a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle and the possibility of Ken Clarke returning to its ranks. Shadow Chancellor was mooted as a post he could fill with credibility but more recently it has been suggested that shadowing Peter Mandelson at Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform may be on the cards.  I am not convinced that either would be a good move.  Clarke’s great strength in recent years has been his ability to intervene on a range of matters as he saw fit in his capacity as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer.  It has also allowed the Conservative front bench to disown his interventions when it suited them.

Bringing Clarke back into the Shadow Cabinet would risk confrontation with George Osborne and would fetter Clarke’s ability to comment and criticise freely.  I am not convinced that the interests of the Party or Ken himself would be best served by a return. Far better for him to remain on the back-benches, at liberty to comment and be wheeled out from time to time to dissect the mess Labour are making of our economy.

David Davis is another matter.  Every day he remains on the back-benches is a day wasted in my opinion.  As Shadow Home Secretary he claimed the scalps of several Labour opponents and struck fear into the heart of many a Minister.  His successor Dominic Grieve, whilst a decent and intelligent man, does not have the same impact. Davis should be brought back to shadow the ineffective Jacqui Smith and I am sure the betting markets would instantly open a book on how long she would survive.

Another key post in the run up to an election is Party Chairman.  Caroline Spelman is a decent and sensible individual but she has not made much of an impact as Party Chairman. Her media profile is almost non-existent and she has been unfortunately tainted by the “Nannygate” saga.  I would replace her with Chris Grayling.  Chris is a sharp operator who has a media background and understands what needs to be done to improve relations with sections of the media that should be more supportive.  He also is an avid campaigner.  When I was standing in Sutton and Cheam he gave me considerable help and advice and I believe that he has what it takes to get Central Office into shape for the run up to a General Election.

There are other changes I would make to the Shadow Cabinet but they can follow in future articles.  Labour has some very ineffective incumbents in several of the key posts and now is a fantastic opportunity for David Cameron to get the people and the message right for the pre-election period.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | National | 7 Comments

The Stupidity of Hamas

hamasFor as long as human history has been recorded there has been trouble in the Middle East. The current conflict between Jew and Arab can be dated back to Old Testament times and I am therefore not optimistic that a lasting solution can be found.  The fundamental issue is that two peoples claim ownership of the same piece of land and whenever that has been the case in history the strongest has prevailed.  I cannot think of any exception to this.

All unnecessary loss of life is a tragedy and it is particularly so when it involves civilian non-combatants. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the lion’s share of the blame for the current deaths in the Gaza strip lies firmly with Hamas.  They are the ones who have continually fired rockets and mortars into Israel.  Did they expect no response? 

It is 60 years since the foundation of the state of Israel, in the shadow of the attempted extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis and in that time Israel has endured and repulsed repeated Arab attacks.  Israeli leaders have learned that survival of their tiny nation is only guaranteed by military strength and the willingness to use it.

We can debate whether Israel is wise to continue this response in the case of Hamas attacks from Gaza.  The court of international opinion has little patience with large scale civilian casualties and Hamas is in no position to seriously threaten Israel’s existence but rather like the drunk that picks a fight in the bar, Hamas are the ones who have begun this particular round of conflict. Unfortunately they have picked on the biggest and strongest guy in the bar and he is in no mood for turning the other cheek.

Hamas must stop all rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza and then the international community will be justified in pressing Israel to stop their air strikes.  Sadly until Hamas learns that military style attacks on Israel are entirely counterproductive they will continue their stupid campaign to the detriment of all the Palestinian people.  The only way forward has to be peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  Israel has demonstrated its desire for this by withdrawal from Gaza. It is time for Hamas to grow up and show that it can put the interests of the people it purports to represent ahead of short term political tactics.

December 28, 2008 Posted by | International | 13 Comments

Labour’s Economic Credibility Unravels

economiccollapse1Much of the foundation of New Labour’s claim to have changed was its assertion that it had changed in its ability to manage the economy.  No more economic disasters like the 1970s when the UK was the “sick man of Europe” and the Labour Government had to go cap in hand to the IMF to borrow money to keep the lights on.  “Prudence” and “responsibility” were the watch-words.  “No more boom and bust” was the boast, even leading to wilder claims that the rules of economics had been re-written.

However, the warning signs of a debt bubble were ignored and the credit boom was allowed to inflate further and further. It is no surprise that now we have a huge bust on our hands and that the UK seems to be badly placed compared to its competitors to deal with the down-turn.  The Government’s attempts to respond to the situation seem to just make things worse.

We face the possibility of deflation – so they cut VAT which will only exacerbate the problem

We face job losses by the hundreds of thousands – so they increase National Ins contributions; a tax on jobs

We are in a debt crisis – so they press the banks to lend more and massively increase  Government borrowing

It is interesting that increasingly groups other than the Opposition parties are attacking Labour’s economic mismanagement. It began with several international warnings about the level of UK Government borrowing, developed when senior German ministers expressed their doubts about the Brown/Darling response to the crisis and now there is a cacophony of alarm from respected independent groups and the bishops.

Once again Labour have comprehensively blown it and will reap the electoral whirlwind.

And before some of you ask what would the Conservatives do differently, I will add another posting on my views on that shortly!

December 28, 2008 Posted by | National | Leave a comment

Christmas Crackers

cracker1I tried (and failed) to post yesterday with my I-phone; so belatedly here are the jokes from our family Christmas crackers:

Q: What does the word minimum mean?

A: A very small mother.

 

Q: Which fish is famous?

A: A star fish.

 

Q: Why don’t ducks tell jokes when they’re flying?

A: Because they would quack up.

 

Q: What has a bed but does not sleep and a mouth but does not speak?

A: A river.

 

Q: When is a boat like a pile of snow?

A: When its adrift.

 

Q: Where do sick gnomes go?

A: To the Elf centre.

 

Q: Why are fish easy to weigh?

A: Because they have their own scales.

 

Q: Why are ghosts so bad at lying?

A: Because you can see right through them.

 

Q: What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?

A: A stick.

 

Who writes these…………………………..?

December 28, 2008 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas

christmas1There will be a short interval from posting while I enjoy Christmas with my family in Cumbria. However, may I take this opportunity to wish all my new readers a very Happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.

In the few days since I began this blog the site has received in excess of 1,000 visits, which has rather taken me by surprise. Do please keep visiting and add your comments in the section after the articles. I will be introducing some polls soon and will be interested to see your views on a variety of topical subjects.

December 24, 2008 Posted by | General Musings | 2 Comments

Conservative and Unionist

tree5In the last few weeks the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have announced what amounts to a formal electoral pact. It is short of the full merger that some anticipated but that is something that could be revisited in due course.

I for one am delighted. Back in the 1980’s I campaigned within the party for the Conservative Party to accept members and organise in Northern Ireland and in 1988 this was agreed. However, the party in Northern Ireland never received the support that I felt it should and it failed to make any real impact in elections. The peak was probably in 1992 when Dr Laurence Kennedy came second in the North Down constituency with over 13,000 votes but it has been downhill since then.

Until 1972/3 the Conservative Party and the UUP were linked and UUP MPs took the Conservative Whip in the Commons. This broke down with Ted Heath’s ill-fated Sunningdale Agreement in 1972 which attempted to force Unionists to share power with Nationalists. Throughout Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s premierships the relationship between the two parties was strained but it was noticeable in the last 10 years that senior UUP figures such as David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson attended Conservative Party conferences.  Trimble now takes the Conservative Whip in the Lords and Donaldson defected to the Democratic Unionist Party.

Undoubtedly not all UUP members would welcome the link with the Conservatives. Some such as their only remaining MP Lady Sylvia Hermon usually vote with Labour but the degree of support when the link was voted on within the UUP was remarkable.

Also to be welcomed is David Cameron’s statement that “I will never be neutral when it comes to expressing my support for the union.”  As a Conservative, I keenly support the continued existence of the United Kingdom and I believe that my party should be an advocate for this. If ever the majority of any part wishes to secede and that is clearly and democratically expressed then I would not wish to stand in their way. In the mean time any British Government should accept that it has a selfish economic and strategic interest in the well being of its citizens and the integrity of its borders.

Numerically the link between the two parties will be insignificant in the next House of Commons, as the UUP are unlikely to elect more than a handful of MPs but politically the message is powerful; only the Conservative and Unionist Party organises and has representatives in all parts of the United Kingdom. It is the only truly national party. 

December 23, 2008 Posted by | National | Leave a comment

Lies, Damned Lies and Acolaid Statistics

pc3For those who don’t already know, Acolaid is a form of contact management system used by Reading Borough Council to record and chase up Councillor enquiries. It is meant to ensure that officers respond promptly to enquiries and keep the record of the response.  I think it would be fair to say that its record is patchy.

These stats have become more contentious since the Lib Dems in the last local elections used Acolaid statistics to try to show that two of their Councillors were “the hardest working” Councillors, on the basis that they had the most Acolaid enquiries lodged. This approach has since been mimicked by the Greens in Park ward.

At this point I will declare that I am an average user of Acolaid; neither one of the highest users nor at the bottom but it is, to say the least, disingenuous to try to prove the level of a Councillor’s work rate from Acolaid statistics alone.

Firstly, as I am the Conservative Transport spokesman, I have regular contact and briefings with senior transport officers of the Council. I therefore use that opportunity to discuss transport issues with them that I might otherwise have submitted through Acolaid. I also feel freer to pick up the phone to them directly and ask them the questions that my constituents ask me.  This is often the case with more experienced Councillors that they know who to contact directly and therefore by-pass the Acolaid system.

Secondly, Councillors do far more for their constituents than just submit Acolaid enquiries. We attend many meetings every month, ranging from attendance on panels and committees to directly representing constituents at planning or licensing committees; we speak on matters in Full Council; we submit written questions to the Council Leader and other executive Councillors; we attend neighbourhood meetings and external bodies; political Group meetings; and of course we hold our surgeries. Any measure of how hard a Councillor is working should seek to capture all of these activities and publish them for the public to see.

I am all for open government and therefore, in the absence of a more formal system, I propose on a monthly basis to publish a summary of my activity for my ward constituents to consider.  In November 2008 I did the following:

            Ward Surgery – 1

            Committees and Panels Attended – 6

            Full Council Meetings Attended – 2

            Community Group Mtgs Attended – 2

            External Committees and Panels – 1

            School Governors’ Meeting – 1

            Political Conservative Group Meetings – 2

            Acolaid Enquiries Submitted – 4

            Apologies sent – 1

 

December 23, 2008 Posted by | Local | Leave a comment

The Wages of Spin….

moneyIt is no exaggeration to say that Reading Borough Council is suffering something of a financial crisis at the moment.  It is massively overspent this year and looking for savings and then facing a very tight central Government settlement next financial year.

It is all the more surprising therefore to read that the Council’s spending on self-promotion has jumped by 84% in a year.  According to the independent Tax-Payers’ Alliance survey, in 2006/07 Reading Borough Council spent £658,516 on self promotion but in the last full financial year 2007/08 this jumped to a massive £1,212,423.  Reading ranked fourth in the country for the percentage size of its increase and eleventh for its actual increase of £553,907.  Reading also spent the most of any authority in Berkshire on Council spin.

Now it is always possible that the Taxpayers’ Alliance have made some elementary mistake but I think it is unlikely.  I doubt the people of Reading would feel that this level of self-promotion was justified or appropriate in the current economic climate.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Local | 4 Comments

Is Reading One of the Least Caring Authorities in the Country?

_40416023_carer2033Two reports in the last month have raised significant concerns about Reading Borough Council’s record in caring for vulnerable people in our community.  Last month CSCI (the Commission for Social Care Inspection) found that Reading deserved just one star for its Adult Social Services; ranking it amongst the 19 worst authorities in the country.  Now this week Reading has been found by Ofsted to be one of only eight authorities to receive an “inadequate” rating for the protection of vulnerable children.  After the recent Haringey case this should be sounding alarm bells at all levels within the Council hierarchy.

Many times I have sat in Council meetings and committees when Labour Councillors have lectured others on how great they are at looking after the vulnerable and yet here we have two independent bodies finding them seriously lacking.

I have it on very good authority that CSCI originally assessed Reading’s prospects for improvement as “Uncertain” rather than “Promising” and it was only pressure from the Council that got the assessment improved.  Indeed CSCI’s website initially published the “Uncertain” rating and it was only after a panicky call from Reading that the improved assessment was substituted.

The truth is that despite all of Labour’s bluster they are delivering poor quality services for vulnerable people in Reading.  At a time of massive pressure on budgets it will be interesting to see whether the resources can be found to invest in improvements and whether any heads will roll for the failures to date. I won’t hold my breath!

December 19, 2008 Posted by | Local | Leave a comment

General Election Speculation

ballots1Well at last I have done it! This is the first entry to my new blog where I intend to opine on matters ranging from local Reading Borough issues to more national subjects.

Since there is growing speculation around a possible early General Election it seems the most logical topic to discuss.

Personally I don’t think that Brown will call a General Election early next year. There are many reasons for this:

  1. No Prime Minister would chose to call an election when he is behind in the polls (or even only narrowly ahead). At present Labour are around 5% behind the Conservatives on average.

  2. The new year will almost certainly start with a swathe of redundancies in finance and manufacturing. Would a PM really want to start his campaign with the backdrop of economic catastrophe? At present Labour have seen a slight upswing in their poll rating due to what seems a caring reaction to the economic problems. When people start to see that Brown/Darling’s solutions don’t work I would anticipate a negative reaction in their poll rating.

  3. He doesn’t have to call it until June 2010. Brown, no doubt, believes his own propaganda about economic recovery at the end of 2009 (unlikely I feel) and therefore would want to go in 2010 on an “I told you so / I saved the World” election platform!

  4. If he goes early and loses he will be seen as a “fag end” Prime Minister who never had a mandate. History will paint it as a reckless gamble and I dont believe that Brown will risk that. Despite recent appearances to the contrary he has no appetite for risk.

Time will tell but I believe that the very earliest it would be called is June 2009 but that spring 2010 is the favourite.

What do you think?

December 18, 2008 Posted by | National | 11 Comments