It’s been a bit of an odd week for me:
Sunday: Up to London late after busy Constituency week. Train delayed, taxi gets lost and lifts in my block of flats out of order necessitating 5 stories hike. Probably very good for me.
Monday: 9 am Eurostar to Brussels. One of most civilised ways to travel. As a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, two days of talks about defence and the West. Interesting to see perspectives of other nations, such as Germany, whose ‘military caveats’ mean, amongst other things, that they cannot fight at night.... Followed by an interminable discussion about EU relations with NATO after Brexit. 80% of NATOs funding comes from non-EU countries. EU should in my view, focus on trade, and leave defence to NATO. I say so, which does not endear me to the Europhile audience.
Wednesday: After a morning’s discussions, train to Parliament to catch up. Black Tie dinner at Trinity House, of which I am a Younger Brother, with Wilts explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams as my guest. Walk to St Paul’s with him after dinner for a slightly squiffy selfie. Also Hempie’s not much good at map reading!
Thursday: Various meetings in Parliament, then train home.
Friday: Sharp-suited young men from Lidl fail to convince me that we need one of their stores on a greenfield site at the edge of Malmesbury. I promise to oppose it, which they do not like very much. They could take some lessons in PR from the wonderful travelling showmen whose annual lunch at the Swindon Hilton (just inside my constituency) is next on the agenda. What a lovely, straightforward, honest, decent, and generally cheerful bunch they really are. The Scarrott family from Royal Wootton Bassett are very old friends. They have run the local fairs for generations. A fine bit of old England, and ‘worth a guinea a minute’, unlike the Lidl PR lads.
Saturday: Surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury yield their usual mixed crop of cases. Especially impressed by one gentleman, whose son was killed many years ago, and is now keen to campaign to stop the same thing happening again. I vow to help in any way I can. Dinner is near Tetbury with a quaint old literary society celebrating RS Surtees, the Victorian author of Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities, amongst so many other things…. Decent, honest traditional people, if mildly eccentric and a little politically incorrect!
Sunday: Lunch with friends near Compton Bassett and a desperate effort to deal with paperwork.
A myriad of different experiences- from Brussels, to Parliament, Trinity House, the Showmen’s Lunch, the Surtees dinner at Chavenage and so many other experiences sharpens judgement about people, events and issues. It helps to sort the sheep from the goats, to recognise the things which are good and old and true from those which are downright unconvincing. Lidl take note.
It will not be easy for Oxfam to recover from the devastating sex scandal currently engulfing it. But then again, perhaps we need to consider whether we prefer charities, Non-Governmental Organisations, funded by voluntary donations to deliver essential overseas humanitarian aid. Or do we prefer it to be done by taxpayers through the absurd legally binding 0.7% of GDP which we currently spend on overseas aid.
After all, most NGOs do outstandingly good work. There was some concern a few years ago about the percentage of donations being used by them for central administration. Of the £30 million raised by the BBC Children in Need project in 2006, for example, £3million went to cover the costs of the programmes. Cancer Research that year raised £300million from public donations, but spent more than £70 million in the process. Similarly, the NSPCC received £90 million but spent £18million. The top 500 fundraising charities spent on average 9% of their total expenditure on fundraising and publicity that year.
There are 195,289 charities registered in the UK, which collectively raise and spend some £80 Billion. Together they employ more than 1 million staff. In England and Wales there are 1939 active charities focused on children, 581 charities trying to find a cure for cancer, 354 charities for birds, 255 charities for animals, 81 charities for people with Alcohol problems and 69 charities fighting Leukaemia. Amongst overseas aid charities, Oxfam spends £368 Million a year; Christian Aid £95 million, ActionAid £49million, CAFOD £49 million and Care International £39 million., That is without mentioning War on Want, World Vision, Concern Worldwide and Comic Relief.
Oxfam spends £20.3million annually on campaigns and advocacy (2013/14 annual report). Last year they raised £385.5 million; and of every £10 raised, £6.34 is spent on ‘saving lives.’ So NGOs are demonstrably better than payments to often corrupt foreign governments or rulers, but some discretion is still needed.
An enormous part of our Aid spending has in the past gone via the EU, a yet more questionable way of doing it, since, of course there is no direct national benefit from it. The EU has earmarked $68 Billion for aid between 2014 and 2020 (although thankfully we will be well out of it by then.), plus the $32 Billion spent by the European Development Fund. Of all of that £1.3 Billion comes directly from the UK, out of the £12.1 Billion we spend over all. Yet the money spent by the EU and EDF is even less accountable than that of the UK, and there have been consistent reports of money being badly mis-spent. Last year, for example, EDF gave £400Million of British cash to fund projects in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and sending officials to the Caribbean to discuss renewable energy. A total of £152,293, according to the Daily Express was handed over to projects including trapeze, acrobatics and juggling in Tanzania as part of a ‘Fit for Life Scheme.’
So Oxfam may not be great in some respects, but it’s a great deal preferable to the EU, or indeed our own DFID.
“Fit for the twenty-first century,’ and expressions like it, are aching clichés. ‘Modernisation’ for ‘modernisation’s sake’ is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and worthless. ‘New is Good and Old is Bad’ is as false as Orwell’s ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ in Animal farm. All of these things are camouflage for woolly thinking, or lack of real justification for a particular action, or often both.
So it was with the debate over whether or not to turf out the 9,000 people who work in Parliament for a period of at least 5 years, and at a cost of at least £4billion to put the plumbing right. It was passed by a painfully thin 16 votes, and I and most of my grown-up colleagues voted against it. It risks wrecking the whole mysterious ethos of Parliament which is the painstaking creation of 1000 years, replacing it with a bland modernism of the kind which is on display, for example, in the Sottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the European one in Brussels. Neither, if I may be so bold, are exactly best examples of brilliantly functioning legislative assemblies. Like it or lump it, and irrespective of who may be in power, the Parliament in Westminster works brilliantly well. It is the envy of the world. By and large it produces good law, and holds the Government to account. It works- and a radical rebuild risks wrecking it. They should make do and mend, as most people living in old houses do; patch it up over the long Summer Recess; make it wind and weather proof. But for heaven’s sake please don’t ‘modernise’ it. I actually rather liked the little robin redbreast flittering around during PMQs this week. It did not harm; but the atmosphere-balanced, high security bubble which will doubtless replace it may well make such harmless episodes impossible.
I feel rather the same way about HS2, which I would have voted against this week had there been a meaningful vote on it. These vast infrastructure projects develop a momentum of their own, spurred on no doubt by an army of consultants, engineers, architects and builders who will make their personal fortunes out of it. But do we really need HS2? By the time it is operational, will we really want to speed down from the North of England to the South by train? More and more work can be done remotely and on-line with video conferencing and the rest. We are bringing in robots and artificial intelligence. Will they really feel the need to catch the 7.35 train from Crewe to London? I doubt it. ‘Build a railway fit for the 21st Century.” Oh well, that’s all right then.
I have been hobbling round Parliament this week after a minor operation to my knee assisted by my old Scottish Cromach - or crook. It was made for my late Father in 1960 or so by Archie Ronald an old shepherd from Argyllshire. He spent the winter doing it, and it is as fine a piece of art as you could find anywhere. Show Cromach makers habitually fill in the little natural dimples in the sheep’s horn using wax, to make it look perfect. Archie Ronald refused to do that as he felt it would become a dishonest gift for a Scottish Minister. So it is ‘sincere’ – which comes from the Latin ‘without wax.” Honest and old and true.
The Parliament in Westminster, our transport infrastructure, so much else about our way of life, would be so much better if we were guided by the Cromach - Honest and Old and True.
It’s been a pretty torrid few weeks in Parliament, so I was looking forward to a few days in North Wiltshire. Here’s a flavour of it.
I was very glad to be able to persuade Lyneham’s Colonel Ed Heal that the planned Motor Car events on the old runway at Lyneham were deeply unwelcome, and risked damaging the excellent relations the Defence Technical Training College have with local people. I am not sure he needed much persuasion, and they will not now happen. I am glad that other events will continue on the base, such as essential training for our police, and I wholly agreed that the little Go-kart track could not be heard from any distance and should continue mainly as a recreation for the troops on the base.
Lyneham provides 800 civilian jobs, and makes a huge contribution to the local economy and way of life. Working with them harmoniously (as we always do) is vitally important. Just remember that we might have had a Theme Park, a jumbo jet refuelling depot, the main helicopter base for all three services, or a variety of other uses any of which would have been massively disruptive to the local area. We are extremely fortunate to have the Technical College, and indeed the REME Battalions which will be based there.
Then it was on to speak at the Swindon Chamber of Commerce lunch in the excellent Doubletree Hilton Hotel just over Junction 16 (but still in North Wiltshire). It all went well, and resulted in an invitation to speak to the Chamber in the PM’s constituency in Maidenhead in April. Hope Theresa approves!
A nip down the Motorway to Bristol, to attend the South West Board of the Conservative Party, and a final visit to my doctor’s surgery in Yatton Keynell completed a rather satisfactory circumnavigation of the patch. Surgeries in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett yielded their usual spectrum of cases, some of which I am able to help, to some of which I have to admit defeat. (I hope it’s more than 50% of the former.) Launching the new 55 Bus Service in Royal Wootton Bassett High Street, a meeting in County Hall to do battle on behalf of a constituent whose house floods thanks to a drain whose ownership is disputed, a meeting with Green Square Housing Association to discuss myriad matters about decent social housing in the area; these and several other local events together with a general ‘clearing of the decks’ keeps my half-term week pretty busy.
Being away from the great affairs of State allows a bit of proportion to enter into one’s view of it all. With regard to both Brexit and Northern Ireland, frankly I wish they would just ‘get on with it ‘. And I am glad to have had just a little time off to do some reading and writing, take a few walks in the chilly early spring sunshine, and play with our new 8 week old puppy. Aww…
I have never heard of the President’s Club, and am glad to say I have never been to any of their events, which sound distasteful in the extreme. I thought that blatant sexism of that kind had been consigned to the dustbin along with the Benny Hill Show many years ago; and of course I join others in decrying the disgraceful scenes which seem to have occurred at their fundraising dinner in London’s Dorchester Hotel.
But then again, strip clubs exist up and down the land; porn magazines are available on every top shelf; it is alleged that 27 million Brits access pornography on line and even tabloid readers pay for a share of it. There are all male clubs all over the place – the Rotary Club, Lions and Masons to name but a few. There are Working Men’s Clubs, gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s St and a few for ladies as well. Hen nights, for example, can hire ‘Bottomless Butlers’- which I will leave to your own imagination. It is also notable that not a single employee at the President’s Club Dinner has complained, and no-one would have known anything about it were it not for a couple of undercover newspaper reporters. So is it really right that the great Ormond Street Hospital has felt it necessary presumably to risk endangering children’s lives or wellbeing by handing back £500,000 in a fit of moral outrage over these shenanigans? Might the Devil’s Money not be put to good use?
Something of the same could be said about that other President, Mr Trump. I decry much of what he has said, much of what he stands for. He is vulgar, rude, juvenile; and I am certain that I would wholly dislike him if I met him. But Donald Trump IS the President of the United States, duly elected by his people. We have billions of pounds worth of trade with the USA, and close cultural and family ties (closer, in my view than those to many European countries.) They are our oldest and strongest ally, and their defence spending and intelligence services are essential to our National safety and security. What’s more we have always kept up reasonable relations with pretty disgraceful people over the years. President Ceaucescu of Romania’s State Visit springs to mind, and of course Communist President Xi of China was here in October 2015. Is it really right to cut off our noses to spite our faces because we find some aspects of President Trump’s life and policies distasteful?
In other words, rather than overwhelmingly self-righteous moral outrage (which is often designed to demonstrate what goody goodies we are as much as what baddy baddies they are) about some of these Presidential matters; is there not room for us to rise above it a bit? Can we not decry nonsense of that sort, take no part in it; look down our patrician noses at tomfoolery and stupidity and vulgarity. It’s a question of good taste and good manners. We don’t spit on the street, nor swear on public transport. We dislike people who do. But there is no law against it.
And sometimes, we would be wise to try to remember what is in our own best interests. So I think Great Ormond Street should hang onto the cash, no matter what its provenance. And I do think that Donald Trump should come to the UK in The Summer.
I just hope that I don’t have to meet him.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA