Monthly Archives: May 2011

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parliament speaks

I have been in parliament for over a year but I am only just beginning to understand how it works. It speaks: all the time. It is a last fragment of preliterate England: a place where what matters is not what is written, still less what is e-mailed, but what is spoken. Speaking is the currency of the house. But who is listening? According to a web-site, I have made 85 “appearances” in parliament in the last year, and spoken on average in one debate a week when parliament is sitting. I have spoken in topical and oral questions; in Prime-minister’s questions and urgent statements; finance bills, adjournment, opposition, and Westminster Hall debates; delegated legislation, and European committees; and spent more than a hundred hours on a select committee.

Sometimes, I’m struggling to take nineteen interventions in a fifteen minute speech, beneath the wood panels of “Westminster Hall’; sometimes I am cross-questioning a Minister in a room with pop-art tapestry on the wall. Sometimes I am asking the Prime-minister a question at midday on live TV and the chamber packed to standing; sometimes it is eleven at night and there are only the six Cumbrian MPs present. I have spoken on single farm payments and flooding; on localism and Libya; pubs and Afghanistan; the budget and Brazil; on funding for charities and for special educational needs; on the Olympics and shootings and broadband. I have learnt whether to call the person at the end of the room Mr.Speaker, Chairman or Ms.Primarolo; and that, when the mace is under the table, I should speak only to “the amendment”. A website has concluded that I have used three-word alliterative phrases (“she sells sea-shells”) 26 times. Even my mother is beginning to get tired of watching me on BBC Parliament but many of my colleagues speak much more. What, however, is the point of this all talking?

Last week, I introduced my own debate on mobile phone coverage on the floor of the house. At present, at any one time, over seven million people cannot connect to a mobile signal. The problem is at its worst in rural areas. Good mobile and broadband coverage will help the small companies, which employ 92 per cent of the people in this constituency. Mobile signals can allow us to use devices to monitor our health, minute by minute around our home, instead of being trapped in hospitals. On-line learning can transform children’s performance in education. For Cumbria, mobile broadband will improve economic growth and our over-stretched services; and help us live and flourish in remote areas. But OFCOM, the mobile regulator, has no plans to extend the coverage. Why? Because they fear that if the mobile companies were obliged to increase their coverage, the government would get 5 or 8 per cent less from selling the mobile license. For the sake of this, they propose to leave millions of people and thousands of square miles of Britain without coverage, probably for the next generation.

At first, I tried to simply convince OFCOM to change its mind through private meetings. I called a dozen experts, catching them in China, or from the Eurostar, and talked to them till my mobile burned against my ear. I poured over technical papers on how to split, stretch and retransmit the spectrum.  I met with civil servants, with junior and senior officials at OFCOM, with ministers and with telecoms companies. At first everything seemed fine. But then voices began to say, quietly, “You are not going to make any friends if you keep pushing.’

I couldn’t believe it. In return for making slightly less in the auction, we could have a mobile broadband infrastructure, which would bring great social and economic benefit. Surely, it was a no-brainer. But I was soon hearing a dozen arguments against: that the spectrum was “unsuitable for voice”; that an increased obligation would cripple the companies and “undermine urban coverage”; that it could be easily done in three years time instead. Every argument was untrue. But it was clear that I was getting nowhere.

So, I pushed for a full debate in the House of Commons. I spent days bringing it together, writing individually to a hundred and fifty MPs, convincing the House of Commons to create time, negotiating with the department and the whips and organising speakers.  Last Thursday, I opened and closed the debate. 110 MPs from all parties signed: more than on any motion, debated on the floor of the house, in living memory; thirty of these MPs spoke. And we passed the motion to urge OFCOM ‘to increase the coverage above 98 per cent of the population’ with a unanimous vote.

Here, it seemed was a real concrete use of parliament. But yesterday, a colleague said nothing would happen for fifteen years. The head of OFCOM is angry with me; officials are referring mysteriously to complications with ‘coverage definition’, and ‘the distortion of market diversity’. And the whole thing seems to be slipping out of my hands again. I am back to writing letters and e-mails and lobbying and pleading with officials and ministers. I think I’ll win this fight, eventually, but parliament has spoken. Who, really, is listening?

Rory Chairs NFU Conference

Mountain Rescue

Rory last week hosted a meeting in Westminster of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mountain Rescue, which included presentations from David Allan of Mountain Rescue and James Williams of the Medic Alert Foundation, and a wide-ranging discussion of the problems currently facing Mountain Rescue organisations not only in Cumbria, but across the UK. It was agreed that the APPG would extend invitations to government Ministers and other parliamentarians to visit Mountain Rescue teams across the country, to encourage greater understanding of the issues faced by the sector.

Rory , Chairman of the APPG, said: “Mountain Rescue teams across the UK perform an incredibly important role. We are extraordinarily lucky to have such a professional emergency service operating in our mountains and walking districts. The APPG will do all it can to continue supporting this valuable service, and we see raising the profile of Mountain Rescue as paramount. Worryingly, donations – particularly from corporate sponsors – are dropping, and so we need to ensure members of the wider public know how vital Mountain Rescue teams are. In collaboration with the British
Mountaineering Council, a joint initiative has helped to reduce the number of mountain rescues needed, which is great news; but I think there is a wider role to be played by local Mountain Rescue teams, who have the most reliable local knowledge and experience. To look at establishing a network of hostels and refuges, with mountaineering advice and basic guidance along some of our well-used routes, is an excellent idea that the APPG will be delighted to support.”

David Allan, who gave thanks for the recent government grant, which has been instrumental in helping to keep the organisation going following dips in donation and sponsorship, discussed with the group a variety of challenges facing Mountain Rescue teams.

James Williams presented to the group an overview of the work of the Medic Alert Foundation, and stressed the need to raise awareness of the charity’s symbols with emergency services and the general public.

The APPG will now take up a variety of issues raised at the meeting, including raising awareness of the concerning incidences of ‘maverick’ rescue groups that are becoming more prevalent, and which compromise the public’s safety; encouraging Ministers and other Members of Parliament to spend time with Mountain Rescue groups in their constituencies, in order to highlight the valuable work done by the organisation; and to look at arranging a high-profile event in the Houses of Parliament to highlight the excellent work done by Mountain Rescue teams.

OxUnDebate

bbc radio 4 – book of the week

Rory’s short travel story, ‘The Wrestler’ – part of the recently-published Oxfam travel anthology ‘Ox Travels’ – is to feature in this week’s ‘Book of the Week’ slot on BBC Radio 4. Rory’s story will be read this Friday, June 3rd at 9.45am on BBC Radio 4.

‘Ox Travels’ is a paperback published to support the charity’s work, bringing together 36 contemporary travel writers in less than 500 pages. Rory’s story features alongside such celebrated travel writers as Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Paul Theroux and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The book can be bought at Penrith’s Oxfam, and is on sale for £8.99.
All proceeds will go to Oxfam’s work fighting global poverty.

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nenthead gala

Rory spent Saturday at Nenthead’s annual May Gala, which took place on the field outside Nenthead School and attracted visitors from as far as Newcastle. Rory opened the gala and crowned the May Queen, Erin Swindle-Lee, and made a speech of congratulation. He then met and chatted with visitors and talked to stallholders before judging the fancy dress and awarding prizes to the four contestants in four categories.

Rory said: “Nenthead has a unique atmosphere, and it was great to see so many of its residents come out to support this excellent gala day, which raised £ to follow. I’d like especially to thank Alison Clark and her committee for organising such a wonderful family day, and of course the Rose Queen Erin and her attendants, Abbie and Eve.”

Nenthead Gala Committee Chairman, Alison Clark, said: “We took over £900 on the day, and it was important for us that our MP was there to show us that he continues to support small rural communities like ours. We believe that we are a prime example of what places like ours can achieve. It was also great for the young people of the village and the international students who came from Newcastle to have the oppotunity to meet our MP and I understand that they were all extremely excited to have done so.”

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Policing Reform

The Home Affairs Committee in Parliament have recently launched an inquiry into the New Landscape of Policing to examine the Government’s proposals for policing reform which include a new National Crime Agency, a reductaion on bureacracy, and more effective procurement.

The consultation process is currently open and will be until the 17th June. Please do particpate in the online consultation by clicking here.

 

 

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nenthead methodist Chapel

Rory was taken on a tour of Nenthead’s Methodist Chapel on Saturday, guided by Nenthead Methodist
Chapel Steering Group member Sally Orrell. It is the aim of the Steering Group to launch a formal community bid to buy the derelict chapel as a community asset, with plans to convert the space into a cafe. The chapel, which boasts many original decorative features that the Steering Group hope to preserve, is currently owned privately. Almost 100 villagers signed a petition earlier this year to show their support for the community purchase, and the steering group have already applied for funding to help produce a business case.

Rory Stewart MP said: “This beautiful old chapel, at the very heart of Nenthead, is a monument to the village’s history and social fabric. It would be a tragedy to let it slip into complete dereliction, and I would love to support the steering group in their attempts to obtain funding to purchase this as a community asset. Nenthead has so much potential to capitalise on all the passing walkers and cyclists on the coast-to-coast route, and to provide more services to visitors who come and visit. I’ll be delighted to support the steering group in
whatever way I can. Most importantly, we need to link Nenthead to all the other community asset projects from Brampton to Bampton which are involved in similar things”

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national trust policy on hill farms

Rory has met with the National Trust’s Regional Director for the NW, John Darlington, at Temple Sowerby’s Acorn Bank to discuss the Trust’s policy on uplands hill-farming, its hopes to increase its community and youth focus, and other local initatives such as the creation of local rangers and improved access to local walking routes.

Rory said: “As owners of approximately one fifth of Cumbrian land, the National Trust have a crucial role to play in the preservation of our uplands farms, and our communities. They should have a place at every table discussing issues around land ownership, land management, and community involvement, and I am pleased to hear that they have plans to become more community focussed. There are some very exciting initiatives on which I would love to work with the Trust, from improving conditions for hill farmers, to involving young people via schemes such as National Citizens Service. It was an extremely positive meeting and I look forward to working closely with John and his team.”

The local MP was also shown Acorn Bank’s gardens and met with staff at the house’s shop, nursery and tea room. He then returned on a second visit with the Chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, to celebrate the Acorn Bank Mill.

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Rory with John Darlington, NW Regional Director of the National Trust, with staff at Acorn Bank

alstonmoor

eu reaction to sheep tagging

Rory has expressed his dismay that the European Commission
has responded negatively to a request for tolerance on EID tagging.
DEFRA has dent a formal request to the EU to ask for more tolerance,
particularly in relation to hill farmers.

Rory said: “It is simply out of the question to expect our
farmers to be one hundred percent accurate all of the time. They
should not be penalised through that element of human error that
means, inevitably, that mistakes can and will be made. Many of us farm
in landscapes that are inhospitable, in conditions that can be
extremely difficult, and we need to ensure that EC officials recognise
this and make allowances. Our hill farmers are being unfairly treated
through a lack of understanding. I urge EC officials to come and visit
Cumbria and see the situation on the ground.”

Since the regulation of EIDs was first discussed, the NFU has
consistently stated that it would be impossible for farmers to achieve
absolute accuracy when reading and recording individual sheep
movements. Defra has also recognised these issues and, following work
with the livestock industry, recently submitted the proposal to the
European Commission highlighting the issue. The proposal centred
around an inspection system which recognised the practical issues of
EID monitoring and ensured that farmers would not fall foul of Single
Farm Payment penalties as a result of inevitable and unavoidable
incomplete readings under the current system.

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tinclair’s library at bampton

Rory joined residents of Bampton, Heritage Lottery Fund NW committee member Tiffany Hunt, and local history enthusiasts on Saturday 14th May at the official re-opening of the eighteenth-century library, founded as a Trust in 1750 by Reverend Jonathan Tinclar with a donation of £50. Educated at Bampton Grammar
School – renowned in its time for its output of scholars, many of whom were destined for the Church of England – Reverend Tinclar’s intention was to endow the parish’s vicars with books on theology, law and science. Over the years, the collection has expanded to include about 1,500 works, including donations and books received from other parish libraries. The collection was re-catalogued in 1992, and has now been re-housed in St Patrick’s Church Hall at Bampton Grange, where Saturday’s ceremony took place. The re-housing of the collection has
been made possible with help from the National Lottery and its Heritage Lottery Fund.

Rory Stewart said: “Tinclar’s Library is a small but perfectly formed collection of fascinating works, from eighteenth century guides to the Lake District to nineteenth century travel books from the Balkans and
North America to parish records, resources, photographs, and census results from as early as 1841. The Trustees have done a wonderful job of re-housing the works in a peaceful reading room in the heart of
Bampton Grange, with oak bookshelves created by a local craftsman. It is such a pleasure to see a community take such pride in their history, and to preserve – with real care and dedication – this important and valuable resource for future generations. I very much look forward to returning to the Library in the future to browse the
archives.”

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Rory with Tiffany Hunt, NW Committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund

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charitable funding

Rory called for a new approach to charitable funding in a visit to members and staff of local charity
Eden Mencap Society at their base in Penrith’s Little Dockray last week.

Rory Stewart said: “I am very concerned at the way the government is increasingly biased towards large national charities and has designed procurement and measurement processes which ignore the strengths of
local charities and makes it very difficult for them to apply for grants. Eden Mencap are rightly proud of their local knowledge and passion. It enables them to best serve their members, and tailor their support in only a way that small, local charities can do. I have promised my support to Eden Mencap, and will be organising a round
table meeting of other smaller local charities to discuss the common challenges they face, particularly in dealing with national procurement exercises. The power of local expertise in the charity sector is invaluable, and we need to do all we can to support and grow excellent charities like this one. Jacqui and her staff are clearly
incredibly dedicated, placing every emphasis on the people they support. It was a real pleasure to see such a well-run charity.”

The local MP joined members having fun in the ‘Grow It, Bake It, You Do It’ area before holding a meeting with the charity’s managers to discuss their hopes and concerns for the future. Employing a staff of 23 – both part-time and full-time – the charity, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, serves the Eden Valley by supporting people with learning disabilities and enabling them to lead full and varied lives.

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