Monthly Archives: September 2012

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Time to be honest about Afghanistan

Whatever the west feels it should do, it cannot bring a political or military solution, says Rory in his newest article.

More than 50 US and British soldiers have been killed by their Afghan partners this year. The attacks have been described as Taliban infiltration of the police, which could be addressed by better vetting. But the very words “Taliban”, “police”, and “vetting” are misleading.

Insofar as it is possible to understand the motives of the attackers (almost all are killed immediately) it seems that only a quarter have any connection to the Taliban. The “police” in question are a hastily formed, poorly trained militia. Ninety-two out of 100 recruits in a Helmand unit I visited last year were unable to write their own name, or recognise numbers up to 10. Their five weeks of training amounted to little more than weapons-firing and basic literacy. Thirty per cent of recruits deserted that year. With up to 10,000 villagers recruited in a month, “vetting” was not a serious option.

This gap between the language of policy makers and the reality is typical. It is time to be honest about Afghanistan: we face a desperate situation and an intolerable choice. If the US, Britain and their allies leave Afghanistan, there will be chaos and perhaps civil war. The economy will falter and the Afghan government will probably be unable to command the loyalty or support of its people. The Taliban could significantly strengthen their position in the south and east, and attack other areas.Powerful men, gorged on foreign money, extravagantly armed and connected to the deepest veins of corruption and gangsterism, will flex their muscles. For all these reasons departure will feel – rightly – like a betrayal of Afghans and of the soldiers who have died.

But keeping foreign troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will not secure the country’s future either. Every year since 2004, generals and politicians have acknowledged a disastrous situation, produced a new strategy and demanded new resources. They have tried “ink-spots” and “development zones”; counterinsurgency and nation-building; partnering and mentoring; military surges, civilian surges and reconciliation. Generals and ministers called 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 “decisive” years in Afghanistan. None was. None will be.

We may wonder why politicians and soldiers have insisted for so long that things are improving. We have been isolated from Afghan reality, and obsessed with misleading jargon. But it is not all the west’s fault. Afghanistan is poor, fragmented and traumatised; and blame should also be put on the Afghan government and on neighbours such as Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of brains and hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested over a decade in understanding failure, without overcoming it. The culture and behaviour of foreign troops, diplomats, Afghans, the Kabul government and Pakistan are not likely to change in the next two years. What we have seen is roughly what we will get.

In the absence of “victory”, three alternative strategies have been proposed: training the Afghan security forces, political settlement with the Taliban and a regional solution. But training Afghan forces, which cost $12bn in 2010 alone, will not guarantee their future loyalty to a Kabul government. Two years and many regional conferences have passed since the formation of the Afghan Higher Peace council, and the clear Nato endorsement of reconciliation: but there is no sign that insurgents, the Kabul government or its neighbours will reach a deal, or feel much desire so to do. So there is no military solution, and no political solution either. Nor will there be before the troops leave. We will have to deal for decades with a troubled Afghanistan, which is not likely in my lifetime to be as wealthy as Libya, as effectively governed as Iraq, as educated as Syria, or as institutionally mature as Pakistan.

What then? The point is not what the US and its allies ought to do but what they can. We have reached the limit of our knowledge, power and legitimacy. Whatever the west feels obliged to do, it is not capable of bringing a political or military solution. That task will be for Afghans. The west should continue financial support, so the Kabul government does not collapse, as it did in 1991, and give enough military support – air power in nearby bases, for example – to prevent the Taliban mobilising tanks and aircraft, as they did in 1995. But this is support, not a solution. Honesty about this will be the start of better policy.

In the best case, removing almost 200,000 foreign soldiers and civilian contractors may force the Afghan government to assume responsibility; allow the insurgents and neighbours to recognise their relative weaknesses; and provide a basis for a political solution. I believe Afghans can find such a thing. But it is not certain. What is certain is that foreigners haven’t, and now can’t.

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Keeping our community hospitals in Cumbria

Penrith and the Border has, I believe, more community hospitals than any constituency in Britain. We have them in Penrith, Brampton, Alston, and Wigton, and we border Keswick and Cockermouth. (The national average is one for every two constituencies). And they are, have always been, will always be, under threat. In 2005 they were almost closed by a stroke of the Secretary of State for Health’s pen. Thousands of Cumbrians marched in London, and one in four of all Cumbrians signed a petition to keep the hospitals open. They were saved and the Primary Care Trust and its successors have since committed to keeping them. But nothing should be taken for granted, because – to put it bluntly – the modern world has a problem with the “small”.

A fight has been waged for centuries between big, centralised, systems and local bodies, and the locals always seem to lose. Thus in the nineteenth century when our national budget was one tenth what it is now, and our population smaller, auction marts and railway stations, pubs and post offices proliferated. Cumbria had a local regiment, my village had three schools; and almost every town had a police station, magistrates’ court, and bank.  Now, a torrent of super-markets in Penrith threatens high street shops, and giant farms are pushing aside family small-holdings. Auction marts, railway stations, pubs and post offices have vanished and HSBC is about to close its branch in Appleby. Primary schools such as Bampton, and High Schools such as Longtown have been closed; and so have the magistrate’s courts in Penrith and Appleby. It is easy to imagine future examples, (police stations in Alston, Penrith, Keswick, Wigton, Appleby, and Cockermouth sold to finance the building of a headquarters in Barrow?).

The National Health Service has always been under pressure to centralise. Modern medicine needs expensive machines and drugs, and highly specialised staff. Surgeons improve by performing countless specialist operations inhospitals serving a million patients. So why a community hospital?  This has been the question since the very start of the NHS, when Aneurin Bevan announced in 1947 ‘I would rather be kept alive in the efficient if cold altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of warm sympathy in a small one.”

But our needs are changing. In the next twenty years, we will have twice the number of people over 85 in Cumbria. Hospital admissions are likely to rise by 60 per cent because of increasing long years of chronic illness. This will be a financial disaster for the NHS: which could face an extra 20 million pounds of costs in Alzheimer treatment in Cumbria alone, each year. But more importantly it will be a human disaster. Let me take the example of an eight-five year old, who has just lost her husband. Her husband used to nail down the carpet, and drive her to the optician and the grocer. Now that he has gone, her house is less well-maintained, she cannot see clearly, and she is not eating well. Her likelihood of falling has soared; and once she has entered the hospital system, the chances are that she will face severe health problems, for years.  This will cost the NHS tens of thousands of pounds, which could be spent on other services. But much more importantly it will be miserable for her. We are twice as likely to die in the year following a partner’s death than in any other year. Loneliness is a greater killer than smoking.

The solution to her predicament and that of thousands of others does not lie in giant, centralised hospitals: it lies in GPs and nurses, coordinating community support through community hospitals. She will be helped by broadband and mobile coverage, which will allow her to see grandchildren on a live video-link, monitor her health and chat to medical specialists from home. Broadband will allow visiting nurses to load medical data in real time. She would benefit from exercise, educational, and community activities in the community hospital. But the real key will be provided by voluntary organisations, such as CRUSE bereavement, Eden Carers, Eden Alarms, and Age UK, coordinated from the hospital. They alone can give the human understanding, which could allow her to live better for much longer at home. (Hospice at Home could help her to die with dignity at home: eighty per cent of Britons, say they would rather die at home, but almost eighty per cent die in hospital).

This will require a small shift of funding from acute hospitals towards community hospitals and voluntary organisations. It will not be simple. Ever since, the mill-owners at New Lanark discovered in 1786 that their seven storey brick fortress, could replace highly skilled local handloom weavers, with unskilled – often child – labour and produce many times as much cotton a day, the creed of centralisation and “factory-efficiency” has been pushed ever further. But such central planning theories are beginning to reach their limit. The most important problems of our age require re-engagement with the human- the culture, and history of communities, and the energy of their concern. I suspect this is why the grand dreams of international development and state-building have failed so repeatedly. I am confident that this is why we must keep our community hospitals in Cumbria.

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Rory Convenes Meeting on HSBC Appleby and Urges Bank to Engage More Closely with Community

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This Monday, Rory convened a meeting to bring together Rachel Miller, area manager for HSBC, and Susan Spence, chairwoman of Appleby Community Acting Together (ACAT), to address current proposals by the bank to close its Appleby branch.

The recent announcement by HSBC that it will be closing its Appleby branch on Friday November 30th, has been met with significant opposition from local residents, who fear that the closure will have a major detrimental effect, both socially and economically, upon Appleby town’s community. Susan Spence highlighted that many Appleby residents who banked with HSBC would now be facing a 28 mile round-trip to Penrith simply to do their banking, and that it would be the elderly, disabled, and those without a car, who would be hardest hit.

Rory urged the bank to engage far more directly with Appleby residents. As a result of the meeting Rachel Miller undertook to sit down formally with representatives from Appleby to allow both sides to present their case and allay their concerns.

Speaking on the plans, Rory said: “These proposals really will come as a serious blow to many residents in Appleby, and the closure is just another example of the real difficulty rural communities face in trying to preserve and safeguard even basic services and provisions. It is somewhat of a compliment to HSBC that 2000 Appleby residents have signed a petition to fight its closure. I would like to see HSBC to do more to meet with local residents and work with them on proposals to address these very real concerns. The proposed meeting will go some way to amend this, and will hopefully allow the affair to be dealt with in a much more case-sensitive way. Appleby cannot be left feeling like it has been dropped off a cliff.”

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Rory Encourages Constituency Football Clubs to Apply for New Grant

Following this week’s announcement from Budweiser that they will be investing £1 million directly into grass-roots football in the UK over the next two seasons as part of their FA Cup sponsorship, Rory is encouraging local football clubs to apply for one of Budweiser’s ‘Club Future’ grants. The grants aim to ‘help clubs to help themselves’ by improving any part of their general facilities. Eight grants will be available during the 2012/13 season, with a further eight grants available during the 2013/14 season. Within each season, one of the chosen eight clubs will win an additional £100,000 super grant – as voted by football fans from early next year through the official FA Cup and Budweiser UK Facebook pages.

Rory, who is currently the President of Penrith’s Wetheriggs United FC, and who has worked closely with Penrith FC in its negotiations to secure a more permanent leasehold for its club grounds in the town, said: “Football clubs across Penrith and the Border play a vital role in encouraging participation and creating opportunities for people to take part in local and community sport. The Budweiser Club Futures campaign will allow for clubs to become more financially sustainable and encourage them to create a legacy to inspire future generations. I would urge all clubs who are eligible to apply for a grant today.”

Budweiser European Marketing Director, Iain Newell, said: “We know the importance of non-league clubs to the future of the beautiful game and to local communities so we’re proud to be able to give these clubs a financial boost.  As a long-standing supporter of football around the world, Budweiser is committed to partnering with the communities where we live and work to support local clubs as they build their legacies. The establishment of ‘Budweiser Club Futures’ also gives us the opportunity to work with the winning clubs to promote responsible drinking in the community. We will be bringing successful Responsibility programmes such as ‘Family Talk’ and ‘Designated Driver’ to these clubs as part of our dream to be the Best Beer Company in a Better World.”

Clubs interested in taking part should contact Rory’s office on 01768 484 114.

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Rory to Launch Group to Promote Cumbrian Tourism in Westminster

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Following a meeting with Eric Robson, Chairman and Ian Stephens, Managing Director of Cumbria Tourism, Rory has pledged to create a platform from which Cumbrian tourism can be discussed in Parliament and promoted outside of Cumbria.

Rory has proposed setting up an associate parliamentary group which would involve all Cumbrian MPs and Lords as well as any individuals or bodies outside of Parliament who have a strong interest in the promotion of Cumbrian tourism affairs. The county, largely dominated by the Lake District National Park at its centre, currently attracts around 30 million visitors a year, and tourism remains its most significant source of income.

Speaking on the matter, Rory said: “Given the centrality of tourism to the Cumbrian economy, a parliamentary body which brings together those who have the capacity to structure and develop policy on the matters affecting the region could produce tangible, positive results back home. Much more needs to be done promoting to the wider world what Cumbria has to offer. I want to end up in a situation where foreign tourists see getting a photo on top of Blencathra as being as important as a photo in front of Big Ben.”

In addition to the associate group, Rory is looking into the idea of establishing a “Cumbria Day” at Westminster, where local businesses would have the chance to market and promote themselves within the nation’s capital. He is also extremely keen for Hugh Robertson MP – the current Minister for Sport and Tourism – to pay a visit to region, so that government can be better informed of the issues that affect Cumbria specifically.

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Rory Backs Penrith’s Business Improvement District Proposal

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Rory met last week with Chris Kolek and local businessman Kelvin Dixon of Seagraves & Dixon, two of the primary canvassers for Penrith’s Business Improvement District (BID) proposal, to discuss how Penrith could benefit from such a scheme and to offer his support. The MP has pledged to contact Penrith’s resident businesses to explain how the BID could benefit them, and strongly endorsing a vote in favour of its adoption.

The BID, as it is currently outlined, would seek to encourage economic growth and raise the profile of Penrith by providing a significant level of investment raised through a levy on businesses within a defined area. Current proposals include a “free after three” campaign which would provide free car parking to everyone after 3pm, and significant investment into better advertising and marketing campaigns, including re-branding Penrith as “The Heart of Cumbria”. Such efforts aim to boost footfall through the town centre and provide a return on investment for the businesses contributing.

Rory Stewart, who has offered his full support for the proposal, said: “The Penrith BID will provide a mechanism whereby local businesses are in charge of the policy and funding driving forward improvements within Penrith’s town centre. £500,000 of investment over five years could generate significant improvements to Penrith’s business district, and as the ideas are coming directly from local businesses themselves, they are far more likely to succeed. I think it is a great sign of local democracy which I would like to see end eventually with the a directly elected Penrith mayor and town council.”

Whilst some businesses may be deterred by the idea of a levy, Kelvin Dixon sought to reassure them on this matter by stating: “The cost of backing the BID for the majority of Penrith’s small businesses would only be around 50p per day, or the price of a packet of crisps.” Much of money raised – a predicted £500,000 over five years – would instead come from the local supermarkets. The resources would then be managed and controlled by an elected management board, allowing businesses to more directly influence investment within the town centre.”

The BID proposal requires a majority “Yes” vote by local Penrith traders, and will take place at the end of November. For more information please contact Chris Kolek, Penrith BID Canvasser at PenrithBID@penrithchamberoftrade.org.uk

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Rory backs warm front campaign

Rory is backing an awareness push from Consumer Focus, Citizens Advice, Age UK and the National Children’s Bureau to make free heating help from Warm Front available to the poorest households. Rory is urging people in Penrith and the Border who are worried about their energy bills to find out if they are eligible for free heating and insulation improvements from Warm Front. The call comes as new research from Consumer Focus shows that around six million households across England plan to cut back on heating their home this winter due to worries about affording their energy bills. Around 637,000 of these households are in the north-west region.

Yet although so many people are worried and are cutting back, millions of pounds worth of help is being left unclaimed under Warm Front, the Government’s scheme to help the poorest households in England to make their homes warmer and cut their energy bills.

Rory stated: “Energy bills are a big worry for many people in my constituency, and it is inevitably those who can least afford it that are the hardest hit by high prices. It is very worrying that so many people plan to cut back on their heating to make ends meet, as no-one should have to make the choice between heating and other necessities.  I would urge anyone worried about their bills to contact their local Age UK or Citizens Advice Bureau to find out if they can claim free support from Warm Front to help them be warm and well this winter.”

Over 2011-12 the Warm Front scheme was under-spent by over £50 million. The number of applications for the scheme fell sharply after being over-subscribed in 2010-11. Claim rates are again low this year. Across the northwest only 2,557 applied to Warm Front between April and July 2012. This is a huge fall from the 33,905 applications in the whole of the financial year 2010-11.

As the eligibility criteria for help under the Warm Front scheme is widening this year, even if someone has been turned down before they may be able to get help this year. The heating and insulation improvements Warm Front offers could help thousands of households to stay warm and well and save up to £600 on their energy bills each year. People can find out if they can get free help from Warm Front by calling 0800 316 2805 or by visiting their local Citizens Advice Bureau or Age UK. Further information and an online application form are also available on www.direct.gov.uk

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Rory supports Maulds Meaburn Village Hall with Afghan talk

Rory showed his support for Maulds Meaburn’s village hall on Friday evening, when he presented a talk at the community fundraising event about his time spent working and travelling across Afghanistan.

Speaking to a packed village hall – with well over one hundred tickets sold – local residents learnt directly from Rory about his experiences of a country which continues to dominate the headlines. Accompanied by a slideshow, Rory spoke not only of his walk from Herat to Kabul, but of his work as head of the Kabul-based charitable organisation Turquoise Mountain Foundation. He also offered an historical, political and cultural narrative of the region which allowed the audience to gain a much deeper appreciation of Afghanistan’s complexity. Given his extensive knowledge of the area, Rory continues to criticise the international community’s approach to Afghanistan, and offered those at his talk in Maulds Meaburn an argument for why a long-term “light footprint” is a more sensible approach than the current focus on large numbers of foreign troops.

Speaking afterwards, Rory said: “Maulds Meaburn is a wonderful community, and I was very struck by the ideas and energy in the room – I learned a great deal from the evening.”

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Rory encourages support for Hospice at Home

Rory this week pledged his support for Hospice at Home Carlisle and North Lakeland in an online competition by Persimmon Homes, which is looking to offer one charitable organisation a house worth £250,000.

In the competition, which is running until 20th September, the public is being encouraged to vote for the charity they deem to be most worthy of winning the house, with the chance to vote up to once a day.

Explaining his choice, Rory said: “The level of care that Hospice at Home provides for those in the end stages of life is truly remarkable, and it is an honour to pledge my support for a cause which has provided essential help to many in my constituency. I wholeheartedly encourage others to do the same in the final few days of this competition.”

To do so, please visit: http://40.persimmonhomes.com/

Rory calls on local business support for broadband at Chamber of Commerce lunch

At a conference lunch on Friday organised by Cumbria’s Chamber of Commerce at Shap Wells Hotel, Rory asked for local businesses to support his efforts to get better broadband provision for the county, in what he described as “the single most important factor to improving Cumbria’s economy”.

The event brought together businesses, educational institutions and local authorities to discuss how best to promote Cumbria’s economy in the current economic climate. Derek Armstrong, Business Development Manager for Cumbria’s Chamber of Commerce invited Rory to give the keynote speech at the conference, and provided him with a platform to advocate his vision for the future of Cumbria’s economy.

At the heart of Rory’s presentation was an emphasis on the enormous potential that broadband has for Cumbrian businesses. Speaking at the event he said: “The primary obstacle to economic growth in Cumbria is isolation. Isolation has an enormous impact on both a business’ access to service provisions, and on its access to market. For the first time in history, we have developed a technology which allows us to overcome this barrier. Latest figures suggest a significant investment in broadband infrastructure could add up to 3% to Cumbria’s GDP. Within my own constituency – Penrith and the Border – 27% of registered businesses work from home, and over 92% have a workforce of 10 or less. Broadband allows these SMEs to compete at a level that has simply not been possible up until now.”

Building on this, Rory argued: “We must act against any proposals which would seek to artificially pump prime an economy which simply does not exist in most parts of Cumbria. Tourism remains the most significant source of income for our county, and Cumbria’s competitive advantage remains its rural beauty. It is the protection of our landscape which will protect our economy. Large-scale housing projects to provide for large-scale industrial projects must be met with extreme caution in Cumbria. The focus instead has got to be on supporting our SMEs and many of the initiatives the Cumbrian Chamber of Commerce is leading seek to do just that.”

Rory’s talk follows what has been an important week for broadband developments within Cumbria, with Cumbria County Council awarding BT a £40m contract to provide super-fast broadband to the region. Having been one of the most vocal campaigners for Cumbrian broadband projects over the past two years, Rory is keen for local businesses and the local economy to benefit from the technology as soon as possible.