Monthly Archives: June 2011

constitutional reform

Good policies start from what is here, now; from what people are demanding; and from what we can do. Bad policies start from what ought to be present, what people ought to want, and what we ought to achieve. Thus a good decision, on how many sheep to keep on a fell, draws on an individual farmer’s understanding of his own hillside. Bad decisions on farming and the environment are made two hundred miles away on the basis of a mathematical model. We all – teachers, communities, employees  – recognise this problem in our daily lives. But the modern age is still hypnotized by grand theory, produced in isolation: nowhere is this more dramatic than in constitutions.

Constitutions, which were once a precious, slow-formed, historical legacy, or the fierce enterprise of freedom-fighters, can now be downloaded from a website, and tailored to any country with a ten second ‘replace all.’ And the West, recognising the efficiency of this standardised product, is making a business of exporting it. Our consultants rush, at a thousand dollars a day, to lecture Kenya on governance, and Egypt on democracy; to bring constitutions to Iraq, and elections to Afghanistan. Their legal theory and delicate drafting do not convince foreigners to love their government; their carefully tailored electoral systems cannot prevent corruption, abuse, or even civil war. But they are so excited by their discovery, they want to give us a dose of their medicine by turning the House of Lords into an elected senate.

Why? Not because of unhappiness with its functions, its performance, its membership, or its reputation. In fact, the Minister who introduced the reforms insisted that the functions will remain unchanged, the performance has been admirable, the contribution immense and the House still held in high-regard. Nor is this driven by public pressure. The public is not angry with it: they are angry with the House of Commons. And they have a hundred priorities more pressing than this. But the reformers feel the Lords cannot be ‘legitimate’ until it is elected.

I don’t understand this. The Lords may look like a mirror of the Commons: they walk on red carpets, we walk on green; they sit on red benches, we on green; they too have a Speaker and Ministers; and we debate the same legislation. But in reality the Lords has the same relationship to the House of Commons, as a library has to a book-shop: the contents may be similar but the purpose is quite different. Even its name – the “House of Lords” is misleading – it has not exercised equal powers with the other House for many centuries and is not dominated by hereditary nobles. It consists mostly of older people who have retired from successful careers: not just Ministers, but farmers, businesspeople, teachers, professors and policemen.

These people are the best part of the institution. But many of them would not want to stand for election: we do not have ex-Generals or High Court Judges in the House of Commons. Elected politicians are a different and, in most people’s view, not a better group. Because the Lords are in for life, they are independent: no longer beholden to the system, no longer anxious about colleagues, or professional prospects; and, therefore, not afraid to challenge government policy. In the last parliament they defended justice and liberty against the government’s terrorism legislation. In this parliament its members have mounted some of the best criticism of our foreign policy. In a world where more and more emphasis is put on energetic youth, they are experienced and – to use an unfashionable word – wise.

This does not mean that nothing can be improved: as Lord Steel has argued, the appointments process should be more transparent, representative and non-political. But more profound changes, such as elections, would remove its best people and distort the relationship with the lower House. (Britain is not a federal system, so the new House would have to be elected on a variant of the Commons’ numerical system, and therefore duplicate and challenge the mandate of the Commons).

Constitutional reform should always be driven by real urgent problems, engaging the whole nation. It should lay bare what a government is, force people to explain and justify what they want the new structures to do. Only then can you produce a constitution, which is owned and loved by the nation. The American revolution drove the Founding Fathers to debate with passion, patience and erudition, every article in their constitution: and in some cases to die for it. As a result, the US constitution is still treated almost as a religious text. The British constitution has emerged in a different fashion, and we express our attachment to it in less American ways.  But I can think of nothing which has served us so well. To change such a fundamental element of our political structure, when there is no crisis that demands it, when the public is indifferent, and the policy-makers uninterested, is uncalled for. Such an unfocused reform, detached from the urgent questions and from the nation, will not create the trust, which is the only real foundation of ‘legitimacy.’



wigton carnival

Rory attended Wigton’s Carnival on Saturday, joining local Mayor Cllr Paul Radcliffe (who is also the Chair of the Carnival Committee), local councillor Joe Cowell and other members of the Committee for a colourful procession through the town ahead of the Penrith Brass Band, ending at the town’s show ground. The procession – which included a homage to the recent Royal Weding, a float of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s oompa loompas, and a Robin Reliant – was the result of months of preparation.

Rory said he was honoured to attend the event, and commented: “It was wonderful – as ever – to see such a great atmosphere alive in Wigton today, despite the rain. The Carnival is the result of a tremendous amount of work and organisation by volunteers throughout the year, and I am delighted to be able to support it for the second time as the town’s local MP. Wigton is an example of fantastic community spirit, which is in evidence in particular on a day like today.”

Local councillor Joe Cowell said: “We are delighted with Rory’s presence here today. The Carnival is a well-supported event and it just gets better and better. It is organised entirely by volunteers and the work put into it is phenomenal.”




save your local

Rory is inviting constituents to join him for a pint this Saturday to find out how they can save their local pub from closure.

The event, set to take place on Saturday 2nd July, 2.30 – 4:00pm, will be held in association with the Plunkett Foundation, an organisation that supports community-ownership in rural communities, at the Old Crown pub in Hesket Newmarket, the first ever community-owned pub in England.

The event will provide constituents an opportunity to speak Rory about losing their local pub and the impact this can have on communities.

Rory said: “Pubs are vital for rural communities; they are real community hubs – places where people can meet and interact. They really do provide the lifeblood of our rural towns and villages, and worryingly increasing numbers of communities across Cumbria are faced with losing their local pub. The purpose of this important event is to help communities to understand what they can do to save their local – and it’s already been done here in Penrith and the Border, not only in Hesket Newmarket but now also at Crosby Ravensworth.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in saving their local pub to come along and find out more.”

Anyone interested in attending needs to contact the Plunkett Foundation via [email protected] or by calling 01993 810730 to register their interest.

The event is being held as part of Co-operative Fortnight, a celebration of how co-operatives improve people’s lives.


cumbria’s national citizens service pilot

Rory met with local Appleby Grammar School student Daniel Hullock and volunteer Lynne Hullock at Newton Rigg on Friday to discuss the forthcoming National Citizens Service scheme in which they will be participating, and which will be piloted in Cumbria this summer. He spent some time chatting with Daniel and Lynne – who also happen to be mother and son – about the summer programme, and their hopes for the project.

The Cumbrian pilot of National Citizens Service (NCS) is one of only twelve in the country, and is a two-month summer programme for 16-year olds, involving both residential and at-home components and will be delivered by independent charities, social enterprises and businesses. It will lead by local youth charity Connexions Cumbria in collaboration with the Outward Bound Trust, and will involve community work and outdoor challenges.

Rory said: “I’m so excited about what this pilot can bring to the young people of Cumbria, and indeed to the volunteers who will take part too. I’d encourage anyone with some spare time this summer to consider volunteering. The project aims to develop the leadership skills of young people, and will introduce them to community and charity work as well as adventure challenges outdoors. Connexions Cumbria have done a remarkable job in achieving this pilot – one of the only rural pilots of twelve UK-wide – and I wish it every success.”

Participant Daniel Hullcock said: “I’m incredibly excited about the pilot and can’t wait for it to go on my CV. I’m really happy that I’m able to participate and am so excited about the possibilities that might come afterwards. I’m interested in going into an engineering career and this will be a great start.”

More information about the scheme can be found here or by contacting Connexions Cumbria on 0800 435 709

Rory with Lynne and Daniel Hullock:


national citizen service 2011 pilots


National Citizen Service is a fantastic new summer project for 16 year olds, which is launching this summer. Young people will have the opportunity to spend two weeks away from home followed by a three to four week social action project giving the opportunity to develop life skills, build long lasting friendships and serve their communities.  We are very lucky that one of the pilot schemes is here in Penrith and the Border.

Over 10,000 places are available – though they are filling fast – so please follow the link here if you are interested in particpating or to find out further information.

ambulance protocol

Rory has expressed his delight that Ministers have listened to his request to alter legislation that previously barred ambulances from entering crime scenes until declared safe by the police. The protocol – which prevented two of the north-west region’s ambulance charities, the Great North Air Ambulance and the North West Ambulance Service, from attending immediately to victims of the Derrick Bird shootings last June – had been in place nationally for many years. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and Home Secretary Theresa May have both intervened in the matter, declaring the legislation lifted.

Following meetings with local Great North Air Ambulance volunteers, Rory wrote to the Home Secretary last month to call for an immediate change in the legislation.

He commented: “Health and safety legislation should save lives, not hamper the saving of lives. This is an extraordinary triumph for the region’s ambulance services, who do a job that no words of thanks can ever do justice to. Although the delays involved in the Bird shootings were tragic, we should be thankful that this protocol has been changed, freeing up our valuable ambulance services to do what they do best: acting swiftly to save lives with a minimum of fuss and red tape getting in the way.”

rural fuel discount

In a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall today, Rory pressed Ministers to extend the rural fuel discount (currently limited to the Scottish Islands) to include Cumbria. Speaking in a debate on the increasing fuel costs, Rory spoke for thousands of constituents when he argued the case for measures to be taken to halt the increase in fuel duty in rural areas, in recognition of the extreme challenges of sparsity and distance.

He said: “Whilst I applaud the Chancellor’s steps to date, these measures need to be extended. Government must acknowledge that in some constituencies, such as Penrith and the Border, we are expected to travel twice the distance to access vital services, and this needs to be recognised. A rural fuel pilot here in Cumbria would be a very good start.”

Rory has argued that rising fuel costs have a disproportionate impact on rural areas. Poor access to key services defines Cumbria – and particularly Eden – as having high incidences of rural deprivation. The average distance to travel to a local GP surgery is 3km in Cumbria, as opposed to an English average of 1.4km. In Eden, the distance is even greater, with residents travelling an average of 5.5km to visit their doctor. Cumbrians are expected to drive on average 11km to their nearest Job Centre, or 17km in Eden.

Rory is extremely concerned about the negative impact of rising fuel costs on household incomes, small business owners, and the farming community, where production and processing costs are rising as farmers struggle to absorb the rapid rise in costs.

wind turbines

We were nervous about the rally against wind turbines last Saturday. We worried that no-one would turn up, or that a crowd of hostile ‘antis’ would be bussed in to shout us down. But by eleven thirty, fifty yards north of the Scottish border, there were over two hundred people, well-wrapped against the cold. Two dairy cows were reaching hungrily over a fence, towards a cardboard placard (depicting, in felt-tip, a turbine) but there were no ‘antis’. A huge blonde man in a black suit, from BBC Newcastle, was giving frantic instructions to his cameraman. He had the expression of someone struggling to record some out-dated and troubling ritual: involving tweed-suited conservatives (or druids perhaps). But he would have struggled to stereotype our group. He strode between a nurse from Longtown, some sheep farmers, a man who repairs tractors and the heads of the Parish Councils from Mungrisdale and Tebay. Some were in ties, some in track-suits. A retired colonel stood next to a young man, who had the stubble and clothes of a rock musician. There were children in bright wellies, a man in his forties with a pony-tail, and a bishop. They represented communities from over 2,000 square miles of Cumbria: from Wigton to the West Coast, from Lunesdale to Longtown, from Shap to the South of Scotland.

The protest was against a proposal to build nine four-hundred foot turbines on the Solway Moss. We tried to explain to a reporter how high that was by pointing to a nearby telegraph pole, but it’s hard to imagine a white steel and plastic turbine, twenty times the height of the telegraph pole, turning in the evening light and visible for four hundred square miles around. The first Scottish speaker spoke of how it felt to find herself living under the flickering shadow of such giants in her remote border valley: she is soon to have over 400 in her parish alone.

We make more than a billion pounds a year from tourism: it is our largest income earner and supports over ten thousand families in Penrith and the Border. We are not a wealthy area and hill-farming has had a very difficult time. And why, I asked in my speech, do tourists come here? We have great meat, but they are more likely to go to France for the coq au vin; for Gothic palaces, they go to Venice; and if they want sun, they go to Spain. And they could go to those places. Greece is as convenient as Hadrian’s Wall if you’re coming from London. Our greatest resource is not our wind but our landscape, and turbines will destroy it.

Nor will building them in the Northern Lake District save the world. Converting coal power-stations to gas, and developing cleaner cars, would have ten thousand times more impact on reducing the UK’s carbon emissions than wrecking the Solway Moss. The new discoveries of shale gas in the United States and Europe answer many of the concerns people had, even eighteen months ago, about energy supply and energy security. (Professor Dieter Helm of Oxford University has written powerfully about this). And Cumbria is already doing an enormous amount to generate non-carbon emitting energy. We have just agreed to build three new nuclear power stations – which most parts of Britain would refuse – and with them generate 3,600 MW for the nation. So why should we now also become the national dumping ground for wind turbines– when all the turbines proposed for Penrith and the Border would generate one per cent of the power we will produce from our new nuclear stations and wreck our landscape, our homes and our economy in the process?

A hundred of us, therefore, moved on that afternoon to Longtown Memorial Hall community centre to discuss how to ensure Penrith and the Border be a turbine-free constituency. Dr. Mike Hall gave a brilliant presentation on energy and economics. Adrian told a group on the Scottish border how Tebay had gathered its environmental information; Bewcastle explained, from painful experience, which arguments to avoid; Wigton asked Scotland about techniques for collecting noise data; Berrier Hill told Longtown how to raise money for a public enquiry. I set up a basic website – – to record and share this knowledge and make it available to other groups. Our hope is that the turbine developers will begin to recognise the depth and strength of the opposition, the importance of our landscape to our economy and our lives, and will stop trying to force such developments through.

Cumbria is not being selfish. I knew most of the people there. They were the exact opposite of ‘not in my back-yard’ nimbies. They were some of the most generous and active members of our communities. Many were there without any personal stake. Some lived in a national park, where turbines are banned; others had fought and won their cases against wind turbines long since, and had driven North to join a protest at a place fifty miles from their homes. They were there because they cared deeply about our Cumbrian landscape, and about other communities who find meaning and solace, each in their own particular landscape. Developers and the government must listen to them.