Rory calls on government to promote exports as UK becomes net exporter of lamb for first time in 50 years
Britain has faced over the last twenty years a blizzard of constitutional change. In most countries it would count as a revolution. It is driven by a theory called ‘the separation of powers’. This is an old obsession of political theorists, derived from a French philosopher’s misunderstanding of the British system in 1748. It has been touted round every country in the globe from Cambodia to Cameroon. The idea, of course, is that no part of the system should be too powerful: that the executive (in our case the Prime Minister and his government), the legislative (Parliament), and the judges should each have separate, independent and equal powers, elected or selected on different bases. This is what the American founding fathers did to their legislative branch (Congress), their executive (the President), and judiciary (the Supreme Court). And they condensed it all into a document shorter than two facing pages of the Herald. But that – as they knew well – has never been the basis of the British constitution.
In Britain, after the monarch was challenged by Parliament, power fell into the hands of the Prime Minister. In theory, he was constrained by ‘cabinet government’, an ‘independent’ civil service, ‘the rule of law’, and ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. If he wanted to introduce a new law, it was examined by bill committees and debated, amended, and scrutinised by Parliament. And ultimately the Commons could refuse to pass it. But none of this amounts to a fraction of the constraints on the executive of any mature democracy. It is very unusual for a British Parliament to reject full government legislation. Ninety-five times out of a hundred, the Prime Minister appoints all the Ministers, directs the civil service, commands the legislation to be drafted, and drives it through Parliament with his party whips.
Constitutional theorists have long been uneasy with our lack of ‘separation of powers’. They feel the ‘elective dictatorship’ of the Prime Minister is theoretically dangerous. But it hasn’t proved so for three hundred years. In fact it has worked well. Despite all this executive power, Britain remains a very free society. And the government can drive through its legislation with far more efficacy and confidence than any democracy in the world. If David Cameron wants to fund the IMF he can. Barack Obama cannot. If the British PM decides an austerity package is the answer, he can implement it immediately. That is not the case if you are Obama, or a Greek, or even an Italian leader, in whose countries legislatures can – and often do – refuse the reforms. The markets recognise this, which is why even when the British economic figures are not good, our credit rating remains high. The Budget will always be passed and implemented. And British voters generally like the fact that if their party wins nothing will prevent it from pushing through its manifesto.
But almost all the constitutional change of the last twenty years undermines our system. Reform after reform has tried to make judiciary and Parliament more independent and weaken the executive. This was one of the reasons why our old legal authorities, the Lord Chancellor, the Law Lords and the Privy Council were remodelled into a Ministry of Justice and a Supreme Court. The Prime Minister has lost his power to appoint select committees (they are now elected), and he has lost his control over honours. He is about to lose the ability to appoint people to the House of Lords (it is proposed that it should become – in line with our American yearnings – an elected ‘Senate’). The fixed-term Parliament has taken away his power to dissolve Parliament. A new back-bench business committee allows MPs to directly challenge the government programme every week. And all this is before you consider the almost entire loss of power over Scotland, or the constraints imposed by the European court of Human Rights and EU regulations.
On the surface this seems fine. We have long gloried in the piece-meal evolution of our constitutional settlement. While France endured terror and counter-revolution in an attempt to perfect five different republics, we muddled through without bloodshed. Our changes have always happened un-systematically through Reform acts and Parliament acts. And we haven’t missed not writing a new constitution. But in the modern world the vast power of our government to alter the rules of the political game is dangerous. The public has lost its respect for and, to a large extent, its interest in Parliament. MPs feel they have less time to ruminate on historical principles. Too few people are engaged in these constitutional debates. Instead constitutions have become a minority interest for theorists like the foreigners who rewrite the constitutions of East Timor or Afghanistan. In each case, buzzwords such as ‘accountability’, ‘democratic best practice’, and ‘separation of power’ shove aside the social and historical reality. We cannot simply allow constitutional change to continue at this scale and pace in Britain. We must consider its long-term impact. I would prefer to stop us introducing constitutional change at all. But if the government insists on more changes, it should submit them (including the proposals on the House of Lords) to public referenda. Many things are broken, but our constitution is not one of them. Let it not become so.
What is the point of a parliamentary debate? It isn’t about changing MPs’ minds or their votes. It wasn’t, even in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1860s Trollope describes how MPs almost always voted on party lines. But they and he still felt that parliamentary debate mattered, because it set the terms of the public discussion, and clarified the great national questions. The press and public galleries were often filled. Churchill, even as a young backbencher, could expect an entire speech, lasting almost an hour, to be reprinted verbatim in the Morning Post. MPs put enormous effort into their speeches. But in the five-hour debate today on the judicial sentencing council, the press gallery was empty, and for most of the time there was only one single person on the Labour benches – a shadow Minister who had no choice. And on our side, a few former judges, and barristers. For whom, and about what, were we speaking?
The Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, used his speech for a genial seminar on the law, parliament and the press – teasing MPs for their complaints about judges, and reflecting: “When I was a young boy, the right-wing press complained about soft judges and soft sentences. They still do. And I am sure they will in fifty years’ time – if they survive that long.“ The Member for Guildford talked about the horror of burglary and called for tougher sentences. The member for Broxtowe, Anna Soubry, who had been in criminal law for over twenty years, talked about the daily challenges in court.
They were good speeches, rooted in expertise and long experience. But I felt they could have been made also outside the chamber. For me, the big question, which belonged uniquely in parliament, was not how to improve the sentencing council in detail but whether we should have it in the first place. The new sentencing council was introduced by the last government to provide guidelines for judges, and stop discrimination (ensuring a burglar in Penrith was punished like a burglar in Poole). It does so through making judges tick boxes, and follow a flow-chart to a recommended sentence. Grievous bodily harm, for example, requires considering 19 factors – aggravating, and mitigating, statutory, and non-statutory – which generate 3 categories, to which 25 additional non-exhaustive factors are attached, in the first two steps of nine. Judges can only ignore the guidelines at the risk of going to the appeal court. This has produced more consistency. But it is wrong.
Government, through parliament, can define crimes, and punishments. But it should never push into the courtroom itself and try to micromanage court proceedings. The metrics don’t work because the different circumstances of each crime, the criminal, his history, and the appropriate punishment, are not things which can be reduced to a mathematical formula. We appoint judges precisely to provide the intuition, sensitivity to context, and experience which a formula lacks. And judgement is not simply a technocratic process of analysing evidence. It is about moral choice. The judge has to weigh the crime and the criminal alongside the conflicting principles of deterrence, protection of the public, rehabilitation and – in the fullest sense – justice. A check-list is not ethical reasoning.
And – this is more controversial – the sentencing guidelines weaken the jury, because they make it almost impossible for the jury to know the relationship between their verdict and the likely sentence. In the past, through ‘pious perjury’, a jury, which thought a sentence unjust, could protect a criminal by ruling him not guilty, or guilty of a lesser crime. They used this power to show mercy when minor crimes held a mandatory death sentence. This was, of course, a dangerous power: juries are supposed to follow the law, not second guess it. But in exceptional circumstances, the jury’s raw power to control the sentence through the verdict is an ultimate protection for citizens against the judicial system and against the government. Juries have used it to defy oppressive governments by refusing to convict dissidents of libel. And even today, juries will not find people who have participated in an assisted suicide guilty, because assisted suicide carries a life sentence.
This complex sentencing algorithm, therefore, by restricting the judge and further distancing the jury from the sentence, weakens both guardians of our liberty. It reflects our culture’s obsession with metrics, quantification, and formulae for everything from landscape protection to international intervention. But our liberty relies on humans. We give power to 12 ordinary jurors not learned specialists because we are best protected not by pseudo-science but by common-sense, human relationships, compassion, and common understanding. And the judge’s most precious possession is not his learning but his human judgement. To force rigid formulae and check-lists – the natural machinery of all governments –into the court-room, is to allow the government to dominate that which was designed to protect us from government. It is ill-advised and unconstitutional.
So, at least I argued. But to what avail? I won’t count the number of hours I put into writing the speech, on top of the five hours in the chamber. I spoke to an audience of six, and there was no opportunity to vote, still less abolish the sentencing council. Sometimes – perhaps twice a year – parliament can do something unexpected and change government policy (I think I managed that on mobile phone coverage, last year). But generally a speech is simply a page in a parliamentary record, a message in a bottle, to some unknown, perhaps non-existent, reader. So, it is with some relief that I am now heading back up to the weekend’s events in Penrith, Longtown and Kirkby Stephen. I love constituency work, and I can see the point of government. But parliamentary debate still perplexes me.
Fiona triumphed in the locally-organised cooking competition, launched by lead sponsors Simon and Wendy Bennett of Augill Castle. It aims to raise aspirations and awareness of training and career opportunities in the food industry, whilst inspiring and engaging talented young people to retain their skills in Cumbria.Following four rigorous rounds of testing involving other year 9/10 pupils (14/15 year-olds) from Appleby Grammar School, Kirkby Stephen Grammar School and Ullswater Community College, Fiona made it to the final, competing against fellow pupil Bethany to whip up a three course meal for four people with a limited budget of £20.”Fiona’s lunch was of an extraordinarily high standard, and was absolutely delicious,” said Rory. “Her pudding of Poached Pear with Caramel Sauce, Home-made Vanilla Ice Cream and a Ginger Biscuit was sublime and of a standard that exceeds many restaurant meals I have had. Bethany also deserves recognition for her delicious venison, and it was a very close call in the end, but ultimately we felt that Fiona’s menu, which was so ambitious, really delivered incredible results. It was an enormous honour to judge the competition, and I wish Fiona a very successful career ahead.”The competition is sponsored by six award-winning Cumbrian hotels, all of which are passionate about what they do: Augill Castle (lead sponsors), based near Kirkby Stephen, The Cottage in the Wood near Keswick, Gilpin Lodge in Windermere, Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel in Alston, Overwater Hall near Ireby and Temple Sowerby Country House Hotel near Penrith.
Pictured above: Bethany Woof, Rory Stewart MP, Simon Bennett of Augill Castle, Fiona Lambert and Eric Robson of Cumbria Tourism
“This research confirms the absolutely critical importance of investing in better broadband and mobile access in Cumbria,” said Rory. “We’ve been given more money per capita to spend on broadband in Cumbria than in any other area in the UK. We won our campaign to increase mobile coverage to 98%. And we persuaded the chancellor to invest a further £150m on building more mobile masts. Now we have to make sure that we reap the benefits of these triumphs: £5 for every £1 we’ve invested. To do that, we must build on our existing success. We need to make sure all our businesses, large and small, in every sector – agriculture, tourism, retail – make the most of what the Internet has to offer.
“Penrith is already leading the way: it won an E-Town Award in November and was recognized by Google as one of the places in the UK where businesses are generating the highest rate of growth through the Internet [25% in Penrith in 2010]. But our B&Bs can also reach new customers through the Internet. Our farmers can take advantage of a whole range of amazing new applications which depend on wireless connectivity. And our public services must also benefit. We need to connect all our hospitals and surgeries like Alston Hospital and Penrith Hospital, which recently unveiled a video-link. Our schools must take full advantage of distance learning, so that young Cumbrians can perfect their IT skills and study the best courses available. They can follow the brilliant example of schools like High Hesket, which won the Make IT happy competition in the North-West.
“The brilliant thing about the Internet economy is that doesn’t matter where you live; anyone can be a part of it. So, we need to bring all our businesses, public services, and communities together – wherever they are – to get the most out of our broadband investment.”
For more information, see http://www.atkearney.com/index.php/Publications/the-internet-economy-in-the-united-kingdom.html
Rory has welcomed the launch of Defra’s Farming Export Action Plan and urged the Minister, Jim Paice, to press ahead with plans to have dedicated FCO agriculture secretaries posted to the UK’s most important export markets.
Cumbria is home to around a million ewes – more than in any other area in England – and its farmers stand to benefit most from an increase in exports. In the beef sector, export demand is in low value products currently a waste cost to processors – which, if sold abroad, could fetch £100 per animal.
Rory has been lobbying the government to put more resources into opening export markets for beef and sheep. In June, he called upon the Minister, Jim Paice, to ‘invest’ in exports and our embassies to ‘get the best deal possible for British farmers’ and he recently wrote to the Minister urging him to publish a plan for exports.
“This action plan is a great start to 2012 for our farmers, who are struggling despite the massive growth in demand for meat in emerging economies.
I want 2012 to be the year of exports. I will be working closely with the Minister, Jim Paice, UKTI, UKECP and the FCO to open the major markets outside the EU, like Russia, China, and the Middle East, which require bilaterally agreed export health certificates for sheep and cattle.
I want to see UK ambassadors around the world pushing British farm exports at the highest level and dedicated agriculture secretaries posted to our most important markets.
The UK has the potential to be one of the biggest global exporters of sheep, with Cumbria’s farmers benefiting the most. We already have one of the most efficient sheep industries in the world and demand in places like China is almost unlimited. Boosting our farm exports will improve the UK’s trade balance and greatly increase to the
profitability of many Cumbrian farms.”
I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for securing the debate and for all his leadership on Cumbria. Central to the issue is rurality and sparse population, and if he represents the constituency in England furthest from London, I represent the constituency in England with the most sparse population. We have about 1,200 square miles and some 1.5 million sheep, but not many people.
The central issue to do with rural schools is simply an aspect of the central problem of rural communities. That problem is the relationship between population and area. Since 1997, we can see a consistent pattern throughout almost every area of rural life: a steady push and a clear, unstoppable trend towards the hollowing out of rural areas.
We have two hospitals in northern Cumbria serving 350,000 people. That is normally difficult for the Treasury to justify, and our Cumbrian hospitals have been in receipt of emergency funding from the Government every year for 19 years, bailing out that fundamental structural problem. Our ambulances in Cumbria find themselves drifting endlessly south, towards the population centres. In fact, every morning the ambulance sets off bravely from Brough, but because it is obliged to pick up the nearest possible case and that always tends to be further south, it is somewhere south of Blackpool by the time it has to turn around and go back up to Brough in the evening. The same extends to old people’s homes, post offices, pubs, farms and broadband—we have some of the slowest broadband in Britain—and to issues such as flood protection, which I discussed with the hon. Member for Copeland earlier.
Since 1997, therefore, we have seen a cataclysmic hollowing out of rural areas throughout the country. Nationally, there are now 2,200 fewer schools in Britain than in 1997, 550 fewer clinics and hospitals, 350 fewer police stations and, famously, almost 10,000 fewer pubs—mostly gone from rural areas. It is, therefore, something of a miracle that our rural areas survive at all, when so much of the structure in the modern world seems to be set against them. In the Pyrenees, one can walk through abandoned village after abandoned village, and the same is true in the central United States. It is a miracle that Governments have managed to fight the endless centralising power of the market that tends to drive people out.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful arguments. Is not part of the problem—it certainly is in my region—that small rural communities are classified as unsustainable by their local authorities and local development plans, so they cannot expand and support local schools, post offices and so on? The problem is that communities in such areas want to expand, but are not allowed to, and the unsustainable tag becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The slogan of sustainability is used to cover up a whole series of crimes perpetuated against rural areas by local authorities. Local authorities imagine that there is an incredibly unfair structural system whereby rural areas are continually subsidised by more densely populated areas, and they demand to know why that should be. The reality, of course, is that rural areas are often in receipt of less funding than urban areas, despite higher costs. For example, education provision in Cumbria is £4,840 per pupil, compared with a national average of £5,140, despite the structural problems that the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned, and which I shall continue to discuss. Our communities put incredible energy into trying to keep those assets open, providing volunteer time and free land, but that is swept aside by the centralising tendency.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend seems to be talking about small schools receiving more than other schools in Cumbria, but the schools that receive much more are those in towns and cities. It is not a Cumbrian fix; it is a national fix.
Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Perhaps I was not clear enough. The national average of school funding is £5,140 per pupil. Cumbria is in receipt of £4,840, so the point is exactly the one that he makes. If sparsely populated rural areas such as Cumbria are compared with urban areas, we receive less.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, and I endorse it by pointing out that we have exactly the same problem in Gloucestershire, where there is the same funding difference between rural and urban areas. Gloucestershire is launching a campaign to put that right, and rightly so.
Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend. The point about Gloucestershire is key. There are many reasons why things tend to get bigger, and why small shops give way to supermarkets, small dental practices give way to bigger dental practices, and small schools give way to larger schools. That is partly because of the regulations that we impose on such institutions, and partly because of pupils expectations and the variety of teaching that they can receive. That is difficult to deliver in small schools. When I look out of my window in Cumbria, I see a school in Bampton that had run continuously since 1613, but has had to close because it was considered to be unsustainable. It is an odd world where something that was affordable 400 years ago is no longer affordable when we are spending so much more per capita on our government.
The problem is size, and we have extremes. Samuel King School in Alston has only 161 pupils, making it the smallest high school in Britain. Why should it remain open? It remains open because it is more than 20 miles from Penrith, across a pass that is closed for many days during the winter. One simply cannot get to Alston, which is the highest market town in the Pennines. A school is necessary there, because students would otherwise not be able to get to school at all. Kirkby Stephen has the smallest high school in the country. It has 406 students, but only 70 are in the high school. Its catchment area covers 400 square miles of countryside, and whatever some fantasist would like to do in the name of rationality, that school provides an essential service.
Such schools face difficulties, because the lack of affordable housing, and the limited demographics mean that it is difficult for them to increase their numbers. Kirkby Stephen school breaks even with about 410 students. It makes money with 415 students, and if the number drops below 400, it loses an enormous amount of money, but it has little control over that because its catchment area is so limited in terms of population, although its size is large.
Almost every one of our outstanding schools in Cumbria—those that I mentioned are predominantly rated as outstanding by Ofsted, and are eagerly signing up for the Government’s academy programme—have continual financial problems. They have generally had to be bailed out by the county council year after year, and are in an uncomfortable position. When they become independent as academy schools, the funding they take on is the base level that they received from the county council, and does not include the emergency bail-outs that they received year after year, so they find themselves running up increasing deficits. That is so in Alston, and in Kirkby Stephen, where the debt is approaching £500,000—the £140,000 a year that it used to receive from the county council was discontinued at exactly the time it embarked on its, hopefully positive, future as an academy school.
I want to make two requests of the Minister. One is that we address seriously the issue of the rural funding formula. We should not allow that to be seen as a selfish attempt by sparsely populated areas, such as Cumbria, to steal money from more deserving people. It is consistent with our general attitude towards rural areas, and our general desire that rural areas should not be seen as places that we want to be hollowed out in relation to health care, transport or education. It is a fundamental commitment of our civilisation to rural areas.
My second request, which is smaller and technical, is that I would like the Minister to provide someone from the Department for Education to work with the boards of governors, particularly at Kirkby Stephen and Alston, on their budgets. They have launched themselves to academy status, and they have great governing bodies with great head teachers, but they could do with a lot of help to understand the budget. They are in a difficult situation because they hear one thing from the county council, and another with their new academy status. They need someone to compare their per capita funding with that of other schools around the country, and to provide technical advice on what would be reasonable reductions. That would be of enormous assistance to our schools.
On those two notes, and with acknowledgement to the hon. Member for Copeland, I thank you, Mr Weir, for calling me.
Rory has welcomed news that seven NHS hospital Trusts which face serious structural financial issues may receive additional support from the Department of Health. The trusts, among them NCUH NHS Trust at the Cumberland Infirmary, must demonstrate that they meet four key tests. This follows a meeting he brokered for Secretary of State Andrew Lansley when he visited Carlisle in December. The Health Secretary was briefed on PFI problems.
In October 2012 Mr Lansley announced that the Department of Health would provide ongoing support to a small number of NHS Trusts with historic Private Finance Initiative (PFI) arrangements , but which were unable to demonstrate the necessary long-term financial viability.
To meet the criteria for such support, a shortlist of affected Trusts would need to demonstrate that they had met four key tests:
• The problems they face should be exceptional and beyond those faced by other organisations;
• They must be able to show that the problems they face are historic, and that they have a clear plan to manage their resources in the future;
• They must show that they are delivering high levels of annual productivity savings;
• They must deliver clinically viable, high quality services, including delivering low waiting times and other performance measures.
Rory said: “Labour left some parts of the NHS with a dismal legacy of PFI, and made them rely on unworkable plans for the future. They swept these problems under the carpet for a decade, and left us with a £60 billion post-dated PFI cheque to deal with. These issues have compounded what are critical times for the Cumberland Infirmary, and I welcome any steps that the Secretary of State can take in helping to put the Trust on a more secure financial footing, which is imperative if it is to be a given a chance to recover and thrive as an excellent clinical provider for Cumbria.”
Secretary of State Andrew Lansley said: “The NHS is delivering great results for patients but we know that a small number of NHS Trusts with PFI arrangements have historic problems relating to these arrangements that make it very difficult for them to manage financially. This move is the latest stage in a programme of work we began in 2010 to identify and tackle financial problems at local level in the NHS. In the past, local Trusts have received extra funding on the quiet in order to avoid embarrassment. We have already signalled that we are determined to end these backroom deals by bringing greater transparency and openness to the process.”
“We need to balance the accountability of the NHS at local level to live within its means on one hand, with recognising that there is a legacy of debt for some Trusts with PFI schemes. And we need to be certain that those NHS Trusts that face historic financial problems are not taking their eye off the most important issue of all – maintaining and improving their frontline patient care.”
Rory’s vision for Cumbrian exports recalls the buccaneering enterprise of Britain’s trading past .
In a speech in the House of Commons on 8 February 2012, Rory emphasised the diversity of Cumbria’s exports as a model for Britain. He called on the UK government to look at “unexpected countries and unexpected products.”
This requires, he said, a transformation in the drive, leadership and imagination of embassies: “We in Britain should look back not at our Victorian past but at our Elizabethan past, when a buccaneering, trading, earring-wearing rogue state took its goods all the way around the world.”
He paid tribute to local companies like Innovia in Wigton, Steadmans in Warnell, and Bonds of Alston, and ended his speech with a plea to UKTI and the Foreign Office to focus efforts on opening Middle Eastern markets to British meat exports. He said that “the Arab appetite for sheep is almost unstoppable” and called for embassies to work with Middle Eastern governments to obtain the necessary health certificates on behalf of British sheep exporters.