Monthly Archives: June 2012

Fixing Democracy

Teacher: “What does your father do, little Billy?” “He plays the piano in an opium den”. Teacher calls home. Father: “I lied: but how can you tell an eight year old boy that his father is a politician?”

In polls, more than eighty per cent of the public feel ‘politics is broken’. When strangers discover I’m a politician they often look at me as though they are unsure whether I am a snake or a monkey. And all the questions they ask – put as politely as they can – imply they are astonished by our ignorance, our shoddiness, and our incompetence. Which leaves democracy in a strange position. Our democracy has been developing for four hundred years, the British people have never been so educated or confident, but the gap between public and politicians has never felt larger: citizens are deeply disappointed in their politicians. The same is true in almost every ‘democratic’ country.

In 2003, George Bush boldly proclaimed in his State of the Union address that: “because democracies respect their own people and their neighbours, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.” This was not just one man’s view. Harvard professors also argued that democracy in countries like Iraq would make such places stable, responsive, good at resolving conflict, legitimate, and less likely to harbour terrorists. But the last decade has not realised their dream. Afghan ministers are often highly articulate, well travelled people, who have been professors in American universities; and Afghanistan is classified as a democracy, but there is little emphasis on minority rights, or freedom of religion (the majority of Afghans believe people who convert from Islam should be killed); security is terrible, judges are weak and corrupt, the government is despised, and there is little which an international observer would recognise as “rule of law’. In Iraq, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, or Pakistan, democracies are still compatible with unpopular regimes, instability and danger. And many voters place less and less priority on their constitution. In a poll in Baghdad in 2004, 7 per cent said their ideal political system was that of the US, 5 per cent France, 3 per cent Britain: 40 per cent said “Dubai” – which is a tiny wealthy monarchy, and not a democracy at all.

But I have never met an Afghan or an Iraqi who did not want a say in who governed them. And when the West intervenes abroad it has to support a democratically elected government, because it is the only system consistent with our own values, our interests and the wishes of the people in the country. In 2003 the West tried to delay elections in Iraq for two years on the grounds that ‘the lesson from Bosnia was that early elections brought extremism’: councils were appointed, not elected, to give time for voter education, and modern political parties. The result: hundreds of people demonstrating outside my office demanding elections. When I said ‘what’s wrong with the provincial council – there is a chief of each of the major tribes, the senior Sunni cleric and the senior Shia, and members of every major political party?’ They replied ‘the problem is not who you chose, the problem is that you chose them.’

To support democracy, we need to recall why it matters. Too often we use indirect arguments: ‘democracy is good because it brings peace and prosperity’, ‘torture is wrong because it produces bad information’ or ‘women’s rights are important because they contribute to economic growth.’  This is dangerous, because if Gaddafi could prove that torture produced good information, or Saudi Arabia that it had growth without women’s rights, the argument would collapse.  It encourages people to obsess about whether India would do better economically than China if it was not a democracy. But the reason democracy is good is not because it guarantees economic prosperity, stability or legality – Colombia is after all the oldest democracy in Latin America. Democracy is good in itself (even when it means little more than elections) because it enshrines liberty and equality in our political system: it shows that each of us is of equal dignity and has equal right to vote for a government. This is a good, which is more than economic – which may be why a Cumbrian could prefer to live in Britain than Qatar – even though the GDP per capita in Qatar is three times that of Britain.

But to make democracy vigorous again, both citizens and politicians need a new kind of honesty and a new kind of involvement. Politicians need to admit when they don’t know, and learn to explain that some things which voters want, and which they have been promised, either can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. And citizens and the media have to give them the space to do that. Secondly, we need local democracy. People are far better informed and more energised than they have ever been before – they have a genius for the local – and care about, and can shape their local communities: so let’s directly elect more local representatives. Britain could learn from France’s elected Mayors; Afghanistan would have been better off, if instead of concentrating on national elections, they had moved to directly elected local officials. But democracy is about more than constitutions: it is a culture, a virtue of politicians and of citizens. For democracy to
revive, anywhere in the world, the public needs to learn to trust politicians, and politicians need to learn to trust the public.

Rory calls for more radical decentralisation

Rory  called on Government to go further, challenge large-scale organisational structures and take more risks in devolving powers to communities,  in a Westminster Hall debate on Sustainable Communities.

He  used the debate to suggest that British government has much to do in order to catch up with other more progressive European countries, where devolved democratic structures function better. He asserted that Government “has not gone far enough or been ambitious enough” in its decentralisation policy, itself a major pillar of the coalition’s agenda. He called on Government to help communities overcome the structures of big business and charities, as well as of protocols and processes, and suggested that a less risk-averse approach be adopted.

Rory said: “We have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. We need to be more decisive. We need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities, and address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again we get caught up in State Aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in red tape. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.”

On the same day that the MP gave evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee inquiry into superfast broadband, he cited as an illustrative example the community of Mallerstang and the obstacles faced by Cumbrian communities determined to install their own superfast broadband, saying: “If the Mallerstang community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be only £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. This type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.”

Rory hails Cumbrian community broadband models at House of Lords Communications Committee’s Superfast Broadband enquiry

Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart this week gave evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee’s inquiry into superfast broadband, citing Cumbrian community models as examples of how Government can save money and connect wide stretches of remote rural communities at a fraction of projected costs.

The inquiry, which ran for two days on Tuesday 12th and Wednesday 13th June, focussed on the rollout of superfast broadband in Cumbria, one of the original NGA (Next Generation Access) pilots. The Committee questioned witnesses on the experience of the East Cumbria Community Broadband Forum (ECCBF) and on issues such as DEFRA’s Rural Community Broadband Fund and the challenges faced during the rollout process. It went on to question representatives from BT, the Broadband Stakeholder Group, and Microsoft about issues including the uses and demand for superfast broadband, regulation and policy, and infrastructure and service provision.

Speaking alongside Miles Mandelson, Chairman of Great Asby Broadband and Vice Chair of the ECCBF, Rory – who has led the Cumbrian campaign for superfast broadband – said:
“Cumbria is a model for the rest of Britain. What has been so impressive about Cumbria is the way in which communities have shown that it is possible to install superfast broadband at a fraction of the cost of Government’s projections. I would also like to recognise those telecomms companies who showed more flexibility; until the Cumbrian model, companies were very reluctant to connect remote communities at affordable prices. Now, we have developed a model where companies are prepared to co-operate when communities themselves do some work, too, such as in Mallerstang where – led by Libby Bateman – the community have dug trenches, obtained way leaves and invested community resources, all for the sum of 17,000 pounds. This is an unimaginable improvement on how things were done before. My abiding concern now is that Government have been too slow in releasing cash to the communities who are pioneering these cost-saving, innovative models. I will keep fighting in lobbying Government and BDUK in overcoming the red tape that is hampering this, and this week’s inquiry has been a valuable tool in articulating what still needs to be done.”
Rory criticised Cable and Wireless for its recent decision to cut úneconomical’ broadband services from residents in the Duddon Valley, where two communities are set to lose their connections at the end of June, potentially forcing residents to rely on intermittent, unreliable satellite connections. Rory Stewart said: “This crazy, short-sighted decision is absolutely counter-intuitive to all that we are doing in other parts of Cumbria. The numbers can fit when communities are prepared to make investments of their own. I am immensely proud of the work that we have done in Penrith and the Border in showing that this is possible, and am grateful for the opportunity to have put this on the record at this important Committee inquiry.”



Rory launches local schools’ ‘We Made It’ manufacturing competition

Rory has joined UK manufacturers to encourage kids to get excited about manufacturing careers. Proud  to have launched the We Made It! competition in Penrith and the Border, working closely with local schools and industries to help young people understand how exciting and rewarding a career in manufacturing can be, he has  written to all his constituency schools and asked them to consider competing.


The competition invites young people aged 13-16 to submit designs and ideas for a gadget, gizmo, toy or tool they’d like to see made. Any invention, no matter how creative, is welcome. As long as it’s realistic enough to be made, there’s a chance it could be.


Rory said “In a constituency that has a strong tradition of enterprise, I’m very proud to be supporting this great project to help young people turn their innovative ideas into reality. Britain desperately needs more young people aspiring to high-level manufacturing jobs and gaining a better understanding of how the industry and businesses involved in it actually work. I really look forward to seeing what our local schoolchildren can come up with, and it will be a great honour if our young inventors and entrepreneurs will be able to represent Penrith and the Border in Westminster on a national level.”


Rory will help judge the entries, and the winner will be entered into a nation-wide competition judged by a group of organisations involved in manufacturing, including Boeing, The Manufacturing Institute, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Finmeccanica, Renewable UK, the Confederation of Paper Industries and Lloyds Banking Group. The organisations are all partners in the Dods Manufacturing Dialogue, which is working to increase interest in manufacturing skills in schools.


The best entries nationwide will be invited to a ‘Fab Lab’: the outstanding facilities provided by MIT and the Manufacturing Institute, where their designs will be manufactured and brought to life. Later this autumn, Rory will bring the winner of our local competition to a reception and awards ceremony in Parliament and they’ll have the opportunity to meet the heads of the manufacturing organisations involved in the project and learn how to take their career in manufacturing further.


To find out more and to enter the competition, pupils can visit the competition’s website,



The Dods UK Manufacturing Dialogue is a project run by Dods and with partners:

Boeing, The Manufacturing Institute, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Finmeccanica, the Confederation of Paper Industries, Renewable UK and Lloyds Banking Group. For more information about the dialogue see


For more information about the initiative, call Ella Uziell-Hamilton, Communications Manager at Dods, on 020 8433 6796 or email [email protected]


Static caravans VAT reduction success

Rory celebrated his and fellow MPs’ success  in achieving reduction of VAT on  static caravans this May (2012).

“I am delighted that I and my colleagues’ efforts have paid off, and that the Chancellor has confirmed that the proposed increase in VAT on static caravans will not, thanks to our vigorous lobbying, go ahead as planned. I have met with various constituents and constituent businesses who would, potentially, have been very negatively affected by this, and expressed to the Chancellor my strong fears for the Cumbrian economy as a result of any such rise.

“With so many of our businesses in Cumbria dependent on the tourism sector, which in our county attracts in the region of 40m visitors each year and is worth over £2bn, this rise would have been disastrous. Cumbria’s 7,250 self-catering units – operated by an estimated 3,897 businesses – would have been affected, as well as the estimated 4,000 static caravans that can be found on 160+ sites, accounting for around a tenth of all self-catering bed spaces. These are a hugely important part of Cumbria’s accommodation mix – the range and choice of this type of accommodation is important, and serves a wide range of demand, particularly important in school holidays for family accommodation. Occupancy rates for this type of accommodation far outstrip those for other forms of self-catering.

“This is a real victory for a significant sector of our economy, and I am very, very pleased with this outcome and applaud those constituents who contacted me and maintained real pressure on this important issue.”

Rory’s Speech on Sustainable Communities


It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and fantastic to speak in the debate. Thank you for calling me.

A common theme in our debate on sustainable communities appears to be the old Britain. I am surrounded by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) in west Cornwall introduced the debate, so as a representative of Cumbria I would like to speak together with them for the Brythonic peoples of Britain.

There is something a little bizarre about the notion of the sustainable community, which is a horrible combination of double jargon. The very word “sustainable” drags in six different directions. When we talk about sustainable growth, we seem to be talking about environmental projects. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, we seem to be talking about no ongoing financing. When we talk about a sustainable facility, we seem to be talking about no Government investment. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband, we seem to mean something that does not involve volunteers. The worst example, of course, is sustainable farming, in the name of which we see again and again in our communities farmers being paid Government subsidies not to farm, so that a time will come when the sheep have left the hillsides, the subsidy stops and the sustainable farming is neither sustainable nor farming at all.

I shall not discuss the variability in the notion of sustainable community, except to say—moving from the facetious to the serious—why the debate is so important. This is perhaps the most important problem facing Britain today, and it is a problem of trust. When polled, 87% of British people say that politics is broken and 84% say that society is broken. Every single one of us in the Chamber has the experience of sitting down, perhaps at a dinner party, and trying to make polite conversation with the people next to us as it gradually emerges, once they have discovered we are a politician, that they think that we are indeed a liar and a thief. We know the gentle politeness with which, after the first course, they ask, “Is it really true that you have a subsidised bar? Would you mind explaining exactly the nature of your expenses?” Then, as we move on to the dessert course, they ask, “What do you think about all these professional politicians? Don’t you think that people with experience should come back into politics?”

All that is a sign of a big problem, which is the gap between local people, local communities—the ground—and us. It is a problem that we ought to be able to solve, because this is our moment and this is the right country in which to solve it. This is our moment because we have never before in this country had so many educated, confident people able to challenge Government in every way. Britain is also a country with a very strong and deep tradition of local democracy, which we talked about incessantly through the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, however, we find ourselves in a position where France, which we always saw as a hyper-centralised country, is well ahead of us in terms of decentralisation and local government.

How shall we address that? We have begun, but we have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. The tone of Government is beginning to change: under the banner of things such as the big society, we see individual examples up and down the country of civil servants checking themselves, rethinking and considering ways in which they can respond to local communities. We see it in the construction of the infrastructure for sustainable communities: in rural areas, that means investment in broadband, for example, which allows people in a remote area to continue to operate and to flourish. They can get health and education services, or run businesses down broadband; perhaps more important for our purposes today, they can challenge their representatives and organise themselves down broadband. Thus local communities are allowed a political and democratic voice through technology.

The problem is that we have not gone far enough. Sometimes I think we need to be more decisive and spend more money, to answer the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We could spend more money in reference to splendid ideas such as, for example, National Citizen Service. That is a great idea to get a lot of young people and volunteers involved, but what have we got after two years? A very good project, but still only a few thousand people. The coalition Government are in power only until 2015, and if we are serious about getting National Citizen Service going, we should be aiming to have 70% or 80% of 16-years-olds going through the scheme by 2015. We should be putting the money behind it.

Sometimes it will be a question of challenging the structures of late capitalism, which is to say we need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities. An odd phenomenon of the modern world is that we sit in our local areas, and not only are supermarkets rolling into local communities and kicking out small shops, but major national and international charities that have 600 or so people sitting in their donor proposal writing departments in London are rolling into local areas and destroying local volunteer networks.

Solving those problems is not simply a matter of putting a little pressure on a local council or calling an official to account. We have to address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again, we get caught up in state aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in those regulations. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.

A small example to illustrate how that is going wrong in my area in Cumbria relates to the bugbear with which I began: broadband. A classic example of local community activity is to be found in Mallerstang, a remote and beautiful valley, where the local community organised itself to get fibreoptic cables to every home. If the community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. The last time I spoke to an official, that official suggested that British Telecom could make a charitable contribution of the money, because it was too complicated to get through the procurement and state aid regulations. As long as those attitudes and blocks remain, such fantastic opportunities for community action will never be realised. If we could use it on a national scale, that type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.

This is not a question of attitude, of tone or of money; it is a question of the constitution. I pay tribute to the Minister who, above all, has expressed philosophically and consistently why that matters, why the dignity of the citizen matters, and why local communities matter. I think all of us in the Chamber would agree that if we are looking for one big constitutional change in this country, it is not tinkering with what happens here in Parliament, but changing what happens locally.

It is very disappointing that we did not get as many elected mayors as we wanted. Philosophically, the Minister will disagree with the idea of imposing a centralised solution on local communities, but I am beginning to believe that one of the triumphs of the French commune system was Napoleon himself, and that if we truly want local democracy in this country, we need to go for it and to impose locally elected mayors on communities—force communities to be free, and force them to vote for their own local representatives.

When we are not being attacked at ghastly dinner parties, we are often praised in our local areas for being good local constituency MPs. That peculiar paradox—that everyone hates politicians in general, but quite likes their local MP—explains the vacuum at the heart of our constitution and the vacuum of local democracy. If we can address that, if we can get sustainable communities in place, and if we can aggressively address finance, law and procurement in our constitution, we can turn our benighted subjects into citizens.

Rory lobbies Health Minister to improve First Responders’ access to children

Rory has raised with the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, the troubling issue of First Responders’ lack of access to children in emergency situations. Following meetings with First Responders from Penrith and the Border, he is urging the Secretary to review existing legislation and protocols to try to find a compromise which would allow First Responder groups to respond in situations where a young life is at stake.

Rory said: “First Responders are currently prevented from treating children due to existing legislation. Generally it is felt to be more challenging to treat children; First Responders are not trained to do so, nor are they CRB-checked, and they do not have the necessary equipment. Specialist child defibrillator pads are very expensive.”

“At the moment FRs receive call-outs from the ambulance service, but would not be called to an incident involving a child unless by mistake; however, they feel very strongly indeed that they should be able to be called upon in a life-saving situation. I would argue strongly for a compromise situation, whereby if possible the ambulance service would provide more trainingand equipment and would find a way of collaborating with FRs. There are many successful FR teams in this constituency, performing an absolutely vital role on a daily basis, and I think a sensible resolution to this issue is eminently possible.  That is why I have written to the Secretary of State for Health requesting his input and support for this important issue.”