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Rory to lead veteran’s review

I have been asked to lead a Government review to look into the reasons why some of Britain’s veterans turn to a life of crime after they leave the armed forces. I will also be looking at the support provided for ex-service personnel convicted of criminal offences and given custodial or community sentences, and how that support can be improved. I expect the review to last six months. It will consider issues including how ex-service personnel are identified on conviction and what advice and support is available to them – as well as looking at effective interventions in other countries.

Veterans have made a unique contribution to our society, and we owe them a huge debt. Their needs are specific, and it is an honour to have the opportunity to support veterans in this way. I am very much looking forward to working with veterans organisations, the armed forces and the Ministry of Justice to make sure we have the best programme for veterans in the world.

Latest figures, taken from a study by the Ministry of Defence in 2010, suggest that ex-servicemen and women make up around 3.5% of the prison population, and around the same percentage of offenders on licence, while almost all convicted veterans were men from non-commissioned ranks and 80% were army careerists.

Please get in touch with me if you have experience of these issues, or any advice to share.

If you are interested in reading more, here are links to two papers by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which lay out many of the issues and challenges clearly.

http://www.howardleague.org/leave-no-veteran-behind/

END THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF GAMBLING ON TELEVISION

Every single day, late in the evening, two of our five terrestrial channels (Channel 5 and ITV) run programmes (lasting for two hours or more) encouraging viewers to gamble. It is shameful that our government is conniving with this. Gambling is a most serious addiction, every bit as bad, or worse, than alcoholism. It often ruins family life, drives people to misery, destitution and homelessness, and sometimes to suicide.

The television programmes are especially pernicious because they will mostly be creating gambling addicts among those very people who can least afford it.

Furthermore, all gambling advertisements on television should also be abolished. Some of these advertisements are so pernicious that they actually offer a free amount of money to entice people to start a gambling addiction.

No civilised, serious, or ethical nation should allow such abominations.

NHS Paperwork

Anyone who has recently received a Hospital appointment request from their GP will have been given paperwork giving instructions on how to proceed. I am of the opinion that the three sheets of A4 paper could be reduced down to two or even one page and still contain all relevant information.

The way the details are given is not clear and it is repetitive. At the present time when the NHS issues this to a patient at least one sheet of paper could be saved. It may not seem much but multiplied by the thousands of pages which are probably given out each day it could save a substantial amount of money.

Subdivision of underused Properties

Many older people live in large houses so how about a Council led initiative that arranges subdivision of such properties. I see advantage in as well as reducing the need for new build, the elderly prime owner stays at home and new adjoining accommodation is created, the owner receives a rental income, there is an opportunity to improve an older property, the Council still collects New Homes Bonus and the scale is more in keeping with rural village development.

My guess is that such a subdivision could be made for about £20,000 per unit using a loan repayable when the prime owner sells or the let unit stops being used. It is a much cheaper way of creating affordable accommodation and helps resolve the arising problem in Eden of many large, underused older properties in need of upgrade. It also addresses the problem for elderly people of being asset rich and penny poor, as they receive some rental income and new neighbours.

‘The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere’

Article first published in The Guardian, by Decca Aitkenhead on January 3rd, 2014

If the 15-year-old Rory Stewart could see himself today at 40, “he would think I was a bit pathetic”. He would see at once “all the ways in which I’ve compromised, and sold out. And he would be absolutely right.” What would he have made of his decision to be a Tory MP? “Really confused, I think,” Stewart smiles. “Yes. Really, really confused.”

A lot of other people have been, too. Stewart is a Scot born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia and educated at Eton, who studied PPE at Oxford while tutoring Princes William and Harry in his spare time. On graduating he joined the foreign office, posted first to Indonesia to help sort out East Timor, and then to Montenegro to deal with Kosovo. Between 2000 and 2002 he walked 6,000 miles through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, staying in villagers’ houses, before being dispatched to Iraq to take charge of two provinces and to help write the country’s new constitution. He wrote two bestselling memoirs about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, Harvard made him a professor, and he founded a charity in Afghanistan at the request of its president and the Prince of Wales.

By 35 he had led so many adventures that Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to a biopic of his life. And then he came home to become the Tory member for Penrith.

We met once before, about 10 years ago, and he struck me then as a character from another century, or possibly a Flashman novel. He remains hugely appealing: self-deprecating, funny, open, curious and kind. So what was he thinking to give up his former life for the tedium of the backbenches? His explanation turns out to be the most convincing analysis of foreign interventions and domestic politics I can remember ever hearing from a Conservative MP.

Stewart came home when he realised that even the least-educated Afghan housewife in a mountain village knew more about the country than he did. Fluent in Dari, along with nine other languages, he’d thrown himself into the coalition mission with great conviction, but had to conclude that: “In the end, the basic problem is very, very simple. Why don’t these interventions work? Because we are foreigners. If things are going wrong in a country, it’s not usually that we don’t have enough foreigners. It’s usually that we have too many.”

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

Stewart is one of those rare people who talk in perfect sentences. He goes on: “Our entire conceptual framework was mad. All these theories – counterinsurgency warfare, state building – were actually complete abstract madness. They were like very weird religious systems, because they always break down into three principles, 10 functions, seven this or that. So they’re reminiscent of Buddhists who say: ‘These are the four paths’, or of Christians who say: ‘These are the seven deadly sins.’ They’re sort of theologies, essentially, made by people like Buddhist monks in the eighth century – people who have a fundamental faith, which is probably, in the end, itself completely delusional.”

Whenever Stewart took one of these ideas, such as rule of law, to an actual Afghan village, it became meaningless. “None of the things that I’m looking for exist. There obviously isn’t police, or a judge, there isn’t a legal code, there isn’t a prison. There’s a bunch of guys with white beards sitting around, and their system of doing that might be quite different from the next-door village. So then how do you get from there to here? Well, it can be done, but it’s not going to be done by a foreigner who barely understands any of that.”

But if he were an MP in his own country, he figured he’d at least understand what he was doing. What he hadn’t anticipated was the conclusion he would reach after four years in Westminster. “I think British democracy at the moment is really struggling to work.”

Part of the problem is the unprecedented nature of the problems facing us today. “You have to ask yourself what a country that was the first to industrialise, and the first to de-industrialise, does with itself. What is our civilisation? What is our democracy? Who do we want to be?” But almost no one else in parliament appears at all interested in these questions. His colleagues tease him, telling him they’re for thinktanks, not politicians, and that “people will think you’re a sort of nutty professor”.

Westminster works much better for career politicians, Stewart soon found, than for a newcomer with intimate experience of the world it legislates on. “It’s such a weird profession, with such specialised rules and such a strange anthropology, that people who’ve been in it for a long time have a huge advantage. This is just such an eccentric institution that it’s difficult for an outsider to really understand what we’re doing.” Does he? “No, not at all. Not at all, because a lot of what we do day-to-day is very difficult to make sense of.”

When the house first sat after he was elected, he remembers everyone waving their order papers and jeering and cheering, and he said to Chuka Umunna, a newly elected Labour MP: “We’re not going to get pulled into that, are we?” It seemed plausible that the new intake could rewrite the rules. And yet MPs’ obsession with “who’s up and who’s down” is contagious. “You can’t spend three and a half years in here without being changed profoundly. I mean, I’m not who I was when I first came here.”

Cumbria is a long way from SW1, which may help to explain why Stewart is convinced that a radical new localism is the only way to revive democracy. “We have to create a thousand little city states, and give the power right down to all the bright, energetic people everywhere who just feel superfluous.” A huge fan of the Big Society, he calls it “the fundamental insight” and “the big idea”, and valiantly maintains that it has not been ditched by Downing Street. He also believes what we need now is a brand new written constitution.

“In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.”

Stewart would separate the legislature from the executive, slash the number of MPs from 650 to 100, introduce powerful locally elected mayors, and impose greater transparency and controls on the security services. He thinks the US public have been much more upset than the British by Edward Snowden’s revelations because of the cultural legacy of the first amendment, and he would introduce something similar here.

“We’ve relied for 400 years on an informal faith in our own common sense and sanity and Britishness, and thought that would all be all right. But those things are very fragile in a new world, and so you need to begin to write things down.” But of course, all this is a tall order. “This is where the gap between my theoretical desire and practical politics comes in,” he chuckles. “How do you get 650 people to vote to lose 550?”

It strikes me that being a backbench MP in Cumbria is probably the least powerful job Stewart has ever done. He laughs. “I like that, yes, that’s true. Anybody running a small pizza business has more power than me. I mean, in four years, what have I done?” He says he has “maybe influenced, in a small way” the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; led a Commons motion obliging mobile phone operators to increase rural coverage from 87% to 98%; had some minor influence over the technical details of the way rural broadband is rolled out; “might” have changed the way the foreign office analyses language skills when it runs its promotions boards; and saved the local cinema. “And I might, if I’m lucky, have got a lift at the train station in Penrith. But that’s about it.”

In a way, he says, ordinary Afghans are far more powerful than British citizens, because at least they feel they can have a role in one of the country’s 20,000 villages. “But in our situation we’re all powerless. I mean, we pretend we’re run by people. We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.” Some commentators, he says, think we’re run by an oligarchy. “But we’re not. I mean, nobody can see power in Britain. The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don’t have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don’t have any. None of them have any power.”

And this from a man who only two years ago attended the Bilderberg conference, a highly exclusive and secretive gathering of the world’s most powerful bankers, politicians and businesspeople?

“Well there we are, you see,” he smiles. “I can tell you, there is nothing there. It’s like the wizard of Oz. This is the age of the wizard of Oz, you know. In the end you get behind the curtain and you finally meet the wizard – and there’s this tiny, frightened figure. I think every prime minister has sort of said this since Blair. You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.”

But that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s wrong to be an MP, and he doesn’t for a minute regret it. In fact he is remarkably cheerful, plans to do the job for at least a decade, and hopes for a ministerial post. “I’m not depressed or disillusioned – I want to be here to see if I can change it. I’m desperate to try to use my life to engage with the spirit of the age, and in the end the thing I grumble about – powerlessness – is the essence of the spirit of the age. So the thing I’d be really proud of would be to change the British constitution in a way that unlocked all that untapped energy in this country.”

He caused a bit of a stir recently with an article arguing that children have become “the opium of the masses”, worshiped to the exclusion of all others. Stewart is still childless, having recently married an American he met through his Afghan charity. Does he think he might change his mind? “As every one of my friends who complains about kids behaves exactly the same as everybody else as soon as they have kids, I presume I’m going to be the same,” he grins. What will he make of his article when that happens? “I anticipate thinking that I was probably right, and I could see more clearly before – just as I think I was probably more right about parliament before I was in parliament, and just as I think that when I was 15, and was very judgemental of 40-year-olds, I was right.”

As we’re saying goodbye I ask what became of the biopic. Rumour had it that Orlando Bloom was lined up to play the part of Stewart. “I think,” he says, “becoming a Tory here didn’t help.” Did that spell curtains for the project? He bursts out laughing. “Yes, I think it’s just a phenomenally bad end to a film.”

RORY BACKS CAMPAIGN TO GET PENRITH AND THE BORDER’S SCHOOLCHILDREN TALKING AND LEARNING ABOUT MONEY

Rory has called for local schools to get their pupils talking and learning about money, as part of a charity’s new campaign to help improve the financial capability of young people.

Every primary and secondary school in Penrith and The Border has been sent Get Money Smart posters and teaching materials by national charity PFEG (Personal Finance Education Group), which wants to get children talking about money in the classroom. The charity’s Get Money Smart posters – for children aged up to seven, 11, 14 and 16 – are designed to encourage classroom discussions about things children can do to learn more about money and personal finance.  Ideas for different ages include checking your change, estimating the cost of a weekly shop, comparing mobile phone tariffs and planning and budgeting for a trip. Schools in Penrith and The Border are being encouraged to hold discussions with their pupils over 4 things the posters suggest they can do to learn about money – with the 5th being left up to each class to decide.  Ideas for the 5th activity can then be shared with other classes across the country on Twitter using the #5thingstodo hashtag.

Rory is throwing his weight behind the initiative as a way of helping young constituents to gain the vital skills and knowledge they will need to manage their personal finances throughout their lives.  The move follows news that after years of campaigning by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education for Young People, PFEG and MoneySavingExpert.com’s Martin Lewis, that financial education will be taught in secondary schools as part of the National Curriculum from September 2014.

Rory said: “I strongly support any initiative that gives our children the tools to deal with finance, and to manage their finances in a sensible way. Too often, children grow up and leave home knowing very little about the basics of sound financial management: things like making savings in small ways in order to increase capital for bigger purchases, or budgeting ahead of time. I am really delighted to know about PFEG’s work, and indeed wholeheartedly applaud the government’s decision to incorporate financial education into our National Curriculum, which is excellent news.”

Tracey Bleakley, chief executive of PFEG, said: “We are thrilled to have the support of Rory Stewart for this free new scheme for primary and secondary schools in Penrith and The Border.  I hope all local schools will seize the opportunity to use their Get Money Smart posters to bring money to life in the classroom.  This is a crucial topic that every young person should learn.  Getting pupils talking about money and the financial decisions they will face in the future is a great way to start.”

The campaign has been made possible through a personal donation to PFEG from MoneySavingExpert.com’s Martin Lewis, which has enabled the charity to send free copies of theGet Money Smart posters and teaching resources to primary and secondary schools in the Penrith and The Border area and across the country.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENTS SHOULD BECOME MORE IMPARTIAL

At present, with all development projects, including wind-farms, the various providers for the Impact Assessments, (including issues such as hydrology and wildlife) are all chosen and paid-for by the developer.

This produces an obvious conflict of interest, which is one of the worst sins of governance. He who pays the Piper calls the Tune. And indeed this is what happens. The reports are usually very long and dull (so they are not read too closely by councillors), and are packaged to be independent. But most are in effect geared to helping the paymaster.

Providers of Environmental Impact Assessments are well aware that if their reportPayday Loan doesn’t ultimately help a developer, then they are unlikely to be hired by other developers. Quite apart from the issue of whether the environmental reports are influenced by financial considerations, there remains the ever-present issue that not only should these matters be fair, but they should be SEEN to be fair.

There is an easy solution: Councils, who are dealing with these environmental issues should provide a Preferred Suppliers List. The Developers would have to choose from this list. This would not entirely solve the problem (ultimately the assessments would still be paid by the developer) but it would considerable reduce the issue of Conflict of Interest.

THERE SHOULD BE A STATUTORY MINIMUM DISTANCE FROM LARGE TURBINES TO RESIDENTIAL DWELLINGS

There are two different reasons for this.

First, visual impact, which can wreck a family’s beloved home.

Second, the issue of noise. Although this issue is both complicated and controversial, there is no doubt that some people suffer severely from hotspots of amplitude modulation. This is not such a widespread problem as the landscape issues; but it does in some cases cause very real distress, including loss of sleep and depression. It appears to be a type of thumping, which is far worse in some places than others. When impact assessments are conducted, they often seem to ignore the hotspots online instant no fax payday loans, and just test in areas where the thumping is not so bad.

Lord Reay, before he died , was introducing a bill in the House of Lords on this subject. At one stage he modified the bill after consultation with the government. The latest version of his bill suggested that if a turbine was taller than 25 metres, then there should be a distance of more than 1 kilometre between the turbine and a residential dwelling. If taller than 100 metres, then 1 1/2 kilometres; If taller than 150 metres then 2 kilometres.

These seem very reasonable and uncontroversial suggestions.

WINDFARMS AND LARGE TURBINES SHOULD NOT BE PERMITTED IN DESIGNATED “AREAS OF OUTSTANDING NATURAL BEAUTY”

So far there have been only two windfarms allowed in AONBs. But more applications are arriving. While the main remit of a National Park is quite a wide one, the remit of an AONB is much narrower – to conserve landscape. The key words are “to conserve and enhance NATURAL beauty”.

There is simply no point in designating Areas of Outstanding NATURAL beauty, and paying for all their concomitant bureaucracy, if their landscapes can’t be protected from industrial structures.

IMPROVE THE WELFARE OF POULTRY

A  massive amount of public attention has been devoted to the issue of hunting foxes. Indeed more parliamentary time has been spent on the issue of fox-hunting that on the invasion of Iraq. This attention to fox-hunting , which affected a few thousand foxes, has distracted attention from the horrendous life-long conditions of many millions of farm animals.  The largest numbers of victims are hens, which in their tens of millions have suffered appalling conditions that would deeply shock the public if they ever saw what is happening.

There has been some legislation to improve conditions.  The startling cruel battery cages for hens have been made illegal,  and hens are supposed now to be kept in ‘enriched’ cages.   But they still live in dreadful, unnatural cramped conditions, and for its entire life each hen has hardly more room than a sheet of A4 paper.  The fact that the hens still have to be de-beaked to prevent aggressive feather-plucking and cannibalism is sure evidence that that their cramped conditions are distressing  and extremely unnatural. There is also an exceptionally high incidence of painful problems with weakened bones.

It is only quite recently that the legislation has forced hen farmers to improve conditions, doubtless at considerable expense.  So it would not be fair to oblige the farmers immediately to move to a less cruel system; but we should be moving that way.

The RSPCA has requested that all cages for laying birds should be ended, and that the hens should be housed in a barn or free-range system. And this is something we should be aiming for, even if not immediately.

In fact even the free-range systems need reforming and better regulation. When the supermarkets sell ‘free range’ eggs to the public, many of the purchasers would be shocked to see the conditions of the chickens – very far from a pleasing rustic image of free range. In fact the huge flocks of chickens are sometimes so traumatized that they cower inside their sheds, not daring to venture outside.

It is not only egg- laying birds that suffer. The hens in broiler systems also lead a desperate life.  Some of the broiler units are colossal, with flocks of more than 100,000 birds.  In fact the British  poultry industry
produces a total more than a hundred million birds a year. Most live in horrible conditions, and we should be ashamed at the cruelty being quietly perpetrated on such a massive scale. Why should chickens be any less deserving than foxes?