Issues

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Background

Reforming GCSEs
11th June
2013

  

This week the Government announced a change to GCSEs to make them more rigorous for students and more understandable for employers.

It is important in the debate over how to ensure higher standards that we do not denigrate students who work hard, particularly those sitting GCSEs at the moment. They can only sit the exams in front of them, after all, and we should celebrate their achievements. But it is widely acknowledged that the system can better serve both students and employers alike.

Grade inflation is a real problem, which we ignore at our peril. The proportion of students achieving the top grade has rocketed in recent decades. Teaching has obviously advanced over the same period but even allowing for this it is hard to reconcile the increase.

In the long term it does a disservice to the students themselves to allow a muddle where prospective employers struggle to tell the difference between dozens of candidates who all boast the top grade. For those lower down the grade scale, the skills they leave school with are often not adequate to the needs of the workforce. Many employers report the need to teach remedial English and Maths skills to school leavers who according to the current exam system are already qualified. We must allow the brightest to shine out. One way to do this would be to bring back capping grade boundaries so only a certain percentage can achieve the top marks.

Academic rigour is at the core of the proposed changes to GCSEs. There has been a drift over recent years towards GCSEs being based more on modular chunks and coursework than a thorough and retrospective examination of what has been learned over the two years of study. Putting an end to the culture of re-sits and taking exams at the end of each term’s module will help ensure that a student’s final mark reflects the totality of their learning. Children should leave school with the grades they merit and have worked for, not those they have been intensively and artificially coached to achieve.

Stretching students by extending the length of essays can only be a positive move, too. Children must be encouraged to appreciate the need to properly express themselves rather than be confined to short form answers. This emphasis on fluency should include oral communication. Reading, writing and counting should be supplemented by speaking. A value should be placed not just on the way a student writes but on their ability to present themselves and their ideas clearly and in proper English when speaking.

We should not be afraid of challenging students. Not doing so would be a dereliction of duty to them and to their potential employers. The questions we ask them should be more stretching and encourage more independence of thought and expression rather than a regurgitation of formulae and quotes. A thorough, rigorous and demanding new approach to GCSEs is the best way to achieve this.

 

Queen's Speech
13th May
2013

 

Last week saw the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Amongst all the pomp and pageantry and the horses and carriages, it is the Queen’s Speech that is really at the heart of the day, setting out the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming session of Parliament.

This year’s was rather shorter than previous ‘Gracious Speeches’, primarily because so many of the key reforms have already been passed by Parliament and are now taking effect out in the real world. Education and health reforms have already hit the ground running, with both policies transferring huge swathes of power away from the centre and into the hands of professionals themselves.

That is not to say there is nothing left to do.

Everything contained in the Queen’s Speech is about consolidating the financial position of the country and continuing to lay the groundwork for improved economic performance. So we will see steadfastness on getting the deficit (the shortfall between what we spend as a country and what we raise in revenue) brought further under control. The slow process of cutting red-tape will also continue, so that we can harness creativity and enterprise rather than drown it in paperwork.

At the heart of the agenda remains a sense of rewarding those who do the right thing and reversing the unfairness that had been allowed to creep into our system. Capping and simplifying the benefits system is central to this, but so too are measures to deal with anti-social behaviour that sees repeat offenders blight communities with apparent impunity. Equally important within crime policy is a revolution in the way that we as a country treat re-offending, with the emphasis shifted firmly onto payment-by-results. We will see reforming legislation on this issue come before Parliament shortly.

We are aiming to make things easier for people who want to start their own business or buy their own home. Similarly, plans will be brought in to help both the young and the elderly, with improved access and support for decent childcare and reforms to the way that long term care for the elderly is paid for, so that people don’t have to face a choice between getting the care they need and selling their house to fund it.

Of course not everything the Government does actually needs legislation and so many policies and aims simply continue. There is much to respond to over the next two years, not least the referendum on Scottish independence. In the run-up to polling day the Government and the cross-party ‘Better Together’ campaign will be relentlessly making the case for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom, while allowing the Scots themselves to make the final decision.

Fundamental change to re-balance our lopsided economy will take more than a year and indeed more than a Parliament to achieve, but we continue to make progress. The Queen’s Speech is about continuing the long and difficult road to recovery. The measures outlined in it will see us a few more steps down that road.

 

Reforming Welfare
30th April
2013

 

This week saw the launch of the first stage of the implementation of Universal Credit.

Reform is always a controversial process, with individual details and quirks picked over endlessly by opponents. But the principle that we need to do something to get our welfare bill under control is undeniable.

Our annual output on social protection, which includes welfare payments, is £220 billion- almost a third of everything the government spends. This is simply unsustainable.

Those who attempt actually to do something to make work pay more than benefits are often shouted down as being uncaring, as if it were caring to have no qualms about leaving people to a life on welfare.

The Universal Credit is about simplifying the way in which claimants experience the welfare state. The minefield of payments has in the past verged on the unintelligible. People need to know what they are entitled to, and be able to receive it in a way that makes sense.

Reforming a behemoth like welfare is something to be done with care and in stages, to make sure it is delivered properly. That is why this week sees only a very small group of people making the transition to Universal Credit in Ashton-under-Lyne. This will be followed by Wigan, Warrington and Oldham from July. Taking such a sensible and incremental approach should allow JobCentre professionals to identify the teething problems before the system is rolled out nationwide. It will take until 2017 to get Universal Credit fully established, but it is a
change that is both necessary and crucial to get right.

There are a million more private sector jobs than there were at the time of the last election and unemployment has thankfully not rocketed as it has in previous economic downturns. One need only look at the eye watering 27% rate in Spain to appreciate just how much worse things could be.

Youth unemployment is similarly tragic, wherever it occurs. The numbers here are falling, but the can still do so faster. Yet figures released this week show that nearly one in four young people in the eurozone are out of work. In Spain that figure is 50%.

In this context, the national UK rate of 7.8% seems tame. But of course it feels anything but tame to those who are stuck out-of-work and want desperately to get back into it.

In Rutland & Melton we are comparatively lucky, with only 2.4% unemployment, which remains among the lowest of all constituencies.

We should be relentless in trying to get these rates as low as possible. But we should also be assiduous in making sure that it always pays more to be in work than on benefits. We should shun some of the unhelpful rhetoric that demonises all claimants, but seek to wean people off a life wasted on benefits.

The Universal Credit system, along with the Work Programme and the Benefit Cap, is another way of bringing our welfare bill under control.

  

Paying Tribute to Margaret Thatcher
15th April
2013

 

This week the country will stop for a morning to pay its respects to one of its greatest Prime Ministers, the late Margaret Thatcher.

It is inevitable with the passing of such a towering and often controversial figure that there would be much discussion about her policies, approach and legacy. My own opinion is clear and in line with the electorate of the time, who never voted her out of office. I believe
that Mrs Thatcher reversed what would otherwise have been the terminal decline of Britain and turned us into a competitive and stronger nation with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose.

It would be churlish to pretend that this is a view held universally throughout the country, however. Many of those who placed themselves on the opposite side of the political divide feel unable to give any ground in their opposition to both the woman and her policies, even in
death. 

This in itself goes some way to shining a light on the sheer uniqueness of Margaret Thatcher. Very few people find themselves indifferent towards her. To her this was the ultimate proof that she has actually done something while in office, rather than merely said something.
Much of the bitterness of those who, two decades after she left office, continue to lower the tone of the debate about her legacy stems from their own frustration at having been proven wrong. The sluggish, grey and stultifying Britain of the 1970s is, thankfully, a distant memory and those who bemoan the direction in which the country was taken under Mrs Thatcher would do well to avoid looking at the era of the winter of discontent, where bodies went unburied and rubbish uncollected, through rose-tinted glasses.

I entered the House of Commons the year that Mrs Thatcher departed, at the 1992 election, and so never had the pleasure of serving in her government. Yet the imprint that she made on Parliament was evident last week when so many current MPs of all parties rose to pay their
tributes to her. I was fortunate enough to meet her on several occasions since becoming an MP and took great pride in welcoming her to Belvoir Castle in 1996, an occasion that those who were there still remember fondly.

Margaret Thatcher was a testament to the power of hard work and the importance of meritocracy. The fact that she was the first woman ever to occupy Downing Street is of course of huge significance in itself. To have done so by rising through the ranks of the Conservative Party of the 1970s makes this an even more impressive accomplishment. But Mrs Thatcher never defined herself solely against her gender. It was a fact, neither overly limiting or entirely emancipating. What mattered to her was her faith in her own convictions, policies and leadership and whether they would bring the positive change that the country so desperately needed.

It is my firm view that it was this strength of character and leadership that turned Britain around. And so on Wednesday morning I will be in St Pauls Cathedral to mark the passing of the greatest peacetime Prime Minister this country has ever known.

 

Arms Trade Treaty will make world a safter place
2nd April
2013

 

This week in New York, the UK has been continuing to lead the campaign for a strong treaty to regulate the sale of weapons throughout the world.

As Minister for International Development I was involved in the last set of negotiations at the UN back in July, where we came extremely close to striking a deal on the text of the agreement. In the coming days we will, hopefully, have got even closer to a workable solution.

Last week three countries- Iran, Syria and North Korea- blocked the adoption of the draft Arms Trade Treaty for predictable reasons. But, although the treaty will now not have unanimous support, there will be a vote in the General Assembly which will start the process of bringing it into effect. The Treaty will need to be passed by a simple majority of the 193 countries that make up the General Assembly and ratified by at least 50 members to bring it into force.

The idea of a proper form of international regulation of the arms trade has been around for years, and it is as vital now as when the debate about how to do it first started.

Armed violence costs the lives of over 740,000 men, women and children every year. But only a third of these deaths occur in countries that are officially in conflict. Unregulated firearms pour into some of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world with devastating consequences. They are transported across often porous borders without the necessary scrutiny. The UK and its co-authors of the Arms Treaty are determined to do something about this.

It is crucial from a humanitarian and development point of view. Without doing something to tackle violence, counties will never achieve the stability and self-sufficiency they need to provide for their people. How can children be properly educated when the threat of violence
means they can’t get to school in the first place? It is the same for healthcare. The fact is that about two thirds of the countries least likely to achieve global development goals are in the midst of, or emerging from, conflict.

In Britain we have a defence industry that is among the most strongly controlled and monitored in the world. Sadly many other
countries do not live up to these standards and it is imperative that we do not stand by and let weapons get into the wrong hands without lifting a finger to make their sale difficult or better yet impossible.

The draft text of the Arms Trade Treaty has been a long time coming and is the result of tireless negotiation and diplomacy, especially from the UK and the other countries who have been leading the efforts: Australia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Finland, Japan, and Kenya.

I very much hope that by the end of this week we will have seen a majority vote in favour of the Arms Trade Treaty. Progress on such a complicated, controversial and international scale is always slow, frustrating and incremental, but this week has the potential to mark another key step forward.

  

Debt, Deficit and Pre-Budget Context
19th M
arch 2013

 

Broadly speaking, in 2012/13 the state spent £683 billion, but only brought in £592 billion. This is where the deficit comes into play. Last year we spent over £90 billion more than we earned. It is clearly unsustainable to continue to do this indefinitely, but the gap has been closing since 2010.

Importantly, the deficit is not the same as the debt. The deficit is the difference between what we spend and what we raise. So long as there is a deficit of any sort the debts will inevitably go up. So getting down the deficit is the first step towards reducing the debt. But until you can bring in a surplus, you can’t get to grips with the debt. Sadly we are a long way away from bringing in a surplus. We expect public sector debt to peak at just over 75% in 2014/15, before falling slightly. At the moment, therefore, we are attempting to plug the black hole.

We have made good progress, too, cutting the deficit that we inherited by a quarter in three years. This is no mean feat and has meant tough decisions about not just where we have to save money, but how we want the state to look at the end of the process of fiscal consolidation.

But what does it look like now?

To take one example, our welfare bill accounts for £200 billion, or around 30%, of the £683 billion we spend. That is a drain on competitiveness and we need to continue to look for ways to make it easier for businesses to employ people, taking them off state support, into the private sector and turning them into contributors to national income, rather than recipients. This not to demonise those looking for work, as times are indeed tough, but we have still seen a million more private sector jobs created since the election. They key is continuing this trend.

Yet the deficit and debt remain rather abstract concepts to most people. It is easier to see only the cut backs and not the reason for making them.

So, to put it into context, the government spends about £45 billion on debt interest. That is more than we spend on policing; on housing and the environment; on industry; on transport; even on defence. And, just to underline the point, we have the fourth highest defence budget in the entire world.

We can always expect to have debts that need paid off, so we cannot think we will eradicate this permanently. But the interest on these debts it is now such an enormous portion of government expenditure that we simply have to get on top of how much we spend compared to how much we raise.

It might seem like numbers on a chart, but the figures are huge and have real life implications. The importance of getting to grips with them cannot be overstated.

 

Four More Years
22nd November 2012

 

Since my last article, the results of the US Presidential Election have come in, returning Barack Obama to the White House. His victory was, in the end, much more comfortable than many expected and avoided a long and protracted wrangle over close margins in the swing states that so often determine the contests.

The reaction from the rest of the world, broadly speaking, seemed to be one of relief at continuity rather than euphoria at change. There can be no doubt that Obama’s original election victory was laced with much more potency and significance, not to mention genuine optimism around those words ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Nevertheless, while Obama’s domestic popularity has, quite expectedly, been dampened by the hard realities of office as opposed to his upstart candidacy, he still enjoys enviable favourability in Europe and much of the wider world.

The major posts in the new administration will be announced after the Americans have finished their Thanksgiving turkeys, with previous presidential candidate John Kerry hotly tipped to take over as Secretary of State from the outgoing Hillary Clinton. Having known John Kerry personally for many years, it will be interesting to see who ends up taking this one of the most significant roles in the government.

The UK Government would of course have worked with whoever had won the election, but the re-election of Obama brings up some interesting similarities and contrasts for our side of the pond. Most significant perhaps is that the American electorate chose to stick with the incumbent despite the tough economic cloud that has hovered over his first term. Obama was elected just as the financial storm broke over the country in 2008 and his work has been dominated by the economy. Recoveries across the western world have been more sluggish and jerky than anyone would wish, but the voters recognised the horrendous inheritance that the President was presented with when he arrived in the Oval Office for the first time and gave him the benefit of the doubt in allowing him to continue.

This sheer volume of money that is spent in US elections is of course one of the main
differences, dwarfing as it does what gets put into elections in this country. This huge expenditure, however, can breed a level of negative campaigning and partisanship on all sides that isn’t conducive to co-operation once the hostilities are over. I think we can be broadly pleased that we don’t see the kind of viciousness between the major parties in this country, to the extent indeed that we have been able to see two parties come together to govern in the national interest.

In any case, now that the dust has settled on another contest in America, the work of
governing in prose, rather than campaigning in poetry, starts again in earnest, and it will be interesting to see what it brings for America and the rest of the world.

 

PCC Elections are a real opportunity
8th November 2012

 

Next Thursday for the first time ever we will have the chance to have a democratic say over who oversees our local police force.

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will replace the old, councillor-led Police Authorities and provide a voice for local people. They will open up police forces, making them more accountable for the policies and strategies they follow.

If you hadn’t heard of Police Authorities before, then you are not alone. This in itself is part of the reason why greater accountability and accessibility is needed at the top of the Police. Police and Crime Commissioners will provide exactly that. They will be visible, high-profile and elected presences at the top of each police force outside London (where the Mayor of London already has responsibility for overseeing the Met). PCCs will focus on how best to ensure value for money, how to reflect the wishes of the local people they represent and how to hold the police to account when they need to be.

Chief Constables will continue to run their constabularies, but the newly elected Commissioners will provide renewed transparency and a real link to the local communities in which the Police carry out their work. Leicestershire and Rutland’s PCC will work with the Chief Constable (currently the excellent Simon Cole) to manage the region’s budget, policing policies and priorities.

In Leicestershire and Rutland we have three candidates vying for the new post: Sir Clive Loader (Cons), Sarah Russell (Lab) and Suleman Nagdi (Independent). Regardless of who has convinced you of their merit over the past months of campaigning, however, the crucial thing is that as many people as possible get out and actually vote. The turnout for the recent hustings in Rutland County Museum gave the lie to the idea that no-one is interested in this election. Yet there has been a degree of apathy across the country towards next Thursday’s poll that I am sure Rutland can counter. We should not take for granted the opportunity of putting someone at the head of the police force that we choose.

These elections and the new positions are of course still new and developing. They will ultimately be what the people who are elected make of them. A democratic mandate will in itself be an empowering spur towards this and I hope that once the new PCCs have had a chance to demonstrate the impact that they can make in their new roles  public awareness and confidence in the new style of management will increase. 

Police and Crime Commissioners are another concrete example of localism in action and I would encourage all those who want to feel more closely connected to a more accountable local police force to get down to the polls and have their say.

 

 

Protecting Patient Care
25th October 2012

Rutland is a fantastic little county, which despite its size still manages to provide big things for the people who live here. One area in which we are particularly well-served is healthcare.

Patterns of healthcare, however, are changing and practices need to adjust to change with them. Oakham Medical Practice alone has over 16,000 patients under its care, and with people living longer lives there is undoubtedly a steady rise in the scale of the pressures facing doctors. Many people need to see their doctor more regularly as they get older, but with advances in medical science the things they need to see them for are often more predictable and more easily treatable. In addition to people living longer, Oakham is continuing to grow in size, bringing more potential patients for the local GPs to care for. Health services will find themselves put under a greater burden as a result.

Full marks, then, to Oakham Medical Practice, who will next month introduce a revamped appointments system to help deliver effective care to their patients- and do so faster. Patients who phone the practice can expect a call back on the same day from the doctor themselves, rather than a receptionist. The doctor will be able to assess the patient over the phone in the first instance, rather than have them come into the surgery in person when they might not need to. The doctor will then advise them of the best course of action and whether they need to see the nurse or the doctor. If the patient needs an appointment then they will be booked in there and then on the phone. The doctor’s time will be much better spent and patients will no longer need to make unnecessary visits, or wait before knowing where they stand.

This is an approach that has been tried and tested elsewhere in the country and I would encourage all those served by the practice to get behind the idea. As with any new system it may take a little while for everyone to become familiar with it, but I am confident that it will lead to a good practice in Oakham becoming even better.

It is important that we put our trust in the professionals themselves to come up with the solutions they feel will improve the level of service they are able to provide us with. The new appointments system at Oakham Medical Practice is an example of this in action and, having met the doctors to discuss the plans, I am confident that it is the best way of dealing with the increasing number of patients and the frequency of visits. Oakham can be an example to other areas of the country of how to deal sensibly and cost-effectively with patient numbers while maintaining the excellent levels of care that we are lucky to enjoy.

 

Happy where I am
29th September 2012

Reshuffles are particularly Westminster bubble affairs, even by the normal standards of politics. Across Whitehall and Parliament rolling live blogs and news websites are constantly refreshed by staffers and political anoraks eager to see what the latest changes are. Yet outside of Westminster, they tend to pass unnoticed by most people. Indeed, they have been described by some as ‘someone you don’t know replacing someone you hadn’t heard of doing a job you didn’t realise existed.’ While this may be a slightly uncharitable view, it is fair to say that action rather than process is of more interest to people’s day-to-day experience of politics.

That is why I am pleased to have been asked to remain in my current position as Minister of State for International Development, getting on with the work I have been doing over the past two and a half years in government. To that end, I was recently in Saudi Arabia at a summit discussing a country I have had particular involvement with during my time at the Department for International Development: Yemen.

The Donor Conference, which I attended on behalf of the Government, was a joint endeavour with the Gulf Cooperation Council (a kind of Gulf EU) countries, the World Bank and other interested states. In total the Conference managed to secure $6.4 billion for this desperately poor and troubled country. Yemen has long been of concern to its neighbours and the development world, which worry about its systemic poverty and the security implications of any future increase in instability. Yemen already has the highest poverty levels in the Middle East, and faces a range of deep-seated development challenges including significant corruption; food and water shortages; high population growth; and almost non-existent social service provision. On-going conflict in the north and the south of the country has displaced thousands of civilians and put some areas of the country beyond effective state control.

Over the last few months, we’ve put together a package of support which will underpin the Yemeni economy, direct funds into infrastructure, and will urgently address Yemenis’ basic needs such as healthcare, education and access to sanitation. Britain is an important friend of Yemen and we recognise the need to be proactive rather than reactive in helping it to deal with the manifold pressures that it faces.

This is the bread and butter of the work that I have been leading since 2010 and an example of how our development spending can make a tangible difference to the lives of real people in real poverty and deprivation. Much continues to be written about this Government’s commitment to the pledges it has made regarding our aid budget, including to me by constituents, but I reiterate my belief in the good that it does for the people that benefit from it and the importance that preventing countries from sliding into lawlessness can have in ensuring stability and security.

This is why I was pleased to be asked to stay in place and why I am happy to report that in the Department for International Development the important work goes on and our commitment to accountable, transparent and effective development work remains intact.

A right to defend yourself
10th September 2012

The arrest of Andy and Tracey Ferrie last week reopened a national debate about the lengths people are permitted to go to in order to defend themselves and their property.

Having spoken out strongly in their defence as their MP, I was very pleased at the news that they will not face prosecution. They have been entirely exonerated and can walk away with their heads held high, knowing they acted proportionately, reasonably and within the law.

I have been inundated with messages, not just from constituents, in favour of the stance I took in their defence after their arrest. This was a straightforward case of a couple being awoken in the middle of the night by broken glass and unwelcome intruders. We must have all asked ourselves last week: ‘How would I react?’ Certainly with fear, but also with instinctive self-defence. This is how Mr Ferrie responded but, crucially, he shot to warn not to maim.

 The message that we must send out bold and underlined is that it is the burglars who are the criminals, not the victims. A burglar makes an active choice to break the law; the victim is the unwilling target.

I do not, however, subscribe to the view that a burglar, in breaking the law, puts himself entirely outside its protection. It would clearly be wrong to deliberately shoot to kill, for example, or to act disproportionately. Equally, a loaded gun under the pillow, kept expressly for the purposes of self-defence, is not an acceptable option. We have extremely tough gun laws in this country, and rightly so. I would not want to see us be like the United States, where laws permitting concealed weapons to be carried have had no effect on reducing the levels of gun crime. Indeed, quite the opposite. Vigilantism is never the answer, no matter what the circumstances.

Yet these caveats do not apply to the case of Mr and Mrs Ferrie. The police are satisfied that this was not a calculated or over-the-top response. Indeed, we shouldn’t forget that this is actually a case of the law working. The only negative aspect is of course that they both had to go through three days of uncertainty and deep anxiety before the investigations were completed, for which they have my total sympathy.

The most important aspect, from my point of view when I learned of their arrest, was that their case should be resolved swiftly and not drag on. That is why I entered the debate at a national level and I am glad that this, and the media scrutiny surrounding the story, helped exert pressure on the police not to dawdle.

In November we will be electing, for the first time, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) to oversee the running of the local force. In my view, Rutland has the best candidate in the country in Sir Clive Loader, who understands discipline from his time as an Air Chief Marshal in the RAF and also when and where to use a weapon. PCCs will be a strong voice for local opinion in cases like this and Sir Clive a great asset for Rutland.

In the meantime, I hope that Mr and Mrs Ferrie will in time be able to put their ordeal behind them and that they will be comforted by the knowledge that their records remain rightly spotless.

Olympic legacy
8th August 2012

Well, that’s that. From euphoria to agony, tears to laughter, the past two weeks have brought all kinds of emotions to the country as we have played host to the greatest show on earth. London has been the capital of the world since the start of the Olympics. The eyes of the world have been fixed on us as they sent their best athletes to compete at the pinnacle of their sports. And Britain has more than delivered.

Best of all has been the quite incredible performance of the British athletes. Last time out in Beijing there was a sense that we had done fantastically to reach fourth in the standings, but to come third only to the sporting superpowers of China and America was truly staggering. Our haul of 29 gold medals eclipses anything in the modern era and has created a new generation of legends, from Farah to Pendleton, Hoy to Ennis. The success that kept on coming bred a confident and expectant attitude that we are frankly not used to in this country. We were expecting excellence, and the athletes delivered. And refreshingly, we saw athletes full of modesty and unpretentious charm, with regional accents and from diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about these games was the spirit in which they took place. The quite extraordinary spirit of volunteerism that we had perhaps thought had fizzled out over the past decades was back in fantastic fashion. You could not move in London without seeing a cheerful and helpful ‘Games Maker’ decked out in purple and pink. They were the face of the games, of London and Britain and we can be proud of the way they helped us to greet the world.

Seb Coe, the Organising Committee and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have to be commended for the way in which everything came together. In the weeks leading up to the games there was the usual drip feed of pessimistic scaremongering about how London was not up to the job. Union-baron-in-chief Bob Crow was particularly vocal in confidently predicting the collapse of a transport network that he claimed could not take the extra strain. He has been uncharacteristically quiet over recent days. For the infrastructure stood up to the added demand and London proved it was up the job.

The crucial, final piece of the jigsaw is of course legacy. The word has been on everyone’s lips from the moment the Olympic cauldron so elegantly dismantled itself and was extinguished. We must make sure that we see the Olympics not just as something that happened over a fortnight, but that spurs a generation of young people to take up sport. It must serve as the catalyst for a long-term legacy. Not only in sport, either. Britain has perhaps never before put itself in the shop window as it has these past weeks. Business must continue to build on the attractiveness of Britain to investors and potential customers abroad. We have laid the foundations with these games, now it is time to follow through.

It was of course sad to see the flame go out last Sunday, knowing we are unlikely to see it back again in our lifetimes, but the Games have left us with some unforgettable memories, a renewed sense of national unity and a real sense of purpose and optimism for the future. And that is a pretty good legacy in itself.

Let the Games begin!
30th July 2012

What a start! The almost universally positive response to Friday’s Opening Ceremony has provided the perfect feel good factor to kick off the Olympic Games. In a few hours of near perfect spectacle Danny Boyle managed to do what so many commentators and politicians have devoted hundreds of thousands of words trying to achieve: he summed up what it is to be British in the 21st Century.

We saw an appreciation of our green and pleasant heritage, with genteel games of cricket played out amongst turning waterwheels and flocks of sheep. Re-creating this scene in such a hi-tech stadium could have ended up feeling twee or incongruous, but somehow it didn’t. The transformation of the lush Jerusalem into the dark and imposing satanic mills of Industrial Revolution Britain, under the supervision of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was truly spectacular, columns rising and rivers of liquid metal flowing through the stadium like a red hot Thames.

Above all, the ceremony was fun, esoteric and unashamedly British. You couldn’t help but feel that although the vast majority of the watching audience was overseas, it was designed first and foremost for us Brits. So much has been said about the spectacular, supposedly unbeatable Beijing ceremonies. What could we do to top it? Yet where the Chinese display felt monolithic, London’s felt human. The eccentricities of the British character were celebrated, rather than seen as something to feel embarrassed about. Not for us the bombast of the 1984 Los Angeles games, or the rampant commercialism of Atlanta 1996. Instead there was something honest and keenly self-aware about the production. Our habit of pricking pomposity and not taking ourselves too seriously was writ large throughout. Mr Bean accompanying the London Symphony Orchestra was a prime example. Comedy mixed with artistic ability to perfection. And, of course, the Queen walking side by side with James Bond through the corridors of the Palace. Surely the highlight of the ceremony and proving beyond doubt that Her Majesty has a tremendous sense of humour, the sight of ‘the Queen’ parachuting from a helicopter high above the stadium was a masterstroke.

The overriding feeling once it was over was pride at having pulled it off. Too often we do ourselves down and, over the last few weeks it has felt as if some parts of the media are actively seeking out transport or logistical chaos. The ceremony came off without a hitch on the night, and there was a sense of renewed confidence about our ability to host theses games in the best, and most British, way possible. The excitement of the past few weeks, as crowds lined the streets in Melton, Oakham, Uppingham and Stamford to watch the Olympic Torch pass by, made clear that we are determined to support these games and the British athletes competing in them.

The reaction of the rest of the world, so far, has been positive too. They saw on Friday night what we think of ourselves in Britain and liked what they saw. I am sure that the next fortnight will leave no doubt in their minds about our ability and determination to host these games. And to win a bucket load of medals along the way. Let the games begin!

 

 

 

Parliament is in recess but the work will go on
24th July 2012

We have now reached the end of the Parliamentary year. Some say that MPs will be tanning themselves and taking a long break. For the Government, which is overseeing the Olympics, the summer recess will offer relatively few opportunities for prolonged relaxation.

Only last week, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister announced £9 billion of infrastructure spending to improve our railways. One beneficiary will be the Midlands Main Line, which will at last be electrified. Journey times will be shortened and reliability improved.

This investment does not simply enhance long-term productivity. Short-term economic performance is also important. The national economic picture is a troubling one, and high world commodity prices and the ongoing crisis on the European continent are doing us more harm than good.

Working to increase capital spending, re-designing banking regulation to protect the taxpayer, toughening up on immigration rules, introducing the welfare cap, improving NHS performance for the benefit of patients and leading the world on international development remain at the forefront of the Government’s agenda.

The Olympics and Paralympics are a huge logistical challenge which crosses all Government departments. They are not simply about sport; they are an opportunity to attract business investment and tourism to our country. During the Games, I will be participating in trade meetings, along with other Government departments, to help secure contracts for British businesses wishing to export and foreign businesses looking to invest.

Meanwhile, the UK remains committed to facilitating countries around the world to make their transition to democracy. In Egypt and Tunisia, progress has been made but more needs to be done. The bloodshed in Syria demands our diplomatic attention, and we continue to lobby our partners at the United Nations and through other multilateral forums.

Behind the gossip and innuendo which so often dominate the headlines – who said what and to whom – this is a busy time in politics. We are working hard to fix the economy, but the circumstances in which we find ourselves leave us without a quick fix. There is no silver bullet.

Beyond the Westminster bubble, I am sure people understand this. Claims that our economic difficulties have been caused

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