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Gary's News and views

Gary Streeter MP for South West Devon

Gary writes a weekly article which appears in the Plympton Plymstock and Ivybridge News in South West Devon. The articles are published here.


Wednesday, 28 July 2010

When I was first elected, an old timer overheard me being praised by a minister, pulled me to one side and invested 30 years of wisdom into my life. "During your time in this place," he said, "many people will say nice things to you. And some of them will mean it!" I have never forgotten it.
You could say the same about party manifestos or flagship policies. Sometimes we mean it. I completely understand why people become cynical about political manifestos- words and actions not always in perfect harmony. But one of the big themes in our manifesto at the last election was localism and apparently we mean it! In the autumn the coalition government will bring forward a radical bill devolving power from the centre and the regions to local councils and communities like never before.
Already we have announced the dismantling of regional structures. Regional is simply not local enough. The Regional Spatial Strategy the Regional Development Agency and Government Office South West have all been given their marching orders. This will sadly impact the lives of many dedicated civil servants, but it is a crucial first step if we are to introduce real life changing localism. More freedom for village communities to decide what housing they need and where it goes – all part of the same agenda – has recently been announced.
Councils are being told that they are to have much more discretion to make their own decisions. This is great news for go-ahead authorities and nerve-wracking at the same time. So many decisions in the last two decades have been handed down from Whitehall, so many budgets ring-fenced, that councillors have had little real say-so. All that is about to change.
This will in time mean that more decisions are taken locally which means local communities must be more closely engaged in holding their elected ones to account. Greater responsibility should make the tough, often thankless, task of being a councillor, more attractive.
But it is not just about existing county or district councils becoming more powerful. There is scope also for parish councils to step forward and acquire more control and more resources. So many decisions (for example about the use and maintenance of open spaces and parks) would be better off being taken at the lowest possible level. Step forward parish councils.
No government likes to hand away power – but we said it and apparently we really mean it. Blimey!

posted by Gary @ 08:53  



Thursday, 22 July 2010

Should we ban the burka? For those of us in South West Devon this is a slightly academic argument because the chances of us seeing one walking through Plymstock Broadway anytime soon are remote. Ministers have suggested that it would be somehow un-British to ban it, but what do you think?
It depends surely upon the extent to which we should allow British citizens to retain elements of their religion and culture even though the rest of have legitimate concerns. In some cases, these decisions can be left to local policy makers. The recent decision to install a "squat" toilet at a shopping Mall in Rochdale did nothing for my pulse rate, but I assume that this was requested by a significant minority in that town and if you don't like it you simply don't use that facility.
The burka is different because it is paraded in plain view and creates a reaction in many people. The French Assembly has recently voted to ban it from their public life. Why should we not do the same? Some argue that we have to be tolerant of this harmless display of cultural diversity, others that the outfit oppresses women and should have no place in our society. But what if a woman genuinely chooses to wear it? We do not ban other forms of ridiculous clothing; a walk down Oxford Street at any time of day confirms that! I get the impression that Muslim women themselves are divided over this controversy.
Some extreme aspects of cultural diversity are already illegal: for example forced marriages, although sadly they still exist, and female genital mutilation, although we suspect that this too endures. Does the burka fit into these categories? It is not very British to tell people how to dress.
My starting point is: when in Rome do as the Romans do. We have not in the past placed sufficient demands on immigrant communities to integrate. Certainly we should insist that all British citizens speak reasonable English and know enough about our heritage to have some pride in it. But against this, cultural diversity has many positive dimensions in dance, song and cuisine.
So if this matter comes to a free vote in the House this year, what do you advise me to do? It is not a priority, but I can imagine a private members bill tackling this delicate subject and a decision will have to be made. Help please.

posted by Gary @ 11:10  



Thursday, 15 July 2010

As some of you will know the coalition government has made the decision to protect the budget for overseas aid (now called international development). I support this decision, but recognise that it has a few of you scratching your heads. Why on earth, you ask, are we continuing to pump money overseas when we face severe cutbacks here? After all, you point out, charity begins at home. My own father says this to me every time I see him and I must confess I have been unable to persuade him. Let me try with you.
1. It is in our national interest. Perhaps the greatest threat to our country's security is poverty and instability in the developing world.  Apart from the misery it spawns, abject poverty triggers the mass movement of people (immigration) and fuels terrorism. Anything we can do to encourage good governance and self-reliance will create more stability for all of us.
2. We made a promise in the election campaign. We spelt out in our manifesto that we would protect the overseas aid budget. This was partly to show that our party had changed for the better and partly because we felt it was the right thing to do. On the whole I am in favour of politicians keeping their promises so everybody knows where we stand.
3. Charity does not begin at home. The story of the Good Samaritan was intended to convey precisely the opposite. The victim who got set upon by robbers was a Jew, yet it was a Jew and a Jewish Rabbi who walked by on the other side. It was a foreigner, and a hostile one to boot, the Samaritan, who showed compassion and intervened at his own expense.
4. We are improving the quality of our aid. In the past too much was wasted and creamed off by corrupt politicians and officials overseas. We are now insisting on higher standards and more focus and will only fund initiatives that work. We are reviewing which countries receive our help. As a result we have stopped aid to China and India with immediate effect.
5. Compared to most vast spending budgets the aid budget is a minnow. Even if we broke our promise and trimmed the budget it would not change the dynamic of cuts elsewhere. Even in these tough times, we should be doing our bit to make the world a better place.
Have I convinced you?

posted by Gary @ 18:19  



Thursday, 8 July 2010

In the next few months parents in this area will be consulted about whether the school attended by their little darlings should become an Academy. If there is a flagship policy of the Coalition Government (apart from getting the deficit sorted out and the economy back on track) this is it: allowing schools to become academies.
The first wave is open to any school that has been deemed outstanding by Ofsted, and we have plenty of those in this area both at primary and secondary level.
What are the advantages of becoming an academy school? As the name suggests, this is all about quality. The government wants to give schools the freedom to make many more of its own decisions without the mandarins of Whitehall interfering, on the basis that parents and teachers know best what works for their pupils. Academy schools will float free from any more local authority control, will have the right to decide what it does with its own land and buildings, can borrow in the private banking sector to build and buy the things it wants, will have much more freedom over the curriculum to suit their own community and will have the ability to pay their own teachers and get the best, rather than be stuck with national pay scales. They will have the freedom to pursue their own route to excellence.
For most schools this new policy has many advantages. Self-confident organisations that are the masters of their own destinies tend to make better decisions and produce more with the responsibility thrust upon them. I have rarely seen much benefit from local council interference in our schools. Academies will be able to buy in legal, financial or human resources advice from experts rather than having to live with whatever the council shovels their way.
The plan is also to introduce a pupil premium for those from disadvantaged areas which should encourage the best schools to accept students from all over. This will help raise standards across the board as well as giving children from poorer backgrounds a chance to aspire higher.
I worry about the schools left behind and the provision for special needs and intend to raise these concerns with ministers when the bill, currently chugging through the House of Lords comes to the Commons. I am sure this can be sorted. If you get the chance to have your say, I hope you will go for it!

posted by Gary @ 17:50  



Thursday, 1 July 2010

During the election campaign one gentleman said to me on the doorstep that he did not agree with the idea of a Big Society, he was too busy to do anything other than his job and he wanted government to do everything else. He has a shock coming.
Whether we like it or not, the size of government is going to reduce over the next few years. There is not enough money to sustain such a far reaching presence of the state, so there is no choice. But some of us think this may become a good thing and we should turn a necessity into a virtue.
The idea of a Big Society pre-dates the welfare state during which we have got used to the state doing most things for us. It is the recognition that society is not just about government at the top and individuals at the bottom, but that there is a myriad of organisations in between all helping to create the activity, relationships and structures that make up a healthy social order. This is already obvious – you only have to go to a local fete or community fare to see the zillions of tiny organisations that help keep our communities thriving. Sports clubs, dance and entertainment groups, leisure activities, motor enthusiasts, horticultural gurus, charities promoting so many worthy causes, faith groups, cultural societies and so on; they all help bind us together and get things done. On Sunday, just before the 3pm event that shall never be mentioned, Jan and I attended the 40th anniversary lunch of the Plympton and District Civic society – which has helped to preserve our local heritage all those years. The night before we were at an event organised by the Plympton Community Council which oversees 80 plus smaller groups. The big society is already alive and well in these parts.
As the (often) dead hand of the state is rolled back, the coalition government wants this kind of community activity to strengthen and flourish in the future. Voluntary and charitable groups, often driven by people with a faith motivator, can do an awful lot to care for vulnerable people in our midst, which frankly the state has not been very good at anyway.
The next few years are not just about deficit reduction and getting the economy motoring. We have to inject new life into our welfare dependent state-dominated society. My doorstep friend will not be happy.

posted by Gary @ 09:52