Tuesday, 27 February 2007

New PFI at Southmead - a good deal?

Today marks the next step forward in plans to merge Frenchay and Southmead into a single PFI 'super-hospital' on the Southmead site. Leaving aside the issue of whether Frenchay or Southmead is the better site (on which my views are well known!), and the fact that the new hospital will have significantly fewer beds than the two that it replaces, I am also concerned about using PFI to pay for the hospital.

This is on a number of grounds:

  • PFI can be poor value for money; for one thing, the Government can borrow money much more cheaply than the private sector, so the financing cost of the scheme tends to be higher when it is a PFI deal;

  • There aren't many companies with the expertise to build big new acute hospitals, and the companies that can do so may have limited capacity - so there is unlikely to be vigorous competition between lots of providers for the contract, and that in turn will mean worse value for money;

  • PFI contracts last for decades, which creates real rigidity if health needs change; whereas the NHS can change its own hospitals and the way they run, if your hospital belongs to someone else you probably have to renegotiate the contract if you want something done differently, which again adds to the cost;

  • the National Audit Office have found that some people have got very rich indeed out of PFI hospitals - in one notorious case in Norfolk, the private sector partners got the taxpayer to pay a high interest rate and then effectively 're-mortgaged' at a much lower rate and pocketed most of the difference;

We all agree that the hospitals in North Bristol / South Glos. are in a poor state and need modernisation. But we also surely want the best value for money, not just the approach that keeps the debts off Gordon Brown's balance sheet!

Friday, 23 February 2007

Mortgage rip-off?

I got cross the other day! I saw an advert for a new mortgage product which was boasting about it being the "lowest ever" fixed rate that the Bank had ever offered - just 1.99%. What could be wrong with that?

As ever, there was a catch. First of all, the rate only lasted just over a year and then you switched on to a much higher and, in my view, not very competitive rate. But second, and more important, to qualify for the mortgage you had to pay a fee of £1,999!! Something tells me that the Bank in question were keen to lure people in by the low headline rate, but you'd need to be a genius to work out whether this product was really 'good value for money'.

So I tabled an 'Early Day Motion' about the subject here and it already has signatures from MPs of all parties. BBC Online have picked up on the story here, and I've already had an outraged letter of complaint from the Bank in question. If the result of the negative publicity is to get them to be a bit straighter with their advertising, I think it will have been worth doing.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Houses people can afford to live in

Today at Prime Minister's Questions, Ming Campbell asked about the big growth in the numbers of people on the housing waiting list over the last decade. In reply, the PM said he wasn't sure about the figures but knew they were spending a lot more money (!). Ming pointed out that many families waiting for housing are living in quite unsuitable and substandard accommodation, including many hundreds of thousands of children. The PM said that not only have they spent more money already, they are going to spend even more in the future. This is what passes for parliamentary debate!

I'm glad Ming went on this topic. It never ceases to amaze me how, in a relatively prosperous constituency such as Northavon, there are so many people in housing need of one sort or another. Nearly every week at my surgery I meet people who are about to lose their home (often because a landlord is selling up), can't find anywhere else to rent, and don't stand a chance of a council house or housing association property for years. The best answer, it seems to me, is to ensure that when big (or small) new housing developments take place - such as the new one at Filton Northfield, or at Emersons Green - a much bigger proportion are affordable homes to buy and rent. The developers may make less profit, but with real limits on space for housebuilding in our area, we've got to make sure that the houses that are built are ones that meet local needs.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The 'King of Bloggers'

I went this evening to a meeting entitled 'Politics in the Internet Age' which was addressed by Iain Dale, one of the pioneers of blogging in the UK, and author of one of the most widely read political blogs (www.iaindale.blogspot.com). Iain was at pains to stress that we are very much in the early days of blogging - well behind the US - and didn't want to over-state the importance of this medium. But he did make a point which I think is often missed - people sometimes object to using modern technology to communicate because some people don't have access, but as long as this is only one of the things that you do, and as long as it works for some people - why not?

There's an analogy here with broadcasting. Largely gone are the days when 30 million people gather round a TV set for the big film or the Queen's Christmas message. If you want to communicate with people, you have to do it in lots of different ways. The challenge for those of us involved in public life is to be aware of the different ways that people want to receive information and make their views known, rather than try to force people to fit into our straitjacket.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

What are we doing to our children?

I think there are two possible mistakes to make in response to the recent report on the welfare of children in the UK. One is a fatalistic 'we're all doomed' approach, which says that 'young people today' are out of control, worse than in previous generations, and there is no hope. Plato wrote something similar a few thousand years ago! The alternative mistake is to be complacent. Doing what I do, I meet enough families and children who are having an exceptionally hard time - whether through poverty, insecure housing, family breakdown, ill health or bullying. The reasons for this are many and varied and there is no single solution (though I did highlight a few issues speaking to Michael White of the Guardian - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2013376,00.html) . I certainly think that the Government should be looking much harder at how some of its policies make family life much more difficult, and also at some of its rhetoric which has regarded bringing up young children at home as somehow a second class activity. We already have a long-hours culture in this country which does little for family relationships, and I'm not convinced that plans to force more lone parents to look for paid work are a step in the right direction.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Four abscond from Leyhill - as warned

A pager message from a local newspaper this morning to tell me that four inmates had walked out of Leyhill Open Prison in my constituency. Whilst Leyhill houses many people who have committed very serious offences but who are coming near the end of their sentence, these four all appear to have committed relatively minor offences. Which raises the question - what were they doing at Leyhill in the first place?

The idea of an open prison is a very good one. Prisoners serving long-term sentences become institutionalised, and some have serious offending behaviour that needs to be addressed. An open prison can, over a period of months or years, gradually reacclimatise someone so that when they are finally released they are equipped to survive on the outside and reintegrate into society.

But this valuable work is undermined when open prisons are used as a 'dumping ground' for prisoners for whom no other bed can be found elsewhere in the prison system. Questions I tabled in Parliament found that by Autumn of last year every two or three days prisoners were being sent to Leyhill from other prisons because there was simply not enough space. I do not believe that these were being thoroughly 'risk assessed' for open prison conditions, and today's absconds lend weight to that concern.

There are far too many people in prison system serving largely pointless short-term sentences, where there is no scope for rehabilitation, but sending them to open conditions adds insult to injury. Just another symptom of a prison system at breaking point.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Reforming the House of Lords - easy?

House of Lords reform is one of those topics that sounds straightforward until you try to do it!

I've always thought that, like most of the rest of the world, we should have a main chamber (the House of Commons) whose excesses are reined in by a wholly-elected second chamber which would exist to revise, to question, but not ultimately to block. The tricky thing is how you get from here to there.

This week in the Commons, Jack Straw announced plans for a half-elected, half-appointed House of Lords. Of the appointed peers, 3 out 5 would be 'political' appointees (ie the sort that has got the Government into so much trouble over 'cash for honours') and 2 out of 5 would be appointed via an independent appointments commission. Existing peers would carry on (the only way to get them to vote for reform) but might well be offered generous redundancy terms.

One of the real complications is over what geographical area peers will be elected. You can't have a local 'constituency' like MPs otherwise the roles of the two houses will be hopelessly blurred. But you don't just want a national vote for parties, otherwise the parties just put people at the top of the list who will toe the party line, which is not what you want! So we are likely to end up with votes over a region, with some choice of individual candidate within party lists, and with elections taking place on the same day as the European elections - which, of course, are run on a different voting system! And this is before we get on to the Bishops...

This is one Bill where you wouldn't want to find yourself stuck on the standing committee!

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Pensions injustice

During my time as the Lib Dem pensions spokesman, one of the issues that I got very involved in was the injustice suffered by thousands of people who were members of company pension schemes and who lost some or all of their pensions when their company went to the wall. Although they were repeatedly told that the pension fund was 'ring-fenced' from the company, and despite Govt. literature telling them how 'safe' their pensions were, many lost a large part of their pension. Among other MPs, I referred some cases to the Parliamentary Ombudsman who found in favour of the pension scheme members. Normally, this is enough to spur the Government to action. But on this occasion, incredibly, they refused to accept the verdict of the Ombudsman. This sets an extremely worrying precedent.

Today a judicial review has begun into the issue, and I, for one, hope that these pension scheme members finally get justice. To coincide with the start of the legal case, I joined protesters in Parliament Square to highlight my concerns.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Back from the BBC!

Not sure how long this stays available online (until next Sunday presumably?) but if you want to see how it went you can get the whole show at:


(my bit is right at the end!) - do let me know what you think.

Off to the BBC

I'm writing this on Sunday morning on the train to London, on my way to be quizzed on the Politics Show (BBC1, interview at around 1250 if you see this before the broadcast!) about my role chairing the Lib Dem manifesto writing group. Unusually, I also spent yesterday in London at an all-day session of our Federal Policy Committee, chaired by party leader Ming Campbell, where we were brainstorming about key manifesto policies and themes.

One of the challenges of writing a manifesto is that we have little idea when the election will be! We have to be ready for a snap election later this year (or maybe even sooner given the goings on at No. 10 this week) but my best bet would still be some time in 2009. My sense is that by then there will be a strong mood for change, and the challenge for the Lib Dems is to be seen as emobdying that change better than the alternative.

The danger with switching straight from Labour to the Tories is that you get a change of driver but not a change of direction. In many ways, especially in important areas such as foreign policy, the history of the last ten years would have been the same whether Labour or the Tories had been in power. In terms of domestic policy, we still don't really know what we would get from the Tories - on climate change it's mainly been hot air and photo ops., and I thought hot air was part of the problem, not the solution...

Our next manifesto needs to give people a clear vision of how a Liberal Democrat Britain would be fundamentally different - for example, giving local people real control over local public services, a presumption in favour of protecting people's privacy and personal freedom, action on climate change that reflects the urgency of the problem, and an international approach to international issues such as terrorism and mass migration. I believe we have a good story to tell, but we must tell it much more clearly than we have in the past.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Overcrowded Prisons - One Answer?

When I was first elected as MP for Northavon, I freely admit that I hadn't spent very long inside prisons. But since being elected I've spent quite a bit of time 'inside' - inside HMP Eastwood Park (women's prison), HMP Leyhill (open prison), and HMP & YOI Ashfield (young offenders) - all ofwhich are in my constituency. So I've had to think quite hard about the role of prisons and how to deal with the present prisons crisis.

My view is that prisons are obviously essential for serious and violent criminals, and for those who need to be kept out of circulation for the protection of the public. But it is equally true that we are imprisoning large numbers of people at huge cost to the taxpayer to little or no useful effect.

In particular, every year tens of thousands of people receive sentences of three months or less which are almost certainly counter-productive. In many cases, they will serve no more than 6 weeks in prison. There is no chance of any rehabilitation in that time and no evidence that the prospect of 6 weeks in prison acts as much of a deterrent to anyone - indeed, the evidence is that re-offending rates among this group are astronomical. What it does mean is that people who have committed relatively minor offences get to meet lots of criminals, and we need to spend billions of pounds building new prisons to keep them all.

Surely a better alternative would be to get rid of these very short sentences pretty much completely? If people have done something serious or are a danger to the public then they should be sentenced to more than 3 months inside anyway. And if not, then why not give them a serious community sentence of perhaps double the length of the time they would have served inside. Get them to do something useful outside, instead of paying a fortune to keep them inside. Seems like a good deal to me.