Jack Straw: We need to get on track and campaign for extra rail links

THERE is less traffic on the roads today than there was eight years ago.

Few will believe me. But it’s true.

Across the country, total traffic (measured by ‘vehicle miles’) is down about two per cent in this period. But the regional differences are striking.

In the North West there’s been a three per cent reduction.

In London the drop has been almost nine per cent.

It’s so great that it’s really tangible. One main road between my London home and the Commons used often to be clogged up. Now there are many more people travelling along it by bus or bike than by car.

The reason? A virtuous circle has been created. Car commuting in central London has been discouraged by a £10.50 per day ‘Congestion Charge’. That money has gone on huge improvements to the bus service. London and the South East have taken the lion’s share of the billions of public spending on rail. In turn this investment has helped London’s economy grow faster than anywhere else in the UK.

Meanwhile, as I know from constituents’ complaints, and my own experience as a regular traveller on local services to Preston and Manchester, we in East Lancashire have to put up with less reliable, less frequent, often overcrowded services, and on thirty year old ‘Pacer’ trains – a Leyland bus body on a coal wagon chassis.

Improvements are in hand, it’s true. The Todmorden curve, to link Burnley direct to Manchester is already installed. Track doubling between Blackburn and Bolton should be completed by 2016, to allow for a regular half hour service all day.

But, despite these improvements, I worry that East Lancashire will be left behind. Elsewhere in the North West – Manchester/Bolton/Blackpool for example – electrification is already under way. There are still questions whether we’ll get additional trains (they won’t be new, for sure) to run extra services on our local lines.

My conclusion: we need to campaign now for electrification to be extended east from Preston to Colne, north from Bolton to Clitheroe. It would greatly help our economy – and cut those traffic jams.

Jack Straw:Bringing people back to face justice was right step

IN July 1995 a gas bottle exploded at a Paris Metro station, killing eight and wounding 80.

A key suspect was Rachid Ramda. He was arrested in London in November 1995, on an extradition warrant from the French, accused of funding, and part-organising the plots. He denied any involvement (as he has continued to do).

Mr Ramda was not finally transferred to France until December 2005, ten years after his arrest.

He and his lawyers spent the intervening period making every conceivable legal argument as to why he would never get a fair trial in France. As Home Secretary, the case landed on my desk more than once.

I did everything I could – as my successors did too – to ensure that he did get sent back to France, and he stayed in jail meanwhile in England. We managed this in the end – though at times it was touch and go whether British judges would set Mr Ramda free.

Despite his continued denials, Mr Ramda was convicted by a French court, receiving the maximum 10 year sentence. I thought it was ludicrous that we could allow such challenges to the fairness, not of some banana republic’s legal system, but that of a country – France – at least as advanced as ours. These days, such nonsense couldn’t happen. We have the European Arrest Warrant (EWA), which means that extradition for serious offences in the European Union is now a straightforward matter.

It cuts both ways. Many criminals wanted in the UK have been brought back to face justice – including some in East Lancashire. Before the EWA, some of these could sit it out, for example in the “Costa del Crime”, in Spain, living it up on the proceeds of crime, mocking their victims.

There have inevitably been some problems with the EWA – especially where it has been used for relatively minor offences. They can, and are being sorted out. But they are no reason for turning the clock back to the days when terrorist suspects, or drug barons could avoid paying the penalties for their crimes.

Jack Straw: It is time the international community did not just mouth words

 

There was an historic vote in the House of Commons on Monday.

By 274 votes to just 12 against, the Commons resolved “that this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.”

The last section was added by me, with the agreement of the mover of the motion. As well as the overwhelming vote, the debate was significant for wide cross-party support.

The fact that the Israeli Embassy invested so much abortive effort to see the motion kicked into touch underlines its importance.

When I first became interested in the Middle East, in the 60s, international sympathy lay very much on the side of Israel. The left, especially, was on Israel’s side in the 1967 “six-day” war.

The events of the last 40 years have, changed that basic assumption and Monday’s debate was illustrative of that fact.

Much of the international community is now, bluntly, fed up of Israel saying one thing about a so-called “two-state solution” (by which both a state of Israel and Palestine is established and recognised) and then proceeding illegally to annex more Palestinian land. Each time they do so making the chances of a settlement along those lines ever more unlikely.

On top of that, the conflict in Gaza over the summer, in which Israel employed disproportionate force, leading to the deaths of over 2000 Palestinians, compared to around 70 Israelis, has damaged the international respect for the Netanyahu Administration still further.

Of course Israel retains a strong ally in the US. All who spoke in the Commons on Monday fully support an Israeli state – but within agreed borders. It is time that the international community did not just mouth words about a state of Palestine, and took action to ensure a two state solution remains possible. That, in my judgement, was the purpose and effect of Monday’s debate. While the vote does not bind the UK Government it does, however, send a powerful message.

Jack Straw: Whirlwind of change since first conference.

Jack Straw: Whirlwind of change since first conference

First published Thursday 25 September 2014 in Opinion

THIS week’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester was the fortieth I’ve attended. It will be my last as an elected MP.

My first was in Blackpool, in 1972. In between, I’ve missed three, all for family reasons.

So what’s changed?

The smell – stale smoke everywhere. If it wasn’t your own cigarette you’d be inhaling, it would be someone else’s.

The colour – a rather dirty red brown. All the men wore suits and ties (brown ones seemed popular – they went with the nicotine stains).

The atmosphere – often unpleasant. The 1970s were a period of national decline. Factories, shipyards, pits were closing. There were huge tensions inside the movement: should the “struggle” be by Parliamentary means alone, or by general strikes and civil disobedience?

The power. The trades unions called the shots, with their six million block votes. Constituency parties scarcely had a look-in.

The dramas. Nothing was certain. Crucial resolutions could fail, for the most bizarre reasons. It was self-harm on a catastrophic scale.

In 1975, I witnessed the great trade union leader Jack Jones scuffling with a Labour MP on a public platform.

In 1976, Chancellor Denis Healey was given just five minutes, from the floor, to explain his policies – booed and heckled for his pains.

In 1978, a straightforward resolution of support for the Labour Government was defeated by 2.8 million to 3.6 million!

It took heroic efforts, led by Neil Kinnock, and then Tony Blair, to give the party to its members and end the nastiness.

Most memorable conferences? That’s easy. Bournemouth, 1985, when Neil denounced the Trotskyist Militant Tendency.

Best moment for me? That has to be the 1997 Conference, in Brighton, our first in government for 18 years – and there I was as Home Secretary.

Is this the end of Labour conferences for me? Certainly not. But my pass will no longer say “MP – Ex-Officio”.

This firm aims to ‘up’ production to 75 million envelopes!

‘THIRTY years ago on what is today the M65 between Blackburn and Darwen there were simply fields – and mainly fields either side too.

Now, confounding the ‘environmentalists’ who campaigned so vociferously against connecting East Lancashire to the main motorway network, there’s a host of modern works, providing decent employment for thousands of local people.

I visited one such factory, in Davyfield Road, last Friday – the headquarters of Heritage Envelopes Ltd.

Firms generally get in touch with me because they want my help – which is part of my job. In this case, however, the CEO Mark Sears invited me along simply because he thought I’d be interested to see what they did.

I was. It was a real eye-opener. This modern plant employs about 130 people, round-the-clock, with a turnover of £24m.

Heritage does what it says on the tin: it makes envelopes. I was asked to guess how many they produced each week.

I thought I was wildly exaggerating when I had a stab at one million.

I was way off.

The correct answer is more than 50 million a week; more than two and a half billion each year.

We all keep being told that paper, print, is on the way out.

Indeed it is to some extent. Much physical communication has been replaced by e-mail and the internet.

But just as I believe (on good evidence) that real books, real newspapers, which you can feel as well as see, will survive and prosper, so this firm is sufficiently confident that their intention is, over time, to up their weekly production to 75 million.

Heritage’s envelopes are used for direct mail marketing. What’s really interesting, I was told, is that sending a proper letter remains an excellent and cost-effective means of increasing sales.

While there I presented a 25-year long-service award to Steven Morgan, from Darwen, an ‘envelope machine adjuster’ – a highly-skilled position requiring more than five years’ training.

By good investment, and increasing integration with electronic media, the firm reckon they have a sound future too. They’re right.

Blackburn Rovers – Jack Straw comments in today’s Times

“It’s character building, supporting a team like Blackburn Rovers”, I used to tell my two children in the 1980s when they were young and we were bobbing about the old Second Division. “So much better than supporting a glory team. With Rovers you’ll learn about life, its disappointments, as well as its triumphs.”

Their faith was rewarded. Jack Walker bought the club. Kenny Dalglish was appointed Manager. Four years later, in 1995, we won the Premiership.

We’ve never repeated that wonderful, ecstatic moment of glory, when in the final game of the season we lost to Liverpool, but won the prize that mattered thanks to Harry Rednapp’s West Ham holding Man U to a draw. We dropped into the Championship in 1999, Jack Walker died in 2000. But we got back into the Premiership, and stayed there for 11 years.

Apart from the League Cup, which we won in 2002, top-flight success eluded us – as it did many “town” clubs, without the financial backing of the big city clubs. But players, staff, and supporters alike had pride, and confidence in the club. Pride about the Club’s history, as a founder member of the Football League, which had done much better than most clubs in comparable areas; and confidence, that whatever the set-backs on the field, Rovers was by common consent one of the best run football clubs in the whole of the professional game.

We all knew that the trustees of Jack Walker’s estate, who had owned the club since Jack’s death, were bound to sell it at some stage. When the Indian company Venkys purchased the club in November 2010 for £23 million there was great goodwill for the new owners.

Tragically, it did not last long.  After the team had lost 7 -1 at Old Trafford to United manager Sam Allardyce was fired. I was at that game. Rovers’ fans just regarded a pasting by United as one of those things. There was no demand for Allardyce to go – far from it.

His removal was followed by the single greatest error of  Venky’s – to fire both the Executive Chairman John Williams, and the MD Tom Finn. They were  the reason for Rovers’ survival.  It was a crazy thing to do.

With Venky’s main business being poultry, metaphors about headless chickens are best avoided. But that’s how it feels. There’s no sense of grip by the owners or the board. We’ve now had more managers this season than we’ve won away games. Yes, Sunday’s critical derby against Burnley sent all the fans – my family and me included – into a near clinical depression until David Dunn scored the equaliser five minutes into extra time. But there were no cries for Appleton to go. It’s too serious for that. We’re only four points above the drop, with nine games to go.

It’s the financial eccentricity of the decisions which is the most puzzling. Once gifted, but (in football terms) elderly players like Nuno Gomes (38), and Danny Murphy (36) on two-year contracts. Expensive disputes with the sacked managers. It’s now nigh-impossible to discern anything resembling a business plan being pursued by the owners. The fans’ fear is that our fate will be a fire sale, or worse.

Rovers’ predicament now is sad, and senseless. It could have been avoided, first, if  Venky’s had understood that in purchasing the club they were not buying some soulless franchise, but buying into a loyal and committed community; and second, if our football authorities had tougher rules – and standards – on ownership. When will they wake up?

The Premier League: an accident waiting to happen

At last, the back pages of our national newspapers have woken up.

Beginning to go is the unjustified criticism of Rovers’ fans for being unreasonable in the face of adversity; to be replaced by some understanding that this is no ordinary relegation.

What it raises are very big questions for the Football Association, the Premier League – and their paymasters, Sky, about how top flight football in this country is governed.

Every football fan knows that each season, three clubs go up, and three go down.

It wasn’t funny when we went down in 1999.

But – and it’s a very big ‘but’ – there was still confidence in the club itself.

Jack Walker was alive, John Williams his very capable chief executive. We all knew that Jack cared, that he would never hollow out his Club.

Rovers was safe, whatever league it was in.

Now, with Venkys, there is no certainty whatever about the club’s future.

Paul Hunt, the acting chief executive, and a decent man, has been sacked for telling the truth about the club.

More players will be sold; other staff face likely lay-off; the administration has been severely weakened.

The Premier League wash their hands of all this.

We’ve been relegated – so now we’re someone else’s problem.

But the Premier League bear a high responsibility for this mess.

They need to wake up to the fact that if they don’t get a grip, the worm will turn.

Take heed from what’s happening to Sky’s biggest shareholder – Mr Murdoch. He was omnipotent; now severely weakened. It’s called hubris, reckoning.

At the heart of the Premier League’s wilful negligence of its responsibilities is its so-called “fit and proper person” test.

This is the test which the foreign owners of Birmingham City (trapped in Hong Kong), Portsmouth (in administration for the second time) – and Manchester United (victim of ‘Glazer-economics’) all passed – as did Venkys.

The test is laughable, and almost everyone in the business knows this.

This ‘test’ allows no period of probation for new owners, no assessment of their managerial competence, no disclosure of the insidious role of the agents.

Unless and until there is change, the Premier League itself is an accident waiting to happen.

Enough is enough, show some respect

Green Lane, Whitebirk Industrial estate, Mosley Street, St Wilfrid’s playing fields, Feniscliffe, Lower Eccleshill Road.

Just some of the areas where so-called “travellers” have set up unauthorised camps in recent weeks – leading local residents (and employers) to complain to the Press, the council, and to me – about their anti-social behaviour.

We live in a country which is very tolerant of others’ life styles – including those of travellers.

Over the years I have received no more complaints about the permanent camp at Ewood than I have about any other area of town.

These travellers have their own life style; and that’s fine so long as it does not lead to interference with others.

The same goes for a single Romany family, complete with a classic wooden caravan, and donkey, whom I saw camping on a large area of spare land in the middle of nowhere in the West Country.

But these “travellers” – the ones who’ve been causing trouble all over the borough – are something else. They, like the notorious ones at Dale Farm in Essex, are all too ready to go to law in defence of their “rights”; but deny the right to a quiet life to the law-abiding living nearby, and cry “foul” whenever the legal processes go against them.

Handling this problem is something of a nightmare for government, central and local, irrespective of party. Since the 1980s the law has progressively been tightened.

That has led to some improvement in the speed, and effectiveness of enforcement proceedings, but there’s still a long way to go.

Earlier this year, the Government announced two linked measures. First, £60 million for funding councils to provide more authorised sites – like the one at Ewood.

Second, stronger powers for Councils to tackle the abuse of planning permissions (or the lack of it) that led to the horrendous problems at Dale Farm.

I welcome both.

Once there are enough authorised sites, then I think we are all entitled to say “Enough is enough; and the rest of us have had enough. You want respect; show some more to others.”

The cost of lifting Sunday trade curbs

Have I missed something?

Last weekend the news bulletins were peppered by interviews with excited executives from some of the major retail chains, salivating at the prospect of an end to restrictions on Sunday trading.

It looks as though for certain these restrictions will be lifted for the Olympics.

In turn this will be used to justify the permanent end of any hours’ difference between Sunday and the rest of the week.

The case for lifting these restrictions during the Olympics doesn’t seem to me to stand up for a moment.

I was raised not far from Stratford, the site of the (amazing) Olympic Park.

As I saw for myself on Tuesday of this week, even the much-enlarged station there can barely cope. It will really struggle during the Olympics.

Having the big shops in the area closed for a few hours on Sundays will be a benefit.

As for areas beyond east London – I’m afraid I don’t follow the argument at all.

The Olympics may well affect levels of retail trade from day to day; just as the weather does.

But what affects it overall is how much money people feel they have, including any credit they think they can safely access.

So why are the big retailers peddling this tendentious stuff?

The answer is simple. They want an even bigger share of the retail cake, and, as usual, they are ruthless in its pursuit, regardless of the adverse effect on local convenience stores, some High Streets – and even more important , that Sunday is special.

Already there are claims about all the jobs these retail multiples will create. What they never do is net those figures off against the smaller (often family) shops which will shed jobs.

All stores can open for six hours on a Sunday. Is anyone seriously inconvenienced by this?

More people still attend church every week than go to football matches.

And whether people are believers or not, I think that our society is helped by having a rhythm to the week, not having every day the same.

‘Special relationship’ is a source of confusion

“GET out of my room. I’m sick of that subject. You’re all mad” was the response of a senior member of the White House staff when asked about the ‘special relationship’ the USA had with Britain.

This story was related by the BBC’s Justin Webb, reflecting on his eight years as their North America editor.

The White House was then occupied by President Bush, who really was an Anglophile. His greatest hero is Winston Churchill.

The President today, Barak Obama, had Churchill’s bust removed from the White House. His father was black, from Kenya – where the British white colonialists were notorious even within the British Empire for their racism.

He was brought up in Hawaii – the other side of the globe. He lived in Chicago, dominated by a huge Irish-American diaspora not exactly keen on the Brits. And he looks west, to Asia, more than he does east to Europe.

So what about the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, about which we’ll hear so much this week during David Cameron’s visit to see the President?

Is the idea just bunkum, in the words of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee ‘potentially misleading’, or is there something in it?

The phrase goes back to a famous speech which Churchill made in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, in which he called for ‘a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States’.

I doubt however that he’d use the phrase today.

The British Empire has gone. We are still very influential on the world stage for our size, but others are there too: China, India, Brazil, Japan, and the economic power-house of Europe that is Germany.

With each of these countries, at least as crucial to the US’s future as we are, the US has a distinctive relationship. The adjective ‘special’ may well be trotted out in mutual flattery by their heads of government.

As British Foreign Secretary I worked hard for a good relationship with the US (as I did with other countries). But, echoing that Commons’ committee, I think the phrase ‘special relationship’ is confusing, and patronising, and should best be avoided.