Being ‘straight’ doesn’t make me a better person

A central principle common to all world religions is the idea that we should behave towards others in the way in which we would expect others to behave towards us. Christ devotes much of his teaching to this theme, building on the Old Testament injunction that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, are two of his most powerful, and enduring, messages about how individuals, local communities, and whole societies, should live peacefully, and happily, with others.

Given the key importance of these ideas to Christianity, why are some church leaders – in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches in particular – not practicing what Christ taught, on the issue of people’s sexuality?

I happen to be, in the modern jargon, “straight”. It doesn’t make me a better person.

I didn’t choose to be straight. It’s how I am. It would be no different if I were gay.

I would neither be a better, nor a worse, person because of it. It would simply be how I was.

Because I am straight, I have a right to marry a woman. But if I were a gay man, or a lesbian woman, in love with another gay man, or lesbian woman, I can get to a half-way house with a “civil partnership”, but the law currently says that I cannot marry.

Some Church leaders say the law should stay that way, on the spurious grounds that the sanctity and importance of heterosexual marriage will somehow be damaged. How, why?

I know of no-one who is married who feels threatened by the idea that another couple, same sex, wishes to cement their love for each other by marrying.

Why should this not be a matter of celebration, rather than of prohibition?

And how on earth do these church leaders square their present stand with those biblical injunctions about treating others as you would expect to be treated yourself?

Blackburn leads the way on local accountability

Wasting police time is quite a serious criminal offence. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail.

Last Friday I thought I came close to being charged with this

The particulars of the charge would have been these: that I had inveigled a police constable, a PCSO, along with the commander of our large police division, Chief Superintendent Bob Eastwood, to waste two hours at a public meeting for no particular purpose.

There were witnesses, too – at least eighty were present, so an alibi would have proved impossible.

The meeting was a regular residents’ meeting – this time for the Brownhill and Roe Lee area of town, held in Holy Souls’ Church Hall on Whalley New Road.

Now in their ninth year, these meetings follow a familiar pattern. There’s a detailed printed report on the area, prepared jointly by council officers and police staff, put round before the start.   Brief oral presentations are made by the Council Leader, the Chief Executive or Deputy, Mr Eastwood the police chief, the senior officer responsible for bins, litter, blocked gullies and similar delights, and by me. That’s followed by an open session with questions or comments from the residents. A full note is kept, and an action report subsequently sent to everyone who attended.

For some years after this cycle of meetings began in 2003 they were dominated by complaints about crime or anti-social behaviour. These days – as at the Holy Souls’ meeting – such complaints are a rarity. Indeed, at this lively meeting there wasn’t a single comment about crime.

There’s an easy explanation for this: the kind of crimes which really worry people, like house burglary, have fallen dramatically.

When, some years ago, Mr Eastwood was the inspector for the east side of Blackburn there might be fifty burglaries in a month. In contrast, in one month last year there were just twenty-five for the whole of his Division – Blackburn, Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley.

Joking aside, the police at the meeting were not wasting their time because they had no complaints to answer. Rather, that was a tribute to their effectiveness.

How we support young people into work?

I’ve a bright A’level student from a Blackburn school with me this week.

For the first four days of the week she’s been based in the House of Commons.

On Monday, there was a conference about the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry which I had set up in 1997.  After that she had a front row seat in the Commons’ public gallery, watching the statement by the current Home Secretary, Theresa May on another of those recurring fiascos which go with the job, whoever is doing it.  That was followed by a major debate on Iran, in which I spoke.

On Tuesday, it was a conference on the European Union at which I spoke, followed by a great celebration to mark the 90th Anniversary of the National Union of Students. It’s amazing how many former activists from the NUS (me included) end up in Parliament.

Yesterday she was able to watch the bear-garden of Prime Minister’s Questions. Today, there’s evidence from me about how Select Committees could be made more effective; then an important meeting with the Office of Fair Trading about car insurance.

Tomorrow she’ll spend the day in town watching how I do that end of my job as MP, including my constituency advice service.

She seems to be enjoying it all. I certainly would have at the same age.

I don’t remotely feel that I have been “exploiting” this student; neither does she.

But what if she was not with me for a week, but a couple of months; and if the “work experience” wasn’t watching how I do the job, but days spent  stuffing envelopes, photocopying, filing, and making tea? And I didn’t pay her a bean?

That’s different, in my book. And the longer such a “work experience” went on, the more it would feel like exploitation.

I applaud the aim of government and employers alike to get long-term unemployed youngsters back into the habit of working, but both have to be really careful about what’s on offer, and how long it’s morally tolerable to expect them to do it for nothing.

Tackling whiplash claim culture

What Blackburn people started, Prime Minister David Cameron will finish. That, at least, is how things look after last Tuesday’s “motor insurance summit” at Downing Street.

I am clear that Mr Cameron has got the message loud and clear that the interlinked rackets, and just-legal wheezes which have driven motor insurance premiums sky high – and out of reach for some – have to end.

The Bill I introduced into the Commons last September, with all-party support, had four key proposals:

  1. To ban “referral fees” – the average £600 which is paid by the personal injury lawyers (and ultimately by the insurer) to claims management companies, recovery and repair firms, the no-fault insurers, and (I’m afraid) to some police and NHS staff for accident details;
  2. To cut in half the fixed fee of £1,200 which these lawyers receive for each successful claim of less than £10,000;
  3. To restrict “whiplash” claims to those few where there’s been a real neck injury for which there is objective evidence; and
  4. To stop insurers from penalising honest motorists, especially in the North West, for the fact that claims management companies are more active here than elsewhere.

The Government are already legislating to ban referral fees – not in as strong terms as I think is necessary, but I’m not cavilling about that. They’ve promised to cut the fixed fee. On Tuesday I understand much of the discussion at the “summit” was about whiplash. It’s not in the bag yet, but I’m pretty certain that action on this will follow. It needs to. On the face of it, the statistics suggest that people in England and Wales have weaker necks than anywhere else – including Scotland, which is obvious nonsense. It’s because our system is far more lax in allowing spurious claims. I want to see new rules on whiplash – no compensation, without  good external evidence, if the crash speed was 15 mph or less; medical reports from doctors independent of the claimants.  

Action on my fourth point will take longer; but three of four is good progress.

Dickens was a catalyst for social change

The man who did more than anyone to improve the lives of the poor in Victorian times held no public office; he was neither a Minister of the Crown, nor of religion.

He earnt his living by telling stories. Yet his “fiction” contained more truths than a dozen reports of Royal Commissions.

He was Charles Dickens.

The 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth fell on Tuesday.

Dickens lived in the south of England. But he travelled to the mill towns of Lancashire, and was appalled by what he witnessed.

The dreadful physical conditions in which children and adults were required to work in the cotton mills were, in his view, compounded by the hard-faced men who owned the mills, and controlled the towns.

His tirade against both is to be found in his shortest novel Hard Times, one of my favourites.

Written in 1854, his story is situated in “Coketown”, a thinly disguised Preston, which he’d visited earlier that year. His key characters, the industrialist Josiah Bounderby, and the school master, the wonderfully named Thomas Gradgrind were “utilitarians”.

People like this justified the unequal world from which they benefitted by claims that what mattered was the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” – ignoring the misery which unlucky individuals (thousands of them), like mill-hands, suffered on the way to the sunlit uplands for the fortunate minority.

Dickens had contempt for these people who knew the price of everything, but had no sense of value, nor fairness. “Now, what I want is facts” was Gradgrind’s refrain; anything else, beauty, truth, imagination, was dismissed as “fancy”.

Dickens’ extraordinary skill was in getting the Bounderby’s and Gradgrinds of the world to read his stories, and hold the mirror to themselves.

Gradually, there was an awakening, both by the workers through their trades unions, but also by many of the middle-classes, that conditions like those in Coketown were intolerable, and had to change.

But the wonderful thing about his novels is that they not only tell us about life when he wrote them, but about the human condition today.

Blackburn Youth Zone

Remember the chaos at Heathrow in 2008 when the brand new Terminal 5 descended into chaos? The images which went round the world were not of Her Majesty The Queen at its official opening. Instead, they were of what happened as it became “operational”. Cancelled flights, disgruntled passengers, lost baggage, staff driven demented. It took many months for the reputations of BAA, the airport operator, and of British Airways to recover.

There’s another Royal opening of an entirely new building this coming Monday, in Blackburn. That’s when  Prince Edward, as Trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, will formally launch the Blackburn Youth Zone, in Jubilee Street.

 The Youth Zone is not an airline terminal, of course. But  there’s a lesson from Terminal 5 saga: follow that old adage – “don’t run before you can walk”.

 The organisers of the new Zone know this.  This is going to be a “soft opening”,  built up over many weeks.   Visits by schools  will take place from the end of this month and into March.  After that , young people from schools and youth organisations can visit experience the wide range of activities on offer – the full sized sports hall, the roof top “kickpitch”, arts and music workshops; the media studio; and the “chilling out” social areas. There’ll be guided tours. Parents will be able to check the place out,  as a safe environment as well as one which is  lots of fun. (see for details).

The Zone could not have happened without the incredible commitment of people like Andrew Graham, who has a busy day job running Britain’s biggest wallpaper manufacturer, and many other business leaders who’ve given time and money; the Blackburn with Darwen Council, on a bi-partisan basis; and the Government which in 2007 put up the £5 million towards  construction costs.   I think it’s one of the most important new facilities in East Lancashire we’ve seen for decades – all the more reasons why the organisers are wisely taking their time before it’s fully running.

Strasbourg Court needs big changes

CAREFUL readers will recall that, in common with both main political parties, I do not believe that convicted prisoners, whilst in jail, should have any right to vote.

As Justice Secretary, I was faced with a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg telling the UK that we were wrong.

I felt that the Strasbourg Court had over-reached itself.

It had been set up after the last war to ensure basic rights in countries controlled for years by fascists.

It had done a good job in this area.

But it was not there to second guess decisions of national courts in the functioning democracies of Europe, where the judiciary were plainly independent.

Our highest courts (under the Human Rights Act) had said whether prisoners could vote was up to the electors and Parliament, not unelected judges.

Much more serious than prisoner votes is whether “guests” in this country – those here as spouses, on work permits, unfounded asylum seekers – can be deported from the UK if they break our rules; and who should decide.

The man who, in Blackburn, killed young Amy Houston in a hit-and-run accident is a case in point.

Ministers said he must leave the UK.

He pleaded a “right to a family life” because, after he’d exhausted all rights to be here, he’d become a father by a local girl.

But our courts said they had to follow what the Strasbourg Court had laid down. He’s still here.

With senior Conservative David Davis MP, I went to see the presiding judges in Strasbourg shortly before Christmas – to press for the Court to rein itself back to its original purpose, and that it needed big changes in the way it operated, and who became judges.

This year – for the first time since 1992 – the UK has the Presidency of the Council of Europe (nothing to do with the EU), the Court’s parent body.

It gives us a once-in-a- generation chance to lead reform.

So I’m very pleased that Prime Minister David Cameron went out to Strasbourg yesterday to make that case.

Steve Kean has shown strength of character

FOOTBALL managers and politicians are both in the public eye, and both have to put up with regular criticism, whether they like it or not.

It goes with the territory.

But there are limits. I no more approve of gratuitous insults against football managers, Steve Kean included, than I do against politicians.

I say two other things about Mr Kean.

One is that he has shown considerable strength of character in recent weeks.

The second is that, with a mainly young team, he has secured some remarkable results in recent days; the draw, away, against Liverpool; the fantastic win, away, against Manchester United; and the very fine result last Saturday when our ten-man team beat a determined Fulham 3 – 1.

I am happy to put on record that this was against my expectations of what I thought he, and the team, could manage.

If we could just win those six-pointers against the other teams at the bottom as well, we might still be in the Premier League next season, too.

The breathing space which these recent, better results give, should be a time for reflection by the club’s owners about how they can improve relations with the club’s many thousands of supporters.

I’ve been sitting in the same seats at the Blackburn End for at least the last 15 years. So have most of those around me.

They are a good cross-section of fans; and they don’t deserve some of the criticisms which have been made of them, either.

They are decent people, just deeply frustrated by an unnecessary absence of communication, and direction by the owners (which, by the by, has unfairly placed Mr Kean in the firing line).

Many of us have tried, so far without success, to make constructive contact with them. I live in hope that, despite recent difficulties, the owners will now positively engage with the fans and the community.

They would be pleasantly surprised by the result.

A moment’s thought should tell them that their interests are, in truth, the same as ours.

Debate keeps our goals on the right track

There were just 13 human beings in the House of Commons’ Chamber on Tuesday night when, at 10.55. pm, I got up to open my debate on the Clitheroe/Blackburn/ Manchester rail services.

These were – an Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms, in eighteenth century garb, complete with sword; a Doorkeeper, in different fancy dress; a bewigged Clerk at the Table; two ‘Hansard’ reporters (who provide the complete, word-by-word record), one reporter from the Press Association (which provides a news service to all media outlets); and seven MPs – the Speaker, a government Whip, the Transport Minister Theresa Villiers, her Parliamentary Private Secretary, Darwen and Rossendale MP Jake Berry, me, and one other MP, name unknown to me, who evidently did not have a home to go.

Anyone watching the proceedings on the television might well have asked “where’s everyone else?”; maybe adding “isn’t it outrageous that the Commons’ Chamber is empty much of the time?”

For big set-piece debates how many MPs turn up, and on which side, does matter.

Who “wins” these debates can be as much as matter of psychology as of oratory; as every football fan knows, when the crowd get behind their team, it can raise their performance.

But for significant local issues like improving North East Lancashire’s rail services, it’s the fact of the debate, not the numbers in the Chamber, that’s important.

The debate I had on Tuesday is known as an “Adjournment Debate”. I had to apply for the slot before Christmas; happily my number came up. Like any sensible MP, my interest was in advancing my case, not point-scoring. I arranged for Mr Berry to share some of my time; and ensured that the Minister’s office was well briefed about what I was to say.

We’re still some way off getting the go-ahead for spending to give a reliable, half hourly service on this line through the day.

But if it does come off, this debate will have helped, by raising the issue up Ministers’ and Parliament’s agenda.

Rovers – The importance of communicating with supporters

ROVERS have had a torrid time before. The 1970s were terrible.

But the end of the 1990s wasn’t pretty, either.

By this time in the 1998-99 season we had 9 points from 14 games.

Here we are again, with just 7 points after 12 games.

There is, however, one important difference – in the atmosphere among the fans.  In the late nineties, Jack Walker was revered; John Williams held in the highest regard.  When Jack tragically died in 2000, Mr Williams held the club together.  Since 2001 we have enjoyed the longest-ever post-war period in the top-flight.

In contrast, today it’s the owners getting it in the neck.  They appear distant and, frankly, unwilling, or unable, to understand that running a successful team is, yes, about money, but it’s also about intangibles, like spirit and sentiment.  It’s that which is frustrating so many fans, including loyal sponsors like Wayne Wild, Group Director of WEC Group in Darwen.

The owners have gratuitously hollowed out what was one of the best club administrations in the League. What was the point of that?

The irony is that this appears to be a better team than the one which dropped in 1999.  The football is better, they gel together better; and (as is often observed by the experts), they deserve better results.  It is genuinely the case that luck has not been on our side.

The owners need to appreciate that Rovers’ fans are not daft.  They want the team to win. Around me, that plane with its banner was not appreciated by the fans who simply wish to get behind the team playing well in the difficult fixture against Chelsea.  Fans can make a big difference to the result on the field.  John Williams recognised that when he cut ticket prices to get more fans in.

My strong advice to the owners – in their interests as well as ours – is to start talking to the fans, understand them, get them on side.  It will cost no money – and will reap dividends.