Everyone has mucked in to help others

I got the shovel out again the other day. It’s been behind the front door for the past four weeks. It had snowed overnight.

There’s a surprise – after all, after the last few weeks it feels as though snow is now a permanent fixture. I cleared our otherwise dangerous steps, and then shovelled some snow off the public footpath outside our house and that of our neighbours.

There was nothing out of the ordinary in my morning exertions. Everyone in our turning has mucked in. As have millions of others who have been working very hard to keep their streets, their schools and their communities going since this extraordinary winter started to bite. We really have seen people acting as good neighbours, following the example of the Good Samaritan, and not walking past on the other side.

We read a great deal about those in our society who are selfish, who commit the most horrible crimes, or who by being simply selfish drive their good neighbours to distraction. But the overwhelming majority are not like that, and there’s something noble about the way in which everyone joins in when faced with adversity. Indeed, some of the stories of people coming to the rescue of stranded drivers and giving them food and shelter – in some cases overnight – have been truly heart-warming. Did someone say Britain was broken? I think not.

The one thing I didn’t think about as I started shifting the snow on the public footpath was whether I was going to be sued by someone who’d walked on my cleared bit, slipped, and blamed me for their injuries. If you read some of the papers you could be forgiven for believing that health and safety experts were instructing people not to clear public paths, for fear of getting sued.

There may have been a little creative reporting here, but it’s also true that when asked by one of the newspapers, the body representing health and safety workers was hardly unequivocal about the risk. If a company gritted beyond their property, but failed to do it well enough and someone was injured in a fall, they “could incur some liability”. The group in question, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, was irritated that its full guidance, which said that in the event it would probably be best to grit areas to avoid accidents, was not reported. Such are the perils of dealing with the newspapers.

I hope this flurry of activity didn’t put anybody off clearing the snow outside their houses and on the pavements. The reality is that should someone seek to take action against a householder in these circumstances, the courts would take a sensible view. It’s doubtful that they would agree that one person might sue another for negligence, and I rather suspect that in fact the court would look kindly on a householder who was doing the right thing by clearing the snow from the pavement. It certainly won’t be stopping me getting the shovel out again.

Repugnant that ‘Islam4UK’ plans protest march

Wootton Bassett is a small market town in Wiltshire. A few years ago it would rarely have made the front pages of the newspapers.

But for the saddest of reasons, Wootton Bassett has come to signify the fundamental decency of the British people.

It is through Wootton Bassett that the bodies of British servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan are carried from nearby RAF Lyneham, where the planes carrying their coffins land.

The town has duly become famous for the way local people line the streets to pay tribute to the bravest of the brave, those who have given their lives in pursuit of a better life for others, at home and abroad.

It is moving beyond words. Having family, or close friends, on active service is worrying enough, even where the loved one returns from a tour of duty in one piece.

The pain for those who do lose someone forever is terrible.

Nothing can bring back the father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister, friend, but the extent to which the rest of us can salute and honour their memory can make a significant difference to the grief of those who lose near and dear.

They need to know that their loved ones died for a purpose, protecting the rest of us; that we recognise their supreme and selfless sacrifice.

So it must surely be some comfort for the bereaved to see so many in Wootton Bassett paying tribute to the fallen.

So I therefore find it repugnant that the radical group “Islam4UK” is planning a protest march through the town.

It shows absolutely no respect for the families of dead troops, or indeed for Wootton Bassett, which has been keen to avoid these solemn occasions being used for political ends.

What I find particularly objectionable is that the proposed march is designed entirely with the intention of creating publicity and inciting anger – there can be no other purpose.

And the views of “Islam4UK” are not remotely representative of the overwhelming majority of British followers of Islam. There are many more British Muslims in our armed forces than there are members of this group.

It reminds me a little of the row in 2006 when there was understandable anger in the Muslim community over cartoons published in a Danish newspaper.

I said then that while we all respect freedom of speech, there is also an obligation on us all not to “insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory” as I felt the newspaper had done.

A similar test applies here. I will defend the right of anyone to protest against the military action in Afghanistan.

I wouldn’t agree with them, but the right to protest and to free speech is the sort of right which the Afghan government is seeking to entrench in its fledgling democracy, with our forces seeking to help them do that, as well as reduce the serious threat of Al Qaeda terrorism which has already killed and maimed people here.

But rights have limits and there is no right at all to insult, or to be gratuitously inflammatory, and that is exactly what ‘Islam4UK’ are trying to do by proposing to march through Wootton Bassett.

The electoral triumph of Giggs’ victory

Even though he plays for that lot down the road, only the most petty-minded of football fans would deny Ryan Giggs the honour of being this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

At a time when professional football sometimes suffers from a cynical edge – the theatrical dives of so many strikers, for instance, or the infamous Thierry Henry handball – Giggs is a great example of the true spirit of sport, and a great example to so many youngsters as well.

Giggs is a one club man, making his debut for Man Utd in 1991. It’s not impossible that he’ll still be playing at the top level on the 20th anniversary of that occasion.

Had he been English he would no doubt have played at several World Cups, and would have been in the running for a place in the squad in 2010. Not that he is short of achievements – 11 Premier League titles, European cups, FA Cups, League Cups. He was the footballers’ choice for Young Player of the Year twice. And he is probably the greatest ever player to turn out for Wales.

There were some who said he didn’t deserve to win the BBC award, that compared to the likes of Jensen Button and Jessica Ennis, he hadn’t done enough in a single year to rival their achievements.

Certainly the achievements of Button and Ennis were worthy of high praise (particularly, in my mind, the heptathlon world champion Ennis), but the award to Giggs, in a year when he won his 11th Premier League winner’s medal and continued to perform outstandingly at the top level, was well merited both for this year and all his years at the top.

After all, to have played for a team like United for nigh on 20 years is a quite remarkable achievement.

But his triumph on Sunday was also victory for the sheer love of sport.

Asked for the secret of his success, he said simply “Desire, looking after myself”.

He appears to love the game as much as he did when he was kicking a ball around as a youngster.

And there is something wonderfully exuberant about Giggs’ play which sums up the essence of sport – free-flowing, inventive, energetic and at times breathtakingly brilliant. That in celebration and in private he is often poker-faced almost adds to the allure of seeing him in full flow on the pitch.

Winning the award was also a great achievement in itself. Giggs is the first non-English footballer to pick up the trophy, it having previously been won by Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Bobby Moore (all in the wake, incidentally, of World Cup heroics).

He’s also, let’s face it, a Manchester United player. They have, of course, a big following.

There are also many who are less than charitable about them (me, on some days!).

Yet Giggs won enough support from non-United supporters who recognise his ability and enormous contribution to the game.

In terms of an electoral triumph, that’s pretty impressive!

So are faith schools divisive?

The cry I hear more often than I would like regarding the ‘problem’ of faith schools is: “Close ‘em down. Divisive. Makes segregation worse”.

The critics of our distinctive Anglican and Catholic state schools and our one Muslim faith state school – and, elsewhere in the county, some Jewish and Methodist schools – claim these schools are outdated, as fewer go to church these days, and add the charge they are ‘elitist’.

Church attendances may have fallen, but 70 per cent of the British population in the last census stated they were Christian, and any politician who sought the abolition of faith schools would be consumed by the public uproar which would follow.

There is huge attachment to faith schools because of their faith and because generally across the UK, specifically in East Lancashire, they are good schools.

This is not to decry non-faith schools – both my children went to one.

And, whether faith schools, foundation schools, or community schools are ‘elitist’ depends principally on their catchment area, ethos, and record. Not on their category.

So are faith schools divisive?

In a town like Blackburn, with large Asian communities, and concern about ‘parallel communities’ it’s a reasonable question.

On the face of it, it could well be that faith schools, with a preference at entry for children of that faith, would engender a sense of separateness, and exclusivity, and make matters worse.

Recent evidence, however, points in exactly the opposite direction. It enforces a view that if you respect and celebrate someone else’s faith, they are much more likely not just to respect and celebrate yours, but become inquisitive too about it.

The evidence is from a Church of England report with research by Professor David Jesson of York University, comparing how faith and non-faith secondary schools performed in OFSTED inspections on the promotion of what is called ‘positive contribution to the community’ in their reports. He found that faith schools received average grades 11 per cent higher than non-faith schools.

As the chief education officer for the Church of England, Rev Janina Ainsworth said: “For church schools, community cohesion is more than ticking a box for the government.

“It is about acting out the values articulated in the school’s mission statement in ways that serve and strengthen our human relationship.”

OFSTED scores for Blackburn and Darwen secondary schools – faith and non-faith – are similar, with Pleckgate (non-faith) and St Wilfrid’s (Anglican) rated ‘outstanding’ and all but one of the remainder ‘good’. This latter group included the Muslim Tauheedul Islam Girls High School.

Its inspection was three years ago, just after it was set up. My guess is that the next full inspection will put it in the ‘outstanding’ category, not least because it’s a humanities specialist with citizenship as a core subject, and it’s working hard with non-Muslim schools to improve understanding across the faiths Parents should have a choice between faith and non-faith schools, of course.

But criticism of faith schools as divisive is plain wrong, and the opposite of the truth.

My ‘Payback jackets’ plan has worn well

High-visibility orange jackets for offenders to wear when doing unpaid work as part of their punishment were introduced a year ago this Tuesday.

The jackets do not have the old prison arrows on them or “I’m a criminal” but they do say, front and back, “Community Payback”. That’s to tell the public why they are there – making recompenses, paying back, to the community against which they’ve offended.

Doing this was my decision. When I first announced this in the autumn of last year, there was a chorus of protest from some quarters (though none from East Lancashire). Requiring offenders to wear these jackets would be ‘recreating chain gangs’, ‘humiliating to offenders’ and, what’s more, I was warned, offenders would be subject to attack by passers-by.

A year later, and not a peep from the critics. The scheme has worked. I’ve spoken to many offenders whilst wearing the jackets. Some say they don’t like them; some have no view; but a surprisingly large number have volunteered to me that it’s part of the punishment, and that only they were to blame for committing their crimes in the first place. And I’ve not been made aware of a single attack on the offenders wearing the jackets.

As for ‘humiliation’, it’s the humiliation of the victim we should think about. They have no choice over their humiliation. Those who have committed the crimes did have a choice – and if through wearing the orange jacket they feel a greater sense of shame, and that strengthens their resolve not to offend again, that is a good thing.

Most importantly of all, the public now have a much better idea of what a “community punishment” from the courts means in practice. And in many areas local people can vote on which schemes they want offenders to work – doing things like cleaning graffiti, redecorations of community centres, tending gardens of the elderly and disabled.

This scheme, by which the public choose, is now being extended to young offenders as part of a new Youth Rehabilitation order, which has been available to youth courts from this week. It is a further stage in the strengthening of the youth justice service.

These reforms have overall been successful. Like many others including, ASBOs, they began in Blackburn. In the mid-1990s I’d received complaints from youth court magistrates and police alike, as well as victims, about the ‘revolving door’ of the courts by which same young offenders came round and around again and again without much effective punishment and reform in between. I then watched the youth court in operation, and saw for myself why magistrates and police were so frustrated.

Some offenders will always be beyond the pale – the ones who however cocky and selfish in their youth, end up with long jail sentences in their 20s and 30s.

But overall we are turning offenders away from crime. The statistics tell the story – between 2000 and 2007 serious re-offending by juveniles fell by nearly 20 per cent. But it’s the reduction in crime and its effect as a result on our communities which really matters.

There’s work to do before the election…

If words could adequately describe the feelings and power of music, I guess we could dispense with music and stick to words.

This rather odd thought came into my mind on Tuesday evening as I enjoyed a rare treat.

I work most Tuesday evenings, but as it was the day before the State Opening of Parliament by The Queen, I could safely go with my family to hear Murray Perahia, one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists.

But music does reach parts of our soul, creating emotions quite beyond words. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is – and I still enjoy going to the occasional gig and reliving my youth – we all need music.

But there’s little about my day job which can be put to music.

Politics and government decision- making is all about words.

So yesterday, the programme for the new session of Parliament was set out, in words (though with plenty of music beforehand), as Her Majesty delivered her speech from the Throne in the House of Lords – “The Queen’s Speech”.

Sessions of Parliament normally last about 12 months.

This one can only last at best six months as there will, by law, be a General Election by June, or maybe earlier.

But I’ve seen such short pre-election sessions where a General Election has been a certainty three times before, and contrary to some of the comment, a lot of business does go through before Parliament is dissolved for the election.

Work has already begun on some bills – those which are ‘carried over’ from the previous session, including one of mine, on constitutional reform.

And we will get cracking on the new items pretty quickly, with a flurry of legislation introduced in the days and weeks ahead.

There has been a debate about how much difference the Queen’s Speech will actually make to the big decision voters make when they go to the polls sometime in the next six months.

The argument runs that it may be a big deal in the “Westminster village”, it doesn’t really affect the country as a whole.

But I think it makes a significant difference.

Sure, not everyone will have tuned in to watch the speech yesterday, but its effects will become quickly apparent as the debates get going in the months ahead. And I’m confident we’ll make a lot of progress.

The issues range from a new national care service to give free personal care to those who need it the most, in their own homes, to measures to deal with the management of flooding and some interesting measures in schools, such as school report cards for parents to keep up with the performance of their child’s school.

For all the impressive finery of the State Opening, and few can deny that it is an impressive ceremony, the issues at the heart of the speech come down to the brass tacks of daily life.

Blackburn Rovers and Burnley: we’re all united by football

‘You must be Burnley in disguise,’ the fans around me in the Blackburn end suddenly started chanting during one of the few slack periods in Sunday’s game.

Almost without thinking, I was about to join in. Then everyone realised it wasn’t any team in disguise, it wasn’t Burnley in disguise, it was the real thing.

The first top flight contest between these two East Lancashire teams since 1963.

What a game. I aged ten years before, and during the game until the final whistle was blown, and we’d won!

The great Bill Shankly famously remarked that “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

Of course, Shankly was not being literal, but there was and is an essential truth in what he said.

In East Lancashire, whether Rovers’ or Clarets’ supporters (or neither) we were all able to witness Shankly’s essential truth.

It’s this; that what happens on the field can reverberate across whole communities, like a stone dropped into a pool.

East Lancashire, from one end to the other, has just a quarter of a million people within it.

That’s less than one two-hundredths of the population of England and Wales.

Yet we have one tenth of the Premier League teams – two out of twenty. It’s a great asset for our area.

The Blackburn-Burnley derby excited interest across the country, and has helped add, in a good way, to the definition and profile which East Lancashire enjoys nationally.

Above all, however, I think that the derby has helped to strengthen the already strong-sense of community of towns along the East Lancashire valley.

I’m sure Burnley was buzzing, though I thought it wise not to check out the atmosphere in person.

Blackburn was certainly buzzing. Everyone was talking about the game and I mean everyone.

If they were Blackburnian, the imperative of a win for Rovers was the first topic of conversation – and often the only one.

I attended a rather belated Eid dinner on Saturday. Half those present were Asian; half white.

If the conversations had been recorded, but without the name of the speakers, you’d have heard, virtually everyone talking about the game, regardless of ethnic background.

Rovers’ fortunes are part of what gives everyone in town part of their sense of place, their identity.

And, contrary to the utter nonsense we hear from the BNP, it’s possible to have layers of loyalties – we all do.

Back to the game itself. There was a dismal period (more than one) in Rovers’ recent history when if we’d gone a goal down we’d had it.

Five minutes into Sunday’s game I feared that’s where we were, again.

Like it or not, Robbie Blake’s goal was a corker – and so was the set-up, with our midfield falling apart and our defence deceived.

A millisecond after the goal there was that awful silence as hope collapsed into fear!

Every credit then to Sam Allardyce for the way he has the team fighting back whenever we’re down. What relief with Dunny’s equaliser, what joy with Di Santo’s second, and ecstasy with Chimbonda’s, the third.

Of course, success never comes easy at Ewood Park.

But like every Rovers supporter I’ve been walking on air ever since Sunday – and recalling, we really did beat Burnley.

Safety: some have gone far too far

Yes, keep the Bunsen burners! Stinks and bangs are good for kids.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the reason I was offered by House of Commons’ officials when the MP for Romford, Essex, Andrew Rosindell asked me as Leader of the Commons why the flag pole atop the new Parliamentary building “Portcullis House” was never used to fly the Union Jack. This is the building opposite Big Ben. It was built with a flag pole as part of its design.

I assumed that the architects had thought about how someone would in practice be able to raise, and lower, a flag from it. So I refused to give this draft answer, and instead told the Commons that I would inspect the pole and its surroundings myself.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the answer which came back.

I was strongly advised not to make an inspection. It was too dangerous. Too bad, I replied, I was quite capable of looking after myself. As I was going up, a “Health ’n’ Safety” officer thrust a “Risk Assessment” in my hand.

This had lots of coloured columns in it, and looked pretty. A cursory glance told me that this was more about its writers covering their back than any real-world risks.

It transpired when I finally got into the roof space that access to the flagpole was via two heavy bronze doors which could catch the wind, and might just badly injure the man with the flag. “Isn’t the answer”, I asked “to fix a bolt to secure the door open? I’ll get you one for a quid in B&Q if you can’t get one”. Reluctantly this suggestion was accepted. The bolt was put in. The flag went up.

I gave Mr Rosindell the answer he was seeking, rather than have to fob him off with nonsense.

Health and safety is very far from all being nonsense. Many construction sites and factories used to be death traps.

Today, whilst there can still be too many accidents, care over risk to life and limb has made inherently dangerous workplaces much safer. But there is a common-sense balance to be struck.

My concern is that some in the safety business, with lawyers and insurers behind them, have gone far too far – as with the saga of the Commons flagpole, and all kinds of restrictions on children’s activities, including reports of reluctance to allow chemistry experiments with Bunsen burners. This is not about wilfully exposing children to unnecessary danger, but better getting them to understand how to make their own decisions about the risks which we all face anyway. I taught my own children at an early age to scramble up rocks, use axes, and make fires because outdoor activity is great, and because they were then able better to learn about risk.

So it should be with chemistry experiments.

We need more skilled chemists in this country.

We won’t get them unless pupils can themselves experience the wonder of materials changing their state in front of their eyes.

So here’s hoping that the latest intervention by the Royal Society of Chemistry produces a sensible change in schools’ practice.

It’s the people who will decide

I’m in Brighton, in the bubble of a party conference, where the party is in good heart, the weather’s been glorious and the real sun has been shining.

What I tried to show in my speech was what’s happened in Blackburn these last 12 years.

No government’s record is perfect. It is true, for example, that there’s still too much anti-social behaviour. But it’s also true that the police, the council and the courts have more effective measures for dealing with this than ever they did – and that, across Lancashire, crime is down. It just is.

Which leads me on to that other Sun, the newspaper and its announcement in yesterday’s paper that it’s fallen out of love with Labour. We have a free press in this country, thank God, so it’s entirely their decision.

What does however surprise me is how thin are the Sun’s arguments.

I am not talking of their criticism of our support for our troops in Afghanistan. We have worked very hard to ensure that they are properly equipped and supported and I know from family experience what it’s like if a loved one is in harm’s way.

But since troops are fighting and dying to keep us safe, we’ve a duty to respond to criticism, and we do.

But let’s take their other claims. That Labour’s “FAILED” on law and order, schools, health. Not true. Who says? The Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council for a start. It’s now a Conservative, Lib Dem and Darwen First coalition.

Go to the council’s website and find a report called “Self Assessment for September 2008 Corporate Assessment”. It hails a 6.8 per cent decrease in crime since 2000, It talks of having exceeded targets to have at least 55 per cent of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs grades A*-C. And it sets out an impressive record on health, including a 15 per cent reduction in premature deaths from coronary disease, strokes and related diseases and a 14% reduction in people dying prematurely from cancers.

It’s hardly a record of failure.

Then there’s immigration – where, allegedly, we “opened our borders without any regard to the consequences”. No we didn’t.

We did vote for the eastern European countries to come in the European Union, that’s true. But so, actively, did the Tories (and the Lib Dems). As for “illegal migrants and bogus asylum seekers” the system is now much tougher and better organised than the one we inherited from the Tories,.

The Sun’s most spurious claim is about CCTV cameras. They complain that we have 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, for 1 per cent of the population, “snooping” on decent people. Wrong.

I’ve never had a single decent person ask me to get CCTV cameras taken down – but scores of requests to have them put up.

Why? Because they are an essential tool in fighting crime, improving law and order.

I’ve been glad to have the Sun’s support in three previous elections and whilst I regret their decision to switch sides, I don’t complain.

That’s their privilege. In any event it’s the British people who decide elections in the secrecy of the ballot.

And what I’ll be doing is showing the difference we have made, ask challenging our critics to where and how they could or would have done better.

The end of the world is not nigh…

Imagine I own a house worth £100,000. Currently my mortgage is around £45,000.

Imagine I also own a small business which is fundamentally sound, but which is experiencing cash flow problems.

I need some cash to invest in some new machinery.

So, I ask the bank manager for an additional £45,000 secured on my home.

I can meet the repayments, and over the medium term I’ll be able to repay some of the capital too.

The bank manager agrees – he knows that if his bank doesn’t get their regular payments and they have to foreclose and sell the house, they’ll get their money back. The mortgage may have doubled – from £45,000 to £90,000, but it’s still only 90 per cent of the available security.

I use this example to try to make the telephone numbers of budget deficits and national debt just a little more understandable.

Here’s what’s happening.

The UK is borrowing a lot more this year, for similar reasons to the example I quoted above.

Tax revenue such as that received from stamp duty on house sales is down. More money is being paid out because of the increase in the number of jobless. And we continue to invest in the future.

With private house-building in the doldrums it’s essential that we keep up public sector construction projects – on roads, schools, heath centres, etc.

So the “budget deficit” – the difference between what we spend, and what we receive in tax, is rising. It was around 2.5 per cent of our nation’s income [Gross Domestic Product or GDP] in 2007/08.

It’s more than doubled to around six per cent in 2008/09 and is forecast to peak in the current financial year at just over 12 per cent of GDP – around the same share as the United States.

Does that mean, however, that having as it were doubled our national mortgage the UK will be out of line with other major economies, or worse we’ll be facing a ‘debt crisis’? ‘No’ to both. Here’s why.

We went into the world financial crisis with a national debt – the total size of our national mortgage – lower than others.

According to the IMF, general government gross debt in the UK stood at approximately 44 per cent of GDP in 2007. France and Germany were both on 64 per cent, the United States on 63 per cent, Italy on 103 per cent, and Japan on a whopping 188 per cent.

And independent forecasts predict that we’ll stay in line with other major economies in five years’ time.

So we are not out of line with other major nations, but in step with them – or better. We also know from our history what happens if nations act too quickly to cut their deficits – millions more get thrown out of work, and it takes much longer to recover. This is precisely what happened to East Lancashire in the 1930s. It took a decade and a world war to get anywhere near to full employment.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a nation’s economy works in the same way as a family budget. But the comparison I offer is valid, and illustrates that – without underestimating the difficulties we all face – the end of the world is not nigh.