MP's Official Blog
are near the end of a parliamentary session. Next week, the Queen
will open parliament for the final session before the general
election, expected next year in March (before Easter) or on 6
May (local elections).
The Queen reads out a speech written for her by the government,
but she always manages to keep a straight face.
I got in unexpectedly at Prime Ministers questions recently.
The Speaker called me right at the end of the half hour session.
Gordon Brown and I have clashed repeatedly in the past over taxation
(when I was a treasury minister) and the EU (over my demands for
This time I asked him to support the Campaign for Dark Skies.
This helps amateur astronomy by cutting light pollution, and also
saves energy. I pointed out that, the lights are all on
in 10 Downing Street very late at night, and would he help by
switching some of them off?
The Prime Minister is never one to take a joke. His predecessor
Tony Blair would have answered in kind. Gordon Brown spluttered
something about not blaming it all on Europe, and looked glum.
On the subject of energy, I am beginning to get letters about
the planned new grid connection from Bridgwater up to Avonmouth.
One proposed route follows the line of an existing but smaller
line of pylons near the M5. The other, route 2, is further to
the East. I am in touch with National Grid about this, so if you
may be affected please let me know, as well as responding to the
The new pylons are necessary if EDF gets permission to build two
new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point, to replace the existing
reactors in due course. Also there are plans for an off-shore
wind farm to the West which will need the new connector.
I asked the Energy Minister if the re-started energy programme
could make Somerset a centre for nuclear engineering. It could
also boost the proposed Somerset University, based on our existing
further education colleges. Unemployment has doubled in the Wells
constituency over the past two years, so we need to grasp these
Remembrance Sunday is always an important day for me. This year
I attended Wells in the morning and Cheddar in the afternoon.
It is getting difficult to find marching bands for all these services.
Cheddar solved the problem this year by having a van with a loudspeaker.
We all marched, roughly in step, from the church to the war memorial
to the sound of Colonel Bogie on CD.
This year I think we all gave a bit extra to the poppy appeal
in memory of Harry Patch, Somerset man and last of the Tommys.
And the other reason was the knowledge that Afghanistan is returning
a stream of badly wounded soldiers who need our help.
things were on my mind last week: Parliamentary allowances, Afghanistan
and the National Grid.
me explain (and in the case of Parliamentary expenses, apologise).
has been a terrible time for Parliament and it is clear that the
Parliamentary allowances system is not fit for purpose and needs
allowance for a second home is designed for MPs who attend the
House of Commons during the week and travel to their constituencies
at weekends. The allowance pays for these expenses and for the
upkeep and maintenance of the constituency home. Capital costs,
or enhancements to a property, are not allowed.
have never claimed for household furnishings or mortgage interest.
But I have claimed for the services of a part time gardener and
this has been paid without query by the Fees Office under the
heading of Services/Maintenance. Over three years
to 2007 this included £380 worth of garden manure (since
repaid), and it was this that got me onto the front page of the
whole system is now to be reformed. Although I am the lowest overall
spender amongst Somerset MPs, I apologise for my part in this.
week before the expenses row I was in Afghanistan with the Foreign
Affairs Committee. We are conducting a study into British policy
and the war and will be reporting to Parliament.
present 8000 British troops there are of course not the first.
In 1838 the Somerset Light Infantry were in Afghanistan and survived
the five month siege of Jellalabad. Their commander, General Fighting
Bob Sale, knew that his wife had been taken hostage by the
revels. The garrison eventually broke out and defeated the rebel
Somerset Light Infantry were one of the few regiments to come
out of the 1st Afghan war with credit, and were honoured by Queen
British troops are fighting with equal bravery and distinction.
But yet again it is proving extremely difficult to defeat an enemy,
this time the Taliban, who exploit their knowledge of mountain
territory and acknowledge no frontiers. The Taliban embrace an
extremist form if Islam. Women and girls, for instance, are denied
any form of education in areas they control. Our committee visited
a large girls' school in Kabul which would certainly close if
the Taliban took over.
talked to some of the 5300 girls educated at the school. They
are educated in shifts because there are not enough classrooms.
British aid id helping this school and it has a link with a school
twinning has become rather stale. Many towns in Britain are twinned
with continental towns without much public enthusiasm. Would it
do more good if we created new links with towns and villages in
Afghanistan and other countries where the needs are great and
they need our friendship?
the National Grid. Somerset looks like becoming a centre of electricity
generation. The Severn Tidal Power scheme could be the largest
source of generation in the country. I have reported to government
the views expressed at the two meetings I held last month in Burnham
and Brean. We will know next year which of the five short listed
schemes are recommended for construction. Meanwhile, Hinkley Point
is likely to be designated as a site for a large new nuclear power
station, to replace Hinkley B which is getting near the end of
its useful life.
there is offshore wind power and the planned Atlantic Array off
the north coast of Devon.
this means that the National Grid network will have to be strengthened,
to take all this electricity to market. That means new power lines,
and one possible route goes from Bridgwater to Bristol. There
will be public consultation, but I am keeping a close eye on this
on behalf of constituents who might be affected.
recent wet weather has turned attention to the question of flooding.
Somerset has always lived in the shadow of flooding risk, either
from the sea or from rivers. But the Environment Agency's response
is not satisfactory.
half of my constituency has been designated as a 'Flood Zone 3'.
It now includes most of Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge, and many
villages further inland.
3 means a presumption against all development. People wanting
to undertake even modest developments have to spend a great deal
of money on surveys and are likely to be turned down.
the existence of flood defences makes no difference: the zoning
maps assume they don't exist. This threatens to mothball a very
sizeable area of Somerset. This is bound to damage the local economy,
as jobs and development go elsewhere.
the Environment Agency does not do a proper job in maintaining
the rivers they are responsible for. If they did more to prevent
flooding, I would be more willing to support their flood zone
the subject of weather, I recently returned from a Foreign Affairs
Committee visit to Warsaw and Prague, where the temperature was
minus 12°C, which is normal for winter.
East European countries live on the frontier with the former Soviet
bloc. They still feel threatened by Russia, which had just disrupted
gas supplies. This has a lesson for us: we too are dependent on
imported gas and most of it comes from unstable or unfriendly
parts of the world. We are at the end of the pipeline for gas
from Russia, and that country has made clear that it regards energy
as a foreign policy weapon.
we have neglected our power stations. No new nuclear plants have
been built for 15 years, our coal burners are increasingly obsolete,
and there is no immediate prospect of building thousands of wind
generators, even if they worked.
is not a situation we should accept, cold winter or no. Changes
are on the way: Hinkley Point is the site for a nuclear generator
planning application. And the government is consulting on proposals
for a Severn barrage. I have already started to hold meetings
about the barrage and how it would affect this coastline, and
more are planned.
recently attended a dinner for MPs who have run the London marathon.
42 MPs have run the 26 mile race, some many times. Our fastest
was Matthew Parris, now a newspaper columnist, whose best time
was an astonishing 2 hours 32 minutes. My own best time was a
more leisurely 3 hours 55 minutes which puts me in 14th place
dinner was a splendid event which brought back many memories and
stories of the race, the runners, the crowd, and the charities
which benefit. I would urge anyone who can jog to give it a go.
Modern running shoes mean you can continue well past middle age!
thanks to a constituent who wrote to me. We can all feel a bit
safer. He pointed out that locksmiths who are recruiting staff
or trainees are not allowed to check if the applicant has a criminal
record. After a good deal of correspondence with the Ministry
of Justice, I have just been told that the Master Locksmiths can
in future make checks through the Criminal Records Bureau. As
I have recently been burgled myself, I am grateful for the reassurance.
ought to be the season of good cheer and festivity, but the economic
recession is now biting and job losses are rising. Many of the
local firms I visited in the summer are now working short time
and face an uncertain future.
debt got us into this mess, and unfortunately the government has
the biggest debt of all. It is due to rise to over £1 trillion:
we will be paying it off for many years to come.
think we must look again at how we earn our living in this country.
We have relied too much on housing, financial services and government
expenditure. I have proposed in the House of Commons that we back
British industry, and start by banning all further job-destroying
regulations, red tape and unnecessary new laws.
parliament could take a lead by reducing the number of MPs
there are 646; 500 would be about right. Also we should end our
final salary pension scheme which few firms in the private sector
the same time, local authorities must try and help the economy
here in Somerset. An example is tourism. The lower pound should
persuade more people to take their holidays in England next year.
Holidays abroad are certainly going to be much more expensive.
So its time Somerset County Council finally did something
to help the holiday trade in Brean by completing the foot and
cycle path along the Coast Road. That way, they could do something
for holiday makers and help jobs in the construction industry
at the same time.
send all constituents my best wishes for Christmas, and may the
New Year bring some better news.
is back, and the first task is to tackle the global debt crisis.
What started as a banking collapse has now spread to the rest
of the economy. All political parties must pull together, or the
recession could be long and deep. I am greatly helped by the many
constituency visits I carried out in September. This year I concentrated
on schools, businesses and voluntary organisations. It has given
me a good picture of what is happening locally and how the Somerset
economy is bearing up.
also had meetings with Sedgemoor District Council and Somerset
County Council to discuss a number of long standing problems.
I am afraid that the County Council is still unwilling to complete
the much-needed pathway long the Berrow Coast Road. It is crazy
that a project which they previously planned and approved should
be cancelled in this way. I remain determined to get it done somehow.
news for the Frank Foley Parkway. This 'missing link' is now to
go ahead with construction next summer.
must also play its part in preventing a future 'energy crunch'.
Too few power stations have been built recently and those we have
are showing their age. A cold winter, or unexpected breakdowns,
could lead to blackouts.
Point is the natural site for a new nuclear power station, and
two planning applications have been submitted. Obviously we must
insist on the highest safety standards. If local authorities work
positively with the energy companies we would secure our power
supplies and also become a centre for engineering skills and jobs.
This in turn would help us get out of a recession. Let's look
to the future and think positively.
the Somerset Coast we can almost 'see' southern Ireland in line-of-sight.
So give the Irish a wave and a cheer; they have just voted no
to the latest treaty. In doing this they have spoken for all the
people of Europe and shown great courage and independence.
the Irish vote be respected? Or will the Brussels elite press
on with their project for a yet more powerful and centralised
EU? There is now only one way to decide the matter here, and that
is to hold the national referendum which all three major parties
promised before the last general election, but so far denied by
the government take a lead in Europe and argue for a simpler,
democratic system which listens to the people instead of imposing
everything from above? There is a real opportunity for Britain
to press for fundamental reform and I will be arguing for it in
the House of Commons debate later this week.
I have attended a further meeting on the Severn Barrage. The two
year study is now underway and, if agreed, the barrage will start
from Brean. It has become much more likely as the government has
signed up to an EU target of 15% of all energy from renewables.
This translates into about 40% of electricity production from
renewables, which is far higher than even the most optimistic
projection for technologies like wind power.
colleague, John Penrose, MP for Weston-super-Mare, has discovered
that the EU directive on renewable energy contains a bias in favour
of very big schemes. Such projects will count towards a Member
States renewable energy target while they are still under
construction, rather than when they are finished and working.
means that the Severn Barrage would count towards contributing
almost 5% of Britains electricity from renewable sources
for up to 10 years before any power has been generated. Smaller
scale technologies, such as tidal lagoons, would not qualify.
artificial targets, with their bias and distortion, are not the
right way to assess these projects. John Penrose and I will be
doing all we can to ensure that the needs of the coastline and
the estuary are properly taken into account, and that the government
does not go ahead with a huge project just to meet a legal target.
have recently returned from a trip to Japan and Korea. As a member
of the all party Foreign Affairs Committee I travel a lot, but
this visit was special given the distances and time involved.
are doing a report on global security and the Far East is of pivotal
importance. Japan has a constitution which bans the deployment
of Japanese troops overseas. But they are extremely alarmed by
the behaviour of neighbouring North Korea, which is practically
the last communist state in the world, and one with nuclear weapons.
is a well ordered city, although difficult to navigate - even
the taxi drivers get lost. Few of the buildings date from before
1945 as most of the city was destroyed in conventional air raids
during the Second World War. The underground trains are spotlessly
clear without a scrap of litter; a contrast to London's rubbish
had good discussions with Japanese ministers and MPs and we found
them in sombre mood. Japan has a falling birth rate, a stalled
economy, and they are heavily dependent on imported energy even
though they have a civil nuclear programme. They are developing
renewable energy, particularly solar power, but they have little
interest in wind energy which is generally regarded as unreliable.
Despite Japan's problems it is still an economic powerhouse and
generates 12% of the world's wealth.
Japanese have considerable regard for Britain - another island
monarchy with a seafaring tradition - but America is the country
which guarantees their security.
then flew to Seoul, capital of South Korea. At the end of the
Korean war in 1953 the city was a heap of rubble but is now prosperous
and modern. Indeed the South Korean economic miracle is even more
impressive than that of Japan. It shows what a backward country
can do through hard work and good organisation, even if it possesses
no natural resources.
a day of talks in Seoul we drove north into the world's most unstable
and heavily fortified border area. North and South Korea have
never signed a peace treaty with each other so they are still
technically at war. Instead, the 1953 armistice is policed by
the United Nations, with America providing most of the troops.
Korea is a closed society, extremely poor, and it is a crime to
try and escape. Kim Jong-il inherited the leadership from his
father and likes to be known as 'Dear Leader' by the 23 million
inhabitants. Despite its backwardness, the country has developed
or bought nuclear weapons and a missile system. Negotiations are
in hand to dismantle this nuclear programme in return for food
aid and fuel oil, but no one we spoke to was very hopeful.
armistice ending the Korean war was signed at Panmunjon which
is now the only contact point between the two sides. Accompanied
by a British army officer, we visited the hut right on the border
(pictured) where negotiations take place. The two sides sit on
either side of a table, with the border running down the middle.
Unsmiling North Korean guards watched our every move through binoculars.
I have not seen such unrelenting hostility since crossing into
East Berlin in 1970.
encouragingly, we visited a factory site in North Korea (pictured
at the top of this post) where the business expertise and capital
is provided by the South and the workers are supplied by the North.
The workers have few rights, but their wages, about $60 a month,
are much higher than they could earn elsewhere in North Korea.
Our attempts to talk to some of the workers were quickly discouraged
by our communist 'minders'.
this day on one of the world's front lines we drove back to Seoul
and the next day flew back to London. This is a region of great
economic interest, including as it does the rise of China. It
is also strategically important and potentially dangerous. Britain
must keep closely in touch with such developments, and our committee
will make a full report to Parliament.
statements used to be occasions of high political drama with a
packed House of Commons listening to every word. Now they are
rather boring, partly because some of the decisions are leaked
beforehand, and partly because the government has run out of money.
only interest is in just how many taxes are going up again. This
time it was particularly bad for rural Britain (or England, as
Scotland seems to escape). We are losing many of our facilities,
like post offices, and this encourages people to use their cars.
Now the price of motoring goes up with a steep rise in car tax.
These taxes now come with green camouflage, but its your
money that the Treasury want.
extra tax on alcohol will hit the village pub. This is supposed
to deter binge drinking by young people, but I would have preferred
a targeted approach on certain high alcohol drinks rather than
putting the price up for everyone. Its also madness to create
an even bigger business in Calais supplying British day visitors
and enriching the French exchequer.
week also saw the conclusion of the debates on the EU Treaty.
I intervened or spoke in each of the twelve days of debate on
the bill to ratify it. It will transfer more powers from parliament
to the EU, which will now pass laws on sensitive matters such
as immigration, criminal justice and policing. And our power to
block such EU laws will almost disappear.
or not this is a bad thing, I am certain the public must have
the final say. I kept my promise to vote for a national referendum
on the subject but it was narrowly lost. Now the House of Lords
will debate the matter. I hope they force all political parties
to keep their manifesto promises to hold a referendum on how we
am shortly to write to the government opposing the planned closure
of the local post offices. After four public meetings, and hundreds
of petition signatures and letters, I have plenty of ammunition.
If any readers would like to add anything, please write to me
economic picture is darkening, and the Government is running out
of money. Despite all those extra taxes, the Government is borrowing
hard. And the Northern Rock collapse means that all taxpayers
have in effect lent that company £1300 each, whether they
like it or not.
consequence of this is the very tight financial settlement forced
on District Councils this year (although Somerset County Council
seems to have escaped, with a generous 9% increase).
very unhappy group are the police who came up to Westminster last
week for a rare demonstration. They were awarded a 2.5% increase
by the independent pay body and the government has cut this back
to 1.9%. No government in my memory has done this before.
we had to vote on our own pay - always a somewhat embarrassing
event. We eventually agreed a 1.9% increase for MPs; but I had
a more radical idea. I believe that if the new EU treaty is ratified
we should have a pay cut. The Treaty transfers more powers away
from parliament to the EU. So if our powers and responsibilities
are reduced, we should be paid less. The same applies to ministers'
suggested this in the House of Commons, and was backed by two
other Conservative MPs. But not surprisingly the idea didn't catch
on. Even if the House of Commons is reduced to the status of a
local council it seems that MPs would want to be paid as though
they still legislate in a sovereign chamber.
policy was debated again last week. I was pleased that the proposed
wind farm near Brent Knoll was turned down on appeal. Wind power
is expensive and unreliable.
much more interesting idea is to extract energy from the strong
tidal flows of the Bristol Channel. The government has announced
a study into the possibility of a huge Severn Tidal Barrage. This
would probably start from Brean, in this constituency, with major
implications for people living nearby and for the Mendip Hills
which would provide much of the material.
minister responsible has agreed to keep me closely informed, and
I would welcome ideas, both for and against, as the project unfolds.
we near the end of 2007, I have been reflecting on events that
have had an influence on my life over the last year both professionally
and personally. Some of the most enjoyable moments have occurred
when I have been in Somerset meeting my constituents either on
a personal or professional basis.
am spending Christmas with my family in Pilton, as I never cease
to be aware how fortunate we are to be able to call this wonderful
county of ours home.
will reconvene in early January.
would like to take this opportunity to wish all my constituents
a very Happy Christmas and a Prosperous and Peaceful New Year.
there is to be no general election after all, at least not until
2009. Having ordered all the posters and pamphlets, Gordon Brown
called it off. It was the opinion polls that did it of course,
but I think he also had visions of dark evenings, November gales,
and people asking, 'why are we having an unnecessary election?'
So it's business as usual in parliament, with the difference that
the two main parties are now very evenly balanced. I have returned
to the new session with some pressing local issues to raise.
For instance, I remain very worried about the flood risk in Somerset.
We face two dangers: from the sea and from river flooding. We
need to review our sea defences and also make sure that the river
and drainage network can cope at times of very high rainfall.
If the July rainstorms had hit Somerset instead of Gloucestershire
we would have been in serious trouble. Having examined our rivers
and pumping stations last month, and having discussed the matter
with the Environment Agency, I believe that more should be done
to reduce the flooding risk.
A select committee of the House is doing a report on this and
I am in touch with them to make sure Somerset's voice is heard
and that the Environment Agency gives more attention to its flood
prevention duties. Yrs David.
very disrupting events last week: first the Glastonbury festival,
which actually takes place in my village of Pilton; second the
change of Prime Minister.
was of course a mud bath, and a week later the site is still a
sea of abandoned tents. The idea was to send the tents to Africa
as part of an aid programme but no one will want them in this
state and I believe most of them will be dumped. Still, a lot
of good bands played at the festival and the organisers have a
four year licence, so let's hope the long range forecast is better
for next year.
back at Westminster, Gordon Brown takes over and promises lots
of 'change'. It's not clear yet what this means. Does it mean
an end to higher taxes? Or getting out of Iraq? Or stopping the
English subsidy to Scotland? I doubt it.
are rumours of an early election. But I will make one prediction:
there won't be one. Gordon Brown says there will be no referendum
on the European constitutional treaty, despite the promise in
Labour's last election manifesto. If there is an early election,
the Conservative party (and maybe the Lib Dems) will promise to
hold a referendum on Europe. This would wrong-foot Brown; he won't
week, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I visited
Moscow where we had discussions in the Kremlin with Russian ministers.
Russia has huge reserves of oil and gas and is using this as a
powerful weapon of foreign policy. They assured us that they wished
to be a reliable supplier but I believe we need to become more
self sufficient in energy if we are to avoid the possible threat
of blackmail in the future.
committee then went on to Vienna where we met the International
Atomic Energy Agency. They monitor the Non Proliferation Treaty
and try to ensure that the rules governing the peaceful use of
nuclear power are not broken. They are deeply worried by Iran
which seems to be developing a nuclear weapons programme and is
so far refusing to back down.
back to the UK and down to Burnham for an advice surgery. Mostly
about local issues, but they are often connected somehow to the
international questions we are grappling with on the Foreign Affairs
to the official blog for Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge's MP, David