30 June 2012

Don't cry for Clueless Chloe

by Trevor Phillips

The recent BBC Newsnight interview of Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, considered government plans to cut £500 million of fuel duty income - while it continues to slash vital public services “due to funding shortages”. The interview has ‘gone viral’ on You-tube and in other media. Some responses shoot the interviewer: that nasty Jeremy Paxman is such a bully, intimidating a young woman like that. And that Chancellor, George Osborne - 'Orrible Ozzy' hereafter, surely – is a coward for putting such an innocent into the ring with Paxo instead of going there himself to explain the, erm, inexplicable government reversal on fuel duty.

And so the excuses and apologies rain in for the abysmal performance of Treasury Minister Chloe Smith, in her encounter with rottweiler Paxman. An Eastern Daily Press (EDP) columnist was swiftly into print by Thursday 28 June, describing Paxman's methods as 'like a grizzly beastie stalks its prey' and concluding: 'The interview does not change the fact that she is a capable minister and a good bet for a future cabinet position'. He probably does the lottery, too.

I don't much like Paxman's style. He is unnecessarily aggressive at times. But he is rude to
almost everyone - and in the case of politicians, regardless of their party. To his credit he is particularly tough on government ministers or spokespeople, regardless of gender, age or other irrelevancies. And given the limitations of Prime Minister's Question Time and other Punch and Judy shows in the Commons, I welcome this minimal accountability of our national leaders.

The performance of Smith cannot be blamed on Paxman. Smith was just as appalling on Channel 4 News a few hours earlier

Interestingly, both programmes asked the same questions, their producers knowing full well how to expose the chaotic reverses of a faltering government. It wasn't anti-Tory - they would just as soon stitch up a Labour or Lib-Dem minister.

lame for Smith's denouement as a lightweight also hangs with Osborne and his senior Treasury team who avoided similar embarrassment or, some say, were double booked at a Bullingdon Club evening of Bunter cakes and ale. And where were the media managers and whips who ensure that spokespeople are found, scripted, rehearsed and delivered fresh faced and mantra perfect to make-up rooms and cameras? More than one head may yet roll for this debacle.

But let's not let any of this distract us from the contribution of Chloe Smith herself. Keen to be an MP, happily riding the fast escalator to promotion and willing to be groomed by party barons and have greatness thrust upon her. She did not decline to be interviewed and had enough self belief – she is not short of this - to imagine she could handle the task.

Chloe Smith and her media managers have worked hard to cultivate an image of business knowledge and community connection. She was apparently once a business consultant of some sort (but who would consult her now?) And a look at her website is like a trawl through the index of the Charities Commission, with pictures of visits to countless good causes. But do these images reflect any real grasp of the human impact of the policies she backs? 'Chloe's Gallery' deserves closer attention:

Here is Chloe visiting care homes and raising awareness of Carers' Week'.
This is while Conservative run Norfolk County Council implements Treasury dictated funding cuts, and has reduced funding to day centres for older and disabled people –which also give carers a break.

'Here is Chloe helping Norfolk Homemakers, providing affordable furniture for people in need and on low income'. Let's not ask why more people are now in need - that would be a bit like that nasty Paxman. With high unemployment and benefit cuts reducing family incomes and Tory plans to cut housing benefit expected to drive many families into greater poverty, Chloe may have to do a second shift at the warehouse.

'Here is Chloe helping to collect blankets for the elderly and vulnerable'. Let's not ask if there are more vulnerable people since Chloe was elected, it would be rude. But in Norfolk, support is being cut for people with mental health problems, sensory dysfunction and learning difficulties. Cuts in benefits for Norfolk's disabled people will reduce their living standards by a third over the next 3 years. More blankets, Chloe!

'Here is Chloe helping the local Samaritans'
. I wonder if their case-load has increased or decreased since the last election? And why is free Legal Aid disappearing and the Citizens Advice Bureau being stripped to the bone?

'Here is Chloe getting on her bike for the British Heart Foundation'
. But don't ask why the Tories allowed the junk-food and alcohol lobbies to fund government lifestyle adverts in return for a 'non-regulatory' approach.

'Here is Chloe visiting Remply'.
That should be Remploy, Chloe, and let me remind you of your government’s plan to soon close 36 of 54 Remploy sites, with compulsory redundancy for1,752 people of whom 1,518 are disabled. And to close others, including Norwich, by the end of 2013.

'Here is Chloe helping the Norwich Foodbank'. Norwich Foodbank, which distributes donated food to desperate families, fed 361 people (257 adults; 104 children) in May this year - more than double all of May last year. Why is demand for this service expected to continue growing, Chloe?

'Here is Chloe... supporting apprenticeship week... and at a job seekers fair'.
While she backs the slashing of Norfolk youth services and drives Treasury policies which have pushed youth unemployment to over 20%.

And so it goes on and on. Here is Chloe providing a few hours or a smile - and certainly a picture opportunity and a heart-warming story - while backing the very policies causing the pain and requiring more voluntary support. So much of this pain could be prevented by funds from £500 million fuel duty,
or by greater government effort to collect the billions of pounds of unpaid taxes. There are alternatives.

I don't blame any of the fine charities and organisations mentioned here for inviting or accepting a visit from a local MP. This is vital for morale, to gain public profile and to have a chance to lobby on policy. Norfolk's voluntary organisations do excellent work. Why then is Norfolk County Council, backed by Chloe Smith and the Treasury, cutting funds for voluntary organisations and community groups, forcing many to close?

But let's be generous and presume that Chloe is big hearted and not cynical. She may not know of these contradictions or of the impact of Treasury policy. She may not understand that it is not really supportive to give people a collecting can while stealing their purse.

But if she is not cynical she is certainly not bright. You decide. Either way she is not fit to be an MP. Don't shed tears for Clueless Chloe.

And finally, returning to the fuel duty delay which began the controversy, the EDP suspects 'the main thing our readers care about is the fact that they will not have to pay so much to fill up their tank between now and January'.

I actually think the good people of Norfolk - many of them providing care or running voluntary organisations under increasing strain - care about much more than that. And some of them will be wondering if their MPs understand any of this.

Pictures from Chloe Smith’s website.

23 June 2012

Twenty Wasted Years

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” is a famous quote by the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu which has a chilling message for the world today.

At the UN Conference on Environment and Development, more commonly known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the leaders of the world signed up to a “wide ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide". The objective was nothing less than a transformation of attitudes and behaviours needed to ensure the maintenance of a healthy planet for the generations to come.

It was clear twenty years ago that we needed to make radical changes if we were to preserve our planet; so what have we done since then? Precious little. In the 20 years since the first Earth Summit our carbon emissions have increased by 40% and the loss of biodiversity has accelerated significantly. Our development is even more unsustainable now than it was back then. According to an assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme only four of ninety goals have been met and unless we can curb our consumption of natural resources then our governments will be presiding over “unprecedented levels of damage and degradation”. Strong words and a clear call to action.

Now however, in the Rio+20 conference which has just concluded you have to wonder whether there is even the same feeble level of commitment as was being shown 20 years ago. True there were 130 heads of state attending the meeting but with Obama, Merkel and Cameron not even bothering to turn up and the Chinese making it clear that they expect the wealthy countries to take the lead in addressing these issues – as they call it “common but differentiated responsibilities” – the chances of any sort of transformation in our behaviours being achieved look vanishingly small. Far from building up what has been achieved, as usually happens at the end of any major international conference, even Nick Clegg who represented the UK there, declared the outcome “insipid”.
European leaders evidently had much more important matters on their minds, with a growth stimulus for the EU being discussed by the French, German, Spanish and Italian leaders. David Cameron grubbing for contracts for British companies in Mexico, while Angela Merkel was prominent in the crowd at the German’s European Championship quarter-final. All good reasons not to attend a conference on the trivial matter of the future of the planet.

At a time when governments are struggling financially though, one positive step you would have thought that they would be prepared to take would be to end the subsidies to fossil fuels which help to drive climate change. With over a trillion dollars being spent by governments to help companies harm the climate – more than 12 times the support for renewable energy the financial and environmental benefits of such a step are clear, but even this proved too much to ask. Our politicians are too deeply in hock to the fossil fuel companies to dare to withdraw their financial support.
So where does this leave us? It is clear the major developed nations are too preoccupied with their financial problems to give adequate attention to the environment and sustainable development. In the absence of financial and you might say, moral, leadership from them it is unrealistic to expect developing nations to take the lead, so it appears the governmental process is at a standstill. Individual issues may still be progressed, but achieving consensus on the broader issues of sustainable development is not going to happen.

It is going to be down to NGO’s and individual actions to lead any change in society. If you believe that we need change, then you are going to have to take it into your own hands to fight for it. Sitting back and expecting our governments to work things out is no longer an option, if it ever was.

Separately, you may be interested in a set of environmental National Report Cards produced by Matt Prescott, an ex Oxford University academic. These rate a countries’ performance on a range of environmental criteria in a similar way to the scoring of credit agencies on financial issues. While far from perfect, the approach highlights some of the important areas on which a country is strong or weak relative to its global peers.