Just one of the reasons the public doesn’t trust politicians

Former Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

Former Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

You’ll often hear politicians talk of how frustrated they are about voter apathy and how they must work harder to engage with the electorate.

Well if any MP, MEP or even local councillor wants to know why so many people feel disillusioned about politics in this country then they simply have to look at the Maria Miller saga.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that if such scandals never arose then the number of people going to the polls would rise exponentially.

There will, sadly, always be those who don’t vote.

We can make all the excuses in the world for them but the truth is most can’t be bothered to exercise their democratic right and the fact that our forefathers died to preserve such freedoms is entirely lost on them. They simply don’t care.

There are also, I believe, a growing number of people who can see very little daylight between the main political parties anymore and they simply distrust politicians.

It doesn’t help that when you ask a question of a Member of Parliament, for example, you never get a straight answer.

I’ve interviewed numerous MPs over the years and they have a way of talking which avoids them ever saying anything which could be held against them further down the line.

Indeed they will very often answer the question with another question or say (and this is my personal favourite): “Well, of course, what’s important here is (insert soundbite).”

No, what’s important is that I’ve noticed you have avoided answering the question, my right honourable friend.

The irony is that I think most people would be far more forgiving of someone who occasionally admitted they had made a mistake than someone who wriggles and squirms but always manages to justify their stance or actions.

I’ve heard and read that Maria Miller has been a terrific constituency MP. That may be true but I’m afraid her reputation will be forever tarnished by the expenses scandal which led to her stepping down from the post of Culture Secretary on Wednesday.

In her resignation letter she told the Prime Minister she was grateful for his ‘personal support’ but felt the ‘present situation’ had become a ‘distraction from the vital work of the Government’.

In the grand scheme of things one could ask why the media is devoting so much time and energy to this story. Is it a witch-hunt because Miller was overseeing the implementation of Press regulation on the back of the Leveson Inquiry?

And anyway, haven’t we got more important things to worry about – like the state of the economy, immigration or HS2?

The truth is, however, that the public remembers the MPs’ expenses scandal – exposed by the excellent work of the Daily Telegraph – all too well and the Miller affair has given us all flashbacks to nannies and duck ponds.

The unedifying spectacle of both sides of the House of Commons slipping and sliding in the mud as they attempt to gain the moral high ground hasn’t helped.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour covered themselves in glory in 2009 and the rank hypocrisy of millionaire opposition front-benchers, themselves far from whiter than white, feigning outrage on behalf of the public is there for all to see.

Last week Parliament’s Independent Standards Commissioner said that Maria Miller had broken Commons rules and should repay £45,000 in expenses she had claimed on a London house which she later sold for a £1.2 million profit.

Then, of course, a committee of MPs laughably reduced the repayment to £5,800 and we all heard Miller’s 32-second excuse for an apology.

Even on Wednesday, having resigned, Miller seemed utterly incapable of admitting she’d done wrong – which she had.

The best we got was that she ‘took full responsibility for the (Standards Commissioner’s) findings’.

Talk about dancing on the head of a pin. Just pay back the £45,000, duck. I dare say you won’t miss it.

Thankfully the former Culture Secretary has decided not to accept the ludicrous £17,000 golden handshake – er, I mean severance pay for Ministers – and instead chose to donate it to charity. You see it’s not just in the banking industry that failure, poor performance, dubious behaviour or resignations are rewarded.

In the same way that an unelected, highly-paid tier of council officers and NHS staff seem bullet-proof, many of our politicians are similarly shielded from the realities of life.

I would suggest it’s high time that we did away with the MPs’ expenses system altogether.

They do an important job which necessitates them living in London much of the time so let’s pay them a salary which covers their housing and travel costs and be done with it. That way there can be no temptation to abuse the system.

At the same time we shouldn’t ever have a situation again where MPs self-regulate in terms of standards or finances.

It simply doesn’t work because those inside the Westminster bubble haven’t a clue just how appalled the vast majority of us are at the way many politicians have behaved in recent years.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

City MP’s take on the most divisive of Prime Ministers

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Few figures are as inextricably linked to the 1980s as the former Prime Minister who passed away this week at the age of 87.

Her tenure covered the entire decade – beginning in 1979 when she inherited a country paralysed by industrial unrest and ending with the bitter Poll Tax riots and a Conservative party revolt which saw her forced from office.

In recent days millions of column inches have been written about this woman as those to the left and right, and those who were helped or hindered by her policies, seek to write her epitaph.

‘Divisive’ is the word most media outlets have settled for as commentators express admiration and condemnation in equal measure.

We’ve a ‘ceremonial’ funeral next week and doubtless amid the pomp there will be protests and questions as to why Margaret Thatcher deserves a multi-million pound send-off while so many across the country struggle in these austere times.

Someone who certainly doesn’t agree with this state-sponsored tribute is Joan Walley who was elected MP for the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency when the Iron Lady won a record third election in June 1987.

By then Mrs Thatcher was a towering political figure who had overseen the Falklands Conflict, defeated Arthur Scargill after the long-running Miners’ Strike and implemented many of the policies on which history will judge her.

Joan, who didn’t attend the tribute debate to the former Prime Minister, said: “When anyone dies, first and foremost you must be respectful of their family and friends and understand what they must be feeling at a time of loss and sadness.

“That said, my feelings towards Mrs Thatcher, I struggle to say Lady Thatcher, are of course coloured by the memories of what her destructive policies did to this country during the 1980s – the effects of which many communities are still feeling today.

“She dismantled much of the country’s manufacturing base, declared war on the trade unions, privatised the UK’s industries and utilities and sold off council homes without ensuring there was the social housing to replace it. We are now living with the consequences of these policies.”

In Joan’s eyes the fact that Margaret Thatcher was the country’s first and only woman Prime Minister is not significant in that it didn’t open doors for other women.

She said: “I don’t think she did anything for women, in all honesty. She certainly didn’t make a huge difference to the political landscape because during her time in office there were still many more men in Parliament than women.”

I asked Joan if it was too simplistic to say that Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy was more successful than her domestic policy.

She said: “Even with regard to the Falklands War it is difficult to say whether or not she was right. She certainly went against the advice of colleagues and military commanders – we know that know from papers that have been released.

“It shows that she had the courage of her convictions but clearly the public confidence which she exuded at times was very much for the media because the success of the task force operation was far from guaranteed.

“Domestically, I would say she just got it terribly wrong. Yes she took over at a time of great industrial unrest but the way in which she set about changing the economy led to deep divisions which still exist.

“I remember leading the miners on marches at the Victoria Ground and Vale Park during the Miners’ Strike. Her policies, such as her war against the trade unions, left a very profound impression on me because I saw the suffering of families in our area.”

So how will Joan remember Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentarian and a person?

“She was always immaculately turned-out. Her outfits were always striking and co-ordinated and she had those strings of pearls. There was never a hair out of place. I think image was very important to her.

“She was certainly an impressive performer in the House and when in front of the cameras – I think you have to say that. She was a good orator and had a very commanding aura.

“I think it also fair to say that she had more of an impact and a presence on the world stage than any of the Prime Ministers who have succeeded her.

“However, she has to be judged on the effect her policies had on the fabric of our society and, for many people, those policies were so destructive and caused hardship and misery.”

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

The public deserve a say on reintroducing the death penalty

There were a raft of liberal reforms sweeping through Parliament when Labour MP Sydney Silverman finally got his way in November 1965 and won backing for his private member’s bill to suspend the death penalty.

Since that time capital punishment has not been dispensed in the UK – regardless of the fact that this country, and the wider world, has changed beyond all recognition.

In 2012 the world is unquestionably a far darker, more dangerous and depraved place than it was 47 years ago.

In Britain, the numbers and rates of serious crimes such as murder have risen dramatically and so it remains one of the great mysteries of our democracy as to why old Sydney’s handiwork remains on the statute books.

Despite consistent majority public support over five decades for the reintroduction of the death penalty as punishment for certain crimes, those we have elected to serve us have not so much put the issue on the back-burner, they’ve thrown the idea out altogether.

It is just not on their radar.

There is simply no appetite for the debate among politicians afraid of being tarred with the brush of right-wing, tabloid newspapers.

What’s more, the abdication of powers to the European Union means that such a move is now more improbable than ever.

How strange then that in the wake of recent tragic events in Manchester and mid-Wales people are once again talking about the need for a death penalty.

Sentinel readers are writing in to the newspaper, stating the case for and against capital punishment.

It happens every time there is a brutal killing and every time a child is murdered.

Every time one of our police officers are killed in the line of duty this debate resurfaces. And so it should.

I listened intently to the broadcasts of the memorial services for PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone and the church service for missing five-year-old April Jones.

They were genuinely heart-breaking and the only solace I could find in any of it was a glimmer of hope that the perpetrators of the associated crimes would feel the full force of the law.
But what happens when the majority of us feel that the punishments available to our courts are quite simply insufficient?

By rights, what the decision-makers should do is properly re-open the debate about the death penalty both as a deterrent and as a solution to some of society’s ills.

Some – such as human rights organisations – will, of course, argue that capital punishment should never be reintroduced.

They will point to well-documented cases where convictions for very serious offences have been over-turned, sometimes many years down the line, and say that we would therefore run the risk of executing innocent people.

Others will argue that the death penalty is no deterrent to some people who are, for whatever reason, hell-bent on killing or committing some sort of atrocity.

I accept these arguments but the simple fact remains that the current system doesn’t work.

We have a situation where, in most cases, sentences of life in prison don’t actually mean ‘life’ at all.

We have a prison system which has spectacularly failed to reduce re-offending rates to any great extent in spite of successive governments pouring millions of pounds into rehabilitation programmes.

We have a situation where prisons in the UK are more akin to youth hostels – complete with TVs, internet access, video games and gymnasiums for the enjoyment of killers, rapists and traitors.

Thus the idea of prison itself being a deterrent or ‘much worse than to be executed’, as one eminent QC puts it, is surely out of the window.

Perhaps just a few of these low-lifes could have been dissuaded from their crimes by the knowledge that they could face capital punishment if caught.

Either way I don’t see why we should be paying to keep them. Why should the families of PCs Bone and Hughes or April Jones pay taxes to feed, clothe and entertain whoever was responsible for taking their loves ones away from them?

What use are such criminals? Forget Europe. What rights do we think such individuals should be entitled to when it is proven beyond doubt that they have committed heinous crimes and, in many cases, admitted to committing them?

As far as I’m concerned such animals waived any rights the moment their twisted consciousness sent them to destroy the lives of others.

They show no thought for other people or the consequences of their actions.

They show no mercy and, in my book, deserve none.

It is all well and good for liberal organisations to preach about forgiveness, understanding and rehabilitation. But some people are so evil, so remorseless, so beyond redemption and so dangerous that I would suggest that, for them, the death penalty is appropriate.

I am talking about people who will never, ever be released from prison and who will never contribute to society in any meaningful way.

Instead they will remain a drain on the public purse and a constant reminder to their victims, or their victims’ families, of their terrible crimes.

Personally I’d rather see them disposed of with minimum fuss and expense. They can be fed to tigers as far as I’m concerned.

If the do-gooders and the law-makers and politicians of this country spent half as much time concerning themselves with the victims of crime as they do fretting over the rights of the perpetrators I dare say we’d all feel a lot safer.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Investors deserve an inquiry into collapse of ‘low-risk’ fund

Amid the ongoing austerity measures, the seemingly endless cutbacks and daily haemorrhaging of jobs it is difficult to find crumbs of comfort.
We are all feeling the pinch and wondering how we would pay the bills if the worst happened to us.
But even in these dark times we look to the future. We hope and plan for better days.
It’s human nature and it is one of the things that keeps us going.
That’s why we save up – no matter how small the amount.
We put money away to fund our children’s university education, to pay for that once-in-a-lifetime holiday or to simply help us get by in old age.
Imagine then the gut-wrenching feeling of being told that those hopes and dreams won’t be realised.
Imagine learning that the savings you have invested for the future simply aren’t there anymore.
That’s the grim reality that hundreds of families in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire are facing up to in the wake of the collapse of a £400m investment scheme.
People like 62-year-old Malcolm Redmond, from Oakhill, who ploughed more than £10,000 into the Arch Cru Investment Funds but now finds himself joining a very long line of creditors.
Just £54m has been set aside for compensation which means that investors will only recover a fraction of their money.
Financial experts agree this is a woefully inadequate package for 20,000 investors when we consider that financial advisers estimate that in MP Tristram Hunt’s Stoke Central Constituency alone, losses may amount to £1.5m.
When it was launched back in 2006, Arch Cru was promoted as a low to medium risk fund.
By the time it was suspended in 2009 it had suffered a catastrophic meltdown in terms of its value which clearly calls into question how the funds were managed, the investments made and the assets purchased.
An investigation by the Financial Services Authority discovered that “funds were used to buy assets from which it is very difficult to get money back”.
This makes you wonder if the fund was marketed properly to ordinary investors back when times were good.
If not then the poor sods who invested in good faith may have a case for having their policies mis-sold.
The collapse of Arch Cru is the latest in a line of scandals to emerge from the financial services sector and begs a number of questions that nothing short of a wide-ranging, Government-instigated inquiry could answer.
However, speaking in Parliament, Treasury Minister Mark Hoban described the compensation offer as a ‘trade off’ which avoided a more lengthy and complex settlement process.
He might as well have said ‘let off’ for the three parties responsible for managing the funds – Capita, BNY Mellon and HSBC.
In layman’s terms, someone, somewhere dropped the ball and sonehow they seem to have got away with it.
Mr Hoban went on to say, with all the sincerity of a man looking down from his ivory tower, that he saw no need for additional inquiry into the Arch Cru debacle and that investors were ‘free to pursue redress through the courts if they were unhappy with the compensation on offer’.
Unhappy? It makes you wonder how Mr Hoban would he feel if he had been told that a large chunk of his savings had been wiped out.
It seems that there is one rule for wealthy individuals and the powerful institutions in this country and another for ordinary taxpayers such as the thousands of Arch Cru customers – many of them pensioners – left in the lurch by the failure of this scheme.
This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme that went pear-shaped. Rather it is a case of ordinary people paying a hefty price for following advice about an investment fund which they were told would be cautiously managed.