Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Gender is irrelevant: It’s how good people are that matters…

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

Minister for Employment and Disabilities Esther McVey.

It was less Night of the Long Knives and more Morning of the Rolling Pins in Downing Street this week as the Prime Minister gave us the first glimpse of the kind of shenanigans we can expect in the countdown to next year’s General Election.

It was thumbs up to women and mothers in David Cameron’s new-look cabinet and thumbs down to white, middle-aged men.

Speaking as one of the latter, I should just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the oft-quoted aim of having more women in senior positions within government.

In fact, you can apply that objective across the entire UK workforce as far as I’m concerned.

Having more women chief executives, directors and managers makes absolute sense. Why wouldn’t we? I can name you half a dozen brilliant female executives working here in North Staffordshire who you’d be proud to have as your boss.

For me, it’s not about gender equality – it’s simple maths: As a society we are clearly missing out on some really talented and capable people if so few women are able to get the top jobs.

Men do not, despite what some of them may think, have a monopoly on good leadership. Neither are they unique in having the best ideas, the highest IQs or the ability to take difficult decisions.

By the same token, hands up if you’ve worked for a bloke who was so inept he couldn’t run a bath? Yes, me too. And hands up how many have worked for similarly poor female managers who think pastoral care is a type of low fat milk?

Am I pleased that the Prime Minister has replaced a bunch of men in suits with a bunch of women in, er… suits?

Well, I suppose before you answer that you have to look at Call me Dave’s reasons for ringing the changes because I’m sure it has very little to do with smashing through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ which prevents women from rising to the top of their profession.

It’s surely no great surprise that Education Secretary Michael Gove has been unseated ahead of the country going to the polls.

He’s so unpopular with the teaching profession because of the reforms he’s implemented in recent years (some of them entirely justified, I might add) that if he was a schoolboy he’d be Billy No Mates up the corner of the classroom with head lice and a penchant for eating his own bogies.

I’m afraid to say that, to my mind, Gove has been cynically sacrificed in the pursuit of votes and to avoid damning soundbites from Labour and the trade unions and nine months of negative headlines from left-leaning newspapers.

In total David Cameron has promoted 10 women in this reshuffle. I don’t know them. They may all be brilliant. Perhaps they are and the PM has only just noticed.

Or perhaps, more likely, Mr Cameron is trying to give his party – which is caricatured as millionaire Eton types who are all friends with bankers and don’t know the price of a Wright’s pie – a softer, more human veneer.

As opposed to the millionaire Labour front-benchers, of course…

Perhaps the thinking is, rather patronisingly, that women will vote for a party with more women. Or that because women still, statistically, do the majority of household chores, look after family finances and provide most of the childcare in the UK then they will have more faith in other women to run the country.

Those who can remember Labour sweeping to power under Tony ‘the Iraq war was entirely justified’ Blair will recall similar excitement in the national press when the ‘Blair babes’ – not my phrase – were unveiled, and more women than ever before were elected to Parliament.

I have to say that this is all just window-dressing to me.

Honestly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s who’s in the cabinet or how many women MPs we have so long as they do a good job.

That, of course, is an entirely separate debate – the answers to which will vary depending on whether you’re sporting a red, yellow or blue rosette come May.

In wishing the women who’ve just been promoted to the cabinet all the best in their new posts I would just caution them not to get too comfortable in their new offices or get carried away with ordering too much branded stationery. After all, 10 months is a long time in politics.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

Of course the UK is a Christian country (and we don’t need the PM to tell us…)

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during the Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. The Prime Minister has found God. Just in time for Easter, it seems.

Rather than the usual platitudes and inoffensive quotes from the gospels, this year ‘call me Dave’ spoke of the importance of his own faith, assured us Britain was still a Christian country and told us we should be confident about the fact.

In doing so he somehow offended a bunch of people and even prompted a well-known collection of humanists (I thought we were all humanists, but there you go) to write to a national newspaper accusing the PM of fostering alienation and harming society.

What a load of rubbish.

While I find it difficult to stomach faith being used as ammunition by politicians, the hypocrisy of people being offended because the UK is described as a Christian country is laughable.

Indeed, I‘d go so far as to say that only in Britain would a debate like this even take place because we seem to live in a society where everyone seems terrified of upsetting someone else.

The fact is Britain has been a Christian country for around 1,500 years and, technically, we can still be described as such given that 59 per cent of respondents in the 2011 census indicated they felt an attachment to Christianity.

This figure may have fallen sharply since 2001 (72 per cent) but, nevertheless, it’s still a majority.

Yes we are a cultural melting pot and other religions are welcome and are flourishing. However, it is fair to say that – if pushed – a majority of people in Britain would still probably pigeon-hole themselves as ‘Christian’.

The problem is, of course, that a vast majority of people in this country don’t go to church and are not practising Christians.

Therefore, it is probably more accurate to say that most people in the UK aren’t actually religious at all.

Earlier this week public figures including writers such as Sir Terry Pratchett, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and even comedians argued passionately that the Government has no right to “prioritise” religion or any particular faith.

Ironically, it is once again Christianity which is being challenged here. I suspect that had a leading politician spoke out in support of another faith no-one would dare take issue with it for fear of being labelled intolerant or worse.

You see, it’s easy to criticise the established faith of the UK and the followers of that faith. In fact, what surprises me is that Christian leaders and their flock are so timid in the defence of their religion.

Being an atheist seems to be rather trendy and cool these days. Social media, for instance, is full of sarcastic images and slogans denigrating religion. Some people without faith look down upon those who trust in God as if they have professed belief in fairies or the Easter bunny.

Personally, I’m glad that religion is being talked about and I do believe that our fragmented, struggling society can benefit from people of faith offering spiritual guidance. After all, you’re unlikely to find it at Westminster.

Let us also not forget that it is predominantly Christian organisations who are running huge numbers of foodbanks across the UK at this time of austerity.

I only have a problem with what Mr Cameron says when this proclamation of faith seems to come out of nowhere.

After all, we didn’t see much acknowledgement of Christian beliefs when the current Government was pushing through the gay marriage legislation last May.

I wasn’t bothered either way. However, it seemed to me that those who opposed gay marriage on religious grounds were often painted as out-of-touch bigots.

Now that doesn’t seem very tolerant, does it?

My view is that politicians, or rather political parties, make token gestures in order to garner favour with certain sections of the electorate – whether that be gay people or Christians.

I object to either being used, as and when it suits politicians, in order for parties to create the illusion that they stand for certain values or groups of individuals.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

A poodle is one thing, but we shouldn’t be anyone’s lap-dog

I am pleasantly surprised to record that my faith in British politics and politicians has been somewhat restored in recent weeks.

First MPs shocked us all when the Government was defeated in the House of Commons in a vote over the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Appalled as we all are at the thought of anyone using chemical weapons, I have to say I felt hugely uncomfortable at the prospect of the UK rushing into another Middle East conflict it can ill afford and which our over-stretched Armed Forces can certainly do without.

Thus I was encouraged that Parliamentarians seemed to have learned from past mistakes and, in particular, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and exercised a degree of restraint.

Some were even prepared to vote against their own parties rather than galloping towards another endless war in a country most of us would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

No nation should ever go to war lightly but it helps when the public at least understands the reasons why its leaders may choose to do so and are sympathetic to the cause.

In the case of Syria, at the time when the Prime Minister called for the vote there were simply too many unanswered questions and a majority of MPs quite rightly, in my opinion, said no.

They had correctly judged the mood of the nation and certainly, at the time, there was simply no appetite for more ‘world policing’.

To his credit, the Prime Minister took the defeat on the chin as his right honourable friends on the opposition benches revelled in the moment.
David Cameron then, quite unexpectedly, did something I haven’t seen a British PM do for about 20 years.

Reacting to remarks allegedly made by a Russian diplomat who had described Britain as ‘a little island nobody listens to’, our Dave actually went and stood up for us.

The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a rather charming, indignant, Love Actually-esque defence of our Sceptered Isle.

He threw in Shakespeare, the abolition of slavery, great inventions. Oh and The Beatles.

I have to admit I almost cheered to hear it – so used am I to our glorious leaders being pathetically wet and insipid when it comes to international affairs.

Who can forget, for instance, the way in which that towering intellect George W Bush treated our then PM Tony Blair.

We may be a poodle on the world stage when compared to the U.S. and Russia but it is nice, just occasionally, to not be portrayed as some other country’s lap dog.
Of course, most people’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of Britain was coloured by their political affiliations – with those on the left steadfastly refusing to give any credit.

‘A nice bit of myopic jingoism’ was how one of my Twitter followers described it – which I thought was a tad harsh.

I like to think, naively perhaps, that David Cameron stuck up for Britain, its traditions and values, because he believes in them.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect any Prime Minister worth his or her salt to do but the sad truth is that, in recent years at leas, there has been nothing in the way of Statesmanship from the those living at Number 10.

It may just have been window dressing against the background of a summit at which precious little was actually achieved, but I was heartened – nonetheless – by the PM’s language and the sentiment.

The Britain of 2013 is a far cry from the global superpower it once was but it is clearly still important enough for the Americans to view us as a key ally – at least in terms of public perception, if not militarily.

I’d like to think that, going forward, any Prime Minister – from whichever party – understands that the British electorate deserves to be represented proudly in international affairs. If that means being unpopular, then so be it.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Let’s have a proper debate about the UK’s membership of Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels.

The European Parliament in Brussels.

Amid the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter’s day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months tick by.

Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK’s involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.

David Cameron’s stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.

In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was ‘time for the British people to have their say”. (Well, if he’s still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).

Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently ‘wafer thin’.

Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech ‘statesmanlike’, saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.

Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.

He wrote: ‘The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin.’

Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to ‘counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics.’

While I can’t agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.

He questioned: ‘Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?’

The truth is we don’t tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country.

Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.

Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party’s (and possibly the UK’s) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.

The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.

We simply don’t understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don’t really know what’s at stake.

For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain’s key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.

But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us ‘opting out’.

It’s not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.

My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.

One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives.

There is a feeling among many (and I’m not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.

These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals ‘milking’ the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country’s independence.

There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the Euro over the Pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding ‘no’.

On this Sceptered Isle there’s never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent.

In the light of the PM’s speech, now is the time for an honest and open on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.

How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?

Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley argued many times, asking such questions doesn’t mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.

It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday