Last Parliamentary report-back after 41 years of service to the North East and nation
By Alan Beith in Morpeth Gazette
A LAST WORD FROM THE COMMONS by Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, MP for the Berwick constituency
This is the last column I will be writing in my capacity as MP for the Berwick constituency, although I do not actually retire until the end of March and the election starting gun is fired.
My team and I will be maintaining full service until then, and will continue to deal with outstanding matters for a few weeks after that. I am grateful to the editor for giving me the opportunity to portray aspects of Parliamentary work which do not get national press attention but which do affect my constituents in all sorts of ways. The national media concentrate on the absurd and offensive shouting match of Prime Minister's questions which takes place every Wednesday. Successive Speakers have tried to reform it, but they should have tried harder - if a school class or even a football crowd can be influenced to behave better and penalised if they do not do so, it ought not to be beyond the wit of people who run the country to change things for the better.
Prime Minister's questions can, of course be used to get something done - I used it to persuade Mrs Thatcher that if drug addicts were to be given free plastic syringes, diabetics should not be having to pay for them. I used it to get Tony Blair to secure more time in order to see if Ellington colliery could be worked for longer, after it had already been reopened following its initial closure. I have used it to get David Cameron personally engaged in the A1 issue, alongside Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. But most Wednesdays I see the time and the opportunity being wasted by the baying backbenchers of the Conservative and Labour parties (although there are some in all parties who share my view and have given up attending this parliamentary madness).
IT'S NOT ALL SHOUTING
What is particularly annoying about the media emphasis on Prime Minister's questions is that it gives a completely false impression of the Commons as a whole. Many of the question times of departmental ministers are used much more effectively. Up on the Committee corridor, Select Committees will be questioning ministers, civil servants and members of the public about whether policies are working or not. To see the Justice Committee which I chair questioning victims of crime, ex-offenders, prison officers and policy makers, is to see members of different parties assembling the facts and making unanimous recommendations about how we could do things better. A surprisingly high proportion of our recommendations are accepted and carried out.
The Select Committees have been hugely strengthened by the fact that Chairmen are now elected by secret ballot of all MPs, and Committee members are elected by their party MPs rather than being chosen by the whips. On the committee corridor you will also see another type of committee examining the details of new laws in an atmosphere which is civilised even though combative - it is a process which could be improved, but during my time in Parliament we have got rid of the ludicrous time wasting which used to make a nonsense of this process. I still remember when Tony Blair, before he became Labour leader, was his party's energy spokesman. We were both involved in the committee stage of the bill which privatised the electricity industry. Tony Blair would attend the morning sitting twice a week and make speeches about things which were hardly in the bill at all, for the benefit of journalists who had advance copies of what he was going to say. The future PM would never be seen when the Committee resumed in the evening and sat through much of the night, while other Labour MPs were instructed to make long speeches to "keep it going" but much of the detail was never properly examined. The privatisation, entrusted by Mrs Thatcher to Cecil Parkinson, was so badly devised that it effectively killed off the future of the nuclear power industry, which was not actually her policy, and the structure it created had to be ripped up and reconstructed.
A HARD ROAD TO A NEW LAW
Many things have changed in my 41 years in Parliament, but in the whole of that time it has not got any easier for an individual MP to get a bill through. What is known as the Private Members Bill procedure starts with a ballot (a raffle would be a better description) and then becomes a battle to get things through in strictly limited time. The time limits usually enable a handful of opponents to "talk out" the bill by long speeches. The hapless MP will try to persuade the necessary hundred of their colleagues to cancel constituency events so as to be there to support the Bill in Friday afternoon votes. So full marks to my Berwickshire Liberal Democrat neighbour Michael Moore MP, who got through the Commons a bill to carry into law the commitment, achieved by this Coalition government, that 0.7 per cent of our national income will be used for international development. This is a commitment backed by churches and local charities, many of whom have written and e mailed us urging support for the bill. Two weeks ago the bill completed its committee stage in the House of Lords, despite strong opposition from Nigel Lawson and other former Tory ministers. Much credit is due to another local born parliamentarian, Jeremy Purvis, former Berwick High School pupil, former Lib Dem member of the Scottish Parliament, who is now in the House of Lords and took charge of the bill there. This coming Friday he will be seeking to get the bill through its final stages so that it can pass into law.
Churches were keen backers of Michael Moore's International Development Bill, but their involvement with politics always attracts controversy. The reaction to last week's letter from the Church of England bishops reminds me vividly of the reaction to Faith in the City, a report which challenged both the Thatcher government and the church itself to address poverty and deprivation. One leading Tory described its authors as "a load of Communist clerics", and reactions from Tory newspapers to the recent letter have been similarly dismissive. Now, as a Methodist, I do not assume that bishops, which we do not have, are always right. Rather like economists, you can put five Christians together and get six opinions on political questions. And I agree that bishops' approach does not always follow the example Jesus gave of helping people while at the same time demanding that they play their part in changing their lives and circumstances. But as someone who believes that on many key issues the Coalition has done what had to be done to rescue the economy of the country, I expect and welcome a challenge from the churches to do more. Old Testament prophets railed against the failures of kings. The story of the Good Samaritan was about the man who helped someone when no one else was prepared to do so. Without vision the people perish, and without a prophetic challenge from the churches we would not be the United Kingdom which many of us value so highly.
EYES IN THE SKY
The fact that Russia has stepped up its bomber flights along the boundaries of UK airspace is a reminder of how important RAF Boulmer is. I have always been proud of the fact that in the heart of this constituency hundreds of RAF airmen and women engage in the vital work of monitoring the skies around us. It is they who ensure that we always know when these incursions are happening and that our jets are scrambled to deter and shadow them. When Ministry officials tried to move the whole station down to Lincolnshire I got a valuable parliamentary agency, the National Audit office, to go through the costs of the plan and, after a long fight, we got it dropped. So a vital part of our national defence remains here in Northumberland.
OVER TO YOU
It has been a privilege to represent this area in Parliament, and I will continue to live here. I will be watching carefully to see that the A1 dualling commitments are kept by whatever government emerges from the election. I hope that reforms and improvements to the effectiveness of Parliament which I have helped to achieve will continue and develop further. You will not be surprised that I believe Liberalism is a vital ingredient in British politics which needs to remain a significant force in Parliament. You will not be surprised that I would like to see a Liberal Democrat elected here to continue my work. But now it is over to you to decide.