Tom Richmond: Government should be a servant of the people

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AS the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral was commemorated yesterday, I, once again, found myself wondering what this inspirational leader would have made of contemporary politics.

Churchill’s respect for his people was absolute, even after he lost the 1945 election by a landslide because voters had more faith in Clement Attlee’s plans to rebuild the country.

“It is the people who control the government, not the government the people,” he observed. The great orator’s mastery of words meant he had little time for those who did not match his command of language – one of his more prescient quotations was “this Treasury paper, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read”.

Both are important and timeless principles which have even greater resonance now that the 2015 election is less than 100 days away – politicians standing for election still appear preoccupied with arguing amongst themselves rather than engaging with voters and being straight with people about what is achievable or not.

It is also a mindset that needs to apply to the running of government by the Civil Service. In response to a question in the House of Commons about the Government’s road investment strategy, Transport Minister John Hayes felt compelled to begin his answer with this admission: “I have looked at the prepared answer and it is mind-numbingly turgid, so I will do something of my own.”

Unfortunately the Ministry of Justice appears no better – judging by the latest intervention of Shipley MP Philip Davies who has become exasperated at the lack of accountability. His words to Parliament are worth repeating. “I have here a handy 15-page internal guide from the Ministry of Justice entitled ‘Parliamentary questions guidance’,” he said.

“It gives a list of all the people that an answer must go through before it can be signed off. They include special advisers, the head of news, the deputy head of news, Press officers and, as if that were not enough, ‘your designated Press officer’.

“Surely a Parliamentary question should simply be responded to with a factual answer. Why does it need to go through so many spin doctors? I have no idea how many of the other departments run this kind of operation. May we have a debate on this, or a statement from the Ministry of Justice on why it goes through this rigmarole? It is no wonder that it gets so far behind in answering our questions.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Though the Commons leader and outgoing Richmond MP William Hague pointed out in response that the Foreign Office had a 100 per cent record answering questions on time at the end of his stint, he did not consent to the demands of Mr Davies.

More’s the pity. It is what Sir Winston Churchill would have done because he recognised, instinctively, that Ministers and Civil Servants are charged with upholding the will of the people rather than allowing the public interest to be secondary to their own agendas and convoluted processes.

A WORD of warning about the pre-election politics taking place. In recent days, transport Ministers have raised, albeit tantalisingly, the prospect of improvements to the notorious A64 between York and Scarborough, and that they’re minded to look again at the case for a rail link to Leeds Bradford Airport.

Both should have been undertaken years ago. I just hope, for once, that the intentions of Ministers are sincere.

ON the subject of spending, it is now abundantly clear that the MPs returned to Westminster by the Scottish Nationalists will seek to have far more influence over English affairs than has been previously suggested.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon effectively confirmed this when she said that her party would vote on matters regarding the NHS in England because of possible financial implications in Scotland where health is a devolved issue.

She also says the Barnett Formula, an outdated funding mechanism set up to appease the Scots in the 1970s, must remain in place and the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems appear to accept this.

There is a way around this. The latest Census returns should be used to allocate health spending to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland based on the most up-to-date population figures. If the Scottish Parliament then decides, for example, that it wishes to top up this allocation, it has the right to do so out of taxes levied against the Scots. Simple?

TALKING of the National Health Service, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of one politician from the TV screens when improvements to A&E waiting times were announced.

You’ve guessed it. Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary who has so politicised and weaponised the NHS with his serial scare-mongering, was nowhere to be seen. It speaks volumes about wobbly Ed Miliband that he has never had the political strength, and courage, to stop his spokesman’s antics.

Even Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who is no friend of David Cameron, says it was the last Labour government, and not the Tories, who introduced privatisation to the NHS with serious financial consequences in the case of those schemes, like Otley’s Wharfedale Hospital which has empty wards, which were funded by PFI. Only now is the scale of this financial folly coming to light.

WITH regard to Ukip, Nigel Farage was speaking about his party’s health policy on the morning after Yorkshire MEP Amjad Bashir’s defection to the Tories and a senior aide describing the NHS as “the biggest waste of money” in the UK.

Yet one could not fail to admire his bravado when he dismissed these setbacks and said that an extra £3bn could be found for healthcare if Britain left the EU, and that this policy would help to provide free tuition fees for students wishing to train as doctors and nurses. Like it or not, he will be a formidable force in the election campaign.

ANOTHER day and another email from the Rugby Football Union promoting one of the six new shirts that will be sported by England players like one-time Leeds player George Ford and his team-mates in the next six months. How about Stuart Lancaster’s side stringing some successes together on the pitch, starting with the upcoming Six Nations? Then they might be in a better position to exploit any additional marketing opportunities in a World Cup year for the sport.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk