Tom Richmond: Cut the photo-calls and start working on detailed policies

David Cameron
David Cameron
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THIS has been a bad start to the New Year for David Cameron, despite the economic climate continuing to turn in his favour and against Labour.

His pre-election commitment to increase OAP pensions became mired in confusion when the Tories could not confirm whether benefits – like free bus passes and winter heating allowances – would be maintained.

These, after all, were ‘perks’ that David Cameron was forced to make prior to the last election when backed into a political corner by a desperate Gordon Brown, and which are difficult to justify for wealthier senior citizens when Chancellor George Osborne is warning that “the job is not half done” when it comes to the deficit reduction.

Then there was the report that 500 NHS Direct staff, including 140 nurses, have been put on notice of redundancy – even though out-of-hours care is critical to easing the pressure on overstretched A&E hospital units.

Then the embarrassing revelation that up to 1,700 jobs are to be axed at the Environment Agency, the quango responsible for flood prevention. The timing could not have been more insensitive as coastal and inland communities pay the price for decades of under-investment.

And then the snippet that the attractive single mother pictured with the PM when he promoted the Government’s Help to Buy scheme was, in fact, an estate agent who owns a BMW car. How unfortunate.

Why does this matter? Because Cameron, like his predecessors, is obsessed with the present – the photo opportunity and so on – rather than the policy nitty-gritty for the long-term.

There was presumably a need for the 500 staff when NHS Direct was set up before switching to the new 111 non-emergency service which has been much criticised. Who will do the job that these staff did?

Ditto the Environment Agency. How will Ministers speed up the implementation of flood defences with fewer staff? Had sufficient thought been given to their recruitment in the first place?

And then the public relations. It will only be a matter of time before Cameron is pictured at a 111 call centre promising extra resources before traipsing off to a flooded area to offer more vague promises.

My advice to him is, therefore, simple. Cut the photo-calls, save the public appearances for occasions that merit the appearance of the Prime Minister, stop the maddening MBEs to his hairdresser and start working on the detail so that policies pass the test of time.

At least if he is at his desk in Downing Street, he won’t need his hair to be so carefully coiffeured.

BEFORE condemning the work ethic of MPs, take a look at the diligence – and professionalism – of Parliament’s select committee and, for example, the critique of Defra that has been overseen by North Yorkshire MP Anne McIntosh.

Ths 35-page report goes into considerable detail about Defra’s failings – whether it be the handling of the badger cull or the computerisation of farm subsidy payments when broadband coverage is so intermittent in rural areas.

It also exposed the low levels of staff morale at the department headed by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, one of the Ministers who was very slow to respond to the seriousness of the recent flooding.

My point is this: it is the non-partisan select committees that seem far more effective in holding Ministers and public sector officials to account than MPs on the floor of the House of Commons.

Without the dogged diligence of select committee chairs like Margaret Hodge who heads the Public Accounts Committee, Beverley MP Graham Stuart who oversees Michael Gove’s education department and Sheffield MP Clive Betts who oversees the work of the Department of Communities and Local Government, taxpayers would be even more out of pocket.

TALKING of the work of MPs, the most diligent Yorkshire representative in 2013 was Huddersfield’s Barry Sheerman who took part in 153 debates – more than any other Labour backbencher – and asked over 260 written questions, far above the average of 178. At the other end of the sale, Batley’s Mike Wood took part in three debates and posed four questions.

Who has been the more effective? After all, there is a perception that Sheerman is a devoted Parliamentarian while Wood prefers to spend his time on the ground in his constitutency.

RURAL readers will be pleased to note Education Secretary Michael Gove’s promise to look into student travel costs in North Yorkshire.

In response to a question about transport for 16 to 18-year-olds attending sixth forms or further education colleges, he said that he was looking at providing “better support” for all schools “in sparse, rural areas”.

Gove then accepted an invitation to meet Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith to discuss cuts in bus services for out-of-catchment pupils attending Upper Wharfedale School deep in the Yorkshire Dales.

Let’s hope that he honours these commitments.

WELL done to the shopper at Morrisons in Guiseley who took the trouble to help a wheelchair-bound lady empty her trolley of groceries at the checkout. It’s just a shame that her plight was ignored by at least three staff members – and the cashier.

Sir Ken Morrison would have been appalled. And so, too, Lord Coe. For wasn’t the objective of the Paralymics to make Britain more tolerant and understanding of the disabled? It is a race that is still to be won and I only hope that others will expose shoddy service in 2014.

It is time that the major stores in particular were reminded that they had social responsibilities towards their customers.

I’M afraid that I have very little time for those moronic thrill-seekers who defied the advice of the emergency services and went wave-watching when Britain’s coastal resorts were being lashed by some of the worst storms in living memory.

With some waves greater in height than the roofline of many promenade homes, I would like to have seen these idiots rounded up and charged with wasting police time and endangering the lives of our emergency services who
proved heroic in such difficult circumstances.

Yet, given that this would have taken time and stopped the police, lifeguards coastguards and others from evacuating those areas that were swamped by tidal surges, perhaps the authorities can begin with the prosecution of those cretins in Wales and the South West who were stupid enough to place photographs on Twitter of them standing next to mountainous seas.

I fear that it is the only way that some people will learn.

BECAUSE the word ‘legend’ is so over-used in sport, it loses its impact when a genius like Eusebio passes away. Not only was he one of European football’s finest ever players, but he had the grace to applaud when his shot in the 1968 European Cup final was saved by Alex Stepney, paving the way for Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United to secure a famous victory. How many of today’s players can be regarded as both legends – and sportsmen? Not many.