Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: July, 2017

Parliament must change its ways and could start by moving to Tyneside

My latest hero is Laura Pidcock. Within a few days of arriving at Westminster as the new member for North West Durham, she was on her feet declaring that “this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power. Its systems are confusing, some may say archaic” designed for the needs of the privileged men who ran an empire.
The editor of this newspaper promptly told her to get real. You are in the establishment now so get used to its trappings. But I say, right on sister. You see things most clearly on the first day in the job. Parliament must change its ways to accommodate your generation, your class and your gender.
The Scottish MP, Mhairi Black said much the same towards the end of the last parliament. Another one to watch, Mhairi said she hated the place and was minded not to stand for re election.” It is so old and defunct in terms of its systems and procedures” she said, “ it is just a waste of time.”
Thankfully Mhairi changed her mind. We need outspoken young women to tell us to mend our ways. If we want to have any chance of engaging a new generation in the art of politics, then we must listen to them.
An unlikely ally has emerged in John Bercow. The Speaker has taken the revolutionary step of allowing members to speak without a tie. This may be a sign of things to come but much more must follow without delay.
Fortunately, there is a golden opportunity to get up to date. The Palace of Westminster is falling apart. Fires, floods and rats on a scale inflicted on the Pharaohs are expected any day. Deloittes has estimated that it will cost between £3.5bn and £6bn to repair and take between five and ten years. Just imagine asking a plumber for an estimate and getting that kind of a back of a fag packet reply?
By contrast, it will only cost £350m to redecorate Buckingham Palace which makes monarchy a much more cost effective method of government.
It may sound blindingly obvious but Deloittes found that it will be cheaper and quicker to repair the building if everyone, a cast of 10,000 by the way, moves out and so here is the opportunity. Parliament should take to the road.
Anyone concerned for the future of the Union should jump at the chance of relocating to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh for three years each. It would give the strongest possible symbol of the intrgrity of the islands.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has suggested a competition between English cities to host the Parliament rather like bidding for the Commonwealth Games. If the arts can change the face of Hull and maybe Sunderland, just think of the effect of becoming the roving seat of power as in days of old when kings imposed themselves and their retinue on far flung followers for months at a time. It would rebalance London with the rest of the country and show there is life in the north.
Jenkins says that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds of Sheffield are the obvious candidates. I have been thrilled to see how the second city had been transformed into a vibrant, attractive metropolis by building a new John Lewis store and hiring a woman about the same age as Laura Pidcock to conduct the symphony orchestra.
Why stop at the big four cities? Quite by chance, Newcastle Gateshead has an opportunity to play at Westminster too. There may be time to reconfigure the new convention centre at Gateshead Quays into a temporary debating chamber or to knock up a prefab on the site of the current O2 Arena which has brown fields around and is in walking distance of the revamped Newcastle Station. New hotels are springing up with abandon and some of those colourful blocks of student accommodation could be requisitioned for minor factotums. We may all need to make sacrifices to win the prize.
As we all know, Newcastle Gateshead has excellent communications by rail and air but I am perverse enough to think that the journey matters and a certain inaccessibility improves decision making. Look what standing on a train did for Jeremy Corbyn.
The point about any decamped digs is that they should be as different from the current place as possible. The lines of leather benches must go. Debates in the round would transform the juvenile adversarial nature of political point making. I favour plastic chairs myself that prevent anyone from falling asleep.
There will be problems of course but they can be overcome with good IT and virtual debates. The reward of engaging with real people and getting away from City sharks and media moguls makes the upheaval worthwhile. Parliament could operate conventional working days and streamline its business. There should be time to enjoy the theatre and restaurants in the evening.

Of course, they need never go back. The Palace of Westminster could be given to Beamish so that people could parade about in ridiculous robes or sold to Travelodge to boost the tourist trade. Downing Street would be ideal for social housing.
At any rate, there must be a fundamental review of the way parliament is run. It is not a job for a retired judge and I can think of no one better to chair the inquiry than my new hero Laura Pidcock.

Published in Newcastle Journal 25th July

Would Lord Beveridge turn in his hilltop grave?

It took us a few minutes to find William Beveridge’s grave as it lies behind the more flamboyant memorials  to the local grandees. The pioneer women aviator  Constance Leathart  is also buried here and the novelist Tom Sharpe’s ashes were scattered one night  without so much as a by-your-leave  so Lord and Lady Beveridge are in good company.

The left leaning aged walking group had arrived at Throckington church for lunch. The oldest member admitted he was born in the year that Lord Beveridge  laid the foundations of the welfare state  in 1942. Two others actually had copies of The Beveridge Report,  which recommended  a safety net of national insurance handed down by their fathers.

What a place to be buried. St Aidan’s church is perched on top of the Great Whin Sill  with panoramic views all round. According to legend, a returning sailor brought home  typhoid that killed everyone in the  village which has long since disappeared  so the church is splendidly isolated  but regularly used and well  looked after. As we arrived, we passed a couple who had been married in the church forty years ago.

Beveridge was briefly the Liberal M P for Berwick but his connection with Throckington is tenuous.  His daughter married into a local family  and Lady Beveridge died when visiting her. The two simple and now pockmarked  gravestones are side by side.

It was thanks to Beveridge’s wife that the great report was written at all. He didn’t think the invitation to chair a committee on social insurance was sufficiently important to take him away from his Oxford college but  Beveridge extended his brief and produced  a report that sought to vanquish  the  “five giant evils ” of  Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness   by establishing a system of contributory insurance that would provide benefits for the sick, unemployed, retired and widowed. All this in the middle of a world war, yet to be won. Beveridge became a public hero who was stopped in the street for his autograph.

Would Beveridge turn in his grave today we asked over our sandwiches?  Standards of living, of education and of health care  have improved beyond recognition. Housing conditions are immeasurably superior for most people and unemployment does not blight large regions of the country as before the war.

Beveridge might be surprised by our longevity. In 1942 life expectancy was 68 year as opposed to 82 in the South and 80 in the North  today.  He might be bemused at the greater calls on the National Health Service when he imagined that improved health would reduce demands on hospitals.  He would never have envisaged the extent that inequality has become a modern evil and the way that the United Kingdom has become the seventh most  inegalitarian country in the advanced world.  Beveridge would be a kindred spirit of  Richard Wilkinson.  Whilst he might have predicted a man on the moon, would he  have dreamed of mobile phones?

In the last 40 years we have witnessed the dismantling of the Welfare State which was originally meant to be free for all at the point of entry. Beveridge was an economic liberal  but would still be shocked at how individualism has triumphed over any sense of community and at how we have allowed the excessive hoarding of wealth by a few.

Beveridge would be dismayed by the way people living on benefits are treated and stigmatised and would surely be supporting  Citizens Advice’s call for a delay in  mass implementation of Universal Credit over Christmas and New Year.  He would not have expected  that foodbanks would be needed to stop people from starving.

Beveridge was an indominatable researcher and campaigner rising early, taking  a cold bath and working a 14 hour day. His last words sitting up in bed aged 84  were “ I have a thousand things to do”.  What, we asked each other over a pint of beer after a long hot day walking in the North Tyne Valley, would he be reporting about today?

The most obvious cause is social care for the elderly which is an unintended consequence of longevity. He would undoubtedly build on the sensible ideas put forward by the Dilnot Report. He might make the case for universal basic income, championed by Rutger Bregman, which would transform the standing of benefit claimants and revitalise his cherished system of basic insurance.

Beveridge would be bound to tackle to the major issue of the day and look for ways to curb our obsession with economic growth as the be-all and end-all. He would want to see a society in which we cared more about well being. He might draw on Richard Layard’s work on happiness and find a way in which we could live with ourselves within the resources of the planet. Someone would have to explain  about climate change.

Beveridge always retained his idealism, stating in the House of Lords at the age of eighty that “I am still radical and still young enough to believe mountains can be moved”. Time for us yet then, fellow walkers, even if the mountains themselves are ever more difficult to climb.

Thanks to comprehensive information about William Beveridge at St Aidans’s Church, quoted here, and to thoughtful contributions from Tom Adams, John North and Mike Worthington.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 11th July 2017