Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: October, 2017

Would anyone in the present government match up to J. H . Thomas in the bicycle test?? ?

The politician, barrister and wit, F. E. Smith, first Earl of  Birkenhead, said  that there was not a single man in the first Labour government , with the possible exception of J. H. Thomas,  the railwayman’s leader, to whom he would entrust the letting out of bicycles.

I know exactly how he felt. I would not trust this government to negotiate its way out of a paper bag. Boris Johnson has actually been in charge of hiring out bicycles  but I cannot see anyone with the redeeming features of J. H. Thomas. I live in daily expectation of one further faux pas and the government falling  as did that first minority Labour government. They lost the subsequent election after the Daily Mail alleged interference from the Russians. It all sounds familiar.

I do not have much more faith in the Labour Party to handle Brexit either even though  Keir Starmer speaks well at the dispatch box. I regret that the Opposition front bench does not include a greater number of moderate and experienced voices.

I despair at the current state of national politics at a time when the challenges have never been greater. This time last year, I asked you to pray for Theresa May as she had the best chance of finding a solution. The Almighty must be working in even more mysterious ways than usual. Members of the Cabinet contradict each other and the reports of the Prime Minister begging for help at the dinner table are humiliating.

The regular posturing of Tweedledum and Tweedledee  at their twin podiums  is embarrassing. Perhaps there are more detailed discussions going on behind the scenes that have of necessity to be kept secret?  I have no idea, for example, of the government’s proposals for the Irish border, which is a precondition of trade talks, or have any sense that progress is being made.

Each day brings more gloomy prognostications. The much respected OECD predicts the British economy will never recover. A German  professor says Brexit is more  complicated than landing a man on the moon. 5000 more civil servants must be recruited. The North East economy will lose £8bn if there is no deal. The Cornish pasty is threatened. Even discounting for hype, there is an unrelenting bad news story every time I switch on the radio.

According to Peter Kellner, support for leaving Europe  is slowly seeping away.  U Gov polls show that leave support has shrunk from 47% to 42%. I am heartened by hints of cross party plotting for a soft Brexit and the apparent willingness of some Tories to desert the party line.

Michael Bloomberg called Brexit “the stupidest thing any country has done” at least “ until America Trumped it”.  But I am not here seeking to challenge the referendum vote as much as despairing  at the inability of the government to implement the so called will of the people.

The melodrama will dominate political life for years to come and I will live with the implications for the rest of my life. In the meantime, the things that really matter are side lined when the simmering crises about welfare, housing and social care need undivided  attention.

We delude ourselves that it will come right by Spring 2019 when smiling politicians will sign the leaving documents on camera.  If Jezza is in charge by then, they will hug. In the meantime, we  persevere with stiff upper lip  because anything challenges the due process of government and admits defeat.

We live in ever more surreal times. This newspaper is even accused by a correspondent of becoming increasingly left wing, apeing the Guardian as he put it, which some might say is a compliment. I am sure the Editor calls it as he sees it and events make it difficult to avoid the conclusion  that the government is living on borrowed time.

I have no bright ideas but believe something must be done to enable us to start all over again with a clean sheet of paper and a fresh team at the table who might be prepared to admit they face an impossible task.

Should the current generation of leaders give way to their younger counterparts like Ruth Davidson, Jacob Rees Mogg,  Clive Lewis or Seema Malhotra, who made mincemeat of the Brexit ministers last week.  Should elder statesman be drafted in to give more gravitas like Lord Kinnock, Ken Clarke or Nick Clegg? . Can the moderates in the centre win the ball back from the ideological wingers? Should there be a national Brexit cabinet of all talents?

We need exceptional leadership for the most demanding of times. Somehow or other, the Westminster roadshow needs to win back my support and belief. The stakes are so high and the current performance is so dismal. There is no point keeping up appearances and pretending otherwise. Step forward J. H. Thomas.

Footnote which spoils a good story: F.E. Smith said of his great friend Winston Churchill that Churchill  had “spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks”. Smith drank too much  and never achieved his potential. Jimmy Thomas was born in poverty but once at Westminster loved parading in a dress suit which may have been why Smith liked him. When he joined the National Government, the comrades expelled him for selling out to capitalism and he resigned after leaking budget secrets.

Publish in the Newcastle Journal on 31st October



Should we only eat meat on high days and holidays?

In rural Herefordshire, I was sent out to buy the meat for a family celebration. The locals pointed me to Weobley, known as a ‘black and white’ village, for its architecture rather than its football team. King Charles spent the night there after the Battle of Naseby and the parade of shops and restaurants suggested that this small village cum market town was still well to do.

At Mark Hurds Butchers, where the staff wore straw boaters, I bought a rib of beef and two free range chickens. The chickens were supplied by Springfield Farm, Herefordshire which described itself as an old fashioned family business set up in 1956.They were eye wateringly expensive but the butcher said, with a twinkle in his eye, that “if only people knew the conditions in which mass produced poultry were raised, Sir, they would never eat cheap chicken again.”

Now we do know a  little more about how chickens are raised, following  a Guardian / ITV undercover operation at 2 Sisters Food Group where 6 million chicken are processed a week. Staff at Site D in West Bromwich were shown changing the kill by dates on the poultry to prolong their lives on supermarket shelves and picking up chicken off the floor and returning them to the production line. Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury and Tesco stopped supplies from Site D but subsequent inspections from Food Standards Agency and Tesco’s own experts found nothing wrong. Site D has been temporarily closed for staff retraining.

Back in 2009, Jack Dromney, now the local M P, took up the issue of changing dates with 2 Sisters, who claimed that poor working practices were being cleaned up. So, who do you believe?

I had never heard of 2 Sisters Food Group but it turns out to be the largest food company in the country  producing one third of all poultry products eaten in Britain. It even owns Bernard Matthews – the most famous chicken breeder of all time. The company was set up by a Brummie called Ranjit Singh Boparan, who started life as a butchers assistant and is now a shy multi millionaire known in the West Midlands as ‘Chicken King’.

Mr Boparan will be hauled before a select committee which ought to look into the regulation of the food industry. The number of environmental health officers has fallen by 25% since 2010. They have been told to concentrate on the smaller producers as the large firms are above suspicion and are overseen by supermarket inspectors. As with building inspection, food inspection is contracted out to save money.

The story sheds light on the cut throat supply of food products which have small profit margins and just in time delivery dates enforced by the supermarkets in order to outdo the competition. Tesco, by the way, brands its chickens from 2 Sisters as an exclusive Willow Farm range  reared to Red Tractor quality standard.  As the chickens have never set foot in a farm, that must defy the Trade Descriptions Act.

But, at the end of the day, we have only ourselves to blame. We want our food as cheaply as possible and we are not prepared to pay a penny more.

I can remember as a boy that roast beef was served without fail for Sunday lunch and chicken only appeared on the table for Easter and Christmas. It was a cherished rarity. We now eat over 2 million chickens a day in the United Kingdom.

Since the 1950s, cheap energy, synthetic fertiliser and antibiotics have allowed vast numbers of chickens to be force fed in sheds in cramped conditions.  The chickens live in their own dirt and are so obese that they can hardly stand up. A chicken has a space the size of an A4 sheet of paper for its 6 week life. It will have more space in the oven when dead, according to Felicity Lawrence, who wrote ‘The Foods That Make Billions’.

“Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product,” says Compassion in World Farming. “Why do we think it acceptable to expect people on lower incomes to have to feed their children poorer factory-farmed food?”

The environmental campaigner George Monbiot goes even further. He believes that farming animals will come to be seen as one the great cruelties of the modern age and that the production of meat and poultry is wasteful of land and resources.  Converting to soya reduces the land area required per kilo of protein by 70% for poultry and 97% for beef.  We could cut greenhouse emissions and restore the natural habitat if we used land for growing crops instead . It is the only sustainable way to feed the world.

The Chinese have just signed a deal for artificial meat and it may not be long before we all  live off synthetic food.  Old habits die hard though, especially something as primitive as gnawing on a bone. But why not keep meat and poultry for high days and holidays?

For the record, last weekend was a special occasion and the chicken from Mr Hurd was every bit as good as I remember as a child. The left over beef supplied sandwiches for long walks high in the hills. I looked down on fields full of sheep and cattle wondering if the days of animal farming were numbered and if I should be buying Quorn and pulses instead.

Published in Newcastle Journal 17th October 2017




If you go down to Prudhoe today…

If you go down to Prudhoe today, explore Arthur McGee’s new hardware and household store which has moved across the road into much larger premises. The family run business must now rank second only to Thorpes of Gosforth as the region’s favourite ironmonger.
Then pop into the Emporium whose collections of local arts and crafts will help you find that elusive present. Order a wood burning stove from David at Northumbria Pipes, buy a painting in Paul Stangroom’s gallery, some more wool from Ready Steady Knit and then rest up at Ginevra’s with a cup of their locally roasted coffee. You are bound to find me there mid morning putting the world to rights.
But I am sorry to report that, as from today, you can no longer call into Spetchells Centre if you are waiting for a benefit payment, worried about managing debts, having a problem with your employer or being harassed by your landlord. The twice weekly drop in run by Citizens Advice Northumberland has been shut down.
From now on, residents of Prudhoe will have to take the half hour bus journey into Hexham to get face to face advice. The fare is £6.20 return. Prudhoe (pop 11675) now has to defer to the bright lights of Hexham (pop 11829) which does not go down well with Prudhoe folk.
Citizens Advice says it can no longer afford to support drop ins at sub offices like Prudhoe or Haltwhistle. It is reducing staff and advice sessions all across the county as part of a major reorganisation and cost cutting exercise. The number of telephone advisors will increase following a 40% rise in telephone enquiries.
The number of clients calling at Citizens Advice offices remains as high as ever and I can tell you that whenever I call into Spetchells Centre, there is always a long queue outside the CAB door.
My head suspects Citizens Advice is boldly doing the right thing for the long term. It is funded by grants and must live within its means. It is adapting to a world where we want information at any time of the day or night, on line, by web chat or mobile phone. We do not willingly wait a few days and then sit in a queue to see an advisor.
But my heart says this is a mistake. Citizens Advice is a national treasure. ( B for Bureau has been dropped but everyone still refers to CAB). Its information is impeccable and its advisors well trained – as I know from personal experience. But it needs to keep its place on every high street. I would like to have seen Citizens Advice fighting harder to raise more funds even if this meant a constant anxiety for the trustees to balance the books. Most other voluntary organisations – and most small businesses – are in the same straights.
It is tempting to build a business model that relies on the phone and the computer but not everyone can summon up information with a flick of the fingers and few of us think clearly under pressure when problems are mounting up. Citizens Advice has always provided a shoulder to lean on as well.
It is also a pity for Prudhoe which is an expanding town proudly wanting to meet the needs of all. ( Prudhoe Town Council makes a generous grant for CAB’s overheads).The people turning up this morning expecting to see a CAB advisor will doubtless get some help other staff working in Spetchells Centre – which is also a food bank distribution point – but nothing will replace the expertise from Citizens Advice unless we set up a local advice service of our own.
All this unfortunately takes place at just the time when the much vaunted Universal Credit is, to use their odd phrase, rolled out across Northumberland. Appeals from Laura Pidcock and others to delay implementation until after Christmas have fallen on deaf ears and the ministers concerned defiantly defend the flagship project as a success in driving claimants back into work.
Research by Citizens Advice earlier in the year showed that 39% of claimants did not get their payments within the 6 week waiting period. 57% had to borrow money to get by. Claimants experienced problems with the on line application form and could not get through to the telephone help line, which anyway costs 50p a minute. In Newcastle, according to Our Homes, rent arrears have shot up since Universal Credit was introduced. Bringing welfare benefits together into one payment maybe be a good idea, but it ain’t working. And Citizens Advice is the first port of call for anyone in difficulties.
In his last budget, George Osborne reduced benefit payments by £14bn leaving some families an estimated £2,800 a year worse off. Now Tory back benchers are writing to the Prime Minister telling her to ease off.
For the first time in living memory, Prudhoe elected two conservatives to Northumberland County Council in May. It would be amazing if Theresa May refers to this part of her new heartland when she addresses the party conference tomorrow. It would be pleasantly surprising if she mentions Universal Credit at all. Never mind lauding the virtues of the free market, Prime Minister. This is one small cameo of austerity Britain – benefits reduced, claimants left on the breadline, help withdrawn and communities diminished – that any caring government would address.

published in Newcastle Journal 3rd October