Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Supporting Small Businesses

I was pleased to hear Cameron's suggestion that small businesses should be given some breathing space by the VAT man in these difficult months ahead. All too often it is the tax payment that is the final death knell for small companies when cash flow is squeezed. This is the sort of practical suggestion that should be leapt on by the Government not just dissed and dismissed.

A few nights ago I was invited by the Federation of Small Businesses in the East of England to join their representatives for dinner. The Labour, Lib Dem and Green candidates were also invited. I was firmly told that all the food was local and from small producers!

In preparation I had spent some time talking to every small business owner I could find.

One head-hunter said "I always thought I would be recession proof as I don't work in finance, property or retail but if people aren't moving house they aren't moving jobs." On the other hand a property manager told me he was doing "fine" since he has committed tenants and the painter decorator said "I don't mind if the phone doesn't ring until Christmas - not this Christmas next Christmas. People know I do a good job and I am booked up that far in advance".

I even popped into my local cobbler to check out the news story that cobblers are doing well from the credit crunch.... "I've been doing well for the past 21 years" was the response!

Whilst many many small businesses are having a tough time, these stories help illustrate that many are unique operations, often with long histories and nearly always with incredibly hard working people behind them. These are the sorts of businesses that are often incredibly hard to start-up but can face closure in an instant. We should support them.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Understanding Brussels Bureaucracy

I've just returned from 2 days fact finding in Brussels - flying into a country in the midst of a major strike is not great fun. No trains, schools, buses or trams but still the bureaucracy of the system grinds onwards.

I went with a delegation of elected councillors from across the East of England - as a member of the European and Foreign Affairs committee on the Regional Assembly. The regional assembly is another unwieldy bureaucracy but (whilst its there) my view is that is better to try to steer it than hide from it. Hearing about the strike I'd tried to get out of the meetings but when I realised we were discussing over £300 million of British Taxpayers money that is being pulled back from the grips of the EU back into the East of England I decided I had to find out more.

It is a maze of money (our taxpayer's money) peppered with acronyms and jargon. In two days of meetings I have only a marginally better idea of where some of the money is going; the £94,000 towards a wild game processing facility "to meet a market gap for locally sourced and processed game" seems pretty easy to understand ditto the £400,000 for Southend on Sea to improve public transport. However there were lots of other projects where I could have raised question after question - the £15 million which aims to help target groups "not eligible for mainstream provision" find jobs by offering "individually tailored provision which provides a full and inclusive range of support" sounds worthy - but at a cost of £1,600 per customer does it work? A heated debate was had about the lack of any new funding for migrant integration in education.

In the meantime big issues like our overcrowded roads and railways get drowned out in the detail. The dithering of the Department for Transport allowed over £100 million of EU money to be left on the table last year - it could have been used to help get freight off the roads.

Part of the problem is that although we were given a lot of information, the elected local representatives and even the MEPs actually have very little opportunity to influence decisions. My conclusion (and this is just after a first tasting) is that one must use each of those opportunities to influence as loudly as possible!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Why not try out some Conservative Policies?

I admit to being wound up by Jacqui Smith's on Question Time last night. "Cameron is a nice guy but he doesn't have any policies" line- This is my rant back tonight to the UK's home secretary.

You, Jacqui, are responsible for combating crime, in a country where violent crime has nearly doubled in 10 years, where our prison service does not act as a deterrent (88% of inmates are re-offenders) and 27 young people have been murdered on the streets of London this year. No wonder many people I speak to feel their local police are not in control. Surely you are prepared to at least listen to some alternative ideas?

What about the Conservative suggestion for locally elected police chiefs? Whats wrong with the idea that instead of drug addicts being offered more drugs one might try supporting abstinence rehab programs? Why should a sentence of 1 year not mean 1 year in prison?

Are you not worried about family breakdown? We have the highest rate in Europe. I know that most kids from single families are fantastic (my father died when I was 10). But Jacqui, as Home Secretary surely you know that a quarter of those in prison are children who have grown up in the care of the state? What is wrong with the Conservative suggestion to stop paying parents to live apart?

And then unemployment - surely as home secretary you are concerned about the 1.7 million people unemployed. Why not try the Conservative policy that if you are on "employment" benefit if you turn down a job, another job and then another job you might just not get your benefit.

Oh and NEETs, three quarters of a million young people not in employment, education or training - not a neat way to start a life. So why do you rubbish Conservative suggestions for a renewal of apprenticeships, careers advisers in every school and would you try National Citizen Service? - the 16 year olds I speak to are prepared to give it a go... why not you?

Perhaps as home secretary you have never met a person who is worried about their impending operation in case they catch MRSA or C-Dif? If you were you would have spoken to a doctor or two. They would tell you that to beat infections we must not only wash our hands and clean under the beds but ALSO isolate every infected patient. Conservative policy for single rooms in hospitals is not because a hospital should be a hotel but because having some single rooms saves lives.

Possibly as home secretary you have a driver to fill your car with petrol - and so have no interest in the fair fuel stabiliser? If you ever got out of the car you might have noticed that public esteem for politicians is at an all time low so why don't you give the public the referendum on the European Constitution that you promised?

To be fair you didn't meet the two mums that I did today who were at their wits end. Both their husband's companies have just announced a new round of redundancies... big businesses are packing their bags and upping sticks to lower tax countries and small companies are facing having their bags packed for them by administrators. What is wrong with reforming our arcane bankruptcy laws and cutting bureaucracy to make our corporation taxes more competitive?

Jacqui/ Alistair / Gordon we are in a global economic crisis and Britain's national debt is the worst in the world except for Pakistan, Hungary and Egypt. What do you offer? Nursery school for 2 year olds, home computers for 8 year olds and free theatre trips for 18 year olds.

Wake up - its not working - why not try out a Conservative policy?

It's late - that's my rant over and I could find a whole lot more weblinks if you wanted but remember Jacqui Smith MP for Reddich has a majority of only 2,716 votes.....

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Highs and Lows of Party Conference

I've just returned from 4 days at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. It was good to see old friends but also many new faces. It was noticeable that from the top MPs to the lowest first time delegate this conference was less about moans and gossip and more about professional rolling up the sleeves for serious solutions.

Conference can be like living in a bubble away from the real world. Not so this year - delegates crowded round the TV screens to pick up the latest news from the markets and America. Cameron's impromptu speech on Tuesday offering support and suggestions to help stabilise the economy was exactly the right message at the right time.

My personal low point was coming back to the car after 3 nights in the local NCP to find the passenger window smashed. Its a long drive back home without any glass but a personal reminder of crime rates.

Another friend and Parliamentary candidate had a very worried face. She told me that one of the largest employers in the constituency she seeks to represent had just gone into bankruptcy. A profitable manufacturing company that has suffered from the lack of bank liquidity. Just a few hours later on that one issue, I was pleased to hear Cameron's plans to reduce burdens and taxes on businesses and reforming the bankruptcy laws could not happen soon enough. (Of course - I thought it was all a great speech - but I would!)

Off the main stage, from early morning to late night, I attended in depth meetings on foreign policy, International Aid for developing countries and food production/security. I met up with our other candidates for next years European elections and heard from Councillors across the UK their desire to keep council taxes down and the issues they face. This was definitely a conference dominated by serious discussions over cups of coffee.