Last week’s Elections

Outside the polling sation at Lakenheath Village Hall

Outside the polling station at Lakenheath Village Hall

Early last Thursday morning I was out delivering election material to encourage residents to go and vote in the European elections. Then I had family duties taking my mum to Addenbrookes. After that it was back to Lakenheath and a quick stop to pick up a colleague who would join me for the rest of the day and then looking in on the village polling stations to thank the staff for their efforts. Before heading off to Great Yarmouth to help with the Get out the Vote (GOTV) in the Euro and ‘by thirds’ Borough elections taking place.

On the way there I took the smallest of detours (a mile off the A11) to see if the rumours of the what must be the best polling station in the country at East Harling were true, the best because it was situated in the English Whiskey Distillery Company’s shop and café, something about being able to vote and have a whiskey tasting struck me as very civilised.22.05.2014 - outside East Harling Polling Station

I did not partake but did have a quick look around the wonderful Malt Whiskey shop before back on the road to Great Yarmouth and a chance to meet up with Brandon Lewis MP and Richard Bacon MP for South Norfolk as they did the final part of the days campaigning and as we did the ‘knock up’ I got their reflections on how the campaign had gone.

Once it got dark we stopped knocking on doors and after a quick bite to eat, not a ‘bit to eat’ as I miss-spelt in my final tweet of poll day, it was home to watch the results trickle in from the District and Borough elections taking place. It is of course not the same as it used to be when counts were always immediately after the polls have closed, with the majority now being counted on the Friday morning, but you still got a sense of the voting patterns.

Sunday evening was spent at Newmarket Leisure Centre as the votes for European elections in the St. Edmundsbury and Forest Heath Council areas were counted and it was clear from the numbers that UKIP were having a very good set of elections but we Conservatives still polled large numbers of votes. Just before Midnight as I sat at home watching yet another election analysis show, it was declared that we had three seats, UKIP have three and Labour scrapped in with one. Essentially for the Conservatives it mean no change as that was the number at the last election, and I was really pleased to see Vicky Ford, Geoffrey Van Orden and David Campbell-Bannerman on the platform as the Eastern Region vote was declared. It was of course as shame we did not get more because I know the hard work the four others on our slate put into the campaign.

Over the bank holiday weekend, lots of column inches have been written and hours of TV commentary produced but all in all what emerges is that people are concerned about immigration and migration and that the complex case for European membership on renegotiated terms is clearly a long way from convincing people that we should stay in. Interestingly across Europe and particularly in France there seems to be a push back against the eurocrats vision of a federal Europe.

Of course for there to be that very debate, the Conservatives must win the General Election next year as a vote for UKIP then will simply see Ed Miliband’s in No. 10 Downing Street and the very thing ‘in or out’ people want to vote on in 2017 will not happen. For the Conservatives in the next year beyond convincing voters that in Councils across the country we actually cost residents less than Labour does, at the national level we need to convince them to vote Conservative.

Please vote today

article-2634446-1DEAEA8B00000578-37_634x513Today is our Poll Day for the European Elections.

There is a polling station near you and it’s open from 7am to 10pm tonight. Voting takes a few seconds.

If you have a postal vote and simply did not get around to voting and posting it, it’s not too late, simply vote, put in the envelope supplied and drop it off at a polling station.

Pro-Europe, anti-Europe it does not matter, what matters is that you vote.

Our history tells us that it is has been a costly and hard won right to live in a democracy, I think its one we should respect by the simple act of voting.

 

A Euro Hustings

Vicky Ford explaining a point

Vicky Ford explaining a point

Monday morning I started to blog about last Thursday evening, when I went to the East of England Rural Hustings at the NFU Regional Office, jointly hosted by the NFU and the Country Landowners Association (CLA) and then got rather side-tracked into writing about Suffolk County Council’s Farm Strategy.

What I was meant to blog about was the debate that took place between the candidates and the responses to the audience’s questions.

Each of the main parties put up a candidate or in the case of the Greens a speaker in the form of my fellow Suffolk County Councillor Andrew Stringer. In fact Suffolk was rather well represented as my old sparring partner Labour’s Suffolk County Council opposition Leader Sandy Martin, who is number 3 on Labour’s slate, represented them. For the Liberals they put up their one MEP Andrew Duff, UKIP was represented by their MEP Stuart Agnew and for the Conservatives was Vicky Ford one of our leading MEP. So a reasonable heavy weight panel and they were faced with an articulate and knowledgeable group of Farmers.

In many ways the debate settled into party lines. Andrew Stringer did his best but Greens do rather annoy hard headed farmers with their ‘agri’ peace and love messages when essentially farmers are more focused on crop yields. Sandy Martin held his own and made some reasonable points only slightly stumped when faced with more technical questions about the chemical controls emanating from Brussels. But the main battle was between the existing MEPs who clearly have spent their euro parliamentary careers in this sort of company and know how to weave their way through the industry specific issues and make their points about Europe and the European Parliament.

And in some ways the themes on the night are the nub of the European question. On the one hand you have the ‘isn’t Europe great’ from the Liberals. Then there is the Europe is the root of all the ills in our wonderful country from UKIP and the if only we could control our own farm policy, UK farming would soak high about the clouds, but behind me there were distinct mumblings and less than polite words about Whitehall and DEFRA’s track record. As I have blogged before it is in this UKIP message that that if only we could run things ourselves all would be right with the world, that I disagree, it is too simplistic a view and sadly not quite borne out by the realities of life.

From Vicky Ford came her usual whirlwind performance and a clear message that of course Europe is far from perfect, far from where we want it to be, but with a referendum looming we can, and will negotiate a different relationship, for our membership is too important for the federalists in Europe to risk our exit and we will forge a different relationship that only the Conservatives will then put to the people in a referendum to ‘lance’ this question once and for all.

 

Tomorrow is poll day and as I usually do suggest at this time whatever your politics, whatever your views on Europe please do go and vote. It is a hard won right to live in a democracy and one we should respect by the simple act of voting.

Suffolk County Farms Estate

07.04.2014 West Row cycle way (new views over the river)

Last Thursday evening I went to the East of England Rural Hustings at the National Farmers Union (NFU) Regional Office, in Willie Snaith Road, Newmarket, very much my stomping group, firstly I’ve known Willie Snaith all my life and he is still going strong and opposite the NFU building I used to have my company offices before we moved.

The event was a Euro Hustings hosted jointly by the NFU and the County Landowners Association (CLA) and over a cup of tea before it started I had a chance to catch up with the CLA regional CE Nicola Currie and a number of those key farmers and agricultural business owners whom I had met of over the course of the past year in my role as cabinet member with responsibility for the Suffolk County Council’s farm estate before I was purged from the cabinet.

I was pleased to hear her speak about her and her organisations commitment to the complete rethink of farm estate strategy I was able to develop with officers and my fellow Councillor James Finch. It was also encouraging to hear the enthusiasm from some of those there about our plans and just as with the new Care UK Care homes nearing completion I’ll be excited to see the new look estate emerge and develop over the coming years.

Suffolk County Council was is the business of a slightly reactive landlord and I hope what we’ve put in place in the past year will change this forever. So that Suffolk clearly articulates and acts as a proactive landlord, using its role at Suffolk third biggest landlord to be at the fore front of helping younger people into farming, helping lower the average age of farmers (a national concern), driving forward rural businesses to create real jobs in our rural county and building a collaborative environment on the farming expertise and businesses that exist in our county.

There was, when I stepped into the role, a real fear that some Councillors simply wanted to sell the farm estate either to the market or to the County Council Pension fund and until I got into what we could actually do to help develop our rural economy I was probably tipping that way, but with the plans now in place, from the backbenches, I shall fight tooth and nail to make sure the council keeps its land and plays it’s part in rural life.

Grappling with Social Media

When I was young I assumed that I would eventually arrive at a point where I have enough accumulated information and understanding, the folly of youth. Yet as I get older I have come to realise that OK there are a few subjects I know in depth but increasingly the reality is that I know less and less about more and more and well, that is really annoying.

In the vastness of what I don’t know, I have come to realise that wisdom is collective not individual and good decisions are collaborative. Hearing from a wide diversity of views and working with people with differing life experiences is the key to making the right decisions, but how to find, engage and hear those views is often difficult.

Last Friday was the second ‘sprints’ (that’s workshops to you and me) of the brilliant Networked Councillor programme being delivered in Suffolk by Public-i. In which a group of Suffolk Councillors from across the political divide and county are try to improve our social media skills and thus how we network with our community.

Part of Friday’s process was to identify officers in Councils, who have social media skills that elected members can buddy up with and learn from or together with, and in the short session we had I quickly realised it is learn ‘from’ not ‘with’ in my case, as Matt’s skills far outstrip mine.

Councillor and politicians used to be able to engage with differing opinions in village halls, political rallies and debates but nowadays no one turns up. Some say this is because no one is interested in local politics but as I know from personal experience, discuss the right issue on social media and people will engage. People are still talking and debating but increasingly in different places, in my home village of Lakenheath when I was a boy there were 14 pubs where people gathered, to some extent have a pint but more to hang out and chat with their friends, there are now just 2 pubs left and across the land pubs are closing at an alarming rate but from standing start of some 10 years ago Facebook is worth $26 billion! That actually indicates something to me, people still want to be social, still want to chat and still want to discuss those issues that effect them but it seems to me increasingly in different spaces to say my parents generation.

So for all the learning needed, for all the confusing new things to master, for all the flaming and trolls you acquire, learning to engage with residents through social media is about talking with residents about the issues that affect their lives, communicating the tough choice we all have to make and enriching that decision making process, collectively and in collaboration.

Abuse at another Care Home

Like many people on Wednesday I listened to the various commentary ahead of the evening’s Panorama programme about abuse at a Care Home in Essex and so was to some extent, ready for what I watched. However even after far too many of this type of report, I was shocked at the disgusting lack of human kindness shown by some care workers at the home in Essex.

Over the past few years I have had the privilege to be, at least politically, involved in the world of care homes and have in my time, previously in the role of Cabinet Member for Adult Care at Suffolk and more recently as a member of the LGA National Board for Community and Wellbeing learnt a great deal about domiciliary and residential care standards and their implementation.

I have sat down at length with successive Care Ministers and most recently with Norman Lamb MP and I know we all share the same frustration, in that how through National Policy, national policing of standards through the CQC, an open culture through top tier authorities prioritising and funding a robust Adult Safeguarding Board and it’s processes, through to the culture of the Care Home providers in an area showing real leadership. An integral part of this is the role of the local authority local authority paying a sufficient rate for a care bed and importantly providing the public thought timely and un-bias useful information, enough advice for the 60% of the market who make their own arrangements to avoid and thus ‘starve out’ poor providers, encouraging the good providers to flourish.

In Suffolk the County Council actually ‘buys’ some 40% of the total number of care beds in the system for those who do not have the means to pay for residential care for themselves. Over a 4 year period I got to know a large number of the providers through chairing the joint meetings between the County Council and the Suffolk Association of Independent Care Providers and helping to facility workshops and conferences with them over that period. I also came to have a good understanding of the market and its financial drivers as I lead the 18 month process Suffolk went through with my determination to deal with the problem successive administrations and previous Cabinet Members has not dealt with, namely the last 16 of Suffolk’s residential care homes and our eventually decision to transfer to Care UK who are currently working through a programme of £60 million of investment in 10 new state of the art homes.

In terms of the local authorities whilst they must not waste the public purse they must make sure they pays a rate for the beds they buy that allows appropriate staffing levels to be maintained.

There is across the system an ever increasing pressure on budgets and as I exit the Suffolk’s County Council cabinet, I am absolutely determined that those in the cabinet are acutely aware of their duty to those vulnerable members in our community that we must maintain adequate funding to look after people and as I suspect thinks do come down to the crunch it is not about defending departments budgets but to stop doing things that do not matter and focus on those things that do, such as funding care and making sure the authority has the capacity to react to such shocking stories as seen last night, if they were to occur in Suffolk.

Much is said about care worker pay rates and the private market operation of care homes and actual profit. But in my understanding of the national picture abuse is not limited to purely private sector homes. You only have to look at the Francis Report on abuse at Mid Staffs Hospital Trust, a more public sector organisation you could not wish to find, yet right out in the open, not even behind the closed doors of a Residential Care Homes abuse was happening.

Also it is often said or implied that because private providers seek to make a profit they pay badly and this can lead to abuse. I would contest this based on my actual experience working with different providers seeking to take over Suffolk County Councils 16 care homes. The market is investing vast tracks of money, just look at the £60m we achieved being invested in Suffolk and that was one smallish deal. Such levels of investment and long term approach to their business model requires a high standard of care so that partners such as Suffolk do not break the relationship, equally listed companies can be devalued by such reputation damage and so the good providers are intently focused on maintaining a high standard of care precisely because they want to make long term sustainable profits.

What is also clear is that for all the above, for all the regulation, making sure pay rates are sufficient both in terms of bed rates and pay for care workers and every other thing that Leadership can effect, I would say that personal responsibility must play a part and the care workers who indulged themselves in such shocking behaviour and I use the right word for such a lack of basic human kindness is a self-indulgence in not behaving appropriate, should be utterly ashamed of themselves and frankly should receive a tariff based ban from working with vulnerable people. We must all work to stamp this out.

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