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Archives for June 2010

It's Jamie vs Boris all over again

Peter Henley | 19:52 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010

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borisA while back this blog had a big scoop.

It brought the Conservative party conference at Bournemouth to a standstill, as Boris Johnson had to explain my reporting of his critical comments at a fringe meeting about the TV chef Jamie Oliver.

Mostly it got huge attention because it had been a very slow conference season, but partly because Boris found he'd bitten off more than he could chew by taking on "Saint Jamie" on such a sensitive issue. But now the tide appears to have turned.

In Brighton this week new Conservative Health secretary Andrew Lansley was happy to put his doubts about the healthy eating programme on the record.

But what has really changed? Do we care less about childhood obesity? I think not. Is Jamie less popular? His books still sell to a loyal audience.

Perhaps it's just the perception that Jamie is part of a nanny-state, tick-box solution that can now be dispensed with.

Mr Lansley said it was time to move away from hectoring people to lead healthier lives.

"If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve."

"Jamie Oliver, quite rightly, was talking about trying to improve the diet of children in schools and improving school meals, but the net effect was the number of children eating school meals in many of these places didn't go up, it went down.

"So then the schools said 'It's OK to bring packed lunches but we've got to determine what's in the packed lunches, we've got to decide what's in the packed lunches.'

"To which the parents' response was that they gave children money and children are actually spending more money outside school, buying snacks in local shops, instead of on school lunches."

He said then people had said shops near schools must be banned, adding: "Actually, where do we end up with this?"

Jamie Oliver himself rejected the criticism as a simple case of a politician looking for a cheap headline, and he was backed by the experts.jamieoliver.jpg

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, suggested the comments were unfair.

"I find it deeply distressing. I think what Jamie Oliver did was excellent. The whole thing managed to improve school meals and pushed the government into investing more money into them.

"Of course, we could probably do a little less nagging, but you still need to nudge people. It is about creating the right environment so healthy choices are easier to take as well as encouraging them to change their behaviour."

Public health experts say just a little bit more public money, just a tightening of the regulations and the schemes will succeed. You shouldn't judge by the few schools who haven't met the highest standard.

But you get the impression that's a line of argument that, in my grandmother's words, "won't butter many crumpets" with the new government.

Times are tight, and even schemes to trim waistlines are going to have to be cut back.

The question David Miliband wouldn't answer

Peter Henley | 21:49 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

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To the Oxford Labour leadership hustings. All as expected, until the former Foreign Secretary arrives.

Newsnight have asked me to interview David Miliband. The producer says that she's agreed with that he'll do a quick clip responding to the abolition of regional development agencies.

But when I ask if he'll do it, he completely blanks me. I say it's all been fixed with London. No, he's certainly not talking to you an aide insists.

We get the clip from Ed Balls instead.

And we get a strong sense of how much David Miliband really, really doesn't want to be asked about the judicial inquiry into MI5 co-operation with torture.

How to beat the Germans

Peter Henley | 14:15 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

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steveThe World Cup provided a constant sound track as we recorded the Politics Show in Brussels. Trying to film outside the Parliament building we were constantly interrupted by the cheers from a nearby Irish Bar as England played Slovenia.

The Germans eventually outperformed us, but is their economy as well-oiled as their football machine?

Steve Luther is pictured right in the team strip of the Stuttgart Rugby team. He moved from Reading to Southern Germany in 2000 looking for work in the IT industry and got in touch with his own thoughts on the relative merits of the British and German way of doing taxes, spending and all that.

"I cannot get my head round why the British people are making such a fuss over the budget," he starts.

"I work for a Computer company and have not had a pay rise in the last 4 years; the last pay rise I got was 0.04% 5 years ago."

"I pay 42% income tax on every penny I earn. Germany also has no NHS so I have to pay for private medical insurance."

He also pays other insurance deductions for:

  1. Losing his job
  2. If he needs a nursing home
  3. Reunification of the country tax
Totalling 48% deductions. They also pay 19% VAT; petrol is currently about 20p + a litre dearer than in the UK.

He also pays €56 a year for his bin and it costs €3.50 every time it is emptied.

I asked Steve why he felt so strongly.

"I just wanted to point out how much worse off you could be if you lived in a different country. You really do not know how good you have it in the UK."

He agrees that there are some upsides.

"Even as a PAYE employee I can do a tax return every year and claim for travel expenses one way to work each day provided the journey is over 20km, I can also claim for clothes and any materials I need for work."

"Recycling is free here, I have a bin for glass and a bin for paper which also get collected free of charge every alternate month."

Steve still enjoys watching his old South of England TV - and points out that on the continent even that costs more - the licence fee is €240 a year for 2 TV channels ARD 1 and ZDF plus radio.

It was great to get such a detailed comparison from a viewer abroad and some consolation after the thrashing that we got on the football field.

The Budget - a little local difficulty

Peter Henley | 20:17 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010

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gove_budget500.jpgMore government ministers are walking nowadays. Whatever the reason - fewer government cars, trying to appear democratic, perhaps just trying to keep a clear head - they then fall prey to wandering camera crews.

So the Surrey Heath MP and Education Secretary Michael Gove was vox-popped in Whitehall this morning, to provide the memorable image above.

Asked his opinions of the forthcoming budget he paused and bit his lip before saying that it would be "difficult."

Mr Gove is a man who used to make his living from choosing words, and he chose carefully.

The VAT rise will be difficult for us all. The cuts in public services may hit the North of England, where the economy relies on them, more than the South.

The cuts in benefit may actually have more impact in the affluent home counties, where if you're at the bottom of the pile the high cost of living can make things even worse.

And for business in the South the local difficulty may come in missed opportunities. A new business can now save fifty thousand pounds National Insurance every year by locating in Salisbury (South West) rather than Southampton (South East) But I can tell you which city needs the jobs more.

Video Games industries lose the million pound a title tax break that Labour threw up just before we chucked them out. Hard luck, Brighton.

According to the Government number crunchers, however, 7,800 people who rent out furnished holiday lets will benefit from a change in tax laws that we were told had to go through to satisfy Europe.

I'm off to Brussels tomorrow to see what they make of Britain's new austerity.

Let's see if it is so "difficult" over there.


The mystery of Stonehenge visitor centre

Peter Henley | 14:24 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010

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Hallucogenic herbal drugs, pagan sex, hippy riots - The prehistoric slabs of Stonehenge have seen it all. And now we have the unexpected return of ritual slaughter.
mysterious Stonehenge
Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander took the axe to twelve projects previously approved by a Labour government. Twelve more were put on ice. The saving to the taxpayer was put at a cool ten and a half billion pounds.

They admit that the stones are a global icon, the image used to sell Britain's bid for the 2012 Olympics, but now laid low by visitor facilities described by a committee of MPs as a "national disgrace." Recognition of the disappointment that the heritage community feels came from Minister John Penrose.

"I hope that they, and others, will understand why this has come about - the costs and benefits of this project had to be considered in the light of the current financial picture. "

But take a closer look at what's happened to the mysterious stones. The Treasury press release claims a saving of £25 million. But DCMS total it to £17 million. Patient press officers explained to me how each department does its sums differently, but it feels llike both departments are travelling too hopefully.pendragon

Do you count the money already spent? How could that come back? The money being put in from the Heritage Lottery Fund? English Heritage? The taxpayer can't immediately take this cash to spend on schools or hospitals.

I reckon we'll be lucky to see more than nine million saved. Compare that to the more than 23 million pounds already spent on preparatory studies of one kind or another.

And English Heritage also point to errors in the justification used to cull the long awaited scheme.

The Treasury say that their list of victims was taken from schemes approved since January 1st, 2010. But the Stonehenge scheme was announced by Gordon Brown in May 2009. A treasury press release confirming the funds was issued in November.

English Heritage are furious. Their statement says "obviously we are extremely disappointed."

"Stonehenge is a project of global significance. It is Britain's premier World Heritage Site. It was a key feature in Britain's bid for the London Olympics. Transforming the monument's setting and the visitor experience is vital to Britain's reputation, and to our tourism industry, especially in 2012 but also thereafter. "

They are insisting that the project could still go ahead if they can replace the government money.

It has to be pointed out that some local people were unhappy with the current plan anyway. It doesn't address congestion on the A303 and felt like a cheap sticking plaster to tart things up before the 2012 visitors arrive.

At Stonehenge today many tourists were also suspicious of too much commercialisation. The appeal of the stones is its mystery. But I suspect we will look back and wonder at the real meaning of this cut as well.

USA England World Cup Soccer match

Peter Henley | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 11 June 2010

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hollingberriesWho would put money on a USA win over England in their opening game of the World Cup? Former Florida Schoolgirl player Janette Hollingbery has good reason for extra confidence.

She's now in Hampshire, married to newly elected Meon Valley MP George Hollingbery who says the atmosphere in front of the TV on Saturday night is "clearly going to be tense".

"Although Janette has been in England for 20 years, she is still a proud American and is getting quite excited that they might cause an upset and beat us."

"I think England should shade it. Clearly though I have to be diplomatic about what I say if they do."

In public, at least, Janette is having none of it.

"I played soccer a lot when I was at school and I love the game. It's good fun in the household when America plays England, though I admit (not to George though) that really my loyalty is split."

Select committee elections could surprise

Peter Henley | 06:56 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010

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Houses of Parliament

So our new MPs are finding their feet in Westminster and just weeks after they were elected they're out canvassing for more votes...

This time it's other MPs being frantically wooed as the House of Commons holds its first ever election for the Chairmanships of Select Committees, something that used to be in the gift of the whips.

The committees may sound dry but they're an increasingly important way of getting to the heart of tricky issues like climate change, the economy, defence and transport.

Who's in charge will make a huge difference to how effectively the new coalition will be held to account.

A select committee at work

It's doubly new, because they're using a proportional voting system, and extra unpredictable because many of our fresh intake from the South seem keen to express an opinion.

New Forest MP Julian Lewis has been nominated for the job of leading the powerful Defence Select Committee by a flotilla of south coast MPs. Caroline Dinenage, Penny Mordaunt and Des Swayne all have close defence interests and are keen to see Dr Lewis get some consolation for missing out on a ministerial job.

He's up against fellow Hampshire MP and former Chairman James Arbuthnot, supported by the heavy divisions of Nicholas Soames, Mike Hancock and Tobias Ellwood.

There's another South of England tussle for the committee that looks into education - Children, Schools and Family. Isle of Wight MP Andrew Turner, who is a former teacher, is up against Reading's Rob Wilson.

Local MPs are in the running for two other senior posts. Chichester's Andrew Tyrie is up for the Treasury committee and Christchurch MP Christopher Chope is nominated for the Public Administration committee. Here's a link to the full list.

The vote continues all day, with results tomorrow. It may all appear predictable, but with the new voting system and freshly elected MPs keen to make an impact I think the choices we'll see today could have some interesting effects down the line.

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