The fire at the Somali Bravanese Centre on Coppetts Road two weeks ago has been shocking for the whole community. It has now been confirmed as an act of arson by the Police and it is hard to comprehend what goes through the mind of someone prepared to risk the lives of others in an act like this.
Last Friday I met with members of the Somali Bravanese community following the fire so that I could express my sadness but, more so, to offer my help. It was an opportunity for me to listen to their concerns and find out what can be done.
Two weeks on, the leaders of the centre are determined – determined to move forwards, to rebuild, to reunite the community and come back stronger than before. The group spoke to me of the history of the Bravanese people and it is clear that they have a long tradition of carrying on, even in the face of adversity and I feel that this situation – though challenging – will prove no different.
The leader of the centre explained to me that their most pressing concern at the moment is finding a temporary location and equipping an office so that they can get back to work. A number of Somali Bravanese children and teenagers used the centre and it is vital that they have somewhere to go while the current building is out of action.
We also discussed what needs to be done in terms of getting the centre rebuilt as quickly as possible and I have written to Barnet Council in order to highlight some of the concerns raised. I will continue to offer my help in whatever way I can.
In the meantime, support from local residents has been overwhelming – I have received numerous emails asking me what can be done to help and I know those from the centre have received many more. It just shows how united the community is – if anything, now more than ever.
While Britain seems set for a long period of debate about our continued membership of the European Union, other countries are strengthening their position in the European family of nations. Last year I went on a double MP delegation to help Macedonia in its preparatory stages for EU membership. Last week I returned from a visit to another small state that has made a huge success since joining, Estonia.
The delegation was entirely Lib Dem, led by Malcolm Bruce, also including Simon Hughes, Andrew Stunell and Robin Teverson, a former MEP now in the Lords. For Malcolm and myself it was a follow up to our visit in 2007. Estonia also has a centre-right coalition, but this one is Liberal led by the Reform Party and we met with several of our fellow liberals on the visit.
Estonia is one of the smallest EU states, with a population of 1.3 million. The majority of its inhabitants are Estonian speaking but there is a significant Russian speaking minority of about 23%, a legacy of the long period of rule by imperial Russia and then occupation by the Soviet Union until 1991. Estonian is a unique language, of little use outside Estonia, a miracle of survival next to the dominant Russian bear. As a Welshman, I can empathise! But while Wales is mountainous, Estonia is flat and 70% trees and bog. Our road journey from the capital Tallin, to Kuresssare on the island of Saaremaa was one of the most monotonous of my life as the bus swept through endless forest.
In its second period of independence (the first being between the deposition of Czar Nicholas II and the invasion by Stalin in 1940) since 1991 Estonia has established itself as a liberal, high tech, fiscally sound country. It has achieved the greatest prosperity of the three ex Soviet Baltic states, in particular since joining the EU in 2004. The Reform Party led coalition has persued a policy of free market economics. It has the lowest proportion of government debt to the economy of any EU state, at about 10%, an eighth of our rate. When we met Prime Minister Andrus Ansip he bluntly told us that governments should not borrow off the next generation. Summit meetings with Gordon Brown must have been lively.
Estonia’s finances were so sound that they were able to join the € in 2011. Its southern neighbour Latvia will join next year so any right wing Tory hopes for a collapse of the single currency are wide of reality. Estonia is unique in Europe for its flat rate of taxes. Income and company taxes are both 21%. Individuals have a tiny personal allowance of €144 a month so the flat rate is quite regressive. All is not what it seems on the corporate side either with a swingeing 30% payroll tax, an equivalent of our NIC but used to fund all health and welfare spending. A dedicated tax for the NHS is something the Liberal Democrats have considered and this may be the way to separate out political wrangling on NHS spending and bureaucracy from actual health care policies.
While Estonia practices free market economics I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s also socially liberal. But this may be due to a more relaxed attitude to social norms from elsewhere in Europe. The country has the lowest rate of religious adherence and marriage rates are low. I hope they will soon allow same sex marriage and it will probably happen with less fuss than in the UK. The country is run by a relatively young group of people. I had a great discussion with the 32 year old Taavi Roivas, the minister for social affairs…which covers the equivalent of our health department and DWP, like the old UK DHSS of the 1970s and 80s.
But the most radical, though unsurprising, innovation by this young country is its embrace of new technology. One of the highlights of the week was the visit to the ICT Demo Centre http://e-estonia.com/ict-demo-center The country won’t be chopping down any of its millions of trees to make paper as it moves steadily towards an e-enabled society. All government services can be accessed or implemented on line. Internet access was described as a “social right” with fast broadband available everywhere and also free wi-fi access in most public and commercial buildings. More than 90% of tax returns are filed on line. In the 2011 general election a quarter of people voted via the Internet. Once the election campaign is underway voting can begin and the system even allows for people to change their vote up to 7 days before the election! It may make our campaigning sound antiquated though I’m a long way from being converted to e-voting.
Finally, a little note on Estonia’s painful history. They are well disposed towards the British as the Royal Navy saw off the Soviet ships in 1918, enabling Estonian independence. Freedom was short lived as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact handed the country back to Soviet occupation. Prime Minister Ansip showed us the portraits of his predecessors from 1918-1940, all murdered by Stalin.
On my last visit in 2007 there was a visit to Narva, on the border with Russia. Two medieval castles, one Swedish and one Russian, face each other across the river. The town is literally at the edge of the European Union. The two castles act as a metaphor for two visions of Europe. One is a bastion of freedom of expression, of trade and innovation and international cooperation. The other expresses a quite different fortress mentality, with limited personal freedom. Estonia may be at the fringes of Europe but in its mind it is at the centre of the modern Europe that all liberals want to see.
In addition, the subject of MPs' accommodation arrangements in London continues to be the focus of some attention, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to provide an update on my own arrangements.
When first elected in 1997 I rented a room for a short period but it quickly became apparent that in the longer-term it would be cheaper to have a mortgage and claim the interest. Over the years I have stayed overnight and claimed mortgage interest on a bedsit or one-bedroom flat in Westminster.
Under the rules of the scheme, I would be entitled to retain any profit made from increases in the value of such property prior to the 2010 General Election. But I have made it clear that in my view the purpose of the scheme is simply to give MPs somewhere to live whilst in London and not to provide a profit. I have therefore said for some years that when I no longer owned a property in Westminster I would return any profit to the taxpayer. I am now making arrangements to do this.
In October this year I sold my London flat and am now renting (and ceased claiming for mortgage interest in July). I estimate that I made a profit, net of capital gains tax and legal fees etc. of around £22,000 through increases in the value of the properties on which I have claimed. I have therefore written to IPSA confirming that I wish to return this sum and asking for details of how I can return this amount to the taxpayer.
The long parliamentary recess has started - weeks without time being spent in the weekly grindingly boring train ride to London and back. Mind you its a hectic pace back at Southport but you can control your agenda better.
Yesterday I found a little time for light exercise the odd game of table tennis and a workout with heavy weights.
I've done the latter all my adult life and it has a slight addictive quality. If you don't do it for a while you actually feel muscle cramps only relieved by putting the old system under pressure.
Constraints of time often mean I forego all the warm ups and warm downs etc. So there I was on Tuesday doing a few front squats in excess of 300lb. I finished, replacing the barbell on the shoulder-high squat stand or so I thought. The stand was not aligned right .It tilted sideways as I released the weight and as the weight crashed to the floor the stand was pulled rapidly down by it pausing on its way to hit the stooping me on the head and catching me on the hand.
If you wanted to dramatise it , it might be compared to being hit on the head by a 20 stone man with an iron bar from a short distance. I thought I'd better take a break. We've had enough by- elections recently
When the family saw me with a lump as though a tennis ball had been buried in my scalp I was advised to pop into A&E. So clutching a plastic bag filled with ice cubes to my temple and bleeding from my finger I was run there and tested by some very nice jolly staff who established so far as we could tell that there was no skull or brain damage.At any rate I could still recall who the Prime Minister and reigning monarch was. I left a wiser man with a determination to avoid photo opportunities for a few days.