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A sombre start to 2014

by Martyn Eden

Christmas and the New Year were spoiled for many families when the fiercest storms for twenty years, combined with exceptionally high tides and 70 mph plus winds left a trail of devastation.  Seven people lost their lives. Rivers overflowed and at least150, 000 homes were flooded.

Inevitably, this provoked questions to the Government. How prepared were we to cope with the onslaught? Why were some homes without electricity for several days? What help would communities affected by the flooding receive?

The Prime Minister acknowledged the scale of the problems communities had faced and urged the public to follow the advice of the emergency services. COBRA, the Cabinet crisis committee, would continue to operate until the threat had passed. He conceded that energy companies did not have enough staff in place to deal with emergencies during the holiday season. Several power companies have announced modest compensation payments to those left without power at Christmas and further payments for every further twelve hours without electricity. The Environment Agency would conduct a review of what had happened and report by the end of the month on the lessons to be learnt and action to be taken.

The second issue the Opposition raised this week was the fixed odds betting terminals which are replacing over the counter betting in High Street betting shops. Apparently people can lose as much as £100 in 20 seconds on these machines. The Opposition is concerned that betting shops are increasingly clustered in or close to deprived communities and changing the character of high streets. They want to protect vulnerable gamblers and their families as well as giving local authorities powers to prevent the proliferation of betting shops in their communities. The Government 'understands the public concerns` but wants to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Local authorities already have planning powers to tackle localised problems in their community.

Coming so close to Monday's speech by George Osborne about the need for a further £25 billion cut to public spending after the 2015 election, the sombre nature of PMQs was surprising but not unwelcome. Party politics is an important part of British democracy, giving voters a basis for choice at elections but turning PMQs into a mini election campaign every Wednesday does nothing to persuade the public to respect politicians. Many people respect their own MP, whom they see working hard for his or her constituents, but not politicians as a whole. Paul Goggins was an exception in that he was widely respected across the political spectrum, as tributes from MPs demonstrated. He was an active Christian and a former National Director of Church Action on Poverty. He will be sorely missed.

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