Sue in the middle

SUE Sida-Lockett, the Tory Chairman of the un-elected East of England Regional Assembly (EERA), finds herself at the centre of an increasingly bitter stand-off between Conservative MPs and Government ministers on how to administer English devolution.

SUE Sida-Lockett, the Tory Chairman of the un-elected East of England Regional Assembly (EERA), finds herself at the centre of an increasingly bitter stand-off between Conservative MPs and Government ministers on how to administer English devolution.

The Tory Party nationally hates anything to do with regionalism, and was over the moon when the North East rejected plans for an elected mini-parliament. But the problem for Conservatives on the ground is that until and unless elected regional authorities are brought in, they are members of councils which are required by law to nominate representatives to serve on unelected regional chambers.

Mrs Sida-Lockett, a member of Suffolk county council, is a political appointee to EERA and this week her words defending the unelected body were thrown back at carping Tory MPs by Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford.

Simon Burns, Tory MP for Chelmsford West, this week branded EERA an "illegitimate body because it is unelected and unaccountable to no one."


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He accused it of a "disgraceful" decision to ratify the Government's house building programme "which will devastate swathes of green field land in Essex.

"I believe that Tory councillors and nominees should withdraw . . . we should have no truck with an organisation that we do not believe in and we should not give it any form of so-called legitimacy by serving on it."

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North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin, the Tory Party's regional affairs spokesman, weighed in: "Existing regional assemblies have no accountability, no mandate and no legitimacy.  They are not accountable to the people - no direct elections; no means to challenge their decisions.

 "These chambers should be abolished and their powers and money returned to local councils."

But when Rayleigh's MP Mark Francois called in the Commons for their abolition, he was taunted by Mr Raynsford, who to the absolute delight of Labour MPs, quoted Mrs Sida-Lockett as saying: "Despite the North East vote, there will still be a requirement for effective regional planning functions, provision of democratic mandate for the regions and effective scrutiny of other regional bodies – a role in which the assembly and other chambers have shown themselves to be extremely competent."

Mrs Sida-Lockett was not very happy when I reported this exchange to her. "It's a Catch 22 situation. EERA was set up by primary legislation and is the regional planning body.

"We serve on them to make sure our voice is heard – but if the national party wants us to withdraw, then that will be it."

CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown is fast emerging as the one senior member of the Government unafraid to stand up against the excesses of European federalists.

It was Mr Brown whose insistence on Britain meeting five economic tests before entering the euro zone, dented the sweeping ambitions of the Prime Minister who wanted to join the single currency to prove what a good European he is.

Mr Brown, although styling himself a supporter of Europe, had done more for the "save the pound" brigade than any of the Tory and UKIP little Englanders.

On Tuesday, he further angered the federalists by lashing out at the European Commission for demanding a 35% rise in Euro-spending on the day the European Court of Auditors refused to sign off the EU accounts for the 10th year running.

The books for 2003 show lax financial controls and reveal the Commission's failure to spend £150 billion which should have gone to help Europe's most deprived regions.

"A 35% increase is unrealistic and unacceptable," he declared. "I think it is ironic that the Commission wants such an increase when the accounts figures today show that it has not even managed to spend a substantial sum from the current budget. The Commission should put its own house in order."

He also took Brussels to task over the controversial Stability and Growth Pact – the strict budget rules EU governments must meet as part of the smooth running of the single currency. The rules have been so tightly drawn that everyone now acknowledges that treasuries cannot comply, forcing a major rethink of the system.

THE first interactive website to be launched by an MP in East Anglia goes live on Monday, allowing constituents to take part in online surveys organised by Bury St Edmunds' Tory David Ruffley.

Similar internet sites are all the vogue among Republican and Democratic politicians in the United States. "I am determined to take politics into the 21st century," says Mr Ruffley.

"Local people want responsive local politicians and www.telldavidruffley.com will help me in this endeavour.

"I have recently headed a league table of MPs nationally in responding to constituents' enquiries sent electronically to MPs via the independent website www.faxyourmp.com. This is one example of how technology can monitor what your politicians do on your behalf.

"But I am continuously looking for ways of making myself more accessible and this new website was the natural next step.

"I need to know Suffolk people's local and national concerns. Internet technology is the future," says Mr Ruffley. " We live in an increasingly interactive and electronically driven world. Teenagers today will be the public opinion of tomorrow so it is important that we as Members of Parliament keep up to date with all the new technologies and the next generation of voters."

NAUGHTY Liberal Democrats in the East of England have been using the parliamentary portcullis emblem on stationery and a website promoting their candidate in Watford.

The ploy – which could be construed as indicating that candidate Sal Brinton is actually the MP – has been stamped on by the Serjeant > at Arms following complaints from the legitimate MP for Watford, Labour's Claire Ward.

In the Commons, she slammed the "abuse of the use of parliamentary privilege" adding that the Liberal Democrats had "deceitfully used the Portcullis of this House for cheap party political purposes."

The matter vexed Speaker Michael Martin, who said "the Crown Portcullis and other emblems" should only be used on communications from the House. He added: "It should not be shown on any publicity material associated with any individual political parties and this includes the content of political websites."

HUNTING WITH HOUNDS: THE LAST WORDS

Some final parliamentary thoughts from the pro and anti hunting camps this week.

In the House of Lords, Baroness Mallalieu (Labour) led the fight to overturn the proposed ban. "A Bill which allows terrier work to continue lawfully in order to protect a pheasant or a partridge but not to protect a lamb or a curlew, which allows the hunting of rats but not mice, rabbits but not hares; which destroys jobs, loses people their homes, divides communities and the nation, and does economic damage particularly in the most fragile rural economies—and does so without compensation; a Bill which has unquestionably adverse animal welfare implications, not only for the quarry species but also for the 20,000 hounds which will be redundant and, on the strong advice yesterday from the British Horse Society, a charitable organisation, countless horses as well, is a bad Bill for people and for animals. I cannot believe that Members in another place" (the Commons) "who celebrated so joyfully last night's vote have any inkling of the suffering and distress that what they have done will cause."

Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gordon, who has campaigned to end hunting: "During the entire discussion of the ban on hunting, opponents have sought to jerk our tears by talking about the jobs that will be lost. The Countryside Alliance and similar groups all say that these jobs are at stake and will be lost if there is a ban. Are we saying that the people who are now exploiting the possibility of job losses are such ghastly employers that they would throw their employees out of work and home? That is the basis of the argument about tied cottages. The estimate of (Lord) Burns" – who led an inquiry into hunting and the effect of a ban – "is that 700 direct jobs employing 800 people will be lost. Well, 1,100 workers at Jaguar in Coventry will, if the employers have their way, certainly lose their jobs and not over a short period, but at a stroke. Why should hunt employees receive compensation other than redundancy payments if the Jaguar workers will receive only the redundancy payments due to them under the law?"

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