I have been in the House of Lords all day today. I didn't put in to speak in any debate, but wanted to listen to debates on the European Union in particular. (The business for each day is established only a week or so beforehand – not great for people with diaries like mine.)

Following a debate on “the conditions in which Palestinian children are living and the impact on their health and wellbeing”, the first EU debate was a Topical Question for Short Debate (limited to sixty minutes): “to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on British farmers of the decision to leave the European Union”.

The debate was good, intelligent and informed – normal for the House of Lords. Then we moved on to the second debate (limited to 2.5 hours): “that this House takes note of the European Union referendum result for government policies in ensuring safe staffing levels n the National Health Service and social care services.”

What was notable about contributions to both debates was the realism rather than romanticism about our Brexit future. The EU referendum debate was not rehearsed by Leavers or Remainers, but promises, 'facts' and 'lies' were given a good run around by many contributors on all sides of the House. The debate will be available on Hansard tomorrow, so I won't rehearse them here. But, two phrases used repeatedly by government ministers stand out for me, and both have ongoing resonance as we now walk into our promised glorious future.

First: until we actually leave the EU it is “business as usual”. It sounds reassuring; just a shame it is patently not true. Ask the NHS with its recruitment challenges. Ask academics who already are finding very real (and expressed) threats to funding – not only in the future, but now. Ask farmers who will be waiting a long time to find out what will happen to their subsidies when the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies. I could go on, but read the debate when it is published.

In one sense, we can live with the prolonged uncertainty we have chosen, and we can take responsibility for facing the consequences of our decision. But, we should do it on the basis of reality and not language that promises what it cannot deliver. If we were going to have “business as usual”, there was clearly little point in having the referendum and voting to leave.

Second: statements that the UK “will” get the best deals for Britain, and so on. I have rehearsed this many times before. Negotiations have two or more parties. We don't negotiate with ourselves, guaranteeing the best deal for our benefit. We negotiate with countries we have mocked for decades as being incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt. And they are going to be well disposed to giving the UK the best deals – presumably at the expense of their own countries? Really?

Well, we will see what emerges in time. I hope we will get good deals, but this cannot be taken for granted (especially when we don't have any skilled negotiators anyway). And that is the point. The government should use the word “may” and not “will”. I guess “will” is intended to create (or reinforce) confidence that all will be well and all things shall be well. But, it cannot be justified at this point. “May” is more accurate.

Language matters.


I never thought I’d be interested in the details of the price of milk. But, I am and have posted on the matter recently here and here. And now look what has happened after the farmers’ protests…

It seems that the interdependency of the retailers and the producers has been recognised. If farmers have to sell their milk for less than it costs to produce it, they cannot continue in business. Is common sense invading the ‘market’?

Here we are in York for the General Synod and milk is back on my agenda. And that isn't a comment on the nature of the Synod's agenda for the next five days. It follows on from a bit of a rant I had recently about the price of milk.

I couldn't believe that the price farmers get for the milk they produce (a) was so low and (b) could be changed without warning or redress by the body that buys the stuff for re-sale to the supermarkets and other outlets. One farmer told me he stood to lose £20,000 this year because of a 2p drop per litre in June.

And now this. Dairy farmers are considering taking action into their own hands as a further reduction of 1.7p is being imposed from August. You can read the farmers' response here.

Having visited another farm up in the Dales last week, I am more aware of the economics of farming and the problem of getting a younger generation to take on the family business when the life is so hard and the rewards so few. If we think farming is necessary for our economy and the nurture of our landscape, we'd better take it a bit more seriously.

We could start by asking why the farmers are getting milked.

Friday 7 August 2009

Hilary Clinton announced in Pretoria today that the US will not be ending their sanctions against the leaders of Zimbabwe. I should hope not, too. Britain and the European Union maintain the same stance and it is to be hoped that this will continue until the rule of law is properly and fully re-established, elections are free and fair, there is an end to intimidation and violence and the political institutions have regained their integrity. Contrary to Zimbabwean propaganda, the sanctions do not inflict suffering on ordinary Zimbabweans or their economy; they stop Zanu PF leaders from travelling abroad, freeze their foreign-held assets and boycott arms sales. Imagine what could be done if the foreign assets (including Mugabe’s stashed millions) could be appropriated and spent on rebuilding the schools in Zimbabwe?

Well, having read in previous posts about renewed optimism in Zimbabwe, you might well wonder how this sits with the paragraph above. It is quite simple. Mugabe has been brought to the point where he could not govern and could not save the economy – hence, he had no option but to accept a Unity Government and the compromises that would come with it. The country is not out of the woods, but that does not and should not stop us from recognising the good that is now coming. The optimism is real, despite the realism about the long way still to go.

St Patrick's 001St Patrick's 006Today I saw real signs of progress and hope. Two years ago we stayed at St Patrick’s Mission, just outside Gweru, and asked questions about how little progress had been made on just about every project there: school, church, pigs, agriculture, clinic/hospital, water, etc. Nothing seemed to be happening. Yet, as I have been constantly told this week, 2007 and 2008 were lost years. The situation was so bad that almost nothing could be done anywhere about anything.

But, today I visited St Patrick’s again and found:

  • St Patrick's 011The new hospital walls are up to roof level and should be there by the end of August. Door and window frames are gradually going in.
  • The mortuary was being roofed while I watched. The fridges have already been ordered.
  • The clinic has just received a large order of equipment (syringes, gloves, sterile packs, sharps boxes, etc).
  • There are now 13 pigs and plans to get another ten sows for breeding (which, apparently, could give up to 70 piglets each year).
  • Chickens are being reared and I saw the runs being built above ground to protect them from snakes.
  • Plans are being made to site and install generators to allow electricity in different sectors of the site by order of priority.
  • St Patrick's 012Plans are now in hand to establish a new water tank to supply the lower part of this huge site: nurses houses, school dormitories and the hospital.
  • The agricultural gardens that were derelict are now fully planted and being carefully cultivated for sale and feeding the 700+ children at the school.
  • The grinding mill bought by the Croydon Episcopal Area is working and the ground maize is being sold locally at profit for the school and clinic.

St Patrick's 019The ambulance and the lorry are both now in full working order.

This is remarkable. Add to this the fact that this school stayed open when most other schools were shut for months on end and you see the achievement. The key to this has been leadership from the bishop (both visionary and practical – he used to be a mining engineer), the appointment of a very good young priest to oversee all the projects run by the diocese and a renewed sense of possibility now that money means something again and thought can be given to feeding animals and not just people.

This turn-around is very impressive. There is a huge amount to do and a long way to go. But it all now looks possible and achievable again. Today saw the first power cut in a week – which might sound rubbish to the rest of us, but is a cause of both surprise and celebration here in Gweru.

Tomorrow we leave at 6am to drive to Gokwe for the first day of a diocesan youth conference – with nearly 500 young people. I can’t wait for the singing and dancing. Given that a West Indian mate of mine says that if he wants a laugh, he watches a white man ‘dance’, I’ll just watch and take the pictures…