A week at Westminster

The country was reeling in the past few weeks from the tragedy of the death of Jacintha Saldhana, the nurse who took the hoax call from an Australian radio station seeking information about the Duchess of Cambridge.

I have never found this type of radio or TV prank very entertaining or funny but this was a tragedy, which may not have been foreseeable but brings home the way modern media shows contempt for the dignity of private individuals in a desperate chase for ratings.

While we were still struggling with the implications of this story, we heard the shocking news that a young lone gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, had shot his mother with her own gun and then returned to his former primary school and shot 20 of the youngest children and six of their teachers before shooting himself.

As the parent of young children I can relate to the agony of the parents and the community, and still remember my shock and tears when I first heard of the massacre at Dunblane.

Always in these cases there is a search for blame and a demand for action. This is understandable and right, but we always need to reflect on what is most appropriate.

For the media, is it too much to hope they will invest in quality entertainment instead of cheap stunts that backfire so catastrophically?

For the United States, is there the remotest possibility that they will tackle their out-of- control gun culture? The early settlers were required to carry guns for their protection against wild animals and hostile tribes. Yet, this has been interpreted as the right to walk in to a gun shop off the street and by any gun with little or no restriction.

I do not believe that simply banning guns is possible or the definitive answer but banning some weapons should be considered and much tighter control over access to guns, which is the norm in other developed countries must surely now be seriously debated. The disturbed, malevolent or insane with murder in mind may always be able to commit atrocities but most people will wonder, if Adam Lanza had not had a gun loving mother whether he would have had the means to do this, even if he had the wish.

The Autumn Statement provided a sobering assessment of the challenge facing us all over the coming years. UK debt is stubbornly higher than other major economies and the lack of growth means we have to keep an even tighter rein on spending and raise extra taxes.

There was little good news although motorists will welcome the cancelling of the postponed fuel tax rise. Restricting the increase in benefits to one per cent is a particularly painful policy. Nevertheless, benefits have increased by 20 per cent in the past three years where in-work earnings have increased on average by only 10 per cent.

For those working on low earnings, including those in receipt of working tax credits, the accelerated raising of the tax threshold towards the £10,000 target will help boost take home pay by over £700 and is a real benefit for millions. Pensioners have also benefited from a guarantee that the annual increase will be the highest of earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent – which is this year’s increase.

In the longer run, benefit reform has to be delivered if we are to eliminate the deficit and put public finances back on a sustainable footing. Since the 1970s the economy has increased in size threefold while the total benefits bill has increased by sevenfold.

Such good news as there is includes record low interest rates, falling unemployment and relatively low inflation. Cuts in corporation tax, the tenfold increase in the capital relief for business from £25,000 to £250,000 and targeted spending on growth oriented projects could all help to boost business confidence and deliver the growth needed to turn the economy round.

It was taking on these challenges that necessitated the formation of a coalition government. As Liberal Democrats I believe we have done the right thing in taking responsibility to clean up the mess we inherited from Labour and trying to ensure, subject to negotiation with our coalition partners, that it is done as fairly as possible in the most difficult of circumstances.

The saga of the future of doctor’s surgery and dispensing services in Pitmedden and Tarves looks close to being resolved with the decision to allow the GPs to continue dispensing at Pitmedden which could pave the way for the re-opening of the surgery in Tarves.

It was unfortunate that some vandals chose to target the sign of the Tarves pharmacy in the same week.

The fact is that the pharmacy is well established in the village and is providing community pharmacy services to many local residents. I hope that the compromise that has now been agreed will enable both the pharmacy and the surgery to operate side by side to the benefit of the whole community.

I wish all of you who read this column a Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year!