Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Disappointing increases to train fares

It was announced today that train fares next year are going to go up across the country by an average 8%, i.e. RPI plus 3. I am really disappointed that yet again my commuting constituents are going to face astronomical fare rises, which is why, as the more generous local residents have recognised, I have long advocated a more favourable deal in the South East. I will say more about what I intend to do later in this post but first, while not apologising for the increase, I want to just address some of the more political points that are being made on this issue.

Most people who follow my commentary on various issues know that I understand that party politics tends to turn most of the electorate off and so I save my partisan points for the Chamber. However, it is important to note that this is not something the Coalition Government has just dreamt up; the formula of RPI plus 3 was introduced for Southeastern customers under the last Labour Government, while the rest of the country faced increases of only RPI plus 1. And yes, before someone says in the comments, I know we’ve been in Government for a year, but as most people also recognise we’ve taken the reins at a time that this country faces the largest deficit since the Second World War. I also acknowledge that in that time we’ve had High Speed 1 built, which is great if you live anywhere near the route and can afford the extra premium you pay as a customer to use. And maybe the increases are as a consequence of privatisation, but Labour had 13 years with large majorities in the Commons to renationalise the rail service and didn’t.

So now I’ve got that out of my system and hopefully put it in a bit of political context I would like it firmly placed on the record that I don’t agree that Southeastern customers should be continuing to pay the plus 3 formula. I think commuters across Kent and neighbouring counties have paid their fair share. Any future investment in nationwide rail services should be paid for by other train users. If the South East commuters paid for HS1 then why should they now be asked to stump up for HS2? In my view they shouldn’t. The money Southeastern get from the commuters already should be enough for investment in stations, rolling stock etc but the main thing constituents ask me for is simply a better service. They want a service that gets them to their destination on time (preferably with a seat), stops at the stations it is scheduled to stop at, that the staff are polite, and that the toilets are clean. If five years of the highest increases in train fares in the country cannot deliver that then we have more than a problem of simply being an additional squeeze on the wallets of commuters.

Train operating companies have some leeway in how they implement their fare increases and I will be writing to the Chief Executive to ask for some leniency in how the fares are increased on various routes. I know people will read this beyond my constituency boundaries, and I apologise that this may impact you adversely, but I will be making representations for consideration to be given to lower increases for those travelling from stations in my constituency. I will also be making further representations to Government Ministers to try and ensure that the plus 3 formula is reduced in the South East before other parts of the country – we’ve paid our fair share and now it is time for a fair fare.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Social Networks & Riots

Last week’s violence, riots and disturbances were a disgrace. A criminal minority gathered to opportunistically cause damage and take what they wanted from shops and businesses up and down the country. These mindless thugs apparently used social networks to organise themselves thus giving the networks a bad name and which has now opened up a debate about whether they should be shut down in times of unrest to prevent scenes like those we witnessed last week.

On Thursday, I intervened on the Home Secretary during her statement in the Commons about the use of social networking during the riots and disturbances in London and elsewhere. I wanted to make the point, in the confines of a short interjection, that there is a difference between open networks (Twitter, Facebook etc) and closed networks (Blackberry Messenger) and that future consideration of their advantages and disadvantages to public order should be distinguished as such. However, and I can not be clearer than this – not for one second do I think they should be closed down. Monitored, yes; accessible to the police in certain circumstances, yes; shut down, no and especially if we want our voice heard when we condemn the practices of other regimes that restrict access to social networks or a free press.

During the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, we in the West, with our wide and free access to technology, social media and non-state controlled communication networks congratulated those who used, for example, Twitter to their advantage. In fact the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said in the Commons the following:

“there is no doubt that social networking sites have played an important role, particularly in Tunisia. That was very apparent from the young people I met and talked to there, many of whom, especially the young women, had taken part in the revolution on social networking sites rather than out in the streets. They were very proud of the way that they had co-ordinated their messages in the days before the revolution in order to intensify the action and demonstrations that took place. Those sites have played an important role and it is something that we should be positive about overall. The world is changing in a very significant way: people of all ages have access to communicating in that way and it is important that their freedom to do so is preserved. One way in which the Egyptian authorities have gone wrong in the past couple of weeks has been in trying to suppress access to the internet and misuse mobile telephone networks. People now have the right to use those things in a relatively open way”
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot on the one hand think that protests against an oppressive regime (a regime that viewed the “protests” as violent civil disturbances) organised on social networks is fine and should be encouraged and congratulated, but on the other hand violent civil disturbances in a democracy organised on social networks is not OK and should be curtailed. I do not for one minute condone the use of social networks by criminals, and the activities of last week were shocking, but the answer is not to oppress the use of Twitter, Facebook and even Blackberry Messenger, but to understand them, embrace their capabilities, and where necessary allow the authorities to use social network messages as evidence against perpetrators.

Many police forces, my local Kent police being one, used technology to great effect earlier on in the week. Clearly open networks allowed for arrests to be made for inciting public disorder, as well as providing the police with a means of monitoring potential targets. But they also enable the police to get clear messages out to the public. With rumours flying around the social networks about looting and rioting, police forces and other authoritative sources, were able to dispel the myths using the same networks that were propagating them. If networks were closed, as some suggest, then the rumours would still be flying around via other means of communication (dare I mention via good old fashioned oral communication) but without the instant truth also being known, and in a bitesize 140 characters.

I worry more about closed networks such as Blackberry Messenger, which is a safe, secure and encrypted instant communication tool, and one that I use myself. It is as far as I am aware impossible to monitor in real time, thus taking away from the police the intelligence advantage of Twitter etc. But I see no reason why it should not be used to prosecute those involved in criminal activity, and if there is not already existing legislation then this is a potential area of exploration.

So like my colleague Robert Halfon, I feel very uneasy about shutting down networks in times of civil disobedience. I campaign for greater civil liberties in other countries, so that fellow citizens of the world can enjoy the freedoms we in the UK have. It would be hugely hypocritical, and a massive victory for the oppressive dictatorial regimes we as a nation criticise, if we were to control social networks enjoyed by the law abiding majority because they can be abused by a criminal minority.