Working blueprint of a rejuvenated party

Former Hunts Post columnist STUART LITTLEWOOD returns this week and next, having secured an exclusive question and answer session with Huntingdon MP JONATHAN DJANOLGY which seeks to reveal where the front bench opposition member thinks the county, and his

Former Hunts Post columnist STUART LITTLEWOOD returns this week and next, having secured an exclusive question and answer session with Huntingdon MP JONATHAN DJANOLGY which seeks to reveal where the front bench opposition member thinks the county, and his party, are headed through 2006 and beyond.

IN the few weeks since David Cameron rocketed to stardom as leader of the Conservative Party, we have been deluged under a torrent of new policy statements and study groups from the opposition.

Prime Minister Tony Blair responds with a clutch of re-warmed policies that failed to ignite first time around.

And LibDem leadership contenders, having opted for a Tory-style beauty parade, will no doubt shower us with their policy initiatives when they square up to each other.

But it seemed to me that some services, like schools and healthcare, are meddled with too much while many other issues don't receive nearly enough political attention. With this in mind I put 20 questions to Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly just before Christmas. Mr Djanogly sportingly accepted the challenge, and here are his answers.

Question 1: HIGHER EDUCATION

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There seems little point encouraging young people to run up huge debts studying for university degrees that leave them unemployed. What will Conservatives do to match education and skills training more closely to business and social needs?

Ensuring that pupils are able to access the right education for them and one that enables them to undertake valuable experience in gaining a skill is an issue that I take very seriously. I believe that the only way to address this issue would be to create a new scheme of Vocational Grants for 14-16 year olds, enabling them to divide their time between preparations for GCSEs and work on vocational alternatives.

Pupils will continue to do much of their work in school, but the additional funds will provide an opportunity for them to spend part of the school week beginning vocational study. I believe that these new grants will enable parents, pupils and their schools to find and choose the right vocational option; whether provided by the school itself or one of its counterparts, a local college or an independent training provider.

It is also important that we build a strong vocational alternative for secondary school pupils to stimulate their interest and prevent them becoming disengaged.

By giving more choice for students and employers, it would also allow them to choose where and how their training and education should be provided.

We should also remember that education and skills training should be extended to adult learners. If we provide better information to all would-be learners, young or old, about the options available to them, fewer people may end up finding out that they made the wrong choices.

Question 2: CITIZENSHIP

Young men in the 1950s benefited from doing National Service and so did the country. Do Tories agree that all school-leavers - with no exemptions - should undergo a period of compulsory community service, under strict discipline and away from home, as part of a new citizenship programme?

I would certainly like to see us do far more to promote citizenship among our young people and stress a shared sense of identity and belonging. In a recent speech, David Cameron explained that we should look for new ways of enabling young people to come together and give service to their country. This does not necessarily mean a return to National Service.

There are, however, many organisations that are already encouraging community service, particularly amongst the young: the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and Prince's Trust schemes here; the Peace Corps in America; and Voluntary Service Overseas.

I agree with David Cameron that we should challenge these and other organisations to come up with ideas for a school leaver programme, lasting a few months. Although the full details will still need to be worked out, it is possible that such a scheme could be compulsory for all school-leavers.

By creating such a programme, I believe we can help to re-assert faith in our shared British values which help guarantee stability, tolerance and civility.

Question 3: BRITISHNESS

The Government's questionnaire was dismissed as a joke. What tests would the Tories set? And what would they do with applicants who failed or afterwards behaved in an un-British or criminal way?

Does Father Christmas live in Lapland, Iceland or the North Pole? I can't see what these undoubtedly very beautiful northern climes have to do with Britishness, but the question just posed does feature in the Government's new citizenship test.

Since November, English speakers applying for a British passport have been required to answer 24 multiple-choice questions, based on a Home Office pamphlet entitled Life in the UK. Get 18 or more questions right and you get a passport. Score 17 or less and immigrants get the opportunity to re-take the test as many times as they please.

Embarrassingly, within days of the scheme's launch, the Home Secretary's officials were forced to face the fact that one question, about Britain's legal system, was legally inaccurate.

Contrary to suggestions in the examiner's handbook, juries do occasionally sit in our county courts. Anyone stating that fact about the British legal system would, however, be marked down in their bid to secure a British passport.

Yet despite all the errors and obscurities, what the test is most notable for is what - and who - it leaves out.

Strikingly, there are no questions on British history, something which is fundamental to the fabric of our national identity.

The ability to speak English is central to settling permanently in the UK, yet the citizenship test applies only to those who can already speak English. Those applicants who speak no English are excused taking the test.

Rather than set the bar higher for those who speak English, I would prefer if we examine seriously the skills - not least language skills - which each and every immigrant brings. It is far better to analyse what demonstrable skills, qualifications and wider enrichment immigrants can bring to British life, than to quiz them on the location of Santa's present-making factory.

Question 4: HOUSING AND IMMIGRATION

Tories blame the shortage of affordable housing on fewer building starts under Labour. But uncontrolled immigration also has an impact and sheer numbers are testing traditional British tolerance. How will Tories ease the growing social and infrastructure pressures?

It is certainly true to say that immigration into the United Kingdom has an impact on the number of new homes that are needed. It is misleading, however, to suggest, as some have done, that immigration is the single major reason for the increasing number of new households in this country.

The latest official Government estimate calculated that immigration is responsible for only around a third of new household growth. The trends towards people living longer and increasingly choosing to live alone, have a far greater impact on new-household creation than immigration.

Managed migration has made, and will continue to make, a valuable contribution to the economic growth and cultural richness of the UK, something that must be considered in the debate on balancing the need for new houses with protection for the environment. This is an area of policy that is being considered by our new policy group on the Quality of Life, chaired by my colleague John Gummer MP.

Question 5: BUREAUCRACY AND COUNCIL TAX

Fairer funding of local government was an issue when the Conservatives were last in power. The party turned its back then. Having had plenty of time to consider the Council Tax problem, what is the solution? People feel that central and local government live beyond their means and are "too big". MPs and local councillors fail to hold our plump bureaucracies to account, so isn't it time to put all councils - half of which, according to the Audit Commission, do only the bare minimum to make themselves cost effective - under regular scrutiny by management consultants?

Council Tax has risen way above inflation in each of the past eight years, and will do so again in the coming year. Across the country, people are paying 76 per cent more Council Tax than they did in 1997, and the people of the East of England are paying 86 per cent more. This rising tax burden is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many people.

The reason for these rises lies in the way that central government funds local government. Over the past eight years, local councils have been handed new spending responsibilities, targets and bureaucracy, without the necessary funding being provided. They have been forced to raise the shortfall through Council Tax.

I am sure that there is scope for efficiencies within local government, and this is a process that is already under way. I am not convinced that employing costly management consultants to oversee this process is the best way to streamline and improve local government.

Question 6: WORK AND PENSIONS

To fund adequate pensions and a tolerable old age it is obvious that people must be encouraged to work till 70, and beyond if they wish. What immediate action would Tories take, and what is the party's new deal for existing state pensioners?

The present pensions crisis, brought about in part by the Government's £5 billion raid on pension funds, is clearly one of the most pressing issues that the country faces today.

We need a serious, constructive debate on the long-term future of the UK's pensions system, and there will be tough choices to be made. This is why I have welcomed Lord Turner's Pension Commission report on the future of pensions in this country.

My party is currently examining the potential implications of the Turner report, which is a powerful, persuasive and extremely professional contribution to the debate. There is an emerging consensus on the way forward for pensions, although the increase in the state pension age that you mention remains controversial. I welcome this consensus, and believe that it is right that the major political parties should work together to find solutions that are right for the long-term interests of the country.

NEXT WEEK: Police, law and order, foreign policy, the economy and energy, among other contentious topics.

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