As part of Debater’s Parliamentary Project Series, Lux Modhwadia interviewed Peter Lilley, Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.
Why do you want to represent the constituency again next year?
I enjoy representing it, it is a great privilege and I hope that the experience I’ve gained over 30 odd years can be put together for another 5.
Key goals/priorities this year
I’m on the energy and climate change select committee which takes up a lot of time, trying to persuade my colleagues to take a more evidenced based view of the issues, which puts me in a minority of two, me and one Labour member who takes the same view as me, who thinks that spending billions and billions of pounds to try and decarbonise the economy before we’ve got evidence that it is really necessary and urgent is unwise.
European matters, put forward a reasoned view of how we can reform the European community to return where possible powers to member states to set their own laws without undermining the single market and cooperative venture, which were the good parts of Europe.
On Luton airport expansion;
Worried, but not entirely opposed. I think its very important that we try and make sure the expansion is compatible with preserving a decent environment for the people who live in the area which means making sure that if there are going to be more planes we have better flight paths, which take them away from built up areas and get them to a higher altitude quicker and that we can cope with potentially millions of more people coming on the local roads by having better infrastructure to cope with it. If we can do that, it should be allowed to go ahead because travel is good, it generates jobs.
On high speed rail;
Happily I don’t have to take a constituency based view as it doesn’t directly affect us. I am worried that it seems it will potentially cost a lot of money and yet take an awful long time before it will actually be completed to Birmingham let alone to the rest of the North of England by which time things may have changed so much it may not be worth the money. Like all these things, I think a decision should be taken speedily and implemented speedily, rather than having a long period of planning and enquiries which means that we take 15 years before the first train runs!
Yes well we had a meeting of all the different tiers of elected representatives in the area from parish, district, county and myself and we all agreed its very important and urgent that we have a new secondary school in Harpenden as a result of growing pupils coming through the primary schools and the people of Harpenden are very fertile. Already the existing schools are fully subscribed. And we have three very good schools and so we need a fourth very good school. But the issue of location hasn’t been properly consulted about so it was important that the county who have taken the final decision about the location should review the alternative sites and make sure they did choose the best possible site rather than merely the one that had come out of the existing process. Any site is going to be a problem, it can’t be in the town because there’s no space so its going to be in the greenbelt. Its the least bad use of greenbelt. There will inevitably be worries from nearby households till its built and then they’ll find their house values go up by 30,000 pounds.
There is a declining interest in politics amongst young people it seems today. How do you think this can be rectified and do you consider it an important issue today?
I would have thought it was important to try and involve young people. I write every year to all those whose 18th birthday appears on the electoral register and invite them down here and actually over the years, I’ve had a rising number of people come in. It was partly that people who come tell their younger siblings that its worthwhile. So I have them down here, they see a debate in the House of Commons if its on a sitting day or go round and see everything and they often come back to my room here and I can cram 50 people in here and we talk until they get fed-up and they go off and enjoy the rest of London. Recently, we had two evenings and we had 150 people in total. But even in mid-term years, I had 50 or more, coming up to a 100. But thats not all I do, I do things in the constituency, I talk in schools, go to youth clubs because it is very important. But people are more interested than you might think, once they realise a member of parliament is a human being who doesn’t shout at them or hector them and is interested in their views as much telling his own.
There is a lack of employer support in the system for apprenticeships at the moment. What are your views on this? Do you think the government’s skills and apprenticeship agenda is working or not?
It certainly is working in the sense that over this parliament, more than a million young people will have enrolled in apprenticeships. We could and should do more, I invited the minister for responsible for apprenticeships down to the constituency. I invited all the colleges, school heads, employers training organisations, to meet him and that was very fruitful because they were able to tell him what their needs were, the ways they thought the program could be tweaked to make it more popular and effective. Its important that be done and that we persuade schools that its an option that they should bring to the attention of pupils, its not just a case of getting everybody to university. It may be better for many young people to think of apprenticeships and recently I went to Stevenage where the young engineer apprentice of the year was a young lady, who lives in my constituency. She’s actually a wonderful ambassador for engineering apprentices. Her ambition was to design a spacecraft and thats just what she’s doing…the next thing to land on Mars.
How do you feel about the WW1 centenary and in your opinion, what are the appropriate ways to commemorate it?
It was such a terrible war and scar on the last century which was sadly rather than being the war to end all wars was the prelude to the Second World War. We can’t not think about it and its important that people study it, learn what happened and make sure we never do the same thing again. Its perhaps particularly important now that we’ve got all these troubles brewing in the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Crimea so on, we find ways to resolve them without allowing ourselves to be sucked into a conflict which would serve no purpose.
You have a very unique way of getting to know your constituents, in the form of these house meetings. Can you tell us a little about this, what you hope to achieve.
Before I ever got elected, I used to complain about members of parliaments; that you only ever saw them three weeks before a general election and then they disappeared. So thats why when I became member of parliament I made a promise then and there that if ever anyone of any political persuasion were to open their house to all the neighbours on their road I would with their agreement, fix a date and come and see them. I’ve done literally hundreds over the years and I try and do it street by street and month by month. And it works. We’ll get people crammed into someone’s drawing room and hallway and I’ll sort of stand in the doorway and talk to them. I don’t give a speech, its just questions, answers, discussion and most of them would never go to a public meeting. And most of them only expect to stay for an hour, but only get away at 10 o’clock. I found it useful when I was in the cabinet under Mrs Thatcher (formally in cabinet you address each other by your title, I would address her as Prime Minister, she would address me as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry) but when it came to what do people think about such and such or the latest crisis, I’d say well look at my house meetings at the weekend, people were saying this. And after all, she begun to refer to me as Secretary of State for St Albans not Trade and Industry. And I don’t know whether it was a slip of the tongue or a deliberate thing (laughs).
Well I don’t think we should ever determine our policies in light of what other parties do, whether protest parties or established parties of opposition or government. We should decide our policies because we think there what’s right for the country. How we present them is inevitably going to be influenced by rival political groups but it would certainly be a mistake if we said we’re going to focus on this supposed threat from UKIP and not be seen to be doing what we think is best in the country’s eyes. I think UKIP will probably do well in the European elections because the electors are intelligent enough to know that a general election is very important, mid term elections are less important. So they conclude they can use mid term elections to say these are issues which we think are important and they’ll use UKIP for those purposes but that doesn’t mean to say, they’ll be persuaded to vote for UKIP at the general election.
Do you think that David Cameron’s focus on traditional Conservative issues such as immigration and Europe is putting off floating voters?
Well all the opinion polls show that immigration is one of the issues an overwhelming number of people, including people from immigrant communities rate very highly and likewise with Europe, a number of people believe that with the European Union, we should either leave or reform it. They’re unhappy with it as it is. It would be very odd if we were to lose votes by having popular policies. I think we should have policies because they’re right, as long as they’re sensible policies that tackle people’s concerns on immigration and Europe, they will make us more popular not less.
What do you think will be the big themes of the Conservative election campaign next year?
It hasn’t yet been decided, although I’m on the policy board and involved in discussions. As far as the voters are concerned, the underlying issue will be should we continue with this government. They may think could we have done better or should we go back to the people who got us into this mess in the first place. And I hope they’ll conclude that we should stick with the people who are getting us out of this mess. In other words, the overwhelming concern of most people is the state of the economy, jobs, living standards, European issues relate to that, if Europe makes us uncompetitive then that destroys jobs, if immigration is excessive then that depresses pay of the least well payed and so on.
Are these the types of issues that are important to your constituents?
Well it is rare that the economy, immigration and Europe don’t come up. But then there are many local issues such as development and the threat of overdevelopment, protecting the Greenbelt, at the same time the prohibitive cost of housing, the difficulty for young people to buy a house or existing home-owners to pay their mortgages if interest rates go up etc.
Last year you met with Health secretary Jeremy Hunt to ensure that similar problems that occurred at the West Herts NHS hospitals (with specific regard to the 180 cancer patients that were not properly followed up there), didn’t occur again in other trusts. What was the outcome of these talks?
He agreed to top-down make sure that these issues were brought to the attention of other trusts but at the same time, I also went to neighbouring trusts which also served my constituency and spoke to them to make sure they didn’t suffer from any similar problems. This had obviously broke out in West Herts and we’d done a review of their systems and where we could, cast our assurances that its not going to be a problem there.