Wednesday, November 30, 2005

CONGRATULATIONS TO KERRY

I was very pleased to hear that Kerry Maxwell, Chief Executive of the Whitehaven Community Trust, has been awarded the title of Cumbria’s Woman of the year.

The Whitehaven Community trust has helped hundreds of potentially vulnerable young people with training, jobs, and housing. Because of that assistance, young men and women who might have become drop-outs, criminals and convicts been able to earn a valued place in society. The trust has also played an important role in the regeneration of Whitehaven. The award is very well deserved.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NUCLEAR POWER – IS TONY FINALLY COMING OFF THE FENCE?

It was obvious during the last election that Labour was facing both ways on Nuclear power and either the anti-nuclear lobby, or the industry and communities like West Cumbria, would have to be betrayed after the election if Labour won.

It is becoming apparent that it does seem to be the luddite wing of the environmental movement who are about to feel Tony’s knife between the shoulder blades. Of course, I am not saying environmentalists generally: many key thinkers in the “Green movement” including the founder of the Gaia hypothesis have recently come round to the view that nuclear power should form part of a balanced strategy to protect our environment.

Ironically, the best sign of this is not the open statements from the government. This morning on the “Today” programme the secretary of state for trade and industry claimed that the only thing the Prime Minister has decided is that we have to take a decision. Conservatives were telling him that five years ago!

No, the clearest sign that the PM is coming off the fence in favour of nuclear power is the fact that 41 Labour MPs have signed a motion against nuclear power and the increasingly hysterical smears against nuclear power which the anti-nuclear lobby are peddling with frantic desperation to anyone who will listen. Some of thee daftest ideas put around in the past couple of days have been the suggestion that nuclear technology is somehow inconsistent with more use of renewable technology or energy saving (when to take real action on Global warming we need all three) or that it is uneconomic (when it is vastly cheaper even allowing for all the on-costs that many of their favourite systems such as wind power.)

This will be a huge row over this, but the battle lines will be quite different from those over 90-day detention. That one was the Blair machine and its robots against almost everyone else. This debate will be was the Labour Left and the Liberal Democrats against those who live in the real world. If Blair has the courage of what he is currently briefing people are his convictions, he can win the case for nuclear power. Conservative spokesman David Willetts has made clear that he will have our support in that battle. In the interests of the country, the environment, and West Cumbria, we need to win the argument for nuclear power.

Friday, November 25, 2005

BROWN WRECKS PENSIONS POLICY AGAIN

As this blog is meant to be suitable for a family readership I cannot use the form of words that would give full force to my disgust at the latest piece of sabotage from the Chancellor on pensions. Every time I think that even Gordon Brown could not possibly do more damage to the hopes of everyone except the super-rich for a comfortable retirement he proves me wrong with yet another damaging and irresponsible action.

Future historians will have some difficulty assessing the Brown economic legacy. Within weeks of his appointment as chancellor, he made both the best economic decision for eighteen years and the worst one for more than seventy. Devolving responsibility for interest rates to the Bank of England’s Monetary policy committee was the best decision since the abolition of exchange controls in 1979 and ensured that the four years of stable non-inflationary growth which we had enjoyed under Kenneth Clarke has been extended until now. However, Brown’s five-billion pounds a year raid on pension funds was the worst decision since Churchill took Britain back onto the Gold Standard in the mid 1920s.

The malign effects of this raid on pensions have been felt throughout the economy. Some, such as the fact that most final salary pension schemes have closed to new members, and reduced incentives for saving, have been obvious. Other negative impacts have been less obvious but just as real: the pensions raid has caused both higher prices in the shops as companies needed to raise more money to fill the pensions hole, and contributed to soaring council tax bills as councils had to do the same thing. Since pensioners have been particularly hard hit by council tax rises, this effectively means that pensioners have been hit twice.

Brown has compounded the damage he did on pensions with his five billion pounds a year raid by introducing the absurdly complicated pensions credit. This means-tested policy really is the worst of all worlds. It is supposed to direct most help to the poorest pensioners, but in fact hundreds of thousands of them – an estimated third of those in this group – do not get that benefit because they cannot manage to complete and return the forms. And by withdrawing support from those people who have bothered to save for their old age, the pensions credit further undermines the incentives to save.

These two measures have greatly exacerbated a pensions shortfall which every wise person has been able to see coming for decades: funding adequate pensions was always going to be difficult as people are living longer while birthrates have fallen. That is why the previous government had a coherent policy of giving people incentives to save, and had successfully built up more pensions savings than the whole of the rest of the E.U. put together. As Labour’s own Frank Field MP admitted, the present Labour government inherited one of the strongest pensions positions in Europe, but we now have one of the weakest.

Faced with some very difficult decisions on how to put this right, Tony Blair set up the Turner commission to investigate and come up with recommendations – conveniently timed for late this year, thus missing the general election. I thought at the time it was bad enough to leave it this long before taking action. But now, a week before the Commission is due to report, the Chancellor has already let it be known that he will refuse to accept certain recommendations. We have been waiting months for action on pensions, and Gordon Brown is sabotaging the government’s own review before it has even been published !

Both today’s pensioners and tomorrow’s deserve better treatment than they have received from Gordon Brown.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

BLAIR ADOPTS TORY POLICY ON NUCLEAR POWER

If the Times Newspaper report today (21st November) is to be believed, the Prime Minister is adopting a policy on Nuclear Power remarkably similar to the line for which Conservatives have been arguing.

Our policy at the last election was to commission a review of energy supply, to report within a year of the election. At the time Labour’s official policy showed far less urgency, but now we are told that the government will set up a review to report within a year.

In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, David Willetts, the new Conservative Spokesman on Trade and Industry (including Energy), said that we must make the case for Civil nuclear power.

As he said in his speech,

"We face a growing crisis because we aren't building enough power stations. In fact if we have a cold winter there is a real threat of the lights going out in our offices and factories: and all because the Government doesn't reward investment in the future. With one exception: Ministers do have a strange obsession with wind farms – and that’s the trouble with Labour’s energy policy – it’s all wind."

He added that the next General Election could well take place in 2010 and all political parties must put before the country their vision of Britain in the following decade, out at least to 2020 vision. He then gave three economic policies to meet that challenge, and the first of these was

"We must make the case for civil nuclear power to tackle the energy crisis with least damage to the environment."

During the election the Labour party sent mixed messages about whether they agreed. In constituencies like Copeland where thousands of jobs depend on the nuclear industry, Labour made pro-nuclear noises, but their official statements remained very non-committal towards New Nuclear build and the anti-nuclear lobby was reassured that no decisions had been taken.

Sources close to Downing Street are now briefing the media that Tony Blair has decided that we do need new nuclear power stations. I hope that this is true and not just someone flying a kite to “test the waters” for a reaction.

If the Prime Minister does go for new nuclear power stations I am sure that, as with his return to Tory education policy, he will have Conservative support and the political difficulty in selling this will be with his own Labour backbenchers. Let us hope that the damage he did to his own authority with his absurd brinkmanship over locking people up without trial for 90 days will not prevent him getting through something on which he is actually right for once.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ON THE NEW DRINKING LAWS

(AND HOW A WEEK IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS …)

Last week one of Tony Blair’s main arguments for his policy on terrorism was the support it had from many senior police officers. Yesterday he ignored the arguments of the police and many others by pressing ahead with the implementation of the Licensing Act. A week is a long time in politics ...

Up until recently I supported a less restrictive licensing regime, and I still do support some of the things the legislation is supposed to be about, like more freedom for elected local authorities to set appropriate licensing arrangements for their own areas. But as John Maynard Keynes said, when the facts change, I change my mind.

Between 2000 and 2004, the number of alcohol related deaths in this country rose by 18.4% from 5,525 to 6,544. That’s more deaths than hospital acquired infections or road accidents. It is an order of magnitude more deaths than the controversial estimates for passive smoking and two orders of magnitude more than the deaths caused by terrorism on 7th July.

And alcohol-related disorder is a serious problem in some of our towns and cities. Like many people, I used to accept the theory that if people have longer to drink they will not feel the need to down their drinks in a hurry, and will be less likely to get drunk. Both the present government and the previous one have already reduced the restrictions on drinking, and the increase in alcohol-related disorder suggests that this theory does not fit the facts, at least in this country – although many continental countries seem to have a different experience.

Don’t get me wrong. Responsible use of alcohol brings pleasure to many people, and responsible businesses selling it can have a role in providing jobs and regeneration. We must not make a scapegoat of every pub or every supplier of alcoholic drink. There are hundreds of well run pubs and responsible publicans whose activities do not cause any social problem – indeed, one of the reasons I was not happy with the idea of charging the drinks trade for the cost of policing is that the innocent would be as likely as the guilty to get landed with the tab. There are millions of people who can enjoy a drink without making other people’s lives a misery, and nobody wants to spoil their fun.

But not everyone is like that, and until we have a better grip on how to prevent a minority who don’t use alcohol sensibly from causing problems for themselves and others, we have to ask whether the substantial extension of opening hours which the legislation is about to produce is premature.

As usual, government policy is all over the place: one minute they are promoting greatly extended opening hours, the next they are suggesting a ban on selling any alcohol whatsoever on trains.

Councils up and down the country have put a huge effort into their policies to take over responsibility for licensing: some councillors have had to practically live in the council chamber, hearing dozens of applications from pubs wanting longer hours. Many of these were put in by the big chains, sometimes taking minimal account of local circumstances and appearing barely to have consulted the publican who would actually be operating the new hours.

I recently attended and spoke at the hearing into the application by one chain to extend the hours of a pub in my council ward. This pub sits in the middle of the Jersey Farm residential estate, home to many commuters, lots of whom rise before seven Monday to Friday and are at their desks by 8am. It is also close to a block of sheltered accommodation for elderly people. The reaction of the neighbours when the chain applied for terms which would have allowed the pub to open past midnight every night can readily be imagined.

The attitude of the licensing committee was also interesting: they found this sort of application to be absolutely typical, sympathised with the views of residents, but considered that they would have more control if they granted the extension with conditions rather than refusing it. So they agreed a compromise with longer hours on Friday and Saturday nights.

One thing which the committee said to residents of Jersey Farm, and which I would repeat to anyone who lives near a club or pub and is concerned about alcohol-related disorder, is this. The law does provide for review by the relevant council of any drinks license whose operation appears to be causing a problem. If you experience disorder after the new law takes effect next week, keep a record of the dates and times, the nature of the problem and which premises it is or appears to be associated with, and pass the details to the licensing officers at your local council. If you draw the problem to the attention of the authorities, something might just possibly be done about it. If nobody says anything, nothing will be done.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

KEEP MILLOM COMMUNITY HOSPITAL

I am very disappointed to learn that threats to the services provided by Millom Community Hospital have re-surfaced.

Last year when local health trusts began to review the provision of Community hospitals there were suggestions that this might affect the future of Millom Hospital. Millom Town council called a well-attended public meeting chaired by the then Mayor, Ray Cole. At that meeting the Chief Executive of the Primary Care trusts, Nigel Woodcock, stated and then specifically confirmed in response to a question from me, that there were no plans to close Millom Community Hospital. The large number of local residents present understood this, quite reasonably, to be a clear signal that their hospital was safe.

However, having local hospital services is not just a matter of having a building in the area which is called a hospital. It is also important to protect the actual facilities and care which the hospital provides.

Local NHS trusts have said that they are considering the possibility that some services currently provided in District General Hospitals like the one at Whitehaven could be provided in Community Hospitals like Millom instead. In principle this could have some advantages, but if it results in the “crowding out” of existing services, then some patients in areas like Millom could lose out.

Some of the options under consideration by the trusts – such as the possibility of ceasing to provide overnight care – would certainly have that effect.

There have already been a number of local service reductions which have severely disadvantaged residents of Millom, such as the move of the Gynaecological clinic to Workington. With the recent disgraceful decision by the government to downgrade the A595 the importance of the local hospital has become even greater.

It was said once that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. If residents of Millom want to keep good local health services that vigilance is needed now. It is very important that as many residents as possible take part in the forthcoming public consultation on the Trusts’ proposals for community hospitals.

Monday, November 14, 2005

BLAME THE TERRORISTS, NOT THE DEMOCRATS

There have been fierce arguments in parliament about the government’s terrorism bill. That is as it should be. There are valid arguments on both sides. Defenders and supporters of the bill, and of giving the state power to hold suspects for 90-days without charge, have put their case in strong language, and up to a point this too is right – both lives and liberties are at stake. But Labour MP Kitty Usher goes completely over the top in today’s Guardian when she suggests that the Conservative, Lib/Dem and Labour MPs who opposed it will have “blood on their hands” if the bombers get through. That is not the language of democratic debate – in fact, it is the language of terrorism because it uses fear to try to bully people into giving support.

Let us be absolutely clear – the people who bear 100% of the moral responsibility for the murders on 7/7 were the terrorists who exploded the bombs and those who helped them plan and execute them. If there are any more explosions, the blame will not lie with those MPs who voted either for against 90-day detention provided they were genuinely voting as they thought right – which I happen to think that the vast majority on both sides were. The blame for any future murders will lie with the murderers.

It is very strange that the position which was actually carried in parliament – to double the period during which the police can hold terrorist suspects to nearly a month – should be presented by supporters as a victory for civil liberties and by its opponents as going soft on terrorism. But that is because both sides recognise that there is a real and serious threat.

As we have seen again this week in Jordan, every society on earth is under attack from terrorist lunatics. Most people will find it hard to argue with King Abdullah’s comment on the husband and wife responsible for the wedding massacre: “To walk into a hotel, to see a wedding and to take your spouse and blow yourself up – these people are insane.”

I believe that Tony Blair is making the same mistake when he presents the police as being united in support of 90-day detention as he was when he presented the intelligence community as being united in the view that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be fired in 45 minutes. In each case Blair really believed the policy for which he was arguing to be right, but he overstated both the case and the degree of expert support for it.

The are plenty of terrorism experts who believe, and some senior police officers who will say in private, that detaining people for long periods without charge can make the problems of terrorism worse. You only need to consider the one instance in the past 50 years when it was tried in this country – internment in Northern Ireland. That was a disaster and gave a huge boost to the terrorists.

It was not the opposition which ruled out a compromise: when Charles Clarke invited the Conservatives and Lib/Dems to discuss the terms of the bill both opposition parties agreed to meet him. The opposition have supported some of the government’s proposals, and as I mentioned earlier, even the rebel amendment represents a doubling of the time the police can hold people, not a refusal to compromise. It is the Prime Minister alone who created a showdown and he has nobody else to blame for the damage to his authority.

There have been many comparisons this week between the Blair government now and the later years of John Major’s government. This comparison is most unfair – to John Major. When Major lost a vote of comparable importance over Maastricht, he brought the issue back the following day as a motion of confidence, and won. Winston Churchill did the same thing during the war. Tony Blair has not dared to try anything of the kind.

The most important reason why I welcome the refusal of parliament to back 90-day detention is that I am convinced it was the right decision. But if it checks the arrogance of this government that will also be welcome. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom, and no government which imagines that it has is going to achieve very much.

But above all, let’s make sure we reserve at least the majority of our anger for the terrorists and not for each other.

Friday, November 11, 2005

MORE DENTAL PROBLEMS – YOU COULDN’T MAKE IT UP !!

The sorry saga of inadequate dental service coverage in Cumbria continues to get worse. A few days ago, 8.500 NHS patients in the Penrith area learned they would have to choose between going private and looking for another dentist. Now the dental service helpline, Dental Direct is being overwhelmed and people are being asked not to ring it. The switchboard crashed yesterday, and even without that, they have only four operators and had over 1,000 calls on Wednesday.

Not that this service is usually able to say much more than

‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

when you do get through. All too often you find that none of the dental practices in the county are taking on new NHS patients, so they have to offer to take your details and get back to you if anything comes up. If you ask about any practices taking private patients you’re told “We’re an NHS facility, we can’t help you with that.”

One of the Eastern European dentists who was recently recruited to come and work in the NHS is reported to have said that it was like going back to the last century. We cannot expect to recruit and retain dentists until we tackle issues training, working conditions, terms and prospects. This needs a fundamental review. Slapping patches on the problem just isn’t good enough.

Friday, November 04, 2005

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS NO JOKE – WHOEVER DOES IT

No charges have been brought, so none of us except the individuals involved can be certain exactly what happened between the actor Ross Kemp and his wife, Sun editor Rebekah Wade, or between his onscreen “brother” Steve McFadden and ex-partner Angela Bostock. But we can be certain that jokes which trivialise domestic violence, or worse, make fun of those who are on the receiving end of it, are as intolerable as the violence itself, not least because they make more violence likely.

For that reason, I am horrified by the irresponsible front page of the Mirror newspaper today (4th November). The paper suggests in language more appropriate to a “Batman” comic than a newspaper for grown ups, that both Eastenders actors had been physically attacked by their wife and ex-partner respectively, and then asked if, unlike the “hard-man” characters they portray, the actors were really “Big girl’s blouses.” The attitudes portrayed on that front page are an insult to both men and women.

In the past few decades, domestic violence against women and children has rightly come to be treated as unacceptable. No man who deliberately harms a woman, and no adult of either sex who harms a child, should expect to get away with it. Domestic attacks on men appear to be less common than attacks on women, but they do happen, and far too many people, including victims, some police officers, and some parts of the press, have difficulty in dealing with this. In fact, responses to domestic assaults on men, from sniggering or “he must have deserved it” to flat refusal to believe it has happened are as bad or worse as used to be the case many years ago with attacks on women.

And the Mirror’s front page – not that they were the only ones to deal with this news in a foolish way, just the most tasteless – exemplifies the worst possible way to deal with violence against men. To suggest that a man who is attacked by a woman can’t be a real man is both grossly unfair to the victim but also promotes attitudes that are likely to cause injury or worse to women.

What do the people who make such comments expect a man who has been hit by a woman to do to prove his virility – put her in hospital? Does it not occur to the Mirror that the attitudes embedded in their front page may make some men more likely to do precisely that ?

I would give a man who has been the victim of domestic violence the same advice I would give a woman – don’t hit back but don’t put up with it either.