Friday, September 29, 2006

An ethics policy that works

One of the biggest challenges facing whoever forms the next government will be to rebuild public confidence in the integrity of those involved in politics.

The majority of people in all three political parties are honest. But the minority who are not have done a huge amount of damage and everyone involved in public life has been tarred with the same brush.

During the last Conservative government, a few ministers and MPs who fell short of the high standards we should expect of ourselves gave the whole party a reputation for sleaze. And under the present government, elected on the promise to be "Whiter that White", the level of sleaze has been much worse - not least because most of it leads back to people close to the Prime Minister.

I'm taking for granted that most people reading this will agree that the present government is far less ethical than its Tory or Labour predecessors going back at least 40 years: if you don't share that view please feel free to post a comment and I'll reply with chapter and verse. Or alternatively you can read The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.


So I'm very pleased that David Cameron is aware of these issues and has asked the Conservative Democracy task force chaired by Ken Clarke to consider and refine a number of proposals. These include

• Reversing the trend towards Tony Blair's Presidential-style "Department of the Prime Minister".
• Creating an independent mechanism to investigate breaches of the Ministerial Code.
• Introducing tighter caps on the number of paid and unpaid ministers and a statutory limit on the number of special advisers.
• Ending the practice of MPs setting their own salaries.
• Considering a reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
• Passing a Civil Service Act to re-establish and entrench the independence of the Civil Service.

All these ideas are well worth looking at. I'm particularly pleased that most of them are simple, practical, and easy to implement, so much so that several such as limiting the number of ministers and special advisors would be likely to actualy save money rather than cost more.

At least one of these, preventing MPs from being in the position of voting on their own remuneration, should not only be adopted at once but extended to councillors as well.

I'm pleased that Cameron is focussing on simple and practical measures to improve confidence in public ethics, because some of the earlier attempts to reform public life have set up systems which are, frankly, part of the problem. Each successive parliamentary commissioner for standards has been deluged with accusations from one politican against another: genuine ones have been mixed up with a whole load of muck-throwing. One of the worst aspects of this is that MPs who were on the receiving end became very jaundiced about the whole process. That is probably one of the reasons why people who should have known better went along with the disgraceful constructive dismissal of Elizabeth Filkin as parliamentary commissioner for standards. It may also be part of the reason so many Labour MPs were willing to circle the wagons and help defend people like Keith Vaz.

The same problem has happened at local government level to such an extent that, sadly, nobody should consider standing for public office unless they can cope with the possibility that at some stage they will be wrongly accused of improper conduct. Over the past five years I have seen far too many false and trumped up complaints made against councillors of various parties. Usually they come either from people who are unhappy about a planning application or from political opponents looking to score points. I've been on the receiving end of two myself, one in each of these categories. Both complaints were dismissed by the Standards Board for England as not worth investigation because the complainants had not established that there was even a case to answer.

However, it is not the completely baseless charges which are the most pernicious aspect of the present ethics system: two thirds of complaints are dismissed without an investigation, like the ones against me, and in my experience the great majority of politically motivated or malicious complaints are not upheld if they do get investigated.

The worst problem with the system is that, as councillors and council officials alike are paranoid about the possibility that someone will report them for breaking the ethics code, far too frequently councillors who would have had a valuable contribution to a debate are advised to stay away. The most extreme example of this was when nearly a third of Cumbria County Council's members, including nearly all of those elected to represent the most affected wards, were prevented from voting on the council's policy on nuclear issues because council officers advised that any councillor with a friend who works at Sellafield had a prejudicial interest. That catches just about every adult in West Cumbria.

I'm pleased that David Cameron is putting forward simple and effective ideas to improve public ethics which should be less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that I've described above. I hope to see many of these ideas implemented.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Review: The Audit of War by Correlli Barnett

I have been re-reading Correlli Barnett's 1986 classic work of modern history, "The Audit of War"

The title of this book is a little confusing: it seeks to find causes in the conduct of British policy up to and including the end of the second world war to explain the collapse of Britain's superpower status after that war.

"The Audit or War" opens with the statement that the purpose of the book is an operational study "to uncover the causes of Britain's protracted decline as an industrial country since the second world war."

Many of the policies Barnett criticises were developed over the preceding century or even further back.

There are two possible reasons why someone might want to read this book. The first would be to learn something from the ideas Barnett puts forward. You do not have to agree with everything in his thesis about the problems with Education and Training in Britain from the 19th century onwards, and consequent failures of leadership and management in many fields, to find his arguments compulsive reading and recognise that Barnett points to a lot of important lessons we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

The second possible reason to read it is that, whether you agree with it or not, this book had considerable impact in shaping government policy, particularly on education and training, particularly in the decade after it came out in 1986. If you want to understand why certain decisions were taken, such as the abolition of the distiction between Universities and the former Polytechnics, or the merger under John Major of the government departments responsible for training and education, reading this book will give you an insight into a world view which significantly influenced the minds of the people making those decisions.

Just to substantiate that point: one survey of what public figures were reading in the late 80's found that "The Audit of War" was cited as the most influential book they had read recently by more Conservative MPs than any other book. In 1991 I asked the government minister in charge of training a question about the distinction between education and training, and he began his reply with the words "I wouldn't go all the way with Correlli Barnett on this" - clearly expecting that I and most of the rest of those in the room would recognise that he was referring to "The Audit of War." Barnett's ideas were praised accross the political spectrum from Thatcherites to Guardianistas and in due course Blairites - the minister quoted above eventually defected to New Labour.

Targets for Barnett's pointed criticisms in this book include the overoptimistic and unrealistic plans to create a "New Jerusalem" after the war: British exaltation of the idea of "muddling through" by the "practical man" over the idea of professionalism and proper training: short-termism and refusal to face the facts: and failure to recognise that skills, systems, and organisations both technical and social which were successful and ahead of their time in the 18th century were outmoded and a liability in the 20th. The book's chapter "Education for industrial decline" also makes a strong argument that the concept of a distinction between education and vocational training, which were then regarded in Britain as two completely different things, was artificial and damaging.

This book can be read on it's own or as the middle work of what the author described as his "Pride and Fall" sequence which began with "The Collapse of British Power (1972) and ends with "The Lost Victory" (1995)

Barnett does go over the top on occasion. "The lost victory" contains the suggestion about the crowds celebrating VJ day that "Theirs was the psychology of a victor although their circumstances approximated more to those of a loser." If the inhabitants of the ruins of Berlin, Hamburg, or Dresden, or millions of other germans ruined or bereaved by the war, gave any thought of comparing their circumstances with those of the average Brit at this time I doubt if they would have agreed.

Nevertheless, Barnett's book is incisive, powerful, thought provoking, and was deservedly influential.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Two Goodbyes

The front pages of the national papers today are all plastered with Tony Blair's valedictory speech to Labour Party conference.

The local daily paper in Cumbria has the even larger headline "Ambulance HQ faces axe" about proposals to take away Cumbria's 999 response centre and deal with 999 calls from the county at the call centre in Lancashire.

If you were to ask residents of Cumbria which departure they will regret more - Tony Blair or our own 999 response unit - I bet I can guess which would get most votes.

As an incomer who has now been here two years I can attest that it takes a while to learn and understand the routes around Cumbria, where places are, and how some of the place names are pronounced, even if you are living here. I think that there is a good case that having emergency calls answered by Cumbrians will sometimes facilitate a quicker and more effective response - and time can save lives. This issue applies to both ambulances and fire engines, about which a similar debate is taking place.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A level marking

I have had my concerns about whether the A level and other exams are "Fit for purpose" in terms of admission to Universities.

I have always accepted that those who get good grades have worked hard for them and should be congratulated, and I stand by that.

Nevertheless it is strange that there should have been an increase in the proportion of good grades which seems to exceed and reasonable view of the rate at which standards may have increased. It is particulaly interesting that the same substantial increase in grades does not appear to have occurred in the USA.

As the United States has had many of the same social trends including attempts to increase educational performance that we have, one has to ask, is it really possible that that standards could have risen greatly on this side of the Atlantic and not on the other ?

If the different trends in grades reflect a real difference in educational performance, what has caused it and what can we learn from it ? If they do not, there is something wrong with measurement on one side of the Atlantic or the other.

There has been a torrent of press stories in the past couple of days about exam marking errors, including cases of pupils who have successfully secured massive increases in their grades on appeal, and other cases where pupils who believed that their papers had been marked at an unfairly low grade had sent them to the University to which they were seeking admission, and gained entry because the University concerned agreed.

I don't know how many of the tens of thousands of appeals against grades are really justified. But I note that former Ofsted Chief instector Chris Woodhead was one of the people expressing concern about the quality of marking in today's papers. Certainly, since any system is fallible, anyone who believes that their grades are too low would be well advised to appeal. But it sounds like a more rigorous system of checking may be needed both when students gain significantly lower grades than was expected, and when they are significantly higher.

More Labour Sleaze

In the last few days Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's principal fundraiser, had had further conversations with police about the "Cash for peerages" row and another wealthy Labour donor, Christopher Evans, has been arrested. By all accounts he is furious with the Labour party for landing him in this position.

There are also questions about the funding of other political parties, though those affecting the Labour party are far and away the most serious.

This is going to cause a collapse in funding for political parties which will be a real problem, not just for Labour, but for Britain. Wealthy people who might once have given money to the political party they support for honest motives are just not going to want to risk being accused of corruption.

I don't think it adds anything to the effectiveness of democracy to spend the vast sums of money which is associated with political campaigning in America. However, it does cost a few million a year to operate and maintain a reasonably competent national party capable of offering a serious choice to the electorate as a body capable of forming a government.

That money has to come either from lots of membership subscriptions from a large number of people - say half a million members paying £10 a year each, or from a few very rich people or organisations making large donations, or from the taxpayer.

The ideal would be the former, but I don't see it happening while politics has the poor reputation it has at the moment. A deal between the parties to help themselves to taxpayer's money without reference to those who are providing that money would be even worse.

As I argued a few weeks ago, the least worst option would give voters the option to provide a modest sum of taxpayer's money to the party for which they have just cast their vote if they tick a box on the ballot paper. That way the parties would get some money from those taxpayers who think they deserve it, while those who think that even the party they have voted for doesn't deserve a penny could ensure that they don't have to pay it simply by not ticking the box.

In my view the sort of sum provided should be about £5 a year per voter who does tick the box, split 75% to the national party and 25% to the constituency party. All voters pay much more tax than that, so effectivly those who ticked the box would be earmarking a small part of their own taxes to support the party of their choice and nobody else would be paying tax to support a party they disagree with.

Whether you agree with me or not, if you have views on this please make them known to the review chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. Their official website is here

(The URL is http://www.partyfundingreview.gov.uk/)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Digital TV switchover

For people reading this who live in Copeland and watch television: this will affect you in October 2007 when the existing TV signal for most of the borough is switched off. Anyone reading this in the rest of the UK: this will still affect you within the next few years when the change reaches your area.

The government and broadcasters have decided to switch everyone over from the original "analogue" TV signal to a new "digital" system. The Whitehaven TV area will be the first part of the country affected when the analogue TV signal is replaced over the next few years. A meeting was organised in Whitehaven Civic Hall on Thursday to describe how this will happen.

The process is being managed by a company called Digital UK. When they refer to the "Whitehaven TV area", they mean a much wider area than local residents usually understand by the name "Whitehaven - it actually covers the great majority of Copeland. Small areas around Parton and St Bees are covered by their own transmitters which will not switchover until 2008, and there is an area south of the mountains around Corney Fell and Black Coombe, including Haverigg, Millom, Duddon Bridge and Ulpha which is also served by other transmitters and will switch over later.

The rest of Copeland, including Whitehaven, Distington, Sandwith, Bigrigg, Egremont, Cleator, Cleator Moor, Frizington, Arlecdon, Rowrah, Lamplugh, Ennerdale, Beckermet, Calderbridge, Gosforth, Seascale, Wasdale, Eskdale, Ravenglass, Waberthwaite, and Bootle, will lose the existing TV signal in October 2007.

From that point, to receive the main TV channels, viewers in this area will need a set-top box for each pre-digital TV they wish to use. These cost about £25. Anyone who wants to record one channel while watching another would be well advised to buy a digital recorder.

Anyone buying a TV from now on should check that it has the "Digital ready" mark which consists of the word digital followed by a tick in a box. This is different from the High Definition ready mark (HDD ready).

There is a package of targetted assistance available to help older and disabled residents with this change, but I am concerned that the net for this may have been drawn too narrowly. The package is available to residents over 75 or those registered blind or disabled: it is free for those on pensions credit or receiving disability support, but there is a "small charge" for other residents.

There is a problem with this - it is estimated that a third of the poorest pensioners do not apply for pensions credit, presumably because they have trouble with the pages of complicated forms. Those people are not going to be happy about having to pay for new equipment to be able to continue to watch their TV. The government needs to look again at eligibility for the assistance scheme.

There will be another public meeting in December to discuss the issues arising from the switchover. I suspect there will be - and should be - a lot more debate about this.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pensions – An inevitable change finally happens

Yesterday a change which I have been expecting for 20 years was finally announced.

When left University in 1985, I was determined to ensure that from my first proper job I would have appropriate pensions provision. To anyone with even a limited understanding of economics and demographics, it was already obvious that by the time I reached retiring age some forty years later, the funding of pensions was likely to be a huge problem. Even in the mid 1980’s the combination of increasing life expectancy and gradually declining birth rates over the previous 20 years made it apparent that in the first two decades of the 21st century, the share of the UK population of traditional working age would dramatically reduce while the proportion of traditional retirement age would dramatically increase. Providing everyone with a generous state pension was obviously going to become impossible unless taxes went up dramatically, saving was increased, or retirement age went up.

So on starting work, I read the details of my occupational pension scheme carefully. The terms seemed generous and realistic, except for one detail – my contract stipulated a retiring age of 60. I recall laughing about this and thinking it unlikely that by the 2020’s there would still be a retiring age as low as 65, never mind 60.

Yesterday that prediction came true: my employer announced that it is not just increasing the normal retirement age but abolishing it. Those who wish to retire at 60 will be able to do so, but those who don’t want to retire and are able to meet normal job performance standards will be able to continue working with no upper age limit.

As people live longer it will be more and more essential that employers offer more flexibility to allow older workers to continue full-time or part time work in a way which suites both employee and employer. Other examples of flexible retirement options which are being introduced by enlightened companies include –

Wind Down - part-time & job-share options
Step Down – e.g. to a post with lower responsibilities or pressure
Time Out - phased sabbaticals
Helping Hands - secondments (full/time or part/time)
Ease Down - gradual reduction in hours or responsibilities

(These are the terms used by BT – other employers have different names for the same concepts.)

Unfortunately the biggest single obstacle to more widespread adoption of flexible and sensible retirement terms can be summed up in two words – Gordon Brown.

Like the rest of Europe we have a serious pensions problem, but it could have been and nearly was prevented.

In what should have been a rare example of a government seeing a problem 20 years ahead and actually doing something about it, the then Cabinet minister Tony Newton changed pension arrangements in 1985 to give much greater incentives to save. This generated a huge increase in investment in occupational pensions which was well on the way to solving the problem: by 1997 Britain had more money invested in pension funds than the whole of the rest of Europe put together. Sadly that achievement was destroyed by the inexcusable incompetence of Gordon Brown, who wrecked both incentives to save and the level of pension provision with his irresponsible “stealth taxes” such as his £5 billion a year raid on pension funds.

Among other consequences this has meant that the great majority of “Final salary” occupational pension schemes have been closed to new members. Gordon Brown’s pensions policies have not just hurt present-day pensioners, but have also damaged the future prospects of those who are currently middle aged and those who are currently younger workers. And many of those who ought to have benefited do not: because Brown’s Pensions Credit is so complicated, a third of the poorest pensioners do not apply for or receive it, presumably because they cannot understand the lengthy application forms

The impact of Brown’s raid on pension funds, and his over-complicated, incentive-destroying Pensions Credit can only be described as evil, but they are far from being the end of his mischief. He is also planning a cap on personal pension funds and yet another stealth tax on those whose personal provision exceeds that cap. The proposed level of the cap, between one and two million pounds, may sound high, but it will catch many middle income workers with final salary pension schemes. And here is the final insanity – for a good chunk of middle income workers, delaying retirement from 60 to 65 or above will bring their pension pot over the cap, ensuring that the treasury takes away much of the benefit of their extra years of work and saving.

In other words, as enlightened companies are moving to address the problems facing Britain in the 21st century, Gordon Brown’s stealth taxes are destroying the incentive for people to take advantage of the freedom on offer.

We need a chancellor who actually understands and acts on the principle of providing incentives rather than one who parrots the language while destroying the reality. I shudder to think what damage the present incumbent will do if he manages to become Prime Minister. My consolation is that if Gordon Brown does become PM he will be the Al Gore of British politics – and I don’t think we’ll need a Supreme Court to stop a recount.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Digital TV Public Meeting this Thursday

The public meeting about the switchover to Digital TV, which will happen in the Whitehaven area before anywhere else in the country, is at 6.30pm this Thursday in the Civic Hall, Lowther Street, Whitehaven.

I hope there will be a good attendance, for two reasons. First, we all need to know how the experts think this is going to affect us in plenty of time.

Those who leave it too late to check whether their TV etc are compatible with the new digital signal may find themselves in the same position as those who didn't realise in good time that child car seats would become a legal requirement yesterday. Surprise surprise - there has been a last minute rush for car seats and apparently many shops have sold out of them.

The other reason I hope there will be a good attendance on Thursday is that if the powers that be see from a packed civic hall that many local residents are watching to see that this is done right, they may make more effort to deal with the concerns raised. That might help ensure that being the first town in the country to go through this doesn't mean we have to suffer a lot of mistakes and inconvenience.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

£500 fine from Monday if you don't use a child seat ...

Any parents of a child under 12 who has not picked this up - and my impression is that many people have not - should be aware that from Monday a new law comes into effect. If you transport a child under 12 in a car without a properly fitting car seat, or appropriate booster cushion, you may be risking a £30 fixed penalty notice. If a case gets to court you get be fined £500. There are certain exceptions, which are even less well known than the fact that the law has been brought in.

As with so much of the nanny state legislation introduced by this government, you can see the point but have to ask whether passing yet another law is the best way to deal with it. Passing a law and not publicising it properly strikes me as particularly stupid. If the police bother to enforce the new law (and I would have found that condition unthinkable nine years ago), it's a safe bet that those parents who first find out about the law when they get a £30 penalty notice for breaking it will be given a very jaundiced attitude to health and safety legislation.

I would add that my children, currently five, have always ridden in properly fitted child car seats since they were born. My first reaction when I heard about the law was to doubt very much that my son will still need one by the time he is 12 - by then he'll probably be taller than some of the MPs who were in parliament at the time the law was passed. I would have taken a £5 bet that my son would be taller than Sarah Teather MP before becoming old enough not to be required to sit in a child booster seat under this legislation.

In fact the law does allow for this - one of the exceptions is for children taller than 135 cm in height. (The law ceases to apply to a child on his or her 12th birthday or when he or she reaches 1 metre 35 cm in height, whichever comes first.)

There are a few other exceptions designed to deal with temporary emergencies.

There has been a torrent of legislation of this kind, from the ban on "beef on the bone" to this new rule. But it shows no sign of letting up - new ideas for extra laws which have been seriously suggested include controls on the temperature of bath water and a legal requirement for bicycles to have a working bell.

It is high time we stopped passing such new laws and started repealing some of the ones we have.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Resign !

This morning's Times alleges that "A secret meeting has been held by ministers and Labour party officials to work out ways of closing hospitals without jeopardising key marginal seats."

Leaked emails sent to the Times and to the BBC show that a meeting attended by Patricia Hewitt and government advisers to discuss the impact of hospital closures was also attended by Hazel Blears, Chairman of the Labour party and, at Hazel Blear's request, by a Labour party representative.

If this is true, Ms Hewitt and Ms Blears must provide the House of Commons with the minutes of the meeting and explain to parliament why they proposed and agreed respectively that a Labour party representative should be present. Unless they can demonstrate that party political considerations have not been allowed to change health service plans drawn up on medical grounds, Patricia Hewitt and Hazel Blears should resign from the government.

The BBC comprehensively missed the point this lunchtime, over the suggestion that one marginal seat which might be affected by a hospital closure is a Lib/Dem-held constituency, Rochdale. A BBC correspondent appeared to suggest that this was OK as it might help the Lib/Dem MP to hold his seat if the Labour party closed his local hospital.

Have the Beeb completely lost their marbles ? Never mind the MP, what about health care for his constituents ?

How will residents of West Cumbria feel if it turns out that decisions about which services stay at the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven and which go to Carlisle or Barrow were being made not on the basis of medical advice but on what is best for the re-election prospects of Jamie Reed, Eric Martlew, and John Hutton ?

How will residents of Hatfield and St Albans feel if it turns out that the fate of the proposed new super-hospital in Hatfield, revealed a couple of days ago to be under threat - might be decided not on the basis of clinical need but on the basis that healthcare in a marginal Labour seat is more important than in seats Labour has already lost ?

It is impossible to totally eliminate the possibility that politicans are taking decisions on considerations of party advantage instead of the best interests of society as a whole. However, it is perfectly possible to impose a responsibility on holders of public office to put factors affecting the whole of society, such as medical need, above party politics. And it has long been accepted in local government, both under the new regime imposed by Labour and under previous systems, that councillors who fail to do so can be punished.

If Patricia Hewitt and Hazel Blears were councillors instead of ministers, there would be enough evidence to justify referring them to the Standards Board for England which their own government set up. There is at least a case to answer that they have committed the same broad category of political manipulation for which a District Auditor "surcharged" (e.g. fined) Dame Shirley Porter and some of her fellow Westminster councillors millions of pounds.

Unless they can explain themselves, Hewitt and Blears should go.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years on

I am sure that most people can remember what they were doing five years ago today when they heard that the twin towers had been attacked. I was at the local doctor's surgery where my son and daughter, then a few months old, had just had an injection.

Such is the freight of meaning now associated with the date that today at work when I was writing up the minutes of a meeting, just writing the date "September 11th" seemed somehow creepy.

Because of the host of criticisms, some of them justified, which have been made about the conduct of the "War on Terror" in general and the invasion of Iraq in particular, it is usually all too easy to forget how it started - but not today. Even without the flood of material on the television, we are thrown back to remembrance of the most murderous and treacherous attack since Pearl Harbour.

In the years since Iraq was invaded, it has become commonplace for apologists for terror to use US or British foreign policy as a justification for their atrocities. Even now the obvious answer would be that two wrongs don't make a right. Back in September 2001, the idea that the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities had any such justification was absurd.

Far from always attacking Islam, the most recent military intervention by the USA and Britain had been in former Yugoslavia where they had attempted to stop genocide against Muslims by serbian nationalist extremists who would have claimed to by Christian. (Though of course they had no more right to commit murder in the name of Jesus than Jihadist extremists have to commit murder in the name of Islam.)

Far from following an imperialist policy in Afghanistan, the country which sheltered the 9/11 terrorists, the USA had recently helped both the Taliban and other Afghan movements to resist imperialism. America had supplied stinger missiles and other weapons to help the people of Afghanistan resist the external imposition by the former Soviet Union, which as an atheist power actually justified the adjective "Godless," of a system far more alien to them than anything ever promoted by the West.

Bin Laden and most of his henchment were Saudis - citizens of a country to which most reasonable observers would consider the USA had been quite friendly.

I am repeating these points about the situation in 2001 because it is often suggested that the West's actions since then have provoked Islamic terrorism. None of the actions most often cited can even explain, much less justify, the attack on the world trade centre.

The truth is that Jihadist extremists are full of hate for anyone who sees the world differently than themselves, including most Muslims, and that they will find any excuse to murder those of whom they are jealous or with whom they disagree. They hate us nearly as much as the USA, and not primarily because of our foreign policy, but because we believe in democracy and free speech.

If we pulled out of Iraq tomorrow the jihadist extremists would still hate us because we think women have the right to an education, health care, and a job. If we somehow managed to solve all the problems of between Israel and its neighbours to the full satisfaction of every Palestinian and Lebanese, the jihadists would still hate us because we don't believe in stringing up every gay person from the nearest lamp-post.

Even if every last person in Britain converted to Islam we still would not be safe from Jihadist extremists, who have murdered far more of their own co-religionists than they have Westerners.

I have used the word "Jihadist" to describe Bin Laden and his ilk. I refuse to call them Muslims because that would be an insult to a great religion which they have defiled by committing their crimes in its name. I note that moderate Muslims sometimes refer to the extremists as "Jihadists" so I am deliberately using the same description to make the point that the great majority of Muslims are not our enemy.

The West can and must stand up for our countries, our beliefs and our values in an intelligent and resolute way. We must oppose the extremists in a way which avoids, to the greatest extent possible, making enemies out of innocent people who have the misfortune to be part of the communities from which the extremists come. Sometimes this will be easier said than done.

But the evil behind 9/11 can and will be defeated, because those who only know how to destroy will never stand against those who know how to build. Those who love life may lose battles to those who love death, but love and life are stronger than death, and we will prevail.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Judging John Prescott "on the job"

Remember a few weeks ago when John Prescott asked to be judged by his performance "on the job?"

By an amusing chance, a couple of months after this comment, we arrive at the set assessment date for a challenge he previously set himself.

Five years ago, when in charge of a department which included transport, John Prescott set a criteria for assessing his success "on the job." He announced that if, within five years, there were not many more journeys by public transport, he would have failed.

Well, we've now had the figures for the change in journey numbers by car over that five year period. And they show that, on his own terms, Prescott has indeed failed.

When the Prime Minister came back from holiday, he announced his new idea of targetting toddlers who may grow up to become problem individuals - at one point in a TV interview he suggested that potential problem children might be identified even before birth. More about this later in the week, but I had to laugh when the television put up a slide about the cost to society of dysfunctional individuals. They suggested that a dysfunctional adult can cost society £25,000 a year. Of course, if a dysfunctional person becomes Deputy Prime Minister he can cost society ten times that amount just in the wasted salary and benefits ...

Comments Policy on this blog

Anyone with a presence on the internet which allows comments or response eventually has problems with SPAM, or with silly or offensive posts.

The vast majority of posts on this blog have been interesting and welcome. That includes posts expressing views which differ from mine. I am grateful to anyone who posts interesting opinions on this site, whether right-wing or left wing and regardless of whether I agree with them, provided they are reasonably polite. I would prefer that you use your real name but anonymous posts will not be deleted as long as they are polite and constructive.

However, I have had a small number of comments posted on this blog from people who have nothing better to do with their time than to put up anonymous insults. I do have better things to do with my time than read rude remarks from people who have nothing constructive to say and don't have the guts to sign their own name.

This blog is here to publish and promote debate on views which I consider useful and interesting whether I agree with them or not. Anything which I consider rude or offensive will be deleted, especially if the originator has not given his or her real name.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

West Cumberland Hospital

Yet another story this week expressing fear for the future of local hospital services in West Cumbria. Another week, another doctor retires and expresses concern.

Dr Tim Eyre, a consultant radiologist, has left West Cumberland Hospital after 19 years, for Nobles Hospital in the Isle of Man. In a letter to The Whitehaven News he says he fears for the future of his former colleagues and the future of the West Cumberland Hospital.

The full letter is very well worth reading, however briefly he gave the following reasons for leaving

· The Chief Executive went back on her word after promising a college review of radiology services over two years ago
· Radiology empire building in Carlisle continues with three new appointments while any discussion of expansion merely to cope with ever increasing work load at West Cumberland is ignored by management.
· Training and recruitment of radiological staff in some areas has been neglected
· We were without basic fluoroscopy services for over a year because management would not comply with health and safety recommendations – staff and patients had to go to Carlisle.
· Unrealistic job plans – the WCH doctors undertook more taxing work than their colleagues in Carlisle but the Carlisle doctors were the ones paid for extra sessions.
· There has been a chronic run down or loss of services generally at West Cumberland with the loss of pathology, psychiatry and threats to many other services
· There appears to be an agenda to reduce services in the West in order to maintain them in Carlisle where the PFI hospital cannot be allowed to fail even though it is a much less efficient hospital in terms of value for money

In light of Dr Eyre’s comments, if the NHS Trust does not wish to preside over the slow death of our local hospital they must take positive action now to restore morale and demonstrate that the West Cumberland has a future. The best thing they could do would be to give, and be seen to give, 100 per cent support to proposals for a “ health park” in Whitehaven.

In these circumstances the promise at the last election by our local Labour candidate and current MP that there was no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland Hospital looks increasingly like a poor joke.

The Longer Goodbye

Today Tony Blair, while still refusing to give a precise date when he will stand down as Labour leader and PM, indicated that it will be within 12 months.

Making sense of all the stories about what is going on in the government is difficult, but several things are obvious. The first is that the row over when Tony Blair should step down has not been manufactured by the press. There is no way that eight Labour MPs would resign from government jobs, forfeiting all hope of preferment while Blair remains PM, unless there was a real power struggle going on.

The second is that, just as internal infighting damaged the last government and contributed to the election of the present one, it is difficult to see how the sight of Labour MPs stabbing each other in the back can do other than further damage the reputation of the government and very possibly of politics generally. You might expect that politicians of all parties would have learnt this lesson but it appears not. Perhaps this is further evidence that Labour has been in power for too long.

The danger is that while government ministers concentrate on fighting each other, or on daft ideas for a “farewell tour” for Blair, the action which they should be taking instead to deal with real problems facing Britain will be ignored. Instead we get government by gimmick and the longest party leadership campaign in history.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book review: Dirty Politics, Dirty Times

“Dirty politics, Dirty Times – my fight with Wapping and New Labour”
Author: Michael Ashcroft
Published by Politico’s Media, ISBN: 1904734111

This is Lord Ashcroft's readable and interesting autobiography, which concentrates on giving his side of the attempts to blacken his reputation by an unholy alliance of New Labour spin-doctors seeking to damage the Conservative Party and Times Newspaper journalists seeking to create a story.

One of the worst legacies of the last fifteen years or so has been the extent that British politics and public life has become dominated by the tactics of personal destruction. Sadly, attacking the personal integrity of people who disagree with you or who are your rivals for office has become a routine political tactic.

The New Labour leadership have probably been the worst offenders from even before they were running the country, but they are far from being the only ones, and this book sheds an interesting light on how much some parts of the press have to answer for.

Michael Ashcroft is a self-made billionaire who has a strong involvement in politics both in Britain and Belize where he has business interests. During the main timeframe of the book he was Treasurer of the Conservative Party. He was giving the party a large amount of his time, and amounts of money which would be considerable to most people but were almost certainly worth much less to him than the time.

It is beyond doubt that Labour spin doctors, and the Times Newspaper, launched a strong attack on Michael Ashcroft's integrity, including attempts to block the peerage for which William Hague had nominated him. It is also beyond doubt that many of the charges made against Ashcroft were either disproved or withdrawn.

Obviously, this book gives one side of the story rather than an impartial account. Since the other side was spread all over many issues of The Times Newspaper and promoted by the whole weight of the government spin machine this hardly constitutes an unfair imbalance.

Personally I find this book entirely convincing: not everyone will agree. But even those readers who don't come away from the book with a positive view of Michael Ashcroft can and should learn two important things from the book.

The first and the most frightening lesson from the book is this. Ashcroft is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. Whether you like him or not, and whether you believe his side of the story or not, he is obviously also a very able, tough and determined character. But the book demonstrates that to clear his name he had to dig deep into his personal reserves of courage and determination, and use resources which would not be available to most people. He won his battle and is now Lord Ashcroft, but you wonder how many people, if subjected to the kind of attack which he came under, would have been able to clear their names. And as we have recently seen, a number of people on the other side of the political divide who are nearly as rich as Ashcroft have come under similar attack and have not yet been able to repair their reputations.


Ironically, since "Dirty Politics, Dirty Times" came out, the New Labour attack on Ashcroft described in the book has rebounded against themselves in a big way. The same basic argument they brought against Ashcroft - that a rich man who gives a lot of money to a political party must be doing so to buy favours - has been applied to their own donors, resulting in a criminal investigation as part of which Lord Levy, who is a close personal associate of the Prime Minister and Lord Ashcroft's closest equivalent on the Labour side, was arrested a few weeks ago. What goes around comes around.

Speaking as someone who cordially detests New Labour, I think that at least some of the people caught up in the "cash for peerages" scandal are probably innocent of wrongdoing but that they will still be damaged by association with Blair and Levy. Once New Labour let the genie of suspicion out of the bottle to attack Conservative donors and fundraisers there was always a good chance that it would turn on Labour donors and fundraisers, guilty and innocent alike. Even if Labour’s own hands had been totally clean - and at the very least, the accusation that their conduct has been a lot more hypocritical than Michael Ashcroft’s is unanswerable - launching an attack which could and did boomerang against themselves would have been foolish. Perhaps that is the most important lesson which this book illustrates.