Friday, July 30, 2010

The Standards regime - a Frankenstein monster

It's a pity that The Times have put their site behind a paywall, as I would like to be able to link to an excellent article which Danny Finkelstein wrote this week about the Standards Board regime which is meant to protect ethics in local government (and which the new government is pledged to replace).

He gives as an example the fact that Cardiff City Councillor John Dixon, who put a comment on Twitter inferring that Scientology is "stupid," has been referred to the ethics panel of that council following a complaint accusing his tweet of having "impinged on the right to religious freedom."

You can find another website which reports on the case here. Ironically, in the subtitle, Monica who runs that blog expresses the opinion

"I think it is safe to say that Scientology is stupid."

Apparently not if you're a councillor, it isn't!

One of the things I used to think this country stood for is that everyone was entitled to their views and everyone was entitled to disagree with those views.

Elsewhere on her blog Monica, who is an atheist, also refers to parts of the bible as "absurd". I am entirely relaxed about her opinions, which have no effect whatsoever on my ability to enjoy religious freedom. I disagree with her view but as Voltaire said, I would defend to the death her right to express them.

Similarly we should defend to the death both the rights of Scientologists to expound their faith and the right of anyone who disagrees with it to call them stupid. That isn't "impinging the right to religious freedom" but defending it. If Councillor Dixon had said something which a reasonable person could interpret as encouraging violence against Scientologists that would be an entirely different matter, but the law could, and undoubtedly would, have taken a hand at that point.

The fact that the Standards regime can be abused in an attempt to punish an elected councillor for a post on twitter calling something "stupid" is only one sign that the standards regime has grown miles beyond it's proper purpose.

We need a standards and ethics regime to ensure that councillors and MPs are not abusing their positions to put their own interests above those of the community and to ensure that there is transparency and honesty when conflicts of interest arise.

We do not need a system where people can be hauled before a kangaroo court merely for saying something which some fanatic disagrees with.

We do not need a system which encourages councillors to make a sport out of taking one another to the Standards Board at the drop of a hat.

We do not need a system where a candidate for election as a councillor who tries to be honest with his or her voters about a key issue in the ward takes the risk of finding if elected that the council solicitor tells him or her not to attend or vote at the meeting where that issue will be decided because those comments have "prejudged" the issue.

All these things are not just rare occurences but common events under the current standards regime.

I don't put all the blame for the fact that the Standards Board regime has developed these problems on the board themselves or their staff - a lot of it is down to some local politicians, and anyone else with an axe to grind, abusing the system.

But the fact remains that the system has gone beyond its laudable aims and all too often beyond common sense, from a means of keeping local politics clean to a bureacractic and anti-democratic nightmare which all too often creates a mindfield for people who are just trying to work for thy things they were elected to do.

The sooner the new government keeps the promise to change and simplify the system, the better.

Labour are the ones who support "Gerrymandering"

Mike Smithson of "Political Betting makes the following good point in response to Jack Straw's ridiculous charge that the coalition's attempts to make the electoral system fairer are "Gerrymandering."

"Every so often I find myself having to explain to non-election anoraks why it is that Labour can secure an overall majority with 2.7% more votes while the Tories need a margin of 11.2%.

Generally their eyes glaze over as I talk about differential turnouts etc but the point they grasp instantly is that Labour-held seats have, on average, smaller electorates than Tory or LD-held ones.

This is one of the things that on the face of it seems unfair and that should be put right. It’s hard to argue against.

So I wonder whether Mr. Jack Straw has made a mistake in making the Coalition move to create equal-sized constituencies the reason why Labour will oppose the electoral reform bill that includes this and the AV referendum?

For it looks as if he’s trying to find any reason to wiggle out of Labour’s manifesto commitment on the alternative vote and in doing do is allowing it to be portrayed as seeking to continue an unfair system for its own narrow advantage.

Using the “gerrymandering” charge, in particular, is over the top and inaccurate."

Quite. You can read the full post here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New government confirms £70 million for WCH

Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has visited West Cumberland Hospital and confirmed that the hospital will get at least £70 million from the government for the redevelopment project.

The Health Secretary met staff to thank them for their hard work following the tragic shootings, and said:

"I and my colleagues in Government have looked with great care at the case for finding support for the rebuilding of West Cumberland Hospital.

"While other new hospital schemes are being considered in the context of the spending review, West Cumberland will be treated on an exceptional basis, given its stage of development, evident priority and the relationship with local economic redevelopment through the energy coast programme."

Following the election the new coalition government put a hold on all major health projects. This freeze initially included the £100 million redevelopment of the hospital, because despite work being under way and buildings demolished, the previous Labour government had not actually got around to approving even the outline business case.

But it is now confirmed that the Department of Health will provide up to £70 million for the redevelopment of the hospital over three years. Andrew Lansley told the Whitehaven News:

"I have visited the hospital twice in the past. We appreciate how important their services are to the people of West Cumbria. The need to maintain access to emergency care was reinforced by the tragic circumstances following the recent shootings.

"This is the most significant investment into the healthcare of West Cumbria and I am overjoyed for the community that they will now have brand new clinical facilities that will provide high-quality care for the future."

For more details see my hospitals blog (link at right.)

“Mad, bad, dangerous and beyond redemption”

That is what Tony Blair thought of Gordon Brown according to Peter Mandelson's memoirs serialised in yesterday's Times.

I did not think anything cold possibly make my opinion of the last government even lower, but Mandelson's memoirs have done it, both in terms of my view about them as a government and of Blair, Brown and Mandelson as human beings.

The person who has taken the biggest hit in terms of losing what remaining shreds of respect I had for him is of course Mandelson himself.

Either he believes what he has been writing, or he doesn't. If he is not sincere, what can we make of a person who will publish this sort of comment about his former close friends and colleagues for money?

But what Mandy has written about Blair and particularly Brown reflects his true views: let's remember that he came back from Brussels to try to shore up the last government, and supported Brown remaining Labour leader after James Purnell resigned, when Mandelson's continued support was critical to keeping Brown in number ten.

I do not see how anyone who believes the contents of Mandelson's memoirs can possibly also believe that his actions in propping up Brown as Prime Minister were in the national interests of Britain.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering the few

Many people have been glued to the box this evening watching the world cup final. Many others will have been watching the commemoration of the Battle of Britain.

It may have become a cliche that, as Churchill said, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed, by so many, to so few."

But it's also true. Our world today would have been unimaginably worse had not "the few" held off Hitler's luftwaffe. We should remember all those who fought on land, in or under the sea, or in the air, to save this country from fascism. The better we remember the lessons of that era, and their heroism, the less the risk that some future generation of our sons and daughters will be called on to repeat it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Martin Kettle praises DC

It is comparatively rare when someone who is generally on one side of the political divide writes something as complementary about a politician on the other side as Martin Kettle's piece in the Guardian this week, "A man of grace. Cameron has been good for Britain," is of David Cameron.

Hat tip to Mike Smithson at Political Betting for pointing it out.

In the second paragraph Kettle says that

"Cameron is already proving to be a much better prime minister than Brown ever was."

He concludes that

"... in these first weeks even opponents should concede that Cameron has played a blinder. He is showing himself as potentially the best all-round prime minister of the modern era. Labour's hopefuls should learn from him."

You can read the full article here.

Friday, July 09, 2010

On the end of "Building Schools for the Future"

Hat Tip to Iain Dale for pointing out this blog post by John Redwood on the demise of the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme.

Contrary to the disingenuous statements by the MP for Copeland, the last Labour government did not give a firm "pledge" of £61.5 million for schools in Cumbria. They tried to give the impression that they had done so, but the small print of what Ed Balls actually announced was an "indicative allocation" of £61.5 million within an unfunded capital programme which the government admitted in the supporting papers for their last budget would have to take some heavy cuts.

Here is John Redwood's conclusion:

"In the statement I heard Michael Gove make he was clear in saying he was cancelling the approach of Building Schools for the future because it was an expensive, long winded and inefficient way of building schools. He did not say he was cancelling all new schools building. Indeed, if he is right and he can save substantial sums on the box ticking detailed regulatory approach of the old programme this could leave him with more moeny to spend on bricks and mortar. This message has got entirely lost in the broadcasts and newspaper stories about cuts, leading most people to think there will now be no new schools.

This needs turning round as quickly as possible. According to the figures the Coaliton government is going to spend as much on new capital projects as the outgoing Labour government. In that case they might end up building more schools than Labour for the same amount of money if Mr Gove is right about how to do it more cheaply. I asked him what savings he expected from stopping the BSF approach. He said he would write to me with the answer. The sooner I get that letter the sooner he can tell the country about the waste that is being eliminated and the extra money that should then be available for bricks and mortar."

You can read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Funding for Schools

I most concerned about the likely implications for Cumbria of the announcements this week about school capital programmes.

I am also completely convinced that, given the previous government had very quietly announced after the budget that there would be huge but unspecified cuts in the schools and NHS capital programmes, many of the programmes axed or suspended by Michael Gove this week would also have been axed or suspended if Labour had won the election.

It is important that money is found for capital investment in Cumbria's schools. But a government which has just inherited a fiscal position heading for national bankruptcy, because the previous administration was spending four pounds for every three coming in, was always going to be forced to take painful decisions. Because as the outgoing Labour chief secretary said, there isn't any money left.

Labour's suggestion - it was never specific enough to be called a promise - that they might provide £61.5 million for Cumbria's schools was never funded. They merely put forward an "indicative allocation" that the money might be found two years out.

I will campaign for investment in our local schools. But it will be the case whoever wins the next few local and parliamentary elections, as it would have been whoever had won the last one, that finding money for all sorts of important causes will be challenging.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Have your say on Planning in Copeland

As reported a few posts ago, Copeland Council is currently consulting the public on the proposed Core Strategy for the new Local Development Framework which will give guidance for what sorts of development the council will give planning permission.

(For the avoidance of doubt, I should make clear that the council does not decide on planning permission for sites in the National Park: applications in this area are decided by the Lake District National Park Authority which is producing its' own Local Development Framework.)

One of the requests at the public meeting a fortnight ago was that the Copeland Council website should have a link on the Homepage to the details of the consultation.

Credit where credit is due, this request has been implemented. You can now go straight to the page for the planning consultation from the Copeland Council homepage, or follow this link.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Carnival time in Whitehaven

Just got back with my family from watching the brilliant Carnival procession through the streets of Whitehaven.

Thousands of people turned out in lovely weather to see the dancers and floats process through the streets. This was the 21st successive carnival organised by the Whitehaven Lions club who did a great job.

Wonderful, especially after recent events, to see so many people on the streets of Whitehaven enjoying themselves for the second consecutive weekend.