Showing posts from 2005

On a lighter note – Susan Pevensie Lives !!

I’ve been posting some fairly serious things in the past few days, many of them quite depressing, but I am looking forward to taking my twin son and daughter to the cinema for their first time in the near future when “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” comes out. There was a time when I would never have expected that C.S. Lewis’s wonderful fantasies could be portrayed adequately on screen but I would have said the same of the work of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. And look what a good job they made of “The Lord of the Rings”. By all accounts the new Narnia film is supposed to be both brilliant and true to the books, and it has provoked a lot of discussion, mostly positive. However, there is one particular comment about the Narnia stories which has cropped up in a lot of reviews and online discussions which is quite wrong and really gets to me, so on a lighter note – here is the truth about Susan ! C.S. Lewis made clear that the Narnia stories are primarily just that – stories to enter

Health in West Cumbria

There was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on Monday of this week about NHS Services in West Cumbria. Adjournment debates provide a half hour slot for a backbench MP to raise with a minister an issue of concern to him or her, usually something affecting the welfare of people in the constituency he or she represents. Time is strictly limited: the form is that someone proposes “That this house do now adjourn,” then the MP or MPs raising the debate gets 15 minutes to explain what they are worried about, and the relevant minister gets 15 minutes to reply. Then the motion is carried and everyone goes home. I was pleased to learn that one of these debates had been allocated to discuss the serious problems affecting healthcare in West Cumbria and looked up Hansard (the record of everything said in parliament) the following day to see what came up in the debate. This was a valuable opportunity for the MP for Copeland to raise the many concerns affecting health in the constituency.

Don’t drop your guard!

On the face of it, the decision to postpone consultations on proposals to emasculate Millom Community hospital, as well as half a dozen other community hospitals around Cumbria, is to be welcomed. I am certainly pleased that the local NHS trusts and the Strategic Health Authority appear to have woken up to the depth of public support for local community hospitals and the harm which major cuts in the services they provide would do. But the hospitals have only had a reprieve: we are not out of the woods yet. Underlying problems with money and recruitment & retention still remain for the NHS in Cumbria and need to be tackled. And after all, we have been here before. Last year, when the review of services was launched and it was suggested that Millom Community hospital might be adversely affected, the Chief Executive of the Primary Care Trust came to a public meeting in Millom and stated that there were no plans to close Millom Hospital. I am not suggesting that this statement was made


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.


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 tha


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


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


(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 deat


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 possibi


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


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


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


This week we will learn whether some complex maternity services will be moved from West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven to Carlisle. If it is at all possible to provide these services safely in West Cumbria, the answer must be no, and for a whole host of reasons. There has rightly been very strong opposition to the idea of moving these services with thousands of people signing the “Don’t move our mums” petition. Most people I know assume that it is unlikely that anything so damaging could possibly be allowed to happen, especially in the face of overwhelming public support for keeping maternity services local. A more cynical suggestion has been that this is a straw man put up so that we would be less horrified if something else moves instead. Unfortunately the pressures on the local NHS mean that, although moving services to Carlisle would have serious consequences, rejection of the idea is not as much of a foregone conclusion as we would all like to think. Providing maternity service

The Immortal Memory

Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar – one of the three most decisive and important naval battles of all time, and the most important in the past 2,000 years. Only the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, when Greek city states fought off an invasion by the Persian Empire and thereby ensured the survival both of earloy democracy and the ideas which would develop into science, and Actium in 32 BC which determined who would found the Roman Empire and what course it would take over the following 400 years, were as important. So why is Trafalgar so important ? First, it ensured that Napoleon’s most deadly enemy, Britain, was beyond his power to defeat, and that his power and ambitions would always stop at the water’s edge. Ultimately this was to lead to his defeat – and it made certain that he would not be master of the world. Napoleon was a man of huge abilities and great ruthlessness, and without Trafalgar he might have established a centralised world empire dominated by one


As Conservative MPs vote tomorrow in the first ballot for a new Conservative leader, I commend to them some thoughts by Mark Shields, an American journalist, on the pattern followed by parties which lose elections. He was thinking of the American Democrats (who he usually supports) after George W Bush's re-election, but the comment is every bit as applicable to British Conservatives His suggestion is that parties which lose elections go through four phases: 1) We woz robbed 2) Blame the communications 3) Blame the leader/candidate 4) Find a Winner I've had a bellyful of phases one, two and three. Whether there is any justice in them or not, they don't work. It's bad enough that we have already had eight years of Blair and Brown and face another four or five. The country cannot afford another five years after that of lies, spin, broken promises, wrecked pensions, excessive bureaucracy, bulldozing the North and concreting over the South, no dentists, stealth taxes, and th

A595 De-Trunking - a betrayal of West Cumbria

The government's decision to downgrade the A595 is as disgraceful as it is unfortunate. Only a few months ago - before the general election - government minister Patricia Hewitt promised that all government decisions would be "West Cumbria proofed." This fine sounding promise has fallen at the first hurdle. The most shocking thing about this betrayal is that it isn't really a surprise. Downgrading public services in West Cumbria, especially in the South of Copeland, seems increasingly to be the pattern. De-trunking the A595 south of Calder Bridge may seem perfectly logical when you are applying national criteria while sitting in a government office in London. But if "West Cumbria proofing" meant anything, it should have meant listening to people who know the area. The proposal to de-trunk the A595 was opposed by both Copeland Borough council and Cumbria County council. (There were legitimate arguments about how strong that opposition was, but those of us who

Blackpool Conference Diary

Some notes on the 2005 Conservative Party Conference ... I arrive at the Blackpool conference determined to be on my best behaviour – I don’t want to get the Conservatives the kind of bad publicity that the Labour party got for throwing out 82-year old Walter Wolfgang. I needn’t have worried. I don’t know how badly you would have had to behave to get thrown out of this year’s tory conference, but it would have been difficult. Walter Wolfgang was the constant spectre at the conference as every platform speaker found a reference to him irresistible, from Francis Maude’s opening remarks (“I don’t want to encourage heckling” … laughter … “but if you do we won’t throw you out.”) right through to Michael Howard at the end. For all the flak thrown at David Davis, he probably put this point best: “We do need laws to detail those who represent a genuine terrorist threat – we don’t need laws to detain an 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany who has the temerity to disagree with the Foreign Secr

Hypocrite of the Year

I have just watched The Prime-Minister-Elect make his acceptance speech to Labour Party conference. Gordon Brown’s certainly wasn’t making a chancellor’s speech – there was precious little there about the economy. Neither was it the speech of a contender in a contested election for the party leadership – he made no attempt whatever to placate those within the Labour party who had hoped that a Brown premiership would mean the end of New Labour. He obviously considers that he has the succession in the bag and was setting out his stall to the country for the next general election. And judging by the sour looks on the faces of some left-wing delegates even as they forced themselves to give Mr Brown a standing ovation, most of the Labour party has reached the same conclusion. From a technical perspective, ignoring my own opinions about the validity or otherwise of what was said, it was a better speech than any other I have heard him make. But was really stood out about the speech was the tr

Reflections after a trip to Newcastle

A couple of days ago I had occasion to drive to Newcastle and back to visit a work colleague. I was already well aware at an intellectual level that getting from West Cumbria to the North East was quite a slog, but intellectually understanding this is not the same as doing the journey. I went by the A66 to Penrith and M6 to Carlisle: it took well over three hours to get from Gosforth to Carlisle and my colleague, who used to live in Whitehaven, tells me this was par for the course. I came back via Scotch Corner: this also took more than three hours and took me through the most dangerous stretch of road in Britain, where there are signs warning that nearly 200 people have been killed or injured in the last few years. And the train journey is no easier. Overall the round trip from West Cumbria to Newcastle took longer, and was more tiring, than a one-way trip between West Cumbria and London. I’m sure this isn’t news to any native Cumbrian and that everyone born here or who has lived here

Double book review: "Incompetence" and "Jennifer Government"

“Incompetence” by Rob Grant “Jennifer Government” by Max Barry The two funniest books I have read this year have both been satirical black comedies set in extreme near-future worlds. In each book the author has taken some trends he perceives in modern society, extrapolated them ad absurdum, and had fun seeing how ludicrous he can make the consequences. In this the two books are very similar, but in the targets they take aim at they are diametrically opposed. “Incompetence” takes the mickey out of big government, the nanny state, and the European Union. By contrast “Jennifer Government” satirises America, and that version of free market libertarianism which is so extreme that it is sometimes called anarcho-capitalism. The preface to “Incompetence” reads as follows: “Article 13199 of the Pan European constitution: ‘No person shall be prejudiced from employment in any capacity at any level by reason of age, race, creed, or incompitence’” (Yes, the spelling mistake is deliberate – I wonder


One of the issues which regularly came up in Copeland during the recent election was the impossibility of finding a dentist. This is becoming an increasingly acute problem in many parts of Britain, and Cumbria is one of three or four rural counties where the lack of access to dental services has become totally unacceptable. During the run-up to the election WHICH asked candidates to support a pledge to work for improved dental services: I was happy to endorse this and would have made it a priority had I been elected. Over the past few months the number of dental practices in Cumbria which are taking on new NHS patients has varied between three and nil. As of yesterday I was advised that there is not a single practice taking on new NHS patients in the county. And even if you are prepared to pay, many practices are not taking on new private patients either. If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the exceptions, the only way to get dental treatment short of an emergency is to trav

Don't tell me what to believe

One of the most irritating things in political discussion is people who tell you what your own views are. Usually this is a variant of a debating trick – the people who are taking one side in a debate want to be up against the most extreme form of the opposing position and claim the middle ground, so they try to paint the other side into the corner of adopting the strongest possible position. Tony Blair is a past master at this. For example, until very recently – to be precise, until French and Dutch voters killed both the European constitution and any realistic chance of British entry to the Euro - he was always playing this game on Europe. Mr Blair and his acolytes would suggest that we had two choices with regard to the European Union – sign up to the constitution, or leave altogether. (Before that, they suggested that the two choices were to scrap the pound and replace it with the Euro, or leave altogether.) Like the majority of British voters, who are neither federalist eurofanat

A week is a long time in Northern Ireland ...

I keep two versions of this blog - one on the News and Star website and one at Usually I post the same items on both in the same day. Owing to a slight misunderstanding between myself and my long-suffering staff, there was a delay in posting some of this month's entries on the blogspot site. So when I came to post here a piece which I had written immediately after the World Cup qualifier between England and Northern Ireland, the senseless violence of the last few days made the optimistic tone of that entry seem wholly inappropriate. I am convinced that my basic point was right, but I have rewritten the piece to reflect more recent events. Last week when the final whistle blew, with the score at one goal for Northern Ireland to none for England, the cameras zoomed in on the scene where two types of flag were being waved in close proximity by jubilant supporters. Some were green flags belong to ecstatic Irish supporters, from Ireland's Catholic community – the


I drafted this blog entry on my laptop yesterday while sitting in front of the TV and unable to tear myself away from the final afternoon of the Ashes. I had been at the Oval 20 years ago when England last won the Ashes at home. This has been the most fantastic test series – one of the Australian commentators described it as one of the best of all time. And after some stunning close finishes and fiercely fought matches a magnificent century from Pietersen was bringing England within sight of regaining the trophy. It has been an emotionally charged occasion: as Richie Benaud was saying farewell in the commentary box on his last afternoon at the end of many years as a test cricket commentator, Kevin Pietersen’s innings was finally concluded by an unplayable delivery from McGrath. As Pietersen left the field, Shane Warne shook his hand, and we saw one of the greatest bowlers of all time - finishing his test career with yet another ten-wicket haul and as the leading wicket taker of the ser

The most stupid questions are the ones people don't ask

How often have you been in a meeting when someone used an expression, or referred to something, which everyone else appeared to understand, but you didn’t have a clue what they were talking about? And in that situation, how easy did you find it to ask? I must confess that this happens to me quite regularly. Perhaps more than most because I’m a non-engineer working for a company where the majority of managers have an engineering background, and so I’ve had to evolve ways of dealing with it. But I think most people, if we are honest, would agree that it is a common occurrence, and if being very honest, that we don’t ask “what on earth are you talking about” often enough. For what it’s worth, in my experience, if you start with “Please forgive me if this is a stupid question, but can you explain to me …” then most of the time people will try to make you feel better with “That’s not a stupid question at all.” (Even if they think it is.) And quite often someone else who was trying to pluck

Another Modest Proposal

Over coffee this morning after church, one of the ladies mentioned that she and her family had just come back from the Isle of Man, where they had had a very good short holiday. This sparked off a thought I have had before: why not establish a ferry between Whitehaven and the Isle of Man ? If you want to get from West Cumbria to the Isle of Man there is not good direct route and you probably end up driving to Fleetwood to take the ferry. It’s equivalent to getting from the tread of a wheel to the hub by going 180 degrees round the rim before going up one of the spokes. There is a general consensus that one of the things we need to do to boost the economy of West Cumbria is to build up tourism. The wider the package we can offer, the easier this will be to acheive. The ability to take a quick trip to the Isle of Man could be used to provide an additional boost, certainly to tourism in West Cumbria and probably in the Central Lakes as well.

Are TV Replays fair to Umpires and Referees ?

I used to greatly enjoy watching first-class cricket, but the trouble with watching this sport is that most of us just can't spare three or five days at a time to watch a game. I have not managed to attend a match in person since that glorious morning at the Oval twenty years ago when England last won the Ashes. That's if you don't count about half an hour's play of a match against New Zealand which was otherwise rained off. However, so many of my work colleagues have been raving about how good the present test series is that I have been unable to resist the temptation to watch some of it for myself. Yesterday I was working in my office at home in Cumbria with an internet panel open with the scoreboard. When something really interesting like a wicket or Flintoff's century came up I nipped into the living room to catch the replay on the TV. I have been delighted to see England playing so well, but could not resist a degree of sympathy for the Umpires. They have to ma

Brother Roger R.I.P.

I spent most of the last week completing our house move to Cumbria - clearing the last of our things from the house in St Albans where my family have lived for 45 years was something of a major exercise. As we returned to Cumbria after leaving the old house for the last time, I was horrified to learn on the radio that Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community, had been murdered a few days previously. He was 90 years old, and was stabbed to death during a service in front of 2,500 worshippers by a mentally disturbed woman. Brother Roger founded the interdenominational Taize community in 1940 as a refuge from war. He was a protestant but worked to heal the divisions between churches of all denominations and was accepted by Catholics almost as one of themselves: at the funeral of Pope John Paul II he received communion in his wheelchair from the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict.) A special tradition of prayer through singing which began at Taize has had a huge influence on m

Stand up for local hospitals

I wrote a week ago that I become increasingly concerned about the future of local health services in West Cumbria. Since then the problems have become more and more obvious. Now Labour politicians who during the election a couple of months ago were proclaiming loudly that there is no threat to local hospitals have realised that there is and are frantically trying to set up NHS managers and officials as scapegoats. It is time for Copeland's MP to make clear whether he still believes, as he said at the election debates and in the local press during the election, that there is no threat to West Cumberland Hospital. If he does still believes that, he may be the only person in West Cumbria who does, following the suggestion that some maternity services could move to Carlisle, the changes to Windermere ward, and two high-profile resignations of greatly respected doctors. If he doesn't, he should encourage his colleagues to work with the local NHS to save local services. Either way lo


Despite all the assurances I become increasingly concerned about the future of local health services in West Cumbria. This is not because I doubt the integrity or good intentions of the people who are running the Primary Care Trusts and the Acute Hospitals Trust, but because the right decisions will have to be taken to keep our local hospitals viable. In the run up the election I met many members of staff at West Cumberland and Millom hospitals and I was extremely concerned at the low level of morale amongst excellent doctors and nurses. Two recent high-profile resignations and the response to them do nothing to convince me that this has improved. The idea of a "Health park" was put forward and this would be one way to kick off a positive strategy for the future, but to date it has not had support at higher levels. And now there is a suggestion that some maternity services might move to Carlisle. I strongly support the need to retain full maternity services at West Cumberland

What Islam says about Terrorism

In the aftermath of the bombings in London, it has been fairly widely remarked that such acts of terrorism are not compatible with the Muslim religion. This statement has come both from Muslims themselves and leaders of other faiths. However, I continue to read or hear comments from people who question whether the Koran does in fact support acts of indiscriminate violence. Maybe the people who say such things missed the adverts in most papers placed by British Muslims saying "Not in our names." Maybe they also missed the fatwa issued by the British Muslim Forum, with the approval of more than 500 UK Muslim clerics, scholars and imams, on Monday 18 July. I found it very powerful, and worth repeating below. "We wish to express our sincere condolences to the families of all the victims of the London attacks. We pray for the swift recovery of all those who are recovering from injuries. There are many questions emerging from the London bombings. One of the most important ques