Saturday, July 30, 2005

Are you all right, mate ?

Following on from the first wave of London bombings three weeks ago we have seen the second wave of attacks which mercifully failed and have now been followed by the arrest of all four suspected bombers, and the terrible accidental shooting of an innocent man who was mistaken for a suicide bomber.

In the past few days I have signed a book of remembrance commemorating those who died on 7/7 and travelled in London on a
Thursday - to see groups of two or three policemen, often carrying
machine guns, on what seemed like every street corner.

The leader of the investigation into the shooting has criticised the
Home office for releasing partial information about the victim and
suggested that nobody should rush to judgement until the investigation has established all the facts. That is good advice so I shall make no assumption about how the incident happened. But regardless of how they came to make the mistake, the primary moral responsibility for this tragic error does not lie with the police officers who pulled the trigger. It lies with those who planned, supported and carried out the terrorist attacks on 7/7 and 21/7, and who were deliberately trying to create the climate of fear and confusion in which such deadly mistakes are possible.

As even civil rights organisations have agreed, the police are in an
impossible position: if they either fail to stop a real suicide bomber or use lethal force against someone who turns out not to be one, innocent life will be lost. There is no possible set of rules we could ask the police to work by which does not have the potential for one or both of these outcomes. What we can and must do is try to find the balance which minimises the risk to innocent people.

One other thought about the unsuccessful bomb attacks on 21st July. In the immediate aftermath of one of the tube attacks, a passenger who did not immediately realised what had happened saw a terrorist who had just attempted to explode his bomb lying on the floor and looking dazed. He leaned over and asked "Are you all right, mate?"

It is not normally healthy to gloat over someone else's discomfort, but I think we can be forgiven for taking some satisfaction in what that must have felt like for the terrorist. Just consider, he had psyched himself up to die, activated his bomb and presumably expected to find himself in Paradise surrounded by houris. (Though as Islam forbids both suicide and the killing of innocent people, most Muslims would doubt that as strongly as the rest of us.)

Instead he found himself on the floor, with one of the people he had just tried to murder asking him "Are you all right mate ?"

That experience must have been so humiliating that anyone with an atom of human decency remaining in him might have been forced to
reconsider what on earth he thought he was doing. That may be hoping for too much, but if the police have the right people he will have plenty of time for contemplation.

Normal service will now be resumed

My usual aim is to update this blog two or three times a week but as we have been frantically trying to pack up all our belongings at both ends of the country in preparation for the move to Whitehaven, I have been too busy to put finger to keyboard for the past fortnight. Time to start blogging again !

We are making progress and looking forward to the move: we will miss
friends in both Gosforth and St Albans but we won't be too far away
from our friends in Gosforth and of course I will be making regular visits to St Albans while I remain a councillor there.

It is sometimes regarded as obligatory for English people to describe any house move as a "nightmare" but it does appear that the bureaucratic problems associated with buying and selling property have intensified. The government are perhaps the worst culprits, but they are not the only people to blame for this - the EU and mortgage lenders also have a lot to answer for. Our first attempt to move to Whitehaven was seriously affected first by a building society moving the goalposts on us - partly as a result of new regulations on so-called "responsible lending" which seem to have been written on the basis that house buyers are childish idiots who need protecting from themselves. Then we ran into a planning permission issue. Having spent a substantial proportion
of my time in public life involved with the planning system I tend to take it for granted that planning rules should be complied with - and we didn't want a headline like "Former planning chief ignores planning rules" appearing in the local newspapers.

Both as buyers and sellers we have found that an incredible amount of new documentation is now required by mortgage lenders - "Part P"
certification on electrical work, FENSA certificates on windows,
architects certification on building work plus "completion
certificates" from the Building Regulations team at the council which were regarded as an optional extra three years ago but are now demanded by most lenders.

All this represents considerable extra expense and workload for both
people who are moving house and the local councils who have to
implement the new rules. Then there have been the money-laundering rules which forced my wife and myself to produce lots of documents to prove our identity to people we've known for years. I have been shocked by how much more hassle is involved in buying and selling property compared with when we last had to do it four years ago. With most of the new rules you can see why they were introduced but the overall effect is stifling. Ironically some restrictions which were designed to protect people from cowboys are having exactly the opposite effect as they are driving small legitimate operators out of business - for example some small electricians have found it impossible to get the new certification because that requires inspection of their work on a complete house.

The masses of paperwork required to buy and sell a house is a
particularly strong example but by no means the only one. I have also been asked for enormous amounts of documentation to support a recent insurance claim and difficulty laying hands on everything has greatly delayed getting our money.

I had two reasons to be delighted when the former head of MCI WorldCom, Bernie Ebbers, was recently given the long prison sentence which he richly deserved. The first is that the corrupt practices for which he was convicted had a damaging effect on the world telecommunications industry and helped to create market conditions in which many of my friends and colleagues lost their jobs. The second was that the financial collapses of MCI WorldCom and Enron resulted in the Sarbanes Oxley legislation in the USA. So thanks to Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom and Kenneth Lay at Enron, global companies like the one I work for now have yet another set of bureaucratic hoops to jump through - and have to meet different sets of accounting rules to prove to the US authorities as well as the European and UK authorities that we are not fiddling the books. By the time we've met all the requirements we may find it costs
our customers and shareholders nearly as much as if we were !

Sooner or later if society is not to collapse under the weight of
paperwork everyone - central government, local councils, building
societies, insurance companies, banks, the Health and Safety Executive - is going to have to take a hard look at all their procedures, forms and regulations to ask what the actual impact and benefits are. Preferably with a presumption that any rule or bureaucratic requirement which does not have a substantial real benefit, not just a theoretical or potential one, should be scrapped.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Ted Heath RIP

Ted Heath, Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974, died yesterday aged 89.

For a man with moderate views about most issues, he stirred up a great deal of passionate support and even more passionate oposition. Probably part of the reason for this is the main issue on which he was not moderate, his pro-Europeanism. The man who took Britain into the Common Market would always be something of a hate figure among those who detest everything the European Union stands for. Added to this his animosity towards his successor as Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, inspired considerable return animosity from the more extreme amongst her self-appointed cheerleaders.

Ted was a self-made man of very considerable abilities. He carefully concealed an excellent sense of humour, and he also had, rather less carefully concealed, a private side which took great joy from beautiful music and from activities such as sailing. But he had difficulty suffering gladly those who he considered to be fools - and his judgement of who was a fool was not always correct.

My strongest single memory of Ted Heath, however, relates to a battle of wills which set against each other two of the strongest displays of self-discipline I have ever seen.

Ted was appointed by moderate Conservatives as Life Patron of the former Federation of Conservative students, FCS, (which shortly after the incident I am about to describe was shut down by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing.) All three political parties have had problems with hotheads taking over their youth or student movements, and when one such bunch of hardliners took over FCS they were very displeased at having such an arch moderate as their Patron. However, they were trying to get back into the good graces of the party, and excessive displays of factionalism were not helpful to this. So when it was "suggested" that they might like to invite the Life Patron they decided on a more subtle way to express their disapproval than students commonly use.

When Ted Heath was shown into the hall where he was to speak, everyone present rose as one, and began to applaud, the great majority also cheering in an imitation of a rapturous welcome. Of the 200 or so people present, about five were genuine fans of Ted's, and perhaps another fifty, including myself, were not, but were applauding out of the common courtesy due to a guest speaker, especially one who is also a former leader of one's own country and party. These were the only people in the room who were not smiling, as we were still trying to work out what on earth was going on.

The remaing 150 or so students present were members of the hardline faction and were clearly under the strictest orders that the only acceptable way to show disapproval was to parody rapturous support. The imitation of a warm, if slightly excessive, welcome, was continued until Ted actually started to speak, and then revealed as a parody when they applauded rapturously after every single phrase of his speech.

The political discipline required to impose on a group of hardliners that they would pretend to welcome Ted Heath was remarkable, and it might have worked but for the even more remarkable discipline he showed in response. When he arrived to an apparently rapturous welcome he gave his famous smile, which was probably quite sincere - he could have been forgiven for not realising at first what was going on. When his speech was interrupted for about the fifth time with applause, he showed for the one and only time that he knew what was going on by saying "In a moment I shall say something important, and then you can applaud." When this comment in turn was greeted by applause, he obviously decided that he would deal with this by pretending to take the applause as sincere and nothing but his due.

For the rest of the session the conference pretended to applaud him and he pretended to accept it. Everyone in the room knew that the applause was a parody. Everyone in that room knew that Ted knew it. Hardly anyone in the room allowed any sign to show on their faces that they knew it. Hence my comment that this battle of wills was one of the strongest displays of self-discipline I have ever seen. But I think Ted got the better of it. Perhaps that is a good way to remember him.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Book Review - "How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the World"

Today, all round the world, people have been reading the sixth Harry Potter adventure. I had better make clear that I have nothing but admiration for J.K.Rowling and I consider the Harry Potter series to be a well-crafted and harmless piece of obvious fiction which has brought a great deal of pleasure to children and adults alike.

However, it seemed like an apposite day to post my thoughts on Francis Wheen's book, "How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the world."

There is no doubt that, despite the huge advances which have been brought by reason and science, an alarming number of people, many of them highly educated, have turned away from reason in favour of new age nonsense or the most simplistic forms of old-established religions. Although Francis Wheen's book has some very serious flaws, it does provoke a great deal of thought about why.

Let's get the negative comment out of the way first. Francis Wheen is a Guardian journalist and allows his left-liberal prejudices far too much latitude. The book completely fails to make any distinction whatsoever between mainstream views which the author does not happen to agree with and the genuine 24-carat nonsense which the book is supposed to be about. For example, the entire first chapter of the book is a Guardianista polemic against Thatcherism and Reaganism, during which he attacks Nobel prizewinning academics like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek in similar terms to those which he uses to dismiss the views of the American presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

My problem with this is not that Wheen disagrees with Friedman and Hayek - I don't share all their views myself. My problem is that, in a book which is supposed to be about the flight from rationality, he writes about highly rational people who arrived at their views by scientific sifting of the evidence on subjects which they have studied far more intensively than he has, as if they were in the same league as the nutters, fraudsters and snake oil salesmen of whom his criticisms are far more justified.

At a risk of labouring the point, Friedman's study of the economic causes of the Great Depression which won him the Nobel Prize, and his speech in 1967 correctly predicting that the relationship between unemployment and inflation which had worked for the previous century was about to collapse, are recognised as brilliant by most economists including some of left-wing or Keynsian views. Friedman had previously recognised that Keynes got many things right, saying "we are all Keynsians now" and one of the world's leading economists, who was a prominent Keynsian, meant it as an explicit complement to Milton Friedman when he said in response "we are all monetarists now."

For Francis Wheen to write of Friedman and Hayek in the same way as he writes of anti-rational religious fanatics like William Jennings Bryan does not enhance his case.

I am not sure why Francis Wheen does not present any distinction between views that a rational person could hold but he doesn't and views which could only be held by someone seriously adrift from reality. I hope it is because he did not think it necessary.

I came very close to throwing this book in the bin towards the end of the first chapter, which gave me the impression that I can been conned into wasting money on a bog-standard left-wing denunciation of all views to the right of Roy Hattersley (including New Labour) rather than the critique of new age irrationalism promised on the cover.

However, I am glad I persevered, because after the first chapter Mr Wheen starts to present a more balanced approach and make a serious attempt to chart some of the irrational views which have emerged or re-emerged over the past 20 years on both left and right. Subjects covered by the book include fundamentalist attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution, management gobbledegook, astrology, academic fads like "deconstructionism," flying saucers and Alien abduction, and quack medicinal ideas such as Homeopathy.

An example of one of the many good sections in the book is that which considers the development and influence of "The X files". Apparently this TV programme is frequently quoted as a source by American university students, and when their tutors point out that it is fiction they reply "Yes, but it's based on fact." The programme's creator, Chris Carter, is quoted as saying that he originally intended that the programme would have episodes that exposed hoaxes and that "I wanted Agent Scully to be right as much as agent Mulder." But going with the paranormal explanation every time got better ratings.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out, if you had a detective series which had a white suspect and a black one every time, and the black person always turned out to be the guilty party, if would be totally unacceptable, and you could not excuse by saying this was just entertainment and that result produced better ratings.

If Scooby-Doo, a humorous cartoon show, can be a big hit with children when the "supernatural" events always get exposed as a hoax, why can't the X files ? Are the people who make that show less talented than the creators of Scooby Doo ? Possibly yes.

Taken as a whole I would recommend this book to anyone interested in trying to understand why so many people have turned away from reason. Readers to the left of Gordon Brown will enjoy the beginning of the book, readers from Tony Blair and rightwards will lose nothing but a boost to your blood pressure by starting at Chapter Two.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The right balance on Road Safety

Three items of news in the past few days have made me think about road safety. The first concerns speed cameras - the government has recently refused 500 requests for new cameras. The second concerns use of mobile phones while driving: there has been a study suggesting that those who phone while driving are more likely to have an accident, which may be right, and that the increased risk is just as high for hands-free mobiles as for hand-held ones, which I do not believe. The third is that two council Group Leaders in Copeland and St Albans - of different parties but both people who have worked hard for their respective communities - have been in trouble for speeding.

Any discussion on road safety risks getting trapped between the
irresistible force of our desire for greater safety and security, and the immovable object of human nature - we can gently nudge people in the direction of safer behaviour but it is impractical to act as if risks can be reduced to zero. People will not obey rules which try to get them to do so.

There is a conflict in our thinking in that in our daily lives all of us are used to managing acceptable risks, but all of us instinctively recoil from the idea of an acceptable number of fatal accidents. Almost every action we take - from picking up a sharp tool to do some gardening, turning on an electrical appliance, taking a bath (people are killed every year from slipping in the bath) eating or drinking anything (there might be a something wrong with it) or even crossing the road, carries a small, usually infinitesimal, risk of death or injury. Most of us can handle the idea that we could be knocked down and killed while walking down to the local shop but the probability is so low that we treat it as an acceptable risk. We deal with the idea of acceptable risk because we have to, sometimes by convincing ourselves that it won't happen to us, sometimes by not consciously thinking about it.

But when you go from the choices facing an individual to those facing a country of 55 million people, the same decision by which one person might regard one chance in a million of being killed each year as an acceptable risk would be equivalent to saying that society regards about 55 people a year being killed as an acceptable number of deaths. And for most people that idea is unthinkable.

Anyone who smokes, anyone who does not exercise, and anyone who drives more than a thousand miles a year has accepted a risk of premature death as a result which considerably greater than one in a million. Yet almost all those people would recoil from the idea that any policy which allows for 55 deaths a year in Britain should be adopted, and any politician foolish enough to say that this number of deaths was satisfactory would never win another election.

This conflict between our attitude to individual risk and collective
death rates is one reason society often imposes speed limits and other rules that are very difficult to enforce. And it leads to accusations of hypocrisy - everyone says that road safety is important but almost all of us sometimes drive too fast.

What would happen if we took the idea of zero risk to its logical
conclusion ? We could save thousands of lives if we reintroduced the
4mph speed limit faced by the first motor cars and the rule that all
vehicles had to be preceded by a man on foot with a red flag. Such a
policy would also cause Britain to grind to a halt. Most of us would
consider such an extreme law to be impractical and unreasonable. But the more extreme "Health and safety" advocates sometimes appear to take such an absolutist view that you wonder if they would like to do so. For example, the Health and Safety executive recently tried to prosecute the commissioner of the metropolitan police because a policeman was injured while he pursued a cat-burglar across a roof.

One example of a safety measure which has been ruined by over-use is the electronic signs on motorways. At least seven times out of ten, when these advise a speed below the normal limit I find that it relates to a problem which has since cleared, or they advise you to slow down many miles before you need to, or by a greater amount than you need to. In consequence 95% of motorway users totally ignore them, and those of us who pay any attention whatsoever are made to feel like idiots as we slow down and everyone else shoots past us. This is a real example of "less is more" - if these signs were used less they would have more effect.

When I listen to debates about speed cameras or mobile phone use by
drivers, I often feel that people on one side of the debate are taking too absolutist a view while the other side are not taking avoidable risks to human life seriously enough.

Some speed cameras do save lives. On the route from my old house to my office there is a junction where there had been frequent fatal
accidents. Now that a 40 mph limit has been imposed, enforced with two pairs of highly visible speed cameras, people drive much more slowly past that junction. I doubt if those cameras raise much in fines precisely because they work, but I am convinced that the risk of death and injury has been reduced. And it is a myth that all speed cameras are unpopular. After a fatal accident in the village which I represent as a councillor, there was a spontaneous demonstration by local residents calling for cameras.

And yet, if too many cameras are installed, especially if the cameras and speed limit signs are not highly visible, there is a real danger of discrediting the whole system and convincing motorists that it's all about raising money from them. And cameras are not the only solution.

Another dangerous junction near my old home, also the scene of fatal
accidents and nicknamed "kamikaze alley," has been given a 40 mph
limit, this time enforced with an engineering solution. There have been no more deaths at this site either.

Trying to take a pragmatic approach to the need to balance safety and practicality can mean you get attacked from both sides. But it is the only realistic option, not least because an absolutist approach which ignores human nature will lead to more deaths in practice.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


At noon today, like millions of people in Britain and also many in other countries, I observed a 2 minutes silence in memory of the innocent victims of the bombings which took place a week ago today.

Horrifying though the attacks were, it is very impressive how calmly and responsibly the overwhelming majority of people have behaved. London's transport infrastructure was very close to being back to normal within two working days. There was more disruption on Tuesday when police found and carried out a controlled explosion on a car which had been left, apparently by the bombers, near to the rail link at Luton, but everyone took it calmly and patiently.

None of the main political parties has used the opportunity to score
cheap political points: Michael Howard went out of his way to praise the Prime Minister's response to the bombings, and Charles Clarke had the honesty to admit that Identity Cards would not have prevented this attack.

Everyone has been at pains to point out that the vast majority of
Muslims are as horrified by these murders as everyone else. This
message has come from the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Muslim leaders themselves, who were quick to point out that Islam does not justify or excuse the murder of innocent people.

With the awful news that the four young men who blew themselves up,
taking with them at least 48 innocent people and bringing devastation to 52 innocent families including their own, there has been recognition in the press and elsewhere, that if we attack innocent people because of their religion we are playing into the hands of Osama Bon Laden and giving the terrorists what they want.

I found particularly moving some of the expressions of support from other countries. A year ago after the Madrid bombs, the Spanish national anthem was played at the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This week Spain returned the gesture by playing God Save the Queen at the changing of the guard in Madrid. Those who stood in silence in London were joined by people keeping a silence in Bali, Iraq and our EU partner countries.

We grieve today with everyone who has lost a loved one, including innocent family members of the killers. For example I think of the one-year old daughter of the Edgeware Road bomber, who has not just lost her father but who will have to come to terms with the fact that he abandoned her by taking his own life and those of others in this terrible way. I cannot understand, and do not want the ability to understand, how a man with enough empathy for children to be a successful classroom assistant could leave such a legacy to his own child.

Those who plotted and carried out this evil will fail, as the Kaiser, Hitler, and the IRA all failed before them.

As parliament continues the debate on the Racial and Religious hatred bill, I hope peers and MPs on both sides of the debate will think carefully and intelligently about what laws will most effectively protect all our communities from the kind of hatred which appears to have contributed to the appalling tragedy in London last week.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Yesterday's bomb attacks in London

So far the manner in which everyone has reacted to yesterday's atrocity does them great credit.

The emergency plan appears to have worked as well as anyone dared hope, and this together with the lack of panic, undoubtedly reduced the number of lives lost. London's transport network appears to be getting back to normal remarkably rapidly.

Public comments about what has happened have been measured and responsible, and almost everyone seems to have avoided the temptation to make political capital or to over-react.

It is still too early to say for certain exactly who perpetrated these mass murders, although the modus operandi does appear to fit with an al-Qaeda attack and an extreme islamic website has claimed responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda.

If the murderers were acting in the name of Islam, it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of Muslims are totally appalled by these bombs and condemn them as strongly as everyone else. That point has been made by the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Imam of Brighton Mosque, and many others. It is extremely likely that we will find that among the victims there were Muslims as well as Christians, Jews, Hindus and members of other faiths and none.

Islam means "Peace" and Muslims worship Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. There was no compassion, no mercy, and nothing but contempt for human life shown by the people who carried out these bombings.

It is worth putting this in the context of all the other attempts to bring terror to London. When my grandfather was a young man, the Kaiser tried to break the spirit of the British people by bombing London and elsewhere. He failed, he was defeated, and his Hohenzollern dynasty was removed from power.

When my father was a boy Hitler tried to break the spirit of the British people by bombing London and elsewhere. He failed, he was defeated, and his Nazi regime was removed from power. The survivors were put on trial and those convicted of crimes against humanity were hanged or imprisoned.

In my own lifetime the Irish Republican Army tried to break the spirit of the British people by bombing London and elsewhere. They failed to break the spirit of the British people, they did not advance the cause of a united Ireland by their campaign of violence, and insofar as they have subsequently achieved anything it has been after they called a ceasefire.

The people who bombed London yesterday will fail as the Kaiser, Hitler, and the IRA failed before them.

Britain will now need to hold an intelligent discussion about how we balance the rights which go with a free society with the need to protect innocent people ainst a terrorist threat which has been proven to be very real. Questions such as whether we need ID cards and what powers of arrest the authorities should have will be difficult; honorable and intelligent people will disagree.

There is no longer any risk that we will underestimate the terrorist threat; I hope we will be equally vigilant against allowing the terrorists to stampede us into dismantling liberties which have stood for hundreds of years and through even greater threats.

The perpetrators of yesterday's bombs have shown a higher level of contempt for all human life than any previous enemy other than Nazi Germany, and their willingness to kill and die with complete ruthlessness makes them extremely dangerous. But compare them with the enemies who have been overcome.

The Nazis tried to starve us out by sending hundreds of U-Boats to sink our shipping, to flatten us by sending thousands of planes to bomb our country, launching V1 cruise missiles and V2 ballistic missiles against us. But we defeated them.

The former Soviet Union had hundreds of ICBMs with nuclear warheads aimed at this country and our allies, one of the most powerful armies the world has ever seen, and the KGB spy network. But we faced them down.

By comparison with the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, the people who planted yesterday's bombs are just a handful of ruthless throwbacks with the mentality of 14th century religious fanatics. They are dangerous as a scorpion in your boot is dangerous, as MRSA is dangerous, as drunken driving is dangerous, but they are no more capable of defeating us or destroying our way of life, let alone building anything different.

If you add up the death tolls from the World Trade Centre and similar act of terrorism against the entire West over the following four years, including yesterday's bombings, you will get a similar number to those who die in Britain alone each year from hospital acquired infections, or over that period as a whole from road traffic accidents.

For all their evil ruthlessness, the monsters who bombed London have not even succeeded in doing more harm than MRSA.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Today we are all British

I am still trying to digest news of the atrocious terrorist events of this morning.

I cannot recall another occasion when I have agreed with everything said by both Tony Blair and Ken Livingston, but today I have. Today we are all British.

As Ken Livingston said while on his way back to London from Singapore, this was not an attack on Presidents or Prime ministers, it was mass murder of ordinary Londoners. It was not ideology or perverted faith, it was an attempt to kill people regardless of their age, gender, race, or religion. And it will not achieve anything whatsoever.

We should not respond with anger or hate, and we will not do so. We should not lash out in ways which might catch the innocent as well as the guilty, and we will not do so. But the people who did this must be brought to justice, and will be.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Price of Freedom part II: Jedi Jamie gets it wrong

Introducing his maiden speech, Copeland's new MP Jamie Reed described himself as the first Jedi member of parliament. Not surprisingly, the response to this in the Cumbrian newspapers drowned out everything else he said - and "May the Farce be with you" pretty well summed up the general reaction.

However, this was not the most important thing about his speech. A few weeks ago, candidate Jamie Reed was asked his views about the Racial and Religous hatred bill which had been put forward in the last parliament. In one of his most intelligent contributions to the election debate, and one of very few in which he went even slightly off-message, Jamie expressed his reservations about the bil and said it was a good thing it had been dropped.

After the election the bill was brought back, zombie like from the grave and two weeks ago in my post "Local hospitals and the price of freedom", I expressed the hope that Jamie Reed would have the courage of his convictions and vote against it. No - his maiden speech which got plenty of adverse publicity for his silly Jedi joke deserved far worse criticism because it gave uncritical support for a bill which he had said during the election a few weeks before that he disagreed with.

It is worth emphasising that those like myself who oppose the bill in its present form are not advocating a policy of ignoring those who whip up hatred. Lord Lester of Herne Hill proposed am amendment which would extend the provisions of existing laws against incitement to racial hatred to catch those who use religion as a proxy for race. The Lester amendment also includes the following clause as an essential protection to ensure that the bill is not used to attack free speech:

"Nothing in Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their adherents, or of any other belief system or its adherents, or proselytizing one's own religion or belief system or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising theirs."

This clause would ensure that the bill could only be used to prosecute those who make extreme comments of the kind which may whip up violence, but could not be used to prosecute who merely expresses a different opinion.

During the debate - which can be found in Hansard for 21st June, and which I strongly urge anyone with an interest in Civil Liberties or Race Relations to read - opponents of the bill as currently drafted repeatedly asked ministers to provide a single example of behaviour which the bill would make it possible to prosecute but which is legal under existing law. Most government speakers ducked this question, and the only example which was produced would, in my humble opinion and that of people who know far more about the law than I do, be an open and shut case for prosecution under existing law for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.

In the 18th century a system of censorship of the theatre was introduced in Britain which was intended only to affect those plays which went right over the top. It was applied in a heavy-handed manner against rubbish and masterpiece alike for two centuries. If anything like that happens to this bill, it will have a disastrous effect on free speech. If, however, the bill is applied in a moderate and reasonable manner, there will be hardly any prosecutions and members of faith communities will conclude that the law has failed to protect them.

I hope that the government sees sense and accepts the Lester amendment to this bill. If they don't I hope Jedi Jamie recovers the courage to stand up for the position he took in front of the voters of Copeland, and oppose the bill in its present form.

Thoughts on Live 8

It is obvious that the "Live 8" concert has captured the imagination of many peope and will be considered a huge success.

Clearly many people want to see something done about the problems of Africa and this is welcome. Some of the ideas which have been promoted in the name of Live 8 and associated campaigns such as "Make Poverty history" do make sense and will help some of the most impoverished people in the world if they are implemented.

However, it is important that we don't assume that the problems of Africa can be solved just be saying we care about them, and not all the suggestions of all those who call themselves anti-poverty campaigners are helpful. If we don't want babies to starve in Africa, we need to use our brains as well as our emotions.

Certainly where governments of rich nations give aid to those in the third world, it would be better to give grants than loans, and conversion of government loans into grants, including those from inter-governmental agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, for those Third World countries which are making genuine efforts to reform, would be a good idea. In that sense I support the debt relief proposals which are coming forward.

Similarly, poor countries have often been seriously disadvantaged by first world trade policies which do not qualify as either free trade or fair trade. Examples have included restrictions on the export of fertiliser, tariff barriers against third world goods, dumping subsidised products (particularly food) in third world markets. A surprising number of people do not appear to understand that dumping subsidised food in a poor country, other than during a genuine disaster, is devastating to the long-term interests of that country because it drives local farmers out of business.

What makes my blood boil, however, is when criticism of such policies is wrongly confused with attacks on free trade. Too many people who ought to know better have been suggesting that free trade and fair trade are in opposition when in fact genuine free and fair trade should be one of the main things we can use to improve the situation of the poorest countries in the world.

When rich countries impose high tariff barriers or import quotas against imports from Third World countries, it is not too much free trade which is damaging the economies of the poor countries but too little.

When the European Union disposes of surplus food produced under the Common Agricultural Policy in third world markets at prices below cost, and other rich countries pursue similar policies, it is not laissez-faire free-market liberalism which is sabotaging agricultural production in poor countries, but misguided intervention.

Throughout history, vested interest groups opposed to the beneficial effects of trade have come up with positive sounding names such as "Fair Trade" or "Protection" as a contrast to "Free Trade." But when they were implemented, from the Navigation Acts to the Corn Laws, from the Continental System to the revocation of the Treaty of Commerce, restrictions on trade have all too often resulted in poverty, starvation, and wars.

Many commentators have been afraid of stating the obvious for fear of appearing not to care about starving people in Africa and elsewhere. One who has not is Matthew Parris, who knows far more than most Brits about Africa, and whose columns in The Times on this subject have been worth reading. Another is Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of the South African president.

Having said all that, it is a good thing that people are taking an interest in world poverty and want to do something about it. Let us hope that this time the policies applied include not just good intentions but also good sense.

Carnival day in Whitehaven

We've now been in Whitehaven on two consecutive Saturdays when successful events were going on. Last weekend the Maritime festival was such a huge success that other Cumbrian towns such as Barrow are casting envious eyes and wondering how Whitehaven can be so successful. This weekend it was the Whitehaven Carnival. Another good day.