Monday, April 24, 2006

We love the Chameleon

Ten years ago Conservative Central Office ran the "Demon Eyes" campaign with the slogan "New Labour New Danger" and various posters and merchandise, including a poster of a laughing Tony Blair with someone else's eyes superimposed.

It made a lot of people laugh - especially the badges with flashing eyes - but not the way we wanted. With 20:20 hindsight, this campaign demonstrated that we had no idea how to deal with Tony Blair.

This year New Labour, with their usual amazing ability to come up with an even worse version of the mistakes the Conservatives made when we were in government, unveiled their own version of Demon Eyes - a negative campaign against David Cameron called "Dave the Chameleon." It's intended to be subtly damning but just comes over as funny, not least because every significant criticism it makes of David Cameron is far more applicable to Tony Blair.

Dave isn't rattled - apparently he asked for a copy of the cartoon for his kitchen wall - and why should he be. It proves that the vaunted Labour spin machine has no more idea how to deal with him than we had of how to deal with Tony Blair ten years ago.

Labour's Dave the Chameleon PPB is funny enough in its original version, but an even better one has been put together by Tim Ireland and published at (the title is ironic.)

To give you an idea of what has been added, there is bar at he bottom with incremental production cost (One peerage - Two peerages - etc) and a note comes up every time the cartoon accuses Dave of one of Tony's favourite tricks with captions like "Fact - Tony Blair has never done this."

David Cameron was elected, not because the Conservative Party decided to junk everything it has ever stood for, but because some of our ideas needed to be updated to remain relevant to Britain today. David Cameron is doing this. To anyone who suggests that this makes him a hypocrite, I would remind them of the words of John Maynard Keynes, who was criticised for changing his position and replied

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do ?"

Patricia in Wonderland

So Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt says that the NHS is having its “best year ever.” Anyone who believes that should be a customer of the health service, not running it.

Staff, patients and friends of all the community hospitals in Cumbria, and all the rest of the EIGHTY threatened Community hospitals, may wonder what planet Patricia Hewitt is living on. So will the thousands of people in Cumbria and tens of thousands across the country who have lost their NHS dental place and can’t get another.

I don’t think the 6,000 people whose jobs in the NHS have gone, or another 7,000 NHS staff whose jobs are currently at risk, will agree that the NHS is having its best year ever. Neither will women of childbearing age in West Cumbria, or most of the midwives and other staff working in the maternity unit at West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, where there is a possibility that part of the service may move to Carlisle, forcing about 1,000 women a year to travel up to 50 miles to give birth.

Nor will the patients who were due to have one of the 43,350 operations cancelled so far this year for “non-clinical reasons.”

As Beverly Malone of the Royal College of Nursing says, the picture presented by the Health Secretary is not one which front line health workers will recognise.

If this latest boast from the Secretary of State for health is just a piece of propaganda and “spin” ahead of the local elections in many parts of England, then she is insulting the intelligence of voters in those areas. If she is so delusional that she actually believes this rubbish, perhaps she should check into one of the remaining Mental Health support wards which she hasn’t closed.

Sadly this is all of a piece with the way New Labour treats the NHS. They were elected promising “24 hours to save the NHS” but then for the next few years spent less on front line medical services than the previous Conservative government had. Then the policy changed and vast sums were thrown at the service, but for every new doctor or nurse taken on with all the extra money they employed several new bureaucrats to run their 400 NHS targets, and ever more complex reorganisations of the service. The health service how has more administrative and estates staff than beds. Blair’s latest proposed reforms amount to recreating under another name the Fund Holding GP system first set up by John Major – after nine years they’re back with the position they inherited from the Conservatives.

Meanwhile Labour parrot ludicrous claims about how hospitals are safe, only Labour is committed to the NHS, and any other party would destroy it. Anyone who points out the problems which exist is misrepresented as attacking our hard-working doctors and nurses instead of Labour’s incompetent management. In one case a ninety-year old patient who complained about a problem with her treatment was smeared as a racist. Often Labour propaganda is the exact reverse of the truth.

At the last election in Copeland, the number one issue on which I campaigned was to defend and improve local hospital services. Meanwhile the Labour candidate, and Labour Chief Whip Hilary “I need an abacus” Armstrong were reassuring voters in West Cumbria that there was no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland Hospital.

Not long after the election it became completely obvious that people like myself who were saying we need to fight for local hospitals were right and the Labour MP for Copeland had been elected on the basis of false assurances about the local health service. Did he show the least humility over this? Far from it. One of the very few speeches he has made in the House of Commons included the ridiculous allegation that I had campaigned to cut spending on local hospitals. This was an abuse of parliamentary privilege.

Even when the government gets a good idea they sometimes implement it very badly. I entirely agree with the principle that reducing our dependence on overseas medical staff is not just in Britain’s interests, but also in the interests of the other countries, often far poorer than Britain, whose best doctors and nurses we have taken away. However, any change must be implemented in a way which is fair to the overseas doctors and nurses who are here at the moment - any civilised country should recognise that we owe them for helping us through a difficult period. Proposed new rules which may have the effect of sending home junior doctors from overseas before they have finished their training are an absolute disgrace. Apart from the moral aspects, how do we expect to recruit medical staff from overseas next time we have a skill shortage if we treat people like this ?

No party has a monopoly of concern for the health service, or of positive ideas to improve it. But it is no criticism of the hard-working doctors, nurses and staff who regularly work miracles to keep the NHS going to say that we need to put the service on a more secure basis.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Wishing everyone who reads this a happy Easter

I am writing this in the early evening of Maunday Thursday, just at the start of the central weekend of Easter.

Like, I suspect, a great many people who have not yet gone on holiday I have been having a thoroughly wretched day: half the company seems to have gone on leave and the rest are frantically trying to complete various projects that have to be done before Easter or before other people disappear for their own holidays and getting anything done seems quite impossible.

Just after I finished work for the day, in a thoroughly black mood, my state of mind was lifted when I dropped my car in to a local garage to sort out a minor matter and the people there were so incredibly helpful that I finished on a high note after all. (I can strongly recommend the garage concerned, by the way – it was Coach Road Motors in Whitehaven.)

In a funny way this said more to me about the real spirit of Easter than any number of Easter Eggs or fancy clothes – I was feeling down and lifted by the consideration of another human being. And that is what Easter is really about – a message of hope in the darkest of circumstances.

It is very easy for us in a society whose culture is overwhelmingly shaped by Christianity, but where Christian festivals can become more social than religious affairs, to take Easter for granted and forget how powerful the message of the first Easter was. The disciples thought they had seen everything they had believed in and hoped for destroyed, and the saviour who they had hoped would bring peace and justice was killed in a particularly horrible way. Yet in the Easter story, from the blackest despair and disaster God’s power brought hope and a new future.

To everyone who is reading this and is a Christian, may the love and peace of the risen Christ be with you this Easter. To anyone who is reading this and belongs to another faith, I hope your God may be with you this weekend. To anyone who is reading this and does not have any religious faith, I hope that you can still share this weekend in something of the happiness which Easter brings to believers.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

An easy way to help save the planet and save money too ...

If we want a secure future for our grandchildren we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In the past most of the debate about this has been about global warming, and the scientific evidence that global warming may be extremely damaging is growing steadily stronger.

However, there may be an even worse problem associated with the release of carbon into that atmosphere - acidification of the oceans. Some evidence suggests that about 50% of the increased carbon released into the atmosphere in the past century has been absorbed by the sea. So, you ask, is that good news is because it takes some of the carbon out of the global warming equation?

Unfortunately not, because this carbon appears to be forming enough acid to shift the pH balance of the oceans. This is extremely bad news for any marine animal with either a skeleton or a shell, and anything which eats those animals. If the seawater is more acidic, it becomes harder for fish to extract the calcium they need for their bones and for shellfish to get the calcium they need for their shells. It would not take a very large increase in the acidity of the oceans to exterminate, directly or indirectly, a huge proportion of the living creatures in the sea. This in turn could have significant impacts on the chemical composition of the air, and for life on land.

So what can we do about it ? The first thing is to seek an international agreement which all the major powers actually sign up to, including the USA, India, and China. Since Kyoto didn't get a single vote in the US Senate back when Bill Clinton was president it is obvious that we will have a major selling job to get the US on board - and the problem is not just with the Bush administration. As usual we have had a lot of rhetoric from Tony Blair on this, some of it even sensible: I hope he turns words into action and uses his position as probably the most respected foreign leader in the USA to push for american support for practical action.

Coming to what countries can do to check carbon emission, one part of the answer is to increase the share of energy we get from sources such as nuclear power which do not use fossil fuels. I am strongly in favour of nuclear power as part of a balanced energy policy, but this on its own will not be enough. I am also in favour of rational policies for more renewable energy, provided this is applied with common sense (e.g. not covering all the most beautiful skylines in Cumbria with windmills.) But we still need to do more.

Another part of the picture must be energy conservation, and there are things we can all do to help this. Some measures to conserve energy are cheaper and easier to implement than others. One of the easiest is to use low energy light-bulbs.

These really are a win-win - although they cost a little more, you get the money back very quickly in reduced electricity bills and because they last much longer - about 10,000 hours of life. Similarly there is a triple benefit to the environment - less elecricity generation, a net saving in energy and pollution in manufacturing and distribution becasue the fact that they last longer means fewer bulbs are needed, and there is less waste generation for the same reasons.

A few years ago, some people did not like low energy bulbs because they tended not to produce as much light and took longer to switch on. However, the technology has advanced enormously in the past couple of years: today I bought a couple of 23 watt bulbs which are supposed to generate as much light as a standard 120 watt bulb, and they do seem to live up to this billing.

Energy saving bulbs are also becoming available in a wider range of form and socket. It is now possible to get low-energy spotlight bulbs and halogen bulbs, and to get lights for bayonet cap, screw cap and small screw cap fittings. Homebase and B&Q have particularly good selections, but most good hardware shops and supermarkets do now stock them.

Low energy bulbs to tend to be larger and require a slightly bigger lightshade than the standard models. So next time you are asked by a home improvement store for feedback on their products, if you are stuck for something to say, why not suggest a wider selection of larger lampshades with room to take a low-energy bulb.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Time to pay the farmers their due ...

I have been deeply unhappy for some time with the absurdly over-complicated Single Farm Payment and the problems it causes for farmers, especially in the so called “deprived areas” which it further deprives of funds.

It seems that this system is too complicated for DEFRA themselves and they are now very behind with paying it. This is causing massive difficulty for many farmers.

A few weeks ago I heard agriculture minister Lord Bach on the radio blustering that the money would be paid by the end of March. It has not been.

Lord Bach and his boss Margaret Beckett are guilty of arrogance, complacency and incompetence. If ability to do the job had any relevance to holding office in the present Labour government, they would both be sacked tomorrow.

Copeland local election results

Results for three by elections this week for Copeland Council:

Gosforth: Conservative 264
Labour 85
Lib/Dem 62

Hensingham: Labour 385
Conservative 207
Lib/Dem 38

Cleator Moor: Labour 307
Independent 191

My congratulations to all those who supported local democracy by taking part in these elections, and I would particularly like to congratulate the successful Conservative candidate in Gosforth, Cllr Alan Jacob, who won with an increased Conservative share of the vote compared with 2003 despite the fact that he faced two opponents rather than one.

Great support for local hospitals campaign

I was very impressed with the spirited support for the combined campaign to support all the Community Hospitals at the weekend.

The choice of April 1st for the start of the exercise was deliberate, and made the point that the idea of cutting 118 beds in Cumbria’s community hospitals is so daft that it had to be an April Fool.

A chain was built with a ring for each hospital, bearing legends like “SAVE MILLOM COMMUNITY HOSPITAL”, “SAVE KESWICK HOSPITAL” and so on. The growing chain of rings was taken from one hospital to another in turn by various different routes.

All three local MPs, Conservative and Labour, supported the campaign – this is too important to be party political.

I went to Keswick early on Sunday morning to see of the canoist who was bearing the rings from Keswick hospital down Bassenthwaite to Cockermouth, and then took my family to Millom to to see the classic cars which arrived there at the end of the last leg. Throughout the mood was positive, friendly, and constructive.

Closing our community hospital beds is not an economy – their loss will cost the community, the NHS, and the economy far more than it saves.

Throughout Britain, badly thought out proposals to cut beds at community hospitals have come forward as what appears to be a panic reaction of NHS trusts who have been told to clear their deficits. In a normal year there would not be more than one or two proposals to close a community hospital. Currently throughout the UK there are about eighty such proposals. This is not a good way forward.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Comeback of the week

My favourite comeback this week came in an email from a listener read out on the Today programme.

He was responding to an interview with an MP who was promoting a bill to control the temperature of bath water. This lady wants the law to insist on temperature regulators being fitted to baths in all new houses or when bathrooms are rebuilt. She was also very hot, if you will excuse the pun, on putting the cold water in first when running a bath.

No, despite the date this is not an April Fool, and I am not joking: an MP really said that on the Today programme last Wednesday morning.

There was a barrage of emails in response. The best was as follows:

“My wife has just run a bath and put the hot water in first: is there a confidential government hotline I can ring to grass her up ?”

Pensions Chaos Follow-up

After a strike over pensions which I wrote about earlier this week, and following on from a sequence of revelations which has not enhanced the reputation of politics, MPs have done something which will further reduce the respect in which they are held. They have voted more taxpayer’s money to their own pensions.

Many of the people who go into politics have enough ability that they could earn a lot more in other fields. Nevertheless, the sight of people paying themselves more out of public money is not particularly attractive, whether they are MPs voting themselves more salary and pensions or councillors voting themselves more allowances.

My personal view is that the remuneration of elected politicians should not be decided by the politicians themselves. Instead the salaries, allowances, and pensions of MPs, MEPs, and councillors should be delegated to an independent panel. This would not be perfect – I have sometimes considered the recommendations of the existing panels to be too generous (and voted accordingly.) But in a climate when councillors are frequently ordered not to vote on issues which are very important to the people we are supposed to represent if there is the last hint of a conflict of interest, it is about time that the far more serious conflict of interest when people vote on their own remuneration is addressed.

Incidentally, I entirely agree with the comment posted by "The Morningstar" on my previous item - a major part of the difficulty in funding pensions was caused by Gordon Brown's £5 billion a year raid on pension funds. And the reduced incentive to save caused by his means-tested pensions credit has further exacerbated the problem. As Labour MP and former minister Frank Field put it, the present government inherited one of the strongest pensions positions in Europe but we now have one of the weakest.