Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Equal Citizenship

And on the subject of Scotland and England ...

Not long ago Scotland had some legitimate grievances against England. For example, it was a bad mistake to impose the Poll Tax on Scotland before it was introduced in England. But for the past eight years the boot has been on the other foot.

It was totally outrageous for Scots MPs to impose top-up tuition fees on English students when the Scottish parliament had voted not to impose any equivalent top-up on their own constituents. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and the Scottish Affairs committee of the House of Commons, including Labour and even Scottish Nationalist MPs, are starting to recognise this.

The present system is an unhappy half-way house between a centralised nation and a proper federal system, and is increasingly unsustainable. A few years ago, in the Northern Irish context, it was suggested that the principle of "equal citizenship" should apply between the different parts of the UK, and the present set up does not achieve this.

MPs on the Scottish Affairs committee have expressed concern at the resentment caused by the fact that MPs representing constituencies in Scotland are in a position to impose unpopular policies on England which will not apply to their own constituents. The committee suggested, without expressing a preference, that there are four possible solutions;

1) dissolution of the United Kingdom;
2) English devolution;
3) fewer Scottish MPs;
4) only English MPs to vote on issues which only
affect England.

A similar, though less extreme, problem exists for Wales.

I could never support the breakup of the UK, and I don’t believe that many people in England want yet another layer of politicians – the candidate advocating that policy in Copeland at the last election came last with well under a thousand votes.

To have fewer Scottish MPs would be unfair to Scotland when issues are discussed which are still dealt with at a UK level, such as foreign affairs and defence. Thousands of Scotsmen fought in Afganistan, Iraq or both; their families deserve an equal say on decisions which cost Scots lives as well as English ones.

There is only one answer which keeps the UK, does not involve vastly more expense, and corrects the injustice currently facing England without creating new ones for Scotland and Wales. This is to establish rules whereby Westminster MPs representing Scottish seats do not vote on matters which in Scotland have been devolved to the Scottish parliament: similarly MPs representing Welsh seats should not be allowed to vote at Westminster on matters which in Wales have been devolved to the Assembly.

This is not a perfect solution, but the disadvantages it has are massively outweighed by the problems with any of the other options, including the status quo.

On football - and Good Luck England !

Can’t let the world cup go by without at least one supportive mention of England. I was originally going to combine it with a rare word of praise for Gordon Brown – but am no longer sure he fully deserves the praise I was originally going to give him.

I have family connections with all five of the major components of the British isles, and would usually describe myself as British rather than English.

My parents and grandparents have lived in England for three generations, so it would look silly to make a big thing of my Scots ancestors, but this doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of them or have no interest in that side of the family history. My ancestors on both the direct male line and the direct female line were Scots.

So when, a couple of decades ago, Scotland made it into the world cup finals and England didn’t, supporting Scotland was an automatic reaction which required not a moment’s thought. Furthermore, while there may have been some, I didn’t know a single English football supporter who wasn’t cheering for Scotland that time around.

I was sad rather than angry when I learned that this support is not always reciprocated amongst Scots.

It’s not worth getting too worked up about, but as someone who is both English and Scots by ancestry, I find it a shame when different parts of the British family go out of their way to be nasty about each other. That applies whoever is the culprit.

So I was initially quite pleased when Gordon Brown said he would be supporting England – he’s aspiring to lead the whole UK, so of course he should support all of our national teams. Equally, I was at first surprised that this attracted so much flack in the press. Anyone who reads this blog will probably have gathered that I am not a huge fan of the chancellor, but I thought that just this once, the criticism of him was not justified.

Then I read an item in the “Independent” with the headline “Gordon’s got the leadership trait – lying.” At first I thought this headline was over the top, until I reached the point in the article which explained what Gordon Brown had actually told the media. Specifically, that his all-time favourite football moment had been watching England’s Paul Gascoigne score the winning goal against Scotland.

Oh dear. I was prepared to give Gordon Brown the benefit of the doubt about supporting England in the World Cup given that Scotland is not there, and even praise him for reaching out by doing so.

But can anyone really believe for a moment that any Scot, no matter how friendly towards England, could possibly enjoy watching England score against Scotland more than, say, England's five-one win against Germany? Pull the other one.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Take the plank out of your own eye first, Tony ...

Am I the only person who is astonished that, just a few days after the Home Secretary himself described the department which he runs as not being fit for purpose, we offered the services of that department to Liberia, agreeing to take on one of their most difficult potential prisoners ?

Last week Britain made the offer to Liberia that, if their former dictator Charles Taylor is convicted by the international tribunal where he is currently facing war crimes charges, we will provide a jail cell for him.

African countries are nervous about jailing this man because they think he might be able to bribe someone to let him escape. I would not object to Britain offering to provide a jail cell for him if I was fully confident that we had sorted out our problems with the detention, appropriate relase, and tracking of convicted criminals.

But do we really have complete confidence that we have our own difficulties sorted out? And if not, should we think twice about claiming to be able to deal with the challenges that other continents are balking at until we have solved our own?

Suppose one of the inadequate computer systems on which our government has a knack of spending millions gets Charles Taylor mixed up with some harmless pensionier convicted of refusing to pay the council tax, sends him to Ford Open Prison, and he escapes. What sort of idiots will Britain look like in the eyes of the rest of the world if that kind of daft mistake happens ? If ministers do agree to take him, one of them must take personal responsbility for making sure this does not happen.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

What is going on at the Rural Payments Agency ?

Massive problems have been caused to many farmers in the rural areas of Cumbria, and much of the rest of the country, by delays in handing out the money to which they are entitled under the "Single Farm Payment" system. This replaces previous European Union farm support arrangements, and is managed by national governments rather than the European Commission. The over-complex system introduced by Margaret Beckett while she was farm minister has been a fiasco and even demonstrated that our own government is as capable of disastrous mismanagement as Brussels is.

This week the BBC and the News and Star have been repeating extraordinary allegations of misconduct by staff at the Rural Payments Agency, which is responsible for paying the money.

There is as yet no proof that this has anything to do with the delays in paying the farmers their money, but if there is any truth in the allegations it sounds as though staff have found something more interesting to pass the time than their jobs.

The new minister, David Milliband, and his newly appointed head of the Rural Payments Agency, Tony Cooper, must get a grip on the situation at once. The RPA cannot be allowed to continue doing metaphorically to farmers what its staff have been accused of doing literally to each other.

Caring for Carers

This is Carers week. Clive Arnold, who has a regular blog on the Cumbria Newspaper "News and Star" site, has posted some very important points about the work done by those who care for family members and the help they are entitled to expect.

I think this country owes a huge debt to carers. As Clive rightly points out, if they didn't spend an enormous amount of time and effort caring for their loved ones, the state would have to do it at incredible expense.

Carers come in all shapes and sizes. In my own family several people devoted huge amounts of love, care and effort to looking after their parents or older siblings, sometimes up to the verge of their own old age or into it. Until I moved my office to Whitehaven a few days ago, I used to sit opposite a colleague down south who in addition to a full-time job was a registered carer for his disabled adult son. I could not avoid overhearing some of his telephone battles with petty officials in the fight to get decent support for himself and his son, or occasionally respite care so that he and his wife could have a break. It is shocking how difficult it can be for carers to get decent treatment, both for themselves and for those they look after.

We also need to do more to publicize what help is available and help carers to claim it. Carers UK estimates that carers miss out on £746 million in unclaimed benefits every year.

One of the most moving speeches I have ever heard was delivered about a year ago at a health consultation meeting in Whitehaven, by one of several carers who turned up to let the local NHS trust know how concerned they were about the impact of changes which had just been made to Windermere ward at West Cumberland Hospital. All too often governments, councils, and NHS trusts do not think about carers as they should when making changes in policy.

Now, in terms of what we should actually do to help carers, I'm going to give a three point reply: the first two are quotes from official Conservative statements, which address some of Clive’s questions, and which I agree with. The third is an answer from me to Clive’s question on the "overlapping rule" which the first two quotes do not directly deal with, and which is my own view but not necessarily Conservative party policy.

Official Conservative quote No 1: Recognizing and supporting the role of carers.

"We will explore means to support carers in their work, including through the tax and benefit system. In particular, the limited availability of respite care should be addressed, giving carers both rights and choices. We recognize the huge amount of support that informal carers provide and the huge burden that they shoulder. We recognize the obligation that society has to them for the contribution they make."

(Quoted from the recently published Conservative Disability Agenda)

Official Conservative quote No 2: from a briefing to Tory party workers on Carers Support Services

"Conservatives recognise the enormous contribution that Britain’s carers make to our society. We believe that they deserve the same opportunities in life that most of us take for granted – the chance to have a fulfilling career, to have a healthy life and to enjoy financial stability in old age.

Yet too often carers manage on a day-to-day basis until such time as a crisis hits and emergency help has to be found in often difficult and stressful circumstances. In those circumstances support is often fragmented and patchy, and the assessment of need is highly complex and bureaucratic. Patients have too little ownership of the management of their care, poor access to information and services, and an inability to influence the care they receive.

So a Conservative Government will seek to ensure that more people have access to respite care and short breaks when needed.

We will boost the vital role played by informal carers by expanding the provision of respite care so that more carers can continue to support loved-ones at home and, importantly, are able to remain in their own home.

Carers face an uncertain retirement as a result of a pensions system that penalises them. A Conservative Government will take action to ensure that carers can look forward to a more secure retirement by introducing a fairer pension which reflects the realities of life for carers.

We will introduce a flexible weekly credit which would not penalise carers for missing a proportion of the tax year.

We will give more people an opportunity to participate in the contributory system and prevent carers losing out on pension entitlement just because they need to take a long period away from employment by making it easier to make national insurance contributions retrospectively

In addition, our plans to lower the bar for state pension rights will give substantial numbers of carers and low-paid employees access to state pensions without having to pay national insurance contributions."

Third comment, from me, on clawing back of the carer's allowance.

This one represents my own personal view and not necessarily Conservative policy, though I hope that if the present government has not improved the present unsatisfactory state of affairs by the time of the next election this or something very like it will become our policy.

I don't think the present system whereby a whole range of benefits including Carers Allowance suddenly stop when people reach the age of 65 is sensible or reasonable, and it can cause a great deal of hardship. The alternative support available via the pensions credit is not a satisfactory system - it is too complicated and a third of those pensioners who are most in need, well over a million people, do not claim the pensions credit. Almost certainly the vastly complicated forms required have a lot to do with this. I do not know if anyone has estimated the number of people with disabilities or carers among those over 65 who don't claim what they are entitled to, but I strongly suspect that it will be a very significant proportion.

So I think it should be a major priority to take as many pensioners as possible, especially the infirm and their carers, out of means testing, and I would like to see a reversal of the present situation where many benefits stop at 65 as part of a strategy to achieve this.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Time to rethink the Ethics rules

The vast majority of people in public life in Britain are honest, decent people who have stood for office at least partly to help other people or promote something they believe in. Most of us would be financially considerably better off if we devoted the time and money we spend on politics to other things. That applies to people of all mainstream political parties – Conservative, Labour, Lib/Dem, Scots & Welsh Nationalists, and Greens – and to most though not all of the fringe parties.

Unfortunately the conduct of a minority of people in all political parties has convinced large sections of the public that no politicians can be trusted, and this in turn has had two damaging effects. The first is that maligning the integrity of your political opponents has become a routine part of politics. Sadly, nobody should stand for election to public office in the present climate unless you are prepared to cope with the possibility that at some stage you will be falsely accused of corruption. Naturally this has an impact on the quantity and quality of the candidates who are prepared to put up for election.

The second problem is that the “standards” structure which has been put in place to support ethical behaviour in local governments having the unfortunate side effect of interfering in the ability of elected councillors to fight for the legitimate interests of the people they were elected to represent.

My main concern about this is not the time wasted and distress caused by the large number of politically motivated, malicious, or erroneous complaints which are now regularly made, and most of which are rejected, although there have in my opinion been a small number of cases where innocent councillors have been unjustly criticised or punished. That is bad enough, but the worst problem is the much larger number of instances where councillors have reluctantly accepted legal advice not to take part in debates in which the people who elected those councillors would have wanted them to be putting their case, or where the very knowledge which would have allowed those councillors to make a useful contribution to the debate becomes a disqualification from taking part.

Just so you can judge whether I have an axe to grind, let me make clear that I have been the subject of two complaints to the Standards Board over the past five years. In both cases after an initial assessment the Standards Board decided that no evidence of a breach of the rules had been presented, and they declined to investigate the allegations further.

So perhaps it is not surprising that I have concerns about what I see as unjustified complaints, and about the system, without wanting to criticise the people who have been landed with the job of operating it.

Indeed, the last thing I wish to do is treat the Standards Board in the same way the Labour government treated the parliamentary standards commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, who investigated conscientiously all the allegations made to her against MPs, and ended up being by constructively dismissed for being too effective. (See my contribution to “The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.”)

Nevertheless, there is a case to answer that the present “standards” system is doing more harm to local democracy by restricting the ability of councillors to represent their constituents than the good it is doing by driving up standards of ethics.

An extreme example was the case last November when 26 members of Cumbria County council were advised to withdraw from a debate about nuclear issues. The legal advice was that not just councillors who themselves work at Sellafield or had close relatives who do, but any councillor who even had a friend who works at Sellafield might be “prejudiced.” As Tim Knowles, a Labour councillor, rightly pointed out, “Virtually everybody in West Cumbria has a friend working at Sellafield.” And “West Cumbria needs to be represented on what is a key issue for its wellbeing.”

I dare say that for those of us who live in a community where 17,000 jobs depend directly or indirectly on civil nuclear power, this might influence our views on nuclear issues. But isn’t that exactly the sort of interest which democracy is supposed to reflect ?

The Sellafield advice may be an extreme case but problems of this kind are not at all unusual. Other examples of similar problems over the last year or so have included the following.

● A planning application for hundreds of houses on a former school playing field aroused strong local concern. A councillor representing the ward concerned was advised not to attend the planning committee which was considering the application because she was also secretary of the local residents association, which was campaigning against the application.

● A Barrow councillor was suspended for several months for supporting his constituents who were campaigning for road safety measures in their street, because he lived in the same road himself.

● A senior councillor who lived opposite a planning application site submitted, in an open and transparent manner, his concerns about the
proposal. The developer complained to the standards board, who investigated, found that the councillor had not abused his position and imposed no penalty on him, but criticised him for not doing enough to avoid creating the impression that he might have abused his position. From what I saw of the sequence of events the councillor concerned bent over backwards to avoid seeking undue advantage for his position, at some personal cost, so this criticism struck me as unfair.

The people involved in the cases described above included Conservative, Labour, and Lib/Dem councillors. In several instances I totally oppose their political views or have had other serious disagreements with them. But I am convinced that it must be possible to find a system which will check genuine corruption while making it possible for elected representatives to put forward their views without running into the kind of problems which these people hit.

I do have some suggestions.

The wording of the National Code of Local Government Conduct already says that if an issue affects everyone in an area, it does not constitute a prejudicial interest, and only interests which particularly affect a councillor more than other residents need to be declared. This sentence should have prevented many of the problems which have arisen with the code, but it needs to be strengthened and given more weight.

Second, there are procedures for obtaining a dispensation in cases where a relatively minor conflict of interest should be over-ridden by the needs of democracy to give people a voice. These should be publicised better to councillors, made easier to use, and probably more broadly available.

For example, take the Sellafield case referred to above. It is extremely probable that even if the advice to councillors was right, Cumbria County Council’s own standards committee had the power to give dispensations to the councillors with an interest to take part in the debate.

Thirdly, councillors accused of misconduct should be entitled to the same right which the criminal law gives to everyone else – to be considered innocent until proven guilty. If a complaint is made and no material evidence is produced to support it, or an investigation does not establish any wrongdoing or breach of the code, the Standards Board should issue an unequivocal statement that the person who had been accused in the complaint has been cleared.

Finally, it would be helpful if some disincentive could be applied to those who make malicious or politically motivated complaints. This is easier said than done. In my experience the most common source of unjustified or unreasonable complaints to the standards board is people who were unhappy with the result of a planning application. I cannot see a way of discouraging this which would not also deter people with a genuine complaint.

However, the second most common source of unjustified complaints is political opponents trying to score party propaganda points. And this would be relatively easy to do something about.

Knowingly making a false statement in a complaint to the standards board should be a criminal offence, just as knowingly making a false statement on most other official forms is. Complainants to the standards board should have to state whether they are a member of a political party.

If a member of a rival political party, or an independent councillor, makes a complaint against somebody and produces no material case to support it, then unless there are special circumstances the Standards Board should “name and shame” the complainant by putting a note in the local paper announcing that he or she has been censured for misusing the system by making unsubstantiated complaints.

Some people reading this may ask if there is a danger that justified complaints might be deterred by such a system. If it were applied to the public in general, there would be. But if it only applies to politicians and members of political parties, the effect would be to make them check their facts more carefully before attacking the integrity of their opponents. And that would be an entirely good thing for the health of local democracy.

Sustainable Procurement

A number of large companies have signed a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to give a minister responsibility for sustainable procurement.

The letter follows on from a report by the government’s Sustainable Procurement Task Force and the signatory companies include BT, Carillion, KPMG, Vodafone, Redfern Travel and Willmott Dixon.

The signatories “firmly believe that sustainable procurement is essential for the future prosperity of the country and that it is wholly compatible with running a successful country and business in today’s world”.

The letter also says the procurement activities of the public sector are “a significant and effective but currently sadly under-utilised tool” which could be used for meeting the government’s sustainable development aims. It asks that the PM “appoint a Minister to drive forward sustainable procurement within our sectors”.

The signatories commit to actively supporting the government in developing and improving sustainable procurement methods within the sectors in which each organisation operates, and they also commit to providing the Minister and the government with active support to help drive the initiative forward..

Finally the letter proposes that the signatories and the Minister issue a sustainable procurement progress report each year.

It is an interesting and positive sign that the environment is getting more attention that a group of businesses should send such a letter. With one important caveat – that it should not be implemented in a way which favours large businesses over small ones or is too heavily bureaucratic – I hope that the government will listen and act on this letter.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Read Bryan Appleyard in today's Sunday Times

If you possibly can, get hold of a copy of today's Sunday Times Magazine and read the article "The last Refuge" by Bryan Appleyard. It is the best article I have ever read describing the current debate about the environment. If you can't get a copy of the "dead tree" version of the paper the article is also available on their website.

Some of it is a bit tongue in cheek - the front cover of the magazine shows a family wearing only white, in front of their white painted house, car, etc - the idea being to raise the planet's albedo by making as many things white as possible so that heat will be reflecte out to space. The article explains this, and than makes clear that "Albedo chic" is a humorous "thought experiment" invented by the SF writer Gregory Benford to get people thinking about what we need to do.

The article crams a host of ideas and concepts into relatively few pages. He places environmentalists on s spectrum from the "Sandals" (Zak Goldsmith, Jonathan Porritt) to the "Nukes" (James Lovelock, Sir David King) depending on what sort of approach they take.

I am interested to learn that salad, and particularly lettice, is bad for both our health and the planet - it takes up vast amount of agricultural land and is often grown with artificial heat and light but provides virtually no nutritional value. So every little boy who refuses to eat his salad is helping save the planet ! This gem alone is worth ten times the price of today's Sunday Times.

Other things in the article include the idea of paying Brazil for the oxygen emissions the rainforest produces so they have an incentive to stop felling it, cars which run on electicity or hydrogen to reduce carbon emissions, and an interesting description of how carbon capture and carbon burial actually works.

Much more painful - Appleyard argues that the era of cheap air fares will have to come to an end, indeed very possibly we will have to kick the habit of air travel altogether. Fixed wing aircraft are responsible for perhaps the biggest avoidable cause of carbon emission into the atmosphere.

One question he does not ask is whether it is time for the return of lighter than air travel. Dirigible airships require massively less energy per passenger mile or ton of cargo lifted and may therefore have a much lower impact in terms of both carbon emissions and noise. Given a tax regime which reflected the environmental impact of air travel, perhaps the airship would become commercially feasible once more.

Any serious politician, and any responsible voter, needs to understand more about the environmental challenges which the whole world faces. Appleyard's article is an immensely valuable contribution to the debate.

Book Review: History of the Peloponnesian War

I have read two things today which I strongly recommend. One described a current set of problem and the other covered a set of events nearly two and a half thousand years ago, but both are very relevant today. The first was Bryan Appleyard's superb assessment of the climate change debate for which see my next post. But I have also been reading Thucydides "The History of the Peloponnesian War".

So why am I risking my street cred by plugging a book written more than 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ ?

Who do I think would benefit by reading this book?

Anyone who wants to understand how free societies can descend into tyranny -

Anyone who does not realise that merely holding free elections is not enough to preserve a society worth living in, especially if you don't combine democracy with the rule of law -

Anyone who needs to understand how two or more nations can stumble into a war devastating to both -

Anyone who imagines that genocide and ethnic cleansing were limited to our own era -

Anyone intersted in reading one of the first works of true history ever written.

If I had to nominate one historical work for my son and daughter to read, I would think carefully between this volume, Suetonius's "The 12 Caesars", and Herodotus's "Histories", but Thucydides "History of the Peloponnesian war" would edge it.

There are many editions of the book, and I have been reading the Wordsworth Classics version which was translated by Richard Crawley and has an excellent introduction by Lorna Hardwick.

You cannot take every word in this book for granted, but Herodotus and Thucydides came closer to an objective search for truth than any writer whose works survive and was writing before them or for centuries afterwards.

The story of the tragic wars, initially between Athens and Sparta, which decimated Greek civilisation between 431BC and 404 BC is absolutely gripping, and Thucydides brings the story to life for me.

The most irritating thing about Thucydides' book is that it stops suddenly in the middle of a sentence in 411 BC, shortly after the overthrow of democracy in Athens and the Athenian naval victory at the Dardanelles. E.g. well before the actual resolution of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, let alone the subsequent struggle between both cities and Thebes.

If, like me, this leaves you wanting to learn more about what happened next, your best bet is to read Xenophon's "A history of my times" which was deliberately written to follow on from Thucydides, to such an extent that it actually starts with the words "And after this."

The reputation of Xenophon among historians as a reliable source has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, and he is undoubtedly not in the same class as Thucydides as a historian, but he is in the same class as a storyteller and he does complete the story of the war.

Well done, Adam

One unfortunate feature of the debate within and outside the Conservative party about the "A list" is that far too much of it has consisted of unfair attacks on individuals.

Incidentally, the official description is that there is no definitive "A-list" as such, but that the Conservative party has one list of "approved candidates" within which some people are currently "priority candidates".

Local constituency Conservative parties can interview anyone they ask to interview and select whoever they wish to pick, although in practice it appears that target seats are strongly encouraged to pick either a "priority candidate" or someone they regard as having genuine local connections (and the days when that could mean that your father rented a house in the constituency fifty years ago are gone.)

I have been told clearly and unequivocally that although all priority candidates are among the "brightest and best" the party has to offer, the fact that someone has not yet been given that status definitely does NOT mean that he or she is regarded as second rate. The national party accepts that there are other very high quality candidates in addition to the current set of about a hundred "priority candidates" and does not regard it as a problem or a snub to David Cameron if a local party selects an "outstanding local candidate" as Bromley and Chiselhurst just has.

I personally believe - and I accept that I'm obviously biased - that the general level of ability and commitment of the 550 or people on the Conservative approved list is extremely high, both among the current crop of "priority candidates" and the other men and women on the list. There is room for internal debate within the party about whether this is a good system - and we would be wise to keep an eye on Blanau Gwent to see what can go wrong with "positive discrimination" and try to avoid repeating the Labour party's mistakes.

We do need to get more women and ethnic minority Conservative MPs elected. The "priority candidate" system would not have caused the problem Labour had in Copeland, where a "token woman" allowed into the final selection promptly waltzed into the local newpaper offices, announced that she had previously been what is now euphemistically referred to as a "sex worker," and that Tony Blair should appoint her as a health minister when she was elected so that she could "take evidence on eternal life."

However, it is not sensible for Conservatives to attack one another as part of the debate, and particularly not to criticise individual candidates. I am equally irritated when I read of fellow Conservatives slagging off either "local candidates" such as Bob Neill, our excellent standard bearer in the forthcoming Bromley and Chiselhurst election, or "A-listers", and the person who has come in for a particularly large helping of undeserved abuse has been Adam Ricketts.

So I was very pleased that Adam performed so well on the television with Andrew Marr this morning, particularly in response to a difficult question about the Iraq war. I am sure he will make an excellent MP.

Brown comes out for Nuclear Power

One of the major question marks about the future of nuclear power was removed yesterday when Gordon Brown came out in support. Given that the present Prime Minister has already indicated his support for new nuclear build it is now fairly clear which way the government's energy review will go.

Blair and Brown will probably face further criticism for pre-empting the current energy review, and there is some justice in that, but as someone who is convinced that this country needs a balanced energy policy which includes a role for nuclear power, I am pleased that there is no longer much danger that a change in the Labour leadership could pose a threat to plans for new nuclear build.

When the Conservative energy review comes out, I hope that the government will be able to work for a cross-party consensus between the two main parties for a new energy policy, so that potential investors will not have to fear losing their money in a government U-turn.

Just to emphasise the point, to achieve the scale of impact to cut carbon emissions which the overwhelming majority of scientists now think is necessary, we need to reach for every available option. That includes energy saving, "burying" carbon to stop it getting into the atmoshere, making much more use of renewable energy, and replacing our present nuclear reactors with a new generation. There is not a cat in hell's chance that the UK can achieve significant overall reductions in carbon emissions without at least maintaining the 20% of our electicity generation which is currently carbon free because it comes from nuclear power.

I have heard it suggested that one question mark over new nuclear build may be future question marks about the long-term security of supplies of uranium. This may be an issue, but would you rather rely on Putin and Gazprom ? I think not. The debate on reprocessing can wait for another post when I can do it justice.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Acronym competition - the winning entries

A number of good entries, including.

ODPM = OverDevelopment to Prescott Mandate

LDD = Lots of Development Directed (instead of Local Development Document

RSS = Really Stupid System (instead of Regional Spatial Strategy)

SPD = Stupid Prescott Document (instead of Supplementary Planning Document)

SCI = Stifle Cumbrian Investment (instead of Statement of Community Involvement – a reference to the fact that Prescott’s “The Northern Way” strategy document made virtually no reference to Cumbria.)

However, I chose two joint winners from different ends of the country. This was to reflecting the fact that micromanagement by John Prescott’s department took different forms all over the country, but the one common factor is that he always thought he knew what was best for a local area than the people who lived there, and he was always wrong. In some places he forced far too much development, more than was wanted by locally elected councillors of all parties: in other places he forced local authorities to scale back their development plans. So here are the two winning entries.

From Cumbria:

NWRA = Now We're Really Abandoned (instead of North West Regional Assembly)

From Hertfordshire

EEDA = Extreme and Excessive Development Allowed

(instead of East of England Development Agency)

I was just in time to organise copies of “The little red book of New Labour Sleaze” which will shortly be winging their way to Whitehaven and St Albans for the winners. This book has now sold out.

One of the writers on the News and Star has just done a piece saying that it's time someone stuck up for John Prescott. I will withold the response which springs to mind as I wish this blog to remain suitable for people of any age to read.

The reason I have been sharply critical of Prescott has nothing to do with his private life or his leisure activities - indeed as far as I can see most of the MPs who criticised him for playing croquet were from his own party. And the only criticism I level at Prescott over his two jags has been the fact that he heads a department which is trying to make it impossible for other people to do the same by depriving them of anywhere to park.

The reason I have criticised John Prescott is that as a councillor I am fed up to the back teeth with coping with his interference, incompetence, and attacks on local democracy.

Final word on John Prescott’s legacy, for the moment is his own attributed quote on the Dome –

“If we can’t make this work, we’re not much of a government.”


Oh would some power the giftie gie us ...

"Oh would some power the giftie gie us,
To see ourselves as others see us."

Last week there was a terrible day when about forty people were killed in Iraq. I read about it in two different broadsheet newspapers, both of which are published round the world and influence how other countries see Britain. In each case you had to read at least three inches into the small print of the front page to learn that forty people in total had been killed.

But four of the forty were Brits - two soldiers and two British employees of a US Television crew. And their deaths were announced at the top of the front pages in big headlines - using a font in which letters probably covered twenty times the area of those used to record the deaths or ordinary Iraqi victims.

Let me make clear what I am and am not saying. As John Donne put it, every man's death diminishes me. Each one of those forty deaths meant an evil murder, a bereaved family, and a personal tragedy.

I do not critise those newspapers for giving particular prominence to the four UK citizens who were killed - they were UK newspapers. I do criticise them for getting the balance so far out that a non-British reader of those papers, particularly from, say, Basra, might get the impression that to us, British deaths are important but the deaths of ten times as many people from another country are a trivial detail.

Brits have the reputation in the rest of the world for being very arrogant and regarding the rest of the world as inferior beings. Like most reputations, it has some truth in it but is not entirely fair.

Of course, every nation on earth regards itself as the best in the world. Indeed most of us think it mildly unhealthy when we meet someone who is prepared to praise "every century but this and every country but his own". But it would be helpful if those of our newspapers which are sold round the world could refrain from reinforcing the stereotype that British people regard everyone else as second class humans.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Prescott Memorial Acronym Competition

Sorting through the entries for this.

I quite like RSS = Really Stupid System (it is supposed to mean Regional Spacial Strategy)

An entry from Cumbria:

NWRA = Now We're Really Abandoned (instead of North West Regional Assembly

An entry from Hertfordshire

EEDA = Extreme and Excessive Development Allowed

(instead of East of England Development Agency)

Decision soon

Gaffe or Truth ?

One of the more unfortunate consequences of adversarial politics is that when a politician is brave enough to say something true, especially if it is also politically inconvenient, there is a good chance that everyone in the media and other parties will start shouting “Gaffe!” and implying that the person who told the truth was stupid. The great cartoonist HM Bateman used to draw pictures showing everyone in a large room staring in fury or delight at an embarrased person who has just made a humiliating mistake. These cartoons had titles like "The diplomat who said that his country would pay" and "The subaltern who took the Colonel's biscuit." To the best of my knowledge he never did one called "The MP who told the truth!" but the way some people think he certainly could have.

So I would like to salute a Labour MP, Gisela Stuart, for telling the truth about a number of issues on which the official propaganda machine of her party has been putting out a narrative consisting of lie after lie after lie.

First, she is absolutely right that in the 1970’s Britain was in “a serious mess after following mistaken policies for two or three decades.” As a boy at the time, my earliest political memories come from this period, and I can remember the power cuts and other signs of economic decline which Ms. Stuart writes about. As she said, "Relative decline was followed by absolute decline. Much of our industry was clapped out; much of our management was in the dark ages; the militant trade union movement was rampant."

The climax of this problem was made clear in the “winter of discontent” when one trade union leader referred to the consequences of strike action with the words “If someone dies, so be it.” I remember this all too clearly because my father was one of those he was talking about. Dad was rung up on the morning he was due to go into Guy’s hospital for a heart operation which doctors regarded as essential, and told that his operation was cancelled because Shop Stewards from one of the NHS trade unions had decided it wasn’t an emergency.

Second, Gisela Stuart is right to give much of the credit for turning this situation around to Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe. She recalls the moment when 364 economists wrote to the newspapers saying that the policies of the Conservative government “would end in disaster” and adds “They were wrong.”

This may seem to many people like ancient history. But there is an old saying that those who do not study the mistakes of the past are more likely to repeat them. And Gisela Stuart is right a third time when she says that

“In Britain, there is complacency owing to recent relative economic success, but it is possible that the seeds of future stagnation have been sown. We have excessive public spending, rising taxes and excessive micro-management.”

Needless to say this has been presented in some of the media as part of the war between Blair and Brown, but that isn’t the most important issue. The key question is whether her arguments are right – and I believe that Gordon Brown is in danger of falling into the very pitfalls she points out.

Finally, she was also right to warn of the danger that a legitimate desire both to protect jobs in our own country, and also to help the poorest people in the third world, must not lead us to listen to the siren voices of calls for what is referred to as “fair trade” but is really disguised protectionism. As she says, “Globalisation is not a threat, but an opportunity, and we should embrace it and see liberal markets as the most effective instrument for generating prosperity here in the United Kingdom, in Germany and the rest of Europe.”

Gaffe ? Well it certainly isn’t convenient for those in the Labour propaganda machine, who have sought to spread the lies that the last Conservative government was an economic disaster and everything Gordon Brown does is perfect, to have one of their own MPs recognise that much of today’s prosperity comes from things the last Conservative government got right. Or that some of Brown’s policies are a threat to that prosperity. One newspaper, while agreeing with much of what Gisela Stuart said, called her a “cuckoo” in the labour nest. But we will do better as a country if politicians can tell the inconvenient truth without getting clobbered for it.

From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success

You know how sometimes a catchy tune gets “stuck” in your head and you find yourself thinking it or humming aloud for days at a time ? For the past couple of days I’ve been unable to stop myself thinking of a song from the film version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Tim Ireland has done some political cartoon sequences with musical accompaniment for the website www.backingblair.com (both the website title and much of the material on the site is highly ironic). He doesn’t take prisoners. Previous examples include a mock “Don’t vote Labour” PPB using the theme music from the old TV comedy “The Goodies” as backing, which he followed with an alternative version of Labour’s “Dave the Chameleon” broadcast. His most recent comedy video, with the soundtrack of “The Roses of Success” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, shows animated New Labour roses singing the song. (I think the mouth with which each rose sings is supposed to be Tony Blair’s mouth.) The lyrics represent a group of mad scientists who are trying to keep up their spirits with relentless optimism in the face of repeated failure, convincing themselves that each successive fiasco paves the way for eventual success.

Part of the brilliance of the original song was that, like much of the very best satire, it works both ways – the words can be taken at face value or seen as ironic. However, the images make clear that Tim Ireland is using them to lampoon the foreign policies of Tony Blair (and George W Bush).

If you are 18 or over, and like political jokes other than John Prescott, you might like to visit the “Backing Blair” website and see for yourself. Some of the material on the site is not suitable for children.

You may ask, why am I, a centre-right aspiring politician, recommending a website which attacks Tony Blair from the left ? Two reasons. The first is that whether you agree with him or not, Ireland at his best is extremely funny.

The second is that even if you support some aspects of the War on Terror – for example, I believe that the overthrow of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan was morally, legally and practically 100% justified – it is hard to dispute that US/British policy towards Iraq has included things which, to put it very mildly, should have been done better. It is essential that we learn from those mistakes.

Behind the humour, Ireland is making for me what is a very important point about how you do and don’t learn from mistakes. Abandoning everything you were trying to do is not always the best answer. Ploughing bravely on as if nothing had gone wrong is never the best answer.

Is Jedi Jamie following in the footsteps of Junket Jack ?

The MP for Copeland Jamie Reed, is reported in the Telegraph to have made a trip to America as a guest of one of the companies bidding to take over BNFL. The trip was properly declared in the Register of Members’ interests in accordance with the rules. A few days after his return, Mr Reed, nicknamed “Jedi Jamie” after a foolish joke about being the first Jedi MP in his maiden speech, attacked two of the rival potential bidders in the House of Commons.

I have been discussing this with colleagues in Copeland. I don’t think it wrong per se for an MP to make fact-finding visits, properly declared. However, it is very important to make an effort not to give the impression of partiality, especially at this early stage, and perhaps he needs to consider this point carefully.

If one of the bidders who have been criticised by the local MP using parliamentary privilege were to be successful, it might reduce his influence with the new operator in future and hence his ability to lobby on behalf of the thousands of his constituents who will be affected by their decisions.