Monday, July 31, 2006

Down memory lane ...

I read economics at Bristol University between 1980 and 1983, was elected sabbatical treasurer of the union for 1983-4, and then did a Masters degree at the University of East Anglia.

Consequently I managed to be involved in student politics during an exceptionally interesting period - and I am using the word 'interesting' in the same sense as the ancient Confucian curse, "May you live in interesting times." I started as a student shortly after the Federation of Conservative Students, FCS, was taken over by the hard right, and remained involved as a supporter of the moderate grouping within the organisation, almost up to the time the organisation was shut down by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing.

Of course, the Conservative party was not the only one to have trouble with its youth and student wings - pretty well every mainstream party had difficulties of one sort or another. The Labour Party Young Socialists and National Organisation of Labour Students had problems with Militant: the Young Liberals were notoriously dominated by anarchists and the Union of Liberal Students was nicknamed "Usually Left of Steel." (David Steel was the Liberal leader at the time.)

The "Conservative Home" blog has had a thread over the past few days about the Federation of Conservative Students, sparked by a BBC piece about FCS from Tim Hames (now a journalist, but he was elected to FCS National Committee in 1985 on a slate on which I was also a candidate.) You can read the article and comments here

I made plenty of very good friends during my time in student politics, and reading the debate about FCS has been an interesting trip trip down memory lane, but I have been reminded very forcefully of how unpleasant things could be: after I posted a comment about the Federation somebody, presumably still bitter about something I said or did as a student twenty years ago, posted a rather unpleasant attack on me. However, I was in good company - the same individual also attacked half of those FCS members of bygone days who are now MPs or PPCs, including his own former allies who were accused of "selling out." (I should add that several other people made much nicer comments.)

It was a useful reminder of something I learned in my student days: it is important to have principles, but when those principles start leading you to criticise, offend and attack everyone, including your friends, more often than you say anything positive, it's time to check if you have your principles and your concern for human beings in the right order.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

How to pay for politics

Almost every modern democracy has problems with the funding of political parties. Neither state nor private funding appears to guarantee that there is no risk of corruption - in some countries such as France, America, Italy and now Britain there have been problems with private funding of political parties, in other countries such as Germany there have been problems with misuse of the taxpayer's money provided for politics.

By the standards of most modern democracies, the level of political corruption in Britain is fairly low, though we have never been so spotlessly clean that we could afford complacency on the subject. Insofar as there is less political corruption in this country than some others, the main reason is probably the limits on campaign spending which ensure that fighting an election is not as ridiculously expensive as it can be in some other nations. But the arrest of Lord Levy, and the guilty plea by Lib/Dem donor Michael Brown, have probably been the last straw which will destroy the present arrangements for funding politics in Britain.

I am convinced that most of the people nominated to the House of Lords by all three major parties were honest individuals who went there to serve their country, and were nominated because the party who put them forward thought they had something to contribute. I am equally convinced that most of the people who gave money to all the major parties did so out of a genuine belief that that party was fighting for something the donors believed in.

The trouble is, enough muck has been thrown over the past few months both at political donations and nominations for honours, some of it apparently justified, that the muck is likely to stick to anyone who gives a large sum of money to a political party. And it is the genuinely honourable people, who would otherwise have given money for altruistic reasons, who are most likely to hate the idea of being accused of corruption and who will find other outlets for their wish to help good causes.

So we have to look again at how to fund politics. Many people will say "a plague on all your houses - if all the political parties go bust it will be a good thing." That may sound attractive to those who despise and distrust all politicians, but it's not actually very constructive, not least because it would probably take us back to the days of the 18th century when politics became a game played between rival groups of very rich men.

David Cameron's democracy task force has made the interim suggestions of a cap on individual donations at £50,000 combined with tax relief on political donations. I support those policies, but I suspect that we need to do more.

I have always been immensely unhappy about giving taxpayer's money to political parties. I remain totally opposed to any proposal which would give taxpayers money to political parties without any reference to the views of the taxpayers - I would not want any of my own taxes going to Labour or the Lib/Dems, never mind the BNP.

However, given the depth of the problem we now face, I think there is a case for looking further at an idea which was suggested a few years ago by a commission on political funding. This would providing some financial support to parties but subject to control by the voters.

The way it would work is that there would be a box at the bottom of the ballot paper at general elections, which would say something like "Tick this box if you wish the party you have supported to receive assistance from the Democracy Support fund."

Displayed prominently in each polling station would be a notice explaining exactly what this means, which would be that for each voter for a registered political party who ticked the box, the party he or she voted for would receive a modest amount of taxpayer's money - say £5 p.a. - for each year of the following parliament. So if a party received 5 million votes, and 50% of those voters ticked the box, that party would receive an annual sum of £5 times 50% times 5 million, or £12.5 million p.a.

A fixed percentage of the money should go to the national party and the remainder to the local party in that constituency so that the money supported local democracy as well as the national organisation - the last thing we need is a political funding system which further reinforces the centralisation of British politics.

It is not a perfect system but at least it would provide money to fund political campaigns in a way which would require the active consent of the taxpayers who are paying. It would also mean that political parties which ignore the views of the public would pay for it financially as well as in terms of MPs elected. I think it is a racing certainty that a significant proportion of voters for each party would tick the box but also that millions of others would not.

And for the first time the electorate would have an effective lever against MPs in safe seats. A member of parliament for such a constituency who supports policies which are massively unpopular may still be re-elected, but then find that his or her local party chairman has something to say about the loss of a huge chunk of the constituency party's income.

There is an official Review chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips which is currently investigating political funding. They are inviting comments from the public. If you have any views for or against the ideas in this post, or any other suggestions on the subject, why not write into Sir Hayden's review and have your say ? A link to the website is here

(The URL is

and you can email them on

Saturday, July 29, 2006

TV Switchover

We already knew that Cumbria would be the trial region for the switchover to Digital TV. Now we learn that Whitehaven and the surrounding villages - basically the northern half of Copeland - will be the first part of Cumbria to be affected.

There is an old joke that "nothing should ever be done for the first time." Even if it produces benefits in the long term, I am concerned that the authorities do not seem to have thought through or addressed some of the human cost which may come with this switchover, particularly in the area where it happens first.

It has been rumoured that one of the reasons Cumbria had been chosen to be the first area for digital switchover is that there are only 6 MPs in the county so it won't bring the government down if it all goes wrong.

I hope that the council and the TV authorities will work together to organise an effective publicity campaign, which needs to start soon, alerting everyone to the steps they need to take to ensure their television still works after the switchover. The campaign needs to cover all groups of television viewers but include a particular drive to contact those elderly people who may not realise what "digital TV" means or that it affects them. The campaign should also encourage people to start sorting things out now - if everyone waits until a few weeks before the switchover we will have chaos as reputable local suppliers cannot cope with the final rush of demand and those who leave it too late may have to choose between spending a few weeks with no TV or paying a fortune.

And even if people don't leave it to the last minute, anyone getting the necessary digital-capable receiver etc should either go to someone they know and trust or make sure they get at least two or three quotes. My information is that there is already a huge variation in the amount people are being charged. You can bet that as the switchover gets closer, people from all over the country will descend on Whitehaven offering to do the necessary conversion work, and some of them will charge much higher prices than others.

Recognising that Copeland is being used for the trial run, I hope the government will also put some money aside as a special fund to compensate any local residents or local businesses who lose out as a result of the teething problems which may occur as we experience the first digital switchover.

While Prescott is supposedly running the country ...

A few weeks ago the media made something of a fuss about the fact that the discredited Deputy Prime Minister would be left "in charge" while the Prime Minister went on holiday. John Prescott actually does take over this week, yet this fuss has died down to a surprising degree.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that the media know perfectly well that Tony Blair doesn't trust John Prescott to run the country, and he won't really be doing so. Ministers have been left in charge of their own departments - any minor issues affecting more than one department might well go to the Deputy PM but if anything important comes up we all know they'll be on the phone to Tony before you can say "Middle East Crisis."

Does anyone imagine for 20 seconds that Prescott has been or will be allowed anywhere near Britain's response, such as it is, to the war which has broken out in the Lebanon? Mind you, if he had been responsible for dealing with the Middle East crisis, it is difficult to imagine that even John Prescott would have looked worse that Tony Blair has.

I fell about laughing when Prescott was interviewed by Andrew Marr last week and urged people to judge him by how well he was doing his job. I know other people have made remarks about his sex life, but if you look back to the comments I have made in previous blog entries you will see that every single criticism I have made about Prescott has related to his dire performance as a minister.

I don't give tuppence about him playing croquet, it is not my place to judge him as a husband or as a man, but as a councillor I was sick to death of dealing with the nonsense that came from his department when he had one. It is purely on his performance "on the job" that I judge that he doesn't have the ability required to be a good MP, never mind Deputy Prime Minister.

One aspect of his job performance which I do not critise in principle was his attempt to negotiate a good deal for East London and Britain over the Dome. But why oh why could he not have been honest with everyone about what he was doing? Why insult our intelligence by pretending that he went to the ranch of a Texan billionaire to discuss Wilberforce?

There are legitimate arguments for and against using a supercasino to generate investment in homes and infrastructure on the Dome site. And there are good reasons why the details of any such package would have to be negotiated in private, by somebody who is not directly in the loop of taking the planning decisions. But there was no good reason not to be straight with parliament and the British people about what was going on, or why we should not have an honest debate about the merits of the Dome proposals.

Back when this government had recently been elected and was having an internal debate about whether to go ahead with the Millenium Dome, John Prescott is supposed to have said "If we can't make this work, we're not much of a government." Even this government's sternest critics could hardly have realised at the time what an appropriate and long-lasting epitaph for the Labour government this statement would prove to be.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Full Lamonty

Norman Lamont once famously described the then Prime Minister as being “In office but not in power.” This week Tony Blair in turn moved closer to the situation where, while still in Number 10, he is less and less in sole control of the government’s destiny. The arrest of Lord Levy has clearly done immense harm to the Prime Minister – and the stage whispers from some Blairites complaining about the police action have made things worse rather than better. But Lord Levy’s trip to the police station, damaging though it was, is not the most powerful indicator in the past few days demonstrating the decay of the Prime Minister’s authority.

On issues where Blair clearly has the agreement of his colleagues, particularly Gordon Brown, he is occasionally capable of pushing for brave or reforming decisions to be made. A rare example, and one that I personally welcome, is the fact that civil nuclear power appears to be included in the government’s energy strategy.

But where, as so often, the Labour party is divided, Blair’s ability to get anything through is collapsing even faster than the respect in which he is held.

Much of the Labour party never really liked Tony Blair, but they put up with him while he won them elections. Now that he has declared that he will not stand again, and is increasingly seen as an electoral liability rather than an asset, Labour MPs are turning against him.

The clearest sign that we are approaching the end of the Blair era lies in the fact that, in the past few days, three flagship policies have collapsed and hardly anyone has taken much notice.

To the delight of many of us in Cumbria who thought that the proposed police merger would have been a terrible mistake, the police authorities in Lancashire and Cumbria have abandoned plans to merge after the government failed to provide the resources which would have been necessary to make the combined force work. The government then admitted that their proposed police force mergers had been placed on the back burner.

At the same time, civil servants who had been trying to prepare the government’s Identity Cards proposal were briefing the press that the proposal was proving unworkable and will not happen any time in the next few years. The official government spin is that that they have recognised that the timetable to introduce ID cards was unrealistic, but everyone know that means ID cards are dead in the water.

And now another flagship policy has collapsed. While national attention was on the evacuation of British civilians from Lebanon by the Royal Navy, the government has slipped out the news that the survey which was to form the central part of the “Home Information Packs” required under recent government legislation about house sales will no longer be compulsory when the packs come into force next year.

Since these surveys would have cost hundreds of pounds, I cannot see too many ordinary sellers preparing one while they are optional, though some specialist property dealers might. It will be interesting to see what the thousands of people who have paid for training as inspectors to qualify them to write the surveys will think of this. One of the professional organisations representing surveyors said that the industry has already spent £100 million on getting ready for the introduction of the packs.

Police force mergers and ID cards had the potential to significantly change what sort of country this is. Home Information Packs had the potential to significantly change the property market. The fact that the collapse of these policies has not generated more fuss tells you all you need to know about the fact that people have stopped taking the government seriously.

Like many third term Prime Ministers, Blair is becoming obsessed with his “legacy”. But he is increasingly unable to get any policy reforms through which would be distinctly Blairite.

Sadly – I say sadly because although I disagree with Blair, his failure is bad for the country as well as for himself and the Labour party – his legacy is most likely to be a poisoned political climate in which all politicians are presumed to be corrupt liars.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Government Energy Review – Where’s the detail ?

After months of waiting, the government has finally published its review of Britain’s future energy needs. Alistair Darling presented the new policy in the House of Commons yesterday.

This has been universally presented as the government coming down on the side of nuclear power, and the hints, nudges and winks have now been replaced by a statement that “The government has concluded that new nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals.”

Note that word “could”.

Watching Alistair Darling’s speech I was struck, not by how much was said, but by how little.

Some 24 centuries ago, an Egyptian ruler who was disappointed by the small size of a vaunted reinforcement from his Spartan allies, is supposed to have commented

“Parturient montes, nascitur ridiculus mus.”

Or “Behold, the mountain has laboured, and has given birth to a ridiculous mouse.”

To call this energy review Blair’s “ridiculus mus” would be overstating the case, but it contains much less than we had been led to expect. Conservative spokesman Alan Duncan said of the statement that “It’s not Carbon-free, it’s Content-free” while David Heathcote-Amory said that “the limp and tentative language on nuclear power is a major disappointment.”

Views on nuclear power clearly go across party lines and will continue to do so.

The MP for Copeland made a fool of himself during the discussion in parliament, not for the first time. House of Commons rules allowed backbench MPs to ask one question each about the energy review. Unfortunately for Jamie Reed, he started off his remarks with some petty party-political point-scoring, which was worded in the form of a question about a suggested new slogan for the Conservative party. When he then attempted to ask his real question the Deputy Speaker cut him off on the grounds that he was allowed to ask one question and had already done so.

The Energy review has been interpreted as good news for West Cumbria on the grounds that if there are to be new nuclear power stations we have a chance of getting one here and therefore the work which goes with it. This view is not necessarily wrong, but it is certainly premature.

There has been a suggestion that the new generation of nuclear generators will consist of six “super plants” – but if so there are real doubts that the existing national grid will support an installation of that size at Calder Hall. If we want the enormous concentration of nuclear skill and expertise in West Cumbria to have an opportunity to take part in a new generation of nuclear plants, we need to get our act together and lobby for a solution which includes either a place for plants at up to 600 Megawatts or a substantial upgrade to the national grid – which would have to take into account the impact on the Lake District national park.

Is it possible that there will be a new nuclear power plant in West Cumbria ? Yes.

Can we take it for granted ? No.

Madrid 2004: London 2005: Bombay 2006.

For the third time in three years a bunch of evil, sick and deluded extremists have murdered large numbers of innocent people, regardless of age, gender, colour or creed, by planting a wave of bombs on commuter trains.

Nobody has claimed responsibility and as yet there is no proof of who is behind the barbaric murders of at least 183 people yesterday on trains around Bombay. The Indian security services suspect that the bombs may have been an attempt to derail peace talks with Kashmiri separatists.

If the bombs were intended to worsen relations between India and Pakistan, it appears likely that they will fail: President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has strongly condemned the latest attacks, and a statement released by the Pakistani foreign ministry called them a "despicable act of terrorism."

"Terrorism is the bane of our times and it must be condemned, rejected and countered effectively and comprehensively," the statement said. In my opinion anyone who disagrees with that statement needs psychiatric help.

I have huge issues with Tony Blair’s government over many things, and regard the ghastly mishandling of our invasion of Iraq as a terrible failure. However, these attacks in Bombay demonstrate that one criticism of him does not stand up. Since India did not participate in the invasion of Iraq, we can hardly blame their government’s Iraq policy for yesterday’s train bombs. Just as the responsibility for yesterday’s atrocities is with those who planned and executed the bombings, so the responsibility for the 7 July bombs in London is with the suicide bombers and those who incited them or assisted them to carry out these evil and murderous attacks.

Last week, acts of remembrance in London and the rest of Britain demonstrated that terrorism will never break the spirit of the British people and will do nothing but harm to the goals which the bombers thought they were supporting but actually defiled.

The Indian people are a great people and I am certain that they too will prove stronger than the terrorists.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Don't assume our local hospitals are safe

I'm sure most Cumbrians, and everyone else with a local cottage hospital which has been under threat, were very pleased to hear Patricia Hewitt's announcement of a fund with £750 million to support community hospitals. It certainly sounded as though the message that more support for these hospitals is needed was getting through to the government and that action is being taken.

Alas, like many of New Labour's announcements, there is less to this than meets the eye. The problem is that this new fund is purely for CAPITAL projects - e.g. one-off spending such as building new wards, purchase of major new items of equipment, etc. The funding shortfalls which are threatening our Community hospitals are in CURRENT expenditure - ongoing costs like wages, gas water & electricity bills, rates, and so on. There may and probably will be some instances where investment such as putting decent insulation into, or replacing, old buildings may reduce their running costs. But local heath managers have to be pro-active in making those benefits a reality.

Two conclusions from this. First, we should lobby our NHS Trusts to look for ways to bid for this fund for capital projects which will improve the revenue position of our Community Hospitals. Second, we must not assume this means our local hospitals are safe.

Reflections on the Seventh of July

Yesterday is the first anniversary of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Like many people I took two minute’s of silence to remember the innocent people who were murdered a year ago.

It is right that we should commemorate their deaths and the work of all the people, both from the emergency services and passers by who helped, who ensured that the death toll was not much higher. I do not for a moment criticise the formal ceremonies which took place yesterday. But perhaps the most important commemoration of all was that that the tube yesterday morning was as busy as usual.

It is inevitable that people should feed some fear of becoming victims of another such attack. It is right that we should redouble our vigilance and look at how to minimise the risks. I think it was wrong of the government to refuse the calls for a public inquiry into whether anything could have been done better. But it is also important to put the risks of terrorism into their proper context relative to the other risks we face every day. Every time I drive a car on the A595 I am accepting a far higher risk of being killed in a traffic accident than the risk I take when I travel by tube of being blown up by a terrorist.

Terrorism poses threats which we have to deal with. But it is important to strike a balance between the necessary measures to minimise that threat, and those which might themselves imperil the things which make this a country worth defending.

More than two hundred years ago, during another war about freedom, a wise man said that “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” He would have been the first to agree that this includes vigilance against the danger that the very defenders of a free society might themselves imperil it through misplaced zeal. That threat is as real today as the threat from Al-Qaeda.

The people who were murdered a year ago included Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those with no religious faith. The Muslim victims, and everyone else in their communities, were no more and no less the enemies of the sick and deluded men who planned and carried out the bombings as the rest of those affected. But those who worked to save the injured and to keep London going deserve to be remembered long after the bombers are forgotten.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Here we go again ...

According to yesterday’s FT, “Gordon Brown will on Tuesday embark on a new drive to streamline Britain's cumbersome planning rules, seeking to speed up the time planners take to allow companies to develop land.”

The article is headed “Brown in drive to streamline planning” – and apparently he will publish another piece of work by the UK’s leading advocate of putting concrete all over the South of England, economist Kate Barker.

The cynical may assume from the fact that this is coming from Gordon Brown rather than the nominally responsible minister, Ruth Kelly, that this is just part of the Brown for PM campaign. If only I thought this were true – in fact the Treasury was the main driving force behind much of the pro-development pressure which came from the government while Prescott was in charge.

But you have to ask, have these people learned absolutely nothing from the past few years ?

Cut and paste the minister’s names and dates and this could easily be one of the press releases which Lord Falconer and Prescott produced during earlier planning shakeups. Councils are still in the process of adapting to a new planning system based on laws passed over the past few years which were supposed to streamline the system. The promises made when current planning laws were passed were almost identical to what Brown is apparently going to promise again next week.

However, the real effect of the new rules has been to make the system ten times more complicated, to require councils to carry out even more consultation but ignore what people actually tell them during that consultation, and force councils to recruit lots more planning officers to administer the new system.

The headline comments of the FT article suggests that the government still imagines that the speed at which councils determine planning applications is a major hold up to development. I won’t say this is never an issue, but compared to the shortage of land and other mostly genuine planning concerns it is trivial.

Over the past few years the government has both bribed councils with vast amount of extra money to deal with planning applications faster through the “Planning Delivery Grant”, and threatened sanctions up to and including loss of their planning powers against those who don’t. Most councils have responded to this. We’re getting to the stage when both applicants and the Audit Commission are telling councils that they are paying too much attention to the objective of dealing with applications quickly.

Indeed, even Kate Barker recognises that there has been a big change. Her report admits that almost 80 per cent of all planning applications are now decided in eight weeks. She notes that of the 18,000 applications for big developments that were made in 2004-05, 57 per cent were decided in 13 weeks, up from 49 per cent in 1999-2000.

The biggest problem with the planning system is the national planning rules – both those which impose bureaucratic requirements on local planning authoritites and those for the big national infrastructure projects. The government should look at its own contribution to planning delays before it beats up local councils.

Kate Barker is said to believe that we need “a fresh and more flexible approach to policy.” I’d like to suggest one – how about removing most of the restrictions which the government puts on local planning authorities and letting them get it right or wrong on the basis of local democratic choice.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Well done Andy Murray

After a week of fairly disappointing results on the sports field, including England's exit from the World Cup at the hands of Portugal, a country which is one of our oldest allies, many British spirits wer probably lifted by Andy Murray's superb performance at Wimbledon yesterday.

It will be interesting to see how many of the politicians who were trying to climb on the England bandwagon now try to clamber onto Andy Murray's instead.

Anyone who doesn't do tennis jargon should skip ahead two paragraphs for the translation, but for anyone who does follow tennis and was still drowning their sorrows after the England result, here is a recap of Murray's straight sets win against Roddick.

I can't ever recall seeing a British tennis player take apart one of the best players in the world as comprehensively as Murray demolished Roddick yesterday. His victory in straight sets came against one of the most formidable servers in the history of tennis, and Roddick was not playing badly. His famous 150 mph serve was able to win him about twenty aces, and and he won the great majority of points on which his first service was good.

But Murray won a clear majority of points against Roddick's second serve, and held his own service games without much difficulty almost throughout the match. Roddick did not manage to win a single game against Murray's serve in either of the first two sets: when Roddick finally managed one service break in the third set, Murray almost immediately broke back to level the set and went on to win it, and the game, with no sign of nerves or stress.

Here is a translation of the two paragraphs above. Roddick is very good indeed and was playing on form. Murray was better.

I was never a "Henmaniac" but as Andy Murray seems to be taking on the mantle of Britain's leading tennis player, I hope he will be treated better by the British press and public than Tim Henman was. For decades before Tim Henman's first Wimbledon we had not produced a player of anything like his quality or consistency. Year after year every single British singles player went out by at best the third round.

If you had predicted in about 1990 that a British player would soon come along who would be ranked well inside the world top ten and reach four Wimbledon semi finals, nobody would have believed you for a moment. If you had added that the British press and public would pour scorn on that player as a failure because he never actually won Wimbledon, you would have been laughed at.

If Andy Murray can continue to turn out performances like yesterday's, nothing will be beyond him. Sadly it is a safe bet that, because we love to destroy our idols, even if he wins everything in sight, some people will find some excuse to pull him to pieces. I hope I am wrong to make that prediction. Pulling people down is a bloodsport parliament can never make illegal, but we still ought to grow out of it.

Farm Payments progress - and about time too !

I was pleased to learn this week that at least some farmers in Cumbria have had their Single Farm Payment money within the past fortnight. But why did it take so long ?

Obviously it is very good news that the rural payments agency are belatedly pulling their finger out and the money is finally arriving.

However, relief at the fact that this dire problem is at last being addressed should not blind us to the fact that it is disgracefully late. It should have been paid late last year. When other parts of the EU es ran into similar problems and their farmers were forced to scream for help, at least some member countries managed to pay the money by January.

In Britain, for the first two months of this year, farming minister Lord Bach promised categorically that the money would be paid by the end of March.

So the fact that it money was finally handed over in the latter part of June does not really constitute grounds for congratulation. It’s not as if the inland revenue and all the other people demanding money from farmers were prepared to turn round and wait until the Single Farm Payment money had been given out to farmers before insisting on being paid. Many farmers have lost large sums of money in interest on the money they had to borrow to bridge between the two.

I doubt if it is entirely a coincidence that the money finally arrived a few weeks after Margaret Beckett was given different responsibilities. What a pity she was promoted rather than sacked. It has been reported in the press that her reaction on being offered the job of Foreign Secretary was a well known Anglo-Saxon four-letter word. I suspect that this word would be mild by comparison with the profanity which would be inspired if you asked many farmers to describe how they feel about how long they had to wait for their money.

I suspect most farmers will be too busy to be reading this, but if anyone who is reading it knows of farmers who still have not received their Single Farm Payment money I would be interested to hear from you on

David Cameron's new approach to social problems

David Cameron’s tactic for addressing some of the problems facing society by using persuasion is interesting, not least because can be used in opposition rather than just in government.

Over the past couple of decades, whenever it is suggested that there is a problem, we have far too often moved straight to proposing new laws about them.

Media panic about rottweilers and pit bull terriers - pass the dangerous dogs act. We observe some marginal health risk from beef on the bone – so the government bans it. Smoking is a filthy habit which damages people’s health – so more and more laws are brought in to restrict it, to such an extent that we are rapidly approaching the situation where smoking is more tightly restricted than many “soft” drugs.

It goes on. We pass laws designed to restrict terrorists – then find that they can be used to arrest an octogenarian refugee from nazi germany who shouts “nonsense” at the Foreign Secretary or convict a peace protester who turns out to be too near parliament to do so legally when she stands by the Cenotaph while reading out a list of the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

After hundreds of hours of debate in parliament a bill is passed which was supposed to make foxhunting illegal – except that it doesn’t.

A rare example where the House of Commons had an attack of common sense and toned down a restrictive new law was the religious hatred bill – no thanks to the MP for Copeland who said during the election that he didn’t agree with the proposed law, and then when safely elected made his maiden speech in parliament supporting it.

Perhaps the ultimate example of nanny state legislators who who want to use the law to micromanage our lives was the MP who went on the Today programme earlier this year to support a law controlling the temperature of bathwater.

Even in cases of the most serious offences, we need to check the merits of more laws against those of enforcing existing laws more effectively. I am the first to agree that when there are ghastly murders involving guns or knives, we should look at every option including new laws to make our country safer, but far too often it seems that bringing in new laws is the first resort, and asking whether we would have had a better chance of preventing the tragedy by enforcing existing laws properly is an afterthought if it is considered at all.

There is a great deal of debate at the moment about how best to protect children from sex offenders. Like every parent of small children I was horrified by the pictures on the front page of the News of the World showing two convicted sex offenders sitting in a park where young children were playing and apparently filming them. Like, I imagine, many parents in Cumbria I was shocked again to learn that one of these individuals lived in Egremont until he was sent to prison in 2001 after admitting nine charges of raping children. And relieved to hear that he is now back behind bars – having been sentenced to ten years in prison, reduced to eight on appeal, he was released on parole after serving only four years. However, his visit to the park breached the terms of his parole and he has been returned to jail.

We need to think very carefully about how best to protect children from men like this. Passing laws is no use unless the laws are effectively enforced. The same applies to registers of sex offenders – they will only be useful if we make sure everyone is on them who should be, that lists of who is allowed to work with children are properly cross-referenced, and effectively applied, and that dangerous offenders are properly supervised.

Anyway, back to D.C.

The interesting thing about David Cameron’s new approach is that he looks to change the culture rather than propose new laws. There is no suggestion that a Conservative government would pass laws to control what DJs can say on radio one, force fathers to attend their children’s birth, restrict shops on where they can display chocolate or ban them from selling t-shirts with captions like “porn star” to eight year olds. But what David does want to do, and is already starting to do even as leader of the opposition, is to use public debate to change the culture so that people are more likely to choose to act in socially responsible ways.

As someone who is fed up to the back teeth with bureaucracy and the constant creation of new laws and rules, but doesn’t want to move from that extreme to the other extreme and fail to give a damn about genuine problems, I think the Cameron approach is well worth a try.

“He would say that, wouldn’t he” you may ask.

Yes of course I would, but I still think it’s a good argument, and before you move on – do you think that literally dozens of Criminal Justice Bills passed by the present government have worked ? If like most of those who were questioned in recent opinion polls your answer is a resounding NO, perhaps you too should agree that instead of passing yet more laws it might just be time to try something else.

How do we get boys involved in things ?

There are two excellent dance schools in Whitehaven. One of them, the Cowper School of Dance, put on a wonderful display called “Hot Shoes” last weekend for the Whitehaven Lions.

There were a large number of acts involving every age group from very small children, including my son and daughter, to adults.

In the past dancing was largely a mixed activity: sadly it is one of a many activities which no longer seem to have much support from boys. My son was one of only three boys, all very small, who took part last weekend.

Perhaps this is partly a matter of parental support: when parents were invited to the dress rehearsal for “Hot Shoes” I only saw about half a dozen other fathers who were there (compared with scores of mums.) It’s only fair to qualify this comment by saying it was not reflected in the audience at the actual performances – there were plenty of dads and other male relatives at these, including the Sunday afternoon which partly clashed with the England v Ecuador match.

In some cases activities which logically ought to work perfectly as mixed activities only seem to survive amongst boys when they are kept as a male preserve. Church choirs are the classic example – I can fully understand why women and girls want to a chance to take part in church music, and support their right to do so, yet I don’t know of a church choir which has gone mixed and has not eventually lost the boys.

Both mixed and male voice choirs can be wonderful to listen to and take part in, and perhaps we need to find a way to keep each of them (and perhaps female voice choirs to balance things – though they might have trouble finding tenors and basses.)

Perhaps the problem is an indirect consequence of a media and politically correct culture which constantly attacks and ridicules men. Most adult males are confident enough to be able to deal with it, but a lot of boys respond by labelling mixed or female-majority interests, or anything which appears to be feminised, as “sissy” and refusing to have anything to do with them. And that is a shame, as both the next generation of men and women will be in danger of missing out on some worthwhile things as a result.