Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Save our hospital - watch the PFI Costs

Part of the financial burden which may be contributing to the threat to the West Cumberland Hospital is the cost of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme at Carlisle. The new hospital in Carlisle actually cost £67 million to build but over the next 30 years the NHS will have to pay £600 million in interest and running costs. This information comes from the government answers to parliamentary questions tabled by the shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley MP.

I must stress that I am not against the principle of using private finance to help fund public projects. Both this government and the last one have done it. But whoever is in power must try to make sure that the taxpayer gets good value for money. We need an audit of PFI schemes to see whether they are providing facilities in the most cost-effective way. An essential part of the campaign to defend hospital services at the West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, Keswick Hospital, and all the other threatened hospitals in Cumbria must be to use money wisely.

When vandals strike ...

Yesterday and today, special arrangements have had to be made at Garden Fields school, where I was an LEA governor for 16 years and am still an associate governor, to get the children into the school after vandals burnt down a shed on the school site, creating a hazard. For the rest of this week, both Garden Fields and the adjacent St Albans Music School will have to be closed while the damage is cleared - resulting in the cancellation of a special event at the music school for which a lot of work had been done.

So the firebugs, whoever they are, have ruined the week for several hundred children. It is absolutely infuriating.

The police will never be able to have enough people to solve every crime but we do need to take some of the burden of administration and regulation away so they can spend less time on trivial issues and paperwork and more on solving crimes that matter. And we must make sure that sentences are sharp enough to provide an effective deterrent.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Save Our Hospital - March on 9th December

There will be a march in support of the West Cumberland on Saturday 9th December in Whitehaven. Further details in the Whitehaven News. Please put this date in your diary it is very important that we campaign hard to keep our hospital services.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Save our hospital - where the money is going

It is extremly strange that when such vast amounts of money are being extracted from taxpayers, and a large proportion of it earmarked for the NHS, that hospitals such as the West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, and Keswick Hospital are under threat because of lack of funding.

One part of the explanation is the bureaucracy required to operate Labour's 400 NHS targets. Most of the people taken on by the NHS since Labour came to power were administrative staff rather than doctors or nurses, and the NHS now has more estates and administrative people than beds.

But another problem is the ghastly failure to manage PFI contracts properly.

Let me be clear on what I am and am not saying. Both Labour and Conservative governments have sought to obtain private money for the NHS and there is nothing wrong with the principle of this. However, it must be managed, whoever is in government, in a way which is good value for the taxpayer. And that is not happening.

Replies by the government to parliamentary questions asked by Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley have revealed that over the next 30 years the National Health Service will have to pay private sector contractors £53 billion for hospitals worth only £8 billion.

There must be a full investigation into why this is costing so much and whether better value for money can be obtained so that the resouces are available for patient care.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Save our Hospital continued

The future of West Cumberland Hospital is still the subject of a great deal of controversy.

It does appear that the report by the management consultants Gibson, Freake and Edge, who suggest that retaining two Acute hospitals in North Cumbria is "unaffordable" has not yet become the policy of the NHS trusts. However, if we sit back and do nothing, there is every chance that it could.

It has not escaped campaigners for the Community Hospitals in Cumbria, such as those in Millom and Keswick, that they are also still in jeopardy. There are a number of reasons for this: one of the main ones is Gordon Brown's budget controls. Another is that too much of the money given to the NHS is going on administration - most of the jobs taken on in the NHS in the past nine years have been administrative rather than medical staff. The NHS has more estates and admin staff than beds and is taking on managers even while it is making nurses redundant. If we scrapped most of Labour's 400 NHS targets we could redeploy some of those resources to front line patient care and there would be less threat to our hospitals.

The people of Cumbria need to campaign for all our local hospitals - or we risk losing them.

When clever people do stupid things - reprise

Prior to the recent post on devolution which touched off an absolute flurry of comment, the highest level of response I had to a post on this blog was to an item called "When clever people do stupid things" which pointed out that mistakes by clever people can do a lot more damage then less eminent individuals are ever given a chance to do.

This week the case which inspired that article was in the news again, and demonstrated the way that we are far too ready to tolerate an inability to understand numbers where we would never find acceptable equivalent consequences caused by, say, the inability to read.

My original article was inspired by Professor Sir Roy Meadow, who was one of the most eminent paediatricians in the country, but whose knowledge of statistics, and particularly of conditional probability, was so poor that it would have been disappointing in a V former reading Stats O level and grounds for disciplinary action in a VI former studying the statistics part of Maths A level.

Sir Roy gave evidence as an expert witness in the trial of a number of women whose children had died and who were accused of murdering them. Unfortunately, because of his enormous expertise in the area of child health, at least two juries accepted at face value statements which he made about the probability of a family losing two or more children to cot death which were provably nonsense. In consequence of Sir Roy's incompetence with statistics, at least two women who were almost certainly innocent were wrongly convicted of murder.

Sir Roy was the main culprit, but he was not the only one. The defence lawyers should have challenged his statistics. The jurors should have realised that his expertise in medicine did not guarantee expertise in maths. But above all, our society is too ready to both to tolerate bad statistics unless we have good reason to want to disbelieve them, and to reject good statistical data which does not fit our preconceptions. This particular case, where innocent women were sent to jail because of bad statistics, is an extreme one but it is far from being the only case.

Another example where medical experts were not able to give accurate advice about statistics, this time from the United States, is one of the many excellent examples given by Professor Joel Best in his superb book "More Damned Lies and Statistics." He quotes the figures for breast cancer screening among American women in their forties who had no other symptoms. About 0.8% of such women do in fact have breast cancer. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability that a mammogram result will be positive is 90%. If she does not, the probability is 93% that the mammagram will come out negative.

In a study 24 doctors were given these figures and asked, if a woman has a positive mammagram, what is the probability that she actually has breast cancer. Only 2 out of the 24 doctors got it right: two thirds of them were not just wrong, but way out.

(The correct answer, by the way, is 9%. If an American woman has a negative test result, it is very likely indeed that this result is correct. If the tests says that a woman does not have breast cancer, the chance that she really does have it is less than one in a thousand. However, if the test is positive the chances are almost ten to one that it is a false alarm. This does not mean that screening is not worth doing: it means that the correct response to a positive test is more tests, not the assumption that the test is correct.)

When it became clear that basic errors in statistics were resulting in innocent women being sent to jail for murders which never happened, the General Medical Council took disciplinary action against Sir Roy Meadow, and he was struck off the medical register.

Sir Roy appealed to the High Court, who reversed the decision, ruling that expert witnesses should be immune from disciplinary action, that Sir Roy's evidence did not constitute serious professional misconduct. This decision in turn was appealed to the Appeal Court, who came to a far more balanced decision this week.

The Appeal Court found that Sir Roy was undoubtedly guilty of some professional misconduct, but they did not consider that it was sufficiently serious for striking him off the medical register to be a proportionate penalty. This is an interesting view, because I am sure it caused him a lot less suffering than he caused the two women who were wrongly convicted of murder and sent to prison on the basis of his testimony. But I can accept that everyone makes mistakes, and since he was not the only person to blame for what happened he should not be the only scapegoat.

The Appeal court quashed, however, the ruling that expert witnesses had immunity from disciplinary action. I think the Appeal court was wise to do so. Everyone makes honest mistakes, but if someone is so careless of the truth as to be negligent, and that negligence causes a miscarriage of justice, they should be accountable for their actions.

And regardless of the question of whether Sir Roy should have been struck off, we really should learn lessons from this about the importance of training people to understand statistics. In law, for instance I am coming to the conclusion that passing a good stats course should be a mandatory requirement for barristers to qualify. And every jury room should have copies available to the jury of the following three books:

"How to lie with statistics" by Mel Calman
"Damned Lies and Statistics" by Joel Best
"More Damned Lies and Statistics" by Joel Best.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Save our hospital - now the acute trust comments

It is increasingly clear that there is indeed a serious threat to local hospital services in West Cumbria and we need to start campaigning NOW if we want to keep the service we need.

Two further developments in respect of the future of hospital services in West Cumbria.

The Chief Executive of the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority Dr Ian Roxburgh, has spoken in the strongest possible terms about the need to retain an acute hospital in West Cumbria. As he rightly points out, it would be totally unacceptable if the nearest acute hospital to the Sellafield site were in Carlisle. In his words the need for the hospital is "absolutely fundamental" and he added that he has arranged for a presentation from the trust to the NDA board.

Meanwhile the Acute Services NHS trust and PCT still maintain that they will "provide a new hospital in West Cumbria."

Marie Burnham, chief executive of the North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, made the following joint statement with Alan Horne, chief operating officer of the new Cumbria Primary Care Trust.

“Cumbria Primary Care Trust is looking to develop a whole system solution to the delivery of healthcare across Cumbria which is both clinically sustainable and financially affordable.

“The Gibson, Freake and Edge report was commissioned to look at and examine any implications of developing and modernising healthcare under this whole system solution process given the rurality of Cumbria.

“North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust has always maintained it will provide a new hospital in West Cumbria and is currently developing proposals for this within the context of the whole system solution. Full public and staff consultation will be carried out during this process.”

This statement sounds at first very reassuring, but "A new hospital" without the words "acute" or "District General" is in fact potentially compatible with any of the three options in the Gibson, Freake and Edge report, which were

Option 1: Status Quo (ie continue as at the moment with two district general hospitals – the West Cumberland Hospital and the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle). But this is said to be unaffordable.

Option 2: One acute hospital for the whole of North Cumbria with community support and some “pick and mix” services. This is said to be affordable.

Option 3: One acute hospital with a smaller hospital unit and community support. This is also said to be affordable.

Like Dr Roxborough, I am completely convinced that any option which does not include an acute hospital in West Cumbria, preferably no further north than Whitehaven, is totally unacceptable. Since the trusts have acknowledged the existence of the Gibson, Freake and Edge report, and have not denied the story of what options it contains, we can take it that the report given to the local press was accurate.

It is equally clear both that this report is not yet Trust policy, but the possibility that it may become the policy of the trust cannot be ruled out. The people of West Cumbria need to start campaigning now to ensure this does not happen.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Save Our Hospital - continued

As explained yesterday the Whitehaven News has a front page story about a management consultant's report for the "Whole Service Review" by the PCT which appears to suggest three options for the future of West Cumberland Hospital. The report apparently describes the status quo option as "unaffordable" and puts forward two other options either of which mean that we would lose an acute hospital in North Cumbria, presumably the West Cumberland.

No explanation yet of how this squares with the parliamentary answer by the junior health minister, Rosie Winterton, that the "Whole service review" will develop proposals for a new acute hospital in Whitehaven. It will be interesting to see what answer the trusts come up with next week. In the meantime anyone who cares about the local health service in Copeland needs to watch this situation like a hawk.

Local Government - here we go again

About six months ago, the government was dropping strong hints that they were about to propose the creation of Unitary authorities replacing the County and District level of government with a single tier of government, and that the May 2007 council elections would be cancelled, with elections to new unitary authorities in 2008 instead. They then got cold feet, and the window for legislation to carry out such a change on that timescale passed with no announcement.

Now Ruth Kelly has come forward for consultation with further ideas to reorganise local government, which include the option that authorities which want to make a case for Single Tier councils can do so.

There are some major advantages for single tier councils if it is done properly, and when the last Conservative government gave councils a similar opportunity I was in favour of replacing both counties and districts with single tier authorities which would be significantly larger than most existing districts but significantly smaller than most existing counties. However, attempting to achieve a local consensus on how big the authorities should be and what the boundaries should be proved incredibly difficult. Ironically at that time my district council and most of those in that county were in favour of going unitary whereas the county was against and lobbied successfully for the status quo: this evening on Border TV we had the leader of Cumbria County council arguing for unitary status and a district leader arguing against. These battles almost always go accross party lines (as they did tonight.)

If there is consensus for a change in any part of the country, that change should be allowed to happen. But given that the previous government introduced Unitary authorites in those areas where it had support - which effectivly meant re-introducing county borough status for a number of medium-size cities like Bristol - I think the government will find that most of those areas where there is an appetite for Unitary councils have already adopted them. The same goes for directly elected mayors - where people want their council to have a directly elected chief executive, they have already gone for such a system under the previous round of legislation.

Ruth Kelly made a facile comparison of Cumbria and Sheffield, pointing out that for similar populations Cumbria has vastly more councillors and executive members. This ignores the obvious point that Cumbria covers a vastly larger geographical area: it takes hours to get from one end of this county to another.

Both I and many other councillors will have to spend a lot of time reading the documents which came out today before we can reach any decisions on whether changes to the structures of our councils will make them more democratic and effective. But bearing in mind how many times council services have already been reorganised in the past two decades, it is for anyone who wants yet another change to prove the case. I suspect that today's proposals from the government may prove to be a damp squib.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Save our Hospitals - the plot thickens

The following parliamentary question was asked at the same time that the Whitehaven News was putting together a story based on information from a source inside the North Cumbria NHS, that a report for a "Whole service review" recommends that the keeping two acute hospitals in North Cumbria is "unaffordable."

Question from Jamie Reed (Copeland, Labour)

"To ask the Secretary of State for Health what progress has been made on the provision of a new acute hospital in Whitehaven."

Reply from Rosie Winterton (Minister of State, Department of Health)

"North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust is currently developing proposals for a new acute hospital in Whitehaven in the context of the whole system review of health services in Cumbria. The North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust expects to carry out public consultation on the new hospital early in 2007."

So we have two apparently diametrically opposed statements coming out on the same day, though both refer to the "Whole Systems Review."

However, one appears to be based on information from the PCT and the other from the Acute Services trust. Is not possible that the PCT has not yet shared the report with the Acute Services Trust ?

There are three possible explanations. The first that the information given to the local newpaper by a source inside the local NHS is wrong. But what would be the point. The second is that Rosie Winterton's information came from the Acute Services Trust and those who supplied it were not aware of the management consultant's report which the story in tomorrow's Whitehaven News will describe.

Look again at the exact wording of the parliamentary answer and you can see a third possible explanation: the answer appears to suggest that a new acute hospital is on the cards, but how categorical is it? Could it be that we are seeing just another dose of spin?

I don't think we can take anything for granted.



I learned today that the threat to the future of West Cumberland Hospital is even more serious than we had feared.

Anyone reading this who has any interest in the future of health services in West Cumbria should make sure you get a copy of the Whitehaven News tomorrow (26th October) as they will have more detail.

I am advised that the Whitehaven News have been told that the Primary Care Trusts for North (and West) Cumbria have brought in a firm of management consultants called "Gibson, Freak, and Edge" to prepare an analysis called a "Whole Systems Review." This analysis considers three options: the first, which keeps two acute hospitals (at Carlisle and in West Cumberland) is regarded by the consultants as "unaffordable." It appears that both the two options which they do consider affordable would involve Whitehaven losing our district general hospital, and it would not be replaced by an equivalent acute hospital in West Cumberland.

I should stress that I am describing an unconfirmed report about a confidential document which does not as yet necessarily represent the policy of the PCT. That does not mean that we can afford to ignore it. This report fits too closely with other accounts I keep hearing from a variety of sources within our local hospitals and the administration of local NHS trusts.

Even things which seem good - like the proposed new Diagnoistic unit - may have the effect of taking services away from the West Cumberland hospital and reducing it below the critical mass of staff and activities required to fuction as a District General Hospital. Services like Accident and Emergency cannot be maintained in isolation from other services like intensive care, cardiac & orthopaedics services: neither can a maternity unit.

If the people of West Cumbria want to keep decent hospital services it looks like we will have to campaign to make sure this report does not become trust policy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Labour Headline Competition

A headline in The Times today has inspired me to run a competition on this blog over the next two weeks.

The headline was "Iraq war could be judged a disaster, Beckett admits."

So I challenge anyone who wants to take part to submit similar headlines consisting of a statement of the blindingly obvious with an appropriate Labour minister or former minister admitting that things could be seen that way. You can send me an entry by putting down a comment or at chris4copeland@btinternet.com

The funniest entry sent to me by 4th November will win a prize, details to follow,

Some suggested examples to set off your imagination ...

"Taxing pension funds by an extra £5 billion a year could be judged to have left them with less money, Brown admits."

"Claiming that your communications officer has resigned when he hasn't could be called 'lying', Byers admits."

"Telling students that you won't introduce student tuition fees or top-up fees, and then doing so, could be judged a broken promise, Johnson admits."

"Telling prison governors to shoot their inmates could be called 'Bonkers', Blunkett admits."

"My relations with Gordon Brown have sometimes appeared to be less than cordial, Blair admits."

"As minister for council tax, people might have expected me to pay my own, Prescott admits."

"Hinting at peerages in exchange for donations of millions of pounds to Labour party funds might be seen as unethical, Blair admits."

"Not everyone agrees that the NHS has had its best ever year, Hewitt admits."

Any more ?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Celebrating the abolition of the Slave Trade

I was pleased to see that David Cameron and the Bishop of Liverpool will be attending an event next spring organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship to hold an event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the vote to abolish the slave trade.

I have some sympathy with those - including Copeland council - who feel that the best way to make the point that slavery is so wrong that we should apologise for the role our ancestors played in it. But I personally think it is important to make the point in a positive way by including a celebration of those like William Wilberforce who fought to bring an end to slavery.

Oh, and I would have left out this point had not Gordon Brown and John Prescott implied to the contrary, but Wilberforce was not a left-winger fighting against Conservatives for the abolition of slavery.

Wilberforce, an independent MP, was a close friend of Tory prime minister William Pitt, and was supported by him. At one stage when Wilberforce was ill, Pitt stood in for him and moved a motion for an investigation into slavery on Wilberforce's behalf. The coalition government of "All the Talents" which finally manged to get the act to ban the slave trade through both houses of parliament included Tory ministers and would never have been able to get the measure through either house without a significant degree of Tory support.

Treating human beings as property to be bought and sold was a terrible practice of which people of all races were guilty for thousands of years. By all means let us make the point that people in this country, including some organisations such as the church which should have known better, profited from this vile institution.

But let us make at least as much fuss in celebration of those who fought for emancipation. We can be proud that our parliament was one of the first, if not the first, to vote to bring an end to slavery. We should be proud of the fact that the Royal Navy of this country hunted down and stopped the slavers. Britain did as much as any country - and far more than most - to bring about the situation where the transatlantic slave trade is history.

Mind you, we cannot afford to be complacent, even today. Consider the status of young women, mostly from Eastern Europe who have been tricked into coming to this country and coerced into working in the sex industry. If slavery is not the right word to describe their situation, I don't know what is. One of the best things we could do to celebrate the end of the transatlantic slave trade would be a crackdown on the sex industry slave trade, one organised in a way which hits the organisers and not the victims.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

We're not dead yet !

Much soul-searching on Conservative Home over a report by the "Unlock Democracy" campaign which was reported as saying that the Conservative Party has "died off" in the north of England. (The actual words used were that the Conservatives "barely exist" in the North based on membership figures - although there were similar challenging comments about Lib/Dem and Labour support in many areas of the country.

I would like to see a wider range of people taking more part in politics in all three political parties. One of the things which I like about David Cameron is that he has tried to open up the Conservatives to a wider range of new blood, and although this has unfortunately sometimes been taken as an attack on the existing membership and on those people on the candidates list who happen to be white males, it is quite possible to try to bring in more new blood without wanting to devalue the contribution of those we already have. We want more people involved, not different people.

And it certainly has not been my experience since returning to the North West two years ago that the Conservative party has "died off" here. I'd like to see us win more parliamentary seats, but we have very large numbers of councillors and a lot of very good people.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again

I wonder to what extend those who promoted the new Child seat law have thought through the likely consequences?

I am not against the principle of encouraging child seats: my children have always had them and always used them for the vast majority of journeys including all long or motorway journeys.

However, there are a certain number of instances where insisting on using child seats forces you to make extra journeys, use a second car, or leave someone behind. Since the law came in, it has had no effect on the majority of our journeys because we would have used a child seat anyway, but on the two exceptions, we had to make a second journey once, and choose between taking a second car, or leaving a family member behind on a local outing on the other occasion.

I suspect that a likely consequence of the new law is that there will be pressure on some families with children to get a bigger car, while others will have a greater number of car journeys as the parents have to make two round trips or take a second car. Hence any safety improvement from this law has to be offset against the probability that it will lead to more and larger vehicles on the road.

A classic case of the law of unintended consequences !

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A quote from Keynes

I had occasion during a recent thread on this blog to quote from John Maynard Keynes in response to Paul Newman from Islington, whose blog Islington Newmania I can recommend here.

Obviously I do not share Keynes' political views - he was a Liberal. And the "neo Keynsian" system of economics which is associated with him, though in fact it was mainly the work of an economist called Hicks, had some success in the 1950's and early 60's but ceased to work effectively after that.

Of course, Keynes' work influenced many economists other than just the neo-Keynsians - no less a monetarist than Professor Milton Friedman once said "We are all Keynesians now."

Two ideas of Keynes in particular will last longer than any particular system of economic thought. His famous saying that "in the long run we are all dead" will undoubtedly be remembered, mostly by those who forget the context.

He also wrote a brilliant passage at the end of his book, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" about how ideas can live on and influence people long after the people who inspired those ideas are dead and after the circumstances which gave rise to their opinions have ceased to be relevant. One great irony is that this happened to some of his own ideas, and to observations he made which were true in his lifetime but no longer are. But the passage from his "General Theory" deserves to be better known: here it is.

"The ideas of economists and of political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so tha the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

Friday, October 20, 2006

Livingston: a judge gets it right

There are times when I am reminded to be very grateful that we still live in a country with an independent judiciary. From time to time our judges manage to display that rarest of qualities - common sense.

The judgement quashing the suspension of Ken Livingston as Mayor of Longon was right. The judge responsible correctly pointed out that Ken Livingston's remarks comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard were foolish and that the Mayor should have apologised. He added that Ken Livingston had brought himself into disrepute.

But since the remarks were made when as Livingston was leaving a private party in the evening, and quite clearly "off duty", the judge ruled that it was not proven that he had brought his office as Mayor into disprepute. His suspension was disproportionate and was therefore quashed.

Let me make clear that I do not for one millisecond defend what Ken Livingston said. Comparing a journalist to a concentration camp guard was tasteless and anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would have apologised when he was told that the person concerned was Jewish. Livingston's behaviour fell short of what people in public life should aspire to.

But what kind of robot has never said anything stupid in their life? Suspending someone from their job because they make a spectacularly tactless comment on their way home from a party takes us towards 1984 - and if anyone is to punish Ken Livingston for that, it should be the voters of London at the next mayoral elections.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Big Thank you to West Cumberland Hospital

My Mother-in-law is now back at home having spent a couple of days in the West Cumberland Hospital following a nasty fall outside our house in Whitehaven. We are full of praise for everyone who helped with her treatment, from the paramedics who arrived within 5 minutes to perform emergency first aid, to the doctors and nurses at the A and E and at Jenkin Ward. My in-laws described the staff at the West Cumberland as the friendliest hospital staff they had ever met.

We are very fortunate to have such a good hospital in Whitehaven with friendly professional and caring staff. It is very important that the changes currently under consideration both to the Cumbria Ambulance service and our local hospitals do not interfere with the ability of the NHS to respond to emergency calls in West Cumbria so quickly and to provide such a good service overall.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Afghanistan is not Iraq

One extreme irony in the reaction to General Sir Richard Dannatt's comments concerns the differences between our position in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to sources in the ministry of defence, the intention of Sir Richard's interview was to defend Britain's role in Afghanistan. What caused the uproar was that he made a number of distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq - and of course, the Mail was able to turn these distinctions around, without seriously misrepresenting the general, so that what was intended as support for Britain's role in Afghanistan became by implication criticism of our role in Iraq.

The irony is that this has been taken as support by those who criticise our role in Afghanistan as well as those who, on far stronger grounds, criticise the conduct of British policy in Iraq.

A major part of the problems facing our troops is that following the defence cuts of recent years we are in danger of overstretching ourselves trying to take on our present roles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to find a dignified and honourable way to help the Iraqi government take over responsibility for their country as soon as practical, and I am pleased that in the aftermath of Sir Richard's comments Tony Blair says that he recognises this.

But the situation in Afghanistan is completely different and it is about time people stopped drawing false parallels with Iraq.

First of all, while every attempt by a foreign power to conquer Afghanistan has failed, that is not what we are doing there.

We invaded Iraq in 2003, but in 2001 the Taliban attacked us. And don't let anyone tell you that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were just an attack on the USA - it was an attack on the whole of the West and it killed more British citizens than any single attack by the IRA or any other terrorist group.

While our position in terms of international law in Iraq is borderline, in Afghanistan it was rock solid. The action of the Taleban in sheltering those responsible for 9/11 was a valid legal casus belli for action against them if ever there was one, and we had UN support.

The other distinction is that where in Iraq, as Sir Richard put it, we "kicked the door down" in Afghanistan we overthrew the Taliban mainly by providing assistance to rival indigenous forces who were already at war with them. We were then asked to provide troops and assistance to help support an elected government which has as close to a genuine popular mandate as could reasonably be expected given the state of the country.

None of this meant to back away from the need to recognise the extreme challenges facing our troops in Afghanistan: we need to recognise that they must be given a realistic mission and the necessary force and equipment to accomplish it.

Two of the most important and difficult responsibilities of a British Prime minister are to know when to send our soldiers, sailors and airmen into danger, and when not to. Both anyone who supported every single military action ordered by a British government over the last thirty years, and anyone who did not support any, should ask themselves whether that support/opposition is based on a real assessment of the facts, or on an automatic reaction.

People who will never be in power can afford the luxury of pacifistic objection to any military action, or jingoistic support for any war. Those who have, or credibly aspire to have, responsibility for Britain's security, cannot afford either of these luxuries.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Support our local Ambulance service

I had reason today to be extremely grateful for the efficiency and professionalism of staff at both the Cumbria Ambulance service and West Cumberland hospital.

An elderly member of my family suffered a nasty fall outside our house today, and hurt herself sufficiently badly that I called 999. The paramedics were there in at most five minutes, did an excellent job of initial first aid, and took her to the West Cumberland A&E. She is being now being very well looked after on one of the wards at the West Cumberland, which she described to me this afternoon as the friendliest hospital she has ever been in.

Thank God we currently have a hospital somewhere much nearer than Carlisle, an efficient ambulance service, and excellent people working in both. I suggest that all residents of West Cumbria should look very carefully indeed at both at the proposals for our local ambulance service which were covered in the Whitehaven News this week and at the future of our local hospital services, and be ready to campaign to make sure these local services are maintained.

Trick or Treat - Jumping the Gun ?

Is it just Whitehaven, or have children througout the country started making "trick or treat" calls ridiculously early ?

It is still more than two weeks to Halloween. Yet we have just had our fourth knock on the door from children saying "trick or treat."

Personally I rather regret that the traditional British "Penny for the Guy" request from children at this time of year has been driven out by the American "Trick or Treat" import, but it's a waste of time for adults to try impose our tastes on children. However, one thing we really ought to stand up against is allowing traditions which are acceptable on one night in the year to extend until they become a thorough nuisance over a period of weeks.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone reading this from other parts of the country whether this plague of premature "trick or treaters" is a wider phenomenen or limited to Whitehaven.

Friday, October 13, 2006

General consternation

The new chief of the Army staff has caused some consternation in the political world by suggesting that we need to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible - which has widely been interpreted as denouncing government policy. General Sir Richard Dannatt is quoted as saying that he thought UK troops "exacerbated" security problems and should withdraw "sometime soon".

Tony Blair has cleverly moved to reduce the tension by stating that he agreed with everything that the general said. I don't find this completely convincing, but to be fair, Sir Richard did not say that we should pull out tomorrow and I thought his comments were within the range of opinions which a mature democracy ought to be able to tolerate from the head of a public service without the roof falling in.

The most interesting thing is that serving soldiers and military personnel, especially those who actually have experience of Iraq, appear to have been flooding internet comment pages with statements of support for Sir Richard.

We need to create as soon as possible the situation where the elected government of Iraq can manage their own security without the need for us to be there. I'm not saying this can be done overnight, but I think Sir Richard is right that it is in both our own interests and those of the people of Iraq to get there as soon as possible.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A further Digital TV update

Some more points about the forthcoming Digital TV switchover were raised at this week's Bransty and Harbour ward forum, and also at a recent meeting with Copeland councillors.

A map has been issued by Digital UK showing which parts of Copeland will be affected by the Digital Switchover in September to October next year when the Bigrigg and Gosforth transmitters and the "self help" transmitters stop broadcasting analogue TV signals.

According to the map, small areas around Parton and St Bees, and a larger area in the South of the Borough from Haverigg and Millom to Duddon Bridge, will not go Digital until 2009 when the signal from Caldbeck changes over. The transmitters at Parton and St Bees are re-broadcasting the Caldbeck signal.

However, the point was made at the Bransty forum, and by Copeland councillors, that a lot of homes in the north of Whitehaven have their TV aeriel pointed at the Parton transmitter rather than the Bigrigg one. My contacts in the industry locally also tell me that a number of houses in the higher parts of south Whitehaven such as Kells are able to point their aerials directly at Caldbeck, and many do. So it looks like the current map showing which areas will be affected next year may not be accurate.

This does emphasise the point I was making a few days ago, that more two-way communication is needed between Digital UK and DCMS and the local installers, and that communication needs to to pay more relative attention to the engineering issues rather than PR issues, trading standards and H&S issues.

Spotting a Stroke

Most information circulated in chain emails is rubbish. Very occasionally you get one which does appear to have some potentially useful information, although spam emails are probably not the best way to spread it.

If someone has either a stroke, or a heart attack, identifying what has happened and getting medical help promptly can make a huge difference to their chances of survival and subsequent quality of life if they do survive. So it is not surprising that some of the chain emails flying around cyberspace have been on how to survive a heart attack or identify when someone you are with has had a stroke.

While it has not been officially endorsed, there is some evidence based on reputable research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, on a small study, to support the advice which has recently been circulating in chain emails with titles like “How to spot a stroke”, or “A simple test for stroke.” These obviously originated in the USA – there is a reference to calling 911 (the US equivalent of 999.)

On checking the facts behind these emails I found that the American Stroke Association has issued a statement which is reproduced at the bottom of this post.

The original draft of this post simply quoted the statement: I am not a medical professional or expert and it seemed simpler to repeat the words of those who are rather than put my own "spin" on it.

However, I've since had some verbal feedback that readers were very unclear about whether my blog entry was intended to endorse "The Smile Test" or oppose it. And on re-reading the American Stroke Association press statement I can see how that confusion arises. The problem can be summarised in one word - lawyers.

Ambulance-chasing lawyers have a lot to answer for, and even more in the states than here. Bodies like the ASA have to bear in mind that if they give advice based on any evidence which is less than overwhelming, someone follows it, and the patient still dies there is a strong possibility that they will get sued. So statements by such bodies have to be hedged around with qualifications to make it harder to bring a legal action against them them. Unfortunately such language often also makes them harder to stand.

Essentially the ASA statement is saying that the research quoted in the chain emails really did take place and really did have the results described, but they have not taken a position for or against "The Smile Test" because this evidence is based on a small sample. So it may be worth trying these three tests but you should not take the results as Gospel. The officially recognised warning signs that someone may have suffered a stroke, and which you should look out for, are as follows:

* Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body

* Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding

* Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

* Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

* Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

and if you experience those symptoms, or someone else does, call 999.

The full text of the ASA statement is as follows.

"The American Stroke Association does not endorse “The Smile Test,” also known as “a simple test for stroke,” – which was widely distributed through emails.

The facts: A scientific poster presented at the 2003 International Stroke Conference titled “Untrained Adults Can Identify Symptoms of Stroke by Directed Use of the Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale” suggested that asking three questions could help bystanders identify a stroke:

Ask the individual to smile

Ask him or her to raise both arms

Ask the person to speak a simple sentence coherently.

This presentation by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine was one of 450 presentations made at the conference hosted by the American Stroke Association. The poster showed positive results but was a very small study. The research was funded by a grant from the American Stroke Association. However, the American Stroke Association has not taken a position on this topic nor endorsed this test.

Stroke warning signs are:

Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body

Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding

Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience symptoms. Time lost is brain lost.

One version of the chain e-mail reads:


During a BBQ a friend stumbled and took a little fall - she assured everyone that she was fine (they offered to call paramedics) and just tripped over a brick because of her new shoes. They got her cleaned up and got her a new plate of food - while she appeared a bit shaken up,

Ingrid went about enjoying herself the rest of the evening. Ingrid's husband called later telling everyone that his wife had been taken to the hospital - (at 6:00pm, Ingrid passed away.) She had suffered a stroke at the BBQ - had they known how to identify the signs of a stroke perhaps Ingrid would be with us today.

It only takes a minute to read this-

Recognizing a Stroke

----- A neurologist says that if he can get to a stroke victim within hours he can totally reverse the effects of a stroke...totally. He said the trick was getting a stroke recognized, diagnosed an getting to the patient within 3 hours which is tough.


Thank God for the sense to remember the "3" steps. Read and Learn!

Sometimes symptoms of a stroke are difficult to identify.

Unfortunately, the lack of awareness spells disaster. The stroke victim may suffer brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.

Now doctors say a bystander can recognize a stroke by asking three simple questions:

1. *Ask the individual to SMILE.

2. *Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS.

3. *Ask the person to SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE (Coherently) (i.e. . . It is sunny out today) If he or she has trouble with any of these tasks, call 9-1-1 immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

After discovering that a group of non-medical volunteers could identify facial weakness, arm weakness and speech problems, researchers urged the general public to learn the three questions. They presented their conclusions at the American Stroke Association's annual meeting last February. Widespread use of this test could result in prompt diagnosis and treatment of the stroke and prevent brain damage."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A fairer system after devolution

It is accepted by most impartial observers, including those who support devolution, that the manner in which the Labour government set up the Scots Parliament and Welsh Assembly made a complete dog's breakfast of the UK constituion. The system we currently have may be politically convenient for the Labour party, but it is neither a proper federal system nor a proper unitary one. Injustices towards Scotland have been replaced by a worse injustice towards England.

An extreme example of a totally unacceptable and undemocratic outcome under present arrangements was the imposition of Top-Up tuition fees on English students. It was bad enough that this was a flagrant breach of Labour's election promises, but what made matters even worse was that this measure would have been defeated if it had been put to a vote of the MPs representing the area affected.

Top-up fees for English students scraped through by five votes with the help of most of Labour's MPs from Scotland, for whose own constituents the Scottish parliament had made different arrangements to collect an equivalent payment to tuition fees and on whom they had decided not to impose Top-up fees. Those Scottish MPs responsible for this outrage have certainly had their revenge with interest for the early imposition of the Poll Tax in Scotland.

So the question is, what do you do about it? One answer is an English Parliament. Well, I have been and remain totally against yet another layer of politicians. However, I am not against having the MPs already elected for England sit as a body to deal with those issues which in Scotland and Wales have been delegated to the devolved assemblies.

This is sometimes called "English votes for English laws" - I am not entirely happy with that expression as it sounds a bit nationalistic. I have no problem whatsoever with MPs for Scotland voting on English laws provided they are voting at the same time on the law for their own constituents so that there is no problem of power without accountability. (This is sometimes known as the "West Lothian Question" because Tam Dalyell first raised it when he was MP for West Lothian.)

There is already a framework for issues to be delegated in the House of Commons to a committee, and a precedent for committees consisting of all the MPs representing part of the UK (e.g. the Scottish Grand Committee.) If the Welsh assembly and Northern Ireland assembly had the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, to use this system to balance the constitution would be quite straightforward. You simply set up an English Grand Committee consisting of all the MPs representing English seats and delegate to it all the powers which were devolved to Edinburgh under the legislation which recreated the Scottish parliament.

While the devolved assemblies have different powers -a situation which is nearly as anomalous as the current treatment of England - the solution may be slightly more complex: you would need several different Grand Committees, e.g. an English Grand committee to deal with powers which have gone to devolved bodies everywhere else, an "England, Wales and Northern Ireland" body for powers which have only been devolved to Scotland, and so on.

A much simpler and more cost effective approach, but one which might be harder to get through because of the vested interests which would oppose it, would be to have the whole House of Commons sit in Westminister a certain number of weeks each month to deal with UK business, and then break up into national components sitting in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and an appropriate English venue for the remainder of the month to deal with national business. Under this solution the Scots MPs would take over the functions of MSPs, Welsh MPs would replace Welsh assembly members, and so on.

The answer you sometimes get to proposals of this kind, usually from members or supporters of the Labour party, is "Yes, but what if a Labour government at Westminister did not have a majority to get it's policies through in England." My one word answer to this: "Tough!"

A slightly longer answer: your party devolved power to Scotland and Wales because you did not want policies unpopular in those countries imposed on them by the rest of the UK. If that principle is fair for the Scots and Welsh then it is fair for England. If you do not have support in England for your policies then the constitution should not give you a mandate to impose them on England from outside.

Frankly, whether you call this "an English parliament" or "English votes for English laws" is a matter of semantics rather than substance. What I am clear about is that I want to see a fair and even-handed democratic solution for the UK and I want to see it without an increase in the number of politicians.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

An example of the new child seat law

To get the family to church this morning I had to make two trips.

My children, who are currently five, have always used appropriate car seats for the vast majority of journeys and all long or motorway journeys. However, there are occasionally circumstances when for short journeys we could fit people in better without them.

This morning was a case in point. My children's grandparents are with us, so we needed to fit four adults and two small children in the car. It is just possible to fit them into my car without excessive crowding, and so that everyone is wearing a seatbelt (and avoiding dangerous practices like having a child on an adult's lap with the same seatbelt round them both.) The journey is five minutes by car, none of it above 20 mph, and it was a grey, wet morning.

However, it is not possible to fit six people in the car appropriately when the children are in car seats. I ended up making two journeys to the church: after the service we had a "modal shift" and one party walked back home.

The legislation which made this necessary is not wholly without merit, but I can't help thinking that applying it in all cases is rigid and overzealous.

There is an exception to the legislation for emergencies but I did not really want to claim that for the trip to church.

I'd be interested to know what readers of this blog feel about the child seat legislation: please feel free to post a comment.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Digital TV Switchover - the professionals are not happy

Spent some time this morning talking to one of the people in West Cumbria who knows most about televisions. No names, no packdrill, but anyone who talks to the installers and local TV/electrical business professionals who know a great deal more about TV signals in West Cumbria than most of the rest of us, is likely to be told that they are worried about how well the digital switchover is going to work and what the area will get out of it.

If you live in most of Copeland, and watch terrestial TV, this affects you from September next year. (Sky viewers who never watch TV through a normal aerial will not be affected.) If you are in the rest of the country, this will hit you by 2009 - though if we have serious problems it is likely that the TV authorities will learn from them and sort things out before putting the rest of the country through switchover.

One of the statements made at the public meeting on 21st September was that there would be a meeting with the installers the following morning. There was, for the four who turned up. (It appears that the same problem with the public meeting, e.g. not everyone having an invite, applied to the following day.)

The agenda had about a dozen items but most of them developed into what is sometimes known as a "frank exchange of views" and it didn't get beyond about item four.

Issues raised by local professionals include

* A huge proportion of the digital services which make up the full service, including channel five, will not be available as part of the digital service which we will get in 2007. They are not likely to be made available until the Caldbeck transmitter is switched over in 2009.

* Local installers are concerned that they are not being given enough technical detail about the channels which will be used, power of the transmitters, etc. They were concerned that the meeting they attended was heavy on PR material, "health and safety" items and trading standards, which have already been promoted in great detail, but light on technical expertise and detail.

Indeed, if they are in the game of learning lessons, it sounds as though one which Digital UK need to learn is that they must communicate with local installers regularly from an early stage and include plenty of technical and engineering information.

Because the Whitehaven TV area (most of Copeland) will be the first to have the analogue signal switched off and replaced by digital, we have sometimes been called the "flagship" of the digital switchover. A leading local supplier has commented that rather than being a flagship, we're more of a tug boat.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

West Cumberland Hospital's future is not safe

The following letter from a senior health professional was published in the Whitehaven News today. This is so important to the Copeland area that I have printed the letter in its entirety below.

SIR — The inhabitants of West Cumbria need to be aware that the threat to hospital services, as described in the press, is almost certainly underestimated.

Within the North Cumbria acute trust, WCH plays second fiddle to Carlisle by quite a margin. Given the tight finances that in itself constitutes a threat to our survival. Add to this the politically-motivated “reforms” which tumble out of Whitehall and one has to wonder, not what will we have in a “West” hospital, old or new, but will we have a hospital at all?

As just one example, take the latest Labour gimmick, the new diagnostic/treatment centre for which the contract has just been signed, we are told. It will take a significant slice of income from the acute trust. It may also result in the loss of medical staff. The labour politicians will tell you that it means more choice and shorter waiting times. Who could resist that? What they won’t tell you is that it is compulsory, no matter what is best for the local health service as a whole. Nor will they tell you how much it removes from the income of the acute trust. Most importantly they will not tell you that the loss of income and possibly staff will seriously undermine the safety of acute/emergency care in West Cumbria.

As a patient, ask yourself which is more important: the waiting time for a hernia/hip/cataract operation or the safe and prompt treatment of major trauma victims, patients with perforated bowels, ruptured blood vessels and heart attacks?

The truth is that the government has already decided without asking you. They want waiting times for outpatient appointments and elective surgery times as low as they can get them.

That sounds good in the House of Commons. They seem either ignorant or disinterested in the effect that these changes will have on emergency care. Nowhere does this matter more than in a geographically isolated area (in modern medical terms) like West Cumbria. Although some of the medical staff at the hospital are involved in planning, they can always be accused of trying to protect their own jobs. So it is the people of the area who need to make their voice heard, remembering that by the time a “public consultation” comes round, the decisions have usually been made already. The inhabitants of West Cumbria who have provided labour with two safe seats for generations need to start asking some very serious questions of Messrs Reed and Cunningham.

You need to do it soon, be ready for the usual political platitudes and insist on proper answers.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bournemouth Diary – Part II

More notes on the 2006 Conservative Party Conference

An unusual experience as I pass the barrier on my way into the conference – a Lib Dem prediction of Tory victory. I am handed an account reprinted from “Freedom today” by a Lib/Dem county councillor describing some problems with the Spanish justice system. A handwritten addendum, apparently by the same gentleman, refers to David Cameron as “our future PM.”

Today’s sessions and fringe meeting include a number of sessions on the economy, including a barnstorming performance from George Osborne. Perhaps the most powerful expression I take away from the various discussions on economics is “fixing the broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder”. The point being is that as the economy grows most people get better off but some do not, and many of these are those who start from the worst position. Hence measures to ensure that these people get a share in the fruits of growth are “fixing the broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder.”

After William Hague made a typically witty and brilliant speech I was slightly surprised to see an instantly recognisable figure at the corner of the conference being interviewed: it was the Reverend Ian Paisley. My initial reaction was surprise: Ian Paisley’s policies do not exactly align with those of the Conservative party. However, none of the major British parties has ever imposed a complete ban on members of other mainstream parties attending their conferences. You usually find a few Labour or Lib/Dem MPs and councillors speaking at fringe meetings or running stalls on particular issues at Conservative conferences and vice versa.

David Trimble was invited to address the Conservative conference when he was leader of the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the DUP now has that status. Ian Paisley was not given the opportunity to address the conference, but somebody in the Conservative leadership presumably decided that, particularly given the Trimble precedent, we need to show that we are willing to talk to all parties committed to democracy on how to obtain peace in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland came up again in the following session on communities and devolution. The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, David Lidington, mentioned that the Conservatives are currently the only party which aspires to form the government of the UK and which puts up candidates in every part of the UK: nobody else puts up candidates both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.

I remember how that came about, and it was not something which the party leadership imposed from the top: basically a number of people from Northern Ireland came along and said that they wanted to join the Conservatives. When the party hierarchy was distinctly cool to the idea they started lobbying grassroots Conservative associations to support allowing residents of Northern Ireland to join and within a couple of years they had persuaded the majority of constituency delegates at conference to pass a motion to that effect. Lord Lane, the head of the “voluntary” wing of the party, then recommended to the ruling “National Union Executive Committee” that the conference vote should be respected, and it was. A wise person said to me at the time that if the party leadership had attempted to impose a policy of organising in the province from the top down it would have got absolutely nowhere, but because it came from would be members and the grassroots on a “bottom up” basis there might just be a faint chance.
To the best of my knowledge we have never yet elected a Conservative Assembly member or MP in Northern Ireland but we do have a few councillors. Who knows, perhaps the idea that politics in Northern Ireland might someday be based on the bread and butter policies affecting people’s lives like schools, hospitals, and tax, rather than community-based politics based on religious or national/unionist dividing lines may yet some day begin to make headway.

Today's conference closed, as had yesterday’s with a workshop known officially as “Meet the candidates” and informally as the “Dragon’s Den.” Each time a group of selected or “A list” candidates were invited to give a five minute presentation on an idea they would like to see become party policy, and the conference were invited to vote on which idea they would like to see given further consideration. There were some interesting ideas about helping teenage mothers, making the “Sure Start” scheme more effective, and direct democracy. The winner today was the Conservative candidate who will be standing to take over Michael Howard’s seat and who proposed an updated version of Enterprise Zones (Acorn Zones.)

It’s been an interesting, friendly and enjoyable conference so far. Everyone is looking forward to see what David Cameron comes up with tomorrow.


An interesting and amusing piece in this week’s “Spectator” magazine describes the battles between Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA and colleagues at Cambridge over the construction of a chapel at Churchill College. Crick, like a number of distinguished scientists of atheistic bent before and since, was under the impression that his work destroyed the need or justification for religion and was convinced that religious faith was doomed. Crick’s biographer Matt Ridley, who appears to share Crick’s view that all religion is ridiculous superstition, laments that “the discovery of the genetic code had virtually no effect on religious belief or any other form of superstition” and that “religion can be repeatedly contradicted on its factual claims and still claim people’s intellectual loyalty.” (The article is called “The genetic code genius who failed to kill faith” in the 30 September issue of the Spectator.)

The dichotomy between religion and science is, however a false one. Like people before and since, Crick had not demolished the case for religion: he had demolished a straw man with little relevance to what religion is saying. Some arguments put forward by believers have indeed been ridiculous: but no more so than many arguments put forward by atheists.

Certainly there have in the past been attempts by religious believers to extrapolate from religious texts a view of the material world, sometimes with some basis in the wording of those texts, sometimes with none. The former Prime Minister, Gladstone, attempted to argue that the emergence of species as shown from the fossil record corresponded to the order in which creatures emerged in the Book of Genesis. Actually the fit between the two is much closer than either atheistic writers like Richard Dawkins, or Creationists, like to admit, but you can’t make them fit perfectly. Attempts to establish “Creation science” invariably end up doing one of two things: either challenging statements for which there is overwhelming evidence, or moving beyond the territory of science, as the idea of “intelligent design” does, because it cannot be subjected to any form of scientific test which could possibly falsify it.

However, for every attempt by believers to put forward views which can be scientifically disproved, there has been an attempt by atheists either to misrepresent what the religions of the world have said or otherwise present as disproving the idea of God evidence which shows nothing of the sort. For example, I always feel that the Bishop who argued against Columbus’s expedition gets a very raw deal, especially by those who wrongly describe him as believing that the world was flat.
In fact he had a much more accurate view of earth than Columbus: they both knew perfectly well that the world is spherical, but the Bishop didn’t share Columbus’s delusion that the world was about half its actual size. Neither of them knew of the existence of the American continents, so the Bishop argued quite reasonably that the crew of a 15th Century caravel sailing west from Europe to the East Indies would die of starvation and thirst long before they arrived. Had America not been there, Columbus might well have met that fate.

I have a clear memory of the first time I met a ludicrous argument purporting to disprove religion. I was about 15, and one of my geography teachers said that science had started to undermine faith when a researcher successfully synthesized urine. I asked how on earth this undermined religion and was told that up to that point people had believed that that everything connected to life was somehow special, so the fact that you could duplicate a by-product of life disproved this.

I felt like asking him where in the Bible, the Koran, or any other holy book it said that waste body products have any sacred significance, and how you could possibly prove whether any spiritual component was present or absent in synthesised or natural urine even if it did. At the time I thought I’d better not press the point in case my disdain for the argument being described might come over as disrespect for the teacher. I didn’t fancy a detention. But a student who put forward such sloppy logic would certainly deserve one.

Incidentally, it is certainly not the case that all, or even the vast majority, of scientists are agnostics or atheists. A huge number of the founders of science were religious believers, whether they followed Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Deism; there are still many scientists who believe in God today. They see no conflict between their work and their faith.

Despite the contrary impression created by a minority of atheistic scientists, the scientific method can never disprove the existence of God because it is impossible to prove a negative statement. Science works by forming a thesis for which you can devise a test which might disprove it. If there is a God and he wished to give completely convincing proof of his existence he could undoubtedly do so, but I can imagine no possible scientific test which could disprove either the thesis that there is a God, or that there is not. So in a real sense an atheist is as much a man of faith as a religious believer: one takes a leap of faith that there is a God, which he cannot prove, the other takes a similar leap of faith that there is not.

Jesus once suggested that his listeners should “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The same applies to science and religion. When I want to know something about how the material universe works, including our human bodies, a scientist has a better chance of telling me than a priest. But when I want to consider an issue of right and wrong, science has nothing to say to me, but the words of Jesus are the best guide I can find.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bournemouth Diary

Some notes on the 2006 Conservative Party Conference

I arrive and, like thousands of others, both this week and last, have to spend hours in a queue to collect my pass.

Last year the person present in every speech was Walter Wolfgang – the 82 year old refugee from Nazi Germany who was thrown out of the Labour conference the previous week and even briefly arrested for shouting “Nonsense” (or words to that effect) at the Foreign Secretary. At this year’s conference the equivalent subject in every conversation has been the queue to collect your pass. Part of the problem was a 20% rise in the number of people at the conference but the main reason appears to have been delays with security checks by the police: apparently Labour had exactly the same problem in Manchester. A police spokesman told the press that late applications were a factor, but I had sent my application in on time a couple of months ago, and so had lots of the other people who were queuing with me. Some people got their passes before the conference but many others had to wait in line for hours, repeating jokes about soviet era queues and “Labour isn’t working.”

On Monday evening I divided my time between four fringe meetings. The first was the launch of the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, chaired by Anne Main MP and with the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in attendance.

Bangladesh is a very poor country which is in particular danger of suffering dire consequences if sea levels rise as a result of Global Warming, as millions of its people live on land only just above sea level. It is also one of very few muslim majority countries which has so far evolved for itself the concept of a secular state with full religious toleration. I think it particularly important that we in the west help such countries to build on and develop these traditions, and especially to reward those who have evolved them for themselves.

Next meeting was hosted by BT and was a discussion on the new media at which Iain Dale and Anne Widdecombe were two of the speakers. Anne was in favour of most forms of modern communication but not blogging. Iain Dale explained about some of the feedback he gets on his blog (Iain Dale’s diary) from young people who would otherwise never dream of contacting a politician.

There was quite a bit of discussion during which certain blogs were mentioned a lot. While Iain was talking the author of one of the blogs concerned walked in, to be greeted with: “Oh, and look who’s arrived: oh, I’d better not say who you are as you’re anonymous.” As the gentleman concerned was recognisably the original of the cartoon face on Guido Fawkes’s blog (www.5thnovember.blogspot.com) it wasn’t exactly difficult to guess who he was ….

Then to the Nuclear Industry Association’s fringe. One of the advertised speakers had been unable to attend at the last minute (Voice from the back “he’s still queuing for his pass”) and was replaced by a speaker from Fluor. During the discussion Tim Yeo pointed out that we already accept that acting to stop climate change means that some form of subsidy to less polluting form of energy generation is likely to be needed and the principle is already accepted by the government where wind farms are concerned. I pointed out that even allowing for decommissioning costs nuclear is price competitive with most other forms of low-carbon generation. The gentleman from Fluor agreed and added that the Germans pay three times as much for electricity from wind power as we pay for nuclear electricity. He also made the very interesting point that converting water to hydrogen and oxygen for hydrogen burn engines to use is an excellent way to use the output from Nuclear Power plants during the evening when demand is low.

While another speaker from the floor was talking about the possibility that we might run out of power and the lights go out – the lights went out. I never did discover whether someone was playing with the dimmer as a joke or there really had been a brief interruption in the Bournemouth power supply.

Final meeting of the evening was a discussion on global poverty chaired by Peter Lilley. Most memorable point from the discussion: getting investment in poor countries is difficult as investors expect unrealistic rates of return such as 30%. One speaker said that he had been dealing with an “Ethical” investment trust which demanded a 25% annual return on its investments in a third world country. “I don’t call that ethical” he said and I have to agree.

Back to my hotel room to have a look at some of the books I’d picked up at conference. Laughed out loud several times while reading “President Gore and other things which never happened” a book of counterfactuals which is a sequel to “Prime Minister Portillo and other things which never happened.” I will have to write a full review but if you are into political history, or into counterfactuals, some of the essays in the book are absolutely excellent. One in particular, “If John Major had become Chief Whip in 1987” (e.g. instead of Chief Secretary, then Chancellor, then PM) is the funniest thing I have read for months.

I thought at first I’d quote one or two of the best lines in it but I’d have to quote practically the whole essay. About half of the story is an astonishingly plausible account of how the history of the past 20 years might have been different, a quarter describes real events as if they had happened slightly differently or to different people. The other quarter has people from that timeline having described to them events from counterfactual books with titles like “Prime Minister Blair and other things which never happened” (e.g. descriptions from our real history) and falling about laughing at the idea that anyone could propose things which are so implausible.

In fact the events of “If John Major had become Chief Secretary in 1987” are so much more plausible than real history that by the time I’d finished the essay I felt like I was living in one of those science fiction stories where someone goes back in time and accidentally changes the past so it all goes wrong. If I hadn’t been laughing so much I’d be frightened that Dr Who might go back to 1987, persuade Maggie to make JM Chief Whip rather than Chief Secretary to put time back in its proper course and wipe out the timeline we’re living in …

If you’re not into politics you won’t get it. If you are sufficiently interested to have read what I’ve just written and vaguely follow it, read “President Gore and other things which never happened” and I doubt if you’ll be disappointed.