Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Public meeting tomorrow on health in West Cumbria

There is a public meeting tomorrow (1st February) on health issues in West Cumbria

The meeting is to be held in Whitehaven Civic Hall at 7pm. It has been organised by the local NHS trusts to discuss the controversial proposals for CATS (Clinical Assessment Trust and Suport Centres) but will also provide an opportunity to consider general health issues.

The meeting is expected to be attended both by Marie Burnham, Cheif Exec of the North Cumbria Acute Hospitals trust, and by Sue Page of the new Cumbria wide PCT.

I hope as many as possible of the 4,000 people who recently took part in the "Save our services" march will turn up to let the trusts know how strongly we want to keep our hospital services.

An example of Lib/Dem tactics.

Have you ever wondered why so many Tory and Labour activists detest the Liberal Democrats, and often seem more hostile to the Lib/Dems than each other even though the political difference between Labour and Conservative policies may seem to be greater? It's because of the sharp tactics of many Lib/Dems at local level and here is an example.

The Jersey Farm Woodland Park in the parish of Sandridge has been one of the great local successes of the past few years. One of the reasons for this is that it has had enormous support from the community in Sandridge, Jersey Farm, and Marshalwick, including people of all political parties and none.

Given this support, you would think that some of the party political point-scoring which has gone on over the past seventeen years about the events leading up to the foundation of the park could be allowed to drop. Instead it has got worse, in the sense that a selective quote which the Liberal Democrats have used for many years to misrepresent the position of former members of Sandridge Parish Council has been replaced in their most recent Marshalswick leaflets with an outright falsehood.

Nearly two decades ago, on one of the previous occasions when the party now called the Lib/Dems were running St Albans Council, they asked council officers to investigate options for what is now the Woodland Park site. This resulted in a proposal from the Old Albanian Sports Association to develop the area for sports facilities.

I thought that this was an utterly inappropriate site for those facilities, and felt this so strongly that although I went to St Albans School myself I dropped all connections with the OAs for several years so as to be free to campaign against the proposals and to speak and vote in the council chamber against them. However, it is wrong to vilify the OAs for having put forward these plans, which they were encouraged to submit by the council's former officers.

When Sandridge Parish Council discussed the OA proposals, they had grave concerns about them. Unfortunately for the local political careers of most of the councillors at the meeting, they chose to express those concerns as they affected practical matters such as the fact that an open air rifle range was proposed quite near to a hundred houses, that vast amounts of earth would have to be moved to put cricket pitches on the side of a hill, and that proposed arrangements for community use were inadequate given that the land had been given to the council to provide facilities for local residents. They did not object to the principle of sports facilities on the site if there was adequate public access. But nobody who read the full text of the representations which were agreed could possibly imagine that the parish council supported the proposal from the OAs as it stood.

Not one of the Liberal/SDP parish councillors at the time attended that meeting. However, when they saw the minutes, they took the opportunity to score political points against the councillors who had, by selectively quoting the words "no objections in principle" all over their election literature. They conveniently omitted to mention that those words were immediately followed by a long and detailed list of serious objections in practice.

Now the Lib/Dems have gone one stage further and included in their Marshalswick literature the injunction to "Remember Tory Parish Cllrs. voted to hand it over to St. Albans School for playing fields." Even had this been true, writing in this way in 2007 about a meeting held in the 1980s would have been petty. In fact it is complete nonsense and they have not even remembered correctly which organisation wanted the land (it was the Old Albanians, not the school.)

The good thing which came out of this is that local people proposed instead a community park , which was agreed by all parties and brought into being by a lot of hard work. Isn't it about time the Lib/Dems devoted more of their energies to sorting out today's problems and less to smearing people about the events of nearly twenty years ago ?


This week’s Sunday Times contains a news report that police refused to pursue two apparently stolen motorbikes because the riders were not wearing helmets.

According to the person who reported the bikes stolen, the mother of the owners, the police told her that if the alleged perpetrators were injured or killed during the chase, they or their relatives could sue the police.

If this story is true – and I have trouble believing it but cannot dismiss it out of hand – you could not have a better example of the way we have as a society have lost any sense of proportion while dealing with Health and Safety issues. Not to mention any understanding of personal responsibility.

Of course it is the responsibility of the police to consider the safety of everyone involved when chasing suspects. That does include the people being chased – they are innocent until proven guilty. But for heaven’s sake, if these guys had been hurt during a chase because they were not wearing safety helmets, that would be 100% their own responsibility. Regardless of whether they really had stolen the bikes, it is logically impossible for a motorbike rider to be injured through not having a helmet on unless he or she has chosen to break the law requiring riders to wear a helmet. Any such action against the police should be vexatious litigation for which the police should be entitled to reclaim all costs.

I wish it was that simple. When a teenage trespasser fell through the a skylight in the roof of the school where I am a governor, our immediate reaction was to double check the arrangements we had made to try to prevent people climbing on the roof, not just to prevent a repetition, but to prepare the case that we had taken reasonable measures to stop trespassers and burglars hurting themselves in case the school was sued.

In the event, the boy’s father didn’t take action against the school and did promise to pay for the broken skylight. But isn’t it sad when law-abiding people and organizations who are the targets of criminal behaviour have as much cause to fear legal action as the perpetrators?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Remember the Holocaust

This weekend sees the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz extermination camp, which is also Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a day which officially commemorates all victims of genocide -not just the Jewish, Gypsies, mental patients and others who died at the hands of the Nazi regime, but all others who have been the victims of racially motivated mass murder and "ethnic cleansing" from the Armenians to Dafur.

From time to time I meet people who think we make too much of this. I don't think we emphasise it enough. There are at least 88 people in Cumbria who showed this week that they need to have a better understanding of the events which lead to the holocaust - the 88 people who voted BNP in the Brampton by-election for Cumbria County Council on Thursday.

Most of the electors who took part in the Brampton by election voted for the excellent Conservative candidate, Laurence Fisher, who was duly elected. Well over 90% of Brampton voters cast their ballots for mainstream democratic parties. However, it is disappointing that even a single vote was cast for a bunch of extremist, thuggish cretins.

In 1920, the National Socialist German Workers party (the NSDAP or Nazis) was a tiny group of hard-right thugs, remarkably similar to today's British National Party and motivated by the same kind of primitive prejudice. Those who voted for it could be forgiven for not appreciating that they were starting a chain of violence which was to result in tens of millions of deaths. Those who vote for the BNP today have no excuse for not realising what can happen when you vote for that kind of extremist.

Sixty years ago, one of the most advanced and civilised countries in the world perpetrated one of the most revolting acts of mass murder. If we keep alive the memory of what happened and why, there is less chance that we or our children and grandchildren will make similar mistakes in the future.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Plans for a new community fire station for Whitehaven on land at the cemetary end Meadow View proved highly controversial when they were discussed at the Bransty and Harbour Community Forum this evening (Tuesday 23rd) at St Gregory’s and St Patrick’s School, Esk Avenue, Whitehaven.

The aim of the proposals is to reduce response times for fires in the highest risk areas of Whitehaven. However, members of the public, including rank and file firemen, were most concerned that both travel times from the site for fire engines, and travel times to the site for fire fighters, may actually be worse.

Highway Engineers have apparently had an input into the proposals, and have considered the congestion, but looking at the nature of the roads where they are proposing to move the fire station, and the parking and congestion problems, it does look as though residents and firefighters with concerns about this site have a point.

The public is now being asked to comment on the proposals and people have until noon on 12th March to contribute, before the fire service submits its final business plan in spring.

You can comment on the proposals by email to:

or by writing to

Community Fire Station Consultation
Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service
Station Road, Cockermouth,
Cumbria CA13 9PR.

This is part of a series of consultations about the future pattern of fire service throughout Cumbria. It is planned to set up a major PFI project for the whole of the North West, which in Cumbria will include new fire stations in Whitehaven, Carlisle, Workington, Patterdale and Penrith. These will replace existing fire stations. The intention is to start work in 2009 with stations up and running in 2010 or 2011.

Other meetings in the series of consultaions in Cumbria are:

January 25 at 11am, at The Courts, Carlisle;

January 25 at 11am, at Cleator Moor Civic Hall;

February 12 at 7.30pm, at the NFU Offices on Cromwell Road, Penrith;

February 21 at 7pm, in St Peter’s Church Hall, Woodhouse, Whitehaven;

February 22 at 6.30pm, at the Copeland Athletic Stadium, near the West Cumberland Hospital;

March 2 at 10.30am, in Harraby Community Centre, Edgehill Road, Carlisle.

The plans are also on show in libraries online at

If you have a view on this, don't assume it's a done deal: write in to the consultation, and let your county councillors know what you think.

An intolerable failure of duty

I stand by my post at the weekend that Britain has one of the best police forces in the world, but I am absolutely horrified by the failings exposed by the report of the Northern Ireland police ombudsman. It is shocking and intolerable that the former RUC appears to have failed to act to stop killings by UVF members who were also RUC informers.

This is not just a dreadful failure to protect the public, it also traduces the honour and reputation of the many decent and honest people who have served in the police in Northern Ireland, including over three hundred who gave their lives to protect the public.

The cliche "this must never be allowed to happen again" is often used in public life, but if there ever was a case when it really does apply it is this one.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad ...

If there were any remaining doubt that the Labour government has taken leave of their collective senses, their reaction to the "loans for peerages" scandal has dispelled it. And the manner in which their grotesque mishandling of the investigation is blowing up in their faces means that there is less and less doubt that they will lose the next election as they richly deserve.

For years the Labour strategy whenever anyone crosses them has been to "shoot the messenger." From the 90-year old grandmother who Labour accused of being racist for complaining about healthcare, the parliamentary standards commissioner who didn't get her contract renewed after asking too many pointed questions in corruption inquiries, to rail crash victims who were accused of political motivation, if you say something New Labour don't like they will spin against you. Sometimes this works for them, sometimes it doesn't, but the fact that they didn't realise this was a really silly thing to try against the police demonstrates that Labour has completely lost it.

Our police force is not perfect - no human organisation is. Indeed, they are much less perfect as a result of some of the things this government has done to them. But we do have one of the best police forces in the world. And furthermore, if there is one thing which is guaranteed to get you into serious trouble with the British police, it is the least hint that someone is trying to improperly influence them, bully them, or demand special treatment.

If Tony Blair, and other present and former Labour ministers such as David Blunkett and Tessa Jowell had retained a strong grip on reality, they would have realised this. Instead, when Blair's key aide Ruth Turner was arrested on Friday on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, the Labour spin machine went into auto-attack mode. Various anonymous number ten spokesmen criticised the police, suggesting that the police actions were using "bully-boy tactics," were biased, and "behaving like the secret police." Jowell, Blunkett and Labour peer Lord Puttnam queried the police action quite openly.

The inevitable has happened: the police have seen this as an attempt to bully them, and there has been a very negative reaction which extends to Labour politicians associated with the Metropolitan police. The Chairman of the Metropolitan Police authority, Len Duvall (who is also chairman of the London region Labour party) has warned his fellow labour politicians to stop criticising the police investigation until it is complete, adding that "No one in this country is above the law."

Sir Chris Fox, former President of the Association of Chief Police officers, expressed concern at the attacks on the police inquiry. "I really find it quite depressing if politicans are smearing or coercing or trying to influence a police inquiry ..." he said. "If a chief constable can't investigate without this sort of media, coercive pressure I worry for a free democratic country." Glyn Smith, chairman of the Metropolitan Police branch of the Police Federation, expressed similar concerns.

I have no doubt why the Labour spin machine has panicked and started their ludicrous attack on the police. They are scared.

It was bad enough when Lord Levy and other people associated with the Prime Minister were arrested in connection with the laws against sale of honours. But Ruth Turner was not just arrested in connection with the investigation into the original offence, but on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. In other words, police are investigating whether there has been a cover up. In British political scandals, any attempt at a cover-up usually does far more damage than the original offence.

Last week Channel 4 put on a brilliantly savage TV programme called "The Trial of Tony Blair". I doubt very much that the prime minister will have been stupid enough to say or write anything incriminating enough to put him in the position of facing criminal charges himself. But the panic by those around him makes me wonder if all of his close associates are quite so safe.

And the manner in which the New Labour mafia have behaved will have triggered in the police team investigating "loans for honours" a vigorous reaction based on a principle that every good copper understands. When the people you're investigating start to bluster and threaten, the reaction usually means you're onto something and should examine them all the more closely.

Public Meeting - new Fire Station for Whitehaven

Possible details of a new fire station for Whitehaven will be discussed at next tuesday's meeting of the Bransty and Harbour Community Forum at St Gregory's & St Patrick's School at 7pm.

Hands off Patients Forums

MPs who are interested in defending either local democracy or hospital services should vote against the second reading of the ludicrously misnamed "Local government and Public Involvement Bill" when it comes to the Commons on Monday.

As described on the "Save West Cumbria Hospitals" blog (see link at right) this will abolish the 400 patient and public involvement forums. That is one less avenue for people in West Cumbria to stand up and defend our hospitals.

I would dearly like to see our MP Jamie Reed, and indeed other Labour MPs who have supported demonstrations in support of hospitals in their consituencies such as Hazel Blears, vote against this bill. But I'm not putting any money on it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

PCSOs are welcome - but not at the expense of police officers

The Cumbrian Police Federation has expressed concern that more Police Community Support Officers in the county may mean fewer fully-trained officers available on the beat.

I can see that there is a valuable role for Police Community Support Officers. There are plenty of things they can do to show a presence and collect evidence. Using them to supplement police officers is a good idea; however, using them to replace police officers is a bad one.

I have sat through more than one debate on this subject in various council chambers. The most memorable interventions came from Councillor John Newman (father of Paul who blogs under the title "Newmania.") John was always very scathing about any suggestion of replacing fully trained and empowered police officers with PCSOs - one of his milder comments was to describe the latter as fake policemen.

The Police Community Support Officers we already have in Cumbria have played a useful role in complementing the work of their other colleagues. The police authority suggests that they want to expand this supportive role. However, the fact that they have not yet managed to carry the police federation with them is not a good sign. If we have to cut something else to provide funding to put PCSOs on the beat the only thing in the police budget I'd be happy to trim back to do it is paperwork and bureaucracy, of which the present government has generated far too much.

Some people reading this may interpret the concerns expressed by Andy Wilson, chairman of the Cumbria Police Federation, as self-interested concern for the jobs of his members. I do not think that would be fair.

The reorganisation proposed does not entail an actual loss of jobs among police officers, but a reduction in the number of police officer posts based in each area of Cumbria as 68 officers are moved into specialist roles in the so-called "protective services" department.

The key test of whether this actually makes Cumbria safer will be whether these transferred officers end up addressing real needs, or whether they end up filling in forms and meeting bureaucratic targets. To coin a phrase, the jury is out ...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Oh Goody

Yesterday Britain was hit by real storms which killed ten people and disrupted life for thousands - visiting Manchester for work purposes I had a dire journey there and back, but at least I reached my destination and returned safely: many others had to abandon journeys, were stranded and unable to get home, or both.

But much of the media attention was on the Big Brother storm rather than the real ones.

I have never watched the programme or taken part in a Big Brother vote, but I seriously considered voting to evict Jade Goody today. There is little doubt that today's vote to remove her will be interpreted around the world as a rejection of racism by British viewers. There is even less doubt that if instead Shilpa Shetty had been thrown off the programme it would have been taken in every other country as proof positive that we are a deeply racist society, and done disproportionate damage to community relations and to Britain's relations with many other countries.

In the event I decided that because I have not watched five minutes of the programme, it would not be right for me to judge the participants in it on the basis of hearsay. Instead I left it to those who had seen the programme.

There has been a vast amount of press coverage attributing deeply offensive and unpleasant comments to participants in the Big Brother House. If even a significant fraction of these statements are true, those responsible should be deeply ashamed of themselves. And so should those who broadcast them in the name of entertainment.

Equally I had confidence that if the allegations were true, those who watched the programme would make their displeasure clear: the 82% vote to evict Jade Goody appears to suggest that this is precisely what has happened.

When they emerge from the Big Brother house, those who are percieved as having taken part in racist bullying will find that they pay a heavy price for it. And so will the producers of the programme: the loss of Carphone Warehouse's sponsorship is only the first part of it. As responsible broadcasters, perhaps they should think very carefully about how this programme was edited.

The statement issued by the broadcaster that their initial investigation failed to prove racism misses the point. Bullying and offensive behaviour remains ugly whether it is motivated by racism, class hatred, jealousy, or just malice.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Big Bother

As I have not seen the programme "Big Brother" I do not feel qualified to comment on whether those who are taking part are being racist, though that does not appear to have inhibited some politicans who have not seen it either.

However, there is no doubt that the programme has been perceived as racist by the thousands of people who have complained and around the world, especially in India, which means that under the MacPherson report definition of a racist remark or incident there is a problem to be investigated.

More to the point, if the quotes attributed to Big Brother participants in the Evening Standard were broadcast on air, they would have been offensive regardless of the skin colour either of the people making the comments or the person they were made about.

In a sense the makers of the programme have been hoist with their own petard. If you try to get on a radio phone in or a programme line "Question Time" and make offensive or racist remarks, the broadcasters will censor them. The trouble is that having tried to boost the ratings of programmes like Big Brother by deliberately allowing outrageous behaviour and using shock as a marketing tool, they have been placed in a position where material damaging to Britain as well as Channel 4 appears to have been broadcast.

Perhaps it is time we outgrew the idea of upsetting people for the sake of ratings or critical acclaim.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

There is a threat to the Union, Gordon, and it’s you

As he comes close to achieving, at least until the next election, his long-term ambition to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown has woken up to the possibility that the UK might break up. So he has issued a ringing call to support the Union. Sadly he does not realise that he is himself a major part of the problem.

To paraphrase a comment which a fellow-unionist once made about Ian Paisley, Gordon Brown has been and remains a bigger threat to the union than the SNP, Welsh nats, and the European Union rolled into one.

This is not because he is a Scot representing a Scottish seat. Labour, Liberal and Conservative prime ministers in the past have represented Scottish seats without generating a desire for independence on the part of either Scotland or England. It is because he is a control freak, and because he continues to attack any measure which might move us to a proper federal system.

All of Britain benefited greatly in the past from the Union. As someone who is part English and part Scot, with an Irish wife and a Welsh uncle, my own family embodies what the different parts of the British isles have in common, and I was sorry not to see more celebration this week of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. But the country needs to move forward rather than back and recognise the reality of the world as it is today. English, Scots, Welsh and many Irish have in common that they will support retaining the United Kingdom if it benefits them and is seen to give a fair share of attention to their concerns. But if the union is seen to be operated on unfair terms, people will turn against it.

In the 90’s many Scots turned against the union when they perceived that the Poll Tax had been imposed on them against their wishes before it was implemented in England. Now many English people are turning against the Blair version of devolution because of outrageous injustices such as the imposition of top-up fees for students. In both cases the problem was a perceived lack of accountability, where policies were imposed on part of the UK by representatives elected by another part of Britain who were not accountable in an even-handed way to those affected by their decisions.

At a risk of labouring the point, it is unacceptable that Labour’s system can produce outcomes like the vote on top-up fees for English students. All major parties had indicated at the previous election that they would not support them. Charges for students in Scotland are the responsibility of Scottish devolved bodies, and those bodies decided not to add any equivalent of top-up fees to the Graduate Levy which is the Scottish equivalent of student tuition fees. Yet those fees were imposed on English students, by five votes, thanks to the vast majority of Labour MPs representing seats in Scotland. If all Labour MPs from Scotland had abstained the measure would have fallen by 36 votes.

Regardless of the merits of top-up-fees, in no part of the UK was there either an electoral mandate for them, or a majority of members of the relevant parliament who were prepared to vote to impose top-up fees on their own voters. They were imposed on English students only because of Scots MPs for whose constituents the devolved assembly had made other arrangements.

If student financial support had been treated as a UK wide issue, and if the Scots MPs who supported it had voted the same way when their own constituents were affected, the top-up fees would have been imposed on everyone. I don’t believe that would have been the right decision, but it would at least have been fair. If it had been treated as a decision for constituent countries within the UK, top-up fees would have been voted down in Scotland by the devolved bodies, and in England by representatives elected by England. That would have been both right and fair.

What did happen is that top-up fees were imposed on the majority of Britain by Labour MPs representing the minority. I blame the Labour party, not the Scots, for this but it is quite intolerable.

This was not the only similar instance. Scots Labour MPs also voted through foundation hospitals for England despite the fact that the Scottish Executive had rejected them for Scotland. But it was the top-up fees issue which has created deep and abiding anger with the present constitutional settlement among many English people who previously were strong supporters of the union. It has guaranteed that the present constitution will not long survive the present government. The question is whether we establish a fair, workable and modern system to replace it, or hide from the issue and wait for the UK to collapse.

I don’t believe the genie of devolution can be put back in the bottle. We have to work out a fair and even-handed system of devolved government based on equal citizenship. Regional assemblies in England are not the answer for two reasons: the first is that most English people don’t want them, the second is that they would only redress the balance if you gave them the same powers as the Scots Parliament and nobody is proposing to do that.

This point must not be made in an anti-Scottish way. Many Scots are embarrassed by what their MPs did to English students. But what we need is a system in which some issues, an obvious example being Defence, are designated UK-wide issues and dealt with by MPs elected by the entire UK, while other issues such as local government should be designated as issues for the constituent countries and dealt with in each part of the UK by representatives elected by and accountable to those countries.

Until Gordon Brown recognises this and joins a meaningful debate on how to move forward, he will remain part of the problem for the Union, not part of the solution.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Report back on today's public meeting

Nearly eighty people attended the public meeting this evening in Distington Community Centre about the proposed Wind Farm at Pica. the Bristol based company which has submitted the application were unfortunately unable to send a representative.

The proposal is for five wind turbines, each 81 metres tall including the column and blades, and will go before Copeland Borough Council's planning panel in February.

The formal consultation period expired late last year but anyone who has strong feelings for or against this proposal can still write to Copeland's Planning department and explain your views, concerns or issues.

At the end of the meeting a straw poll was taken which was 55 votes against the application to 10 in favour. (There were also several people present who did not want to register a vote and a number of people who attended most of the meeting but had left before the vote was taken.)

Public Meeting This evening !

The public meeting to discuss revised proposals to build five windmills at Pica is to be held at 7pm this evening (8th January) at Distington Community Centre.

There have been several applications to build wind turbines at the Fairfield Farm site over the past 10 years and they have always been extremely controversial.

The present set of plans was submitted on 29th September by the company Wind Prospect, which is based in Bristol. Their previous application, for six turbines, was withdrawn.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Render Unto Caesar

I am concerned by reports that education minister Andrew Adonis is considering changes to the rules which would permit "Intelligent Design" (ID) to be described in school philosophy and religious education lessons.

There is, fortunately, no suggestion that ID could be covered as part of biology or any other part of the science curriculum.

My initial reaction when I first read about the idea of ID was that here you have a philosophical and religious position masquerading as a scientific one. My objection to including it in science teaching is that scientific ideas should be subject to objective testing, verification and should be capable of being falsified if they are contrary to the facts, as Karl Popper described in his masterpiece "The logic of Scientific Discovery." Since I cannot see any way of conclusively falsifying the idea of "Intelligent Design" I cannot see how it belongs in a science class.

On further reflection, I am not yet convinced that the proponents of ID have demonstrated that it belongs in an RE or philosophy class either. Honest philosophy, and honest religion, both begin with an open-minded quest for truth. It does not begin by first establishing your starting position and then looking around to make the facts fit that position. And I fear that is exactly what those who promote ID appear to be doing.

We often want to ask people to provide evidence to support what they are telling us. A potential buyer is entitled to ask those who want to sell to him to demonstrate that their product is safe and fit for purpose. Our legal system is built on the principle that the defence is entitled to ask the prosecution to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. And those who want to justify some course of action, be it the expenditure of public money or the passage of a new law, may reasonably be asked for some evidence that what they propose will bring benefits.

However, in any area other than mathematics or abstract logic, absolute proof is a very difficult thing to obtain.

In science, conclusive proof of any theory which claimed to have universal application, and particularly of any negative statement, is not usually possible. Disproof of such a theory or statement, however, is possible whenever we can find a single example where it doesn't work. So science proceeds by testing hypotheses which are capable of being disproved, and discarding or amending those which are. "God did it" falls at the first hurdle.

There are some circumstances where it is justified for the proponent or opponent of a course of action to say "The other side must prove their case or I must be assumed to be right." I have already mentioned that our legal system, presuming that the accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, is one: under the precautionary principle, we accept that if taking, or failing to take, a course of action may do serious and irreparable harm, the burden of proof may rest with those who wish to risk that harm.

However, there are other circumstances where demanding that your opponent prove his or her case amounts to intellectual bullying and neither those who are genuinely convinced that they are right, nor those who are engaged in an open-minded search for truth, should need to do so.

Science can tell us the facts about how the material universe works, and will do so best without anyone trying to pull it to favour one side, whichever side that is.

Religion has something to say to us about right and wrong, and I believe that it has something to say to us about why this world exists, how to treat one another, and what may come after this universe.

Looking for evidence to support your views about religion, rather than looking for the facts, does not sit well with science or religion. (And this is true for atheists as well as believers.)

Science and religion do not have to conflict. Indeed, many if not most of the greatest advances in science were made by religious believers - but they were the kind of believers who saw no contradiction between their faith and the need to look open-mindedly and honestly at the facts.

I shall finish this post with two quotes: one from an unbeliever which many of his fellow unbelievers would do well to remember, and one from Jesus which many Christians would also do well to ponder.

"My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

J.B.S. Haldane

"They asked ... 'Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar?'

.. He said 'Show me the money for the tax.'

They brought him a coin, and he asked 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?'

They answered 'Caesars's.'

Then he said 'Render undo Caesar those things which belong to Caesar, and unto God those things which belong to God.'"

(From Matthew, chapter 22, vs 17-22.)

If there is a God, there is no doubt in my mind that He expects us to recognise the different intellectual spheres of science and religion in exactly the same way that Jesus told us to respect the different authority of church and state.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Don't slag off Auntie for getting something right ...

The BBC gets a lot of flak, much of it justified, but I was sorry to see them criticised today for one of the best things they've ever done.

It was a good idea a couple of years ago when the Today programme ran a listeners' vote on which law they would like to see passed. I still think it was a good idea even though I didn't happen to agree that the proposed law which won - giving houseowners carte blanche to kill intruders - would be sound legislation, at least in the form that it was drafted. However, the principle was a good one and the result demonstrated legitimate public concern that the system of law and order should be balanced to give the rights of the victim higher priority than those of burglars and vandals.

We have to be careful about this. If you give the householder absolute rights and those who they think are intruders no rights at all, you risk creating the situation which happened a few years ago in a southern U.S. state. An innocent tourist who was lost walked up the path to a front door in broad daylight to knock on it and ask for directions, and was shot dead by the householder who thought he was a burglar. We don't want to give that kind of idiot the green light to shoot innocent people.

Of course, getting the drafting right is one of the reasons we have an elected parliament, to look at exactly how the laws should be worded so as to protect all parties, in this case both the innocent householder and the innocent legitimate caller.

Parliament should look at messages they are getting from the public, including the Today programme vote, and ask whether our present law is working effectively. The House of Commons should have responded by passing the bill proposed by Patrick Mercer to improve the balance between the legal rights of residents and intruders, and I hope that the next Conservative government will pass such a bill before too long.

At the end of 2006 the Today programme had an even better idea and held a listeners' vote on which law should be repealed. Now, sadly, the BBC is being attacked because the votes which came in were overwhelmingly to repeal the hunting ban.

Well I don't say this too often, but in my book the BBC was absolutely 100% right on this one. Even if I disagreed with the result, I would say that we have far too much rubbish on the statue book and giving the public a chance to nominate a law for repeal was an excellent idea.

As it happens, I do agree with the result. The Hunting Act was a vindictive piece of class-hatred legislation which has achieved nothing for animal welfare. Both some of the bill's Labour supporters and its few Labour opponents admitted that it was more about revenge for the Miners' strike than helping foxes. This law wasted hundreds of hours of parliamentary time and is now wasting hundreds of man-hours of police time.

I have never taken part in any blood sport in my life, and never will, but this law is not the best way to support animal welfare in the countryside and should be repealed tomorrow.

I have changed my mind about another law which would once have been near the top of my list of laws to nominated for repeal: the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The drafting of this law is not perfect and perhaps it needs to be revisited. However, tragic events continue to show the need for responsible dog ownership and I do not think it possible to argue that the law has no role in supporting this.

I hope that the Today programme will continue to run votes on laws which should be passed, amended, or repealed. If we can also get politicians and all the public to recognise that it is not just what laws you pass but how fairly and effectively they are enforced which matters, we will really have learned something useful.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year !

I wish everyone reading this a happy, healthy and successful New Year 2007 for yourself and your family.

I have only one qualification to that statement: I wish an electorally successful year to anyone reading this who is a Conservative candidate in the elections which take place in May this year or indeed any other election which might be called. I hope any candidate of another party who is reading this will not be offended if I do not wish you success in that area. Health and happiness howevever, I still wish you.

Most of all I hope that this year will deliver a secure future for West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, and Keswick Hospital.