Monday, August 20, 2007

Victims have human rights too.

The advocates of our existing human rights legislation promised us that these laws would ensure that the rights of everyone would be taken into consideration, including the right of law-abiding citizens to be protected from crime.

The decision of the Asylum and Immigration tribunal that the killer convicted of the murder of head teacher Phillip Lawrence should not be deported to the country of which he is a citizen, Italy, at the conclusion of his sentence is depressing evidence that this law does not always work as it was intended.

Because the murderer came to Britain at the age of 5 and speaks only English, the court found that his human rights would be infringed by returning him to the country of his birth. I would have considered that the argument used by the tribunal would be reasonable in the case of someone convicted of a less serious crime, one which did not clearly identify him as a danger to the public. But in the case of killers, rapists, and other highly dangerous individuals, the human right to safety for the victims and potential future victims should take priority over those of the criminal.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Human rights are important, as is the rule of law. That includes the human rights of the accused - because sometimes people charged with the most horrible crimes are actually innocent. And even those convicted of serious offences should not be treated worse than is necessary to protect the public from them. If we forget that any prisoners, no matter how vile the crimes they have committed, or how justified our anger with them, are still human beings, we damage and demean our own humanity as well as theirs.

What someone who commits a horrible crime should forfeit is not any human rights at all, but the expectation that his or her rights will be given the same priority as those of the actual and potential victim. Our elected parliament should have the right to pass rules which provide, by due process, for the deportation of foreign nationals who have been convicted of serious crimes.

If the existing Human Rights Act is in conflict with this, it should be repealed and replaced with a British Bill of Rights which provides for a more balanced and reasonable consideration of the rights of all parties.

I am in favour of Human rights. I want them to be implemented in a way which is consistent with fairness and justice.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

On the health impact of Cannabis

One of the problems with the way drug policy is debated in this country is that it very many of the comments you hear on the subject either understate or overstate the health risks involved with drugs.

Politicians occasionally get asked whether we have ever taken illegal drugs. In my case I have never had either the desire or the opportunity: unusually for someone of my age, I managed to spend five years at University without ever coming into contact with any drug other than alcohol or nicotine. There was a reason for this. Within weeks of arriving at Bristol University, I entered a debating championship in which contestants could be asked to speak on subjects which might bear no relation to their actual opinions or knowledge, and I was assigned to speak against a motion calling for the legalisation of cannabis.

For the first nineteen years of my life up to that point I had taken little interest in drugs policy. I had heard advocates of legalising cannabis argue that the effects of that drug are no worse than those which can sometimes be caused by worse than those of alcohol and tobacco, and as both booze and fags can kill I was singularly unimpressed by this argument.

Equally, some of the arguments I had heard on the other side sounded a bit alarmist. So I decided to do a little research, and was surprised by how much evidence I quickly managed to find that there were links between smoking pot and mental problems, motor control difficulties, and birth defects in the children of the heavy user.

So I managed to put together a fairly hard-hitting speech against legalisation, which I was subsequently told had earned me a place in the next round. The reaction of several of the audience and other participants after the debate was almost comical: after the debate there were comments to me like "that was incredibly good for a speech defending a viewpoint which nobody could possibly hold; - er - you didn't really believe what you were saying, did you?"

Not knowing how to respond to this - remember, I was nineteen and did not want to make enemies - I recalled the advice attributed to Abraham Lincoln ("Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt") and simply smiled. Apparently that was far more intimidating than anything I could possibly have said, and for the rest of my university career most of my fellow students were careful not to say or do anything too incriminating in my presence!

My actual position is to draw a distinction between medicinal and recreational use of cannabis. Responsible use of this substance as a means of pain relief can deliver benefits. I am in favour of making it easier for sufferers from severe pain to legally obtain cannabis for medicinal use under an appropriate degree of professional medical supervision. However, I consider that the scientific evidence that cannabis can also cause harm is sufficient that recreational use should be strongly discouraged. I am therefore against any legal regime that sends the signal that the drug is not dangerous.

Coming back to where we started, an interesting report was published recently in The Lancet concerning the results of studies into the long term effects of cannabis use, and to which several researchers at my old university, Bristol, participated.

The authors, found evidence that using cannabis could increase the risk of developing a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia, later in life.

Dr Stanley Zammit from Bristol and Cardiff Universities, and colleagues at the universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Imperial College London, analysed 35 studies dated up to 2006. They assessed the strength of evidence for a causal relationship between cannabis use and the occurrence of psychotic or other mental health disorders.

The study, funded by the Department of Health and based in the University of Bristol, found that individuals who used cannabis were 41 per cent more likely to have any psychosis than those who had never used the drug. The risk increased relative to dose, with the most frequent cannabis users more than twice as likely to have a psychotic outcome.

Professor Glyn Lewis from the University of Bristol, and senior author on the paper, said: "It is difficult to be certain about whether cannabis use causes psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. It is possible that the people who use cannabis might have other characteristics that themselves increase risk of psychotic illness . However, all the studies have found an association and it seems appropriate to warn members of the public about the possible risk."

Dr Zammit added: "Policymakers want to provide the public with advice about this widely used drug. However, even if cannabis does cause an increase in risk of developing psychosis most people who use cannabis will not develop such an illness. Nevertheless, we would still advise people to avoid or limit their use of this drug, especially if they start to develop any mental health symptoms or if they have relatives with psychotic illnesses."

The authors estimate that if cannabis had a causal relationship with psychosis, about 14 per cent of psychotic illnesses in young adults in the UK could be prevented if cannabis were not consumed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

On photographs ...

One of the ongoing problems for anyone involved in politics, especially for those of us who have the misfortune not to be as photogenic as, say. Robert Redford, is to find photographs we can use which combine being recognisable, make us look like normal human beings, and are not too unflattering.

A further problem is that residents are getting more sophisticated in spotting when an image does not look quite right. There have always been a few idiots who put out doctored photographs - the Lib/Dems in Marshalswick and Sandridge were particularly prone to issuing Focus leaflets with badly altered photographs which any reasonably alert resident could spot - but a few people in all parties have been caught doing it.

I've always found badly faked images to be an irritating insult to the electorate whoever does it, but unfortunately from time to time perfectly genuine photographs can look as if they were created using Paintshop or a similar programme. I recently found to my disappointment that some photographs taken on a beautiful day in Keswick showing me with local landmarks like the Mary Hewetson Cottage Hospital or Keswick Jobcentre, could not be used because the contrast between my image and the buildings behind me was so sharp that these perfectly genuine images looked artificial.

I have also been concerned that on more than one occasion in the last six months people have complained that I don't look like some of the photographs of me which are in circulation.

On one instance I was eating my lunch in Whitehaven, minding my own business for once, and wearing my work passcard with a photograph on it, when a couple of ladies told my that they didn't think I look like the image on my passcard. On another occasion I was attending a Neighbourhood watch meeting, and someone failed to recognise me and asked who I was: on being told my identity he appeared quite upset, produced a sheet with mugshots of Copeland Councillors, and told me I didn't look like mine.

The fact that I usually wear glasses but occasionally use contact lenses instead doesn't appear to have been the issue. No, although I thought both photographs were reasonable likenesses, the ladies and gentlemen concerned didn't agree.

So I am quite relieved that a number of people we have spoken to while delivering one of my most recent leaflets have recognised me instanctly from the photograph on the front, which was taken by local Whitehaven photographer, Peter Reay. At last that's one image from which people can identify me, so thanks, Peter!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Whitehaven Car Parking Strategy

At yesterday's meeting of Copeland Borough Council, my colleague Alex Carroll asked for and was given an assurance that local residents and businesses will be given the opportunity to comment on and contribute to the work which the council is doing to develop a "car parking strategy."

Alex, myself, and other Whitehaven councillors regularly get our ears bent by local residents who are very unhappy about traffic and parking issues in the town. (Obviously I am aware that parking is also a very hot issue in many other parts of the constituency, such as Seascale, Keswick, and quite a few other towns and villages.)

Local Conservatives in Whitehaven are currently running a survey to find out the views of residents about traffic and parking issues. We originally started this with a view to feeding into a review of parking enforcement which the council is running, but are extending it to cover the parking strategy. I would be very interested to hear the views of local residents and businesses about this.

Have your say on Health

The long-awaited public consultation on the future of Health services in Cumbria is now expected to be launched on or about 19th September.

The consultation document, "Close to Home" which is due to be issed by the NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) for Cumbria on that date is expected to cover all health issues in the county.

This would include the future of West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, and Mary Hewetson Cottage Hospital in Keswick: it will also cover GP and dental services. The consultation will last some 13 weeks.

Doubtless as a result of the mauling which successive NHS leaderships have received in public meetings in Whitehaven and elsewhere in Cumbria, the Primary Care Trust has decided to go for an Open Day format in which people can drop in to speak to NHS representatives on a 1:1 basis, instead of public meetings. This makes it all the more important that everyone with an interest in the future of our local hospitals and health services should come along to the Open Day events and have your say.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Memorial Service: 60th Anniversary of the William Pit disaster

I have just returned home from an immensely moving ceremony which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the William Pit disaster on 15th August 1947 in which 104 miners lost their lives.

This was the last and worst of 14 explosions and many other fires and other disasters during the 151 years that William Pit was open. The total number of men, women, and children killed in the mine between 1804 and 1955 was over three hundred.

As was mentioned this afternoon at the ceremony and in this week's Whitehaven News, the explosion at the William Pit in August 1947 killed 104 men and left 89 women widowed and 230 children fatherless. Of the men down the pit at the time just three survived. In a small and tightly knit community like Whitehaven the impact was absolutely devastating.

Just how powerful the impact was, and also how the whole community rallied round, was demonstrated by the numbers who turned out even sixty years later for today's ceremony. I did not attempt to count how many people took part in the service and procession, but it cannot have been far short of a thousand. And it was not just local people who rallied round: support was given from other mining communities in Britain and abroad.

Although there had been some wet weather earlier this weekend, the sky cleared over Whitehaven early this afternoon. A moving ceremony in the gardens of St Nicholas's, the procession to the site of William Pit itself under the looming mass of Bransty Hill, and the brief but powerful final commemoration at the pit site all took place in brilliant sunshine.

Today's ceremony also commemorated all those killed in the collieries of West Cumberland, and prayers were said for victims of all the other accidents in all the mines in the area.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Here we go again

Last time Britain was hit by Foot and Mouth Cumbria was the worst affected county. Both farming and tourism suffered extremely badly, to such an extent that even now some farms and businesses are even now still recovering.

Even if the present outbreak is contained, it has potential to do vast damage which the countryside can ill afford, through loss of exports.

I support David Cameron's call for practical action to control the problem.

We need to make sure swift measures are taken both on farm footpaths and on livestock burial to help enforce the foot and mouth exclusion zone imposed around a Surrey farm.

As David said after a farmer reported that walkers were seen crossing farmland within the zone, all steps should be taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

Speaking after talks with NFU leaders in London, David Cameron said:

"Of course we want the countryside to be open for business, but within the exclusion zone it's very important that people don't actually walk from farm to farm, otherwise there will be a risk of spreading it."

He made clear that the Conservatives support the action the Government has so far taken.

"We fully support what the Government is doing to contain, control and eradicate foot and mouth disease in Surrey, and make sure it doesn't spread," he said. "The most important steps have been taken - above all the movement ban. But there are now some practical questions that need to answered."

He added tat, besides the footbath issue, there is a need to look at lifting the ban on on-farm burials, to allow fallen stock to be dealt with during the movement restrictions. And farmers will have every right to be angry if it turned out that the virus was released either from the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright or from the next-door lab at Merial - which is inspected and licensed by the Government.

Speaking earlier at the Cranleigh Show, Mr Cameron declared: "The Government will have some serious questions to answer about the report which came out in 2002 that said the facilities were shabby and not up to standard.

"Farmers up and down the country are going to be quite angry because they have done masses to improve their own biosecurity and they are all suffering at the moment, apparently because of mistakes made at a laboratory which is meant to stop foot and mouth.

"While the movement ban is absolutely right ... we shouldn't forget that the ban on moving all animals around the country is not pain-free.

"It means abattoirs are closed for business but they still have to pay their staff. It means that markets and auctions are completely out of business while the ban continues. Many farmers who need to move stock can't do that. Farmers will be suffering from the movement ban. They will support it - they know it is right - but if they are suffering because others have made mistakes, they have every right to be quite angry."

Finally Mr Cameron declared:

"Obviously the Government have questions to answer because Pirbright is a Government facility and the next-door factory is licensed and inspected by the Government. But we shouldn't jump to conclusions."

He also made clear that he welcomed the independent inquiry into the causes of the outbreak.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A University for Cumbria

Today the new University of Cumbria was launched in Carlisle.

This represents a huge opportunity for the county, especially in respect of employment and health services.

To attract a broader range of jobs we need to improve the range of skills, and a local university will help us to do this.

It also begins to open the door on something of vital importance which was completely impossible without a strong University involvement: developing our District General Hospitals as a Teaching hospital.

This is not something which can be done overnight. But if local councils, PCT and the new university can all commit ourselves to the long-term aim of setting up a teaching hospital in Cumbria, we will have taken a step towards providing our hospital services with a more secure future.