Friday, December 31, 2010

DC's New Year Message

The Prime Minister writes:

"After eight months in this job, I am acutely conscious of the challenges we face as a country. But I begin this New Year in the same positive frame of mind as when I set out the task of starting a new government back in May.

By nature I am an optimist – about people, about human nature and, above all, about the future of our great country.

If we sort out our problems, and make the most of our many opportunities, we can be one of the international success stories of the new decade.

As for politics, my approach is simple: politics is public service in the national interest.

We all have our dreams, ambitions and principles that we cherish and want to put into place.

But most important of all, particularly at times like this, is to deal with the real problem in front of us.

And there can be no doubt what that is: the state of our economy and the budget deficit.

We have been living seriously beyond our means.

We have to sort this out.

Every sensible person knows this.

The national interest dictates that we do the right thing, which is to act, not the easy thing, which would be to delay.

In doing so, we should be clear: Britain has a really bright future to look forward to.

2011 is going to be a difficult year, as we take hard but necessary steps to sort things out.

But the actions we are taking are essential, because they are putting our economy and our country on the right path.

Together, we can make 2011 the year that Britain gets back on its feet.

Eight months ago we inherited an economy in deep trouble.

The previous government had racked up the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history.

We only have to look at what’s been happening in Greece or Ireland to see the kind of danger we were in.

Rising interest rates. Falling confidence. Others questioning whether you are still credit-worthy as a country.

And, remember, the deficit we inherited back in May was actually forecast to be bigger than that of Ireland or Greece – or any other developed country for that matter.

But we have pulled Britain out of that danger zone.

Through the Budget and the Spending Review we’ve taken some really tough decisions to rescue our public finances and fundamentally change the direction of our economy.

The new independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts the economy will grow continuing into 2011 and growth will rise further in 2012.

So we have a credible plan for restoring confidence in our economy.

But we have to see it through.

A lot of the heavy lifting will happen in 2011.

Each and every Minister in this Government is acutely aware that the plans we have in place are tough, in fact incredibly difficult, but we are clear that the alternative – indecision and delay – would mean taking unacceptable risks with our economy, our country and our people.

I didn’t come into politics to make cuts.

Neither did Nick Clegg.

But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas.

We’re tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal.

This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.

When we talk of building a bigger, stronger society, we mean it.

These debts are not the Government’s debts, they are the country’s debts.

We are all in this together.

As we deal with the deficit we are protecting the things people cherish the most – like the National Health Service and the old age pension that we are re-linking to earnings.

We want to take people with us.

The Coalition – two distinct political parties, working together to tackle a national economic emergency – is the embodiment of that spirit.

Now of course Coalition politics is not always straightforward. We don’t agree on everything. We never said we would.

But I believe we are bringing a new style of government.

A more collegiate approach. One where we’re prepared to argue things out and then act to do what we both believe is in the national interest.

The political risks are greater this way. But so too are the rewards.

As a Coalition government we are governing to the needs of the country.

And, in the last eight months, I believe that the government has been decisive, bold and determined.

We must maintain that drive in the months and years ahead.

As we start 2011, our priorities should be about enterprise, aspiration, the modernisation of our public services and the security of our people.

First, enterprise.

Uppermost in my mind as we enter the New Year is jobs.

Now ultimately it’s not government that creates jobs – it’s businesses, entrepreneurs, wealth creators.

And that is particularly true when governments are so deeply in debt that they have to cut back their own spending programmes.

So small and growing businesses will be our most important job creators.

And I want us to look at all the reasons why people find it so hard to start a business and all the barriers that stop a small business growing and really get tough with ourselves in addressing them.

I want us to create a new economic dynamism in our country.

I want to see more bank lending, particularly for small businesses. More deregulation. More investment in the sectors of the future – like with our reform of the electricity markets which will help to create tens of thousands of new sustainable green jobs.

From the start of the year right through to the Budget and beyond, we are resolved to be relentlessly focused on supporting growth and driving job creation across our economy.

Second, aspiration.

In spite of some good measures in recent years – Sure Start and the Academy programme for instance – social mobility in Britain has stalled.

Bright children from poor backgrounds do much better in other countries than they do here in the UK.

That shames us.

It’s in the very earliest years of a child’s life that disadvantage really takes hold.

That’s why we are protecting schools spending and enhancing it for the least well-off, offering free nursery education for disadvantaged two-year-olds and introducing a pupil premium, worth hundreds of pounds for each disadvantaged pupil.

But unless we modernise our public services, like education, we will never build a country of real opportunity.

Nor will we ever sustainably live within our means with outdated public services, pensions and welfare.

So our third priority must be to modernize those public services.

We will shift power away from central bureaucracy and give choice to the parents, patients and local citizens who use public services.

This will mean more open public services, more innovative, more responsive to what people want, and better value for money.

Fourth and finally, I want to say something about our national security.

For many years now we have been aware of the threat we face from international terrorism.

Recent arrests show that that threat is still very much with us.

And it is as serious today as it ever has been.

As we enter the New Year our police officers, together with their colleagues in the security and intelligence agencies, are working around the clock to foil plots that would do terrible harm to our people and our economy.

This government will be unstinting in the support it gives them.

But they also depend on the support of the public as they go about their work: together we will defend our values and way of life and defeat those who threaten them.

But we must ask ourselves as a country how we are allowing the radicalisation and poisoning of the minds of some young British Muslims who then contemplate and sometimes carry out acts of sickening barbarity.

And the overwhelming majority of British Muslims who detest this extremism must help us to find the answers together.

But in the fight against terrorism we cannot just protect ourselves at home.

We also need to take action with our international partners abroad.

Just before Christmas, the Prince of Wales and I visited service personnel being treated at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham.

It was a stark reminder of the incredible bravery and sacrifice being made by all our servicemen and women who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.

For those serving in Afghanistan, 2011 is a crucial year in which we will start to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control.

As the Afghans become steadily more capable of looking after their own security, so we will be able to start to bring our own forces home.

Enterprise, aspiration, public service reform and national security: these are the things that will determine whether in 2011 we take the steps towards the better, stronger, safer Britain that is within our grasp.

I am determined that we will.

That together, we have the right plan to pull through the tough times ahead.

And that if 2010 was the year we stopped the rot, we can make 2011 the year that Britain gets back on her feet."

You can listen to this message as a podcast on the Number Ten website here, or to the section of the messate dealing with terrorism and security with supporting video on the Telegraph website here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas reading - Decline and Fall

In between spending some time with the children over Christmas and tackling some long-overdue tasks around the house, my Christmas reading has been the second volume of the diaries of Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP for Sunderland South, which are called "Decline and Fall."

On the face of it, I should have very little in common with Chris Mullin beyond a common dedication to politics and the fact that we both strongly disagree with the idea of locking people up for three months without trial. We come from very different parts of the political spectrum, and one of the things which marked his tenure as a select committee chairman was an ill-judged attack on an organisation of which I am a member and which I believe does far more good every year by helping those in need than the average M.P. does in his entire career.

Nevertheless, Mullin's diaries are not just entertaining and informative but moving and thought-provoking. And in spite of what I wrote in the previous paragraph, the proportion of time when I found myself agreeing with him was something between astonishing and downright scary.

In his valedictory speech, Chris Mullin predicted that very few of those then occupying the green benches at Westminster would be remembered in twenty years' time, and he did not expect to be among them.

I think there are two things for which Mullin does deserve to be remembered.

The first is the role he played in one of the very few instances during the thirteen years from 1997 to 2010 when the House of Commons did its job of checking the Executive properly, by stopping the 90-day detention proposal which would have taken us way too close to becoming a police state.

The second is these diaries. You can order the first volume, "A view from the foothills" here, and the second volume, "Decline and fall" here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Very Merry Christmas to anyone reading this

Wherever you are, and whatever your colour, creed or politics, I wish everyone who is reading this a happy and holy Christmas season and a healthy and prosperous New Year 2011.

A Christmas "Knock-knock"

My young son is very fond of "Knock-knock" jokes.

After my children were up very early this morning, we reminded my son of a knock-knock joke which is often used in our family, referring to a line from "Tommy" which consequently seemed particularly apposite in our home this Christmas ...

"Knock Knock!"

"Who's there?"


"The Who?"

"Did you ever see the faces of the children? They get so exited!
Waking up on Christmas morning, long before the winter sun's ignited ..."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Pharmacy rota in Whitehaven

The emergency pharmacy rota in the Whitehaven to Egremont area over the Christmas and New Year period 2010 to 2011 is as follows:

Christmas Day, 6-7pm, Tesco Pharmacy, Bransty Row, North Shore, Whitehaven

Boxing Day, 6-7pm, W Fare, 71-73 Market Place, Whitehaven

New Year's Day, 6-7pm, Murray's Pharmacy, 31 Market Place, Egremont.

IN an emergency you can phone your GP out of hors service or the A&E at the West Cumberland. Urgent prescriptions should be endorsed as "Urgent" by a G.P.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

With Friends like these

I have been reading an interesting article by contributing editor Dan Hodges on Labour Uncut called "The Left is losing its marbles."

Five years ago I quoted on this blog some thoughts by Mark Shields, an American journalist, on the pattern followed by parties which lose elections. He was thinking of the American Democrats (who he usually supports) after George W Bush's re-election, and I said at the time his comments were every bit as applicable to British Conservatives. Now they are relevant to the Labour party.

Sheilds argued that parties which lose elections go through four phases:

1) We woz robbed

2) Blame the communications

3) Blame the leader/candidate

4) Find a Winner

I commented at the time

"I've had a bellyful of phases one, two and three. Whether there is any justice in them or not, they don't work."

Obviously the majority of the rest of the Conservative party felt the same way, as they elected David Cameron who is now Prime Minister.

Dan Hodges would like Labour to find a winner. Just as the Conservatives might not have had to wait 13 years after 1997 before there was a Conservative PM again if we had been a bit more realistic about our position, so Labour may be out of power for a lot longer than they currently expect unless they are willing to face facts the way Mr Hodges does. Here are a few examples of his comments:

“Something’s happening out there”, one shadow minister said to me, hopefully. He’s right. What’s happening is that the left is losing its marbles.

"Freed from the shackles (sometimes called responsibilities) of office, we are acting like children in an anarcho-syndicalist sweet shop. Shall we go on the fees protest? No, let’s hit Vodafone. Wait, what about the demo against the police? Aren’t we supposed to be targeting the Lib Dems’ offices? Or is it Top Shop? And the occupations? Hey, the cuts; what about the cuts…?

"All of this could be dismissed as youthful high spirits, if it weren’t for the desperate efforts of the Labour party leadership to appropriate the zeitgeist. School children wanting to join in demos, “should be free to do so”, said Ed Miliband. No, they shouldn’t. School children should be in school, not putting themselves in between a tooled-up Met and an SWP rent-a-mob.

"In fairness to the student protestors, at least they’re successfully marrying flair with organisational acumen. If only the same could be said for Labour.

... "our search for a strategic narrative has degenerated into farce. First, we were told that Labour in opposition would hit the ground running. Then we were told it would be a marathon not a sprint. Then we were told: forget that, it’s a sprintathon, and started rushing after every Lib Dem in sight. Jackie Ashley described this as, “the long game and the short game, and the ‘now’ game”. I’ve got an alternative. It’s called the “making it up as you go along” game.

"We lost the previous election because we were on a different page to the electorate. Now we are in serous danger of entering a parallel universe.

"Debates about tactics, strategy and ideology are one thing. But what is happening in the party at the moment represents not a political divergence, but a divergence of reality. It is as if a collective madness is taking hold. I cannot see how anyone can seriously believe that tying Labour to a high tax, pro-student, anti-police, anti-consumer, anti-business programme is the right path for the party to pursue."

You can read the full item here.

One way of clearing snow ...

Out this afternoon in Bransty ward delivering a Christmas newsletter, my colleage Graham Roberts and I passed a resourceful constituent who was melting the snow from his drive with a piece of equipment which was something between a very large blowtorch and a small flamethrower.

Well that's one way of doing it. Actually the most dramatic indication of just how severe this cold snap has been was how long it was taking even a jet of flame to melt the ice, though it gave Graham and myself some opportunities to amuse ourselves with ideas of alternative uses for the flamethrower. Most of which we won't be repeating in front of anyone we don't know in case they turn out to be an undercover reporter ...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An apology is owed to the McWhirter family

David Baddiel, Alun Davies, and the BBC all owe an apology to the family of the late Norris McWhirter for an outrageous slur against a dead man, and to the Freedom Association for describing them as a 'slightly posher version of the BNP.'

Hat tip to Dan Hannan and Cranmer for pointing out that comedian David Baddiel, while promoting a short film he had made about a visit by Norris McWhirter to his old school, made some entirely inappropriate remarks on Alan Davies's show on BBC radio Five Live on Saturday.

The interview begins just after 1 hour and seven minutes into the two hour slot if you follow this link to BBC iPlayer. The comments to which Dan and Cranmer have taken offence - rightly, in my opinion - begin 1 hour 23 minutes and 35 seconds into the BBC iPlayer segment.

There is no doubt that the late Norris McWhirter, who with his brother Ross started the "Guinness Book of Records" and was involved with "Record Breakers," did have strong political opinions: he was Conservative parliamentary candidate for Orpington in 1964 and 1966, and founded the "Freedom Association."

However, his views were within the political mainstream, and he was a libertarian right winger, not an authoritarian one.

In other words, he believed in a small state, low taxes, light regulaton, and personal liberty, which he wanted to defend against both overmighty state institutions and overmighty trade unions. He believed in the rights of the individual, including the freedom of unpopular minorities to go about their business without interference from the authorities: he was the sort of right winger who is genuinely committed to civil liberties. Not the kind of extremist who wants to deport people whose skin is the wrong colour.

Comparing Norris McWhirter to ultra-nationalists such as Mosley's British Union of Fascists or the BNP is both wrong and highly offensive to anyone who knew the man. This would have been the case even had he not spent the best years of his life, during World War II, fighting against Nazism and Fascism in the Royal Navy. Between 1943 and 1946 Norris McWhirter served on escort duty in Atlantic and then aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific.

Baddiel described the Freedom Association as "sub-BNP, kind of a slightly posher version of the BNP." Alan Davies asked Baddiel if Norris McWhirter was a "Brown shirt with Mosley or whatever they were called." David Baddiel replied that "I have no idea and I wouldn't like to slander him" - an admirable sentiment, and a great pity he didn't have that thought about forty seconds earlier.

Allowing this sort of smear to go out on public broadcast, for which anyone who wishes to listen to terrestial TV in this country is required by law to pay through the licence fee, is not appropriate.

The Guardian sinks its' teeth into the Unite boss

A "Man bites dog" story: a Guardian editorial on Monday, Leading Nowhere attacked Len McCluskey, newly elected general secretary of Unite.

As even the Guardian can see

"the public does not want an unreformed welfare state, a lame duck industrial sector or trade unions that seem more concerned with overthrowing governments than representing workers' interests democratically. It wants welfare, work and industrial democracy that are relevant to today's world, not that of our grandparents. The labour movement will not be able to defend and renew what it cherishes if it follows Mr McCluskey up the blind alley of deficit denial, indiscriminate opposition to all cuts, and a programme of strikes which large parts of the country will see as an attack on rather than a defence of the public realm."

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Snow and Climate Change

Posters on Political Betting have been chuckling at a ten year old article which one of them unearthed at the weekend, while the country was under a thick blanket of snow, entitled "Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past."

And certainly some of the predictions in Charles Onians' March 2000 article, such as "snow is starting to disappear from our lives" look pretty funny at the moment.

As we experience the second of two consecutive savage winters, at least relative to recent history, it is fairly obvious that the received wisdom of a few years ago, which the article represents, that the world is dramatically warming, is to put it mildly, a little overstated and oversimplistic.

As we learn more about the environment, we can expect previous theories and views will sometimes be shown to be inaccurate, and need to be amended. Hence we need to be open-minded in our attitude to climate change.

Genuinely open-minded: it is equally unhelpful to label anyone who asks awkward questions about global warming a "climate change denier" or to complacently assume that climate change is a myth and that we don't need to worry about the impact of man's activities on the environment.

Even without global warming, there is still strong scientific evidence that man's release of carbon into the atmosphere is starting to cause serious environmental damage - turning the oceans acid, for instance - and needs to be restricted.

Look back at the March 2000 article. The headline looks pretty silly today, but actually there are a few predictions in the body of the article that will strike a chord today. For example, one of the scientists quoted in the article said that heavy snow will return occasionally, but when it does we will be unprepared, adding

"We're really going to get caught out. Snow will probably cause chaos in 20 years time."

Don't think too many people would dispute that after only ten years it's done just that!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rentoul on Cameron

John Rentoul in the Independent has a very interesting analysis on David Cameron's performance as Prime Minister called "Like it or not, Cameron is a born leader."

Rentoul quotes Labour's former home secretary John Reid as saying of Cameron last week:

"He is a better prime minister than he was leader of the opposition. If he had been as successful as leader of the opposition as he now is as prime minister, and as astute, then the Tories would have an overall majority."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A memorable weather report

Heard on the radio a little before 8 am this morning -the most succinct weather forecast I can remember.

"Ice, snow, frost - I'd stay under the duvet today if I were you."

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Axe man cometh

A very busy week: still coming to terms with the local government spending assessments.

Cumbria CC got off comparatively lightly, but Copeland BC has taken an even worse caning than we expected, apparently mainly as a result of the withdrawal of various "Top Up" grants.

Wednesday's delayed Full Council meeting was dominated by screaming about this, with various Labour councillors putting the blame firmly in the wrong place. The reality is that painful measures were inevitable whoever had won the election, because the outgoing Labour government left the country bankrupt.

Labour – up to their necks in debt

Because Gordon Brown doubled the national debt,

* This year, 2010-11, the burden of interest on government debt will be £42 billion in 2010-11. If we didn’t have to pay this money, we could abolish council tax overnight, and still have £16 billion left of change.

* Unless we cut the borrowing, interest on the Labour Government’s toxic legacy of debt will hit £70 billion a year by 2014-15. This is more than is currently raised from council tax, business rates, stamp duty and inheritance tax combined.

Spending four pounds for every three in income is simply not sustainable, and a black hole of that magnitude in the public finances simply cannot be closed without pain. Even Labour recognised this, which is why ...

Labour too were planning deep cuts

* The Labour Government was planning spending cuts of £52 billion by 2014-15. These were frontloaded cuts - with a hit of £14 billion cuts falling in 2011-12 (HM Treasury, Spending Review 2010, October 2010, p.78).

* Some of these cuts were made public in small print. Labour’s Budget in March 2010 planned £300 million of cuts to RDA regeneration spending, to the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, to the Local Enterprise Growth Initiative, and to Housing and Planning Delivery Grant. On top of this were another £185 million of back-of-a-fag-packet cuts to ‘time-limited communities programmes’ and ‘rationalising other smaller CLG programmes’. This is even before so-called ‘operational efficiency’ savings (HM Treasury, Budget 2010, March 2010, p.93).

Labour politicians are pretending that these cuts are all down to the wicked coalition, but what would they do?

* If Labour do not believe that savings should be made to the local government budget, they need to explain which other department they would cut more.

* Labour's plans also included big cuts to housing, regeneration and local government - possibly bigger than we are now making. The Labour Government’s plans implied average real cuts for non-protected departments (DEL) of 20 per cent. Because of the further efficiency savings and the savings on Annually Managed Expenditure (AME) (welfare and debt interest) found by the Coalition Government, the average real cuts to non-protected departments will only be 19 per cent.

* Labour in office failed to deliver proper efficiency savings. The DCLG failed to deliver £947 million of planned efficiency savings that were scheduled in the 2007 Spending Review and Budget 2009, of which £734 were supposed to be from affordable housing savings (DCLG, Core Financial and Performance Tables Report, July 2010, p.30 and Public Accounts Committee, Progress with VFM savings, HC 440, October 2010, p.9).

* Labour would have slashed regeneration spending if they had won the general election. In April, Ed Miliband said: ‘As we look forward it’s [regeneration spending] not the biggest priority we face as we look at other competing priorities’ (Ed Miliband, BBC Radio 4 Today, cited in Regeneration and Renewal/PlanningResource, 12 April 2010).

* Labour would have slashed housing investment if they had won the general election. Gordon Brown admitted during the election: ‘Housing is essentially a private sector activity. Let’s be honest about this, Jeremy. Housing is essentially a private sector activity… I don’t see a need for us to continue with such a big renovation programme’ (Gordon Brown, BBC 2, Newsnight, 30 April 2010).

And as Labour’s departing Chief Secretary told the incoming Government: ‘I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam!’ (The Guardian, 17 May 2010).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In the public interest

How do you ensure that whistleblowers and people who release information which ought to get out cannot be convicted under laws designed to catch spies, thieves, or those whose activities are a genuine threat to national security?

Most civilised countries square this circle by qualifying the laws against people who leak or publish sensitive information with a public interest defence.

E.g. if you are "Wikileaks" and you publish secret information, but bringing that information into the public domain may cause criminals in high places to be caught, cause a policy which genuninely needs scrutiny to receive it, or otherwise be in the public interest, you can use this in your defense.

On the other hand, if you publish stolen information, especially if this may put innocent lives at risk, and cannot point to such a corresponding benefit, you can and should be successfully prosecuted.

I've been following the "Wikileaks" debate with some interest. One or two of the nuggets among the vast amount of material published might well be argued by a reasonable person to demonstrate a "public interest defence"

A much larger amount generates a "Tell me something I don't know" reaction.

So Prime Minister Putin is the "Alpha Dog" in Russia? What a surprise.

The Italian PM likes a good party? You don't say.

Some US diplomats didn't like Gordon Brown ? Neither did millions of Brits, apparently including quite a few of his own cabinet.

Prince Andrew occasionally makes tactless comments? His dad's been doing that for 40 years and it hasn't brought down the monarchy yet.

Unfortunately there are also more than a few items which would appear to potentially put lives at risk. Publicising the private comments of those Arab leaders who appear to have urged the USA to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons could potentially have caused trouble in those countries and made war more likely. And the lives of innocent people could quite possibly have been put at risk by the leaking of comments which might cause the Iranian security services - or mobs - to think they had identified people who had given information to the US, which they might regard as treason.

Has Wikileaks made the world a safer place? If they had been vastly more selective about the information they released, they might have. As it is, there is a strong case that they have made the world more dangerous.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Labour's fox gets shot ...

Certain Labour party spinners and bloggers, and their friends at the Guardian have been trying to talk up the possibility that the PM's media advisor, Andy Coulson, might face charges over illegal phone hacking while he waws editor of the News of the World.

As Mike Smithson at political betting suggests here, there has consequently been a betting market on whether Coulson will have to resign - and Mike advises putting your money against it.

At one stage the BBC was also running with this story, but they seem to have seen the writing on the wall. The BBC reports here that prosecutors have investigated the allegations and dropped any idea of bringing charges.

As the BBC reports, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, says there was no admissible evidence to support the claims that public figures' phones were hacked.

Former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare had made lurid allegations in the New York Times about widespread phone hacking at the paper, but refused to co-operate with police in their investigation.

The DPP added that "A number of other witnesses were interviewed and either refused to co-operate with the police investigation, provided short statements which did not advance matters, or denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.

"Against that background, there is no admissible evidence upon which the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) could properly advise the police to bring criminal charges."

Translated into layman's language that means there are no grounds to take the allegations seriously until and unless someone comes forward with real evidence, which so far they haven't.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Tuition Fees

I have very mixed feelings about the Tuition Fees package which the government successfully carried this evening.

When I was a student union officer I took part in demonstrations calling for improvements to grants packages which were vastly more generous to students at the taxpayers' expense, and I have no doubt that if I were still a student union officer I would have been of the same mind.

Actually it's quite ironic when you look back to the debates we used to have, to see what ministers of all parties have subsequently done.

Suppose that in 1985 I or one of my tory student contemporaries such as Iain Dale had told our fellow students that over the next 25 years

* Mrs Thatcher would be the last Prime Minister during whose tenure students were paid support from the state consisting entirely of grants with no loan element and the state covering fees

* When Labour finally got into power, one of their first actions would be to introduce fees payable by students despite a manifesto promise not to do so, and in their campaign for re-election they would promise not to top-up (increase) the fees and then break that promise too.

* And one of the last actions of the outgoing Labour government would be to set up a review which resulted in a further large increase in fees, though it would be left to Conservatives and Liberals to vote this through

I am quite certain we would have been laughed out of the room.

There is no ideal way to fund higher education. I really dislike burdening students with this level of debt. My own university education cost taxpayers some £30,000 in 1980's money, I have already paid this back to HMRC several times over in 25 years of paying income tax myself, and can expect to do so several more times before I retire. On reasonable assumptions about how much my university degrees have boosted my income, the government's 40% share of that extra income will have been enough to give a very good return on the taxpayers' money invested in my education.

But, but, but and again, but ...

The economics of providing student grants worked fine in a period when fewer than 10%of the age group had the opportunity to go to University. It is enormously more challenging to make the economics work when about 40% of young people have that opportunity.

And although I think we can and should look very carefully at the quality and value of all degrees, and encourage all potential students to think very carefully about what they want to study and why, I absolutely would not want to restrict access to Higher Education to the small minority who had the chance to benefit from it when I was a student.

What is not getting through all the screaming is that the increase in fees has been accompanied by a considerable improvement in elements of the package designed to ensure that no potential student, especially from an imnpoverished background, should be deterred from going to university by fear of debt.

In particular, the minimum income threshold at which a graduate starts to have to pay back to the student loan company the money borrowed to pay for fees and maintenance is being increased to £21,000. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years.

Interest rates on the loan will be subsidised on a progressive taper. For graduates earning below £21,000, who are not yet contributing the real rate of interest on their outstanding balance will be zero. For graduates earning between £21,000 and around £41,000, a real rate of interest will be tapered in to reach a maximum of inflation plus 3%. When graduates are earning above £41,000 they will be making a full contribution to the costs of the system but still incurring interest well below normal commercial rates.

In fact, under the new system, a quarter of graduates – those on the lowest incomes – will pay less overall than they do at present.

More details of the measures taken to ensure that the fees increase does not restrict access to Higher Education by anyone who should be able to benefit from it are given in a statement by David Willetts which you can read here.

Consequently nobody should be made poorer by going to university - those who don't get a job paying more than £21,000 will not have to pay the money back, those who do have to repay the money will be those whose lifetime income will have been increased as a result of going to university by more than the extra repayments they will have to make.

Those who make a big fuss about the possibility of students from poorer backgrounds being put off going to University by the fear of debt are in danger of thereby creating the very outcome the possibility of which they criticise.

And, frankly, we cannot ignore the huge budget deficit which the coalition government inherited from it's profligate and incompetent Labour predecessors. When you are trying to correct a deficit of a hundred and forty billion pounds a year, and correct a situation where the government is spending four pounds for every three coming in, you have to take painful and unpleasant decisions. Those who argue that the student fees issue is separate from the problem of our bankrupt public finances merely prove themselves to be economically illiterate.

None of this takes us away from the fact that this system is enormously less generous than the one under which students of my generation went through university, and I do not blame the present generation of students for being cross about the change, though rioting will do them no good.

However much I dislike the fees increase, I think the package which the coalition government has voted through this evening was probably the least worst policy on funding Higher Education which could have been achieved for the country in the present horrible situation.

If you want to criticise the MPs who broke a promise, criticise them, not for their vote tonight, but for signing in the first place a pledge which they should have known was likely to be impossible to deliver if they were in government.

Those who voted for the measure will take plent of flak, but they have done the right thing. Those who voted against may get plaudits, but they have voted with their hearts and not their heads.


Attended a meeting this afternoon in relation to the Department of Energy and Climate Change reconsultation about the revised draft National Policy Statement on Energy.

Much of the debate concerned the Kirksanton and Braystones site, which the new government is proposing to remove from the list of possible locations for new nuclear build. (Local residents of those area were very keen to ensure this change is confirmed and those sites are not subsequently proposed again.)

The remainder of the discussion was very supportive of Sellafield going forward as a site for new nuclear build, with all speakers from the floor (including myself) also arguing for an effective, phased plan for insfrastructure improvements to put but in place no later than the submission of any planning application.

The consultation is open until Monday 24th February and you can respond online via the DECC website here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Harras Moor gas leak

About 40 homes in the Harras Moor area of Bransty ward had to be evacuated today after a gas main developed a leak. The road from the Sunny Hill to Red Lonning was also cordoned off for much of the day.

A reception centre was set up in St Benedict's school: about 35 people used the service, other residents went to stay with family or friends. Sixth form pupils at the school served hot food and drinks to the residents at the reception centre, while an emergency response team, Copeland council, Red Cross and other organisations worked to manage the situation.

The gas leak, into the local sewer from a fractured main, was contained by early evening and a phased programme has begun to let residents back into their homes.

Jackie O'Reilly from Copeland Councils Environmental Health department and Ruth Walsh co-ordinated the council's response and as a ward councillor for the affected are I would like to put on record by appreciation and thanks for their hard work, and also thank the pupils and staff at St Benedict's.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Copeland Council meeting postponed

The meeting of Copeland Borough Council which had been due to take place at 2pm this afternoon has been postponed because of difficult travel conditions: the roads in West Cumbria are very icy at the moment.

I understand that the meeting is likely to be rescheduled for 4pm on Wednesday 15th December at Cleator Moor Town Hall and Masonic Centre.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Watch out on the roads

If you have occasion to travel this evening or tomorrow please take great care: the roads are very treacherous.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Sauce for the Goose ...

I was pleased to hear that David Cameron eventually decided not to have his photographer paid from the public purse: not because the original decision to the contrary was any worse than all the millions the previous Labour government had spent on self-publicity, but because the Conservatives had promised to cut the cost of politics.

Hat tip to Guido Fawkes' blog for pointing out that one of the Labour MPs who criticised the original decision to have the Prime Minister's photographer on the public payroll has herself claimed £634.99 from the taxpayer as parliamentary expenses this year for the cost of her own photographer.

As Guido put it, turning her own words against her, "Charging the taxpayer for vanity shots at a time when people are losing their jobs and homes? This is outrageous.”

Friday, December 03, 2010

Twenty years serving the community

Attended the 20th annoversary celebrations today of the Whitehaven Community Trust.

In that time the Trust has helped with the regeneration of the time, found accomodation for more than 430 vulnerable youngsters with high housing need, and helped many others into employment.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Some attacks say more about the attacker ....

And some criticisms say far more about the person making the criticism than they do about the subject. Such as the tweet today by Ed Miliband’s chief media spokesperson, Kate Myler - which, Mr Miliband's office was quick to point out, was "made in Kate Myler’s personal capacity."

I'm disappointed that England is not to host the 2018 world cup, but it's one of those things - there are far more countries wanting to host such events than they can possibly go to.

I'm quite sure that if David Cameron had refused to lift a finger to back the bid, the Labour party would have been the first to attack him for it.

So what are we to make of Kate Myler's tweet, some time before the final decision, that the Prime Minister was “pimping himself out in Zurich..”

I don't recall that over the last 13 years the Labour party described ministers in their government who tried to being business or international events such as the 2012 Olympics to Britain in those terms.

As a matter of fact the Conservative opposition didn't describe ministers who were trying to bring major events to Britain in those terms either, and I should think not, too.

As Mike Smithson put it at Political Betting here,

"To describe Cameron’s role in these terms says a lot about the state of mind within Ed Miliband’s inner circle. It looks as though they are completely psyched by the Tory leader."

David Cameron has always been what Wellington called a "lucky general" and his luck continues: he has been especially lucky in his Labour opponents.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

May: Putting policing at the heart of the community

Home Secretary Theresa May writes:

"Today we unveiled radical new reforms to put the public back at the heart of our drive to cut crime, and give people more influence over their local communities.

For the first time you will have a real say in how your local area is policed through directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners. From May 2012 these Commissioners will replace faceless police authorities and they will set goals and priorities for their police forces according to the wishes of the public who elect them.

On top of this, we are strengthening the powers that police and councils have to tackle crime and, in particular, alcohol-related, disorder.

We are putting in place these changes because, for too long, the fight against crime has been tangled up in a web of centrally imposed red tape, driving a wedge between the police and their local communities.

Under Labour the police were behind desks, not out on the streets; they were chasing targets, not fighting crime. As the former chair of the Police Federation said, because of 'Government diktats, the service has been reduced to a bureaucratic, target-chasing, points-obsessed arm of Whitehall'.

Instead, our reforms will help make the police more visible, available, and accountable - putting the public back at the heart of policing.

If you're interested in finding out more please click here, and you can tell your friends and family about our reforms."


Theresa May
Home Secretary

Should the Lib/Dems be allowed to abstain on tuition fees?

Tim Montgomerie points out at Conservative Home here that the exact wording of the Tuition Fees section of the Coalition Agreement is as follows:

"If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote".

Things have moved on since then, and it would be more than a little ironic (to put it mildly) that if this agreement is invoked to the letter, the minister who drafted the policy may end up abstaining himself.

I'm not convinced that abstention will satisfy the people who are angry with the Lib/Dems over tuition fees, but that's their problem. An abstention is what was agreed in the coalition agreement, and if the Lib/Dems collectively abstain and the Conservatives all vote for the goverment position, it will be carried with a majority of 13 over all other parties.

If Lib/Dem ministers are allowed to abstain, there is a quid pro quo which the Conservatives can reasonably ask (and which, in fact, might possibly the Lib/Dems as well.)

David Cameron and Nick Clegg can and should each formally promise the other that, as both the coalition parties have agreed how they will vote on the fees issue in the national interest, both party's candidates will be asked not to directly attack the other on the subject at the next general election. E.g. Conservatives won't rub salt in the Lib/Dems' wounds by actively reminding voters in 2015 that the Lib/Dems broke a promise on the subject, Lib/Dems won't attempt to pretend that the fees increase is being entirely the tories' fault. (Which it isn't - Labour commissioned the review which led to this proposal, and the minister who is proposing the changes, whether or not he actually votes for it himself, is a Lib/Dem.)

There is, however a very important learning point out of the miserable mess which our politicians have got themselves into on student fees, and it is one that all parties would do well to remember.

Being honest with the voters is not a matter of promising whatever you like during the election campaign, or whatever will win votes, and expecting to be able to stick blindly to what you promised no matter how stupid or unsustainable a position that puts the country in.

Being honest with the electorate is partly a matter of not making a promise in the first place which you might be unable to keep.

And the Lib/Dems are not the only people who were guilty of that mistake during the 2010 election campaign. If by any ghastly chance Labour had been re-elected, I am convinced that the country would have discovered that the Lib/Dems were by no means the worst offenders.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Labour spend taxpayers' money blaming the coalition for the cuts

You couldn't make it up, could you?

But that's what the Labour council administration in Camden has done.

Here is a link to an article in the Camden New Journal,

Labour spend public money to show cuts are Coalition’s.

If a shortage of money means that "tough decisions" are needed, cutting back on propaganda first ought to be an easy one - for any honest and intelligent politician who cares more about services for the people they were elected to represent.

Clearly the administration in Camden, which is spending £1,500 on posters blaming the government for the cuts, has demonstrated whether any of those descriptions apply to them.

The local Conservative group leader, Councillor Andrew Mennear said: “The current government is having to make spending cuts owing to the previous Labour government’s reckless profligacy with our money during its 13 wasted years in office.

“Labour Camden’s decision to waste our money locally by putting up pointless and arguably political adverts of this nature will not go down well with local residents.”

He added: “We’ve entered a new era of ‘every penny counts’ austerity thanks to the profligacy of Gordon Brown and the negligence of Tony Blair. Even rela­tively small items of expenditure like this need to be held to account.”


Hat tip to Political Betting for drawing my attention to the story.

The dangers of declaring victory too early ...

One of George W Bush's worst mistakes was declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq at a stage when Saddam might have been overthrown but building a stable and secure state to replace what US and British arms had overthrown was, to put it mildly, not complete.

I have similar concerns about the possibility that mainstream politicians may take the setback for extreme nationalist parties in this year's general election, and their low profile in most parts of the country since, as grounds for complacency. This would be a mistake.

Am email sent out this morning from the "Nothing British" campaign says that

"Undoubtedly the BNP as an institution has lost its momentum. The humiliation in Barking. The financial collapse. The EHRC trial. Griffin’s personal failings. And the tremendous work of anti-BNP campaigns. So we are closing down Nothing British at the end of the year. We would like to thank all those who have helped our campaign against the extremism and racism of the BNP, its surrogates and other fascist groups."

The BNP's high water mark was the 2009 County and Euro elections, and they have fallen back dramatically since then: their general election campaign in Copeland was badly mishandled and their vote here fell to a third of what they had polled the previous year. Overall their general election performance was lower than expectations and has been perceived as a failure.

Hence the danger that mainstream politicians may become complacent not just about the BNP but, far more seriously, about the thousands of people who feel sufficiently excluded from mainstream politicians to consider voting for parties like the BNP. To be fair to "Nothing British", they are not encouraging such complacency.

"Nothing British" have published a valedictory article which you can read here about the "Antis" who feel excluded by Westminster politics. As they say in the summary of the report,

"Most voters supporting popular nationalist parties and attitudes do not consider themselves as extremists and would prefer to be engaged in the mainstream parties, if only they spoke to them about their issues."

One aspect of the report which will infuriate both UKIP and the BNP is that it examines voters for both the nationalist parties as representing part of the same tendancy. The report recognises that UKIP is both far more moderate, and more respectable, than the BNP. Nevertheless it argues convincingly that voters who have deserted the three main parties for either UKIP or the BNP are often doing so for very similar reasons and hence support for both parties can be seen as a similar phenomenen. And since those reasons include a feeling of disengagement with a Westminster establishment which is perceived as not listening to or caring about these voters, it isn't disputing their democratic right to cast their ballots as they wish to describe this as a serious problem.

James Bethell of "Nothing British" writes of the report:

"Nonetheless, we remain concerned that the causes of the BNP’s recent surge in popularity have not been addressed by mainstream politicians. Until their legitimate concerns are addressed, those left out of the benefits of globalisation will remain outside the mainstream and a source of potential radicalisation. This report is meant to be a wake-up call to the Westminster parties to face-up to their responsibilities to those who have fought our wars, built our industries and are currently left behind."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rawnsley on the case for and against AV

Andrew Rawnsley has a very good piece in the Observer today, available on the Guardian website here, which is about the case for a Yes or No vote in the AV referendum but rejoices in the title Two-tribe politics is over. But the likes of John Prescott can't see it.

After an effective demolition of Prescott and the other "long in the sabre-tooth" politicians fronting the "No" campaign, Rawnsley sumarises the arguments on both sides in the referendum. He appears to be arguing on balance for a "Yes" while I will be voting "No" but it is a good summary and worth a read if you are interested in an intelligent discussion of the issues.

Now Winter has come ...

Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the Church's year and the beginning of the preparation for Christmas.

Rather appropriately, the first four words of the Advent Hymn with which many congregations will have started their services this morning are

"Now Winter has come"
You're telling me!

If you go out today, please do take care. Many paths and roads are quite treacherous.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On childhood and snow ...

It doesn't often snow in Whitehaven. The majority of years we've been here the entire winter has passed without a single day's snow on the ground.

So when we woke up this morning with about three-quarters of an inch of snow everywhere, and the view over to Kells from our bedroom windows looking like a christmas card, the shrieking of happy children in my household could probably be heard over half of Whitehaven.

Funny how such things bring back memories of one's own childhood, though I don't know what my dad would have said if my brother and I had chosen the bonnet of his car as the ideal place to make a snowman ...

The adults are probably less inclined to celebrate, but it's the weekend and our children are only young once.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ed Byrne caught out on Question Time

Hat tip to Guido Fawkes and Guy News for pointing out a boo-boo by left-wing comedian Ed Byrne: last night on Question Time during a discussion on student fees, Byrne was asked by David Willetts

"Didn't you do some publicity on this under the last Labour government?"

and replied "No" and

"I think you're thinking of somebody else: I didn't do any publicity for the Labour party on anything."

It's usually a bad idea to tell "Two Brains" Willetts he's wrong: his memory turned out to be rather better than Mr Byrne's as this clip by Guy News shows.

After the clip appeared on Guido's site, Ed Byrne tweeted

“I hold my hands up. Completely forgot about it. Apologies to David Willets”

Warsi: getting Britain back on track

Conservative co-chairman Sayeeda Warsi writes ...

As Party Chairman, I spend a lot of my time on the road meeting people across the country and talking about how the Coalition is trying to achieve a better Britain.

Recently I visited Hyndburn, Derby and Doncaster where I spoke to supporters and members of the public about what the Government is doing and how we're doing it.

While we've got a lot more work to do, I think we've made a promising start:

We've brought Britain back from the brink by dealing with the deficit;
We're creating a new economic dynamism and bringing a pro-enterprise attitude to Government;
We're making tough but fair welfare reforms, meaning it will always pay to work. We're ending the absurd situation where some people can claim over £100,000 a year to live in large houses in expensive areas;
And we're protecting the most vulnerable in our society. We're ensuring real terms rise in health and 5-16 schools spending and we're introducing a new £7.2 billion fairness premium to support the least well off.
Our long-term approach is very different to what Mr. Miliband is up to. Ed Miliband was at the heart of the Labour Government that created this mess - but he has no credible plan to clear it up. Instead, he opposes almost every one of our measures to deal with Britain's biggest peacetime deficit.

He actually summed up Labour's position very well in an interview with the Guardian this week: "in terms of policy...we start with a blank page".

So please send this email on to your friends and family and let them know about the start we've made in building a better Britain - and together, we can hold Ed Miliband to account.


Sayeeda Warsi
Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Charles Hendry hints at reprocessing ...

Conservative energy minister Charles Hendry hinted during a visit to Copeland this week that the government may be taking a more positive view of the future of reprocessing.

He also talked about making West Cumbria one of the best placed parts of the world to take advantage of the nuclear renaissance and strongly emphasised the potential benefits to West Cumbria of the infrastructure improvements which will need to come with it.

Charles Hendry told The Whitehaven News that Billions of pounds may flow into West Cumbria, including substantial investment in infrastructure, as part of the development of new nuclear facilities.

Road improvements, transport, health and education services could all be involed, he said.

The minister was speaking on a visit to Sellafield just as Whitehaven was hosting a ‘drop in’ centre for people to give their views on underground disposal of higher levels of nuclear material.

And he said it was only right that local communities should benefit from future nuclear developments.

“We want to make this one of the most attractive places in the world for people to invest in new nuclear,” Mr Hendry declared.

A new nuclear power station around the existing Sellafield site and later the possibility of an underground repository would bring a substantial boost to jobs, enterprise and the economy.

“If new nuclear goes ahead there is four or five billion pounds worth of investment. Companies engaged in new (power station) build are emphasising to me the whole time how they want to use local skills, local services.

“Alongside this we are looking for the right place for geological disposal (of nuclear waste), trying to encourage communities to come forward, there have been three expressions of interest from local authorities in Cumbria; we are working with them to see how we can take forward that interest but there’s no doubt that in terms of marketing this is the Energy Coast which has a unique facility, a unique advantage with a whole range of energy mix.

“As a government we have a strong nuclear vision for this area which we want to help deliver so people can be part of a nuclear renaissance and not just dismantling the old nuclear legacy.”

Asked by The Whitehaven News about the prospects of investment either from the government or the private sector, the minister said:

“I know what the roads are like coming down from Penrith, Oxenholme and Carlisle, so it’s very clear if we are going to see major construction work, the development potentially of a nuclear waste repository then there’s going to need a very significant investment in infrastructure.

“We’re working very closely with the local authorities, identifying what they see as the principle needs of the area. not just in terms of the roads but also in health and education: to see how we can respond effectively.”

On new reactor build, Mr Hendry said he was delighted that Sellafield was on the shortlist of the revised list of potentially suitable UK locations.

“We will do all we can to make it possible but at the end of the day it will be commercial companies who make the decision, we’ve made it quite clear there will be no government subsidy but the companies are saying they are not looking for any, my job is to remove the potential barriers which as the planning, legal and regulatory issues.

“This (Sellafield) is a very good site, you would be hard pushed to find anywhere in Europe which has the same degree of nuclear legacy terms of skills and the interest of people trying to secure new investment. This has to be one of the most attractive locations, you’ve got a workforce which has spent a lifetime working in the sector and with younger blood coming through as well with the skills new build will require.”

Bringing together business, local communities and local authorities was an important driving force but he stressed: “What comes back time and again is the infrastructure – it will need to be improved.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Hat tip to Tim Montgomerie and to Political Betting (not too often you find those two sources in agreement) for pointing out this clip of the shadow chancellor referring to his leader as "Red." Makes you wonder if that's what he calls him in private ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Copeland Council and WRLFC, continued

There was considerable discussion when the Chief Executive's report to councillors on Copeland Council's involvement in Whitehaven Rugby League FC was presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee today.

The report highlighted a number of problems with the way the issue was managed and made a number of suggestions for improvements in council procedures to reduce the chance of some of these problems recurring.

One Labour councillor described what has happened as a "systemic failure" by the council, and I agree.

The council gave the club financial backing designed to protect the club, secure a development at Pow Beck. While it is too early to say how much of the £125,000 of taxpayers money CBC loaned to the club or guaranteed, it is pretty clear that some of the council's investment in the club been lost, not much progress has been made on Pow Beck, and the club went into administration anyway.

Failure on all three fronts: a worst of all worlds situation.

The CEO's recommendations for reform were supported by the committee.

Polly goes Paddy-bashing

Polly Toynbee accuses the Irish of "piracy" and being "bad neighbours" in the Guardian today, and opposes the bailout, saying that "Ireland shouldn't get a penny" until they abandon policies she appears to blame for spreading economic catastrophe over the face of Western Europe.

"Cameron says he is being 'good neighbours' with the Irish. Why, when they have been such terrible neighbours to us?" she asks.

Just imagine how the Guardianistas would react to those words coming from the pen of anyone on the Tory right.

Could it be possible that irony isn't quite dead after all?


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Copeland Council and Whitehaven Rugby League

The Chief Executive's report to councillors on the management of Copeland Council's investment in Haven RLFC will be presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at 5pm tomorrow, Monday 21st November, in the Bainbridge Room at the Copeland Centre in Catherine Street, Whitehaven.

The meeting is open to the public. If you want to come along, allow a few minutes to get your security pass etc sorted out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The sad death of Irony

* Remember when we used to joke at the expense of our cousins over the Pond that "The Americans don't do irony" ?

* Remember when someone who put an argument really badly ran the risk of getting disowned by the side of the debate they were trying to support, or receiving unwelcome congratulations from the side they disagreed with, because their argument was taken for irony?

* Remember that once apon a time, brilliant satirists like Jonathan Swift could parody a view they disagreed with by writing essays like "A Modest Proposal" in the knowledge that everyone who read the article would know perfectly well that the actual message was the exact opposite of what it appeared to be saying.

Well, it now seems that Britain doesn't "do irony" either.

The process has been going on for a while. Shortly after I left Bristol University, there was an attempt by the extreme left to take action against that University's TRG society - yes that's right, not the old FCS hardliners but the "wets" - over two or three cartoons copied from a certain national humour magazine. The person who brought the complaint presented the cartoons as promoting certain violent actions which it should have been obvious to anyone capable of winning a place at University that the cartoons concerned were actually ridiculing the mindset which might lead to anything close to those actions.

(I suppose those who wrote the magazine should be grateful that the idiot responsible didn't have the imagination to get them into much more serious trouble by reporting them to the magazine for copyright infringement but there you go.)

It has always been the case that no responsible person should ever use irony where there is a material danger that some idiot taking the comment literally might use it to justfy some crime or evil act, and no wise person should use irony where there is a significant possibility that a reasonable person might take the comments literally.

However, the judgement of what makes for a material risk, and of what a reasonable person might take literally, appears to have shifted.

So that now, if there is any possiblity at all that an ironic comment might amount to incitement to violence if some cretin takes it seriously, or if there is the least chance that it might amount to a career-destroying gaffe if someone on the other side of the argument pretends to take it literally, nobody in the public eye can risk deploying irony as an argument.

Which means that between political correctness, risk aversion, and an almost universal willingness to put the worst possible construction on what anybody says, irony has been put off-limits as a tactic in intellectual debate.

Two recent events have inspired this line of thought.

The first was an item in the small print of the court judgement and press reports of the Oldham East and Saddleworth case is that Phil Woolas may yet end up on the wrong end of a libel case, not from his Lib/Dem opponent, but from the publisher of a Muslim magazine which the Phil Woolas campaign team produced at the election court in an unsuccessful attempt to justify their allegation that death threats had been made against him.

The judgement noted that the reference to death threats in the magazine concerned did not mention Phil Woolas, and it appeared to the justices that the publisher could equally be making an ironic joke about the possiblity that he might be on the receiving end of death threats himself. That publisher has subsequently said that this is indeed what he was doing, and he is apparently threatening to sue Phil Woolas for falsely accusing him of making death threats.

Another case of disastrous misunderstood irony followed what appear to have been some extraordinaryg comments on a BBC programme by "Independent" journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

The feed to her Nicky Campbell interview is no longer running, but it was widely reported in the press that Ms Alibhai-Brown had said that those Western politicians who supported the Iraq war had no right to criticise human rights violations in Iraq or China.

I agree, as I am sure all decent people agree, with the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, when he said in response to a request for a debate on stoning in Iran which followed her statement that

"Stoning to death is a barbarous form of punishment which the Government, and I am sure every honourable member of this House, deplores."

I don't support the death penalty, but if I did I still would not condone stoning as a means of executing even someone convicted of murder after a fair trial and on the most unimpeachable evidence. That would be bad enough, but stoning someone to death on the grounds that they have been accused of adultery on very dodgy evidence is a truly appalling thing to do.

There is a lady in Iran who has been sentenced to that fate, of which she is still in danger, and it is very possible if the rest of the world had not protested about it, the sentence might by now have been implemented.

Both Sir George Young's comment, and mine above, about stoning being wrong amount to implicit or explicit criticism of human rights in Iran, and therefore by her own logic Yasmin Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying that we have no right to make those comments.

Because I believe in free speech within the law, I consider that we do have the right to make those comments: equally, Ms Alibhai-Brown has the right to lawful expression of her opinions, and those who think she is wrong should have the right to lawful expression of their opinions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Cumbrian tragedy

I am almost speechless at the report of Michael Redfern QC's inquiry into the postumous removal of body parts from deceased Sellafield workers.

The tragedy is that treating the families of the deceased in this underhand and shabby way was so unnecessary.

If it were possible that I had been exposed to radiation, and I was asked by a duly authorised person for permission after my death to remove parts of my body and check for contamination, so as to help protect people from future hazards, there is a very strong possibility that I would agree.

In fact the decision would rest with my heirs, and again, if they were properly asked in a sensitive way, I would hope they would similarly give permission.

I'm not going to go into detail, but a close relative of mine did indicate during their lifetime that they would be happy for parts of their body to be used after their death to help others. When that person died the rest of the family gave consent and those wishes were carried out. It actually helped us in our grief to know that the person concerned was for one final time helping someone else.

That is not what happened at Sellafield. If those who were conducting the research had done the decent thing, and asked the families concerned, some might have said no, and that would have been their absolute right. It is, however, very likely that provided proper assurances were given - and seen to be kept - that the bodies would be treated with respect, enough co-operation would have been forthcoming to enable the research to take place. We will now never know.

But even those who would have agreed to the research if asked are fully entitled to be furious that parts of their loved ones' bodies were effectively stolen without their permission.

Indeed, part of the tragedy is that the loss trust which this disgraceful episode may cause is likely to make it harder for more ethical researchers to gain such consent in future.

The Secretary of State has apologised for what happened and said that what happened to the bodies of Sellafield workers would not be permissible today. Both this givernment and all future governments must make sure that it does not happen again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Government moves to keep referendum promise

EU lock means powers cannot be transferred without referendum

The Government has introduced a new bill to the House of Commons which is designed to provide an EU lock and ensure that any further handover of powers from Britain to the EU will require a national referendum.

The Conservative Party fully understands that many people within Britain feel disconnected from the EU and this is a way of ensuring that politicians have to consult the public before handing over further powers. Only the British people will hold the key to the referendum lock.

The EU Bill places on a statutory footing the common law principle that Parliament is sovereign and that EU law only takes effect in the UK by virtue of the will of our Parliament expressed through Acts of Parliament.

To date, case law has upheld that principle. This Bill will put the matter beyond speculation by placing this principle on a statutory footing. The provision is declaratory, affirming this common law principle. It does not alter the existing relationship of EU law and UK law.

Minister for Europe, David Lidington said: "The Coalition government is committed to being an active and activist member of the European Union. However, many people in Britain feel disconnected with how the EU has developed, and the decisions that have been taken in their name".

"That is why we are introducing this EU Bill, to give people more control over decisions made by the Government in the EU in their name. This Bill ensures that if there is any further handover of power from this country to Brussels, the Government will have to seek the British people's consent in a national referendum."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembrance Sunday

Tomorrow, 14th November is remembrance Sunday and I will be taking part in the commemoration in Whitehaven for the fallen.

The parade will leave Copeland Council Offices at about 10.40 and there will be a minute's silence at the war memorial at 11 am.

Friday, November 12, 2010

After the riots

Forty one police officers injured, and a number of other people. Eight required hospital treatment. Fifty people arrested.

This is not a trivial incident. Nor is it one which any government can afford to back down in response to.

I fully accept that the great majority of those who took part in the demonstration wanted nothing more than a peaceful protest. As well as by government ministers, those who orchestrated and took part in the violence have been condemned by Ed Balls on behalf of the opposition and by the president of N.U.S.

Their right to take part in a peaceful protest has been taken away, not by the government (which is in the process of relaxing some of the restrictions on protests near parliament which Labour had imposed) but by the thugs.

I note that a few idiots have attempted to semi-justify the violence by saying that as politicians have broken their promises on student fees, the protesters had been deprived of a way to obtain their wishes democratically. I would not endorse violence against any party headquarters, or indeed against police officers and employees of other bodies which happen to be in the same building. But even if one did, the flaw in that argument is in which party was attacked.

* In 1997 Labour was elected on a platform which included not introducing student fees, and then introduced them.

* In 2001 Labour was elected on a platform which included not increasing student fees, and then raised them with "top-up" fees.

* In 2010, the Lib/Dems signed the NUS pledge to vote against increasing student fees, a promise which it looks like most of them are about to break. (For the avoidance of doubt, in my view their mistake was making a promise which they should have known it might be impossible to keep.)

So which of the three main parties had the building housing their party HQ smashed up? That's right, the one which hasn't broken a promise on student fees.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest we forget ...

Today is Armistice Day, the 82nd anniversary of the end of the first world war.

It is a day to remember all those who were killed or injured in wars, particularly those who were hurt while fighting to keep this a free country and oppose evils such as nazism.

They must not be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mob rule at Millbank

When I was a student I frequently took part in peaceful student demonstrations against national or local policies which I disagreed with, but I always opposed protests those which looked violent or intimidatory, or were likely to give people a disgust of students.

I suspect that the National Union of Students were not expecting when they called today's demo what has just happened at Millbank. They are probably intelligent enough to realise that smashing windows, injuring policemen, and terrorising office workers at a building where most of the people who work have nothing to do with any political party, because it also houses Conservative Campaign centre, does not advance their case.

As so often, the entire body of two million students is in danger of being given a bad name by a relatively small number of extremists.

Anyone who imagines that what happened at Millbank today will make it more likely that government policy will be changed to help students - as the peaceful protest NUS was presumably planning would have - is wrong.

Human rights in China

If there is one major moral issue which is just about impossible to get right, it is whether, how, and to what degree the West should speak out about Human Rights in China.

Chinese governments have a long history, which goes way back before the present communist regime, of treating all outsiders as "Foreign Devils." Unfortunately, all too many of their past experience of foreigners gave them justified reasons to be very cautious of outsiders, from the depredations of Ghengis Khan through the Opium Wars to the rape of Nanking.

The sad fact is that when China is criticised by outsiders, particularly by foreign governments (most particularly of countries like Britain which have some unfortunate history with China) the default response of successive Chinese regimes has not just been to dismiss the criticism as coming from enemies of China but to crack down on anyone who the foreigners are trying to help as traitors.

To Chinese eyes a government which failed to respond in a manner which looks tough would be in danger of losing face. And unless they happen to have a mentally handicapped British citizen in one of their prisons who has been accused of a serious offence, the dissidents themselves are usually the easiest people to kick so as to look tough.

Consequently, the wrong kind of criticism can be actively counter-productive - and there appeared to be a lethal demonstration of that point within the past year.

Equally, to refrain from making any attempt at all to protest against human rights violations is not going to resolve the problem or do much for our self-respect.

Which leaves Western governments with a very difficult balance to strike, in making the point to China that greater respect for human rights would be in their own country's interests without triggering the kind of negative reaction which is likely to include greater hardship for the very people we are trying to help.

I believe that David Cameron was right to raise the issue of human rights when he visited China today, and that he was also right to do so in tactful and carefully restrained terms. Raising the matter at all was a risk. But one he was right to take.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A lesson in irresponsible behaviour

There is a very good piece in today's Guardian by Inayat Bunglawala, "Phil Woolas: a lesson in irresponsible behaviour" in which he asks

"What was the local Labour party thinking of when it allowed this incendiary madness to take place?"

It's a good question and gives rise to a further one.

I had to run every word of every leaflet my campaign team put out during the 2010 election, and the run up to the election, past Conservative HQ because the party was determined to avoid precisely the kind of debacle which Labour has now fallen into over Phil Woolas's campaign. I'm fairly certain that the Labour party had similar arrangements.

So one can also ask, what was the NATIONAL Labour party thinking when it allowed this incendiary madness to take place?

You can read Inayat's piece here.

Yesterday I posted a link to a summary of the judgement on the BBC website. Hat tip to Mike Smithson at Political Betting for pointing out a link to the full judgement here. In spite of the fact that there are 57 pages, this is something that all parliamentary candidates and their agents and literature directors would be wise to read.

I would also defy any open-minded person to read the full judgement without coming to the conclusion that

1) The judges had good reasons to find Phil Woolas guilty as charged

2) The Crown Prosecution service has good reason to consider whether criminal charges should be brought against both Phil Woolas and his agent.

And anyone who is tempted to defend Phil Woolas - or indeed, any voter in Oldham and Saddleworth who is considering casting a ballot for the Labour candidate in the by-election - might usefully ask themselves this question.

What would you say about a Tory or Lib/Dem candidate who fought this sort of campaign? And what would you think of Conservative or Liberal HQ for allowing it?

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Landmark Ruling

Making a false statement about a candidate during an election is a serious offence. It is very rare for charges to be brought for this offence, and rarer still for a court to rule that the charge is justified. But that has now happened.

A court has found that the Labour election campaign in Oldham and Saddleworth, where former Labour minister Phil Woolas was the candidate, put out leaflets making statments about his Lib/Dem opponent which were untrue. They have quashed his election, which unless this decision is overturned by Judicial Review, will mean a by-election.

Until a few years ago, if you had asked me to predict which party was most likely to be accused of dirty tactics, I would have said the Lib/Dems. It had been my experience that there is a majority of decent people and a minority of unprincipled rascals in all the parties, but that the dirtiest election campaigns were usually fought by the Lib/Dems.

But smearing your opponents, whether personally or politically, is wrong whoever does it, and I have been seriously unimpressed by some of the material Labour has put out over the past two elections.

And in particular, some of the leaflets which Labour put out this year in Oldham and Saddleworth were pretty extreme. When I saw them reproduced in press coverage of the case, I recall thinking "If Woolas's people cannot substantiate these charges, they richly deserve to be taken to the cleaners by the courts."

They couldn't, and they have been.

Some of the reaction to the news by Labour spokesmen have been interesting to say the least. Harriet Harman said that

"I don't think this is a reflection on the Labour Party as a whole."

Hm. Even though the new leader of the Labour Party recently appointed Woolas to the Labour front bench?

To be fair, she also annouced that Woolas was being suspended by the Labour party, that it was "no part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies" and that the party would not support any appeal.

Phil Woolas's lawyer said that

"Those who stand for election and participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching scrutiny and inquiry," he said.

"They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked.

"It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found to have breached electoral laws.

"This decision will inevitably chill political speech."

It is worth making clear that for a challenge to be successful under this law, the petitioner has to show not just that the accusations are untrue but that the person who made them had no reasonable grounds to believe them to be true. Woolas lost the case, not just because two High Court judges found that his campaign had made false statements about his opponent, but because they found that he knew that his campaign was making accusations for which there was no valid evidence.

To directly quote the court judgement,

"Having considered the evidence which was adduced in court we are sure that these statements were untrue. We are also sure that the respondent had no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true."

You can read a summary of the judgement for yourself on the BBC website here.

If Labour got away with saying the kind of things they said in Oldham and Saddleworth, with so little evidence to support them that the Lib/Dems were able to persuade two high court judges, in court, to rule that Labour didn't believe what they were saying, it would have been a licence to tell lies with impunity.

Hence the statement by Mr Woolas's lawyer is equivalent to an argument that it is "vital to our democracy" that candidates should be able to tell lies about their opponents and that if you stand for election you are fair game for the filthiest muck that your opponents can think to throw at you.

Former Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said that this ruling will change the way future elections are fought.

If that means that people of all political parties have to make greater efforts to be certain that what they say about their opponents is actually true, I think that is a thoroughly good thing.

I have always believed in free speech within the law, but that is not incompatible with having and enforcing laws against libel, slander, or telling lies against rival candidates in an election, provided that to those laws are not drafted and enforced in a way which stifles reasonable expression of opinion.

There have been libel cases - those brought by the late Robert Maxwell and by Jeffrey Archer being the most notorious examples but by no means the only ones - which make me wonder whether it is far too easy to use this country's libel laws to suppress hostile views. But the Oldham and Saddleworth action was brought under different laws which required the complainant to achieve a much higher standard of proof.

Assuming that the decision is not overturned by judicial review, the by-election will be interesting.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Nihil Nisi Bonum

To clarify the comments policy on this blog

If you want to criticise a living person who holds public office, appointed or elected, and the attack is not actionable or worded in offensive language, I will usually leave the post up even if I strongly disagree with it.

This blog operated for many years with no comment moderation and very few posts indeed deleted, and I wish I could continue to run it that way because I believe strongly in free speech.

However, when an obit thread, is posted on someone who has just died, comments critical of that person which might have been regarded as within the bounds of decency during their lifetime are likely to give offence.

I am not going to ban all criticism on this blog of any decision taken by someone who has since died - for example, if we had a post on pensions policy and someone says that part of our problem now is because the late Prime Minister X was wrong to do Y on pensions twenty years ago, that's within the area of legitimate debate.

But when I post a thread which is intended to pay respect to someone who has just died, posts critical of that person will not get through comment moderation.

Copeland hit by more floods

Please take great care if you are out on the roads in Copeland this evening

There are at least six flood warnings in Cumbria this evening, several of them in the Copeland constituency.

Traffic is being affected by water on the roads in many areas including Keswick, Distington, Frizington, and Muncaster/Holmrook. There is also a flood warning in Egremont and there have been reports of the River Duddon bursting its banks.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Bransty & Harbour Neighbourhood Forum

Despite the filthy weather there was a reasonable turnout for the Neighbourhood Forum meeting at Bransty School at 7pm

Agenda items included

1) The new system for allocating social housing, which is due to be adopted in Cumbria before the end of the year, whereby people on the housing waiting lists can apply for social homes of their choice rather than wait to be allocated something by the powers that be

2) The scheme which provides supported lodging for young adults leaving care

3) Feedback from the Bransty school youngsters who presented a petition to the council on dog fouling.

(This provoked a fierce but polite and constructive argument about whether the council is doing enough to keep the streets clean and whether this should be higher on our priority list. Most of the residents who spoke appeared to think it should.)

4) Grants applications.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The last change to GMT ?

The clocks went back an hour today prompting the usual range of press speculation about whether we ought either to make British Summer Time permanent or go back to the wartime practice of having the clocks an hour ahead in winter and two hours in summer. So should today be the last change to GMT?

Although I appreciate it is much harder to get people to shift behaviour and habits than to fiddle with the clocks, and would cost more, (e.g. printing new timetables, opening hour signs, etc if we were ever really serious about getting people to get more benefit from the hours of daylight, it would be a more effective and appropriate way to address the issue.

E.g. the day after a change from BST to GMT you would insist that schools opened at 8 am rather than 9am, the evening news went back from 10pm to 9pm and so on: in terms of when we actually did everything it would be exactly the same as the previous week but the times would be stated an hour earlier.

Then six months later, when the clocks went forward again, the time shift that some people are always campaigning for would take place.

The rules would have to be carefully written to encourage most people to make the time shift while leaving room for exceptions (e.g. so that those who are strongly opposed to doing things earlier could move their timetables back again after six months if they really insist.) You'd probably pass an enabling act which says that all timetables must be automatically assumed to be adjusted by an hour on the relevant date unless the organisation concerned gives special notice to the contrary.

I'm not campaigning for this and I don't think it will happen. But if we ever really wanted to shift the time we do things, that would be a better way than fiddling with the clocks.

Harriet Harman puts her foot in it

Harriet Harman MP, former acting leader of the Labour party, has described Lib/Dem cabinet minister Danny Alexander as a "ginger rodent".

This prompted Mike Smithson of political betting, not a man who with whom I associate words like 'fury' to ask "Has Labour's hate campaign gone too far?" and comment

"As the father of two children who were bullied at school because of their ginger hair I am beside myself with fury at Harriet Harman’s nasty attack on Danny Alexander as being a “ginger rodent”.

By all means get into an argument on the issues but to use an inherited bodily characteristic to attack someone smacks of racism - which is even more outrageous given Harriet’s record in the equality area."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nuclear Strategy consultation

Also on the subject of the NDA, there was a workshop in Cleator Moor on Tuesday to inform Copeland BC's response to the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority's draft stratgegy consultation.

That consultation started on 1 September and will close on 24 November 2010.

You can read about it, and submit your own views online, on the NDA website here.

NDA welcomes funding settlement

The NDA have a statement up on their website which you can read here, and which welcomes the annoucement in the Chancellor's statement last week of the funding settlement for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority over the next four years.

Essentially the government recognised the nuclear cleanup is a national priority and largely protected this area from the cuts - which also happens to be very good news for Copeland. Together with projected commercial income, the settlement will ensure that total expenditure by the NDA will be maintained at current levels of around £3billion a year.

The statement includes the following quote by Tony Fountain, NDA's CEO:

"I welcome the funding settlement announced today as it recognises the importance the Government allocates to the decommissioning agenda. We will be able to fund a very significant, targeted, programme of work to manage the UK's nuclear legacy. Clearly, our funding is not unlimited and we will need to look at how we prioritise our expenditure. We need to continue to pursue commercial income aggressively and drive increased efficiencies across the estate. Laying out these choices and how we intend to allocate funds across our sites will be presented in our forthcoming Draft Business Plan in early December".