Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflections as 2012 comes to an end

The year began with foul weather

 ... and continued that way

The Mayan "Long Count" calendar came to an end.

 ... the world didn't.

The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee

 ... Britain celebrated with her

Britain hosted the most successful Olympic and Paralympic games I can ever remember

 ... and inspired the nation

The economy continued to be sluggish

 ... but the year ended with a significant fall in unemployment driven by a rise in full-time jobs

The defecit, and net migration, are down a quarter compared with 2010

 ... there is a long way to go but we are headed in the right direction

Thursday, December 27, 2012

An appeal to the Charity Commission

At this time of goodwill to all men, I would like to re-post here an appeal to the charity commission which was made through the pages of the Daily Telegraph - hat tip to  Conservative Home for pointing it out.

You don't have to be a religious believer to agree that members of many faith groups, of whatever religion, work hard for their local communities and do a lot of good.

This certainly applies to the Christian Brethren, who I have always found to be very dedicated, selfless and sincere individuals.

This is what 53 MPs wrote to the Telegraph about the treatment by the Charity Commission of a Christian Brethren church in Devon

“SIR – The 1601 Charitable Uses Act passed by Elizabeth I allowed for four kinds of charity: relief of poverty; advancement of education; advancement of religion; and "other purposes beneficial to the community". This definition worked for over 400 years, until the Charities Act 2006. The 2006 Act replaced the old law with a "public benefit" test. The Government should review this test, because it is vague and has led to severe difficulties.
Currently, the 2006 Act is being used by officials in the Charity Commission to deny charitable status to a small Christian church hall. This hall is a community venue in Devon, used for worship by a Brethren congregation. Under the 2006 Act, the commission has forced the Brethren congregation to appeal their case at a formal tribunal, costing them hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees.
Many other small religious groups –including the Druid Network, the World Zoroastrian Organisation, and the Lambeth Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses – have had no problem in obtaining charitable status. Why have the Christian Brethren been singled out in this way?
There should be an urgent review into how this decision was made and whether there was a level playing field. The Christian Brethren were persecuted by the Nazis during the Second World War. This makes it all the more important for Britain – which has a proud tradition of religious tolerance – not to single out the Brethren.
We urge the new Chairman of the Charity Commission to stop this tribunal, and to review this unjust decision. If the 2006 Charities Act has now become a quagmire, trapping faith communities, then clearly it needs a major overhaul.”
  • Robert Halfon MP
  • Priti Patel MP
  • Alun Cairns MP
  • Charlie Elphicke MP
  • Fiona Bruce MP
  • Graham Brady MP
  • Richard Harrington MP
  • Paul Maynard MP
  • John Glen MP
  • David Burrowes MP
  • Daniel Kawczynski MP
  • Andrew Bridgen MP
  • Andrew Percy MP
  • Andrew Rosindell MP
  • Brian Binley MP
  • Chris Heaton-Harris MP
  • Chris Skidmore MP
  • David Amess MP
  • David Nuttall MP
  • David Ruffley MP
  • Dominic Raab MP
  • Edward Leigh MP
  • Guto Bubb MP
  • Jack Le Presti MP
  • Jackie Doyle-Price MP
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg MP
  • James Morris MP
  • Karl McCartney MP
  • Mark Spencer MP
  • Martin Vickers MP
  • Nadhim Zahawi MP
  • Neil Carmichael MP
  • Nick De Bois MP
  • Nigel Mills MP
  • Peter Aldous MP
  • Philip Hollobone MP
  • Richard Bacon MP
  • Robert Buckland MP
  • Roger Gale MP
  • Dr Sarah Wollaston MP
  • Stephen McPartland MP
  • Stephen Metcalfe MP
  • Steve Baker MP
  • Steve Barclay MP
  • Stewart Jackson MP

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who is really attacking the US constitution?

Many years ago I visited Washington and paid a visit to the Capitol while the US Senate was sitting. Despite being a visitor rather than a US citizen - a fact about which I was completely open - I was rapidly shown to a place in the public gallery where I was able to observe a debate. I was also given a card which quoted a section of the US constitution guaranteeing the public the right to know what their elected representatives were doing.

The experience filled me with nothing but respect for the American system of democracy, and one aspect of this was how much that system respected the views and opinions of everyone in the country, visitors as well as citizens.

No country has a perfect system of democracy but that in the US works as well as any. It was a Frenchman, Voltaire, to whom is usually attributed the saying

"I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"

but America is one of the places where that principle is most applied. (I would like to see it applied more thoroughly in Britain - witness section 5 of the public order act - see previous posts).

I don't often comment on matters outside Britain in this blog - I don't want to appear more ready to tell other people how to run their countries than to address the issues in my own. And I certainly don't want readers of this blog from the states - of whom there are as many as there are from Britain - to think that I'm criticising the USA for anything in which Britain is far from perfect without being aware of the beams in our own eye.

This post is in defence of one of the parts of the American constitution which I most admire, one of the sections quoted on the card I was given when I visited the U.S. Senate - the First Amendment.

The first amendment to the United States constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

And, irony of ironies, there has recently been an attempt to trample all over the first amendment by 65,000 people who imagine that they are defending the US constitution.

That's the number of signatures to date on a petition on the White House website calling for British journalist Piers Morgan to be sent back back here because he is supposedly "engaged in a hostile attack against the US Constitution."

The second amendment to the US constitution is the one which, in order to support an armed militia, guarantees the right to bear arms. The signatories appear to think that Morgan's view that America should "Ban assault weapons & high-capacity magazines, and enforce background checks on 100% of gun sales." and "Do it now." would breach the second amendment.

Now, I would not describe myself as a great admirer of Piers Morgan. I roared with laughter today on reading a post on Yahoo which appeared to be pointing out that he had been editor of a British national newspaper at the time of the hacking scandal and humorously suggesting we set up a petition not to have him sent back, telling him that "the British people can easily beat a measly 60,000 signatures after the hacking abomination that you claim you were totally in the dark about, so please stay put."

Nor would I disagree that Mr Morgan's views about gun control could have been far more tactfully and constructively put.

People all around the world will have been horrified by the two recent shooting atrocities in America and will have felt for the communities devastated by those events.

I have some idea how those communities must feel today because we have had gun outrages in Britain too, including one in my own community of West Cumbria in 2010 when a man called Derrick Bird shot twenty-three people, twelve of whom died, before turning his gun on himself. It was right and proper that we reviewed our gun laws after that tragic event and other similar ones. It is right and proper that people in America have a debate about their gun laws now.

Both sides of that debate have a right to be heard. I would not encourage either side to express their views by saying things like  "You're an unbelievably stupid man, aren't you?" and neither would I encourage either side to try to have those who disagree with them deported. There is a problem: a debate is needed on how to deal with that. The First Amendment to the US constitution guarantees all sides a voice on how to so, and that is a very good thing.

One final thought which might provide a message of hope in response to the terrible tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and Webster, New York state. Sixteen years ago, a massacre similar to the one at Sandy Hook took place in a primary school in Dunblane, when sixteen children aged five or six, and their teacher, were murdered.

This year one of the children who had to take cover at Dunblane, but survived, became the first Brit for decades to reach the men's singles final at Wimbledon, and the Olympic men's tennis champion, and the US Open tennis champion. I hope that all the surviving children at Sandy Hook school make a full recovery and I hope that each of them will have the opportunities to make as big a success of his or her life as Andy Murray has.

TV programme of the festive season

I am sure that many people, certainly including members of my own family, have had or will have a lot of pleasure from many of the blockbusters and common favourites on the box this season, from Doctor Who and the Strictly Come Dancing christmas special to the Queen's Christmas broadcast.

However, the most extraordinary and uplifting programme of the season for me was a half hour  documentary broadcast on Christmas Eve by BBC One called Martha, meals and Malawi. (Available via this link until New Year's day 2013.)

This told the extraordinary story of Martha Payne, who as a nine year old girl in Scotland set up a blog called on which she posted photographs of her school meals with her comments about them. After an ill-advised attempt by officials at Argyll and Bute council to crack down on this, (rescinded after the blog went viral and attracted millions of hits) she decided to try to raise money to help kids in a poor country, Malawi, to have better food.

The programme followed Martha and her family as they went to Malawi to see some of the thousands of children people helped by Martha's Justgiving page to raise money for the "Mary's Meals" charity. She set a target to raise £7000 for this charity but at the time of posting she had raised 1812% of this target - nearly £127,000.

By setting up her blog and then including a link to raise money for that charity, one girl in Scotland funded the building of kitchens in Africa which if I understood the programme correctly mean that literally thousands of children in one of the poorest countries in Africa will be better fed and probably also better educated (as some will only be able to attend school because they get fed there.

I cannot think of a more powerful or moving example of the principle that any human being, no matter what their age or station, can make a difference to the world for the better.

Quote of the festive season

"How are they going to demonstrate that Her Majesty is on 3D?

"I presume she's not going to swing a sword out at the audience?"

(from a member of my family - not me - who had better remain anonymous ...)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

Wherever you are, whatever your race, nationality, colour or creed, a very happy Christmas to anyone reading this, and a prosperous and healthy New Year 2013.

Thoughts on "Plebgate" during the season of goodwill

Mr first reflection on "Plebgate" is that the government and the Police Federation urgently need to repair the damage that has been done to the relationship between them and rebuild some goodwill and trust. It is not in the interests of the government, the police, or the country for them to be at loggerheads.

The police have had a truly dreadful year, and the behaviour of a few officers, some of them very senior, has contributed to this, but the vast majority of ordinary coppers have not done anything to merit criticism. The police do an important, difficult and sometimes dangerous job on our behalf for which they need, and the vast majority deserve, our respect.

Equally it is just as well that the incoming national chairman of the police federation wants to get a grip on his organisation. It was not the police's finest hour when Channel 4 viewers heard a recording of a meeting in which representatives of the West Midlands Police Federarion were given an account from a cabinet minister of his version of events and thanked him for his candour, and then saw a replay of the TV footage which had been broadcast a few seconds after the meeting, on which one of those  same representatives came out of the meeting and immediately demand the minister's resignation on the grounds that he had supposedly refused to give that account.

What will the impact on their confidence in the value of police testimony be next time those viewers find themselves on a jury?

My second thought is we all ought to learn a few lessons from what has come out this year, not just over "Plebgate" but over some of the issues where complaints which sounded at first like the rantings of paranoid fantasists turned out to be the truth, such as Hillsborough and the Finucane murder.

The first of those lessons is not to be too quick to believe the first accounts we hear: and on that point both the two people who have been arrested over "plebgate" deserve to be regarded as "innocent until proven guilty" just as Andrew Mitchell did, at least inso far as the toxic phrases he has always denied using are concerned.

It is important to qualify that by remembering that what Andrew Mitchell has admitted he did say, and for which he has rightly apologised, is not how a politician, or anyone else for that matter, ought to speak to a public servant. To be fair to Mitchell he has always admitted this.

We may never know for certain whether Mitchell really did use the words attributed to him because there was no sound on the CCTV. But Michael Crick's excellent documentary - not a set of four words you will often get from a tory, but certainly merited in this case - established pretty much beyond doubt that the alleged "police log" which was quoted in the Sun and Telegraph was seriously at variance with the facts in at least one respect, the allegation that members of the public heard and were shocked by what was said.

My third reflection is that the offence of "misconduct in a public office" should be scrapped.

How many people have noticed that this bizarre offence, which was the charge brought against the the officer who was arrested over "plebgate," was also the same charge brought in what I consider one of the most disgraceful wrongful arrests of modern times? I can guarantee that the minister for Police Reform won't have missed it.

That's because it's the charge on which Damian Green MP, now the minister for Police Reform, was arrested while he was a shadow minister, and when his real "offence" was being too effective in embarrassing the egregious Labour government which was in office at the time and a particularly egregious Home secretary.

Any law which can be used to arrest opposition politicians on grounds as flimsy as were brought against  Damian Green does not belong on the statue book of a modern democracy, and "plebgate" has reinforced rather than changed my mind about this. It's a law which only ever seems to be used against whistleblowers.

If, and I repeat, if, (innocent until proven guilty, remember) the officer arrested in the "plebgate" case could be proved to have done anything for which the majority of people in this country would be likely to consider that he deserved punshment - passing on a pack of lies in an attempt to wreck someone's career for something they had not done, for example - then it should not be that difficult to find a charge which would stand up without using "misconduct in a public office." Criminal libel would be the most obvious, conspiracy might well apply if two or more people were acting together.

I hope that before too long this law will be repealed.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Still still here!

The world didn't end on the afternoon or evening of 21st December either.

Still, as Jim says, Happy New Long Count!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Still here !

Well, it is mid-day on the date of perhaps the silliest "end of the world" prediction date of all time and so far we are all still here.

Since as I posted last night "no-one knows the day or hour" nobody can be certain that the world might not yet end today.

But if anyone wants to take me up on the million pound bet I made yesterday that the world will not end today, it is still open!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

No one knows the day or hour

There are a surprising number of things on which the bible and modern scientists, often coming at things from completely different perspectives, say exactly the same thing, sometimes for entirely different reasons.

One of them is that nobody can be certain when the world will end.

Anyone who claims to be able to predict when the word will end from the bible clearly has not read it properly because Jesus himself said quite clearly than nobody, not even himself, knows.

"No one knows the day or hour" he said, when he would come again "like a thief in the night."

And equally, one of the slightly scary things about modern science is that physicists and astronomers have discovered a variety of ways in which the world as we know it could come to an end, sometimes with comparatively little warning.

We'd probably have time to spot a comet or asteroid on a collision course with earth. Depending on how far out it was spotted or how many orbits away the collision could be predicted, we might have years or decades to try to do something about it. Or we might not.

A rogue black hole on course for our solar system might not be spotted until a short time before it destroyed us. The probability of this event occuring in any interesting space of time - such as the lifetime of anyone reading this - is extremely low. But not zero.

And there are a whole load of other "existential threats" which could potentially wipe us out tomorrow. But probably won't.

Then there is the possiblity of a human made disaster. At the time of Cuba my late mother, on going to bed, said to my father "I hope to see you in the morning."

Throughout history mankind has been fascinated by "end of the world" stories, mostly myths concocted by charlatans or lunatics.

And the idea that the end of the world taking place tomorrow has been "predicted" by the end of the ancient Mayan calendar is one of the silliest myths of the lot.

The Mayan calandar goes in cycles. Tomorrow happens to be the end of the longest one, the so-called "long count" calendar - and the start of another cycle. To say that the ancient Mayans were predicting that the world will end tomorrow is like suggesting that a swimsuit model or pop star is predicting that the world will end in eleven days because her 2012 calendar finishes on December 31st. As far as I am aware most of them have plenty of engagements booked in their 2013 diaries.

The world could end tomorrow - but it is no more likely to end tomorrow than on any other day.

If anyone would like to bet me any sum of money up to a million pounds that the world will end tomorrow I'd be delighted to take the bet, provided you have a million pounds that I can collect when it doesn't.  Of course, if it does you may have a bit more trouble collecting from me ...

And on that note I'm going to bed in the confident expectation that we can speak again in the morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Metal theft powers used to recover miles of stolen cable

In "Operation Coast to Coast" police have used their new powers to investigate metal dealers. A series of check on 150 metal dealers througout the North West and recovered miles of stolen copper cable with a legal market value of  £10,000.

The black market price as stolen wire was said to have been only £450. Perhaps at some point the penny will drop for the thieves that anyone who is clever enough to make a living by stealing and re-selling metal could make a better living by honest hard work.

New rules have also seen an end to ‘no questions asked’ cash payments for metal and fines of up to £5,000 for traders not playing by the new rules.

Additionally £5 million of Government funding has been set aside to create a dedicated metal theft unit.

Inspector Dave Rams, North West Regional Co-ordinator said part of the operation was to “build a clear intelligence picture of how stolen metal is moved on,” and how it can be clamped down on in future.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Comments policy on this blog

I don't like blocking comments on this blog - I originally ran it without comment moderation for a long time.

However, although I do not believe that insulting people should be illegal, I am not obliged to publish insults. I will usually allow comments left on this blog to go up as long as they confirm to three simple rules

   1) I will not knowingly or deliberately post or allow anything which I think is libellous, actionable, or otherwise liable to give rise to legal problems.

2) I will not post or allow others to post anything which I think is offensive. Although I will not guarantee to remove anything which anybody else finds offensive - that would be a recipe for making the blog so bland it became meaningless - I have on more than one occasion taken down or reworded something which I had initially thought was acceptable because one or more readers of the blog told me they found it offensive or in poor taste.

3) When I post an obit I will not accept comments critical of the dead person. Nihil nisi bonum ...

If someone posts a comment which is a reasonably constructive contribution to debate, I will usually allow it to go up, even if it is critical of me, of the Conservatives, or of the blog, or if I disagree with it. But childish insults against me, the Conservatives, or this blog, will probably be deleted.

Examples of the sort of comment I will usually allow even if I disagree with it:

  * Posts which point to a specific clause in a Conservative manifesto, and then refer to a specific action of someone elected on that manifesto and produce an argument that the two are in conflict

  * Posts which refer to something I have criticised or praised on this blog and ask if the same principle should not be applied to another specific action to which you could make a reasonable case that the principle concerned is relevant.

  * Other posts which contain some semblance of a reasonable argument.

Of course, if I do disagree I will probably post a reply explaining why!

Examples of the sort of comments I will usually just delete

  * Personal abuse

  * Anything which in my opinion is racist, sexist or gratuitously offensive

  * Kindergarten insults e.g. "all Conservatives are dishonest"

Friday, December 14, 2012

House of Lords votes to reform Section 5

The vast majority of my posts on this blog are unashamedly "on message." Most of the time this does not present me with any difficulties because although no government or party is pefect, I genuinely agree with most of what the Conservative party stands for.

This article is a rare exception, though I hope that by the time the issue of Section 5 of the Public Order Act comes back to the House of Commons my party will have seen sense and realised that the vote this week by the House of Lords was absolutely 100% right and should be supported by the Commons.

The government has been consulting about whether this clause should be reformed. On Wednesday the House of Lords voted by 150 to 54 in favour of an amendment by  Lord Dear, a former Chief Constable and HM Inspector of Constabulary, which would remove the word "insulting" from this clause.

This would mean that instead of the present situation in which the law says that

"a person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour"

if the amendment passed by the Lords successfully changes the law, it will remain possible to prosecute people for abusive or threatening behaviour, but not for saying something which is merely perceived as insulting.

I don't often find myself in vigorous agreement with Peter Tatchell, but he was absolutely right when he said that

"The criminalisation of insults is far too subjective and constitutes a dangerously low prosecution threshold. Anyone who values free speech and robust debate should welcome its removal from section five. The section five ban on insults has been abused to variously arrest people protesting peacefully against abortion and campaigning for gay equality and animal welfare. The open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable, even offensive ones – is the hallmark of a free and democratic society".

Perhaps even more powerful was the argument put by Keir Starmer, the present Director of Public Prosecutions, who wrote to the sponsors of the amendment supporting the change on the grounds that the sort of behaviour which a civilised society would wish to prevent will still be caught by the law if amended as proposed because such behaviour would be "abusive" or "threatening" or both. Mr Starmer wrote that

"We are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as 'abusive' as well as 'insulting'. I therefore agree that the word 'insulting' could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions."

The "feel free to insult" me campaign has brought together some most unlikely allies supporting this change in the law, from militant atheists to evangelical religious groups, from left to right, from comedians to senior legal figures, from supporters of gay rights to people who - well, as the law has not been changed yet, let's just say people who are not.

But all those who support the proposed change have three things in common.

* The first is a wish to be able to express their views openly and honestly in a peaceful and non-threatening way without being prosecuted because someone who disagrees decides to find those views insulting.

* The second is a willingness to extend the same right to their opponents, and

* the third is a sincere belief in democracy and free speech.

I have not seen this put better than by Rowan Atkinson in this excellent address at a parliamentary reception organised by the "Reform Section Five" campaign.

Investing in the fight against cancer

Cancer is a terrible illness that affects 1 in 3 of us during our lifetime.

We are in a war against cancer, but Conservatives in government have taken the following measures to help those who suffer from cancer:

Created the £200 million a year Cancer Drugs Fund to help people access the medicines and
    treatments they need. This has already helped 23,000 patients across the country.

Established a £15 million Radiotherapy Innovation Fund to ensure that radiotherapy
    centres are ready to deliver advanced radiotherapy to patients who might benefit.

Invested £250 million in ‘proton beam therapy’ radiotherapy cancer services in Manchester
    and London to ensure 1,500 cancer patients a year can benefit from this advanced treatment.

Committed £100 million to transform cancer treatment in England by introducing high-tech
    DNA mapping for cancer patients and those with rare diseases within the NHS.

Conservatives know how big a challenge the battle against cancer is but we are rising to that challenge by investing in new technologies to fight it and win so that patients have a chance for a new start and a life worth living.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unemployment falls by 82,000

Good news this week as the news was released that the number of people out of work fell by 82,000 between August and October, to 2.51 million, and the last three months have seen the largest quarterly fall in unemployment since 2001. This is partly due to an increase in the number of people in work or self-employed and partly due to a net reduction in the number of people seeking work - for example because they have retired or moved into full-time-education.

Employment rose 40,000 to 29.6 million, which was the highest figure since records began in 1971. This increase in employment is entirely in full time jobs - the number of people in such jobs rose by 44,000 while the number in part-time jobs fell by 4000.

Youth unemployment also fell significantly.

There is no room whatever for complacency, particularly as long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high. But the fact that uemployment falling is to be welcomed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Apparently lots more people than usual are getting married today having selected the date for their special day because of the rare combination of numbers - 12th day of the 12th month of the 12th year of the century. They are pointing out that we won't get another combination of this exact kind for eighty-eight years and nineteen days (on New Year's Day 2101 which will be 01/01/01).

However, in eight days' time there will be an even rarer date and number combination of a slightly different type and that will be the last such special combination for a very long time indeed.

Next Thursday with be 20/12/2012 (the 20th day of the 12th month of 2012)!

Wonder how many people are getting married then? Perhaps a bit too close to Christmas.

The human brain is hardwired to spot patterns so it is not surprising that we notice things like this. Sadly there won't be anything of exactly the same type to amuse us for a long time, but somehow I suspect people will find some other pattern of numbers to spot.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Warm Homes discount will mean £130 off energy bills for those in need

Two million low income and vulnerable households will get a £130 discount on their fuel bills this winter.
Those being helped by the Warm Homes Discount include over 1 million of the UK’s poorest pensioners. This discount is on top of any money that is received in Winter Fuel Payments or Cold Weather Payments.

Commenting on Warm Home Discount, Sarah Newton MP, said:

"For 2 million low income families, the Warm Homes Discount could be the difference between having the confidence to turn the heat on or not this winter. Conservatives in Government are delivering on our commitment to help pensioners and vulnerable people with their energy bills and the cost of living. The £130 they will get off their bills this winter will provide a welcome relief after years of rising bills."

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sir Patrick Moore R.I.P.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS died earlier today at the age of 89.

He really was one of a kind, a fascinating and extraordinary human being who did more than almost any other figure of our age to encourage popular interest in science.

He was a man of strong and outspoken views which he did not hesitate to explain at any appropriate moment no matter who might agree or disagree. He never married because his fiance and the love of his life, a nurse, was killed in World War II when a nazi bomb hit her ambulance.

He once responded to criticism of certain of his very old-fashioned views with the words

"I may be accused of being a dinosaur, but I would remind you that dinosaurs ruled the Earth for a very long time."

Rest in Peace.

Perhaps people's memories are not that short ...

Voters are often assumed to have short memories. This does many people an injustice.

I don't want to add to the childish point scoring about why Britain's economy is in such a difficult condition. No government or party can afford to be complacent about the pain which most people in this country are suffering and whether there is more that could be done to move Britian faster onto the path of recovery so that we can start to relieve that suffering, and rebuild public finances.

However, let's be realistic - it's going to take many years to repay the debts which have been built up, and are continuing to mount, as a result of the huge defecits which this country has been running since the middle of the last decade. No government, of whatever party, is going to be able to throw money around on the scale that people came to expect in the first decade of the 21st century.

One of the few good signs is that a lot of people clearly understand this.

A Yougov survey at the beginning of December asked respondents who is mainly responsible for the spending cuts. Their answers were:

1)  The last Labour government - 37%
2)  The present Con/LD coalition government - 26%
3)  Both - 24%
4)  Neither - 6%
5)  Don't know - 7%

The present government inherited a situation where the national debt had doubled to £1.2 trillion, which meant that the government had - and still has - to spend more on INTEREST PAYMENTS on that debt than on schools. The government was spending four pounds for every three pounds coming in.

That was a totally unsustainable situation. If nothing had been done we would by now be where Greece and Spain are. As it is, the efforts which have been made have cut the deficit by a quarter, but much more, sadly, needs to be done.

And, again sadly, there is absolutely no way that a deficit of the size we had, or indeed the 25% smaller defecit we still have, can be brought down to sustainable levels without a great deal of pain.

There are no good answers to dealing with this kind of mess, only bad answers and worse ones and whoever had been in power after the last election would have had to do deeply unpopular things.

Anyone who does not recognise all these things cannot be part of the solution to Britain's problems but is part of the problem.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A joke too far

Everyone who has been following the tragic story of the prank call by two Aussie DJs to the King Edward VII hospital, and the subsequent death of the nurse who took the call, must begin by expressing their heartfelt sympathy to the family of Jacintha Saldanha, who was found dead earlier today.

Particularly to her two children who have been left without a mother.

The radio station 2Day FM's parent company, Southern Cross (SCA), has issued a statement said it is "deeply saddened by the tragic news".

The statement described the DJs who made the call as "deeply shocked" and added that "they will not return to their radio show until further notice out of respect for what can only be described as a tragedy."

Taking these two people off the air is certainly appropriate but they should not be scapegoats because they are not the only people at SCA who have questions to answer.

This prank was not broadcast live: it had been pre-recorded and had apparently been cleared by SCA's lawyers prior to transmission.

If that is true, what on earth were those lawyers thinking?

Actions have consequences and people should take responsibility for the likely and foreseeable consequences of their actions.

I cannot blame people at SCA for failing to foresee the possibility that their broadcast might result in a fatality. But it was always likely that if the call successfully fooled those on the receiving end it would result in extreme embarrassment, distress, and quite possibly serious career damage to those individuals.

Don't forget that it was 5.30 am UK time when the call was made. Without knowing the exact shift pattern at King Edward VII hospital it is not possible to say how long the nurses who took the call had been on duty but an awful lot of people are not at their best at that time in the morning - and nurse training is more focussed on caring for patients than spotting tricks from journalists.

Doubtless there may be some adjustment to that following this incident, not least because although this call was from journos looking for a cheap laugh, the next hoax call might be from Al Qaeda operatives looking for information to set up some ghastly atrocity.

There may be people who are inclined to use that fact - that security needed to be stricter - as an argument in defence of the journalists who made the prank call and those at SCA who approved the broadcast.

Anyone who is tempted to use that argument should do two things.

First, they should think about the two children who have lost their mother. And then they should ask themselves whether broadcasting the hoax call was the best way to make the point that hospitals treating patients who could be terrorist targets need to be aware of their telephone security.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Paying cash for scrap metal is now illegal

This week an amendment in the law comes into effect making it illegal for dealers to pay cash for scrap metal. This is one of a number of changes in the law which have been passed or are in the pipeline to cut down on the modern plague of metal theft. Let's keep up the pressure and see if we can drive the metal thieves out of business before they are responsible for someone's death.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Multinationals and Tax

Following the evidence given at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee by Starbucks, Amazon and Google, the government is giving more resources to HMRC to crack down on aggressive tax avoidance.


You can read here what the The daily mash thought of Starbucks' claims that they weren't earning any profits in the UK.

George Osborne writes: "We're on the right track and we won't turn back."

Chancellor George Osborne writes on his statement today:

"My message today on the economy is simple: it's a hard road, but we're making progress. And to turn back now would be a disaster. Labour's plans to borrow even more would take us back to the economic mess they created.

"The economy is healing and a steady recovery is forecast. The deficit has fallen by a quarter in just two years and is forecast to go on falling. Exports to emerging markets have doubled and 1.2 million new jobs have been created in the private sector since this Government came to office.
"We are doing better than many of our international competitors. We have lower unemployment than in the eurozone or the United States and next year the UK is predicted to grow faster than France or Germany.
"We are on the right path, so we are sticking to the deficit plan we set out two years ago. I will not cut spending any further in this Parliament. Because the economic situation is tougher, it will take four years, not three to get our debt falling.
"Instead by making savings from bureaucracy, from the benefits bill, and by ensuring that the better off play their part, we will do more to help families and back businesses.
To help Britain win the global race:
bullet£5 billion of capital investment in science, education and roads, paid for by more savings in Whitehall.
bulletSavings to pay off the deficit, with working age welfare uprated by 1% for 3 years, a 1% uprating of some tax thresholds too and restrictions on the very largest pensions pots.
bulletA new gas strategy to ensure we can exploit new shale gas reserves.
To help British businesses compete:
bulletAnother 1p cut in corporation tax, so it will have fallen from 28p to 21p under this Government.
bulletAn increase in the annual investment allowance to £250,000, this will cover the total annual investment undertaken by 99% of all the businesses in Britain.
To help people who want to work and get on:
bulletCancelling January's 3p fuel rise, meaning fuel duty is 10p lower than under Labour's plans.

Increase in the personal allowance by a further £235. That means in April 2013 the personal allowance will go up by £1,335 - the largest ever cash rise. 24 million people will get a tax cut, with most being £267 better off in cash next year. It also means 2.2 million people will have been taken out of income tax.

Clearing up Labour's mess was never going to be easy, but we're making progress. We're on the right track and we won't turn back.
Yours sincerely,
George Osborne signature
George Osborne
Chancellor of the Exchequer."

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Net migration has fallen by a quarter

Latest provisional figures from the Office of National Statistics, for the year ending March 2012, show both a fall in inward migration into the UK and a larger fall in net migration.
Inward migration to the UK stood at 536,000 people in the year ending March 2012, which is lower than the 578,000 who immigrated the previous year and the lowest immigration figure since 2004.

The combined effect of this fall in inwards migration and a modest rise in emigration in the year ending March 2012, is that the net inward migration figure has fallen by a quarter.

This significant fall in net migration shows that government policies are bringing immigration back to sustainable levels and that Britain is on course to bring net migration down from the hundreds of thousands, to the tens of thousands, by the end of this parliament.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Developing the North

I was interested to read about a study published by a body called "The Northern Economic Futures Commission" which has spent 18 months gathering evidence about how economic growth in the North pf England could be accelerated and how this could help the British economy as a whole.

The commission report points out that over the last decade the three northern regions - the North West, Yorkshire and Humber and the North East - have been responsible for a fifth of the UK's prosperity, but London alone contributed more than a quarter.

And while countries like Germany, Holland and Spain have several economically-powerful cities, the UK just has London.

But above all it was concerned with how the north could help the British economy return to significant levels of growth.

Why, the report asks, can't the likes of Newcastle, Leeds or Manchester be as economically significant as Stuttgart, Rotterdam or Barcelona?
Barcelona skyline

The commission says it wants northern cities to be as economically significant as Barcelona

The commission's solution is to move power and funding north and provide more support for transport in the Northern regions. They recommend that a new body - Transport for the North - should be formed to oversee the northern rail network.
But the power and money grab wouldn't stop there.

The commission wants a fighting fund for economic growth to be created by handing local transport, housing, skills, regeneration and development funding directly to the north's Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

Under the recommendations £13bn of housing benefit and funding for house-building would also be transferred out of Whitehall and into the north. Local employers would get a greater say over skills policy and the number of apprenticeships would double to 60,000 by 2015.

A Northern Innovation Council could get £1bn from the proceeds of sale of 4G mobile licences, and there would be a special northern section of a UK investment bank.

You can read more about the proposals in a piece by Richard Moss, political editor for BBC North East and Cumbria, which you can find on the BBC website here.

I have a lot of sympathy for many of the ideas in this report  but there is an essential note of caution - it is essential that any such plan looks at the whole of the North, and not just the big Northern cities. I have not forgotten that the last government produced a huge plan for the North of England called "The Northern Way" with all sorts of optimistic plans. There were however two big problems

1) Large parts of the North were almost completely left out of the plans. For example out of all the hundreds of pages and proposals in "The Northern Way" there was virtually nothing for any part of Cumbria

2) Most of it never happened.

I hope some of the ideas put forward by the Northern Economic Futures Commission do happen, and that they benefit the whole region, (including Cumbria) and not just certain parts of it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

I listened to Mr Justice Leveson's presentation today with great interest.

The press has been on manouvers for the past few weeks, raising the spectre that if the wrong sort of decisions were taken in response to the disgraceful behaviour of some sections of the media as brought out in the evidence to the Leveson inquiry, the ability of the press to perform its' essential function as part of a free society might be compromised.

Leveson said an awful lot of the right things, recognising both the valuable job done by most of the press and the damaging, extreme irresponsibility which other parts of the media have failed to play the role society needs them to play.

His proposals would include giving the government a statutory duty to protect the freedom of the press, and that is certainly a good idea.

He said that he does not want press regulation by the government. This is undoubtedly the right aspiration. But if may not be easy to acheive in a system set up by statute.

His proposals are very detailed and it is a massive and important report. I hope people will not be too quick to rush to judgement on whether the proposals should all be accepted and, if so, how they should be implemented.

That Leveson himself is aware of one of the issues surrounding, this

 - namely that if you use the law to set up a press regulator you must build in safeguards to ensure that those who make the laws cannot use that power to manipulate the press regulator to protect themselves -

was shown by the last words of his speech, a reference to the ancient saying:

Who shall guard the guardians?

Ir may or may not be legal but you can stll be locked up for it!

I did a double take this morning - a very cold and frosty morning - on the way from the dentist's surgery to my office at the sight of a billboard saying words to the effect that going topless in Whitehaven is legal.

I would have thought that women going topless in public except on a designated nudist beach would normally risk prosecution under the laws on decency. However, when I picked up a copy of the Whitehaven News later today there was a story, appropriately on page three (though not illustrated) about a book which has apparently just been published called "The law is an ass" with details of daft or unusual local laws.

This book includes the allegation, for which the Whitehaven News was unable to track down a scintilla of supporting evidence, that a local by-law has at some point been passed allowing women in Whitehaven to go topless.

Hmm. Even if this is right, someone silly enough to do it at the moment might still find themselves detained as a guest of Her Majesty, though the responsible secretary of state might be Jeremy Hunt rather than Chris Grayling.

At one stage of my career, while I was a health authority member and for some months afterwards, I served on mental health act appeal tribunals.

I can only say that if I were still serving on such a tribunal, and an appellant either male or female who came before us had been wandering around Whitehaven with their upper half naked in anything remotely resembling the sort of weather we have been having in the town at the moment, I doubt that the medical professionals would have too much of a struggle to make the case that the individual should be detained under Section Two of the Mental Health Act for his or her own protection!

Superfast broadband comes to Cumbria

A contact signed this week between Cumbria County Council and BT, part of a project also supported by the government and by the EU, will bring superfast broadband to Cumbria.

The contract was signed at Ullswater by Councillor Liz Mallinson on behalf of Cumbria C.C. and Bill Murphy for BT (left) in the presence of Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith & the Border (centre), who has campaigned for action to bring faster broadband to areas like Cumbria.

This contract is part of the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme – and will mean super-fast broadband will become available to around 93 per cent of homes and businesses in Cumbria by the end of 2015.
Bill Murphy, BT’s managing director for next generation access, said: “Cumbria’s scattered population combined with its comparatively large size and challenging geography, means that small business plays a pivotal role in the county’s economy and the rollout of fibre broadband will act as an economic driver for those rural businesses.
“The statistics show that in Cumbria, something like 7,000 businesses operate from villages, hamlets and isolated properties, which is why BT is committed to helping push fibre to those that are hardest to reach, offering a helping hand to the small community projects where residents are helping to build their own superfast connections.”
Cumbria is expected to be one of the first areas to benefit from the European Union decision to grant state aid approval for the government’s national broadband rollout.
Once government approval for state aid and confirmation of EU Major Project status is given, it means that government and european funding for the project can be released, allowing the project to begin quickly.
Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said: “Today’s announcement is fantastic news for Cumbria and I’m pleased that one of the first areas to benefit from the Government’s Rural Broadband Project is, in fact, one of the most rural regions in England.
"This multi-million scheme will provide Cumbrian residents with some of the fastest broadband speeds available in the UK by 2015.”
This is a multi-million pound contract, of which the funding includes
£17.1m from the government via BDUK,
* £13.7m from the European Regional Development Fund,
* £5m through the Performance Reward Grant from all councils in Cumbria
There will also be a significant direct investment by BT itself
 According to Ofcom, Cumbria’s average downstream speed is currently 7.1Mbps, while 18.8 per cent of the population receive less than 2Mbps
The project will enable a range of ISPs to offer speeds of up to 80Mbps to a majority of the county’s homes and businesses by the end of 2015. Fibre-to-the-Premise technology – delivering speeds of up to 330Mbps – will also be available
Premises in the remaining seven per cent who currently have very poor internet speeds will also see an uplift – the project aims to deliver a minimum of 2Mbps or more to almost all homes and businesses.
Source for the information in this blog post: BT news release.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Don't be conned

One of the curses of modern society is the number of people trying to trick you out of your money by posing as someone else.

Some of these attempted frauds are so obvious they wouldn't fool a savvy ten-year old, but some are very sophisticated indeed.

Anybody reading this probably finds their email inbox full of messages from people pretending to be their bank (or lots of other people's banks) or their Internet Service Provider  and asking you to confirm your login details or they'll have to cut you off for security reasons.

One of the most recent tricks is websites which pretend to be either a large company such as BT, or an agency through which they can be contacted, and which then overcharge any customers or potential customers who used the contact details given in an attempt to contact the company concerned

For example. there are a large number of websites which pretend to be BT or associated sites and give phone numbers on which people can supposedly - or actually, but for an excessive price - contact BT to order something, report a fault or make a complaint.

Such websites are often designed in such a way as to mislead customers into thinking they are calling the company concerned, eg they may have a prominent display of words like BT Customer Services followed by a phone number.

Unfortunately anyone who rings these numbers is all too often calling a premium rate phone number and could be charged anything from £1 or more per minute to listen to long pre-recorded messages. Which may perhaps, eventually, give you the number you needed to ring in the first place after you have made a generous contribution to their own coffers.


If you forget the contact details of your phone, gas, or water supplier, insurance company or bank, and have to search for them on the internet, you need to make sure you are definitely calling the company concerned and not someone else who will charge you to give you the correct number.

And if the company you wanted to ring was BT,  you can also bear in mind that

• All BT contact numbers from landlines are free and begin with 0800.

(Some BT numbers have a three digit short form: for example instead of 0800 800150 to pay your bill you can ring 150 which is also free, or to report a fault on a residential telephone line the full number is 0800 800151, but 151 also works and again is free.)

• All BT contact numbers from mobiles are charged at the national rate and begin with 0330 (You can call 0800 numbers for free from some mobiles – check with your mobile provider).

Hospice at Home "Santa Dash"

Do take care if you are reading this in one of the parts of the UK which had vile weather today.

Fortunately in Whitehaven, though we have had a lot of rain this week and my garden is both sodden and treacherously slippery in places, the rain held off this lunchtime and the Hospice at Home West Cumbria charity run run with the theme "Santa Dash" was able to take place.

My daughter was one of the runners: my son and I were among the stewards.

Congratulations to all those who took part in the run, sponsored any of the runners or helped in any other way with an emjoyable event which raised funds for this worthy cause. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

MIchael Gove on Rotherham's chilling decision

I think that anyone who votes UKIP is showing a serious failure of political judgement. But that's my opinion, and UKIP supporters are equally entitled to their different opinion and their vote.

I also think that anyone who voted Labour in 2010 showed an even more catastrophic failure of political judgement, but democracy means that people have the right to use their votes in ways which I really, really strongly disagree with and I just have to live with it.

Just as people who equally strongly disagree with the way I vote and the things I believe in have to live with that. The price of our freedom to hold our own opinions and vote the way we wish is that we have to extend the same freedom to others.

Another part of the price of that freedom is that millions of people have fought and died to defend it. Which is why the way unelected council officials in Rotherham have taken an action which appears to strike directly at that freedom is so shocking and alarming.

A couple in Rotherham who have been fostering children for seven years and appear to have an excellent record in doing so had been fostering three children for eight weeks when officials at Rotherham Borough Council cancelled the placement for no other reason than that the foster paresnts concerned were members of UKIP.

In a car crash interview this morning the head of the department which took the decision was quite open about the fact that the foster parents were members of UKIP was the reason for the decision.

Education secretary Michael Gove has released the following statement about this extraordinary action:

 Rotherham have made the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Rotherham's reasons for denying this family the chance to foster are indefensible. The ideology behind Rotherham's decision is actively harmful to children. We should not allow considerations of ethnic or cultural background to prevent children being placed with loving and stable families. We need more parents to foster and many more to adopt. Any council that decides supporting a mainstream UK political party disbars an individual from looking after children in care is sending a dreadful signal that will only decrease the number of loving homes available to children in need."

Michael Gove also pointed out in a BBC interview that "The ideology of adults should not take precedence over the needs of Children."


Downing Street rejected reports that David Cameron had retracted his previous criticisms of the UKIP leadership in the light of the council's decision. A spokesman said: "The prime minister never said that every single member of Ukip is a racist and the point about adoption cases is parents need to be judged on their merits, not affiliation to a political party."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Time to vote out the 74 ?

The Church of England was effectively created in its' present form by Queen Elizabeth the First to be a "Broad Church" which as large as possible a proportion of the population of England could identify with and take part in.

That tradition has largely been continued down the centuries. Although there have been times when the "Yes Prime Minister" joke about the compromises within the Anglican church including one between those who believe in God and those who don't has had rather more truth in it than was comfortable, the fact remains that the tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness which is an essense of what the Church of England tries to stand for has enabled that church to reach out to and help many people who would be completely unable to identify with a more dogmatic church.

But the problem with any organisation built on tolerance and staying in touch with the mainstream of the people of this country is how do you deal tolerantly with those who are intolerant and those who do not wish to reach out to the mainstream?

Churches which are true to the teaching of Jesus are never going to be able to completely align with secular society. The besetting sins of different ages may be very different, but most societies at most times will have tendancies which it will be the duty of a church to warn against, be they excesses of cruelty, selfishness, greed, or self-indulgence.

But a church which indulges in navel-gazing and internal arguments about aspects of it's own ideas which are light-years away from the society it is part of will not only put off the rest of society from listening to the church when it goes on about those subjects. Society will fail to listen to a church which appears antedeluvian, out of touch, and more than a little strange most especially when the church really does have something to say which that society needs to listen to.

And this week a small group of hardliners within the Church of England who do not represent the leadership, the clergy, or the vast majority of people in the pews managed to make the church look like a peculiar and outdated sect. They would doubtless claim that they were doing what they believe to be the will of God. I believe that they were frustrating His will.

The Anglican church has been ordaining women for decades. When that measure was agreed, everyone in their right mind on both sides of the debate recognised that if women were ordained priests, before too many years there would be women bishops.

Over the course of the past twenty years there has been fierce debate about how to acheive this. A set of arrangements, giving huge and generous concessions to those who do not want to submit to the pastoral authority of women bishops and those of bishops who do ordain women, has been discussed and seemed to have been agreed.

When the proposal to allow the consecration of women as bishops was put to the church's dioceses earlier this year, 42 of the 44 dioceses agreed.

An opinion poll survey of practicing Christians by the polling organisation COMRES a few weeks ago suggested that the majority of Christians in England, including 72% of people interviewed who were members of the Church of England, thought that it should be possible for women to become bishops.

Interestingly enough, that percentage suggests that ordinary members of the Church of England are not out of line with the rest of the population of the UK: that is well within the margin of error for that sample size, of the percentage that COMRES found for the population as a whole holding the same opinion.

So what did the Synod decide?

  • House of Bishops: 44 for; 3 against; 2 abstentions
  • House of Clergy: 148 for; 45 against; 0 abstentions
  • House of Laity: 132 for; 74 against; 0 abstentions

  • So hearly three quarters of Synod members, like nearly three quarters of members of the church, wanted the measure to pass.

    However, the rules require a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses. Which was overwhelmingly acheived in the House of Bishops, despite the fact that the present House consists entirely of men, and easily achieved in the House of Clergy, despite the fact that the male clergy who voted in favour, which most of them did, were voting to worsen their own promotion prospects.

    So the people who had a vested interest in favour of the status quo voted for change! But unfortunately in the House of Laity, while attracting majority support, the measure was just short of the number of votes it needed. If six members of the House of Laity had voted for, the measure would have passed.

    I don't usually blog on church issues but this ungodly and indefensible decision is, as one bishop pointed out, in danger of turning our national church into a national embarrassment. A priest of bishop should be a man - or woman - of God, but I have never found any of the arguments that God would only call people of one gender to serve Him in this way to be convincing.

    As the bible puts it (in Galatians, Chapter 3 Verse 28)
    "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

    And the idea that God could want a situation where women can be ordained to serve him as priests, as they have in the Church of England for twenty years, but cannot be promoted to the most senior ranks in the church, e.g. Bishop and Archbishop, is just ludicrous. That cannot be a religious position, it is sexist mysogyny plain and simple.

    I can only see one way to deal with this situation. When the present General Synod was elected, the hardliners were organised, and other groups within the church were not. When the next Synod is elected in 2015, we need to make sure that the people chosen are more representative. To be honest, and I would encourage everyone involved to pray about this before voting, I'm inclining to the view that those who elect the next Synod should ask the candidates how they voted or would have voted on this issue. And think long and hard before allowing any of the 74 foolish people who inflicted great damage on God's church this week to be re-elected.


    In Memory of C. S. Lewis

    C. S. Lewis, best known as author of the Narnia stories though he also wrote some absolutely brilliant books about the human condition from a christian perspective such as The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters, is to get a memorial in Poets' corner at Westminister Abbey, which will be unveiled in a year's time on the 50th aniversary of his death in 1963.

    Many years ago, having had a letter published in The Times in which I explained why we can be certain that Jack Lewis would have fallen about laughing at some of the speculations about allegories in his writing which had appeared in the letters column, I had a note from the Oxford University C.S. Lewis society inviting me to make a donation to a memorial they were organising for him. I did make a small donation, and was pleasantly surprised a few months later to get an invitation to the unveiling of that memorial in Oxford, which was a very interesting and enjoyable occasion.

    It will be interesting to see how the memorial in Westminster Abbey compares.

    G8 to go to Northern Ireland

    Good idea to hold next year's G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Hope one year we might have such an event come to Cumbria.

    In both cases it would be a big boost to tourism in the area: in both cases the area could do with that boost in these difficult times.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    If you have evidence of crime, take it to the police

    The whole circus around accurate and false accusations of child abuse has been deeply disturbing in both directions.

    It is essential to protect children from harm. Therefore anyone who has anything which remotely resembles evidence that children might be at risk should take it to the proper authorities, e.g. the police. If there is any real evidence that the police are failing to properly investigate such accusations, there then might be a role for the media in applying pressure.

    There is no role for the media in making childish stunts in relation to this terrible and serious crime,  such as ambusing the prime minister live on air with a set of names based on three minutes' research on the internet.

    Precisely because child abuse is such a terrible crime, those who are falsely accused of it can have their lives destroyed - in some cases literally. People who appear to have been innocent have committed suicide when accusations of this kind have been published. Marriages and families can be wrecked by such allegations - and the children of those falsely accused can suffer grevious emotional harm as a result.

    Completely innocent people who have the misfortune to share a similar name or appearance to a person accused of being a paedophile have been driven from their homes. Twice in the past few years here in West Cumbria there have been incidents where rumours that convicted people were living in particular properties - which the police were at pains to stress were due to mistaken identity - caused serious problems for the wholly innocent people who were actully living there.

    So anyone who makes an allegation on this subject is playing with fire.

    I think it is in the long-term interests of child protection that the former politician who was falsely accused of child abuse is taking legal action against the people who made and repeated that allegation. If a few of these people get badly hit in the pocket the message might get through that you need to make sure you are telling the truth before you trash someone's reputation with a serious allegation on the internet.

    If that means fewer allegations, and that more of the ones which do get made are actually true, there is more chance that something will be done about them.

    In the meantime, if anyone reading this believes that they have real evidence of any case where children are at risk, don't put it on the internet. Take it to the police.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Notes from an election count

    I am not a big fan of the AV system, or of the second class AV system with a first and second preference vote which is now used to elect Police and Crime Commissioners and directly-elected mayors.

    By a huge irony, one of the candidates who lost out this week under this system when he would have won on first past the post, John Prescott, was Deputy Prime Minister in the government which first introduced that voting system when elected mayors were first introduced.

    It was alleged that this was done in an attempt to stop Ken Livingston becoming mayor of London. That worked out well, Tony and John, didn't it? But the system still exists

    I had a ground level view of just how badly this went down with Cumbrian voters yesterday at the count, particularly when we were checking spoilt votes.

    I took a lot of flak this week (and earlier in the campaign), on the doorstep and at non-political meetings, from voters who complained that the election had not been adequately explained. The most common complaint was not knowing enough about the candidates or the post, but it became very clear at the count that the electoral system had not been adequately explained either.

    The message did appear to have got through that you do not have to express a second preference. But we had clearly failed to explain to many hundreds of voters that

     * Second preferences would only be used if the candidate for whom one had cast one's first preference has already lost

     * Therefore it cannot hurt your first preference candidate to express a second preference: if your first preference candidate is still in the running your vote stays in their pile

     * You cannot cast both your two votes in the first preference column unless you wish to spoil your ballot paper, and

     * If you cast your first and second preference votes for the same candidate, your first preference vote will count but your second preference vote will be wasted.

    One of the things which happen at every election count is that any paper which is either spoilt or in any way abonormal - for example, if something is written on it - gets separated out from all the other papers and shown to the candidates or their agents, or both before a ruling is made on whether that ballot paper should count.

    It is against the law for a counting agent to attempt to identify who submitted a particular ballot paper. So, Jim, I do not know for certain whether I saw your ballot paper and would not be allowed to say if I did. But as the late Ian Richardson might have said, "You might very well think that: I couldn't possibly comment."

    Usually the non-standard votes will be at most one or two percent of ballot papers: in a council election showing the potentially disputed papers to candidates and agents usually only takes a few minutes, and in a parliamentary election not much longer.

    Not this time.

    Apart from those who had deliberately spoilt their ballot paper, a disappointing number were void because the voter had tried to cast two first preference votes. These could not be counted for either candidate.

    Most voters did express a valid first preference, but it was when we got onto the second round that the fun really started. I use the word fun, of course, with some irony.

    A huge proportion of voters deliberately or accidentally failed to include a valid second preference. Thousands of voters just left the second preference column blank. In some cases this would have been a deliberate decision only to support one candidate or because of objections to this voting system. Hundreds of voters used their second preference for the same candidate as their first preference, and the second preference was therefore wasted.

    At one point on the second stage of the count myself and the Labour agent spent what seemed like forever with one particular district council's returning officer while he showed us nearly a thousand votes which were spoilt on the second round for that council alone. The same job had to be done on a similar scale for the other five district/borough councils in Cumbria.

    At this stage the Lib/Dems, having already lost, had long since left the count: the election was now between the Conservative and Labour candidates. The Independent and Lib/Dem votes were being redistributed.

    Yes, that's right. The Lib/Dems. The people who insisted on this wretched system.

    And guess what. Hundreds of their own voters hadn't used their second preferences.

    I joked to the Labour agent that as the Lib/Dems had landed us with this system they should have been made to stand there with us and be shown all the Lib/Dem ballot papers with no second preference. "Quite" she said, "But they've all gone down the pub." Or words to that effect.

    Anorak alert - reading the PCC runes

    I have been looking with great interest at how the PCC contests came out around the country, and although the turnouts were low there were good things about how the results went, particularly that those who did vote appeared to be paying attention to the merits and relevant experience of individual candidates.

    It wasn't a particularly brilliant night for any of the political parties, and it was evident that many voters voted against candidates who they saw as too political. Twelve independents were elected. Candidates with a strong background in the justice system, such as the successful candidate in Cumbria, Richard Rhodes, who had been a magistrate for 33 years, and a significant number of former police officers, tended to do well in the election. Former ministers of both parties, such as Labour's John Prescott, tended to lose.

    I actually think that one of the reasons to support the new system is that it gives the voters the option to choose a non-political representative on local policing issues, and they did NOT have that choice under the old system.

    Anyone who imagines that the previous Police Authority system was completely non-political is living in cloud cuckoo land. Not all members of the previous Police Authorities were members of a political party, a significant minority were volunteers with no political allegiance. The vast majority of those police authority members who were party politicians did not attempt to use their positions in a party political way. For what it's worth, I think the Police Authority in Cumbria did a good job and nothing in this post is intended to be in any way a criticism of its' members.

    But the fact remains that the vast majority of Police Authority members were appointed through processes which were at least potentially under political control, and the majority of them - nine out of seventeen in Cumbria's case - were local politicians. To those who want to keep party politics out of policing I would argue that the old system did not allow this.

    Under the new system a voter who says "I want someone who is not a party politician to be in charge of my local police force." has more choices: he or she can pick a candidate who is not a wannabee or former MP or councillor, as the voters in Cumbria did, or pick a candidate who is not a member of a political party as the voters in twelve other force areas did.

    It's interesting to look at the outcome of the PCC races by comparison to a list of force areas by aggregate 2010 voting, which was produced on one of the Police Elections sites and republished a couple of days ago by the "Political Betting" website. Mike Smithson of  Political betting, also made the prediction, which seemed reasonable a few days ago, that The party machines will prevail/" e.g. that political party candidates would win most of the PCC positions and that the chances of Independents did not look very high.

    This is the table, with the numbers after the name of each force area being the average aggregate % share of each of the three main parties over the constituencies in the force area, followed by the actual result. (Avon and Somerset should really have been sui generis as the one force area where the Lib/Dems were ahead on aggregate vote in 2010. I have left it in the fourth category, where the Conservatives were fifteen percentage points ahead of Labour.)

    LAB on 2010 votes

    Cleveland: LAB 40.1 CON 27.81 LD 21.5 -   Labour
    Durham: LAB 45 LD 24 CON 21 - Labour
    Greater Manchester: LAB 41 CON 27 LD 23 - Labour
    Gwent: LAB 41 CON 24 LD 17 - Independent

    Merseyside: LAB 52 CON 21 LD 20 - Labour
    Northumbria: LAB 45 LD 24 CON 22 - Labour
    South Wales: LAB 41 CON 22 LD 21 - Labour
    South Yorkshire: LAB 43 LD 23 CON 20 - Labour
    Nottinghamshire: LAB 37 CON 36 LD 19 - Labour
    West Midlands: LAB 37 CON 32 LD 19 - Labour
    North Wales: LAB 33 CON 30 LD 15 Plaid 15 - Independent
    West Yorkshire: LAB 37 CON 32 LD 20 - Labour

    LAB on Con to Lab swing up to 5%

    Derbyshire: CON 36 LAB 34 LD 22 - Labour
    Cheshire: CON 40.84 LAB32.53 LD 21.21 -
    Cumbria: CON 39.5 LAB 30.82 LD 24.35 - Conservative
    Dyfed-Powys: CON 30 LD 26 LAB 22 - Conservative

    Humberside: CON 37 LAB 31 LD 22 - Conservative
    Lancashire: CON 38 LAB 35 LD 18 - Labour

    LAB on Con to Lab swing 5%-7.5%

    Staffordshire: CON 41 LAB 31 LD 18 - Conservative
    Bedfordshire: CON 44.91 LAB 27.28 LD 20.4 - Labour
    Leicestershire: CON 41 LAB 28 LD 22 - Conservative
    Warwickshire: CON 45 LAB 27 LD 20 - Independent

    Conservatives 15%+ ahead in 2010

    Cambridgeshire: CON 45.3 LD 29.19 LAB 16.31 - Conservative
    Dorset: CON 48 LD 32 LAB 12 - Independent
    Essex: CON 49 LD 21 LAB 19 - Conservative
    Gloucestershire: CON 45 LD 27 LAB 21 - Independent
    Hampshire: CON 49 LD 30 LAB 14 - Independent

    Herefordshire: CON 50 LD 24 LAB 19 - Conservative
    Kent: CON 50, LAB 21, LD 21 - Independent
    Lincolnshire: CON 46 LD 21 LAB 20 - Independent
    Norfolk: CON 43 LD 27 LAB 18 - Independent

    North Yorkshire: CON 46 LD 27 LAB 19 - Conservative
    Northamptonshire: CON 48 LAB 26 LD 19 - Conservative
    Suffolk: CON 46 LD 24 LAB 21 - Conservative
    Surrey: CON 55 LD 28 LAB 9 -  Independent
    Sussex: CON 46 LD 27 LAB 16 - Conservative
    Thames Valley: CON 48 LD 25 LAB 17 - Conservative
    West Mercia: CON 46 LD 24 LAB 18 - Independent
    Wiltshire: CON 47 LD 30 LAB 18 - Conservative
    Avon and Somerset: LD 38 CON 38 LAB 18 - Independent
    Devon and Cornwall: CON 42 LD 36 LAB 12 - Conservative

    Overall there were sixteen Conservative, thirteen Labour, and twelve Independents (including candates using labels like "Zero Tolerance Policing") elected as commissioners.

    Those force areas which would have been Labour if everyone in them had voted as they did in the 2010 election elected a mix of Labour and Independent PCCs, mostly Labour.

    Those which would have been Conservative on the 2010 vote but gone Labour on a uniform 15% swing, slightly less than implied by the lead Labour had in a recent opinion poll, elected six Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners, three Labour PCCs, and one Independent.

    The force areas where the Conservatives were more than 15% ahead of Labour in 2015 elected an even split of Conservative and Independent PCCs.

    I draw two important lessons from these results

    * No party could take even their strongest areas for granted: voters could and did elect Independent PCCs in areas which are normally strongly Conservative or Labour

    * Although some candidates who I think would have made superb PCCs were not elected, in general candidates with a strong track record in the police, on police authorities, or in other roles relevant to the justice system mostly outperformed expectations, while candidates who were seen mainly as politicians often underperformed.

    This suggests in turn that, however disappointing the turnout, those people who did cast a vote were applying a degree of genuine scrutiny to the candidates. And that democracy, however imperfectly, did work.