Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When politicians speak in code

Sometimes policicians seem to inhabit parallel universes and it difficult to believe that the things which different politicos say, or the things which some people in parliament say and the experience of ordinary people, are describing things on the same planet.

There was an example today when I watched a BBC news item on which Michael Heseltine, Lord Heseltine as he is now presenting a report which the government have commissioned him to write about what more can be done to turn round the difficulties with the British economy and get businesses growing, providing more jobs and higher incomes.

Heseltine was shown saying that he supported the present government, that he congratulated them on what they have done to turn the economy round, that many of the actions he was calling on them to take involved doing more of what they are already doing, and it was a sign of strength, not weakness that they had asked him to prepare a report which might be misrepresented as a criticism of their policies.

At the very moment that Michael Heseltine was shown saying these things about his report, a red banner came along the bottom of the screen saying that the Labour party said that his report was a savage indictment of government policy.

Extraordinary isn't it - the author of a report is shown on TV saying that his report means one thing and at the same time the Labour party is quoted as saying his report means pretty much the exact opposite.

Part of the reason people think they can get away with this sort of thing is that politicians of all parties have too often talked in "code" e.g. saying one thing and meaning another.

Sometimes they were forced to do this by the law. For example, a planning guideline called the "Predetermination Rule" used to mean that councillors who served on a council planning committee were not allowed to say how they were going to vote on a planning application in advance because that could be held to indicate that by making up their minds before the meeting they had failed to take the necessary account of all the duly submitted evidence including what was presented at the actual meeting.

I don't think this rule was a bad idea in principle but it was sometimes carried to ludicrously petty lengths which were harmful to democratic debate and accountability to the electorate, and the present government probably did the right thing when they scrapped it.

Politics would be healthier if MPs, candidates, and other people involved, operate on the basis that they should say what they mean and mean what they say.

And where two people express completely different views on what a particular document or report means - as with the Heseltine report today - you probably won't go too far wrong if you assume that it is more likely to mean what the person who actually wrote it says it means rather than what his or her political opponents say it means.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioner elections - Cumbria candidate details

Two weeks on Thursday on 15th November, every citizen in England and Wales outside London will have the opportunity to vote for a Police and Crime Commissioner who will set priorities for the local police force. I mentioned last Thursday that there is an official website for these elections, on which details of all candidates were due to be displayed from the following day.

I can confirm that candidate details are indeed now available on this site, and you can find statements from all four candidates standing in Cumbria here.

Coach Road Closure

Part of Coach Road, Whitehaven is closed to traffic this week.

The closed area is near the eastern end of the road, from the junction with Station Road to just short of the junction with The Gardens. Local businesses in Coach Road are all open.

It is possible to drive from one end of Coach Road to the other by taking a detour through The Gardens and Station Road but if you do this, please drive carefully because parts of this route are quite narrow and the presence of parked cars means that can be necessary for vehicles travelling in one direction to stop so that those going in the other direction can pass.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Getting the police back on the beat

Police Minister Damian Green MP visited Cumbria a few days ago to support Richard Rhodes, the excellent Conservative candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 15th November.

While here he told an interesting anecdote which indicates how much more needs to be done to cut bureaucracy and red tape so that our police can concentrate on fighting crime and making communities safer.

Since coming to power in 2010 the Coalition government has already scrapped forms and regulations which took police officers 4.5 million hours a year to complete, which is equivalent to putting 2,000 officers back on the beat. But this story indicates how much more there is to do.

Damian Green was out on a foot patrol with three police officers in his Ashford constituency. They called at a pub where an individual who had too much to drink was causing trouble. The officers ejected him from the pub and told him not to come back, but did not arrest him. Damian observed that the gentlemen had almost seemed to want to be arrested, and asked the officers if there was a particicular reason why he had not been.

The reply was that they were the one team of uniformed officers out on patrol in the town at that point, and if they had arrested that individual they would have had to take him back to the police station and spend an hour filling in forms about it: an hour during which there would have been no uniformed presence on the streets of the town.

It doesn't matter how many police officers you employ or how good they are, if you then tie their hands with rules which require them to spend vast amounts of time in a police station filling in forms they will only be able to provide limited protection for law-abiding members of the community.

The government is looking at further reductions in the number of forms to complete and at providing better electronic means to deal with them remotely, but there is obviously still a long way to go.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Clocks go back tonight

I dare say most people reading this in Britain will not need to be reminded, but just in case anyone does: British Summer Ttime ends at 2.00 am in the early hours of tomorrow morning (28th October) and the clocks go back an hour. So everyone gets an extra hour in bed.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The first frost of autumn

Take care today if you are out and about in weather conditions anything like those in Whitehaven today, and particularly if you are driving. This morning was the first occasion this autumn when I had to use defrost spray to clear the car windscreen.

Winter begins to approach ...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioner elections - three weeks to go

Three weeks today, on 15th November 2012, there will be an election for Cumbria's first Police and Crime Commissioner who will take over from the present police authority.

There will be a Police and Crime Commissioner elected for each police force area in England and Wales other than London (where equivalent powers were transferred recently from the Home Secretary to the Mayor of London)

These elections are important as it will be the duty of these commissioners to set policing priorities for the area and hold the Chief Constable to account. Police and Crime commissioners will not have operational day-to-day control of the police, which will remain with the Chief Constable, or have the power to tell officers who to arrest: decisions about arrests will remain the preserve of sworn officers.

Any voter in England and Wales outside London who is reading this can find details of the candidates standing in their area as follows:

* There is an official site,, on which information about all candidates is supposed to be available from tomorrow

* Several similar sites have been set up by people with an interest in policing or democracy in general, such as the  One Team Policing site which gives details of all the candidates who have taken the trouble to submit them, including all four candidates in Cumbria whose details can be found here:

* Another such site is the Police Elections website run by Policy Exchange on which you will find details of the candidates to be PCC for Cumbria  here.

The Conservative candidate to be Police and Crime Commissioner for Cumbria is Richard Rhodes from Cartmel, a recently retired headmaster who had thirty years' experience as a magistrate, most recently in Barrow and is currently chairman of Cumbria Probation Trust.

I am obviously completely prejudiced about this, but I think we were very lucky to find a candidate of Richard's star quality: anyone who meets him will realise that Richard has thought very hard about why he wants to do this job and how he could improve policing in Cumbria if elected.

Richard has a campaign website which you can find here .

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Coach Road Whitehaven closed next week

Note that parts of Coach Road in Whitehaven will be closed for a week from 29th October for road works.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

When half-truths do more damage than outright lies

It is sometimes suggested that "A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent."

Similarly half-truths can do far more damage than outright falsehoods. In an article by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent this week called  Weasel Words that politicians use to obscure terrible truths he expressed one opinion which was commonly held a couple of decades ago, was sometimes right and more often wrong, but which did far more harm to some of the most vulnerable members of society than the worst outright lie could have done.

Patrick Cockburn was writing about government euphemisms and misleading phrases, among which he counts the name of a policy supported by both Labour and Conservative governments in an attempt to provide more humane care for those with a mental illness or mental handicap.

Three or four centuries ago, those who we would now recognise as mentally ill or unstable were in grave danger of being labelled as blasphemers or witches and put to death by the public executioner, often in cruel and barbaric ways.

About two hundred years ago, the existence of mental illness began to be better understood, and society adopted a better, but still far from ideal approach: those who were certified as insane were locked away in what were at first called lunatic asylums, and then mental hospitals, which amounted to a second prison system with various degrees of more or less appropriate medical care available. This was far more humane and appropriate than what had gone before, but it still meant that people who were labelled mentally ill could find themselves locked away for life for comparatively minor offences when they were embarrassing rather than dangerous or seriously evil.

Even more than death, mental illness was the last taboo, and those who were thought to suffer it were locked away from society in huge instititions in the countryside where they were out of sight and out of mind.

In the second half of the twentieth century Britain attempted to reform that policy further. The new policy was known as "Care in the Community" and this expression is one of the terms Patrick Cockburn took exception to in his article.

The opinion he expressed, a very common view some twenty years ago which did massive damage when it was wrong but very little good when it was true, was that

"care in the community meant people being kicked out of hospitals," or in more detail,

"When 'Care in the Community' was introduced in Britain it meant that people living in mental hospitals which were being sold by the government were kicked out to be looked after by a community which either feared or ignored them."

That is a travesty of what the policy was meant to be about.

At the time I was first appointed as a Health Authority member in 1988 there were elderly people in mental hospitals who had been put there many decades before for such offenses as giving birth to an illegitimate child or petty theft. Some of these people were by now hopelessly institutionalised but there were others in mental hospitals who were not dangerous to themseles or others, and for whom lifetime incarceration was neither necessary nor proportionate to any offences they had committed.

A small proportion of those who are mentally ill or have learning difficulties are dangerous to themselves or others and do need to be detained in a secure unit. The vast majority people who suffer from such conditions are not dangerous - far less so than someone who is sane but evil - and do not need to be locked away.

When "Care in the community" was applied properly it meant replacing most of our old mental hospital with better, more humane, and less prison-like facilites on a more human scale.

The grain of truth in the opinion voiced by Patrick Cockburn in his article is that when the policy was applied badly - which did occasionally happen - it could mean escorting people out of the front gate and forgetting about them.

But the tragic irony is that applying the policy properly and building new, more appropriate care facilities for mental patients was not just more expensive and difficult to implement than simply discharging those patients.

The planning system, property law, and requirements on the NHS to consult the public about changes to services gave protestors many opportunities to object to, delay, and often successfully frustrate attempts to new provide new facilities, while there were no equally effective mechanisms to prevent the NHS from simply discharging a patient.

So it was far easier for opponents of the policy to stop it from being applied properly than it was for them to stop patients being, in Cockburn's words, kicked out of hospital.

The fact that some people who claimed to have the interests of patients at heart expressed the view that "Care in the community" was bad for patients gave those who didn't want a new care facility built in their neighbourhood an excuse to object to the planning application for the new facility, try to enforce land covenants against the proposal, even in some cases club together to outbid the NHS for properties which might otherwise have been bought as places to care for these patients. As a health authority member and then local council planning chairman in the late eighties and early nineties I saw all these things happen.

The belief that "Care in the Community means kicking people out of hospital" was part of the problem, not part of the solution, because it encouraged objections to the provision of new facilities which were intended to give those detained in mental hospitals a better life.

At best this delayed the provision of those facilities and increased their cost. At worst in a few cases this may even have been a self-fulfilling prophecy which created exactly the problem which the critics feared.

It is often said that "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Sometimes well meaning and incompletely informed people can do far more damage than those who are completely ignorant or downright evil.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A better story will usually be believed over the truth

Unfortunately when there are two versions of a story circulating, people will always be tempted to believe and repeat the one which is a better story.

Various lurid accounts have been circulating this evening, about what happened when the Chancellor of the exchequer travelled to London on a Virgin train today.

According to a press statement issues by Virgin Trains this is what actually happened

"The Rt Hon George Osborne, Chancellor, was travelling on Virgin Trains’ 15:11 Wilmslow to London Euston service this afternoon (19 October).

The Chancellor, who was travelling in First Class accommodation, held a Standard Class ticket. As soon as the train left Wilmslow an aide went to find the Train Manager to explain the situation and arrange to pay for an upgrade. It was agreed that the Chancellor would remain in First Class and an amount of £189.50 was paid by the aide to cover the upgrade for Mr Osborne and his PA.

The situation was dealt with amicably between the Train Manager and George Osborne’s aide. At no time was there a disagreement or a refusal to pay for the upgrade. Nor was there any discussion between the Train Manager and Mr Osborne."

The ITV reporter, Rachel Townsend, who started a furore by tweeting a much more lurid version of the same story admitted  here that she was not actually sitting in the same carriage as the chancellor.

Mark Twain once remarked that a lie can go half way round the world before the truth has finished getting its' boots on. In the age of the internet, make that many times round the world.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Conference post-script: non-story of the week

I usually find when attending a party conference that there seems to be a remarkable gulf between the conference which the people who are physically there think they are attending and the one which is reported by the media.

But even by this standard there was a big gulf today between the conference at which I heard a large number of tributes from the Prime Minister down to the work of the police, and an allegation which I was astonished to read in the Independent and their "I" spin-off newspaper today that because David Cameron didn't mention the police in his closing speech he obviously doesn't care about them.

As I had heard the Prime Minister, Police minister Damian Green, Homes secretary Theresa May, and others make exactly the sort of tribute to the work of the police which this Independent diary entry complains that he didn't make, I nearly fell off my chair when I read it.

On thinking about this further, the Prime Minister's tribute to the police was made at one of the conference sessions or meetings to which the press were not invited, specifically at a session about the police and crime commissioner elections on November 15th.

However the speeches by the police minister and the home secretary in which they paid tribute to the work of the police were delivered in the main hall and in the presence of TV cameras and journalists. So to suggest that the police were not given any recognition at the conference was really quite misleading. Perhaps it's time the "Independent" changed it's name to "The Leftie."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Conference diary 4: Nukes, Boris, and crime

The third full day of Conservative party conference

Attended a session first thing this morning on the environment, rural affairs, Energy and climate change.

John Hayes, the new energy minister, reaffirmed the government's commitment to a new generation of power stations which included nuclear in the mix.

Also mentioned this morning was another police which greatly affects Cumbria - the drive for faster broadband links in rural areas, which are vital to the development of local bsuiness in countties like Cumbria

That was followed by a highly amusing - but quietly rather impressive - speech by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Boris is one of a kind, and used to play on his reputation as a clown: he did include a certain amount of charicteristic Boris clowning but there was also something very meaningful about the achievements of London and of Britain this year. He said that Britain has rediscovered that it is a can-do country, and that is absolutely right.

Then this afternoon a session on crime and justice, which showcased some of the Conservative candidates to be Police and Crime Commissioners - including the excellent candidate in Cumbria, Richard Rhodes - and had speeches by Home Secretary Theresa May, police minister Damian Green, and the new Justice secretary Chris Grayling.

There was some tough talking by all three but there were postive moves towards reform and towards making restorative justice work.

I particularly appreciated the fact that Chris Grayling made some very balanced comments about how to deal with crime in that we want people to know that if they commit a serious crime they will go to prison, but we also want to ensure people don't then reoffend and come back. His message to criminals, slightly paraphrased was that if you commit a crime we will catch you and send you to prison - but we'll also help you have a chance to go straight after you get out.  

PCC elections - just over five weeks to go

A break from the conference reports, although on an issue which has been discussed a lot at this year's Conservative conference - the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 15th November. Thirty-six days and twelve hours from now.

This election will replace the existing police authorities, which are partly appointed and partly indirectly elected, with a directly elected Police and Crime Commissioner.

The job of the new Police and Crime Commissioners will be to strengthen communication between the police and the public, set policing priorities and hold the Chief Constable to account, though all operational matters and day-to-day control of policing will remain with uniformed professionals.

The Conservative candidate to be the first PCC for Cumbria in these elections will be Richard Rhodes who lives in the county, is currently head of the probation trust, and was a magistrate for 33 years, most recently in Barrow.

Nominations opened yesterday for these elections and close next week.

If you want to take part in these elections but may have difficulty getting to the polling station on 15th November and do not yet have a postal vote, you have a few days to apply for one via your local district council's electoral registration officer.

There will be a lot more information about this over the next five weeks both here and elsewhere but I can particularly recommend:


Monday, October 08, 2012

Conference Diary 3: George Osborne/NIA Fringe

I spent a lot of the third day of conference at fringe meetings and briefings rather than in the main conference chamber. I did however hear the speeches from the new transport secretary, by a panel of business leaders, and a very strong speech by Chancellor George Osborne.

I was pleased to hear a number of points in those speeches and others made today which concentrated on keeping down the cost of living for hard working individuals and families -

* Councils given support to freeze council tax for the third year in a row

* planned fuel duty hikes put on hold (not a new announcement but at least shows ministers are still aware of the issue

* a cap on increases in regulated rail fares which reduced fare increases compared to what had originally been proposed

There was also a strong emphasis on supporting business and enterprise, which will be absolutely essential to pulling Britain out of recession and restoring the national finances.

Nuclear energy being vital to the economy of West Cumbria where I live, one of the meetings I attended today was hosted by the Nuclear Industry Association. There was one anti-nuclear protester outside the building today, who did not appear to be getting a lot of support: there were a hundred or so at the NIA meeting and nobody spoke against a new generation of nuclear power as part of the mix for Britain's future energy needs.

In fact most of the debate was about the need to press on faster and demonstrate to investors that there is strong cross-party support for new nuclear build (which the parliamentary representative present assured us there is.)

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Conference diary 2: the Hague Barnstorm

Have just listened to a barnstorming and exceptionally wide-ranging performance from the Foreign Secretary, William Hague.

Highlights of the speech included:

* the work being done, despite the shortage of money inherited by the coalition government which is affecting the FO as it affects every part of the government, to increase the number of places abroad in which Britain is represented. (In places this is being done by collaporation with our friends and allies: for example we have made an agreement with Canada to share of co-locate embassies)

* A campaign against the use of rape as a weapon of war, which Britain is about to launch and which will be a major feature of this country's chairmanship of the G8 next year.  In many of the wars and civil wars of the last two decades wholesale rape and sexual abuse have been used against women and girls -and sometimes also against men and boys - on a truly horrifying scale, and it is time for the international community to recognize that this vile practice is not something that "just happens" during conflicts but an atrocity which needs to be checked and punished.

* Britain's relationship with the EU needs to move forward, but the first priority of the EU as of Britain must be to deal with the economic crisis, and calamities for the Eurozone will also have dire consequences for Britain given that the euro countries are a major market for British goods

* Britain has contributed to positive improvements in EU policy which will  help all the economies in Europe including our own.  These include long-overdue action to cut EU red tape and bureaucracy: David Cameron and others persuaded the EU to trim back the original budget proposals and thereby saved British (and European) taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds (and Euros). 

Conference Diary 1: National Convention

To Birmingham, where I attended this morning a meeting of the "National Conservative Convention."

A few years ago, when the Conservative party as such had no proper legal existence, there was a body called the "National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations" or "National Union" for short, which pulled the voluntary party together and organised the conference. The nearest thing it had to a governing body was called the "NUEC" or National Union Executive Committee, which consisted of about 400 of wht the press would have called "Tory Grandees."

When the party was put onto a more formal legal footing during William Hague's leadership, the National Convention was set up as an equivalent body replacing the NUEC, and is both more powerful - for example, it elects several members of the party board - and closer to grassroots members - most of the NUEC were officers of what we would now call Regional oranisations, while all constituency party chairmen are members of the National Convention and they form most of its' membership. (It also includes the Area chairmen - most areas roughly correspond to a county - which is why I was there.)

It's interesting to see how much of the old National Union's way of doing things has carried forward into the new structures: I served on the NUEC from about 1989 to 1992, on the Convention when it was first set up about 1999, and again since last year. Things have got a lot less formal but basically the atmosphere is the same.

David Cameron and the new party chairman, Grant Shapps, both spoke at the convention this morning and both were on great form. I think it's going to be an interesting conference.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Miliband speech, broken promises and apologies

Mr Miliband's speech to his party conference appears to have gone down a lot better than I for one think it deserved.

There was a particulaarly interesting review of the speech by Fraser Nelson in the Evening Standard you can read a version on his blog here.

Regarding the specifis of what Miliband atually proposed o do, Nelson asked "Was it plausible? Not at all." But he thought the speech would be effective.

For me the double standards were mind-blowing - having raised the question of David Camero's own income in the speech he denied that he had done so shortly afterwards when refusing to answer the question of whether he is a millionaire himself.

And I kept thinking "Two years ago" when Miliband was asking when we last had a government which fitted his long list of uncomplementary descriptions. every one of the insults he used were at least as applicable in my opinion mostly more so, to the last Labour government of which he was a member.

And I was particularl astonished by the cheek of a member of the last Labour government using the expression "Pledge-Breaking" of anyone else.

Polioticians should try to avoid making promises they can't keep and should always try to keep the promises they do make. That is fundamental to building and retaining trust with the people and no party has done well enough over my political lifetime against this test, though some have done an awful lot better than others.

If at any time before about 2002 you had asked me, or any other Conservative activist, or most Labour activists, which party was the worst effender for making contradictory or impossible promises, we would all have instantly answered that it was the Liberal Democrats. Their activists, particularly in local elections but their MPs and parliamentary candidates were not much better, are notorious for promising one thing in one place and something contradictory in another.

E.g. arguing in Scotland that the jobs for refitting nuclear submarines should go to the Clyde, in Cumbria that those jobs should go to Barrow, in the South West that the jobs should go to Plymouth - and then arguing at Westminster that the nuclear submarines concerned should never be built in the first place.

Of course the Tuition Fees pledge at the 2010 election was the most recent and extreme example.

However, for Ed Miliband, any member of the Labour party, or anyone who has voted Labour since 2005, to criticise the Lib/Dems on tuition fees without apologising for their own record on the same subject is total and complete hypocrisy.

Because since 1997 Labour's record of broken promises has not only been as bad as the Lib/Dems, but even worse.

* Labour has broken exactly the same sort of Tuition fees promise as the Lib/Dems, and not once but twice. In 1997 they promised not to introduce them: in 2001 they promised not to raise them and claimed that they had legislated to prevent such fee rises. Both promises were broken and the claim was untrue.

* Tony Blair also promised that everyone in the country would have access to an NHS dentist within five years, and didn't make any remotely adequate attempt to honour the promise for a lot longer than that.

* Labour promised a referendum on the new EU constitution which eventually became the Lisbon treaty, then used marginal differences between the original constitution and the Lisbon treaty - which everyone else, pro-and anti, said was more than 90% the same - as an excuse to break the promise. The Lib/Dems had also promised a referendum, but abstained.

* Labour promised an "Ethical Foreign policy." One word - Iraq.

I don't pretend that my party is perfect either, though you have to go back about twenty years to find an example as bad as these. All the parties need to remember the simple rule to win back trust: say what you will do, then do what you said. And on the evidence of his conference speech, Miliband doesn't get that point.

Meanwhile, I can't resist posting a link to the Nick Clegg apology - musical version - which you can see here:

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Brown's treasury and the "Admiral Byng" approach

Damian McBride, the former aide to Gordon Brown who had to resign after he was caught planing to plant some pretty filthy and untrue smear stories about his poltiikcal opponents, made some intersting comments about his approach to leaks on his blog in a post called "The Seven Year Hitch" which you can read here. The key section, which has been the subject of debate on "Political Betting" and which casts a very unflatttering light on the functioning of the Brown Treasuring - including Ed Miliband and Ed Balls - is as follows:

"The Treasury under GB was almost immune to unplanned leaks and rogue quotes, a remarkable record sustained over 10 years. That was in part due to our policy that unless a quote came from X, Y or Z, then we’d simply deny that it represented the Treasury view, where X was the Head of Communications (successively Peter Curwen, John Kingman, Michael Ellam, me, Paul Kissack and Chris Martin), Y was the Media Special Adviser (successively Charlie Whelan, Ian Austin and me), and Z was Gordon himself or either of the two Eds.

It was also due – and I take full credit/responsibility for this – to my Admiral Byng approach to leaks. If anything did appear in the papers that was not from X, Y or Z, I would instantly name a culprit. I’d try and choose someone who was a decent suspect, but their guilt didn’t really matter – it was the assertion of their guilt that mattered. They would be cut out of meetings, removed from the circulation list for emails, and wherever they walked in the Treasury, people would mutter about their demise. The effect of this was to make the actual guilty party feel guilty as hell, and put the fear of God into everyone else in the Treasury about doing any leaking themselves. As for the poor Admiral Byngs, they’d usually recover after a while, and some of them were probably guilty anyway."

There are good people and bad in all political parties, but this casual infliction of thoroughly unpleasant and probably career-damaging sanctions on human beings who were chosen arbitrarily as scapegoats but whose "guilt didn't reallty matter" is unusually amoral even for the worst politicians. What would we think of a business which was run like that? And for any Labour supporter who is tempted to defend such conduct, what would you say if a party you don't favour was run like that? It's wrong whoever does it and the worst thing is that McBride shows little if any remorse.