Thursday, July 31, 2008

Decoding David Milliband's article

Andrew Pierce in the telegraph has an excellent piece on how what David Milliband wrote in the Guardian compares with what he really meant.

You can read the full article at:

Key highlights:

He wrote: "The odds are against us no question. But I still believe we can win the next election."

He means: "We are doomed under Brown as no modern leader has recovered from such poor poll ratings. But they can prevail if they change leader."

He wrote: "We must be more humble about our shortcomings but more compelling about our achievements."

He means: "We have to stop taking the credit for the economic boom of the last decade while blaming the global slowdown for the sharp economic downturn."

He wrote: "With hindsight, we should have got on with reforming the NHS sooner."

He means: "It's Brown's fault because as Chancellor he opposed the creation of foundation hospitals and resisted the introduction of more private sector providers within the NHS."

He wrote: "We needed better planning for how to win the peace in Iraq not just the war."

He means: "Blame Jack Straw, a potential leadership rival, who was Foreign Secretary when Iraq was invaded and failed to develop with the US a post-Saddam strategy."

He wrote: "I disagreed with Margaret Thatcher, but at least it was clear what she stood for. She stood uncomfortably within the Conservative Party because she was a radical, not a conservative."

He means: "We no longer know what we stand for under Brown who has never been a genuine reformer and is also a conservative."

He wrote: "He [David Cameron] may be likeable, and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty."

He means: "Does that remind you of somebody? Tony Blair perhaps who still won three elections."

He wrote: "The economic challenge is new, too. People want protection from a downturn made in Wall Street."

He means: "Please ignore Northern Rock, and the other British banks that lent irresponsibly, because I am blaming fat cat American speculators to broaden my appeal to the left of the party."

He wrote: "We needed a clearer drive towards becoming a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy, not just to tackle climate change but to cut energy bills."

He means: "Brown has never showed any interest in green issues, which is a factor in the huge in crease in fuel bills, and politically he allowed David Cameron to make all the running."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Last week for Whitehaven Town Council consultation

The consultation on whether Whitehaven should have a Town council finishes on Friday.

Copies of the voting form are available from the foyer at the Copeland council offices at the Copeland Centre in Catherine Street. You can respond by handing in the form or a letter with your views to the elections office at the Copeland Centre or by email to by Friday.

There is no formal Conservative line on this, and if the consultation shows a strong public view in either direction I am sure we will respect the public wishes. However, I am returning my form to vote against the creation of a Town Council.

There are two legitimate arguments which have been raised by supporters of parishing, both of which should in my opinion be addressed but it can be done as effectively and more cheaply without the costs of another tier of government.

In my opinion the democratic benefits of giving Whitehaven a voice can be met just as effectively by having the councillors who are already elected to represent the town meet as an area committee. Basically the Whitehaven representatives on Copeland would meet as a committee a number of times a year, inviting the country councillors for the area to join us.

The issues of fair payment for the costs of council services between the unparished area and the rest of the Borough can and should be addressed in a transparent way, but again this can be done a lot more cheaply than by electing a whole new set of councillors on top of the existing ones. Copeland BC should hold an independent external review of the cost of those services which in Whitehaven are provided by the Borough council and in the rest of the district are provided by the parish or town councils and funded by local town or parish precepts.

Those services should be funded in future by declaring "special expenses" so that the area which uses the service pays for them to the same degree as the rest of the district. This would correct the current imbalance at a fraction of the potential cost of adding an extra tier of government.

If we eliminate the current problem by declaring special expenses, Whitehaven might still have the lowest council tax in Copeland, but it would now be because we have spared ourselves the cost of electing another 25 councillors on top of the twenty or so borough and county councillors we already have, rather than because of different and arguably unfair treatment compared with the rest of the borough.

Take innocent people out of the DNA database

People who are not charged, or who are found "not guilty" in court, should have their profiles deleted from the National DNA Database, an inquiry funded by the Government has said.

Guilty people whose sentences have beem completed and whose convictions are "spent" should also eventually have their DNA records erased because retaining the profile "continues to criminalise them", the study concluded.

The "citizen's inquiry" overseen by the Human Genetics Commission urged ministers to take control of the database away from the police and the Home Office, by setting up an independent body to own and control the information.

This follows on from very powerful arguments put by Genewatch UK along similar lines (see earlier post) which shredded the arguments for holding the DNA of innocent people advanced by the Prime Minister and others.

I agree with the first point made by the panel: the arguments that holding DNA profiles from those who have not been convicted will significantly improve conviction rates are completely unconvincing (although better collection of DNA evidence from crime scenes would bring more guilty people to justice, and should be implemented.)

I am less convinced about deleting the DNA of those who have been convicted. I think this should depend how serious a crime they were convicted of and probably somtimes on an assessment of how strong a risk they post of re-offending. For example, I don't think there is much point in retaining the DNA profile of those convicted of motoring offences once the conviction is "spent."

For serious crimes against the person - e.g. murder, rape, other sex offences, etc - it is reasonable for society to insist DNA profiles should be retained for life. For crimes posing a intermediate risk perhaps the Parole Board should be asked to make a recommendation about whether the person's DNA profile should be retained at the time of release.

ITN provided the source for some of the information in this post.

Trade Disaster

There will be some people, most of whom are either anti-globalisation fanatics or unduly influenced by them, who are under the mistaken impression that the collapse of the Doha round of trade talks is good news for the third world.

Those people are wrong. There may be some individuals and industries who benefit in the short term from so called "Protection" but the lost opporunity to lower trade barriers, especially at a time of world recession from which easier trade might have provided a faster release, is a disaster for the majority in rich and poor countries alike.

One of the most important things we can do to help poor countries is to avoid putting up artificial trade barriers against their goods, so that where they are producing a good product at a fair price they are not prevented from selling that product to earn the hard currency they need.

I hope that a new round of trade talks can be put together and that more pragmatic views prevail, in everyone's interests. A trade war would help nobody.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Report back on July meeting of Copeland Council

As mentioned, Copeland Borough council met at Millom School this afternoon.

Main items discussed included:

1) The Audit report on Housing

In April this year the Audit Commission published a scathing report on Copeland's Housing policy. This which was the most critical official report on any council service I have seen in the 21 years years since I was first elected as a councillor.

Councillors asked a large number of questions about the measures being taken to correct the many criticisms made by the audit commission including the need to review policy on home improvement grants, using planning policy to generate more affordable housing, diversity in housing provision, the lack of a local women's refuge, and many others. The Strategic Housing Panel will be meeting tomorrow to discuss the action plan.

2) Copeland Borough Council's Accounts

It is now almost the end of July 2008, nearly a third of the way through the 2008/9 financial year. The council's accounts for 2006/7 and 2007/8 have not yet been cleared by the auditors despite tens of thousands of pounds being spent on external assistance. Earlier this month, the Audit Commission had to ask the council to correct a report to the council's executive which wrongly stated that the Auditor had found in the council's favour in respect of a complaint about the 2006/7 accounts. (In fact not even a provisional judgement has been made yet.)

Politicians like myself have criticised the European Union because it is years since the Court of Auditors gave the EU accounts a completely clean and unqualified signoff - and I stand by that criticism. It isn't acceptable that we have the sort of problems now being experienced with Copeland Borough Council's accounts either (nor Cumbria County Council, where the Leader of the Council has just sacked the deputy leader for failing to resolve an accounting problem).

I proposed a motion this afternoon at Copeland Council which required the officers to prepare a full report for all councillors which would include

* how the council got into this situation,
* what is being done to resolve it,
* how much this will cost and what effect there will be on council finances
* what can be done to ensure it does not happen again,
* whether reports on the subject to councillors were accurate and if not why not

I wanted the report circulated to all councillors to inform a debate at the next full council (in about six weeks.)

The Labour administration accepted in full those parts of my motion which called for a report, but deleted those parts which specified a timescale for the report to be produced and specified where and when the issue will be debated.

I am pleased that we will at least get a full accounting about what has happened but am concerned that the fairly generous timescale in my motion was not accepted and remain convinced that we need a comprehensive debate at full council as soon as we have the necessary facts to inform such a debate, and sooner rather than later.

Copeland Council meets in Millom this afternoon

Any residents of the Millom area who would be interested in hearing a meeting of their borough council, but cannot normally get to Whitehaven to do so, might like to know that there is a full meeting of Copeland Council at Millom School at 2pm today.

Items for the agenda include the nuclear build programme, a report on the housing programme under the Executive report, and a motion on the state of Copeland's accounts.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Coal plant hypocrisy

I agree with those who oppose the construction of new Coal-fired power stations unless they have carbon capture technology.

But a high proportion of those who take this position are among those whose luddite opposition to new nuclear plants created the problem in the first place.

Britain should have started to commission a new generation of nuclear plants at least five years ago, and the Labour government's conversion to this policy, while welcome, is very late.

We need new power capacity or the lights will start to go out. In the short term this will almost certainly have to include some fossil fuel power plants, although I am convinced that we should insist on carbon capture technology being included.

There are some people who will say that no form of subsidy should be available to nuclear plants or to any other power form they dislike. This view is only defensible if you believe that there is no evidence of damage to the environment caused by human activity. I consider that we have to keep using our minds and continually reassessing the evidence, and treating anyone who takes a different view the way the medieval church treated heretics is not a good idea. However, the balance of evidence is that human activity can affect the environment, and therefore on the precautionary principle we need to treat the possibility that releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere may have serious consequences extremely seriously.

And if you do believe that we need to control carbon release, then you must bear in mind that the cheapest forms of energy, at least in the short term, are the dirtiest. If you go for a complete free market in energy and no subsidies of any kind, the outcome will be an energy supply situation dominated by "dirty" coal and gas.

However, it is perfectly possible to construct an energy market which has a level playing field for the various types of clean energy, and greater taxes for more polluting forms of energy of other support for the cleaner forms. And if you have such a system, combined with a guarantee that it will be in place for long enough to allow generating companies to plan for the construction of power plants, nuclear power is the cheapest form of low-carbon energy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

In today's Sunday Times

Have been reading today's Sunday papers with interest. Until now, while I have said to my campaign team that we have to be ready for the possibility of an election at any stage from this autumn to Spring 2010, I regarded the latter date as by far the most likely.

I still think this, but the odds are shifting. The possibility that Labour might remove Gordon Brown and call an earlier election, possibly this autumn, more likely in Spring, cannot entirely be discounted. If GB had been a Conservative Prime minister he would probably have had to either seek a vote of confidence on his own initiative, as John Major did in the 90's, or he would have faced a challenge. No Conservative leader could survive a combination of blows like the local elections, the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, and the Glasgow East by-election without seeking a fresh mandate or being deposed. Of course, each party is different ...

Mixed in with the serious analysis there is the usual crop of humour, and I did like this line from "Atticus" (Roland White) in the Sunday Times.

"Gordon Brown told guests at a Downing Street reception last week that he hopes to swap his official car for an electric model. That would make sense. He could use the same adaptor he plus in to charge up Alistair Darling each morning."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Managed Decline"

When I was studying economics at school and university in the late 70s and early 80s there were plenty of pessimists who believed that Britain's position as a leading economic power was finished and that the best we could hope for was "Managed decline."

Whatever else Margaret Thatcher did, and like all Prime Ministers she got some things right and others wrong, she totally refused to accept the idea that Britain was in irreversible decline. By the end of ten years in office, this country's relative economic decline compared with the rest of Europe had been reversed and the idea of inevitable decline and failure was completely discredited. When Blair came to office, he did so on the basis of an alternative positive vision of the future, not by an unremittingly negative one. Similarly, part of the strength of David Cameron's approach has been his determination to find a positive view of what the Conservatives can offer Britain in the 21st century.

So I find it deeply ironic to read from Newsnight's Economics correspodent, Paul Mason, that Labour is back to ideas of "managed decline" not just for the country but in respect of their own government!

Mason reported on Friday on his blog that 'The buzzword among Labour negotiators at the Warwick conference is "managed decline". A Labour official told me this last night - at a time when most people at the National Policy Forum were expecting to win Glasgow East.'

Mason asks himself why Labour are using the phrase managed decline and responds that various parts of the Labour movement are heading in different directions.

"Consider the situation at Warwick: the unions, which will provide 3/4 of the party's funding, are asking for two major changes of policy: a slowdown of public service privatisation and a Trade Union Freedom Bill," he says.

"They have been told 'there is nothing to discuss' by ministers and know they will get neither of these things ... their plan B was to argue for a whole range of minor reforms, such as free school meals.

"There is a dark mood at Warwick and some believe key ministers would like the Sunday papers to be reporting 'blow up between unions and Labour'.

"I asked the quesion: is anybody aware of the acute absence of a "narrative" to combat Cameron with? Because nice as free school meals sound, they do not add up to a narrative. The answer was 'No. We are looking at managed decline'."

If this kind of counsel of despair is the best Labour can come up with, even for their own future, never mind the country, then the sooner they call a general election and let someone with a more positive attitude take over, the better for everyone.

Of course, the Labour MP for Copeland has the opposite problem: as mentioned a couple of posts ago, he thinks Conservatism is dying. (Perhaps he knocked his head during light-saber practice.) So Labour offers us a choice between the despairing and the delusional.

"Managed decline" is rarely an option in politics or economics: it guarantees the decline but rarely provides the management.

Free Speech, Transparency, and Privacy

There is, unfortunately, a conflict between, on the one hand, the need to ensure that the press is free to investigate issues of legitimate public concern, and that the courts operate in a sufficiently open environment to maximise the chance that they will deliver justice, and on the other hand, the natural wish of every human being for some degree of privacy in his or her personal life.

This conflict is always particularly difficult where there are children involved. The Times newspaper has been running a campaign in which they have argued that the secrecy of Britain's family courts, imposed to protect children, may in some cases have been actively counterproductive since that secrecy has allowed a number of what appear to have been outrageously unjust decisions to escape proper scrutiny. Yet nobody would want the children involved exposed to the full glare of press attention. Maybe the traditional British solution of printing the decisions but witholding details which would allow individuals to be identified and denoting people by letters (e.g. "Mr X" and "Mrs Y" would be an improvement.

For fear of stifling legitimate press investigation, the British parliament has never deliberately passed a privacy law, although it is coming to appear that Labour may have unwittingly saddled us with European privacy laws through the Human Rights act. Following a spate of ugly press intrusions into people's private lives, David Mellor once warned the media that they were drinking in the last chance saloon. I remember hearing at the time an excellent speech in response to this, I think it was by Eric Pickles, which concluded with the words

"If the press is drinking in the last chance saloon, a wise government will think long and hard before calling 'Time'."

There are no easy answers to the conflict between free speech and privacy. It can often be the case that the victims of wrongdoing, or others who have done nothing wrong but who unwillingly find themselves the target of massive public curiosity, are just as desperate for the press to "go away and mind their own business" as are those who have actually done something wrong. Often the majority of journalists will respect that wish. On other occasions there are too many who do not. And sometimes justified press reporting can add to the pain of the innocent. I saw this for myself many years ago.

Until my early twenties I had assumed that the expression "He aged five years in a week" was just a figure of speech. Then I saw it happen, twice in a year, to one of the nicest men I ever met. The first time was when he was one of the victims of a terrible crime. The second time legitimate press reporting probably contributed to what happened.

Some 25 years ago, a kind, gentle, friendly man with whom I used to sing in a church choir came home from work and discovered his wife's murdered body. I was horrified at the change in his appearance when I next saw him: luckily someone quietly took me aside and explained what had happened.

The killer, and the woman who had hired him, were brought to justice, and sadly the surviving victim's pain was not over: in order to explain the motive for the crime the prosecution was forced to demonstrate to the jury that the person who paid for the murder did so because of jealousy of another man with whom the murdered woman was involved. That process would have been painful enough if it had been conducted in private: needless to say every single national newpaper, broadsheet or tabloid, carried page after page of lurid detail after each day of the trial.

The victim's husband - or rather, the victim - couldn't face coming to church for several weeks afterward, but when I next saw him he looked to have aged another five years during the trial. I will always remember another member of the congregation saying some supportive things to him, and she concluded with the words "And everyone I know thinks the way the press behaved was disgusting." At the time, so did I.

And yet: what else could have been done? This was a murder trial. At the end of it, the people in the dock were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. What sort of society can allow people to be tried in secret for crimes like murder, or to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the evidence to justify that sentence being presented in public?

The answer to that question, sadly, is a society which is willing to risk the possibility of grave injustice being done in secret.

We need a free press. We need open courts. And we need to find a way to keep those things which also protects family life. To find a balance which achieves all these things will not necessarily be easy, but it has to be done.

Friday, July 25, 2008

School tests marking debacle

For those who have not seen it, the cover of the latest "Private Eye" has schools minister Ed Balls asking a primary school pupil something along the lines of

"Are you doing your SATS, little girl?"

and she replies

"No, I'm marking them."

We are becoming inured to shameful incompetence in the provision of public services, but it is particularly unacceptable that tests and other forms of educational activity which may affect the whole lives of children are not handled properly.

There should be penalty clauses in the contract under which an American company was brought in to organise marking of exams, and if their conduct has been half as incompetent as press reports indicate, those clauses should be activated.

If there are no such penalty clauses we should ask why not?

Michael White on the Glasgow East turnout

Michael White in the Guardian online's politics blog has an interesting piece on the Glasgow East by-election.

He argues that the worst aspect of it for Labour is they not only lost, but did so while turnout was as high as 42%. This is a surprisingly high turnout given that Labour had foolishly called the election for a week when many voters in Glasgow are away.

In other words, voters didn't just stay at home in disgust, they actively turned out to defeat the Labour candidate. As White puts it, "voters were taking the trouble to send a message to Downing St."

You can read the full article at

Small earthquake in Glasgow, not many vote red ...

One of the 25 safest Labour seats in Britain narrowly returned an SNP member of parliament last night. If Labour cannot hold Glasgow East there is not a seat in the country they can take for granted.

The excellent Conservative candidate improved our position from fourth to third place and held her deposit. The Lib Dems dropped from third to fourth and didn't
hold theirs.

This is an even worse result for Labour than Crewe and Nantwich. It is an excellent result for the nationalists and a reasonable one for the Conservatives.

I remain absolutely convinced that the Conservatives must campaign on the basis of fair and equal treatment for all parts of the UK. However, this result emphasises that we must be careful not to allow this to be misrepresented as anti-Scottish if we do not wish to jeopardise the union.

Full results:


Thursday, July 24, 2008

The (Political) Death of Jamie Reed

The symptoms that he is in denial are inescapable ...

Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland, wrote an article on the "Progress Online" website yesterday, republished on Labour home, which is one of the most extreme examples of wishful thinking I have seen in the past decade.

I republished a post a few weeks ago, which was written by a Labour activist the day before the Crewe and Nantwich by-election: after canvassing the seat he somehow managed to convince himself that Labour would hold it and the the (accurate) predictions of an impending Conservative gain had been wholly invented by the press. Similarly I can remember a few of my tory colleagues in the mid 1990's who convinced themselves that the Conservatives had a cat in hell's chance of winning the 1997 election. Jamie Reed's article "The death of Conservatism" is political self-delusion of the same order.

"The worldwide symptoms of its decline are inescapable" is his sub-title. The first paragraph reads

"Across the developed world, in Germany, France, Spain, Britain and now the United States, the politics of conservatism is in seemingly inexorable decline. Political correspondents in have so far largely failed to spot this emerging trend, but the evidence seems to be clear cut: conservatism is dying."

You can read the full article at

Now how could political correspondents have largely "failed to spot this emerging trend"? Could it possibly be because every recent opinion poll in Britain has had the Conservatives above 40% and Labour below 30% with both many opinion polls and real elections projecting a 20% Conservative lead?

Jamie's article is largely waffle, but insofar as there is a shred of substance to his suggestion that Conservatism in Britain is dying it is based on the fact that David Cameron has recast Conservative principles to meet the 21st century. Anyone with a remotely adequate knowledge of British political history knows that the reason the Conservative party has survived for three hundred years is that it has reinvented itself at least once per century to fit changing circumstances. Of course, we no longer need to push some of the things which Conservatives stood for when I first went into politics because Jamie's own party has also adopted them. Some other things need to change as circumstances have changed.

I don't believe that any party would be wise to take the next election for granted and I certainly don't. To convince yourself that the decline of your opposition in inescapable when you are in power and ahead in the polls is foolish. To publicly advance such an argument when your political support has collapsed over the past 12 months is not a good advertisement for your political judgement.

There are still heroes ...

There are times when I have read stories of great acts of heroism in the past and by comparison our own age seems very humdrum and ordinary by comparison.

But perhaps this feeling is just an example of "Any century but this and any country but his own."

There are other times when you hear stories in which 21st century human beings have displayed courage every bit as great as in real history or the most extraorinary legends or Hollywood films. I have heard two such in the last week.

A few days ago, a parachute training exercise nearly went very wrong some 3000 feet above Germany. A soldier's first parachute did not deploy properly and became tangled in the undercarriage of a light aircraft.

The civilian pilot of the aircraft left the controls for 30 seconds to cut free the soldier, enabling him to completed the jump using his reserve parachute.

The pilot, who has asked to remain anonymous, realised the parachute-jump instructor was in trouble when he saw him frantically waving.

"The pilot showed significant bravery and skill," said the MoD.

"We are unaware of a rescue like this happening before."

And now it has been announced that a Royal Marine who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades' lives is to receive the George Cross.

Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, 24, from Solihull, in the West Midlands triggered a trip wire in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in February. He immediately dropped to the ground and lay across the grenade, being blown into the air as it went off.

L/Cpl Croucher said: "All I could do in the moment was shout out 'grenade' before diving on top of it."

Fortunately and amazingly his bag, which was crammed with equipment, cushioned the explosion, and although he was thrown in the air, L/Cpl Croucher survived with a nosebleed and a headache. His three companions also survived. Without his act of heroism all four would probably have been killed or maimed.

His commanding officer said "This was a magnificent act which absolutely typified the highest traditions of commando service."

In almost every generation there have been those who expressed disappointment in those who were coming after them. But I cannot think of any clearer examples than L/Cpl Croucher and the anonymous pilot to demonstrate that there are still heroes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rewriting the Fiscal Rules

For the whole of his chancellorship, Gordon Brown boasted about his strict adherence to the so-called "Golden Rule" about borrowing limits.

Now he and Alistair Darling are talking about changing the rules which govern fiscal policy, including the "Golden rule".

In the short term this may appear to be bad news for the country but good news for the Conservatives as it clearly demonstrates the failure of Gordon Brown's stewardship of the economy. Witness Trevor K's attack on the government in the sun earlier this week.

However, there is an even worse interpretation: that Labour realise they have lost the next election and are deliberately ensuring that as much as possible of the pain of solving the mess they have got the economy into falls onto the shoulders of the incoming Conservative government.

The suggested modifications to the fiscal rules may reduce the likelihood of an increase in taxes next year - but get the economy further into the red in the medium term and make it all the harder for the incoming government to avoid tax increases in the period 2010 to 2012.

According to Nick Robinson's blog, an economist recently told David Cameron that "the next election will be the one to lose."

Well, maybe. Presumably that economist thinks that the voters will blame the incoming government for the measures taken to solve the mess. However, the evidence of the past thirty years suggests that if a first term government taking painful measures blames them on a previous government which has only just left office, it has some chance of being believed. However, a third or fourth term government attempting to blame problems on a previous administration which left office a decade or more before, or stir up fear against the party the previous generation of whose leaders formed such a government, will be treated by the electorate with the contempt such a nonsensical position deserves.

Dare I suggest that the voters of this country are not as stupid as New Labour and some of their friends appear to think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Feedback on Mental Health meeting

I attended part of the mental health session at Whitehaven Civic Hall yesterday, although unfortunately work commitments meant that I was not able to attend the whole event.

In spite of the fact that the consultation was held at what Copeland council had warned the NHS was not a terribly convenient time - the middle of the afternoon on a working day - more than 50 people listened to the consultation and Question and Answer session for nearly two hours and there was a constant stream of questions right to the very end.

More details on my hospitals campaign blog - see link at right.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Trevor Kavanagh shreds Brown's economic reputation

The former political editor of The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh, has a piece in that paper today which tears to pieces Gordon Brown's record of economic management.

I have considered Brown's economic reputation to be over-rated since his disastrous £5 billion a year raid on pension funds in 1997. In my book that was the worst single economic decision since Churchill put the country back on the Gold Standard eighty years ago. The £60 billion or so which Brown has extracted from pension funds since 1997 was probably the biggest single factor in wrecking this country's pension provision, up to that the best in Europe, which had been painstakingly accumulated during the term of the previous government.

But it is interesting to see that a wider range of people are coming to see that Gordon Brown is not just a failure as Prime Minister, he was not nearly as good as he always claims to have been as Chancellor.

Here is Kavanagh's article, published under the title BROKE BRITAIN

GORDON Brown’s days may be numbered as Prime Minister, but he can at least be sure of his record as one of our greatest Chancellors.

Not any more. That prize was brutally dashed from the PM’s fingers by his own Treasury successor last week.

Alistair Darling demolished Mr Brown’s reputation for prudence as surely as he shredded Gordon’s sacred Golden Rule on borrowing.

This was a landmark moment as catastrophic for Mr Brown as “Black Wednesday” was for John Major.

Indeed, it is worse. Saving the Pound hurt Major but it sowed the seeds for the longest period of unbroken growth in our history.

Last week’s U-turn simply exposed Mr Brown’s record as flawed and, in the long term, potentially disastrous for the UK.

Who says so? The message comes — unintentionally — from Mr Brown’s friend, the new Chancellor.

Mr Darling may be mild-mannered, but he is no fool. He knows he is carrying the can for the biggest and most irresponsible explosion in government spending ever.

In a frank interview with our sister paper, The Times, the Chancellor admits Britain is broke. We may have the world’s fifth largest economy but there isn’t a brass farthing to keep us afloat. We’re deep in debt and plunging deeper every day.

Mr Darling has told Cabinet ministers they must not ask for extra cash because he doesn’t have any.

What a humiliation after such a sustained economic boom.

Taxpayers have already coughed up a mind-boggling £1.2 THOUSAND BILLION for Gordon’s pet projects. Yet, if UK plc were a business, it would be bankrupt.

But unlike real businesses, its shareholders — taxpayers — can be made to dig into their personal finances to pay those debts which are mounting faster than bread and petrol prices.

Our national debt, similar to your mortgage, has hit a staggering £555BILLION.

It costs £31billion a year in interest payments alone — the same as we spend on defence.

In addition, State borrowing, like your credit card debt, is heading for £155billion. Who will pay for that? You and me, the taxpayer. Gordon’s Golden Rule may sound boring, but scrapping it will have consequences.

It will damage Britain’s financial reputation, hit the Pound, increase pressure on inflation and keep mortgages dear. Gordon and Alistair insist we, along with everyone else, are being clobbered by a global surge in oil and food prices.

But most countries with our remarkable era of prosperity would have put a little aside for a rainy day.

Australia, for instance, paid off its national debt and stored a multi-billion-dollar surplus. They can boost their economy in lean times with tax cuts if needed.

Yes, Australia is minerals rich. But it isn’t one of the world’s five allegedly richest economies.

When Gordon Brown walked into the Treasury, Britain had a strong economic structure needing a little TLC. Tories accuse him of failing to fix the roof when the sun was shining. It’s worse than that.

Mr Brown was a DIY Chancellor who rejected expert advice, knocked down load-bearing financial walls and hollowed out traditional support mechanisms.

So we ended up with Northern Rock, a pensions collapse and the disastrous merger of tax and customs, to mention but a few.

He tinkered with the wiring but failed to rebuild worn-out systems and created an NHS monster which costs more to feed than it delivers.

Then he tunnelled under the foundations, leaving piles of debt all over the place and a risk that the whole enterprise will be condemned.

Labour may mean well, but as the 10p tax fiasco proved, it is shockingly incompetent.

How else do you explain 658 missing laptops at the Ministry of Defence, the blunders over Equitable Life or the unbelievable shambles over school exam papers?

And they were only last week’s shockers.

In his Times interview, Mr Darling says the question on voters’ lips at the next election will be: “Who can get us out of this?”

Mystifyingly, he seems to think the answer will be Labour!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Public presentation tomorrow on Mental Health

There will be a public display and presentation tomorrow in Whitehaven Civic Hall as part of the current Mental Health consultations.

Details are:

Monday, 21st July, Civic Hall, Whitehaven
Display boards available to read from: 2pm
Presentation & Q&A: 3pm

Survey of the top political blogs

Arch blogger Iain Dale edits an annual Guide to Political Blogging, which is partly a directory of UK Political Blogs, and partly a review of the year in blogging. It also contains a list of the Top 100 UK political blogs.

He has just launched an appeal on "Ian Dale's Diary" for readers to send him their Top 10 Political Blogs. You can find it at this URL:

If you have any views on what the best political blogs are at the moment you can send your votes direct to Iain at

What the "Independent" didn't publish

It is sometimes quite surprising what the Mainstream Media (MSM) does and does not consider news.

I still buy a certain number of "dead tree" copies of newspapers because at certain times, especially on a Sunday, it is useful to be able to relax away from the computer and take a leisurely read of a piece of analysis.

Nevertheless there have been no fewer than three occasions in the last fortnight when I started to read an interesting article in a magazine or newspaper such as the Economist or Sunday Times and then realised that I had already found and read the entire article on the internet.

And while the MSM will sometimes pick an run with stories which originally launched in the blogosphere, you can sometime find things in the blogosphere which the newspapers and television does not consider news.

For example, considering how many years the Conservatives were "flatlining" on 30% or so in the opinion polls, it is extraordinary that opinion polls showing 21% plus Conservative leads combined with record lows for Labour support appear to no longer be regarded as news even by the papers which commissioned the poll.

Yesterday there were hints that the Independent on Sunday had commissioned a poll from ComRes which was about to be published and would break records. Yesterday evening it came out, and did indeed break them. Comres is one of the pollsters which usually produces results giving a higher Labour share. The official announcement of the results on the Indy's "Open House" reads as follows:

"Labour hits record low
By John Rentoul

Our opinion poll in The Independent on Sunday tomorrow records the lowest Labour share of the vote, 24 per cent, in a ComRes poll. The Conservative lead, 21 percentage points, is also equal to the biggest lead recorded by ComRes, for our sister newspaper The Independent three weeks ago. The figures, with the change since the last poll for the IoS in mid-June:

Conservative 45% (+1)

Labour 24% (-2)

LibDem 16% (-1)

Green 5% (+3)

Other 9% (-2)

We also asked if people agreed or disagreed with the statement, "The Labour Party will lose the next election regardless of who leads it": 68 per cent agreed, including 38 per cent of Labour voters, and 22 per cent disagreed.

Two-thirds of respondents agreed that "Britain should never have become involved in Iraq" (66 per cent); 26 per cent disagreed. Three-quarters agreed that "British troops should be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible" (74 per cent); 18 per cent disagreed.

Finally we asked if people thought "a Conservative government would be more effective against knife crime than the present administration": 44 per cent agreed, and 41 per cent disagreed. Given the proportion of people who must be sceptical about the effectiveness of any politicians on such an issue, that would seem a very good score for David Cameron (Dominic Grieve, the new shadow Home Secretary, probably does not yet have the public profile to take the credit for it).

ComRes has been carrying out opinion polls for the IoS since 2004. It is a member of the British Polling Council and interviewed 1,016 people by phone on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Full tables at ComRes."

Let's make it clear: this is the lowest ever Labour share from this pollster, a company which usually finds one of the highest Labour shares among reputable polling companies.

I was about to buy a "dead tree" copy of the IoS this morning for a set of these results, but didn't because when I picked up the paper in the newsagent I could see no sign of them.

I learn from a poster on "political betting" who actually did plough through the Indy that these results were referred to in 'a brief comment on page 2 (under the headline, of all things,”Cameron upsets Shadow Cabinet”)'
posted by Svejk July 20th, 2008 at 8:59 am on

(Apparently the headline is based on the allegation that some of DC's team are upset at not having been given faster promotion.)

It says something either about the current climate, or about the "Independent on Sunday" that a record low in support for Labour and another 20%+ Conservative lead is not considered news, where the fact that a few politicians would like to be promoted faster is considered worth a headline.

This isn't the only current story to which the MSM have not given much prominence but bloggers consider significant. The Smith Institute, a policy think tank very close indeed to Gordon Brown, is in serious trouble with the Charity Commission. Have you seen anything about this in a newspaper, or on the TV? Me neither. But you can hardly miss it in the blogosphere.

If you're interested, an internet search on "Smith Institute" will find you the story, though most of the more aggressive post on the subject are more likely to come up if you seach under "Sith Institute" as bloggers have given the organisation this nickname after the villains from "Star Wars".

Saturday, July 19, 2008

From Whitehaven Harbour to Narnia

There is an exhibition at the Beacon at the moment commemorating 300 years of Whitehaven Harbour. I took my family to see it today, before taking the children to see the new release of "Prince Caspian" at the cinema.

If you enjoyed the C.S. Lewis's "Narnia" books you will love the film. I was kept in suspense because in several places the story seemed about to diverge radically from that of the book, but in the event all the major scenes from the original story happened in ways which were reasonably faithful to Lewis, as most of my favourite story details, although the order of events was slightly adjusted in one or two places.

Anyway, if you are a Lewis fan or enjoyed the recent release of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" I can recommend "Prince Caspian".

Matthew Paris on government activity

Matthew Paris has an excellent article today in The Times on the way the government is trying to frantically regain control of the press agenda by a constant flurry of small scale activity - not all of their annoucements are silly but none of them add up to a coherent policy.

You can read the article at

Or the full text is:

Sound and press releases, signifying nothing

As the curtain falls, ministers are determined to leave the stage high-kicking in a burst of empty political noise

Matthew Parris

That Gordon Brown's position has “stabilised” is the conventional wisdom this weekend. On balance I share it. But I remember from school chemistry that if just one crystal is dropped into a supersaturated solution then, however apparently stable the liquid, it may suddenly seize and solidify. There is a kind of panic beneath the surface of the routine fidgeting of government this July

In three days Parliament rises. No further Westminster politics is planned now before the autumn. As the curtain falls for an extended interval, ministers have wished - consciously or otherwise - to leave the stage high-kicking in a burst of political noise.

But noise is what it is. Pure noise. As for harmony, rhythm, theme or - most important - conductor, disorder rules.

The Government is drowning in shallow water. Ministers flail around in an alphabet soup of piddling little initiatives. Each time the clock strikes a new idea of breathtaking triviality is press-released. With the morning papers come endless “clear messages” “sent out”, pointing in all directions and none. And in this frenzy of dots, nothing joins up. Seldom has so much activity combined to produce so dismal an impression of stalemate.

Last week alone we were promised help with dying; help with our corpses; with defending ourselves with guns indoors (“New law backs ‘have-a-go' heroes”); with not defending ourselves with knives outdoors; and with interpreting the Koran according to a government-sponsored Islamic board.

And we're going to be given tickets in a raffle for a new iPod if we vote in local elections. And a police bureaucrat is to be appointed as an “independent champion” against police bureaucracy. And Mr Brown has announced that we must not “walk away” from difficult decisions on greenhouse gases - and in the same breath cut increases in fuel tax. The announcements fly out like trinkets from a variety pack of Christmas crackers, and bear as little relationship to each other.

In the Commons on Wednesday Mr Brown furiously denied there was any linkage between his fuel-duty cut and the by-election in Glasgow East. Would that there were. Would that any links at all could be discerned - any logical connection - between the speeches, drafts and press releases bouncing around the media: reflexes of an administration strangely moribund, yet still jerking this way and that.

Take a look at initiatives for yesterday and Thursday alone, on the Central Office of Information's website: “Government calls on society to have its say on science”. Let me know if anyone from the Government gets in touch with you on this.

“Free bus passes for injured Armed forces personnel.” Lovely headline. Stupid, demeaning idea: totally unthought-through. What about injured police officers? Fire officers? What kinds of injury? What circumstances? What if they need a taxi?

“Cuts in Police red tape and more say for the public on Policing”. Haven't we had this one before? Didn't a “new era for policing”, with just this aim, “dawn” as the local election campaign was kicked off this year?

“Over one million people are benefiting from 419 new non-charging cash machines installed in low-income areas throughout the UK in the last 18 months.” And the Government has done this? 419? How many have been installed elsewhere over the same period? All the poor need now is money to draw out.

“A debate on how to continue to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of food in the future has today been launched by Hilary Benn.” Oh good.

“Blears Outlines New Economic People-Focused Approach to Regeneration”. Keep those Capital Letters coming, Hazel. People-Focused? As opposed to what? People-Phobic?

“Further Consultation on South East Vision.” must be viewed alongside Wednesday's announcement: “New vision to deliver North East Renaissance”. So many visions! So much renaissance! Truly, Joan of Arc and Catherine de' Medici combine within Ms Blears's small frame. On the very same day “Hazel Blears launches search for role models to inspire Black boys”. How? Maybe black boys should launch a search for role models to inspire Hazel Blears.

Meanwhile, the one serious and genuinely strategic new direction for transport policy, the only big transport idea the Government has entertained in a decade, the only one that needed courage - road-pricing - was dumped last week.

And why go on? I could mention the announcement of a “World first as Government computers go green” - whatever that may mean. I could mention the announcement that “Exploitation of Hajj Pilgrims must stop”.

But let's wrap this up with “Government Departments On Track to Meet Challenges of the Future”. Capital letters on common nouns in official press releases, like hats on ladies at social gatherings, are a sure sign the whole thing can be ignored. Read on, and you'll be left in no doubt...

“Three major departments of state are making good progress in building their capabillity to meet the demands of public service delivery in the 21st century, the Government announced today.” The logical implications are too depressing to contemplate. So the remaining departments are failing? Isn't building capability to meet anticipated demand what government departments do?

I bet I've left dozens out. There's been the futile posturing over knife crime and I seem to remember something about making problem families sign contracts to say they will cease to be problem families; and that the Government will buy flats from developers who can't sell them (for the developer a good alternative to lowering the price); and that the PM has been flying all over the place urging other people to extract more oil (as if they hadn't thought of that. Why didn't he send them an e-mail?)

But you get the gist. Not all of these initiatives are daft. And it's in the nature of government to tackle small as well as large tasks.

We could get the above list into perspective if we had a philosophical string on which to thread these coloured beads; and anything big, coherent and bold beside which to place it. But with the Brown Government the elephant in the room is that there's no elephant. In its place, communications gurus assure vacant-minded ministers that, because an insatiable media machine of 24-hour rolling news must be fed, they've got to keep those initiatives - any initiatives - coming.

The truth is otherwise. From a confidently led party with a coherent political philosophy, quite long periods of calm inactivity, even silence, are perfectly well understood by the voters. Voters hear tone more than they count words and measures. Babbling and tinkering inspire the opposite of confidence: they look desperate.

Departing Westminster this week and mistaking noise for meaning and motion for direction, Gordon Brown's administration make an unsettling spectacle. Just one crystal needs to drop.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The "Target" is dead, long live the "Standard"

Listening to "Today in parliament" last night I thought for a moment that a Labour minister actually appeared to be doing something sensible, when the Home Secretary announced that she is dropping most of the targets Police Forces have to work to so they can concentrate on policing.

Then a few minutes later she referred to a whole range of new "standards" to which the police will have to conform instead ...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

From "The Daily Mash" ...

"The Daily Mash" has another of their parodies of Labour government policy, pointing out that the results of making "problem familes" homeless may be counterproductive.

You can read the full article at:


GORDON Brown is to tackle violent crime by identifying the country's worst families and forcing them to live on the streets.

The prime minister believes Britain's most anti-social maniacs will only become law-abiding, productive members of society once they are both unemployed and homeless.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "At first they will roam around town centres, terrorising the local population and robbing people at knifepoint.

"But eventually these feral gangs will take over the Asda car park and set up a Mad Max style community, governed by a deranged tyrant with a Mohican.

"Each day at sunset they will launch terrifying raids on the local population, stealing food, petrol and women.

"For entertainment they will round-up able-bodied men and make them fight to the death in a ramshackle arena, while they rev the engines of their huge motorcycles and howl at the moon."

He added: "There is a danger they will become so powerful that they take over the local council and are therefore able to move back into their old house, but we believe that can be prevented if every community clubs together and hires a road warrior."

Meanwhile the government last night backtracked on plans to take knife carrying youths on educational visits to spoon factories after everyone said it was a terrible idea.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Copeland BC Acounts

The public are entitled to know that the expenditure of their money by the council is properly checked in an open and transparent manner, and that this is done in a reasonable timescale and at reasonable cost.

The public is also entitled to know that reports to councillors and the public about the council’s accounts are accurate.

I am very concerned by a number of issues around the council’s accounts, including the delay in closing them despite very large sums of money spent on external help, the impact of these costs on the council’s financial position and potentially on council services, and on issues around the accuracy of at least one report to councillors.

It is important that councillors should have the opportunity for an informed debate about how this situation arose, how we can resolve it, and how to prevent the council getting into this position again. This debate needs to be characterised by an open and honest assessment of the facts.

To push for such a debate I, with Conservative colleagues have tabled a motion for the next meeting of the full council.”

A dire injustice

I was shocked by the report on this evening's news about a woman who was wrongly convicted of killing her own child, and who gave birth to another child while in prison which was forcibly adopted.

Following the quashing of her conviction when the view of medical evidence changed, she asked for compensation and according to this evening's news, was denied it on the grounds that this did not fall within the criterion for compensation.

Now admittedly, I cannot see that any amount of money would compensate someone who after the ghastly experience of the death of their child, had then suffered the humiliation of being wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned, and then had another child taken away by the state.

Nevertheless if suffering that degree of harm as the result of a wrong judicial decision does not justify some some recompense, what on earth would the courts get wrong which would be worse?

If the news report is accurate it sounds to me as though the criteria should be changed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Political joke of the week

From the Political Betting website (see link at right)

"I want to know what the Mayor of London’s doing about the growing Light Sabre crime epidemic by the capital’s feral ‘crews’ of drug-fuelled Jedi."

by Martin Coxall July 14th, 2008 at 4:10 pm

(And the immediate reponse was)

"207 He’s told Sir Ian Blair to have the Force deal with them!"

by Marquee Mark July 14th, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Has Jedi Jamie been up to something ?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Consultation: should Whitehaven have a Town Council?

Copeland council has now launched a consultation on whether Whitehaven should have a Town Council. The consultation paper and questionnaire are available in the Borough Council foyer, at the council website and at various other places. The council's consultation paper reads as follows:

"Copeland Borough Council has been considering proposals for a Whitehaven Town Council and is looking to hear from you with your views prior to making a decision whether to go ahead.

What is a Town Council?
• It is a separate tier of local government and does not replace the Borough or County Councillors;
• Elections are held to appoint town councillors who meet and decide on how to
undertake the town council’s functions;
• It has powers to provide or maintain community facilities;
• It is able to comment and lobby on matters of interest to local people;
• It decides its own budget and sets its own Council Tax which is added and collected over and above the existing Council Tax;
• Depending on its size, it could employ administrative staff to operate its affairs;
• It has access to financial resources that are not available to the Borough Council that can be used to provide facilities for its area.

What will it cost?
At this stage it is not possible to say how much it will cost. The decision on whether to set a precept and at what level in addition to the existing Council Tax is a decision that the Town Council would make if established.

How many town councillors will there be?
We are suggesting that 25 town councillors would be suitable based on current Borough Council Wards.

What are the arguments for and against a Whitehaven Town Council?
• Improved representation of interests of Whitehaven residents
• Opportunities to influence the delivery of services
• A focal point for pride in the town
• A means to facilitate and promote community action
• Opportunities to access Grant Aid not available to Copeland Borough Council
• Opportunities to influence Planning Decisions

Arguments against a Town Council
• Additional cost to Council Tax Payers
• Increase in bureaucracy
• An extra layer of Government
• Difficulties in demonstrating accountability to electors
• Possible difficulties in attracting capable people to serve on a Town Council

Please take this opportunity to let us have your opinion by returning a completed
questionnaire no later than 1st August 2008."

Personally I am a little disappointed that alternative and possibly cheaper means of improving democracy in Whitehaven were not mentioned in the consultation as options for the public to consider. For example, there used to be regular meetings of the Borough councillors representing Whitehaven wards: it would be an option to reinstate these meetings as an area committee under recent legislation, and delegate powers to them to deal with some of the things a town or parish council would do in areas which have them. This would provide a degree of local decision making without the cost and hassle of electing another tier of politicians.

There are also some issues of financial equity accross the Borough but these could be dealt with by a means called "special expenses" which is widely used elsewhere in the country to ensure that council areas with and without a parish or town council pay their fair share of the cost of local government.

If you are a resident of Copeland, particularly in Whitehaven, and have views on this, please do return a form by 1st August or let your councillor know what they are.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Who do you think Gordon Brown is most like ?

After Gordon Brown allowed himself to be compared with Heathcliffe from "Wuthering Heights" a poll carried out by YOUGOV in the Sunday Times asked the 1800 voters which fictional character they thought the Prime minister was most like.

The options YOUGOV gave and the percentage answers were:

Macbeth (ruthlessly claimed the top job then it went wrong) 33%

Uriah Heep (Dickens's ‘very humble’ but insincere character) 11%

Macavity (T.S.Eliot's cat who always disappears when things get tough) 9%

Oliver Twist (who always asked for more) 6%

Dr Dolittle 3%

Mr Pooter (the city clerk in Diary of a Nobody) 2%

Heathcliff 2%

None of these 19%

Don’t know 15%

I'm with those who voted, if a little tongue in cheek, for Macavity the mystery cat:

"Macavity, Macavity, there's no-one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity"

... and each verse ends with:

"But when the crime's discovered, Macavity's not there!"

How not to catch fly-tippers

My favourite news story of the week concerned a £10,000 hidden spy camera which the council was trying to use to catch fly-tippers - and it was thrown away by council refuse collection staff "because it was hidden in a rubbish bag".

Well there's ten grand of taxpayers' money literally thrown away. I laugh because I'm not a Chichester council tax payer, but you would think someone would have seen that one coming.

Then alas there are plenty of equally silly things in Copeland: watch this space.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Matthew Paris says he failed on purpose ...

Matthew Parris has some interesting comments in The Times about whether a centre-right party can speak out on the issues around illness and poverty which David Cameron raised this week.

To boil down his main argument to a sentence, he's saying that everything David Cameron said is true but Tories shouldn't say it because coming from us the message will be counterproductive.

Personally I think Parris has taken an important point and overstated the case. I am convinced that DC was absolutely right where he said that the wish to avoid giving offence has resulted in politicians of all parties not saying things which needed to be said. And IMHO that has been a problem for all parties, not just Conservatives.

However, Parris is right on two points: we need to be very careful indeed in how we address any issue where our comments could be presented as an attack on the poor or an attempt to blame everyone who is in an unfortunate position for their own misfortunes. We have to prepare everything we say against the anticipation that we will be misreprented as telling the underprivileged "It's All Your Own Fault." (I.A.Y.O.F!)

Two recent examples: the Conservative Shadow Work and Pensions secretary, Chris Grayling, recently made a series of speeches about how to lift people out of poverty. It included a description of how socially and economically damaging it can be for the human beings in a community when that area suffers large-scale unemployment lasting for a generation or more, sufficient to lead to a culture of low expectations and undermine the idea human dignity inclused supporting yourself if you are able to do so.

You would have thought that saying that mass unemployment is socially damaging would be something that Conservative and Labour politicians and everyone else could agree with, but you'd be reckoning without the duplicity of Copeland Labour party.

No intelligent person who read those speeches in context could have possibly got the idea that Grayling was saying I.A.Y.O.F. to the unemployed, he was quite clear that "poverty has many causes and many symptoms" and that the problems initially created when areas of the country were hit by prolonged mass unemployment were one of them. Gayling was proposing constructive measures to deal with this. He also said

"I'm not one of those who believe that the welfare to work issue is simply one about benefit scroungers. The problems and issues are far deeper than that." ...

"I do think that the issue of worklessness can be treated in too simplistic a way. For every person who's decided a life on benefits is what they want, there are far more who have been through a period of trauma in their lives and lack the confidence or the support needed to get back into the workplace.

"Like the very large number of people on incapacity benefit who have suffered mental health problems and need well structured, gentle support back into the workplace.

"Or the people for whom the job they have always done has disappeared for good, and they simply don't know which way to turn to find an alternative."

None of this prevented the Labour MP for Copeland from contacting the local newspapers in Copeland and using some very selective quotes from Chris Grayling's speeches to attack Grayling and suggest that he was accusing Cumbria's unemployed of being workshy and bad parents.

Similarly, David Cameron's speech was misrepresented in a Times column by Alice Miles, a journalist intelligent enough that she should have known better, as condemning the poor, the sick and the unemployed, in a classic case of misrepresenting him as telling them I.A.Y.O.F.

This does not mean that we have to give up on any attempt to encourage people to take control of those areas of their lives which their own actions can influence and where they can make a start on their own problems.

We have to be ready for the fact that whenever we make any statement which can be twisted by our opponents in the Labour party and their friends in the media, and misrepresented as an "It's all your own fault" attack, that is how they will present it. We have to have a prepared answer to the I.A.Y.O.F. misrepresentation, demonstrating that we are putting forward constructive measures to help people, not trying to attack or exclude them, has to be ready and the tone must be relentlessly positive.

There is one other important point on which Matthew Parris is absolutely right. There is a serious conflict, which it is impossible to completely reconcile, between two essential principles for any welfare, health, or social system: the need to help everyone who most needs it and the need to reward good behaviour.

Any system which completely excludes some of the people most in need because it is partly their own fault is going to look heartless, callous, and uncaring.

But human nature means that what you reward is what you get, and any system which relentlessly penalises those who do the right thing, which leaves those who work hard, save and make the effort worse off than those who don't, will eventually collapse as the mass of people stop bothering to make the effort.

Both these points are true, and the conclusions drawn from them are directly contradictory. Parris is right that we have to try to strike a balance between the principle of helping those most in need and rewarding those who to the right thing, and that balance is going to be uneasy, arbitrary, and very difficult to get right. But we have to make the effort.

The most interesting thing about the article is when Parris reveals that he deliberately failed his self-imposed test to live on the dole for a week when he was a tory MP some two decades ago. As he puts it,

"As an MP seized with the conviction that if people would do more to help themselves they really could manage, I lived on the dole for a week in Newcastle more than 20 years ago, in a bid to prove it for Granada's World in Action. I heated only one room, bought in bulk, shopped around for seconds, kept warm with gardening, chose an inexpensive sport, etc - and I could have succeeded. But when I sensed the anger I was arousing among nice Geordies I met, not so much because they disagreed with what I said but because of who I was to say it, it dawned on me that I, a sleek young Tory earning ten times what they did, should not be saying it. Not without giving offence. It was a matter of taste, really. So I decided to fail in my bid. In doing so I rescued my political reputation and made my media career.

"So I'm afraid this is actually a rather cynical column: not about policy but presentation; not about what you do but about the reasons you give."

You can read the full article at

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sellafield Preferred bidder announced

The consortium headed by Washington International and also including the British firm Amec and French Areva. has been named as the preferred bidder for the Sellafield contract to clean up and run the site.

The £1.3bn a year contract could be worth £17bn - more than the cost of the London Olympics - to Amec, Washington International and Areva.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will continue to own the site and the assets it contains.

Clare Short on Gordon Brown

I'm not going to pretend that I was ever a huge fan of Clare Short, but it is interesting that a former key ally of Gordon Brown should be as critical of him as she has just been in an interview with "The Momitor". The former Labour international development secretary said that he is a "control freak" who has done "extraordinarily badly" as prime minister and changed "remarkably little" since moving to Number 10.

She is quoted as saying

"Gordon Brown and I worked closely with each other for a long time and he has always been a control freak and a spinner.

"However, I thought that when he became prime minister he would do better on content than he has and I thought that he understood that there would have to be changes from what Blair had been up to, in order to make the party more popular.

"I didn't have any illusions that he was going to solve all problems but I thought he might have done better. He has done extraordinarily badly and he has changed remarkably little," the now independent MP said.

Short, who resigned from the cabinet over the lack of preparation for post-war reconstruction of Iraq, added that sliding popularity showed Labour had "lost its way".

She said: "The spin and the nastiness has got so out of control and it is just another sign that the party has lost its way, its heart and its membership as well – I now have more friends that have left than are still in it."


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Anatole Kaletsky on Conservative Economic Policies

I often disagree with Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky but he is nearly always interesting and even on the issues where on balance I think he is wrong, his arguments usually merit very careful consideration.

Kaletsky is living proof that you can have broadly centrist views without being "soggy" - if he has a bias it is a love of taking the opposite view from everyone else, but it is surprising how many of the views he expresses which were contrarian at the time have subsequently come to be received wisdom.

Below is an item he wrote this week praising some of the Conservative policies which David Cameron and George Osborn have been putting forward.

At last a party moves beyond the sound bite

Our sense of hopelessness is misplaced. The Tories have shown there are still good ideas in British politics

by Anatole Kaletsky

What makes this miserable British summer even worse than the weather or the baleful economic news is the sense of hopelessness - the feeling that the country is politically leaderless and that nobody has any credible policies for dealing with the problems ahead.

Not only do we have an incompetent and confused Prime Minister leading a feeble and exhausted Government for an interminable lame-duck period, but the Opposition is almost as bad, seeming to be nothing more than a frothy public relations concoction, attractive enough on the surface, but totally devoid of any coherent ideology or serious ideas.

That, at least, is the dinner-party consensus in Westminster. Not even lifelong Labour loyalists expect a recovery for the Government, with or without Gordon Brown. But universal disdain for the Government does not translate into enthusiasm - or even respect - for the Opposition.

A typical example of this despair was a leading article in the Financial Times on Tuesday, denouncing both main parties' populist response to the oil crisis. The Tories have proposed reducing fuel duties, while Labour has hinted at postponing increases announced in the Budget - both motivated by crude electioneering with no economic justification, in the paper's view: “The Government should press ahead with increases in fuel duty [but will probably not do so]. Meanwhile, the Conservatives look more and more likely to win the next election. However, with each announcement, they look less and less like a government-in-waiting.”

But are the political prospects really so dismal? On the Government side, I fear that the answer is yes. At the beginning of this year Mr Brown faced several challenges on foreign policy, Europe, civil liberties, energy and transport, which I described on these pages in early January. Most merely required him to exercise some self-restraint - to close Northern Rock; to resist pointless meddling with the tax system; to distance himself from US policy in Iraq; to abandon a futile and counter-productive war against opium in Afghanistan; to drop the plan for identity cards; to refrain from bullying MPs on pre-charge detention and the European constitution. Above all, he had to stop trying to be all things to all men in an effort to dominate the newspaper headlines.

On these counts and many others, Mr Brown has chosen exactly the opposite course to the one that might have restored his political credibility. Accordingly, he has been written off even by his erstwhile supporters, among whom I would have included myself until this year.

But are the Tories as clueless as almost everyone assumes? It is fashionable to ridicule all politicians for intellectual incoherence and lacking substance. Such sneering criticism has the great advantage of making the critic seem intellectual and substantial, as well as politically independent. But at the risk of appearing naive and biased, let me suggest that some of the Tories' policies stand up to scrutiny and make a lot of sense.

I am not suggesting that they have all the answers or would do a better job in government than Mr Brown. With almost two years until the next election, there will be time enough to make that assessment. All I want to do is to illustrate that politics in Britain is not completely devoid of decent ideas.

Let me begin with George Osborne's proposal to reduce fuel duty, which provoked so much derision this week, not only from the Financial Times. In fact, the idea of using fuel taxes to compensate for fluctuations in global oil prices - with the tax rate going down when prices shoot up, and rising when prices decline - is a good one, in terms of fiscal stability and energy security. The advantages are described in the consultation paper A Fair Fuel Stabiliser published by the Tories this week.

Such a regulator would help to stabilise inflation and consumer spending. But an even more important benefit would be for long-term energy security. If the Government automatically increased fuel duty whenever the oil price fell below a certain threshold, such as the $84 a barrel used in the Tory Green Paper, it would send a powerful signal to energy users that the era of cheap fuel is permanently over and efforts to conserve energy will never again be undercut, as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, by a collapse in the price of oil.

Let me also mention two more Conservative policies that generated cynical headlines recently.

David Cameron's speech about our “broken society”, calling for clearer judgments on what is right and wrong, was widely ridiculed for “daring to push into the perilous terrain of morality”, as one commentator put it, while his suggestion of a prison sentence for people carrying concealed knives was denounced as inconsistent with the Tories' newfound respect for civil liberties and as a throwback to the right-wing extremism that lost them three elections in a row.

In a totally different field, the Tories have been ridiculed for apparent contradictions between their opposition to enlarging Heathrow airport and their pro-business image, and their support for other unpopular infrastructure projects, such as nuclear power.

Yet there is nothing inconsistent in these positions. There is no inconsistency between traditional civil liberties - as shown by Tory opposition to 42 days' pre-charge detention and identity cards - and tougher penalties against those found guilty by the due process of law.

This is shown by the maverick position taken by David Davis against 42-day detention, despite (or perhaps because of) his even more maverick support for tough law enforcement, including the death penalty.

Neither is there anything inconsistent in pointing out, as Mr Cameron has, that further development of Heathrow as an airline hub would not be in Britain's economic interests or even in BA's.

The only inconsistency between such positions is not in their intellectual content but in the soundbites that pass for political analysis these days. Tabloid headline-writers may be at a loss to decide whether the Tories should be classed as right-wing authoritarians or woolly liberals, as traditional pro-business blues or tree-hugging greens - but these are arguments against sound-bite politics, not against the policies that the Tories have begun to develop.

Mr Cameron seems to have understood that developing policies for a complex modern society requires a synthesis of ideas from different parts of the ideological spectrum. Politics is not just a matter of inventing slogans to try to impress tabloid editors - that is the failed politics of Gordon Brown.

D-Day for Sellafield

At 10.00 am tomorrow (Friday) we are due to hear who has won the contract to take over the running of Sellafield.

According to the outgoing managing director at Sellafield, Barry Snelson, this will be the UK's largest public sector procurement contract.

This will be a massive story in West Cumbria and ought to be an important story nationally. It will be fascinating to see what attention the MSM and blogosphere outside Cumbria actually give to this announcement.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Not practical, nor in any way workable

That is how Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, former head of MI5, speaking in the House of Lords yesterday condemned the government's proposals for 42 days pre-charge detention.

Extracts from her speech ...

"Successful counter-terrorism work depends on a number of things but in particular good intelligence and good police work, not necessarily changes in the law."

"On a matter of principle, I cannot support 42 day's pre-charge detention."

"I don't see on a practical basis, as well as a principled one, that these proposals are in any way workable."

It is time for the government and anyone who supports them on this issue to think again.

For anyone who still supports 42 day detention ...

Both the right of British citizens to go about their lawful affairs without being blown up by terrorists, and the right of innocent people not to be locked up for long periods are important.

Deciding what powers to give the prosecuting authorities in order to defeat the terrorists is not an easy task. If the government had produced a shred of serious evidence that 42-days pre-charge detention might reduce the threat of a successful terrorist act, I would feel forced to consider their arguments carefully.

But let's look at the list of people who have now come out strongly against this. The Director of Public Prosecutions has (very bravely) made extremely clear that he does not think extending the period suspects can be detained without being charged is necessary.

This evening in the House of Lords the former head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, strongly opposed 42-days pre-charge detention. So did Blair's Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, and his Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer.

So did terrorism expert Baroness Neville-Jones, who said of the 42-days plan: “It represents yet another attack, on the part of the government, without justification, on fundamental democratic rights and freedoms that have underpinned our society for centuries.”

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of people with expert knowledge of the issues around prosecuting terrorists, who have publically and on the record given an opinion on the subject have come out against the proposals.

I believe it is high time the government listened to them and sought to find other ways of improving the effectiveness of the fight against terror.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What on earth is happening to our police forces ?

Most of the police officers I know are decent, sensible people who work hard, often in very difficult circumstances, and are doing their best to do a good job. The police force here in Cumbria is generally very effective, though like all human organisations it makes the occasional slip up.

However, there are some events which make you wonder what on earth is going on. One example came this week, assuming that the press have accurately reported it, when a man came into a police station to confess to the truly horrific murder of two French students.

Now I am not pre-judging whether the person concerned actually did carry out this terrible crime. But any reasonable person ought to regard the apprehension of the person or persons who did commit this atrocity as the absolute number one priority for every policeman in Britain. Anyone who walked into a police station claiming to know anything about it should have been given a very high priority.

If the press reports are correct, and the person who was trying to confess to this crime was told he would have to wait his turn, and left unsupervised for several minutes during which time he could have changed his mind and walked out of the police station, something is very wrong.

I don't think we should blame junior police officers for the fact that the police appear to have been affected by the "tick-in-the-box" jobsworth mentality which pervades too much of the rest of society. Books by "David Copperfield" (Wasting Police Time) and WPC "E.E. Bloggs" (Diary of an on-call girl) give an idea of the barmy situations which ordinary coppers too often have to deal with.

But I hope there is an inquiry into how the attempt to confess to the murders of the French students could have been treated in this way. There appear to be some serious lessons to learn.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Feedback from Gosforth and Ennerdale Forum

I attended a meeting of the Gosforth & Ennerdale Neighbourhood Forum this evening at the Methodist Hall in Gosforth.

The first item on the agenda was a presentation from the leader of Copeland Council, Elaine Woodburn who spoke about "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely - A Local Perspective" and took questions.

There were a number of comments from the floor about the need to make sure that any discussions with the government about new arrangements for nuclear waste are organised in a way which permits complete transparency and open debate, and that fully opportunities for consultation with affected communities should include better communication with parish councils.

There was also a presentation by Caroline Watson, Public Transport Officer, Cumbria County Council speaking on "Rural Wheels", a community transport scheme that provides door-to-door transport when required and at a reasonable cost. This scheme may be immensely helpful to people in rural areas of Cumbria who do not have their own transport: more details can be obtained from the Rural Wheels Service at Cumbria County Council by phoning 01228 606721 or emailing

John Bragg, "Our Green Space" Project Officer gave a talk about the restoration and interpretation of the two village greens at Wasdale Head and Nether Wasdale and the celebration of their heritage and culture. He also handed out a guide to making more use of green spaces. More details are available from the Friends of the Lake District website at but in fact the "Rural Greens" project operates throughout Cumbria and not just in the Lake District National Park.

"Any other Business" included details of the consultation on proposed telephone box closures (see recent posts) concerns about threats to local doctor's surgeries (see immediately previous post), plus information on electric blanket testing and Cumbria in Bloom"

Save our Surgeries

I am becoming very concerned at the impact of several government policies on the viability of local doctor's surgeries, especially in rural areas.

I attended a meeting of the Gosforth and Ennerdale neighbourhood forum this evening at which two of the local councillors present reported on a meeting they had had earlier in the day with one of the senior partners of the practice which runs Seascale Health Centre.

The government is proposing that GP practices will no longer be allowed to run pharmacies where there is an independent pharmacy within a mile of the surgery. This could be very bad news for several GP surgeries in the area where income from embedded pharmacies helps to pay for the salaries of doctors.

Overall some 17 GP practices in Cumbria are affected including surgeries at Seascale, Bootle, and Whitehaven.

This would be bad enough if the pharmacy policy was the only thing the government is doing which is likely to harm rural GP practices, but in fact it is one prong of a three-pronged assault. The second is the proposal to promote large "Polyclinics" with up to 20 doctors, to resource which it is likely that some smaller practices will close. And the third is that Health Secretary Alan Johnson has announced he intends to abolish the minimum guaranteed practice income scheme which keeps many small surgeries open.

Taken together these policies represent a serious threat to our rural GP services, which following on from the loss of other rural amenities such as Post Offices is bad news for rural communities and also for urban communities in sparsely populated areas such as Cumbria.

More details on my hospitals & health blog - see link at right.

How MPs voted on the "John Lewis list"

A number of people have asked me how MPs had voted on their expenses.

In Cumbria the position of the six sitting MPs was

In favour of the reform package proposed by the Estimates Committee, which would have introduced external audit and scrapped the "John Lewis List"

David Maclean (Penrith and the Borders, Conservative)
Eric Martlew (Carlisle, Labour)

For the amendment which supported internal audit instead and kept the "John Lewis List"

Tony Cunningham (Workington, Labour)

Did not vote

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Lib/Dem)
John Hutton (Barrow & Furness, Labour)
Jamie Reed (Copeland, Labour)

Five cabinet ministers voted against the reform: they were

Jacqui Smith - Home Secretary;
Andy Burnham - Culture;
Caroline Flint - Housing;
Paul Murphy - Wales;
and Shaun Woodward - Northern Ireland.

Gordon Brown was one of the MPs who did not vote on the issue.

David Cameron and most of his shadow cabinet voted for the reform package and against the amendment.

Full details of the vote on the amendment are as follows

The House divided: Ayes 172, Noes 144.

AYES (e.g. for the amendment which kept the John Lewis list and rejected external audit of members' expenses)

Ainger, Nick
Allen, Mr. Graham
Amess, Mr. David
Anderson, Mr. David
Anderson, Janet
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Banks, Gordon
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Beckett, rh Margaret
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Betts, Mr. Clive
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, rh Andy
Butterfill, Sir John
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cooper, Rosie
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Flint, rh Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Gapes, Mike
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Greenway, Mr. John
Griffith, Nia
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hamilton, Mr. David
Havard, Mr. Dai
Hesford, Stephen
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hood, Mr. Jim
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Hughes, rh Beverley
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Keen, Alan
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Lloyd, Tony
Lucas, Ian
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McDonagh, Siobhain
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKenna, Rosemary
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Meale, Mr. Alan
Merron, Gillian
Miller, Andrew
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morden, Jessica
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mudie, Mr. George
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Osborne, Sandra
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Robertson, John
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruane, Chris
Russell, Christine
Seabeck, Alison
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Spink, Bob
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Tami, Mark
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Vaz, rh Keith
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watkinson, Angela
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Phil
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woodward, rh Mr. Shaun
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wyatt, Derek

Tellers for the Ayes:
Helen Jones and Anne Moffat

NOES (e.g. for the original motion to introduce external audit and scrap the list)

Alexander, Danny
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Balls, rh Ed
Bayley, Hugh
Begg, Miss Anne
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Bell, Sir Stuart
Berry, Roger
Bone, Mr. Peter
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Bottomley, Peter
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Brennan, Kevin
Brooke, Annette
Browne, rh Des
Browning, Angela
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Burrowes, Mr. David
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Alistair
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Cameron, rh Mr. David
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Clark, Ms Katy
Clarke, rh Mr. Kenneth
Cooper, rh Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Creagh, Mary
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davey, Mr. Edward
Denham, rh Mr. John
Duncan, Alan
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Efford, Clive
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Field, Mr. Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Don
Fox, Dr. Liam
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goggins, Paul
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Helen
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Grayling, Chris
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Grogan, Mr. John
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hall, Patrick
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Dr. Evan
Hayes, Mr. John
Healey, John
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holmes, Paul
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horwood, Martin
Hosie, Stewart
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunter, Mark
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Key, Robert
Kramer, Susan
Lamb, Norman
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Lazarowicz, Mark
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Linton, Martin
Luff, Peter
Mactaggart, Fiona
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Maples, Mr. John
Martlew, Mr. Eric
Maude, rh Mr. Francis
May, rh Mrs. Theresa
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Morgan, Julie
Mulholland, Greg
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Osborne, Mr. George
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pound, Stephen
Purnell, rh James
Randall, Mr. John
Reid, Mr. Alan
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Bob
Selous, Andrew
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Smith, Sir Robert
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Taylor, Matthew
Teather, Sarah
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Viggers, Sir Peter
Weir, Mr. Mike
Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wills, Mr. Michael
Winnick, Mr. David
Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:
Nick Harvey and
David Maclean

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Justice and DNA

I support the existence, with proper controls, of a DNA database to help convict the perpetrators of serious crimes. However, the debate around the issue is a lot more complicated than some people would have you believe.

Concerns about this issue are not just about protecting the civil rights of criminals. They are about making sure that that DNA is not misused or misunderstood in ways which lead to the wrongful conviction of innocent people.

For a start, if courts and police forces were foolish enough to imagine that you can safely seek a conviction on DNA evidence along - and fortunately most of Britain's police forces are not that stupid - you would have a recipe for wrongful convictions of the innocent based on misunderstandings of the probabilities involved.

Remember Professor Sir Ray Meadow? He was one of the most distinguished paediatricians in the country but his brilliance as a doctor was combined with an ignorance of statistics in general and conditional probability in general was worse than would be expected of a VI former studying maths. His misunderstanding of conditional probability led him to seek to persuade juries that a number of women, at least three of whom were almost certainly innocent, had murdered their own children. His erroneous testimony directly resulted in at least two wrongful convictions and appears to have indirectly caused the death of one of the innocent women wrongly convicted of murdering her own children.

I cite this case to make the point that the lives of innocent people can be wrecked if courts are wrongly advised of the probabilities surrounding any form of science relevant to a crime. And as I wrote in a blog post about Sir Ray a couple of years ago, potential risks of miscarriage of justice if scientific statistics are presented to a court in a misleading way are not a problem unique to cases of cot death. DNA evidence carries the same risk.

While genetic fingerprinting and DNA matching are an immensely powerful tool and there is no doubt whatsoever that it has enabled many guilty people to be convicted, the evidence has to be used and described properly. Statements of probability in relation to genetic evidence can sound more powerful than they really are unless there is corroborative evidence.

Let’s give an example. Supposing there is a crime for which there are no surviving witnesses, and the police have recovered genetic material which they are absolutely confident belongs to the perpetrator. A check of the national DNA database finds one match with a potential suspect and the DNA match is sufficiently good match that only one person in five million would have a fit as good as better. The suspect is tracked down and brought in for questioning, and the police find that he could have been in the right place at the right time and has no convincing alibi.

It is my understanding that most British police forces would do more work than this before bringing a prosecution, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we have a rare sloppy example, and they don’t. You are on the jury – you are told that the accused had the opportunity to commit the crime and that genetic fingerprinting suggests it is five million to one that he did it. Do you find him guilty?

If you said yes, I hope you’re not on the jury should I ever be wrongly accused of anything. Five million to one odds means there are about eleven people in Britain with an equivalent match, including about three or four adult males of an age to be strong and fit. We would need far more evidence against the accused than just the statistics before to be confident that we were convicting the right man, so that the court could rule out all other potential suspects with an equally good genetic fit.

And sadly, if you want evidence that people in senior positions do not all understand the statistics around issues of conviction using DNA evidence, you only need to consider the following statement from a recent speech by the Prime Minister ..

“I say to those who questioned the changes in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which allowed DNA to be retained from all charged suspects even if not found guilty: if we had not made this change, 8,000 suspects who have been matched with crime scenes since 2001 would in all probability have got away, their DNA having been deleted from the database. This includes 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 other sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries, and 127 drugs offences”.

(Gordon Brown, 17th June 2008, in a speech on 'Liberty and Security')

This claim by the Prime Minister was examined by a pressure group called Genewatch UK, and forensically torn to pieces, in a report which is available online at

Genewatch tracked back the sources for the Prime Minister's speech. Those sources make clear that the figures quoted are based on estimates rather than the tracking of actual cases, and those estimates are based on a number of unverifiable assumptions. Genewatch demonstrate conclusively that the way Gordon Brown used the figures ignores the fact that many of the genetic matches referred to did not lead to even a prosecution, never mind a conviction, because many matches with DNA found at crime scenes are with people other than the perpetrator such as victims and passers by, or are false matches.

Genewatch's conclusions, which I don't believe any open minded and intelligent person who has read their report could dispute, are that

1. The Prime Minister’s claim that “in all probability” 114 murderers would have walked away had innocent people’s records not been retained on the National DNA Database is false.
2. Ministers are well aware that this claim is false;
3. This figure is seriously misleading to members of the public who are concerned about the implications of retaining innocent people’s records indefinitely on the National DNA Database.

They also put forward evidence to the opinion, which I find compelling, that improved collection and retention of DNA found at crime scenes will improve rates of conviction of the guilty, but that retaining the DNA of those who have not been convicted of any crime will not. One example of the evidence they quote is the following statement from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics:

“…There is very limited evidence indeed that the retention regime of England and Wales is effective in significantly improving detection rates…The match rates between stored subject profiles and new crime scene profiles loaded onto the NDNAD in England and Wales, which is 52 per cent, can be contrasted with that of the Scottish DNA Database, which has a higher match rate of 68 per cent. This demonstrates clearly that the more limited retention policy in Scotland does not necessarily negatively impact upon its subsequent
match rates”.

The Genewatch report quotes the concerns expressed by the British Academy of Forensic Sciences about the disadvantages of profiling everyone at birth, as some of the more hardline advocates of using genetic data have suggested.

For example, if a complete genetic record of everyone in the country was taken, and was then stolen, it would put everyone in the country at risk of being framed by having our DNA planted at a crime scene.

A year ago I would have dismissed that argument as ridiculous. After the government managed to lose discs containing the addresses, birth dates and bank details of 25 million people, I can no longer do so.

So where do we go from here?

The National DNA Database should continue to be improved and expanded, and is an appropriate tool to use in criminal investigations, with more effort made to improve the collection and retention of DNA from crime scenes. However, this should go hand in hand with safeguards to prevent the accidental or deliberate misuse of DNA data to convict the innocent.

There is a need to strike a balance in respect of the information made available to the police: at the moment I think the balance struck by the Scottish parliament looks more appropriate than that which the 2001 act lays down for England and Wales. To quote Genewatch UK,

"The Scottish Parliament voted against indefinite retention of DNA profiles and samples from persons acquitted or not proceeded against, in May 2006. Instead, police powers were expanded to allow temporary retention (for up to 5 years, with judicial oversight) from a much smaller number of people who had been charged but acquitted of a serious violent or sexual offence. The Scottish Government is currently conducting a review of this decision in order to assess whether the temporary retention of data from this more limited category of unconvicted persons is appropriate. In conducting its review, the Scottish Government has expressly ruled out the indefinite retention of fingerprint and DNA data acquired from individuals who are not convicted of any crime.

The Scottish Parliament reiterated its position in a vote on 28th February 2008, rejecting the blanket retention of DNA samples and fingerprints, and recognising that “appropriate utilisation of DNA samples and fingerprints can play an important role in identifying offenders but that it is vital to strike the right balance between prosecuting criminals and protecting the innocent”.

And another safeguard, as I have long argued, should be the provision of better support to Juries on how to use and understand any statistics which may be quoted at them by prosecution and defence alike.