Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Worst Possible Light

There is an episode in The Simpsons in which Bart gets hit by a car belonging to Mr Burns. There is a subsequent claim for compensation for Bart's minor injuries which ends up in court and it is only Marge's honesty that prevents a big pay-out. The role of the lawyer is to present the accused in the best (or worst) possible light. I could give you many more examples of how ambulance-chasing lawyers do their best to line the pockets of their clients - did I get that right?

'Where there is blame there is a claim' encapsulates the idea that accidents may be preventable and the idea has been successful. It is now hard to think of an accident without thinking of factors that could have made it less likely.

In the news today is the story of a police officer who is suing a garage owner after she was called out for a suspected break-in. The owner 'Steve Jones said he found the case "shocking".' Even if you read the full report from the BBC you may still feel that a good lawyer would identify the 'proper' circumstances by which the garage owner may be blamed. Perhaps there was inadequate lighting. Perhaps the police officer was distracted by the owner as she attempted to step onto the kerb. Who knows what actually happened?

On the other hand don't police officers have to work in areas that are unlit? Don't they have to deal with distractions like members of the public talking to them?  It certainly seems that this police officer has succumbed to compensationitis. The local police federation chairman said "the claim has come in and we've honoured the officer's wishes by putting it through the solicitor", but I suspect that privately he wishes she hadn't put in a claim. Maybe he should have had a word with her before this happened. Maybe he did, but she was adamant. In that case the pervasive culture that persuaded her to be adamant has a lot to answer for.

The trouble is that even if the case is thrown out, simply making a claim will perpetuate a culture of compensationitis. There are people who gain substantial sums through the courts because their lawyers won the case and this too perpetuates the culture. The greater the injury, the greater the compensation. If you can't work again then the greater the compensation, and the greater the compensation the greater the need to live up to the decision of the court.

We have a series of welfare cuts coming in that have been aimed at the most vulnerable. Life isn't easy for those on benefits but the Government sees payments to the most vulnerable as an overspend and they have to balance their budget. In turn the most vulnerable (and everyone else) will see the idea of compensation for injury in a positive light. The additional problem is that anyone who gains compensation for injury also has to take up the attitude of someone who has been injured. This will give them more money. Wouldn't it make a nice change for the Government to target the Lionel Hutz characters instead of the vulnerable.

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P.S. It is nice to know that the news 24 hours later was that the Chief Constable  did not support his officer's claim.

How to fix your street

As a candidate for the county council elections in May I receive many complaints and they often relate to the state of our roads. It's not surprising as they are terrible. However it is quite satisfying to receive a complaint like a pothole, act on it and then see that the pothole is repaired. I am not the county councillor but I am sure that the council is happy to get information from members of the public because it is their job to keep our roads in good repair and if members of the public do the monitoring then part of the council's work has been done.

A couple of days ago I was speaking to one local resident on this subject and he mentioned that he often uses the website called fix your street. I contact the Highways Department directly but he was more than happy with this site which deals with highways problems including street lighting, drainage, litter and potholes.

You would think that our county councillor would want to help with problems that relate to the county council but nobody has heard of him (I know because I am asking as I am knocking on doors). Well maybe the MP who happens to be of the same political persuasion  can help. I have looked at my MP's website and there it is - he gives advice on frequently asked questions which includes potholes. I clicked on the link and the advice is...I should contact my county councillor. No mention of who my county councillor is. No link so that the councillor may be contacted. No mention that the MP can contact the council. No mention that any resident can contact the council directly. No mention of any websites like fix your street.

My MP writes on his website "I hope that you find my website is both informative and easy to navigate".

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Tory Electioneering

We live in tough times and the Government has cut the amount it spends on subsidising council tax and this has caused Blackpool Council to pass on the costs to those who receive the benefits. Tory led Lancashire County Council has been going through tough times too but they have managed to announce a 2% cut in council tax bills. This is great for those who pay the full council tax. By coincidence we have elections for the County Council in May. However, for those who receive council tax benefits then things may not look quite as good.

There is no doubt that cuts to council tax benefit target the most vulnerable and this is what four churches have said today. It will be interesting to see how the Tory led Lancashire County Council present their 2% cut in council tax as many will see this as blatant electioneering. For more details of Tory electioneering at the last County Council elections see my blog from 11th June 2009 and then to see what actually happened take a look at the blog from 2nd September 2009.

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Friday, 29 March 2013

Know Your Patrons

I was talking to someone yesterday, Maundy Thursday, who asked me about my views on immigration. I mentioned my blog from the 4th March which I won't repeat here but this time the person I was talking to was a Christian and I said that the Christian thing to do would be to have no border controls. If we are to follow Christ's teaching then we should accept everyone who wishes to be here and give them all that they require. It is almost the complete opposite of what actually happens.

Jesus commanded his disciples to go and proclaim the Gospel and St Augustine started the ball rolling in England. He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597 (and the 105th was enthroned just last week). Can you imagine what would happen now if St Augustine came here on a ferry and arrived in Dover. I can picture Nigel Farage telling him that he can't come in as he would be claiming social security. He would tell St Augustine that this island is not big enough for people like him but if he wanted to claim any benefits he would have to wait five years.

St Augustine may not be as well known in the role of England's patron saint as St George or St Michael the Archangel, but he is nonetheless a patron saint of England. He also has the advantage over some of the others of having a connection with England. So, I think it's significant, and positive, that an immigrant to a country can be its patron saint. I wonder what the Little Englanders, who are probably more acquainted with St George have to say about that.

St Augustine would not have been able to stay under UKIP policies because they are calling for a five-year freeze on immigration. As it is UKIP's intention to 'end the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism by local and national government and all publicly funded bodies' then I don't suppose the Church of England would be able to carry out much of its work. However the positive message for Easter is that some Christian values are still to be found within British politics.

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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An International Health Service?

One of the debates in the House of Commons on Monday was on the subject of entitlement to NHS treatment. Frank Field asked the question 'what moves the Government intend to take to prevent the national health service becoming an international health service'. It sounds a good question as even if we have no direct knowledge of health tourism (I have) we all know that it is possible for NHS treatment to be received by those who are not entitled to it.

It is worth quoting Julian Huppert's contribution to the debate. 'The former public health Minister, Anne Milton, revealed in a written answer on 17 March 2011 that the sums not collected from overseas patients totalled less than £7 million a year. If we double that and double it again, as the Health Secretary suggests, that is £28 million. Private finance initiative schemes cost the NHS that much every two weeks. Which issue is more important in ensuring that we have a properly funded NHS?' However the principle that those who are not entitled to free NHS treatment should pay for it remains.

Dennis Skinner did not feel that we should be collecting this money. He said '...that those of a similar colour, of different colours and of different nationalities can change the bed sheets and operate, but woe betide them if they want to put their head on a pillow when they are ill. What hypocrisy.' Dennis obviously supports  multiculturalism, as I do, but he has missed the point in this debate. It isn't about race and it isn't hypocritical to support multiculturalism and oppose health tourism.

I also noticed comments on the same subject which were made on Facebook. Here's one that quotes Jeremy Hunt. ' "We need to deal with all those issues, and they are all failures of the last Government." ' but then goes on to add 'they must think we're stupid to keep coming out with that tired old line. Gutless shirkers of responsibility.' Well I am not a Jeremy Hunt supporter but he is right, and it is a strange comment considering that the government is now acting in order to prevent shirking of responsibility. 

There are many other comments that deserve a mention. 'Well said Mr Skinner, defiance is all that counts now!' I hope the person who made the comment (and Dennis) can understand that there should be some restraints on those who receive NHS treatment. After all, even those who are entitled are often denied for many reasons that are underscored by finance. However there is a problem if Dennis Skinner's supporters recognise misguided arguments as a reason for unbridled defiance.

Nye Bevan was also quoted in the Facebook comments. "The collective principle asserts that... no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means." Well Nye talks about societies in the plural. I expect that even he knew that societies would have to come to arrangements between themselves.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Cost Benefit Analysis

Yesterday morning the Politics Show for the North-West had an article on the introduction of universal credits because this area will become a pilot area in April with the rest of the country taking up the benefit reforms in October. The introduction was based on George Osborne telling us that it is wrong that someone should be better off on benefits than they would be if they were working. This sounds reasonable for a few moments but then consider the role of benefits. Could it be that benefits are there to supply basic needs? If so could there be employment which does not supply those needs? If this is the case then George needs to say that.

Universal credits will replace a number of benefits including income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit. So far so good. It is confusing to have so many benefits and it does seem reasonable to have a limit of £500 per week as a single monthly payment. The trouble is that I would go back to the reasons for having the benefits in the first place. If they are supplying basic needs then it is possible that under the new system basic needs may not be met.

The under-occupancy charge applies to those in social housing with spare bedrooms. It would be nice to think that we could make a more efficient use of our social housing. It would also be nice to think that as a consequence less people would be homeless. One of the criticisms by those who label this a bedroom tax is that there is not enough social housing with a smaller number of bedrooms. It seems so obvious to me that the charge should not apply to someone who is willing to downsize but is not able because of lack of availability. The trouble is that I have not read this anywhere.

There are also impending changes to disability living allowance which will be replaced by Personal Independence Payment. The stricter criteria for qualifying means, in effect that if they didn't change the name then this would be simply a cut in benefit. The Government interprets this as stopping nearly £600 million in overpayments. You are either fit for work or you aren't and cutting benefits isn't going to help those who can't work.

The spokesperson for the Citizens' Advice Bureau was not keen on the DWP having 'targets for sanctioning people' which basically means benefit cuts and it may well cost more to deal with the consequences of the cuts. The Tory MP confirmed that the changes would mean more savings. He also said that we have to protect the most vulnerable.

The trouble is that by changing the criteria for benefits you are telling people who have been designated unfit for work that they are now fit for work but their condition has not changed.

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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Informed Debate on Fracking

Fracking was one of the subject on the Sunday Politics today. I have written about fracking before, and my conclusions are that essentially we have to know that we are doing our best to protect the earth's resources and secondly we have to know that fracking is safe.

The spokesperson for Friends of the Earth had the same concerns. Could water contamination occur? Cuadrilla tell us that the chemical they use is non-hazardous but is that the answer to the question? What about the pollution that is caused by methane escaping into the atmosphere? It would appear, even at a glance, that many environmental problems have occurred due to fracking in America.

The spokesperson for Cuadrilla also told us that they weren't forcing chemicals into the ground as it was water and just one chemical. Now I know that water is a chemical and add another one then you get chemicals in the plural but the Cuadrilla spokesperson went on to tell us that if we needed proof that it was just one chemical then all we had to do was log on to the Environment Agency's website. That's a fairly impressive argument until you log on to the Agency's website and read "Operators should disclose, either on their own website or on third-party websites, the chemicals used in their fracturing fluid." Sounds like we are going round in circles.

On Cuadrilla's website they tell us that the fracturing fluid contains fresh water, sand, polyacrylamide friction reducer, hydrochloric acid, biocide and sodium salt. I'm not a chemist but I can count and this is more than one chemical plus water. If we can't get even get the number of chemicals right then what chance do we have about deciding whether safety is an issue?

The Friends of the Earth were also concerned that shale gas extraction would harm our efforts to cut carbon emissions and meet our climate change obligations. It may well be that compromises must be made but it would be nice to have an informed debate which includes how we are too meet our climate change targets. We need relevant information which is independent of the fracking company in order to judge the safety and value of fracking. Then we may get an informed debate.

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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Local is Good

County Council elections are coming up in May and all candidates have to have some connection in the area. It may be that they work locally, more likely they live in the area. It is less likely but still possible that they own land locally. For the last two elections I have stood in Morecambe West. My road was the boundary and my side happened to be Morecambe South not West, so I was a fairly local candidate but wasn't able to vote for myself. I have been promoted this time to stand in my own council division.

So if everyone has local connections can candidates advertise themselves as local? Well yes as some people are more local than others, and it is certainly an advantage when your vote counts. It is certainly an advantage when the electorate are close to their elected representatives. The good news for me is that I don't think the Labour and Tory candidates will be able to vote for themselves.

I am not sure if UKIP will be standing and neither am I sure about the party called the Morecambe Bay Independents. They did stand in Morecambe South in 2009 but not in 2005. I am not sure how influential these 'independents' would be even if one of their candidates were elected to the county council as I don't know their policies for Lancashire and I don't know their natural allies. Still, they may be local.

Local is good, but there are limits. It helps to have an outlook that is appropriate to the tier of government being aimed at. Morecambe is a great area, and I would certainly aim to represent it effectively if elected, but it has to be borne in mind that the County Council covers a larger area, and County Councillors will make decisions that affect the whole of it. They need a wider outlook, but not so wide that it is built on purely national issues. So I'm happy to belong to a party which, while emphasising local decision-making, has a good track record at every level of government.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

News on the link road

The 19th of March is a significant day for the link road between Morecambe and the M6. It is the date by which the government is expected to decide whether to build the road and as this happens to be today then I am expecting some news. This story has been going on for decades and it is still mentioned on the doorstep.

The only news so far this week is a story from The Visitor where we are invited to take a 'sneak peak' at how the finished road would look. It would appear that the decision has been made as this sneak peak was published yesterday and the graphic artists have worked hard. Maybe the decision has been made and it hasn't been published on the Lancashire County Council website. If no decision has been made then that should be news too. Well it is the 19th March.

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P.S. The news has come through that the Secretary of State has given the go ahead for the link road. As the idea was first raised in the 1940s then this makes the 19th of March a fairly momentous day.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Do these numbers add up?

Knocking on doors means that I am asked many questions. It's not like being on Question Time and I don't need to know everything about every question. In fact most people are happy simply to be able to ask a political question. On Wednesday one person asked me why the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Tories and not Labour. As it happens this came up on Any Questions last Friday when Peter Tatchell made the point that Liberal Democrats should not be working with the Tories. This was answered by Ed Davey for the Liberal Democrats.

I knew the answer without Ed reminding me. Without a coalition, a minority Tory government would have resulted in another general election and a second election may have given the Tories unfettered control. This coalition also allows for Liberal Democrat policies to pass through parliament.

The person who asked me the question may be pleased to see Liberal Democrats and Labour working together in their plans for press regulation. David Cameron was part of the cross-party talks before he decided that he wasn't going to get his way. The difference between the Liberal Democrat / Labour view and the Tories is that the Tories prefer to regulate the press without controls underpinned by law which sounds very much like the status quo. The trouble is that the press has had plenty of opportunities to regulate itself and their failure has been frequent. It's not all bad news - apologies often get printed in the back of the paper somewhere.

It will be interesting to see if the Tories lose the vote on Monday as reports are that it will be close. And that reminds me of another question that I get asked. Why didn't Liberal Democrats form a coalition with Labour? Well the numbers didn't add up. I wonder if they will on Monday.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

Tilting at Windmills

There is a headline today on the BBC website that reads 'Lancashire farmers in wind turbine row with MoD'. What would you expect to read? My initial thought was that the MoD wanted to build some turbines and local farmers were objecting. In fact the farmers wanted the wind farm because  of 'crippling costs' but the MoD felt this would affect their radar system 20 miles away at Warton.

The trouble is that the prospective turbines would have been built in the shadow of much taller turbines on Oswaldtwistle Moor and there are many other turbines within a 20 mile radius. It strikes me that Warton's radar system is compromised already. Wouldn't it be nice to have a reasoned discussion on how radars are affected by wind turbines? I wrote about plans for a wind farm in Heysham and these would be less than 20 miles from Warton. I guess there is a reasonable answer but it's just hard to see it from today's article.

Whether wind turbines affect radar systems or not, it looks like the tide is turning and wind farms are now recognised as efficient and desirable as well as a cleaner fuel. As far as beauty is concerned it is in the eye of the beholder. I have always thought that turbines were beautiful in the way that enthusiasts admire steam engines or in the way that back to back houses are conserved for their insight into history. A few years ago they were just slums.

The main argument that is no longer being debated concerns the efficiency of wind farms. When I wrote about wind farms in January it was because I had spoken with someone who felt they could never pay for themselves, even if their power source didn't use up the earth's resources.It sounds like the world is changing...

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Friday, 8 March 2013

Pothole Complaints

I feel a little sorry for the council when they are dealing with potholes. They must know that potholes are dangerous and I am sure that they cause many trips which then turn into many claims for damages. Everyone wants roads and pavements to be in good condition so it must be frustrating for council officers because potholes are many and resources are finite. The only thing they can do is to prioritise as some roads are certainly worse than others.

One method of prioritising is to listen to complaints and one of the things that I have been doing is letting the council know about the larger holes in our roads. One of the worst roads that I have come across shouldn't have needed me to write in to the council because many residents had already been in touch. In fact one of the first people that I spoke with told me that I didn't have to do anything (She also told me that she used to be a member of the Conservative Party) and I believed her for at least a few minutes.

Many others told me slightly different but similar stories. They told me that they had been in contact with the council and the responses ranged from the road would be resurfaced to it may be resurfaced if they could find the money and it would not be resurfaced along with many variations in between. One resident had even emailed the council to tell them he would be withholding his community charge until the road was resurfaced. Another had been asking the council to do something for five years. Reactions had ranged from civil disobedience to despair.

Imagine my surprise when I received the reply from the council that they had no existing records for complaints about the road. I have asked them to look again. I am feeling a little less sorry for the council officers.

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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Not Just Wrong - Truly Dreadful

The failings in the Mid-Staffordshire hospitals are well documented and according to the public inquiry what happened was ' "not just wrong, it was truly dreadful" and the government needed to "purge" a culture of complacency'. It is probably the biggest NHS scandal in recent years and the chief executive at the time was Sir David Nicholson. Now he happens to be the chief executive of the whole of the NHS in England. This morning he was questioned as part of the Mid-Staffs investigation.  He cannot remember whether he was in charge of 54 or 56 organisations at the time. This is not a good basis for questioning him on any specific matter. He was also asked about mortality rates at his hospitals but he hadn't received any information. He didn't see any mortality rates.

How do you measure whether a hospital is doing well? Well perhaps, most importantly you could ask the patients and Sir David tells us he has done that even though he can't remember getting to all of his hospitals. You could ask the staff and both of these measures would give you some indication of what is happening. Sir David did this too. However if you gather this information together in a scientific way it gains even more importance but still Sir David did not get to know about the years of abuse and neglect.

Morbidity rates relate to illness and are quite complicated to decipher because we are complex creatures. However it is fairly easy to know whether someone is alive or dead. Nobody is going to argue about this diagnosis and mortality rates are fairly easy to understand. I knew about them in the 80s as a student of physiotherapy. They are a fairly easy method of monitoring standards within hospitals even if you have 54 or 56 hospitals under your care and this would be one of the first places where I would look if I were a chief executive but not Sir David.

The big problem in the NHS is lack of responsibility. There are no characters left like James Robertson Justice in Doctor at Large or Hattie Jacques in Carry on Doctor. There are many hard working and caring people who work in the NHS but they don't have the authority that they need. They go to work and do their job as part of a team. If something is going wrong then they may report this in the appropriate way but that would then put the responsibility on managers. Between 2004 and 2008 one nurse working in the A&E in Mid-Staffs reported more than 50 times about the risks to patients. She got no feedback. 

The person who delivers the service is not responsible for the service as a whole. Financial directives drive the NHS. Whether you have a local A&E, whether you have any hospital service and the quality and quantity of that service will depend on management decisions which are very often directed nationally. They use terms like best practice, but this means that responsibility is centralised and those with local authority become less authoritative.

Now we know that the national decision makers can, at least in some cases, get to be where they are by presiding over a "truly dreadful" service while being apparently oblivious to that dreadfulness. Something is broken, and needs to be fixed. This chief executive had no grasp of detail, and then he got promoted.

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Monday, 4 March 2013

Allaying Immigration Fears

I have been knocking on hundreds of doors recently to ask if I can help with any council matter and I have found a few UKIP supporters. The conversation has usually started with immigration but when I talked about my daughter's recent move to Australia then that seemed to be perfectly acceptable. There was general agreement that immigration was alright as long as there was work to be had which did not affect local workers. My daughter's move was fine because her skills were in demand and it would also have been alright if employers could not fill their vacancies. So the fears that these people had about the free movement of labour were actually fears about unemployment.

There was also a concern that immigrants should not be jumping any queues for social housing or taking benefits from a system to which they had not contributed. This is exactly how I would feel if I moved to Australia. I would not expect to be able to sign on, to be given a house or a job.

Today's news is that the Government is clamping down on 'benefit tourism'  There may well be some people who would uproot their family in the pursuit of a better life but I don't think this sort of pioneer  would also think of moving across the world so they could sit in a council house without a job and endure the vilification of their neighbours. However these are the kind of conditions that would have to apply in order for UKIP to achieve its prediction that millions of them will turn up in Britain. Worse than that, UKIP are branding them as villains.

The trouble for the voter is that if they raise concerns about immigration then they fear being labelled "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly" despite their legitimate concerns over the economy, housing and benefits. As for employment, the free movement of labour has to be a good thing. It benefits people like my daughter, it helps employers in this country and it helps the whole of Europe.

The discussion has to move on from 'closet racism' and concerns over immigration to the economy but the trouble is that UKIP have exploited fears of open floodgates. If David Cameron lurches to the right and puts immigration to the top of his agenda then he will miss the point of what is concerning the electorate. He will not be any better at allaying immigration fears than UKIP. What is needed is an explanation of why we need the free movement of labour and the right safeguards in place which would allow employers to fill their vacancies.

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Tories still don't want to be in touch

Try this yourself. Search for my Conservative MP, David Morris's surgeries and then search for my neighbouring Liberal Democrat MP, Tim Farron's surgeries. If you don't have the time then I'll let you know that in the first case you will find three surgeries, on the 19th and 26th October and one on the 9th November. I just can't work out the year to which they relate. On Tim's site there are regular surgeries from now up to and including August - this year.

The reason I looked was because I am a follower of both MPs on Twitter and found that my MP would post tweets that told me that he had finished a surgery (so he doesn't just do them in autumn) like 'I have just been doing street surgeries in Morecambe and Carnforth today'. On the other hand I see tweets from Tim saying 'Can I help in any way? I am holding my next surgery at...No appointment is necessary'.

Compare this with Conservative MP Claire Perry's apology for giving the electorate information in the last blog. However I am convinced that David does advertise his surgeries somewhere, it's just not on Twitter. David hopes that we find his website 'both informative and easy to navigate'. Unfortunately the alleged informativeness and ease of navigation doesn't extend to surgery dates,

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