Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Tickling Miliband

I've had a little back and forth on Twitter today about Ed Miliband. My tweet that started the dialogue was this: Hang on, Ed Miliband believes he would've got a better deal for Britain? What, by rolling over and letting Sarkozy tickle his tummy?" Perhaps a little inflammatory but Prime Minister's Questions does that to me. Anyway, I was engaged in debate by someone who seems to think that it doesn't matter what Ed Miliband would've done had he been in David Cameron's shoes last Thursday/Friday because it's 'fiction'. While I understand the sentiment, I can't agree with it. As you can't judge the Leader of the Opposition on the policies he implements, shouldn't you be able to judge him on what he said he would do? How else are you supposed to get the measure of him and decide whether you would vote for him in a General Election?

To be honest, Miliband is reluctant to make his views known because he's aware they run against the tide of emotion in the country at the moment. The Tories have a poll bounce thanks to Cameron's veto. Labour have...well, Ed Miliband.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Leave Wakefield Westgate Alone

This blog runs the risk of becoming a diatribe against the great British railways. I've previously written about my loathing of HS2 and the problems that could arise from closing small ticket offices. Today, as George Osborne announces money going towards rail infrastructure projects in Yorkshire, I have a new gripe.

£6.6 million is being given to Wakefield Westgate station to rebuild and refurbish. You'd think I'd be happy. I use the station several times a week, after all, and theoretically it should be in Wakefield's best interests to have it rebuilt. However, I don't believe it is.

The idea to 'move' the station down a few yards was mooted years ago. It was accepted that it would finally be done and then the refurbishment plan disappeared from the Network Rail website and everything went quiet. For the last few years Wakefield Council have been insisting that the work would happen while the transport authorities have just blanked the idea. If the original suggestions are being used then (in my understanding) the station would be moved along a bit. For Wakefield people, it would be moved slightly further away from Westgate bridge and towards the Balne Lane bridge. This was fine when the plans were first suggested. But I see one major flaw here: they've since built a hideously ugly multi-storey car park near this area. They can't just pick it up and move it so does that hamper plans? These are the details already announced by the local paper: "New shops, a travel centre, a First Class lounge, a customer reception and information screens will be developed at a brand new station building. It will be built next to the multi-storey car park which opened last year to provide better access." See my next point.

Secondly, I'm happy to admit that Wakefield Westgate is not a hub station. The majority of people who get on and off the train don't wait around for a connecting service. It's a destination, that's all. As such, I believe the station as it is can cope. You don't have too many people hanging around and the services it's got are sufficient: cash machines, shop, cafe, toilets ticket offices, information desk along with first class and regular waiting rooms. It might be a little scruffy but it's hardly in the direst of circumstances. I wonder if the powers that be are merely trying to make the station look more attractive to businessmen travelling through from Leeds. Quite an expensive vanity project if they are.

Finally, there is the most important point. Wakefield has two railway stations and this one isn't the one desperate for a bit of TLC. Wakefield Kirkgate has been the scene of at least one serious sexual assault in recent history and is an unmanned eyesore. It does, however, offer a direct Grand Central service to London. The problem is, no one will dare risk going via that station because of the dangers. Wakefield Kirkgate is the closer station to the new Hepworth Gallery and refurbishment of that could easily help visitors to the attraction. The waterfront area nearby has also been heavily redeveloped recent years: why not build a station to go with the new prosperity of the area?

So, you see, I'm not saying no money for Wakefield's rail system. I'm just asking for it to be put in the right place and to help local people in favour of anyone else.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Future State of Welfare with John Humphrys - Complaint Response

Like many other people I was incensed by the above programme. It was a shoddy piece of journalism, focused on furthering the government agenda and not on protecting the claimants in this country. I dread to imagine how much more difficult the lives of disability claimants have become since the programme aired, especially those without visible disabilities. I shot off a complaint to the BBC as soon as I'd watched the programme and today I received a response. It may be a stock one sent to dozens of complainants with a few alterations but I'll share it anyway:

Dear Miss Brown

Reference CAS-1069807-F832D5

Thanks for contacting us regarding BBC Two’s ‘The Future State Of Welfare With John Humphrys’ on 27 October.

I understand you felt the programme was biased against the welfare state.

We believe that 'The Future State of Welfare' was a balanced look at the benefits debate in the UK. The programme dealt with a difficult and important subject - and the strong opinions held about the issues raised by the current proposals for reform. The impact of current policy and proposed reforms was shown through John's interviews with individuals who have experience of the system both here in the UK and in the USA. The programme featured interviews with various individuals who claim different types of benefits, and gave them an opportunity to set out their views on the proposed reforms. John conducted these interviews with sympathy and sensitivity and enabling those affected to show how they felt the proposed reforms would impact upon their individual situations.

With regard to recent changes to incapacity benefit and the assessment of recipients to determine whether or not they are entitled to receive the benefit, the programme made it clear that requests to film the assessment process had been refused. However, the programme acknowledged that the process of assessment could be distressing for those involved. When John spoke with Yvonne Power, who ultimately won her post-assessment appeal and was granted ESA, she clearly outlined how upsetting she had found the assessment process.

Both the BBC and John Humphrys consider the programme to be a success - it challenged preconceptions while remaining a balanced and accurate analysis of both emerging policy and public opinion in this highly contentious area.

Nevertheless, we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of programme makers, commissioning executives, and senior management within the BBC. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions and they ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Kind Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints 

In my complaint I pointed out that figures on the number of Atos Healthcare judgements overturned on appeal were not highlighted. I judged this to be a vital omission because inclusion would've highlighted the illegitimacy of the system currently reassessing people for benefits. Wouldn't it have been in the public interest for the BBC to point out that these appeals are costly and the correct judgement should be reached in the first instance and not the second? Also, a few case-studies of people sent for these hideous assessments would not have gone amiss.

The BBC will maintain they're right until Chairman of the BBC Trust and former Chairman of the Conservative Party, Chris Patten, tells them otherwise. Welcome to the new legitimate victimisation of our vulnerable citizens.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A Word To Ed Miliband

I'm very anti-EU. This statement won't be a surprise to anyone who's scanned this blog or my Twitter feed. In fact, I'm quite boring on the issue. However, that isn't the point of this post. It isn't really about the essence of the debate last night which led to the public being denied a referendum on our continued EU membership. I could go on and on about David Cameron's heavy-handed tactics when it came to his backbenchers or Nick Clegg's support for a project rapidly going down the toilet but I want to focus on our worthy leader of the opposition: Mr Ed Miliband.

From the moment the result of the vote was announced last night, Miliband - there's no other way to say it - gloated about the fact that David Cameron couldn't control his backbenchers. He gloated. He believes that politicians should serve a party leader and not their constituents. His words, quoted by the Telegraph, were: "The problem with the Prime Minister is that he's spent the last six years putting his party interests before the national interest." Who is Miliband to say what's in the national interest when he just denied the people a say in their own destiny? When asked why he opposed a referendum he said, "At this time of all times for Britain to be looking inwards and renegotiating whether we're in Europe or outside Europe would be the wrong step." In Miliband's opinion it would be the wrong step. But last night wasn't about the opinion of the political class in this country. It was about the wider public being offered the chance to have a say in where a huge proportion of their money goes.

What David Cameron did on the referendum issue was unforgivable. But I'd argue that what Ed Miliband did was worse. Miliband seems pleased that the electorate has been denied a voice. Something in me recoiled from him last night. It's one thing to have a viewpoint on an issue which perhaps contradicts the popular consensus: it's quite another to deny those people a voice because you know what the outcome will be. I am sick of politicians believing they know what's best for us. If that was the case then they could have allowed this issue to go to a referendum and would have been able to convince us that being in the EU is good for our economy and stability. They knew they couldn't prove such an outlandish theory so they blocked us. All three parties stood in a row and told the people to get lost.

Ed Miliband has no hope of winning an election while he so mockingly ignores the will of the people. He's scored a few political points against David Cameron. I hope he's content with that because I have the distinct feeling that's all he'll gain in the next five years.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Lesson in Ticket Offices

Another day; another proposed cut. It has been reported that up to 675 ticket offices at small railway stations may be closed down. Passengers would be expected to buy their tickets at machines in the stations. Anybody who has used one of those machines knows that, occasionally, they fail to work (four times thus far for me) and they rarely assist new users in finding their way around the system. I've used them at stations such as Darlington, Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Wakefield Westgate and Derby so I consider myself well-seasoned, but sometimes they even manage to frustrate me. The back-up of being able to queue at the ticket office if the machine fails is rather an invaluable one. Let's take two examples of small train stations from my own experience.

Thornaby is a small station which is closer to Stockton-on-Tees than it is to Thornaby. The station is serviced by Northen Rail trains travelling between Saltburn and Darlington and First Transpennine Express trains between Middlesbrough and Manchester. It has two platforms and a ticket office in the centre of them. It's a small oblong building with a small waiting room, a ticket machine and two windows at the bottom - a ticket office and what used to be a snack shop (I'm not certain if it's still there). There's a toilet around the back of the station which, if you ask nicely, the man in the ticket booth will give you the key for. The service at Thornaby is highly personal. They used to employ one man only to cover the place, which was enough to cover the duties necessary. I used to queue behind many people wanting detailed advice on journeys or a conversation about railcards. They may not have had the capacity to check online or just wanted advice about it from a human being. It's understandable and, at Thornaby, it worked. I can imagine it's the same for a lot of smaller stations. If you take away the ticket office, you'll also lose the waiting room no doubt. That could prove to be a difficulty, especially on those cold winter nights I used to commute on.

Wakefield Kirkgate is a wreck of a station. It has been the scene of one serious sexual assault due to the fact that it has an underpass leading from one platform to the other. There are probably dozens of unreported smaller crimes which have occurred there. It is unmanned and there is a regional campaign to get it staffed again. Grand Central trains stop there on the way to London. Cheap tickets are often advertised on billboards around the town but no one wants to take advantage of them because of the reputation as a 'rape station'. If Kirkgate was a viable option for trains going towards Leeds it may even ease congestion on the overstretched East Coast trains going from Wakefield Westgate.

If you allow a station to become unstaffed it can lead to the kind of situation we have at Wakefield Kirkgate. Demand on our railways will lessen, yes, but no doubt road congestion will increase. If there was a visible presence at Wakefield Kirkgate station then the public would feel a lot safer. I can't help thinking that we're sacrificing security for the sake of a few pounds. And all this when we're shelled out billions on HS2 which will do nothing for the economy or regional growth.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

English Speaking Country

One of the hot topics at the moment is a case brought by a woman with UK residency who wants to bring her husband over from India. The trouble is, he doesn't speak English and the rules brought in last year mean that an ability to speak our native language is a prerequisite of entry to this country. I think for most people that is considered to be a reasonable compromise.

The wife has lived here for several years. She claims that this decision breaches her human rights because she is entitled to a family life. Yet again, the spectre of the European Convention on Human Rights looms large. But, speaking through a translator because she was shy of her own English skills, she freely admitted that her husband has no intention of learning English when he gets to this country. She says that at 58 he is too old to learn a new language. She suggests she'll be able to get him a job at the factory where she works - but I sincerely doubt that. What employer is going to risk employing people without a basic grasp of the English language? They won't, if they're cautious in any sense. And, if they do, that's placing both employer and employee in a precarious position.

At first I thought this story was a simple one of location - he lived in a rural village and couldn't get access to a language teacher. There were ways around even this - supply the husband with language tapes or the wife herself could teach him before he came over here. Perhaps I was not so adverse to allowing him into the country if he was going to make an effort to integrate when he got here. But he won't. Which inevitably means more pressure on our public services. Even if he doesn't claim benefits there is still the difficulty of going to see a doctor and needing a translator in order to have a conversation. He will live a very isolated life, communicating with only the people who speak his native language. As a commentator on Radio 2 just pointed out, this will lead to more ghettos and more segregation, which does our fragmented society no good in either the short or long term.

It's painful that EU open border rules mean that we have to accept Europeans into our country, no matter what their language status. This makes it seem unfair, as if we are discriminating against countries outside the EU. This is one of the woman's claims - that we are treating her differently because of her ethnic background. One way out of this, of course, is to take full control of our borders by escaping from the EU - but that's a separate issue.

It has been pointed out that many Brits who retire to other countries don't bother to learn the language there either. That's wrong too. We should practice what we preach and the joy of learning a language is a wonderful thing. I don't know why anyone would enjoy being isolated from the people around them.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Farewell 2,500 Police Officers

The shocking headline about the full impact of police cuts has thankfully not been masked by the on-going phone-hacking scandal. That (however important) story has so far covered up the first rumblings of movement to outside providers in the NHS and the ever-increasing concern about the future of the Eurozone. Luckily, these police figures haven't slipped into the ether.

34,000 jobs in total are to be lost from our police service by 2015. 16,100 will be police staff, admin workers etc, and up to 1,800 will be community support officers. The rest will be police officers, 2,500 of which are considered front-line. We were assured that front-line services would be shielded from the cuts as much as possible. Losing police officers from our streets doesn't exactly tally with that, does it?

Look at the scenario. While cutting the number of police officers you are also cutting the number of admin staff. Doesn't this leave many of the remaining officers with piles of administration to do themselves? Yes, the Coalition have pledged to cut red-tape and admin wherever possible - and this is long overdue - but it is not going to happen overnight. Unless you can convince hapless bureaucrats to concede that all paperwork is not essential then the problem will continue. And, as things stand, as well as losing police officers, the ones left will be devoting extortionate amounts of time to tasks that keep them from the streets.

What about the bigger picture? Research suggests that burglary and robbery statistics could rise by 3%. It's not difficult to see why. Few jobs are being created in this country and, when they are, 80% of them are going to people born outside of the UK. While I'm not suggesting that unemployment leads directly into crime, it is easy to see how desperation may escalate.

Cuts need to be made. We're told this so often that our ears ache. But reneging on promises to protect front-line public services is not going to inspire public confidence in the people running our country. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, believes that the cuts to the budget doesn't necessarily mean that front-line services have to suffer. As with many of these cuts, the government blames ideology for the way cuts are implemented - it is political point scoring they say. Every time a Labour council is forced to cut services, a Tory council proudly asserts that they kept they services running. Of course, this has nothing to do with many Labour inner-city constituencies being deprived and Tory areas being affluent. Who could suggest such a thing?

Repeatedly, the country tells our officials that we want them to be tough on crime. An outcry against trimming prison sentences won a change of heart. How is taking police officers from our streets or forcing them to do more paperwork being tough on crime?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

David Laws

Now, don't think for one minute that I approve of extravagant expenses claims from MPs. As far as I'm concerned, the guilty ones should be put in a gigantic duck house and floated out to sea. And, hopefully, a sea creature will take a liking to them and save us the trouble of having to clear up the mess afterwards. However, I do have sympathy for David Laws, even when it emerged today that he has been found guilty of breaking parliamentary regulations. The full report will be published on Thursday but Twitter is currently slamming him through a grinder and I wanted to voice some support.

My attitude towards Lib Dems as a rule at the moment is... strained. I want to punch the screen every time I see Nick Clegg's ghostly face appear on it; I loathe Danny Alexander for his arrogance and/or stupidity. As for Vince Cable... Well, I have respect for the man's politics but I do wish he'd make a stand on occasion. He's terribly uncomfortably in the Coalition, a condition that is plain for anyone to see, and not standing by his principles is unforgivable. David Laws, it'll be remembered, was a prime engineer behind the Coalition negotiations - but let's not hold that against him. Even I have to admit that some things the government are doing are well-intentioned, if badly implemented. And that's the point on which I feel Laws could've helped. As crazy as this may sound under the circumstances, I trust the guy in matters of politics and finance. I also believe that, had he not resigned as Chief Secretary, the noises coming from the Treasury would've been a lot more palatable. Danny Alexander is almost incompetent, and his shocking arrogance makes him even more unappealing. If Nick Clegg is set on repeating that Lib Dems did not go into politics to make cuts, he better make sure Alexander is in earshot because he's towing the wrong party line.

David Laws is a competent and talented individual who made an error of judgement. He didn't intend to profit by it; he just wanted his private life to be kept private. If I recall correctly, even his family didn't know that he was gay. No self-righteous person can stand there and criticise a situation like that. Laws apologised for his act and stood down right away - a lesser man would've waited to be pushed. We've all seen the blustering of Jim Devine and Elliot Morley as they tried to wriggle out of punishment. I would argue that Laws's immediate resignation (and silence as the investigation was going on) puts him in a completely different category to the aforementioned ex-MPs.

I don't expect many people to agree with me. A lot of people on Twitter are content to hang him out to dry. Me? I want him back in the cabinet where he can actually salvage something of the mess Clegg and company have got the Lib Dems (and the country) into.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

One Wacky Solution To Our Rail Problem

Like many people, last night I sat down with interest to watch Dispatches with Richard Wilson. For those who didn't see it, it followed the actor as he travelled around the country encountering problems with ticket machines, fare prices and overloaded commuter trains along the way. It seems Wilson's irritation with our rail system was stoked by simply forgetting his wallet - and thus his rail card - which landed him with a £280 penalty fare for a £15 ticket. This kind of injustice is all too common and ticket inspectors I've seen relish the opportunity to catch someone out. Sometimes you have to wonder if they receive bonuses for attacking their customers.

My own train horror story comes, not from me, but from someone I was fortunate enough to be able to help. A woman with four children showed the conductor at Leeds her pre-booked tickets and asked him which train she was supposed to get on down to London. Whether he did it on purpose or whether it was stupidity, he directed her to the train which left half an hour earlier than hers, thus invalidating her tickets. I was standing in the vestibule ready to get off at Wakefield Westgate when the announcer gave their final warning about checking you were travelling on the right train - then the doors promptly slid shut. The woman I'd noted ushering her brood into the carriage rushed out ashen-faced but it was too late. Nobody else in the vestibule gave a damn about her panicking. Perhaps they'd seen it all before but it struck me as another example of how heartless we've become as a country. Knowing the train system as I did, I knew the Leeds to London trains always stopped at Wakefield Westgate. I advised her to get off there, showed her where to stand so she could get straight into her carriage, and even helped her get her pram off the train while other travellers sighed impatiently at us. Her son, probably about ten, thanked me sincerely. But what would've happened if I hadn't stepped in? Full price fares for one adult and four kids down to London? No wonder she looked petrified.

My solution for our train difficulties are bound to be dismissed. For starters, it involves getting rid of this ridiculous HS2 line which very few people want. I can't see that it'll help the North at all. In fact, I think it'll encourage businesses to move their headquarters towards London, safe in the knowledge that people can get there in under an hour from Birmingham. When you look at the timings, we're not making things much better and, even if you consider the time saved a cause for massive celebration, you have to admit that the people it will benefit are few and far between. Not your average traveller who just wants to get to London; not the people forced to watch as their landscape is ruined. What are the fares going to be on this thing? With prices rising to unaffordable levels at the moment, how is anybody going to be expected to travel on this thing? Will it become the privilege of the rich and famous, something I'm half-inclined to believe it's intended to be anyway?

So my solution: ditch HS2. Invest all those billions in easing congestion on current lines - add new carriages and expand stations in order to deal with these new carriages. Make sure that when you put in the order for these new carriages it goes to a British firm, thus giving our manufacturers a boost along the way. Politicians and high-class businessmen may not be able to travel quite as briskly as they would like from Birmingham to London but the rest of us would have a much more comfortable journey.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Freedom of Speech Works Both Ways

The furore over Muslim protesters burning poppies during a Armistice Day silence has been reignited by the news that one has been cleared while the other has been fined a mere £50 for a public order offence. As others have pointed out, the average parking ticket is £60. It doesn't say much for where we place our war dead in the grand scheme of things, does it?

Now, Jeremy Vine had a chat with Emdadur Choudhury on Radio 2 earlier. Throughout the interview I was impressed with Vine's professionalism. Faced with someone who wouldn't answer questions and refused to acknowledge the viewpoint of another Muslim, perhaps more proficient than Choudhury in knowledge of the Koran, Vine kept very calm. In fact, the interview did little apart from hold this man up to ridicule. But some important arguments did come out of it.

Most importantly was the idea that Choudhury had the right to burn the poppy as part of his freedom of speech. This was brought up by him and some (non-Muslim) callers. Surely, people said, it's a fact that our soldiers have died for such a thing as freedom of speech? To deny it even to Choudhury is a betrayal of our war dead.

I accept that with a few qualifications. The poppy is not a religious symbol in this country. However, as we are increasingly becoming a secular nation, it retains its power as a striking symbol of freedom, peace and human morality. Even people who don't necessarily agree with wars, either now or in the past, recognise that the poppy doesn't glorify their deaths but celebrates their existences. The people struck with horror at the sight of it being set alight were justified in feeling disgusted. I freely admit that I know little about Muslim heritage. However, I do know that if a British person had insulted Muslim dead in, say, Pakistan, they would have been not only condemned, but probably been subject to something much worse.

You can bang on about freedom of speech all you want, but the fact remains that it's one rule for Muslims and another for the rest of us. Is it any wonder that people become a little exasperated with this at times? All over the country Muslims hand out homophobic literature to incite hatred against their fellow man. Only a few cases are punished. Is this freedom of speech? No, it's an act designed to provoke and incite hatred. How is that at all different to the burning of a poppy on Armistice Day?

No one wants a "them and us" culture. I strongly salute the Imam who tried arguing with Choudhury on Radio 2, saying the act was disrespectful and quoting the Koran back at the extremist. I know that the majority of Muslims in this country hold his view. The problem is the minority who are compelled to seek division within our society. We can't let them win. And, in my view, that means taking a much tougher line on people like Emdadur Choudhury. Remove his £792 benefits every month. If he wishes to push himself onto the fringes of our society then so be it.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Striking Things About Barnsley

I became rather fascinated by the by-election in Barnsley last night, as it became clear the order wasn't going to be as clear cut as usual. I decided to stay up and see it through, only to find the Lib Dems sliding down to 6th and UKIP taking 2nd place. It was astonishing really, especially to be following the excitement as I was on Twitter. Social media might have a lot to answer for, but it could definitely be used as a tool to reignite interest in politics.

Anyway, Labour took a vast majority of votes and Dan Jarvis is now the MP for Barnsley Central. I have great respect for the man. I read an interview with him the other day and he seems to be one of the most down to earth, no-nonsense people in politics. As an ex-soldier he has first hand experience of our military operations, something which could be very valuable should Labour return to power. However, although he was the favourite, there are some interesting points to make about the Barnsley by-election.

  1. The seat was certainly a safe Labour seat to start with. However, Eric Illsley has been imprisoned for his expenses. You would expect this to put a dent in the majority but, percentage wise, Dan Javis dramatically increased Labour's vote share from 47% to 60%. However, lower turnout has to take some responsibility for this.
  2. The turnout was 'abysmal' as Nick Clegg said in an interview earlier. Yes, it was. At 36.5% it was down by 20% on the General Election. Now, the very fact that Clegg drew attention to the turnout suggests that he doesn't believe the Lib Dem's demolition in the by-election was significant. However, I would then wonder, if he places so little stock in turnouts of around 36%, why did he fight so hard against a threshold of 40% on the upcoming AV Referendum?
  3. UKIP took second. I don't think it should be underestimated how significant this is for the party. All right, the vote share was only 12%, but that's still well above the 8% the Tories got. Forget the implications for the Coalition, this is an excellent result for a fringe party with excellent credentials.
  4. The Tories and Lib Dems came in third and sixth respectively. Of course, this could be taken as the natural reaction to the cuts, and probably will be by most people within Downing Street. It's also one small area, which was always going to stay Labour. However, it's the vote share that's concerning. Both the Tories and Lib Dems scored 17.3% at the General Election. In the case of the Lib Dems, this has dropped to 4.1%. They lost their deposit for that terrible performance. Evidently, Labour have increased their share by taking votes, primarily from the Lib Dems I would think. And it's a sure bet that some Tories decided to vote UKIP, probably exercising their right to a worthy vote in a race they knew they couldn't expect to win. However, what about all those people that stayed home? It seems to me, on looking at the figures, that only a core of people fell compelled to go out and defend the Coalition. If this trend is repeated at the next General Election it could be that we've helped create even more of an apathy towards the British political system than we had only a year ago.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Why Ofcom is Ineffectual

It's probably best not to delve into my deep feelings on Rupert Murdoch's News Corp getting the go-ahead to buy the shares in BSkyB which it doesn't already own. It would be messy, loud, and probably scare anyone reading this. Needless to say, I'm furious about it. But my anger centres on one man. Yes, Mr Hunt, I mean you.

Ofcom, who have a history of upholding rather stupid complaints while ignoring more serious ones, took one of their rare positive actions when they suggested that the News Corp bid be referred to the Competition Commission. Had Vince Cable still been in control of this, no doubt it would have been. Cable, at best, looks uncomfortable when encouraged to suck up to Tories. He is one of the only major Lib Dems to have retained some semblance of individuality, and he almost lost that in the student fees fiasco. However, Cable's 'war' on Murdoch was enough to get him dragged away from making the decision.

And we all know what happened next.

Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, took over from Cable. Yes, the decision for whether to allow Murdoch to take over BSkyB was given to the man reported last year to have said that he didn't really see the problem with it. Now, that may not be terrible, but it certainly doesn't inspire any confidence about him going into this role with a clear head. Then he sat on his decision for a few months, ostensibly to allow Murdoch time to reassure him that the move would be acceptable. This has apparently been remedied by Murdoch agreeing to spin off Sky News into another company, which most reports suggest barely bothers Murdoch at all in the grand scheme of his interests.

The fact of the matter for me remains clear: Murdoch has been eager to keep his machinations away from the Competition Commission. That alone is the reason why they should be involved. I find it astounding that a media regulator can make one recommendation, only to be overruled by a minister with a preconceived idea of what the case entailed.

I wonder what Vince Cable thinks of all this. This isn't 'war' on Murdoch. This is pandering to him. And we won't be better off for it.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Why I'm Angry About The AV Threshold Issue

Last night the House of Lords gave in and allowed the Commons to reject the amendment placing a 40% threshold on the AV referendum. This would have meant that if the turnout had been less than this figure, the referendum would have been non-binding and referred back to Parliament for debate. The Commons had to reject the amendment several times before the Lords admitted defeat.

Now, although the idea of sending something back to Parliament so they can decide on it isn't a great solution to a problem the whole country is asked to solve, it seemed to be a sensible one. With the threshold in place, the onus was on the Yes to AV group to prove their reforms are wanted. That is the way it should be. This is a major overhaul of our voting system: the people wanting it should have to ensure that they have a majority of the nation happy with the decision. It goes beyond whether you will vote for AV or against it; it's a simple courtesy.

We as a nation are generally lacklustre in voting, particularly in local elections. There is little evidence to suggest that the public have been captivated by the AV referendum. What is likely to happen is that the people who go out and vote on May 5th will be the people who generally vote in local elections (widely, this figure is under 40%), along with the people who feel strongly on the issue of AV. A massive alteration in our voting system should not come down to who has the most activists willing to vote for it. It should be for the good of the nation, and voted for by the nation.

What would have the threshold have done? Well, ensured that a new voting system isn't automatically implemented on the say-so of a minority for a start. Just imagine, we could have an average 30% turnout on May 5th. That would mean that the Yes group would only have to secure 15.1% of the population's votes. Again, I stress that this is the greatest overhaul of our political system in recent memory. Why should a small percentage of activists speak for the majority?

There is a simple reason why the threshold was repeatedly denied by the Commons. You see, David Cameron promised Nick Clegg a referendum without a threshold. Whether this was because Clegg believed AV could only prosper without a threshold is down to speculation. However, this kind of back-room dealing is precisely the reason I despise AV in the first place. More significantly, Lord Ashdown conceded that the AV issue was the deal-breaker for the Coalition. If the vote had gone the wrong way we could easily be looking at a government falling apart. And why is this? Because they are selfishly trying to push through a piece of legislation which will assist them at the detriment of the country.

But more of that in the coming weeks...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Cutting Domestic Violence... The Budget For

Let me preface this post by announcing that I am not a deficit denier. That phrase is loosely applied to anyone who doesn't agree with George Osbourne's strategy for dealing with the massive debt this country faces but it is extremely misleading. To criticise and illuminate people is not to deny.

I've been alarmed by the swingeing cuts to arts budgets. I've been perturbed by the wholesale reorganisation of the NHS which appears to be a vehicle for implementing Tory ideology. However, several notable stories have cropped up which have reminded me there is something even more precious at stake as the government swings the axe.

Today, the Guardian are reporting that the county council in Devon have proposed to cut 100% of the £1m it current gives to the three charities which constitute its domestic-violence network. Without this money the organisations will likely flounder as the amount they receive in donations is, comparatively speaking, rather small. It isn't scaremongering to suggest these cuts will have severe consequences. More women will be injured with no place to go, more children will watch their parents engaging in fights and their futures may be harmed by the experiences. Also, if such situations do result in hospitalisation or worse then the burden falls back onto the tax payer anyway.

I see this as the latest in a worrying line of ideological cuts which impact vulnerable families. Married couples are to be given tax breaks to promote the stable family environment as the one to aspire to. Who doubts that this will encourage people to stay in unhappy and possibly abusive relationships because they can't afford to be apart? In addition, legal aid is being cut to cases where the custody of a child is up for discussion. If a mother can't afford the legal costs of fighting for her children then won't she just stay in a relationship that's bad for all concerned?

Taken separately most government legislation can be seen in terms of the money it saves. That's all well and good - the money needs to be saved somehow. However, add up the impact of these cuts on the most vulnerable members of society and they begin to look a little less rosy.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Resignations, Accusations and Appearances... Oh, My

It's been quite a week as far as politics goes.

In the space of a few days we've had Baroness Warsi accusing us all of Islamophobia, Alan Johnson resigning from front-line politics and Tony Blair appearing for the second time at the Chilcot inquiry. The latest news is that Andy Coulson, communications chief for Downing Street, has resigned, apparently under pressure about his role in phone hacking when editor of the News of the World.

Now I'm a grade-one cynic. I do not believe that the sudden resignation of a man whom the media and public have been baying for is completely unrelated to the wider political sphere. After all, what better way to appease the public in the wake of drastic and controversial NHS reorganisation plans than to give them something they've wanted for months?

Additionally, Baroness Warsi's comments, although not officially endorsed by Downing Street, have created a storm that has served well as a mask at the end of the week. Tony Blair at the Iraq inquiry is a delightful smokescreen for Cameron, one which enforces the vision that Labour were involved in an illegal war. It's been a great week for burying things really.

Alan Johnson, of course, was far beyond the control of No. 10. Having read an interview with him over Christmas I'm saddened by his departure and I wish him well (and I wish him privacy).

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Suing the NHS: Yes or No?

Jeremy Vine had an interesting debate on his radio programme this lunchtime about the payments of compensation to NHS contraception 'error' victims. The essence of the argument was whether people should sue the NHS at all, or whether, as we all stump up for it within our taxes, we should just leave it alone.

Fundamentally, I believe negligence should be paid for.

If something with a relatively low risk goes catastrophically wrong due to preventable human error then the victim should be within their rights to complain about the outcome. What I don't agree with are the vast sums won in compensation claims - are they really representative of the injuries and distress someone has suffered? In the case of requiring further care and assistance then, of course, this is justified. However, mental distress resulting from an error is much more difficult to quantify and, as such, much more open to abuse from greedy individuals. So is the answer just to put a blanket ban on claiming compensation from the NHS?

Well, no. With the NHS facing a tough few years with reorganisation, efficiency savings and cuts (it's hardly as protected as it was advertised) standards will inevitably drop. Although doctors are prevented from working too many hours by EU law there is no guarantee that negligence will not be caused by other aspects of day-to-day working life: lack of training, shortage of materials, staff or information, for example. Removing the threat of claiming against the NHS simply removes the danger that the health service cuts will be seen as what they are - a dangerous attempt to reduce the deficit by putting our staple system at risk.

This is not to say that the arguments against the contraception cases are entirely without merit. No contraceptive is comprehensively reliant. Any pregnancy in these cases which has resulted from the patient being in the 1% whom the unit unfortunately failed shouldn't be open to compensation in my view. It is an inherent risk and it's one that most women take. However, several cases were highlighted where the implant had been inserted wrongly to the detriment of the health of the patient involved. One woman had suffered injuries to her muscle due to the incorrect insertion of the implant. This is negligent, whether from lack of training or just idiocy on the part of the doctor.

I don't at all believe in this compensation culture which our country seems so enamoured with. Only in cases of negligence when the person sincerely needs the money they are awarded would I say action is justified against the NHS. By all means, highlight the case, campaign tirelessly for a certain error to be recognised and/or admitted to by the health service in the name of improving the service.

Don't, however, sue the NHS simply to line your own pockets. Taking money from the rest of us in a time of deep and painful cuts isn't the way to endear yourself to anyone. After all, I'm sure the neighbour waiting for an operation which has been delayed due to lack of funds will be less than impressed with your new television bought from the proceeds of their taxes.