Saturday, August 04, 2007

John Baron on yet more Labour change to the NHS

John Baron, MP for Billericay, makes some very good points on Labour's latest scheme for our Health Service:

In all aspects of Government and public services, more decisions need to be taken by local people – for example on planning and policing. Where decisions cannot actually be taken by local people, it is important that public services are nevertheless held to account by the public for their use of taxpayers’ money.

In the case of the NHS, difficult decisions have to be taken about the range of services provided and arrangements for access by all members of the community. All local people have an interest in whether an A+E unit closes, and everyone wants to know that local hospitals are clean and safe.

This is why Labour is wrong to abolish patients’ forums – the local bodies which give patients a say about how the NHS is run – without putting something better in their place. Having met local patients’ forums, I know of the good work they do and also how concerned they are about Government plans.

New proposals for ‘local involvement networks’, or ‘LINks’, to replace forums, have drawn criticism from patients’ representatives and charities. I am not convinced that they will have the same powers to inspect the health service on behalf of patients, and may not be properly independent of county councils, who will be financing them.

That is why I recently led a debate in Parliament for the Conservatives urging Labour to think again. For one thing, forums were set up only four years ago, but now the hard work and dedication of volunteers looks set to be lost. I believe Ministers are simply trying to avoid being held to account for their mishandling of the NHS.

What we need is a powerful, national organisation which combines the existing functions of patients’ forums with those of a robust, consumer-style watchdog. Only then will the interests of patients be represented and their voices heard. But Labour has repeatedly refused to implement such a scheme.

Cameron leads, Simon Heffer witters on

Trying to push David Cameron around gets you nowhere, as Ali Miraj found out when he demanded a peerage, got told no, rubbished Cameron to the media and then found himself off the Conservative candidates list. It demonstrated that the Conservative Leader does not shrink from the sort of hard decisions that anyone holding a position of real responsibility inevitability finds themselves faced with. That group doesn't include Simon Heffer, who devotes most of his weekly diatribe column to Cameron's supposedly heinous crime of revealing the substance of his conversation with Miraj. Apparently in Simon's mind no matter what the substance of a private conversation it must remain forever private. So if you have a chat with Simon in which you reveal a motive for subsequently trashing him do not worry, he'll keep mum. Or maybe he won't. This is such a bonkers argument that you have to wonder at the mental convulsions Simon went through in his desperation to attack David Cameron. You also have to wonder how he keeps his gig at a leading national newspaper.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bizarre Blackmail Claim in Wickford

It is actually pretty simple:
  1. The government sets housing targets for each Council.
  2. Each Council can decide more or less how it meets its government target.
  3. Refusing to play ball is not an option.
Oh and:
  1. If the Conservatives win the next general election then central housing targets will stop.
In Basildon District the Conservative administration has decided that we would rather build on Brownfield sites in town centres than on the Green Belt. Because we have identified housing sites in our town centres we a much better chance of staving off greenfield developments like the planning application for Barn Hall in Wickford. This has led to the rather odd claim that the Council is engaging in 'Blackmail' by some individuals, as if all of this building was our idea. In Barn Hall the developer is certain to cite government housing totals as a justification for their unwelcome development, I know this because they told me they would. Our defence is our town centre policy, and that's it. The Council is simply stating the facts: more dwellings are going to be built and all we can do against this Labour government is try and limit the damage. Frankly, some of the people commenting on this issue either don't know how the planning system works or they are being deliberately misleading. Since they appear to be tools of the local Labour party then I am pretty sure which.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

e-voting for UK Elections recommended for the chop

In a very welcome piece of news, the Electoral Commission have recommended that there should be no more trials of internet or telephone voting. They cite security concerns, and a number of actual problems that occurred during the trials, meanwhile across the land IT professionals are shaking their heads sadly that even thought that current systems were worth testing.

The traditional system of voting has a number of huge advantages, which cannot easily be replicated even by modern computer systems. Firstly, it is very robust; ballot boxes can be destroyed in catastrophes like anything else but it takes something very serious to damage a paper-based system. Getting the same degree of resilience from computers, on the other hand, is very expensive and requires a lot of hardware, networks, specialist software and testing. Financial services systems approach the right degree of availability come what may, but they cost millions and are well outside of the reach of the local Councils that actually run elections. The second huge advantage of a paper ballot is that it is very auditable. Every ballot paper is stamped with a number, every number is recorded against a voter’s electoral roll identifier and the ballot papers themselves are kept. This means that if there is any query about the ballot then it can be reconstructed in its entirety. Computers, on the other hand, can lose or corrupt data, and again it is very expensive to reduce the probability of that occurring to the negligible percentage that it needs to be. The third reason why a paper ballot is better is that the polling station, or even the postal vote if voter registration is robust, is difficult to sabotage. Telephone and especially internet systems are open to impersonal attack. I can think of at least two government internet systems that have had to be withdrawn after being compromised and there would be a constant danger from the worldwide hacker community to any public-facing electoral system. Keeping major internet systems secure keeps very large numbers of highly-paid specialists in employment and local Councils are ill-equipped, and ill-funded, to acquire that sort of capability. Of course, you could take responsibility for elections away from Local Authorities and give them to some super-electoral agency, but taking the mechanisms of local democracy away from local people is not the way to promote local democracy. And there would always be suspicions of maladministration if people did not like the result of an election.

We certainly need to tighten up on voter registration in this country, but that has little to do with changing the way we actually vote. If getting your backside down to the polling booth or filling in a postal vote is too much trouble then all I can say is tough, and don’t whinge if politicians do things you don’t like. In the end, decisions are made by those who turn up.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Brown presses on with Home Information Packs

You are buying a house and the seller presses a Home Information Pack into your hot little hand. Do you a: treat the information contained therein like the revealed word of God, or b: nod and smile and then turn away muttering 'caveat bloody emptor'. Unless you would like to buy a bridge from me, I suspect that the answer is b. The whole HIP thing was one of Prescott's wheezes to supposedly help in the housing market but basically no-one supports the idea any more. For some reason Brown has not taken the opportunity of his accession to ditch this particular policy. Casinos are out, but somehow HIPs survive.

So, we have a policy that everyone thinks is useless and which local Councils don't have the cash to enforce. It is a farce that can only breed contempt for the law, but which obviously appeals to the Labour Party's general control freakery. Let us hope that farce does not turn to tragedy if the housing market turns down.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Brown's debt binge falters

Just after the 1997 election, I met with a Conservative MP who was confident that Labour would be out of power pretty quickly. His view was that they would mess up the economy as usual and then the Conservatives would be back in for another extended period. He was wrong of course, because the economy did not implode and the rest, as they say, is history. Moving on to last year I went to a dinner hosted by a major international bank, the highlight of which was a talk by their Chief UK Economist. His theme was the British economy under Labour, and in particular why it had become less cyclic during their period of government. It was quite a detailed analysis, touching on global factors, China and so on, but his bottom line was very interesting: it was that the economy had outperformed its historical trend with regard to growth largely due to the British consumer. It seemed that ordinary people had spent at heroic levels year on year and that had provided the extra percentage points of growth that had kept things looking rosy for Blair and Brown. On Brown himself, the banker gave him two cheers. While had pushed up both taxation and government spending to record levels, he hadn’t done anything particularly dumb, which is not bad by the standards of previous Labour Chancellors.

Hang on though, were has all of the money come from for this extended spending spree? Well there was an answer to that as well; debt. The consumer sector in the British economy is running at truly staggering levels of debt, fuelled by quick loans, credit cards, and equity taken out of houses whose value goes nowhere but up. Now it appears that the era of cheap money is at an end. There is talk in the City of a corporate credit crunch, where the supply of affordable finance for companies dries up, with inevitable knock-on effects on ordinary people’s wallets. Interest rates are climbing steadily, and have now reached the point where buying-to-let or buying-to-speculate has become uneconomic, never mind the effect on people’s mortgage payments. House prices are wobbling, and the new Chancellor must be worrying what happens if the ordinary consumer goes on strike, or just cannot afford that nice new kitchen any more. If growth slows and house prices slip then the political situation could change pretty quickly. That Tory MP in 1997 was right. It’s just that his timing was off.

Monday, July 30, 2007

John Baron on Basildon Independent Treatment Centre and Nurses' Pay

We had a visit in Billericay today from Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary. John Baron, the Billericay MP had a couple of questions for him:

I welcome the Health Secretary’s visit, but he needs to answer certain questions about the running of our local NHS.

One of these is why nurses in England are not getting the full pay increase this year as recommended by the independent Pay Review body – compared to their Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts who are getting the full award. Ministers are discriminating against English nurses by asking them to accept 1.9% instead of their due 2.5%.

I would also like to ask the Health Secretary why the Government is pushing ahead with plans to impose an Independent Sector Treatment Centre (ISTC) on Basildon. Local people do not want it, the local NHS does not want it, and local politicians do not want it, so why is the Government pushing ahead without genuine consultation?

The second point is particularly important to us here as the ISTC has come with no consultation and the best guess is that redundancies will result at our local hospital. That coupled with yet another review of the NHS by Gordon Brown and the nurses' pay fiasco does not auger well for healthcare locally or nationally.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cameron vs. Brown

Very good article in today's Telegraph, that sums it up very well. In particular:

There is now a strong streak of nihilism in one strand of Conservative opinion. Some MPs and commentators state that the Tory leader (insert mildly offensive sobriquet such as "Call me Dave" or "Cam the Sham" here) simply has to go for reasons related to his incompetence, schooling, arrogance, Rwanda and forays with huskies.

The country has gone to the dogs, irretrievably.

This is an easy get-out: the Tories can concede defeat to Gordon Brown, endure a pointless leadership race, watch as any talent drifts away to the private sector, and moan as the Prime Minister expands the role of the state in quite frightening ways.

For anyone who would rather this country be governed by an administration committed to tackling the root causes of its current social meltdown, such an approach is pointless.

Simon Heffer is one of the primary mouthpieces of the sort of people who would rather whinge than fight, but there are others, and the whole situation takes me back to the Major years. Then we had a Conservative government in deep trouble and the attitude of some Conservatives was to trash it in public as if the Labour Party had disbanded and the argument was about the nature of the Conservative government, now whether there would be a Conservative government. Brown and his merry men are not idiots and they have had a long time to prepare for government. They have analysed the weaknesses of their predecessors, at least in terms of perception, and have sought to remedy them. Unfortunately, the Conservative response has not gone well, and the only real punch landed on the Brown team has come from Iain Duncan-Smith's Social Justice report. This is significant: real policy pushed Brown onto the back foot, and more of that is on the way, which is great because it is now desperately required.

Beneath the political cut and thrust the real world has continued to turn and there Labour's mistakes, many of which are Brown's mistakes, will start to catch up with them. This may include the general economic situation, and while I do not relish any kind of trouble for our country, I think that the current turmoil in the international capital markets cannot help but feed through in ordinary people's daily lives. In simple terms, an economy based on easy credit may find itself with no easy credit. Then things may get very bad very quickly. This makes the puerile attitude of some who call themselves Conservatives even more inexplicable.

Frankly, if the country has gone to the dogs then the debate should be how to get it back not the size and colour of dogs.

Basildon Festival

Every year the Council holds a free festival for Basildon District. This year it was combined with the Paintball Campaign Cup, which is one of the major events that sport's UK calendar. You can see Council Leader Malcolm Buckley talking about the event, and regeneration in Basildon here.