Thursday, December 31, 2009

Greenhouses and Health and Safety

Basildon made the papers this morning, and not in a good way:
Gardeners have been ordered to tear down a communal greenhouse on a housing estate because of health and safety fears that they might fall off the roof. Tenants received a letter from St George's Community Housing [Basildon District Council's housing arm] which manages the council housing estate in Basildon, Essex, saying the greenhouse must go.

Andre Le Brise, 57, who lives in flats on the estate and tends to the plants, said: "When we moved here it was worse than a jungle.

"I can't believe we've been told to take it down. It's health and safety gone mad.

"That greenhouse is all some of us have got."

Residents clubbed together six years ago to buy the greenhouse, as well as planting trees and flower beds and buying a lawnmower to keep the communal grassy areas neat.

However, in a letter from Julie Grant, Pitsea area housing officer for the community housing, they have been told to get rid of it or it will be taken down.

Let us deal with the issues: firstly that Council tenants have got together to improve their area is not a bad thing, in fact it is a very, very good thing and should be encouraged. Secondly, this application of Health and Safety seems only to consider what might happen and ignores how likely it is to happen. Risk professionals know that both the threat and probability of it occurring are vital in determining if something is a real risk. If you just consider the worst case scenario without the likelihood of it happening then you can quickly reach a position where any action by anyone doing anything is just too dangerous. This leads to many absurd actions by, typically, local councils up and down the country and unless there is something I don't know about appears to be the case here.

The greenhouse is on public land, and so it should only be there by permission anyway. A fair application on that policy should stop people just building structures without the support of their neighbours. In this case there is no dispute among local people, just with tenants and the Council. Health and safety appears to have little relevance, so why does someone want the greenhouse demolished? Who made that decision? Was it a Council officer or a Councillor? Well, we are going to find out about that. In the interim I have asked that nothing happens until we get to the bottom of this. To their credit, the senior management at St. George's appear to be having second thoughts as well, at least according to the the Telegraph article:

Mandy Skeat, St George's area housing services manager, said: "We contacted residents because of concerns over two items in this communal area which could potentially present a risk to residents.

"We asked for both to be removed.

"Following discussions with the residents concerned we are reviewing the situation and may consider other options."

Yes, we will.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ipsos MORI’s monthly poll gives Conservatives 17 point lead

As widely reported elsewhere, the latest Ipsos MORI’s monthly poll came out at CON 43%(+6), LAB 26%(-5), LDEM 20%(+2). This is interesting because last month's iteration gave a Conservative lead of only 6, and because rumours were circulating that this latest poll cut the lead to 3. These proved to be nonsense, and appear to be the result of wishful thinking from those of the Labour persuasion. Rembering the run up to the 1997 election I have some sympathy with that. It is not nice to watch your party spiral down to a seemingly inevitable defeat and people in that situation will grasp at any straw.

Wishful thinking only goes so far though before it becomes delusion. For example, a phrase that is often put about is that David Cameron has yet to 'seal the deal' with voters. God knows what this is meant to mean, but my experience is that when people start talking in cliché they are trying to obscure meaning rather than anything else. Then there is the comparison with Labour under Tony Blair prior to 1997; the idea that the Conservatives should be running much higher poll leads for example. This is supposed to illustrate the supposed weakness of the Conservative position. However, that comparison in quite invalid for a very simple reason: the 1997 election was about continuity the next election is all about change. In 1997 the economy was doing well, and Labour's basic strategy was to not to screw things up by promising to adhere to Conservative budget projections for at least 2 years. This time everyone knows that whatever party is in post the 2010 election then radical change will follow. The vote will largely be on who can transform Britain for the better and in that regard it more resembles 1979, which was the last time Labour more or less bankrupted the country. So, you are not going to get a vote based on happy optimism. No one is going to be playing 'things can only get better' as a campaign theme. Instead there is a grim determination among the Conservative-inclined that Gordon Brown has got to go and fear from the Labour establishment that their gravy train is coming into its last stop. They are doing their best to translate that fear onto their core vote with things like Alan Johnson's naked appeal to bigotry. That is driving the polls.

On the last matter I predict that Mr. Johnson's words will come back to haunt him in the future. Having told anyone with money and a decent education that they are his enemy, he will find that he has shortened his list of potential friends in a way that is very unwise for a front-line politician. He also sounds like a fool.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen Questions

Like everyone else I have been watching the climate conference in Copenhagen. Now, let us remember that this was the place where the nations of the world were to get together to agree the deal to reduce Carbon Emissions and so save the world. As has become traditional for international conferences, the event was surrounded by thousands of protesters who sought to break into the venue or otherwise disrupt proceedings. They delayed many official delegates from getting into the conference centre and generally made things much more difficult. But wait, these same protesters actually wanted a deal, they were climate activists, so the first questions is what the hell did they think they were doing? If you want to save the planet then it seems common sense not to try and stop the people actually engaged in, er, saving the planet. Instead we saw people in polar bear suits doing their very best to wreck the whole event. What is the matter with them? Did they think that this was a meeting to promote fossil fuels or something? The world wonders.

It didn't seem to be much better inside the hall. In a move of sheer genius the Danish organisers had issued 45000 passes for a venue that only holds 16000 people. Cue chaos and delay as people who actually make a difference to the future of humanity had to queue with the guy in a polar bear suit. It was all very egalitarian I suppose, but this wasn't supposed to be a rock festival, rather it was meant to be the turning point for our species. Who were these thousands of 'delegates' anyway? Apparently, they included quite a lot of people from non-governmental organisations with an interest in the climate, you know Greenpeace and their ilk. What did they do when they were allowed to play with the grown-ups? Well, according to accounts it was placards and chanting and walkouts. Now this is all very well for a student meeting, but not where humanity's existence is supposed to be at stake. So, the next question is whose bright idea was it to let these clowns in?

Eventually, even the Danes had enough and chucked the NGOs out. Of course by that time any hope of a comprehensive deal had been lost to the polar-bear suited fraternity. Then President Obama arrived. He was clearly briefed on the shambles that he was entering and so he did the best he could, getting the key developing nations together, thrashing out a deal and then bouncing the EU and the rest of the developed world to accept it. Credit goes to him, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the US State Department for salvaging something from the situation, but in the end the outcome could have been achieved in an afternoon at a motel rather than at a conference that briefly became one of the major sources of carbon emissions on the planet. What was also notable was the non-existent contribution by Gordon Brown and the British delegation. Having billed himself as being the man to save the day, he wasn't even in the room when Obama cut the deal.

So the last question is whether Britain would have done better if we had sent a man in a polar bear suit?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Echo apologises - war over

I have just heard that the Basildon Echo has apologised to John Baron over their story in which they accused him of misusing parliamentary expenses to fund a food parcel for troops in Afghanistan. The story was incorrect, and the mistake could easily have been prevented by either confirming it from the fees office or just giving John time to double-check his accounts in case a genuine error had been made. Instead they published, and then spent the last week printing retractions. Anyway, their apology has persuaded John not to take them to the PCC. This is probably for the best, as no-one would have really won from a formal complaint or court action.

We are lucky here in Basildon District to have such a vibrant print media, including a daily like the Echo. It does give our area a more community feel, and it does mean that politicians are subject to more scrutiny, which is a very good thing. Problems can occur in news reporting though, especially at the moment where depressed advertising revenue must be putting more pressure on journalists to get the stories that shift papers off the newstands. There must be temptation to go with some stories, even where a more sober evaluation would have suggested otherwise.

Anyway, John just wants to move on now, an attitude that does him credit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

John Baron MP refers Echo to Press Complaints Commission

Ex soldier says Echo should now send food parcel to troops in Afghanistan

On the front page of Friday’s Echo, it stated that John Baron’s “claims also included £18.21 on expenses for a food parcel for soldiers in Afghanistan”. It was also inferred that John had deliberately claimed for a gardener’s Christmas gratuity of £10. The paper had approached John late the previous afternoon about the story, whereupon John requested the story be held as he was sure there was an error somewhere but needed time to check the facts. This was refused by the paper. On checking the facts on Friday, he found the errors were on the part of the Echo. He has since requested that the Echo print a full front-page retraction with the same prominence as Friday’s article, but this has been refused. John is therefore referring the matter to the Press Complaints Commission.

John said:
The facts are straightforward: the Echo reported that I had claimed for a troops’ food parcel when in reality the cost came out of my own pocket and I never submitted such a claim. Another fact is that the £10 gardener’s tip was not deliberately claimed for. Given the Echo’s refusal to print a front-page retraction, I am now referring the matter to the PCC.

This is the first time I have taken any paper to the PCC in eight years as the MP, but sloppy and sensationalist reporting of this kind should and will not be left unchallenged. A basic checking of the facts would have revealed the truth, which leads me to believe there is an agenda here.

As an ex soldier I believe the Echo, having falsely accused others, should now make partial amends by putting together a food parcel for our troops in Afghanistan. They should also make clear that they are not claiming it on their expenses.
So, will the Echo staff put their hands in their pockets for our brave men and women in harm's way? If I find out, I'll let you know.

Echo climbs down further on John Baron story

Another article in the Echo following their front-page story that John Baron MP claimed a food parcel for troops in Afghanistan on parliamentary expenses. This one states categorically that he did not and quotes the parliamentary fees office as a source. The article was short, on page 2, but outlined with a heavy border and is the second that they have had to print retracting their original claims. Now, I don't know how journalistic performance is assessed, but I would think that writing a story that was not only untrue, but which forced your paper to print two articles in subsequent editions retracting it under threat of action in the High Court would not be regarded as doing a particularly good job. It doesn't say very good things about the Echo's editorial processes that such a thing could be allowed to happen either.

Have they done enough to avoid a libel action? I don't know. I do know that the Echo is being taken to the Press Complaints Commission by John Baron over this matter, but that is something the editor must be getting used to by now.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Echo climbs down on John Baron story - but far enough?

Yesterday the Basildon Echo had a story that more or less printed John Baron MP's press release in response to their accusations on his parliamentary expenses. This was an admission, more or less, that they had got their story of his claiming a parcel for soldiers in Afghanistan on public funds hopelessly wrong. The trouble is that it was on page 7 and was along the lines of 'John Baron claimed...' as opposed to stating the facts as, well, facts. It didn't really compensate for a front page story in definite language and a critical editorial. Now, the High Court tends to deal with matters of libel depending on the scale of the loss of reputation, so trashing an MP on the subject of parliamentary expenses in the run up to a general election would probably be taken quite seriously. Coincidently, there is currently a campaign afoot to reform Britain's draconian libel laws, but for now they remain quite severe.

Somehow I think the Echo may need those lawyers yet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

John Baron MP slams Echo for Troop food parcel reporting

MP says this is sensationalist reporting of the lowest sort.

Today John Baron reacted to incorrect reports in today’s Echo which stated that John’s “claims also included £18.21 on expenses for a food parcel for soldiers in Afghanistan.” Having been approached by the paper late yesterday afternoon, John requested the story be held because he felt there was an error somewhere but he needed time to check the facts. This was refused by the paper. On checking the facts this morning, he found the error was the Echo’s.

John said:
This is sloppy and sensationalist reporting of the lowest kind. A basic checking of the facts would have clearly shown that receipts were not submitted and therefore the claim for a troops food parcel was not made. As an ex-soldier, I find this sort of reporting offensive.

Meanwhile, had the Echo checked the story about the gardener’s Christmas tip they would have known this claim was made in error and was rightly rejected. Then again I had no time to check the details.

The Echo’s comment that ‘the MP’s scrooge mentality is captured in some of Billericay MP’s John Baron’s claims’ suggests there is an agenda here. Since being the MP, I have personally donated over £10,000 to local charities and good causes and have helped many charitable causes including military ones. These are hardly the actions of a scrooge.

This follows a front page story in the Basildon Echo following the recent release of MPs expenses claims. It appears that the journalists involved decided not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. I do hope that the Echo has some decent lawyers on retainer, because something tells me that they are going to need them.

Tony Blair on Iraq and what he should have done

In 2003 I was asked to take part in a debate at London University on the prospect of a war in Iraq. It had been arranged by the university Islamic Students' Society and I was on a panel, representing the case for war. Now, if you are going to take part in such an event you try and prepare, and so I researched the case for war fairly thoroughly. In particular, I looked into the issue of WMDs, and I could find no compelling evidence whatsoever. It was not as if there wasn't a lot of material on the subject available, including authoritative documents from the UN weapons inspectorate, but much as I looked, no WMDs. I don't lie in political debates, so I knew I would have to base my arguments on other things, and Saddam Hussein's regime provided no shortage of these. Hang on though, if an amateur like me could figure this out, then what excuse are MPs, journalists and MI6 running with for not doing the same?

Tony Blair probably knew that there were no WMDs, but he didn't really care, he thought that Saddam Hussein had to go and the rest was what was the best argument to deploy at the time. That he conned his country and his party doesn't seem to bother him at all. This is where we are different I suppose. I couldn't lie for 2 hours to a few hundred people. Tony Blair could lie to his country for months and years.

It didn't have to be that way, because there were pretty convincing arguments for war that had nothing to do with WMDs. I know, because I made them to a pretty sceptical audience one winter night, back when we all believed that a British government had at least a baseline of honesty.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Economist take on Gordon's class war

The Economist has a very good analysis of Gordon Brown's attempts to split the nation by class in the hope of hoovering up a few votes. The full article is here, and this gives a flavour of it:
But—even leaving aside the inconveniently privileged upbringing of some members of the Labour cabinet, and the open question whether Eton and Oxford is a weirder background than a Scottish manse and a lifetime in Labour politics—Mr Brown’s salvo risks backfiring. It is negative and retrograde; it makes him look distracted by antiquated obsessions. Eton gibes might just work as knockabout humour; but Mr Brown doesn’t seem to be joking.
It also makes another important point, that class division can run in many directions. One you decide that Britain as One Nation is no longer government policy then what's to stop the upper and middle classes taking against the poor?
Britain has seen that kind of downward hostility before, in the 1980s, for example. Those at the top end of the scale become cross about their tax burden, and doubtful of the value of state services (which they often don’t use much anyway). They start to think of the poor as scroungers and cheats; good works are abandoned; the social contract frays.
Gordon Brown doesn't care about this of course. There is nothing about the man that suggests he thinks in the long term. Everything is tactical and for his short-term advantage. If he trashes our economy and our society, well, that is secondary to keeping G. Brown and his cronies in the rather good situation they currently find themselves. I firmly believe that one of historical questions generated by the first decade of the 21st century is how a man of with such a demonstrable lack of character or ability managed to become our Prime Minister.