Saturday, 29 January 2011

Health care trussed

LIKE recurring nightmares, three images have kept invading my head these past few days.
David Cameron, curiously airbrushed on an election poster, urging us to trust him with the NHS.
David Cameron, wearing his serious and caring face, in conversation last year with executives of the Woodland Trust.
And Kaa, the wicked snake of the Jungle Book movie, eyes becoming huge hypnotic spirals as he hisses: “Trusssssst me!”
Trust Cameron and co with the NHS? Whatever made anyone think that was a good idea?
Sure, the Tories have ring-fenced the NHS budget, making it about the only thing in the country (apart from bankers’ bonuses) not facing crippling cuts. Apart from the demand to make £20billion of “efficiency savings” over the next four years, which sounds to me like another name for cuts.
However, it’s not just the amount of money you spend, but what you do with it that counts.
Cameron has put the NHS in the hands of the obsessional Andrew Lansley. A man whose zealous drive to “reform” is every bit as dangerous as any swingeing programme of cuts.
Rather than saving, Lansley is set on spending huge sums on what the government excitedly describes as the biggest reform of the NHS since it was set up. And he wants it all done in two years.
This is a shatteringly swift pace of change for such a huge and complex organisation. But it’s not just too far, too fast. Lansley’s driving hard in the wrong direction.
His watchwords – as with most 1980s-raised Tory ideologues – are “choice” and “competition”.
But it’s not choice that patients need. It’s quality of care, available when and where it’s needed.
And that cannot be best provided by competition among profit-seeking companies.
It is probably true that the NHS – like almost every aspect of British society over the last 25 years – has become over-run by managers. But that is at least as true of private enterprise as it is of government departments.
Taking decision-making out of the hands of Primary Care Trusts and handing it to GPs won’t reduce the paperwork.
It will simply put more of it on your local doctors’ desk, giving them even less time to do what they were trained to do. Which is practise medicine, not push paper, balance budgets and write cheques.
It’s like the breakneck drive towards turning schools into “academies”.
In that case, unpaid school governors will find themselves doing much of the work which until now has been done by paid local-authority professionals.
Unless they choose to “buy back” those services. Which is undoubtedly what hard-pressed GPs will end up doing, by clubbing together to employ the managers sacked by the defunct PCTs.
With both schools and hospital services, local democracy is under attack.
Duty of care replaced by duty to make money.
As one of my friends put it: “I find it very interesting that the entire NHS budget is being handed to GPs, who aren’t actually employed by the NHS, so vast amounts of public money is being passed into the private sector.”
Very interesting indeed.


WOODLAND is wonderful. There can be little better for the soul (if you believe in such things) than a walk in the woods.
There can scarcely be a better way of getting in touch with wildlife, or with the changing of the seasons.
The calendar may still say it’s winter but this last couple of weeks almost every tree has been budding, every bird turning amorous. The woods – especially ancient, deciduous woods – are the place really to experience it.
Our forests are the heart of our island nation, Robin Hood our essential mythical hero.
Yet already woodland covers a much smaller proportion of Britain than it does mainland Europe. So we should be concerned – hugely concerned – by any threat to what remains.
Like the threat by a supposedly cuddly, caring, green-tinged government to flog off our national forests.
All of them. From Kielder in the north to the New Forest in the south; the Forest of Dean to Epping Forest. And, yes, Sherwood Forest itself, what’s left of it.
The Woodland Trust, leading defender of British woods, has until recently been rather cosy with Cameron. Now it is campaigning for “ancient woods to be treated as a special case” in the Forestry Commission sell-off.
And for “closure of loopholes in protection for all ancient woods, to guarantee their public access and wildlife value, no matter who owns them”.
Which is good, but not good enough. Because who owns them matters.
Once they are in the private hands of a few super-rich Tory landowners, what is to prevent the forests being turned over to housing, holiday camps or golf courses, for profit? Which is, after all, the prime motive in Cameron’s world.
Especially with the government planning to relax planning regulations.
If, like me, you care about our forests, join me in registering a slightly stronger protest: “Save our forests – don’t sell them off to the highest bidder”.
That’s the wording of a petition at

Monday, 24 January 2011

A national treasure worth keeping

I ADDED my name this week to a petition to keep our public library open.
We use the library a lot. If it wasn’t there our daughter would either read less or we’d have to shell out for several more books a week than we already buy.
But the bigger reasons for wanting the library to continue functioning aren’t the selfish ones.
The loss of the book groups would be a blow to many. So would the loss of the various children’s groups. So would the loss of the weekly art-and-craft sessions which give a vital boost to a number of eager older folk.
The lost jobs would also be a kick in the teeth.
The library is a social centre of the community. To expect the community to run it as a volunteer service without trained professionals is wilfully unrealistic. A thin veil over the axe.
But the Tories – either in Westminster or County Hall – don’t care about the community.
They care about cash.
Mark Littlewood, director general of the self-styled “free-market think-tank” the Institute of Economic Affairs, was talking on the radio about libraries.
He thinks they’ve have their day, for two reasons.
Firstly, because of the pure cash reason – the total cost of libraries as divided by the number of books loaned out (about £3 per loan, apparently). As if that were the only role they fulfilled. And as if cutting it would make any dent at all in the national debt.
Secondly, because the internet has put rapid access to information in so many homes that the library’s function as a place of reference is redundant. Which is fine – up to a point – for those of us who can afford a decent broadband connection.
And assuming Wikipedia and the like are as accurate, as reliable and have as long a shelf-life as a good old-fashioned reference book.
As a former PR man for both the Liberal Democrats and the Pro-Euro Conservatives (according to Wikipedia, at least), Littlewood is clearly a fellow in tune with current government thinking.
As is made clear by his cuts-crazy rant on his Conservative Home blog shortly before last year’s election.
In it, he says: “Whole swathes of activity need to be moved from the public to the private sector.”
So, rob the people to pay the rich, then. Conservative ideology in a nutshell.
In the same article, Littlewood jokes about selling off Hyde Park and the rest of London’s green spaces to developers. At least, I think he’s joking.
He describes the parks as “national treasures” – which, revealingly, seems to equate the nation with London. A mistake common among foreign tourists, international businesspeople and free-market think-tankers.
No doubt he has been in Hyde Park more recently than he’s been in a public library.
He admitted on air that the last time he entered a library was “about 15 years ago, to look something up”. Which would have been about the time he started his first job.
This may explain why he doesn’t seem to know or care much about ordinary people. People who live their lives somewhere outside the M25 ring.
And why he fails to recognise that our public libraries are themselves a national treasure.
A key part of what made Britain a land of opportunity (well, some opportunity) for all.
By providing access to books, and space in which to read them, libraries helped create a literate and educated society. Losing them will be another step in reversing that process.
But then, that’s the other thing Tories care about. Turning the clock back.


IT started, as these things do, over possession of a ball.
In this case, though, it wasn’t a football but a fluffy, scruffy old tennis ball. And, as it turned out, the other dog wasn’t really interested anyway. He was more concerned about the stick he’d been chasing.
So after a few rude doggie words and a bit of aggressive body-language, the confrontation was over. A little circumspect circling, a good sniff at each other and both were on their way, no harm done and no hard feelings.
Some dog owners can be a bit sniffy themselves about this sort of thing, but it’s really just part of the natural social round.
There was certainly nothing in it this time to upset or impress the other owner – a man who’s been known to put it about a bit himself when a ball’s at stake.
Roy Keane is also famous, of course, as a dog-walker. So it was always on the cards, from the moment he moved to my town, that he and I would meet somewhere on a field or a footpath.
I’m not sure whether it’s ironic or merely natural that it happened only after he had ceased to be Ipswich Town manager.
Possibly the latter. After all, he has more time to spend with his dog now.
And, may I say, what a very handsome and mild-mannered dog he is too.
Which is probably just as well for my mutt, who could have got himself in trouble squaring up to a fit young german shepherd.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Sick people shouldn't be allowed to play with guns

JARED LOUGHNER is not a well young man.
In 2007, while still a teenager, he was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. When he tried to join the US Army he was turned down because of an admitted cannabis habit.
Last October he was expelled from college after a series of classroom disruptions and increasingly weird behaviour on campus.
Pima Community College in Tucson had called in the police to take Loughner home to his parents. He was told he could return to his studies only after seeking the help of mental health professionals.
Just last month Loughner, now 22, wrote on his MySpace page: “I don’t feel good: I’m ready to kill a police officer!”
Yet none of this prevented him from walking into a shop in Tucson on November 30 and buying a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol. Perfectly legally.
A gun like that is not a toy. Neither is it an appropriate weapon for hunting.
Evidence revealed by FBI investigators appears to show that Loughner bore a grudge against Gabrielle Giffords since 2007.
Giffords, who seems to be a strong, gifted and principled politician, is now in intensive care after being shot in the head at point-blank range.
The attack on her left six people dead and 13 others badly injured.
It has naturally led to fresh calls for stricter gun control across America.
Yet, incredibly, sales of high-capacity assault weapons such as the one used so devastatingly in Tucson at the weekend were banned by law. Until 2004.
Sarah Palin’s “cross-hairs” posters, which included one aimed at Congresswoman Giffords, and her inappropriate talk about “reloading” are a side-issue.
Of course they are offensive. Of course they could seen as incitement. It might even make sense to charge her with that offence.
One can certainly hope her career, and any danger of her one day becoming president, are now effectively over.
But this isn’t really about Palin. Even if Palin herself thinks everything is about her.
It’s about guns. And the way a rampant armaments industry has manipulated America, via a romanticised view of its history and “rights”, into a kind of addiction.
An addiction more pervasive than that to any drugs, bar alcohol and tobacco.
And vastly more dangerous.
There seems little realistic hope, however, that this latest sickening shooting will bring much sense to American gun laws.
The awful truth is that any attempt at prohibition is doomed to failure.
In the words of Bradley A Buckles, former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: “I don’t know what you could do. People are going to get guns and shoot people.
“There are 300 million guns out there. We are close to the end of where we can regulate guns.”
Close to it – or well beyond it?
It must be obvious to nearly everyone that Jared Loughner was too sick to be allowed to play with guns.
The same could be said of America itself.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

VAT’s the way to do it for the smirking Tory

AT least he didn’t have the gall this time to say there was no alternative. Maybe even George Osborne knew that wouldn’t wash when he was talking about raising VAT to an all-time high.
Instead the chancellor claimed that putting up VAT from an already swingeing 17½ per cent to a thumping 20pc was the “least damaging” way of reducing Britain’s deficit.
To which the question is: “Least damaging to whom?”
Not to those families who will have to pay around £400 a year more for their basic necessities.
Which might not sound a lot if you’re a multi-millionaire Tory, but hits rather harder on the streets of Chantry.
The Tories and their LibDem co-conspirators have been revelling in the economic crisis as an excuse to do all those things they’ve always wanted to do.
Rolling back government. Putting what should be everyone’s concern – such as street-cleaning and further education – into private hands. Where profit, not service, is the motive.
And the same naturally applies to their tax policies.
Crank it up on the food and clothing everyone needs. While banks remain exempt.
Let the fat cats go on licking up the cream. Let the common people pay through their weekly grocery bill.
A simplification? Of course. Economics is always a lot more complicated than anyone can explain in a newspaper column.
In fact, economics is a lot more complicated than anyone can really explain at all. It’s a conjuring trick. A baffling with pseudo-science.
The complexity of terms and figures bandied about by economists is a cover for the plain fact that nobody truly knows what’s going on. Or what the ultimate effects of any change will be.
It’s pretty obvious that the stock market is a huge gambling business. Less obvious, but equally true, is that the whole of capitalism works that way.
Economists, including chancellors (and bankers), like to talk as if they know what they’re doing. In fact, most of it’s as much a stab in the dark as I’d be making if I bet on Connor Wickham to score the first goal in Sunday’s Cup-tie at Stamford Bridge.
Among the things Osborne said this week to justify the VAT increase was this: “It’s a structural tax change to deal with a structural deficit and a structural increase in expenditure that happened.”
Does that make it clearer to you? No, nor to me.
But that, really, is the point. What he’s really saying there is: “I know what I’m talking about.”
To which he might add, under his breath, as it were: “And if you don’t, so much the better.”
He claims, rather improbably, that putting up VAT will somehow save jobs.
Others, whose crystal balls are surely no cloudier than his, think otherwise.
The British Beer and Pub Association say the increase will cost 8,800 jobs in the pub trade. It seems a curiously precise figure for a guess, but the trend of what they’re saying is clear enough.
The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development puts total job losses at 750,000.
More than two-thirds of small firms expect the rise to damage their businesses.
International finance advisors KPMG say most firms will put up prices “by far more than the VAT jump”.
One retail consultant quoted in the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph said he expected high-street prices to rise by between 5pc and 8pc.
Others warn that falling sales due to rising prices will mean the government will get less in tax revenue than they expect. Maybe a lot less. Maybe less than they’ve been getting at the lower rate.
Truth is, none of the experts really knows any better than George Osborne, or me, what all the effects will be.
But it does sound like a bare-faced bluff when Osborne claims his VAT rise will be “progressive” – in other words that it will actually benefit the poor.
You can almost see the satisfied smirk as he lifts the cane and claims: “This will hurt me more than it hurts you.”


NEWS that a US Navy captain has been stripped of his command over a series of smutty and homophobic videos is vaguely dispiriting but no great surprise.
What makes it more fun is the name of the vessel from which Capt Owen Honors has been sacked. The USS Enterprise.
Seems Capt Honors has been boldly going where no man should’ve gone before. A clear case of “Don’t make it so, No.1.”


I’M not a difficult customer, but… our New Year meal out was one to remember.
During the hour and a half it took for our food to arrive, the pub ran out of beer.
When at last our meals were presented, one was merely a little over-cooked. Of the rest:
• my partner’s salmon was raw in the middle;
• my mother’s “hot goat’s cheese salad” wasn’t hot and had barely a trace of cheese;
• my stew was severely under-cooked, the accompanying rice dried out into one solid lump.
If more festive feasts were like that we wouldn’t need to go on a January diet.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Once the tech's out there, we're all on the Brink

I DON’T watch much telly, so I’m not in the best position to judge what have been the best programmes on in 2010. But I can’t believe there was any more enjoyable or intelligent drama series than Dollhouse.
If you didn’t see it – and the chances are you didn’t, as it never made it onto a mainstream channel – I can highly recommend the DVD sets of both series.
The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, was the man behind Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, which ought to give him some clout in the TV industry. And not just because of the dreary cult of lesser vampire tales Buffy’s success seems to have spawned.
Yet Whedon’s brilliant outer-space Western series Firefly never got beyond 14 episodes in 2002-2003 before it was cancelled by the dimwitted suits of Fox TV.
As with Firefly, the key to the failure of Dollhouse to break into mainstream viewing lies in one word I used above to describe it. Intelligent.
In the world of free-market telly, competition means lots of “choice” between dumb and dumber. Whedon, unusually, doesn’t believe in dumbing down.
Dollhouse is set in the present, or very near future, in a secret and very dodgy establishment.
In it, people are electronically turned into “dolls”, or “actives”, with other people’s personalities, talents and life-histories temporarily implanted in their brains. Their time is then sold to clients, for a variety of purposes.
In lesser hands than Whedon’s, this premise could easily have led to some tedious and predictable story-telling.
But Whedon’s not interested in smut (though Dollhouse is quite sexy at times). And he’s not really very interested in the conventional action-thriller – though he’s expert in its techniques.
He’s a master of twists and turns, not only of storyline but also of character. He can get your sympathy for villains, or your scorn for the good guys – and always keep you guessing which are which.
As in life, almost no one in Dollhouse is simply good or simply bad. It’s more real, more sophisticated than that.
No one in the Dollhouse – not just the actives – is quite what they seem.
Except, perhaps, Topher Brink, the character in whom the key ethical dilemma eventually crystallises.
The brilliant Brink (Fran Kranz) is the scientist whose genius makes the brain-wipes possible. His delight at his own cleverness is somehow both credible and childishly charming.
Ultimately, his dawning awareness of what he has done makes him a true tragic hero.
Rather in the mould of Robert Oppenheimer, the real-life “father of the atomic bomb”.
Like Oppenheimer, Topher learns too late that once the tech is out there, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. And the guy who made it has no control over the uses it’ll be put to.
Another excellent, and largely ignored, programme in 2010 was a short BBC4 series on the National Grid.
The third of these fascinating documentaries made it quietly clear how the nuclear power industry began as a cover for the manufacture of material for atomic weapons.
And how Margaret Thatcher backed its growth – and specifically the development of Sizewell B – as part of a deliberate plan that also included provoking the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
A wrecking plan hatched as revenge for the strike that brought down the previous Tory government in 1974.
The killing of King Coal was ultimately one of the unintended outcomes of the splitting of the atom in Ernest Rutherford’s Cambridge lab in 1932.
Rutherford, Cockcroft, Walton – and Oppenheimer – were good guys. But once the tech is out there…