Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clegg the bullet catcher

If you listen to the Liberal Democrats, the changes in the NHS bill have been wrought by the influence of the Liberal Democrat ministers in the heart of government. Quietly, some might mention the spring Lib Dem conference that demanded change. Nobody wants to remind Clegg that he signed off on the original bill (apparently without reading it) and was joined in that support by Danny Alexander and the loyal Lib Dem MPs who voted for the unmodified bill thus far. From the Tories, Cameron has been equally firm in stressing that the changes are all his own work and nothing to do with the Lib Dems at all. Nobody wants to mention the fact that this has seen huge anger and remarkable unity of opposition from the NHS workforce, fed up with continuous reform and not wanting to waste any more money on a pointless and expensive restructuring rather than spending it on patient care.

Of course, what Clegg has done is put the Lib Dems squarely in the firing line over the NHS, so when a nurse drops a bedpan in Tredegar, it will not only echo around Whitehall and Andrew Lansley's office, but round every Liberal Democrat MP's constituency (Bevan's aphorism no longer applies, as the NHS in Wales is devolved). The NHS is a third rail in British politics - touch it and you risk political death. Thus far, the blame has rested squarely with the Tories - the Liberal minister being largely irrelevant in the public mind. But now, Clegg has again used his party as a sandbag to absorb some of the damage that will be thrown at the government and to protect the Tories. In that unfair way that the public have of apportioning blame, the truth of the matter will be irrelevant. Errors and problems will be as much Clegg's fault as Cameron's and with Clegg's popularity non-existent, he'll take the brunt of it for backing these reforms.

Perhaps the Lib Dems genuinely believe that the public will reward them for moderating the Tories wilder instincts. I think they're wrong. The public will continue to punish them until after the next general election. If the policies are perceived as good, then the Tories will take all the credit. If bad, then the Liberal Democrats will take the blame for not stopping them - moderation isn't enough.

The underground resurfaces

Back in the mists of time, when I started this blog, I wrote about the Mike Whitby Vanity Project, where the Dear Leader flushed £150,000 of public money down a huge hole of a study into whether a Birmingham underground was a practical option. Pretty much what I wrote in December 2004 and thereafter duly came to pass when the report was finally released. Essentially, it would be ruinously expensive to build and maintain, take decades to deliver and may actually be all but impossible to build in any case.

All of which puzzles me, when I read that Sir Albert Bore is reported to have revived the idea as part of a more general review into transport in the city. It was a bad idea in 2004 and it is a bad idea now.

On the other hand, a transport policy would be something worth having. We're getting a revived New Street, it looks like HS2 will happen and there are even plans to bring the Kings Heath and Moseley freight line back into passenger use, running heavy rail services out to those suburbs. We need to continue progress with either the Metro or consider alternate light rail systems to extend it out from the centre into the rest of Birmingham. The government should urgently extend bus regulation powers to all elected mayors - London has it, so why not Birmingham? We also need to improve facilities for cycling in the city, with more cycle lanes isolated from other traffic, secure lockers in the City Centre. That's a back of the envelope transport policy.

If Sir Albert meant that his independent transport commission is to have a completely free hand to consider any options - including a Birmingham underground or even hoverboards - that's one thing, but the underground has been given an unduly high profile as it rises from the dead.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Brave new world

Congratulations to Birmingham City Council for getting something right - they live-streamed the full council meeting this afternoon. Laugh a minute it was not, but it is an important step in opening up the proceedings of the council to genuine public scrutiny. It isn't important whether it is watched, just that it can be watched by those who want to see our elected members in action. The presentation is basic in the extreme, the video quality patchy, but that isn't the point. Top marks to the Birmingham Council media team and to the councillors who finally made it possible. All a far cry from Wales, where they do things differently there.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Nadine Dorries - still talking rubbish

On Any Questions this week, Nadine Dorries gives a stellar performance. Genuinely unmissable. Apart from the fact that she she starts the programme by answering the second - as yet unasked - question first (and we all thought the panellists didn't know the questions in advance...), she continues in a generally confused vein throughout. Classically with Nadine, she counters the appalling story this week about the abuse of adults in the care system by revealing a personal anecdote about visiting an A&E department and having to face a nurse with piercings and tattoos, who didn't carry out tasks requested by a doctor within 15 minutes. Quite how this compares to violent assaults on patients that are now the subject of criminal investigation, Nadine doesn't make clear and nor does she explain exactly how many private hospitals operate an A&E department for comparative purposes. They don't, because trauma care is fiendishly challenging, ruinously expensive and impossible to schedule. Indeed, in most private hospitals, if the wheels really come off during your treatment, you will be bluelighted to the nearest NHS hospital to get the full range of emergency treatment that they can offer, not just the cherry-picked care that the private provider chooses to sell.

I'm still trying to work out why the Tory party allows her out on her own - although delighted at the quality of work she does in making the argument for Labour.

One of her finest moments is when she sallies forth on the issue about drug legalisation, quoting 'facts' she has gleaned from a cursory reading of the website of the National Drug Prevention Alliance - not one of the big players in the drugs field, it has to be said. They don't appear to commission much in the way of research, rather they try to act as a well-meaning resource page. Anyway, here's Nadine:
"...they startled me when they told me that the 'cut' of cannabis that teenagers are smoking now... is actually 50 times more potent than it was even a year ago, because of the different drugs that are coming in and being put into it and it only takes the teenager one 'spliff' or one 'joint' or whatever they refer to it now to smoke and they will never reach their full academic potential, because it is so dangerous..."
The problem with this is that it is utter cobblers, hysteria reminiscent of Reefer Madness.

With regard to one joint ruining lives, the NDPA's own website makes this comment, dating from 2002 (emphasis added)
On only one joint a month, mental ability may be compromised. Even this level of usage could possibly result in lasting impairment.50% of  THC (the main psychoactive ingredient) is still present in the brain cells 5 or 6 days later, and 10% after a month. This badly disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. Few children using cannabis, even occasionally, will achieve their fill (sic) potential.
A rather different view from Nadine's simplistic mispresentation. As for her claims about the rocketing strength of cannabis, I'm not sure how NDPA would be aware of this, as they don't carry out the analysis or research themselves. The most recent major study was for the Home Office in 2008 and it revealed that the most common form of cannabis on British streets was domestically-produced sinsemillia, which had a median potency of 15% THC (the active component), compared with 13.98% median potentcy for a similar study in 2004. Although this is significantly higher than the imported resin (5%) and herbal cannabis (9%) which used to form the largest part of the market, this hardly marks a 50-fold increase in a year. Earlier studies suggested that rumours of a super-strength version dominating the market were incorrect - just 4% of samples had a potency over 20% and the highest sample tested hit 24% THC content.

Making objective comparisons with drugs used 30 or 40 years ago is impossible, as detailed records of strength simply weren't maintained then, so comparisons are based on anecdotal evidence at best. Even using THC content is flawed, as it ignores the effects of CBD, which is also present in cannabis and actually moderates the effect of THC. It is probably reasonable to extrapolate that as domestically-grown cannabis now dominates the UK market and that it has a higher THC content than resin or imported herbal cannabis, then it is likely that the strength has increased over the decades as imports have lost market share, but figures of 50 times are simply unsustainable claims, even over the decades, let alone over the past year.

I'm all in favour of an open discussion about how we deal with drugs, their effects and the associated criminality, but it needs to be had on the basis of sound data, not the utter drivel that spews from Nadine Dorries' mouth. Simple scare stories don't work with young adults, they just serve to make parents and other authority figures look out of touch with reality and that just destroys credibility. I'm not making an argument for or against legalisation - just for the application of fact to discussions.

Fortunately for Nadine, her credibility is already laughably low.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

TPA don't get it

The TPA celebrated 'Tax Freedom Day' - the point at which you start working for yourself, rather than paying your contribution to an ordered society that supports its people working for the government - by issuing a begging letter of its own to their email list.

Meanwhile, they also celebrated their invitation to the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan - the man who apparently defeated communism, but also initiated the largest tax cut in history. What the blinkered fools at the TPA fail to mention is that over the course of the 80s and early 90s, Reagan and his successor, Bush Sr, worked very hard to increase the US national debt - quadrupling it, in fact. Given that the TPA have been vocally critical about the UK's national debt, it seems strange that they are lionising a US President with a very loose grasp of economics. Indeed, it is a strange fact that under every Republican President since Ford, the US debt has risen - even Bush Jr managed to almost double it. Democrats Carter and Clinton cut the national debt, although Obama has seen it rise so far.

In a time of sad statistics...

This one affects me more than many.

In a previous life, I had to visit people in their homes and was always quietly saddened by the number of homes that had no books visible - tidy though they often were. They've always been a much-loved part of my and my family's life - I can't imagine being without them and despite my attachment to electronics, the very idea of a Kindle leaves me cold. Even our very youngest loves to hold a book, although his current understanding is limited to looking and pointing at the pictures. We don't have a room in our house without at least one book, so our children are lucky enough to have grown up in an environment where we are always wondering where we can fit the next set of shelves.

A child without a book is a deprived child.

(Hat tip to Tim Harford)