Monday, June 30, 2008

Not Waving But Drowning

There have been many column inches written in the papers this weekend about Gordon Brown, marking his first year clinging to power. His predicament was captured best by Anthony King in the Telegraph who said, "A year ago, YouGov's surveys for The Telegraph suggested that most voters believed that, even if Gordon Brown could not walk on water, at least he was a vigorous swimmer. Now they are convinced he is a drowning man."

This is beyond the usual Westminster Village tittle-tattle. Every day, Gordon Brown and his Cabinet are fire-fighting comments and articles that he simply isn't up to the job. The claim that he was just "getting on with the job," is appearing thinner and thinner. He has gone past the point where John Major could offer him empathy, after coming fifth in Henley behind the Green Party and BNP, just beating UKIP. The Labour candidate even lost his deposit.

Politically, I want him to stay on the grounds that he is considered an electoral liability by two thirds of the population, but on humanitarian grounds, doesn't anyone in the Labour Party have the courage and wherewithal to put him out of his misery so that Government can start to function again in these difficult times?

Obscene Decline In Standards

Several newspapers including The Times reported today that pupils are receiving marks in their GCSE English exams for writing swear words on their papers. One pupil who simply wrote f*** off as an answer received 2 marks out of a maximum 27 (7.5%) for accurate spelling and conveying the meaning of a word. Amazingly, Peter Buckroyd, chief examiner at the the largest examination board AQA, explained that he would have given more marks if the pupil had added an exclamation mark. He said “It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for – like conveying some meaning and some spelling.
“It’s better than someone that doesn’t write anything at all. It shows more skills than somebody who leaves the page blank.”

Where to start? This is the same exam board with whom you can gain a grade C pass in Maths with a mere 20%. Mr Buckroyd is certainly consistent in his views. He should have realised that after this incredible revelation, it would have been better to say nothing at all. Just how many children does Mr Buckroyd want to fail before he presides over an exam that stretches children sufficiently to prepare them for a world beyond cheap cider and a lifetime's dependency on the welfare state.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Emissions Policy Leaves Councillors Fuming

On Tuesday night I sat on the Scrutiny & Overview Committee that looked at a proposal to bring emissions-based parking charges to Sutton. I wrote about this when Richmond introduced a similar scheme in 2006. Fortunately after more than two hours, the committee saw sense and killed off any thoughts about such a plan.

It has been calculated that 1.69% of Richmond's total CO2 emissions come from cars with a parking permit yet they are unduly penalised. Here, residents in Cheam, Belmont, St Helier and Wallington could pollute as much as they wanted to. Similarly anyone in a controlled parking zone with off-street parking would not be affected. Amazingly, as the controlled hours are during the day, anyone who drives their car to work every day would be free to do so with no penalty as they would not need a permit. The only ones who would have to pay would be people whose cars were parked up, not emitting a single cough of CO2. A back of the envelope calculation showed that only 3.5% of cars in Sutton would have to pay this cost on the back of everyone's pollution.

Everyone at the committee takes the responsibility of reducing emissions seriously but this smacked of doing something because we need to be seen to act rather than an effective move. We were not allowed to question Colin Hall, the Lead Councillor who commissioned the report. Members of the committee were perplexed when Cllr Roger Roberts, the chairman of the committee took it upon himself to explain to officers what the recommendation of the committee should be without letting members have their say. Despite widespread antipathy to the fundamental idea of such charging, he proposed that the Council Officer went away and spent more time redrafting the report. Fortunately, he was slapped down as was the report.

It wasn't quite the end of the fun as the Chairman managed to push through two discussion papers without allowing any discussion. The Council is undergoing a corporate assessment at the moment which is much like an OFSTED inspection in a school when assessors look at absolutely everything and appear everywhere. The chief assessor sat in on this meeting. We are currently a four star rated Council. Last night I could see one of those stars tiptoeing its way to the door.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Green Garden Waste 4 - LibDem Joins Our Call

A senior LibDem councillor has broken party ranks and attacked the Council for wasting money on waste collection. Paddy Kane, chairman of the scrutiny committee that investigates waste collection services was moved to contact the local newspapers when he discovered that a 40-tonne dustcart (similar to the Sutton vehicle in the picture) had been sent on a 12-mile round trip to collect a single green garden waste bag, branding the move as 'absolutely frivoulous'.

Cllr Cliff Carter called the Council last Saturday to inform them of a resident who had paid the unpopular £35 green garden waste charge and whose bag had not been collected from the front of her house. The Council had promised on two occasions to collect the bag but did not until Cliff's intervention.

Instead of using one of the Waste Management Service small vans that are often seen driving around the borough, a massive truck was driven to the resident's house in Aultone Way from the depot in Beddington Lane despite the fact that the dump in Kimpton Road is only eight minutes away. Cliff told the Advertiser "If you pay for a service you expect to get results, but there's no reason at all why they should send out a large lorry."

The LibDems are split on their view on the unpopular £35 charge with some favouring a lower £10 charge and others supporting our position for a reversal of the decision. I'm pleased that Cllr Kane has put his head above the parapet in attacking the endemic waste of his party's administration saying "This is gross misuse of council resources. Sending a 40-tonne truck for one bag of garden waste is not environmentally friendly. It's absolutely frivoulous." I hope that this is the first of many interventions from the committee which looks at value for money in waste management, transport, planning, roads, parks, libraries and sport. I'm sure that if he continues to scratch the surface, he will find plenty more examples.

Green Garden Waste 3 - LibDem Racket on Bag Sizes

Residents are dismayed at having to pay the unpopular £35 green garden waste charge and are then fuming when they see that the green jute bag is nowhere near the size of the old clear plastic bags. The LibDems seem to be taking "Mars Bar" economics to a new height, charging more for less.

Seizing advantage of the nearby Sutton Tennis and Squash Club, Cllr Tony Shields decided to research these concerns in a scientific way that would make New Scientist readers proud; by filling both bags with tennis balls and counting the difference.

The capacity of the old bag beat the new one game, set and match with the scores

  • Old bag 522 balls

  • New bag 270 balls

This is a difference of nearly 50%. Tony's able assistant in the picture, South Sutton resident John Turner told Tony "This scheme hasn't been properly explained. As a resident, I want to recycle and cut waste but the size of this new bag is a load of balls." Defending the size of the bags, we were told that it was an industry standard size. Interesting, but isn't that an answer to another question? I'm not sure if many residents will take succour in knowing that their bags comply to an industry regulation. To cap it all, during the experiment, the handle fell off.

Green Garden Waste 2 - MPs Blame Share Fails

Both local LibDem MPs have been making mischief in their attempt to divert attention from their Councillor colleagues almighty blunder in introducing the unpopular £35 green garden waste charge.

In correspondence from Carshalton & Wallington MP Tom Brake and a newsletter from Sutton & Cheam MP Paul Burstow, they strongly suggest that the unjustified extra cost was implemented with cross-party support. Neither expressed an opinion as to where they stood on the issue. (I wonder if either have bought a bag themselves.)

In fact, two of my colleagues, John Kennedy and Graham Whitham predicted much of what has transpired when expressing their opposition to the way that green garden waste has been handled. We are fully supportive of the aim of the overall scheme which is to minimise the amount of waste that goes to landfill. The Council will face punitive fines if action is not taken which could make recent Council Tax increases look paltry in comparison. So, we do need to take action now. Stopping the collection of black bags sitting alongside the wheelie bins is an inconvenience that we have to accept.

Garden waste doesn't go to landfill. Encouraging people to compost more at home is an excellent idea but is not a panacea. A bin full of grass clippings will become very smelly and sludge-filled. There is a knack to effective composting that most people (including me) will not be fully aware of. The £35 per bag charge seemed to appear from nowhere rather than as a result of detailed modelling and research. The communication of the changes has been woefully inadequate. The charge is supposed to cover the new kerbside glass collection. However with only 3000 bags sold at the last count, there will be a big hole in the figures. This will be exacerbated by the need to open a new facility at Beddington Lane for residents to take their own garden waste. This is costing the Council about £5000 per week. We have called for the scheme to be halted whilst the Council go back to the drawing board and consult residents.

Garden Waste 1 - Direct Action from Eric

The unpopular green garden waste collection charge has been covered at length in the local newspapers. In eight days, a group of councillors are meeting along with officers to review the scheme. My Conservative colleagues will continue to oppose the £35 charge.

In the meantime, Eric extended a helping hand to an 80 year old resident who could not afford to buy a bag and was physically unable to take the garden waste to the dump. The resident from Oxford Road contacted Eric in desperation. He visited her the next day and resolved to take the bag himself in the back of his car. After 20 minutes queuing at the Kimpton, he was finally able to get rid of the cuttings.

Eric said, "The LibDem Council really don't care about who are hit by this charge, like the elderly widow in my ward. As a Conservative I believe minimising waste is a priority but this charge really is hitting vulnerable people hard. I support the call for an urgent rethink on this policy."

He concluded, "The dump was chock-a-block with cars waiting to get into the dump. If it was that bad on a Tuesday morning, I shudder to think what it was like over the weekend."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

David Davis Standing for Our Freedom

I joined the many Conservatives that would have been watching the news at 1pm with an open mouth as we slowly took in the fact that David Davis had resigned his seat in order to fight the subsequent by-election on the single issue of 42 days detention. I'm still a bit too shell-shocked to figure out if it was a good move or not. What I am sure about is he has my absolute support on the issue of detention without charge.

Polls suggest that people support 42 days detention by two to one. Some of the comments on my blog and many on other websites clearly show that the Government have failed to put across exactly what this insidious piece of legislation actually means for ordinary people in the UK. If you asked me if I would put terrorists in prison without charge for 42 days, I would say yes without hesitation. However, this is not what we are talking about. If it is passed, people suspected of terrorism-related crime will be allowed to be held at the whim of the Home Secretary. Let's look at how other crime and anti-terrorist measures have been used in the UK by this Labour Government.
  • Three men were extradited to the USA without any evidence being produced having been accused of a fraud against NatWest (not a USA company)
  • CCTV cameras which were introduced to fight crime are now being used to issue parking tickets long after the car has moved.
  • A lady was arrested for reading aloud a list of names in Trafalgar Square.
  • An 82 year-old man was arrested for heckling Tony Blair.
  • Compulsory ID cards may be introduced at a cost of £18bn; more than the Home Office spends in total on policing, immigration control and security each year.

In addition to this, Gordon Brown has the ability to ban public meetings, set up special courts and postpone elections thanks to the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. This legislation is already robust enough to give the police and judiciary the powers that they need to deal with complex terrorism inquiries. I am perplexed that at a time that trust in politicians is at an all-time low, people should allow the very same people to determine the future of a British citizen in this way.

You will see from the chart at the top of this post that no other western democracy feels the need to have such controls. Vladmir Putin must be green with envy that he can only hold people in the Lubyanka for a maximum of five days. At 28 days we are already double the limit of anyone bar dictatorships. Why does this Government feel that our police are not as capable as those in Spain who suffered in the Madrid bombings or the USA who face a more severe terrorist threat than we do?

There is no need for Al-Qaeda to commit another atrocity in the UK. They have acheived an important objective in changing the behaviour and attitude of the population in this country in a way that the IRA never could. I remember the stoic attitude of my work colleagues as we were evacuated onto Leicester Square only to hear the Surrey Tavern pub bomb explode 300 yards away. Now, in a blinkered attempt to play tough politics the government has given fuel to a small number of nutters ready to prey on susceptible kids ripe for radicalisation. I end where I started. Terrorists deserve the severest punishment and then some. Locking people up without charge rips up the Magna Carta, the premise of 'innocent until proven guilty', Habeas Corpus, however you want to describe it, no longer exists in this country. It may take a decade or two but this legislation will go the way of other anti-terrorism legislation and be extended quietly to cover other circumstances.

David Davis stated his case in a superb statement that I have reproduced in full below. If he is right in his view that the Parliament Act will be used to force this legislation through it will be the ultimate irony; using legislation meant for a completely different set of circumstances to push through controversial legislation for political expediency:-

"The name of my constituency is Haltemprice and Howden. Haltemprice is derived from the medieval proverb meaning 'noble endeavour'. Up until yesterday I took the view that what we did in the House of Commons representing our constituents was a noble endeavour because for centuries our forebears defended the freedoms of the British people – or we did, up until yesterday.

"This Sunday is the anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document that guarantees that most fundamental of British freedoms, habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason. Yesterday this House decided to allow the state to lock up potentially innocent citizens for up to six weeks without charge.

"The counterterrorism bill will in all probability be rejected by the House of Lords very firmly. What should they be there for if not to defend the Magna Carta. But because the impetus behind this is essentially political not security the government will be tempted to use the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords. It has no democratic mandate to do this since 42 days was not in the manifesto. Its legal basis is uncertain to say the least. But purely for political reasons this government's going to do that.

"In truth 42 days is just one, perhaps the most salient example, of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms.

"We will have shortly the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it. We've witnessed an assault on jury trials, that bulwark against bad law and its arbitrary abuse by the state, shortcuts for our justice system that make our justice system neither firm nor fair, and the creation of a database state, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.

"The state has security powers to clamp down on peaceful protests and so-called hate laws which stifle debate, while those who serve violence get off scot-free. This cannot go on, it must be stopped and for that reason today I feel it is incumbent on me to take a stand.

"I will be resigning my membership of this House and I intend to force a by-election in Haltemprice and Howden. I will not fight it on the government's general record; there is no point repeating Crewe and Nantwich. I will fight it on my personal record. I am just a piece in this great chess game. I will fight it. I will argue this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government. That may mean I have made my last speech to the House, possible. And of course that would be a cause of deep regret to me. But at least my electorate and the nation as a whole would have had the opportunity to debate and consider one of the most fundamental issues of our day. The ever-intrusive power of the state into our lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom If they do send me back here, it will be with a single, simple message. That the monstrosity of a law that we passed yesterday will not stand."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Myopia in Whitehall Causes Blindness across the UK

I have had to tackle a few cases at work in the past couple of years when constituents have been denied treatment because of the costs of the drugs that are required. Wet Age-Related Magular Degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the UK with 20,000 sufferers. There is a drug that can help in restoring vision though it is not a full cure. Lucentis costs a fair whack though at £28,000 for a course of 14 injections.

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) have changed their mind about the drug, originally refusing to allow its use on the grounds of cost. However because of the bureaucratic way that drugs are licensed, final guidelines will not be published until the autumn. Some Primary Care Trusts have started prescibing Lucentis in anticipation. Others refuse. Some will prescribe it after you have gone blind in one eye. The universal health system has not existed in this country for many years except in the eyes of a few politicians. We have a postcode lottery.

In the light of this, I was concerned to read an article in the Sunday Times which explains how the Labour Government will not allow patients treatment on the NHS if they have paid for part of their treatment privately. One patient who had paid £9,500 for some drugs to combat their bowel cancer was billed £16,000 for previous treatment and was then denied treatment in her final months before she died.

Where else does the Government run such a policy? If people who have a Freedom Pass decide to take a taxi for a particular journey, does Ruth Kelly march round and tear up the concessionary travel pass? Does she take away your keys on the roadside when you come to the end of the toll section of the M6? What about children whose parents pay for private tutoring or extra books? Should you be denied the state pension because you work for a company that gives you a pension scheme?

The irony is that the NHS will treat addicts who have paid for drugs that make them ill, but will not treat people who just want to get better or have a better quality of life in their dying days.

Alan Johnson refuses to countenance change because he believes that it will lead to a two-tier health service. It is no accident that the National Health Service is the only one of its kind in the world. The longer that political dogma ensures that the 'jewel in the crown' is above real reform, the longer people will suffer without knowing why.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Young Obama Fan Lands The Knockout Blow

I'm straying just a touch away from Sutton politics in this post as Hillary Clinton finally gives up the ghost in seeking the Democratic Nomination. She has suspended her campaign rather than ended it. This will have something to do with the millions of dollars that her campaign is in debt despite having ploughed a lot of her own money in.

The unedifying spectacle of Clinton and Obama slugging it out has left McCain to go about his business campaigning in the important states. Can you believe this is only the end of round one? The election isn't even for another five months or so yet it seems to have gone on longer than one of Cllr Roberts' speeches.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

It's The Car Or Nothing

A story in the Sutton Guardian this week illustrates everything that is wrong with the green garden waste scheme as it is currently constituted.
Mr Burton from North Cheam doesn't have a car and so walked about a mile pushing his wheelbarrow filled with green garden waste to the dump in Kimpton Road. He queued up with the cars, showed his council tax bill to prove that he was a resident and was turned away because it was too dangerous not being in a car.
He told the Guardian "As a non-car user, I decided to cart my rubbish along in my garden wheelbarrow, but was met by a surly jobsworth, who said it was against procedures. Living in supposedly one of the most environmentally-friendly boroughs in London, I find this set-up is a total farce."
I'll write again on the garden waste as a whole but this is just one of a number of issues that have not been addressed before implementing this scheme. Meanwhile a centre at Beddington Lane has been opened for residents to take their garden waste for composting at a cost of some £5000 per week. Make sure that you are up to date with all of the changes by going to the Council website .

Monday, June 02, 2008

Help write the Conservative Blueprint for Local Government

Sutton Conservatives' Policy Groups are cracking along looking at the very best ideas that are working in other Councils that may work here in Sutton. Nationally, the newly formed Conservative Council Innovation Unit are writing the 'bible' of best practice for local councils. This is instead of writing a national manifesto for local government. I am pleased that the Party is serious about localism; trusting local people to introduce and run the services for the place that they know the best.

The man charged with heading up this task is Stephen Greehalgh, the dynamic leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council who has reduced Council Tax by 3% for two successive years as well as cutting council debt by £60m. During this time, satisfaction ratings with the Council have increased significantly. He is also on the panel that is undertaking an audit of City Hall for Boris. You can read more about Stephen's vision for the Conservative Council Innovation Unity on Conservative Home, here.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Sometimes it feels like Comical Ali has taken on the role that Alistair Campbell once filled. However, there was a gem of comical honesty at the end of Sunday's Politics Show for those watching. Mike Russell MSP, Environment Minister in the Scottish Parliament summed up a debate with a sudden bout of honesty that took some of his colleagues aback. The debate had the vacuous title of "Moving Scotland Forward."

He opened by saying,
"I find myself in some difficulty, because the opening sentences of my speaking notes say:
"This has been a very valuable and useful debate. I welcome the contributions and views that have been expressed".
I publicly dissociate myself from that opinion. This has not been a "valuable and useful debate." It is of some significance that not one member has declared an interest—because there has been no interest in the debate. Outside the chamber, there will be no interest in the debate. By insisting on holding this debate, Robert Brown
has succeeded in wasting everybody's time."

There then followed this exchange:
"Those absent members knew that this afternoon's debate was pointless. It was a pointless occasion, and it was one of those occasions that do the Parliament no good whatever. Let us be ruthlessly honest about it: this was political theatre for those who are paid to be here. The debate had no other meaning."

"Will the Minister give way?"

"No, I will not give way. My intention is just to get through this. I just want to get through it and go home. Just understand that, all right?"

Unless someone was playing around with truth serum darts and a blowpipe in Holyrood last week, the Scottish Parliament certainly has a different atmosphere than Sutton Council meetings.
(Footnote: He did go on to lose the vote.)

Hooray for Tax Freedom Day

Today is the day that you and I start earning money for ourselves rather than the Government. Tax Freedom Day imagines that you pay off all of your annual tax bill up front, giving a stark illustration of exactly how much money is being thrown at this Government. Back in 1997, you would have started keeping your pennies on May 26th. As clear as this is, it is still muddled by Government obfuscation. If Government borrowing is taken into account, Tax Freedom day would fall much later on June 14th.

Stealth taxes make illustrations such as this all the more valuable. Have a look at the Adam Smith Institute website for more details.

Sutton and Gomorrah

The Sunday Telegraph had an interesting Sutton story in it yesterday. Instead of taking the Old Testament approach suggested in my title, a group of inter-denominational church-goers have got together to act as "Street Pastors" in Sutton High Street on a Friday and Saturday night.

Rather than preaching to them about the error of their ways as some may assume, they are there to 'do what it says on the tin' and offer pastoral assistance. Their bags contain flip-flops to help keep girls upright and thermal blankets for those hitting the chilly air whilst dressed up for a hot, sweaty club.

I have met a few of these Street Pastors in their day jobs and spoken to one pair whilst they were on duty - No, I wasn't in need of flip-flops or assistance:) - and I am pleased that they are there. We don't have enough police officers to cover the drinking holes in Sutton as well as the rest of the borough so initiatives like this should be encouraged. That is not to say that this should be to the exclusion of tackling those people whose night out turns to causing trouble and violence. Such a concentration of pubs and clubs at the top of Sutton may contain the situation in one area but it also makes it a no-go area for many.