Archive for November, 2007

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Des Browne and multi tasking

25 November, 2007

Des is missing the point: it is not that those of us in the service community feel he could be doing more ( I am not privy to the conversations he has with the Treasury or Number 10, but I suspect that he argues our case pretty forcefully), it is that Gordon Brown apparently doesn’t think that being Defence Secretary is one of the great offices of State.

Perception is everything: we all know that, on taking up residence in Number 10, Gordon Brown was concerned about the tartan colour of the cabinet. He knew that Des was doing a pretty good job at defence, but couldn’t afford another Scot in the Cabinet as SoS for Scotland, so decided to combine the roles.

As Julia Roberts said so memorably in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake, huge.” Not only has he given the services the impression that they only merit a ‘part-time’ secretary of state, he has sent the same message out to the Scots, thus playing into Alex Salmond’s hands and running the risk of alienating his bedrock support.

I confess that I am no expert on the configuration of a cabinet, and the mutual antipathy between Alex Salmond and Douglas Alexander might have precluded his continuing at the Scotland Office, but a PM with almost 40 Scottish MPs (who is capable of creating three entirely new departments, splitting one and abolishing another altogether) can surely manage to find someone to do this less-than-onerous, but still politically important job?

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Darling and Brown – New Labour’s answer to Laurel and Hardy

21 November, 2007

Is it just me, or do others see Oliver Hardy every time Gordon Brown takes the floor? I can hear it now, “That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into, Darling.” And oh, how like Stan Laurel is our present Chancellor: an innocent victim of circumstance, he would have it, let down by the incompetence of others, none of it his fault.

Well, not quite, but, as he is merely the boot boy, a great deal of the blame must lie with his lord and master: once a Titan at the Treasury, he now raises a feeble hand, like Canute, unable to command the tide of blunders and crises that threaten to engulf him.

What I, and millions of other recipients of Child Benefit, would like to know (telephone conversation with sister today centred entirely around the possibility of someone’s using our details for identity theft) is why on earth anyone was able to download the database at all, let alone send it via snail mail.

All this talk of ‘procedures’ that weren’t followed is missing the point: it should have been physically impossible for this junior civil servant to copy such data – in my last job, systems security was so tight that I wasn’t able to alter the settings on my printer, it had to be done remotely by the IT manager. 

What is more, why is someone so junior even allowed access to, allowed to view, my bank account details? How much is he or she paid? How much would it take to bribe him or her to copy down relevant details and sell them? How easy would it be for an organised criminal gang to have one of their own apply for a relatively junior IT job in one of our big departments of state?

It’s terrifying.

Forget following procedures: such data should not be visible to any Tom, Dick or Harry who works in HMRC: are we to assume that the cleaners can look over anyone’s shoulder and make notes of details on the screen in front of them?

Gordon Brown can’t glower and say that it wisnae his fault, it wis an ijit in ra Treasury whit done it: ensuring proper systems security was very much his bag baby, when he was Chancellor.

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We need more generals like Sir Richard

21 November, 2007

I am uncomfortably aware that I can bore for Europe on the subject of Defence, but every time Mike Jackson takes to the air, I grind my teeth.

I confess that I was always underwhelmed by him, although my husband advised me to keep my opinion fairly quiet when we moved to Colchester (home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, where all berets are red, and Gen Jackson was a bit of a legend) in 2004, but, I am glad to say that, within a year, my view prevailed. I don’t know a soldier who doesn’t feel let down by Jackson’s tenure as Chief of the General Staff.

What irks everyone is that he kept his powder dry while in office, unwilling to criticise his political masters openly, only to do so as soon as he left (and had a book to publicise…)

All the hot air in the world about ‘using the proper channels’ won’t satisfy an army that feels undervalued and overstretched.  What soldiers want is to know that someone, somewhere, is fighting their corner where it counts, which is why General Sir Richard Dannat is now a bally hero in the field army.

Forget the pompous musings of armchair critics and retired Colonel Buffington Trumpingtons about keeping things ‘within the Chain of Command’, Richard Dannat has inspired those who matter: serving soldiers.

I’ve been around soldiers for 15 years now and never known junior soldiers to be aware of ‘CGS’ as the Chief of the General Staff is known: their most awe inspiring figure is that of the RSM; if CGS visits their regiment or battalion, they will be told to mind their manners, or the RSM will have them later.

But not now: now all the junior soldiers I speak to know the name of General Dannat, for he has spoken up publicly in their defence; he has done what a senior commander should do, and put their welfare before his career or public embarrassment for the government.

Surely his leadership serves as a paradigm for any officer in HM Armed Forces.

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Fortress Britain

15 November, 2007

Or so the Telegraph headline has it today. I am aware that I should now include a hyperlink to the article, but I haven’t read the instructions on how to do that yet, and I am rushing to go out – another time. Of course, I could also ask one of my techno gurus: husband; brother; brother-in-law (how depressing that they are all male) to show me how.

Back to the fortress. I am aware that the security threats we face today make some extra security measures necessary, and I suppose it is only sensible to build structures in future that will absorb the blast from IEDs, but I can’t deny that I was conscious of a feeling of depression yesterday that it had come to this in Britain. Bad news on the economy and more disruption for travellers.

It is more than that, however: it is the open acknowledgement that life has changed, and not for the better. We need to balance individual liberty against protecting our citizens, no one can doubt that, but are we going too far? I have been shouting at the television for years, calling for telephone intercept evidence to be acceptable in court: how much better to have a few people targeted than all of us inconvenienced, but I share Admiral Lord West’s stated reservations on the Today programme about the need for an extension to the 28 days’ detention without charge.

He called himself ‘a simple sailor’, but you don’t get to be First Sea Lord if you’re simple, believe me. No, what he said in the morning was what he felt. How sad then, that he allowed himself to be pressured into retraction later.

I know that the Police are arguing for an extension, but a liberal democracy is wise not to be ruled by its police force: they are there to serve communities, not decide policy.

And then there is the question of who is to blame for the current situation.

 Messrs Blair and Brown, and the rest of New Labour, that’s who. It was their craven unwillingness in the early days of their government to take on the radicals who were preaching hate outside (and inside) our mosques that allowed such pernicious seeds to be sown here in the first place. My Muslim friends have always maintained that the moderate majority would have been only too pleased to see these people shown the door, but New Labour wouldn’t risk it.

Add to that the unwisdom of the invasion of Iraq and you have the situation we face today. I am not arguing that Iraq gave rise to al-Qaeda: we all know that al-Qaeda was around long before 2003, but its targets were American – either directly or abroad, but its focus was on the US.

In choosing precipitate action against Saddam, instead of taking the time necessary to build coalitions and bring the UN on board (which would have happened eventually, but might have needed a year of pressure), we moved the crosshairs squarely on to us.

We have allowed a loose grouping of dogmatic murderers to claim our action in the Middle East as a war against Islam, and recruit accordingly.

(I am aware that the Tories voted for the invasion, but I didn’t agree with that decision at the time, and still don’t: I don’t disapprove of the desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein, just how did so.)

John Reid always argued that al-Qaeda’s enemy was the West, not just the US and UK, but, if that is the case, why aren’t there these security measures in Oslo, or Stockholm, or even Paris? Norway, as Alex Salmond is so fond of telling us, is a small, oil-rich nation, so why is it not the target of international terrorism?

Why us? That is the question that no one in the government is truly happy to answer.

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Prescription charges

15 November, 2007

Surely I can’t be the only person in Scotland who feels that she is able to afford to pay for her (already heavily-subsidised) prescriptions.

I applaud the Scottish Government’s determination to improve the nation’s health, but I feel that the £97 million it will cost could be better spent.

My own feeling is that children, pensioners, pregnant women and those on benefit (including Working Families’ Tax Credit – to help those on lower incomes) should be exempt from prescription charges, but solicitors, doctors, fund managers? Why on earth should people who earn decent money not pay something towards the cost of their prescriptions?

I know that the argument is the same for Child Benefit: universal benefit is easier to administer, but should prevention, not cure, be our focus? What are the statistics for people not obtaining their medicine and using it because of cost? And to what extent does it really impact on the nation’s health?

 There are no mothers out there who don’t collect their children’s prescription for those reasons: children are exempt from prescription charges already, as are those on income support and incapacity or disability benefit, so who is the Government intending to target with this measure, and how will we judge its success?

Healthy and inviting primary school meals (it’s too late by the time they are teenagers), plus the re-introduction of cookery in schools, will do a great deal more for our future health than more prescription drugs.

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Landslips and hospices

5 November, 2007

One of the stranger days I’ve had so far, as a candidate:

 Firstly, a drive through glorious autumn sunshine to Arrocahr, to the site of the recent landslip on the Rest and Be Thankful. It seemed ridiculous to me that, in a country where we have considerable rain fall, a weekend’s rain should close a road for days.

I contacted some of Scotland’s leading experts in civil engineering and slope management, and learned that, as is always the case, there is no easy answer that doesn’t involve a lot of money. I spoke to Prof Andrew Sloan, who made me aware of the Scottish Road Network Landslides Study, commissioned by Nicol Stephen in the wake of the 2004 landslides, and published in 2005. After downloading it from the Scottish Government publications website, I noted, with interest, that 29km of the Rest and be thankful had been named – along with 9 other stretches of road – as ‘High Hazard’ areas.

It was decided, however, that remedial action would prove too expensive, so the study has been shelved.

Not good enough: these roads are lifeline routes, and it is down to luck that no one was killed in the most recent incident.

Jamie McGrigor and I met with representatives of TranServ, to view the size of the task in hand. The company is working all out to make the road safe (they had a team out at 4am on Saturday, working hard to clear the debris and shore up the downside of the slope), but TranServ’s Business Manager was at pains to stress that there is no projected timescale for re-opening the road: it is still far too dangerous. carolyn-and-jamie-at-landslip2.jpg

Surveying the site, it is sobering to see the damage that has been done and to realise that much of the slope is still moving and could come down at any minute. TranServe is attempting a ground-breaking method (sorry – Jamie’s pun, not mine) to bring down the rest of the matter, pumping water up the hill, to soak the ground and precipitate a controlled slip of the rest of the material.

Here’s hoping it works and the road is open again as soon as possible, but they still have to make the downside safe, before it will be open to traffic. For up-to-the-moment progress reports, check the Traffic Scotland website at www.trafficscotland.org

Then it was out of my fetching luminous yellow trousers (tied up, if you but knew it by a piece of twine from Jamie’s pocket) and off to the Rhu and Shandon Women’s Guild Charity Tea, in aid of the Children’s Hospice Association Scotland (CHAS). The Guild supports its two chosen charities (CHAS and Cancer Research) on alternate years.

CHAS supports children with life-limiting or life-threatening illness and their families, providing respite and palliative care  facilities in Scotland. Ewan McGregor is a supporter and visited Robin House hospice in Alexandria during his ‘Long Way Down’ journey for the BBC.

To find out more about this worthwhile charity, visit the website at www.chas.org.uk

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Gordon Brown is the moon to Tony’s sun

2 November, 2007

Poor old Gordon Brown; it’s just so unfair. Despite having had his finger in every one of the Government’s pies for the past ten years, he has been trying his hardest to distance himself from Tony and Be His Own Man.

It seemed to be working for the first 100 days, but suddenly, he is losing his lustre.

Undeniably clever, Gordon appeared to shine too when Tony was in Number 10, but now that the brightest star in the Labour firmament has gone, we become aware that Gordon was merely illuminated by reflected light from the supernova next door.

He has been left casting around for new ideas and trying to achieve momentum for his adminsistration.

Sadly, many of the new ideas have blown up in his face, and, such is the lack of momentum, that Parliament has had to be given this week off  and a further week next year, as the Government has run out of legislation to be put before it.

Running out of steam so soon (after all, Gordon’s had ten years to prepare for his take over): not something you could accuse the stellar Mr Blair of doing.