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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.

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Clawing back money from schools

31 October, 2007

Goodness me, how many more policy announcements is Gordon Brown’s government going to overturn? In a matter of weeks, we have had the scrapping of plans for a national road-pricing scheme, a re-think on the 18% flat rate capital gains tax and now the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, announcing that plans to allow Whitehall to claw back money from schools (saved by prudent head teachers for future projects) are to be abandoned.

 ‘Well, hurrah!’ as Bertie Wooster might say. But, if ministers keep on rowing back in such style, they’ll stand a good chance of qualifying for the coxed eight at the Beijing Olympics.

Apparently not everyone is pleased about the change of heart on raiding the school piggy banks: Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers’ union, NASUWT, is apparently ‘disappointed’ by the decision, and feels that pupils in other schools will be short changed.

Um, no.

 I have first-hand experience of just what happens in schools if they fear their budget might be cut the following year. They spend the money, not on what they need, but on anything at all, in order to guarantee the same level of income, ‘just in case’.

I call it the Cautionary Tale of the Ice-cream Maker. I returned home in 1987, having spent almost a year as a teaching assistant in Germany, full of enthusiasm for the country, and a confirmed evangelist for recycling (which I still am). However, I had been profoundly shocked when, one evening in January, my landlady came home with a large catalogue (she was Head of Domestic Science at a one of Nuremberg’s world-leading vocational schools) and announced that she and I ‘had to spend DM 2000 that night’. “But why?” I wanted to know, “because I haven’t spent my whole budget this year, and, if I have any surplus, it will be reduced next year.”

And so we leafed our way through: it was a dispiriting exercise.

Me: “Ice-cream maker?”

Bettina: “Got three.”

Me: “Another food mixer?”

Bettina: “Seven”

Me: (a little desperate now) “Bain Marie?”

Bettina: “Yes, it’s a possible; I don’t have as many of those.”

It was a farce. In the end, we ordered a great deal of new equipment that she didn’t need (including another ice-cream maker), which would simply lie and gather dust. The frustration for Bettina was that her class was expanding, and what she really wanted was a bigger classroom, but the school didn’t have the money for that level of captial funding, which would have to come from the State. If only they could save money every year, she confided, the school would be able to afford her bigger classroom.

Well, she had the equipment for it.

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Immigration and education

31 October, 2007

In his speech on Monday, David Cameron broached the subject of immigration, laying out the demographic challenges facing Britain today and how best to meet them and underlining his desire for Britain to engage in a ‘grown-up’ conversation about the issue.

Unlike his predecessor, he was not charged with playing the race card either by the press, or the Labour Party. How times change.

No one can doubt the economic benefit to Britain of the influx of skilled workers over the last ten years, but perhaps the most important question that arises from yesterday’s revelation that over half of the new jobs created in Britain since 1997 have gone to foreign nationals, is why these countries seem capable of producing young people with the skills British business needs, but we aren’t.  

What often impresses me most is the fluency with which so many skilled migrants to Britain speak English. In the Asda car park in Colchester (where I lived for three years, before moving back to Scotland in August), a young Kosovan has set up his own car valeting business. True, it is staffed by his friends and relations, all of whom share accommodation to keep profits at a maximum, but it didn’t matter what time of day I visited the supermarket, Mike and his friends were always, always working. I never once saw any of them standing chatting to each other. And the business grew.

OK, so I might have played a small part, as I raved to every mother at the school gate and every army family I spoke to about the level of the car valeting service – so reasonable too, just £10 for the Full Monty; how I miss it – but what struck me forcibly was that Mike, who in April 2006 spoke fairly broken English, had become fluent and assured by the following year.

I realized, with a jolt, that he, who had spent just over a year in the UK, now spoke more intelligible English than some of the young people I had listened to on the News, talking about the spate of gun killings this summer; young people who have spent 13 years in our education system.

With over a million young people in Britain not in employment, education or training, despite vast sums of our money having been spent on welfare and education, we need to ask ourselves if the Labour government has given us value for that money. 

Last week’s Channel 4 series, Lost for Words, laid bare how much damage has been done to our children’s prospects by ditching traditional teaching methods in reading: if our children can’t even read by the time they go to secondary school, what chance have they of learning any of the other skills needed by business today?    When more of our young people leave school with the skills they need to fill the job vacancies, then British business will have less need to look abroad, and the net result will be a natural reduction in immigration figures. 

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Douglas Alexander and Hopper

25 October, 2007

Forget Keyser Soze in ‘The Usual Suspects’, for my money Kevin Spacey’s real tour de force is the part of Hopper, the megalomaniac leader of the grasshoppers, in Disney Pixar’s ‘A Bug’s Life’.

I imagine that those of you with fairly young children are familiar with this multi-layered tale of insect oppression, teamwork and the benefit to communities of harnessing modern technology (but use it wisely, kids, etc.); for those who aren’t, well, “it’s a circle of life kinda thing.”

When Princess Atta, second-in-command of the ant colony, stammers that she isn’t responsible for a recent debacle, Hoppper, forestalls her: “First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.” 

The protests of Des Browne, Douglas Alexander and the PM himself, that the buttock-clenchingly embarrassing pigs’ mess that was made of the Scottish Elections last year ‘wisnae their fault’ will fall on deaf ears. Only the Scotland Office was able to take the final decisions: if it had all gone swimmingly, would they have been queuing up to share the plaudits?

I doubt it. 

It would appear that a cartoon cricket has a better understanding of what leadership entails than some of our most senior politicians.

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Managing the Post Office into decline

25 October, 2007

OK, so people in rural villages in Argyll will be reassured by Tuesday’s announcement, but there are still many elderly people who will be left inconvenienced by the closure of 7 Post Offices in our towns.

It’s not just the relationship that the more vulnerable in our society build with their local sub-postmaster/postmistress, (although that, in itself, can make the difference between companionship and long-term lonliness), it is the help and advice that is available to those who have difficulty with our ever-increasing bureaucracy.

How ironic that, in the week that Channel 4 focuses on the 25% of our 11-year olds who leave primary school illiterate, it will be adults with reading difficulties who stand to lose most from these closures: few of them have access to the internet, let alone the confidence to carry out business online; many shy away from telephone banking for the same reason.

For those who struggle with literacy, their local, trusted sub-post office can be a godsend: somewhere where they can get help with form filling without having to ask a stranger.

Talking to sub-postmasters and postmistresses recently, what unites them all is the sense of grievance that this government has taken away all of their business, but refused to replace it with anything else.

Take TV licences. No longer available from Post Offices. That in itself is bad enough, but not to allow Post Offices to install PayPoint outlets, which have replaced the Post Office as the alternative means of buying a licence, is the outside of enough.

I note, with interest, that the TV licensing website mentions that PayPoint is available in “newsagents, convenience stores, supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations”, but the Post Offices I have spoken to have all been denied the opportunity to install PayPoint.

 We must ensure that crucial services – like our Post Offices – are no longer managed into decline by this relentlessly metropolitan Labour government.