Archive for July, 2009

Expenses, Swine Flu and Domestic Violence

July 28, 2009

Andrew Duffield (Lib-Dem) had a letter published in The Hexham Courant a couple of weeks ago setting out his position on MP’s expenses claims. Many MPs and candidates are offering competing positions on what they will claim and disclose if elected and, in the light of recent events, this is no bad thing. Andrew offered a direct challenge to the other candidates to state their positions. I replied promptly but, as of last Friday, the reply had not been published. Here it is:
The political world is alive with the sound of MPs and candidates scrambling for the moral high ground. Mr. Andrew Duffield (letters, Courant 10th July 2009) makes a very fair bid for public approval. I am happy to equal or exceed any undertaking to which other local candidates commit themselves.

My challenge to the other candidates is this: Please disclose the full details of the true original source of any and all party resources which are expended in the total course of your campaign.

Or, more simply: who begged what sums of money out of which rich people and in exchange for what actual or unspoken future favours/peerages/etc.? The main parties, lacking significant membership, are effectively broke or afloat on “loans” and “donations”. You don’t get owt for nowt!

Are Hexham’s constituents happy to have their opinions and elections influenced in this way? What we need is a clean, new, democratic class of politicians, not more of the same tainted politics of the past – about which we now know almost too much to bear.

By contrast, my campaign is fully self-funded. Nobody will be asked for money, donations have not and will not be accepted. This candidate is clean and free of all actual or potential conflicting interests. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the generous support that I have received and the work of the growing band of volunteers – you can never have too many volunteers and all are welcomed.

It would be illuminating to know where all the money is coming from for the other lot – wouldn’t it?
Last Saturday a large cheerful crowd turned up at Tynedale FM for a programme of music and local events information – the whole thing organised by the tireless Hilary Carter and hosted by Hans Berges on turntables. Silva quizzed the early participants about Slaley Fair amongst other things.
I offered a summary of current Swine Flu advice;
• Don’t Panic!
• Sudden cough and temperature are common, as are all the usual other flu-like symptoms
• Stay at home if you have symptoms
• Rest, fluids and paracetamol as first aid
• Use the web (www.nhs.uk) and phone line (0800 1 513 513) for help
• Ring for help early if in the risk groups – old, young, pregnant or with existing illness
• Don’t go to hospital or your doctor’s health centre unless instructed to do so
• Do have a flu friend to fetch and carry for you
• Catch it – Bin it – Kill it! Keep your secretions to yourself!
Tynedale FM has attracted a lot of support. Let’s hope it gets its next license soon.
The sad case of Amy Leigh Barnes, murdered by her boyfriend, after enduring an abusive relationship for some time, high lights the sad fact that domestic violence remains very common. We really need to be doing more about this.
There are many sources of advice, guidance and refuge nationally but only one that I have been able to locate close to Hexham is: Cease24 – speak to Steph Golder on 01665606881
Also try:

http://www.refuge.org.uk/
http://www.womensaid.org.uk/
angela.dixon@cheviothomes.co.uk – for Northumberland
This is a service that we need to have close to every population centre.

Space – the next frontier, pubs closing and the price of alcohol, parliament is in recess.

July 23, 2009

It’s not all manned exploration, derring-do by lantern jawed heroes and zapping Klingons. The real-life commercial and scientific opportunities offered by the exploration and exploitation of space are very diverse and yet not widely discussed or sufficiently understood. The British commercial space sector has been growing steadily at 9% for years, three times the rate of the economy generally – it is one of our country’s major success stories. Within a decade it will have more than doubled its contribution to our GDP, from £6.5 billion to £14.2 billion by 2020.
UK space R&D takes 5% of revenue from the sector, three times the average for industry but the payback period is measured in decades.
The north east has already contributed appreciably to the sector and further developments are to be strongly encouraged. We need to get a much larger proportion of the space effort and budget into our region. This is the sort of extremely high tech future towards which we must progress as fast as we can go. We have excellent academic institutions, we have an active manufacturing sector, we have a work force, we have a major opportunity here and we should seize it.
In the same week that it is reported that 52 pubs are closing each week we have also seen the picture of the 22 year old lad who died of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Almost everybody enjoys a drink but it is undeniable that, for some people, alcohol seriously disrupts their lives and an increasing number are dying too. How did we get into this situation? What can we do about it?
There is a direct connection between the price of alcohol and the rate at which it is consumed. At present alcohol is as cheap as it has ever been and the problems associated with it are greater than they have ever been and worsening. Minimum prices for alcoholic drinks have been proposed but I think that that is too unimaginative an approach. I would prefer to see the price of drink be directly related to the amount of alcohol in it – so many pence per gram of alcohol. Using this approach there would be cheap and expensive beers, cheap and expensive wines, cheap and expensive alcopops – the customer would have a choice. It would be possible to have an affordable night out, a few rounds of drinks and no hangover.
Though change is occurring, another aspect of being sociable and going to the pub is that pubs are still usually heavily orientated toward the sale and consumption of alcohol. Changing the pub culture further, towards being a place where everyone can be sociable together without having to consume alcohol for preference, has much to recommend it. An environment such as that portrayed in Friends perhaps, with a bar and a lounge-like ambience – company, relaxation, food, coffee, chat and perhaps booze sometimes, rather than every time.
Other countries do the relationship with alcohol so much better than we do – but we can change, we can do better too and you don’t have to suffer cripplingly heavy alcohol taxation – unless you drink a great deal of alcohol all the time, of course. Tax on alcohol is a voluntary tax, it is completely avoidable.
For the next few weeks the activities of politicians and parliament are going to be on the backburner. All our elected representatives are away from Westminster ‘til October. This doesn’t mean that our problems will have gone away but the febrile press coverage will subside for a while. Hurrah!
The Party Conference season will then be upon us. This will be the chance for the parties to disclose their plans in preparation for the election. At present they are all, especially the Conservatives, saying very little specific about policy. When the conference season comes, see if you can spot a real, definite, cut’n’dried policy – I bet you won’t find one. Are you sure you can trust a party that does not tell you what you might be voting for? Just changing the party in power every few years is not enough, we need a wholesale change in political culture in the UK and that requires a change in representation in Westminster. A very large number of Independents would be just right, for example.

Lord’s reform, public spending cuts and ‘various locals’.

July 20, 2009

Reform of the House of Lords has been endlessly looked at, attempted, fiddled with and deferred by both parties. Various combinations of elected and appointed peers have been suggested. ‘People’s peers’ have been suggested. Even now, as we approach the second decade of the 21st century there are still 92 hereditary peers.
Reform of the Lords will not do, it must be abolished in its entirety. Our present system of government is a positive hindrance to a nation embarking on as much change and adaptation as we are going to face this century.
We need a clean sheet redesign to permit agile, dynamic, responsive, innovative and clean government.
My preferred option is a unicameral (one chamber-) triaxial (-composed of three elements) system in which all members are elected, the public has direct continuous involvement, the constructive collaborative engagement of all is required and rewarded and the composition of the chamber is changed by Single Transferable Vote elections for one of the axes every two years.
See: http://stevenford.co.uk/government.html  for fuller details of my proposal.
The nation’s finances are in such a dire state that public spending is going to have to be cut and taxes raised – or maybe something more adventurous and forward looking should be done. The massive debts we now bear, £799 billion, are so great that the UK is in some danger of having its credit rating lowered, which would make the interest on the debt financing even more onerous.
Total departmental spending in 2007/8 was £586.35 billion, of which the two largest components are the Department for Work and Pensions (£137.7 billion) and the Department of Health (£105.7 billion). Debt interest was £29.9 billion.
What would I cut?
Replacing Trident would be very costly, even if firm figures are hard to come by. £100 billion up to 2050 has been quoted in The Telegraph in 2007. If we are to remain a nuclear armed country then cruise missiles would represent a much cheaper, more flexibly deployable and less easily pre-empted option. Let’s take a figure of £25 billion saved – to be on the conservative side.
ID cards are of uncertain value in their present form, either in terms of their resistance to counterfeiting or deterrence of crime. We should await the development of more resilient technologies. The ability to determine a person’s identity on demand has obvious benefits in many situations but it will be much better to get the project right first time. The savings from abandoning or deferring the scheme vary according to who you ask – let’s take a middle range figure of £2 billion. The savings I would hope to gain are not only monetary.
The NHS ‘market’ is a ruinously expensive method of providing healthcare and also is in absolute conflict with the inherently collaborative, coherent and constructive nature of the processes of care. Taking the transaction costs of the USA system as a guide, approximately 15-25%, we discover an immediate bonus for the NHS of, say, £20 billion. This could be taken either as reducing the need for future increased health spending whilst maintaining current service levels or as a smaller overall spend now. It is worth noting that the largest single element in those USA transaction costs is used to fund ways and means of refusing payments to claimants.
The Private Finance Initiative has been one of the most audacious frauds on the British public in recent times. Buying out the existing health related PFI schemes alone would save £2.4 billion.
The personal and corporate tax regimes are notoriously complicated and evasion prone. A £16+ billion annual transaction cost of the present system is at the low end of the range of estimates. If we take £500 billion as a ballpark figure of current or recent past annual tax receipts then the potential scale of the savings available from radical simplification of the entire tax regime becomes apparent. In addition to which, the savings on accountancy charges for individuals and companies would be a welcome bonus.
See: http://stevenford.co.uk/tax.html for a fuller discussion of my tax plans.
If implemented, I believe my plans would give scope for a reduction in personal and corporate taxes soon, if not immediately. All the usual parties are grudgingly starting to outline tax raising options; they should take another look at radical reform instead. When additional tax raising powers are required I would prefer to start with ‘double dividend’ arrangements, such as increased ‘sin’ taxes – the most obvious of which in our present environmental difficulties would be carbon taxation. This is, in effect, voluntary taxation – no one has to pay it, unless they indulge in whatever is targeted by the tax.
In an earlier blog I mentioned the recent Tynedale FM question time. Opperman, I subsequently discover, is experimenting with an interesting approach to the eternal dilemma of how to win friends and influence people in a far off land. In his blog account of the recent local radio question time, to which all candidates were invited, I found myself described as ‘various locals’. Saucy pup!

I shall wear the moniker with pride – it says so much about his view of all of us – constituents and candidates alike.  We shall know when this Tory strategy has really hit pay dirt because the Grands Fromages of the Conservative party will appear in Hexham loudly declaring an undying and previously wholly unsuspected concern for all things pertaining to Hexham.

Political reform, assisted suicide and local markets

July 20, 2009

The broadcast and published media and the blogosphere are alive with ideas for reforming politics. The expenses scandal, the policy vacuum from both major parties, the recession, the AfPak debacle and so much more are all pointers toward an urgent need for root and branch reform. The existing political class cannot and will not take the necessary action, whether from an instinctive self-preservation or inability to grapple with the issue.
Amongst the better contributions is this:
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-seven-ways-we-could-reform-our-broken-political-system-1750027.html
Which in turn refers to this:
http://www.opendemocracy.net/blog/ourkingdom-theme/anthony-barnett/2009/07/09/from-anger-into-change
The continuing problems in Westminster are a challenge to the electorate and an invitation to reform. Will we take this opportunity or will we vote for more of the same? At least in Hexham there will be a true choice – an Independent.
The assisted suicide or Sir Edward and Lady Downes at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland has occupied many column inches in the press in recent days. Coming, as it does, so close to the recent Lords debate that resulted in a measure intended to liberalise the law in the UK being defeated, the news lends urgency to the need for reform.
I am completely confident that a law can be framed that permits the proper exercise of individual autonomy. Both those who choose maximum medical effort to preserve life at all costs and those who wish to choose the time, place and manner of their passing must be accommodated – surely this cannot be impossible?
Doctors too are divided on the issue. The legislation will need to be framed to accommodate their wishes. The question must also be asked; does it have to be a doctor who provides the assistance?
Who should be involved in such a decision? The individual, obviously, but whom else? A doctor who knows the person’s history, a doctor who is independent, a lawyer, a judge, an impartial third party, a committee of some sort…? This and many other questions remain to be debated and decided.
Contemplating one’s own death is a potentially unsettling experience but better to have given it some thought and informed appropriate family and friends than to leave it to them to sort things out when you can no longer contribute to the discussion. Even your closest relative or friend may get the answer wrong and that, presumably, would be the last thing that you would want – literally.
In the Hexham constituency we are blessed with many local produce markets. Not only are these prize-winning but they are the way of the future. Local produce for local people! The food is excellent. The food miles are minimal. The local economy benefits. People have the opportunity to take an interest in what they are eating.
Support local growers and producers – shop in your local market.

HBHS Eco building and unemployment

July 19, 2009

Haydon Bridge High School had a major presentation of their new Eco-School scheme this evening. It was absolutely fascinating. The students have been studying all aspects of sustainable energy and sustainable building and have laid out the parameters for a new block for the school. The new block will have extremely high levels of insulation, a wind turbine and large passive solar gain. Not only that, it looks good too.
John Dowler, the energetic headmaster, showed me where the new block is to be – the site is currently occupied by the old green houses. This is almost central to the school.
A £1million grant has been won to build the new block and substantially upgrade the energy performance of the existing 60’s style system build campus.
One wonders if the replacement of existing school buildings that was mentioned by the Labour administration will survive the coming spending cuts. Haydon Bridge deserves a brand new school campus. It serves an immense catchment area and has done so very well for many years.
Unemployment is now 2.38 million – the largest quarterly increase since comparable records began in 1971. Will politicians wake up to the need for stable long term economic planning? Will the need for diversity in the economy be recognised and acted upon? Will the limits to globalisation be acknowledged and the social and environmental costs be factored in to the economic planning process? This latest bulge in unemployment is a direct consequence of the banking crisis and associated chaos in the money markets and is itself a direct consequence of the failure of the Anglo-American unregulated free-market model of global capitalism – unleashed by Reagan and Thatcher and accelerated by Blain and Brown. It’s definitely time for a change but both of the largest players are equally guilty – time for Independent candidates to leaven the mix in parliament.

Egger, brown bins and recycling

July 19, 2009

The plans to expand Egger, Europe’s most advanced particle board factory, have met with some disapproval but all of the concerns can be addressed.

The economic future of the Hexham constituency is closely tied in with land based businesses of all descriptions – including forestry. Simply growing things is not enough; we have to add value to the product to get maximum economic return into the area. Egger is simply the largest example of the type. In this very rural constituency the largest future economic potential lies in growing food, energy and industrial raw materials. Handled correctly, our economic future can be brilliant. If special steps are required to make that future happen and meet the concerns of residents, then we should take those steps

Large factories can be made to disappear completely. Building camouflage was developed to a very high degree in WW2. The planners could insist on much greater degrees of concealment without excessive expense. The tree planting schemes will, naturally, take years to work.

The plume over the factory is only steam and need not be a source of anxiety.

Our brown bin is paid for and used all the time for those materials that will not compost in the garden. If it had been my decision I would not have levied the £20 extra fee this year. The sums raised and the number of households paying seems to have made the whole exercise rather futile and made improving things in the future that bit more difficult. Recycling is an area in which the UK has a great distance to go to catch up our European neighbours – we must improve our performance.

A proportion of our rubbish can be reused, some can be composted, some can be made into fuels and some can be burnt to generate power. At the end of the process, there should be almost nothing left – and consequently almost nothing to go into landfill.

To encourage recycling we should introduce avoidable charges. The more efficient each household is at sorting its rubbish, the less it pays in collection charges.

Renewable energy, PFI and Tynedale FM

July 17, 2009

At last, there is news of a movement towards making renewables more widely employed in both domestic and industrial settings, possibly by April 2010. Whether the entrenched opposition within the Civil Service will prevent us making up the lost ground on, for example, Germany remains to be seen. Apparently the nuclear lobby has been unduly influential on Civil Servants.

This coincides with the arrival in the post today of my planning permission for a wind turbine. We anticipate that this will generate almost twice our normal consumption and, with reduced bills, the feed-in tariff and Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) should pay off the cost of installation in less than a decade. Energy prices are inevitably going to rise in the years ahead and so the payback period may be even shorter still.

As I have commented on the website, I find more and more people who are pleased by the appearance of wind turbines. Today I have been to visit an owner in the West Allen Valley and stood right next to the machine in a moderate wind – the noise from the wind in the trees nearby was much louder. We sat and had tea outdoors less than sixty metres from the spinning machine and, as I knew would be the case, heard absolutely nothing.

The solar thermal panels that we had installed a few weeks ago have been working so well that, even with four people in the house having daily showers, the boiler has only fired for a few minutes to top up the tank temperature on a couple of days.

On the health front, I see that Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) may be for the chop. Lord Darzi has hinted as much. This has to be a good thing in all fields, not just health. Not only should the scheme be ended but the existing contracts should be extinguished as quickly as possible in order to save money.

On Saturday I met Guy Opperman for the first time. All four candidates had been invited by Tynedale FM to come in for a question time that will be broadcast on Tuesday. Antoine Tinnion and Andrew Duffield were represented by senior members of their respective local groups. The programme seemed to go well and covered a good range of topics, not surprisingly brown bins sent a certain amount of blood and fur flying.

Opperman was particularly strong in his opposition to ID cards. My own position is that the currently proposed cards seem to be an insufficiently developed technology and for that reason alone should be deferred. Before long the technology will be available to make establishing your identity on demand far simpler and more secure. We should wait a while and get it right first time.

Steven