Thursday, 28 February 2013

Hotline To God


When I was taught religious education at a Catholic school - many years ago now - I was told that the His Holiness the Pope spoke directly to God.

Now all the other Cardinals, Monsignors and Priests - and whatnot - were and are also very holy and all 'good men' - except the ones who abused young boys and others in their care - or played a part in later in covering-up these terrible incidents, of course.

But now that we're going to have two Popes - one retired (Emeritus Pope) and one about to be 'selected' by the conclave of Cardinals - I have a question.

Will there in future be one Papal hotline to God or two - to take account of the new and different circumstances in 2013?

I favour two because the Catholic Church is in such a mess these days - that I think you could fairly say that two heads would be better than one.

Although on the other hand if every Cardinal was able to 'phone a friend' in times of need - it might have kept some of them out of trouble - by avoiding bad decisions and inappropriate behaviour . 

Now if I remember my religious education properly, Catholic children were always taught that the Pope was infallible - because his Papal actions and decisions were only taken after much prayer and consulting carefully with God.

But I have to say that I can't really buy that idea - because over the centuries Catholic Popes have done so many awful things - in which case they must have acted with God's blessing the faithful are asked to believe. 

For example, by unleashing the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades to the 'Holy Land' or - more recently - by propping up General Franco's fascist regime in Spain between 1936 and 1975 - and by entering into treaties with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany at the start of the Second World War.

So I - for one - don't believe the Pope is infallible - any more than I believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.

And I imagine the world would be a better place if more people thought that way - including many Catholics.

Lest We Forget


Here's another devastating extract from Private Eye's analysis of the Francis Report into Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust.

Lest we forget

"If you only have time to read one Francis report, make it his first independent inquiry, published in February 2010. The stories behind the harm are staggering.

An old man forced to stay on a commode for 55 minutes wearing only a pyjama top; a woman whose legs were 'red raw' because of the effect of her uncleaned faeces; piles of soiled sheets and vomit bowls left at the end of beds, a woman arrived at 10am to find her 96-year old  mother-in-law 'completely naked ... and covered with faeces ....It was in her hair, her nails, her hands and on all the cot sides.....it was literally everywhere and it was dried.'

Another woamn who found her mother with faces under her nails asked for them to be cut, but was told that it was 'not in the nurses' remit to cut patients' nails.

The care was so bad that as many as 1,200 people dued unnecessarily, often in applling conditions. The poor care was known about for years and flagged up by successive mortality data alerts. The problem was that no one acted on the datat or listened to the patients and their relatives. And whistleblowers were threatened with silence. Whoever oversaw such a climate of fear in the NHS has to go"      

Now that's what I calling telling it straight and not pulling your punches - but where is the rest of the great British press and media - in calling senior NHS managers and their political masters to account?

Spineless Jellyfish


The Mayor of London - Boris Johnson - is a colourful character who knows how to deliver a good insult.

Yesterday Boris described members of the London Assembly - to whom he reports as Mayor - as “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies” - which in plain language means spineless jellyfish, I think.

The Mayor's ire was raised because Assembly members voted to bypass their opportunity to question Boris about his budget - which prompted the following comment to the Labour member - Jeanette Arnold - who was in the Chair:

“Are you saying they’re abdicating their duty to scrutinise me? Are you saying they haven’t the guts to put questions to me? Great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies. That’s it. They don’t want to ask me any questions.”

Now the reason the Chair and some other Members wanted to move swiftly on to next business without questioning the Mayor - is that they hoped to take advantage of his deputy's absence.

But the Mayor's deputy - Victoria Borthwick - arrived in the nick of time to scupper the wizard wheeze - leaving Boris to lord it over his spineless jellyfish after his budget was passed.

As it turns out I think the London Mayor might have borrowed this line from me - as I used it in an previous post about Edinburgh Council in February 2011.

Spineless in Edinburgh (19 December 2011)

Readers from Edinburgh continue to send me examples of elected councillors - trying to wash their hands of the City Council's handling of the equal pay debacle.

As regular readers will know - the same council leadership that brought us the Edinburgh trams - is trying to defend the indefensible when it comes to equal pay claims from former APT&C workers - former white collar workers like social care workers, classroom assistants and catering managers.

To be completely fair it's not just the present City Council leadership - because the issue goes back to when Edinburgh was under Labour control - but the present lot are in the driving seat now and need to take responsibility for what is happening.

And what is happening is a disgrace - the City Council's argument (that former APT&C workers have no case) has been soundly thrashed not just once but three times - at the Employment Tribunal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal and in Scotland's highest civil court - the Court of Session - where three senior Scottish judges said that Edinburgh City Council is completely wrong.

In theory the City Council can appeal to the UK Supreme Court - and has until January 2012 to make up its mind - but if it does appeal it will be a complete and a further of time and public money.

In the meantime, the leadership of the City Council is telling people who raise the issue with them - 'nothing to do with me, you'll get a reply from some senior council official who'll answer your questions'.

What a cheek - is this what democracy in Scottish local government has come to - elected councillors hiding behind highly paid council officials - instead of standing up, explaining their views and taking responsibility for their actions?

I would refuse to be fobbed off or take NO - for an answer

So if you get a 'nothing to do with me response, then write back and say how disappointed you are - take the issue up with your own local councillor - and ask them how they can expect your vote in next year's council elections - if people behave in such a spineless manner.

Edinburgh City Council - along with all councils in Scotland - faces local elections in May 2012.

So this is a perfect opportunity to put your own councillor and the City Council leadership on the spot - by asking where they stand.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rewriting History


Much has been said and written this past week - to mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of war in Iraq - but I enjoyed the following piece by David Aaronovitch in The Times.

To my mind he's spot on about the many Westminster politicians who have now re-written history - and carefully positioned themselves as if they were opponents of the decision to invade Iraq.

The only politician whom I remember acting with any principle on the subject was Labour's Robin Cook who - while recognising it was a finely balanced decision - nonetheless resigned his position as Labour's Foreign Secretary.

Not a 'cheep' was heard out of all the other senior Labour figures including the party's present leader - Ed Miliband - who either voted to support the decision in the House of Commons or who were conveniently out of the country at the time.

The decision to intervene in another country's internal affairs is always very difficult - and has met with mixed success over the years.

Armed intervention in the former Yugoslavia stopped mass murder and ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale - and is now widely regarded as the right thing to have done at the time.

Rwanda was a different matter altogether and the failure of the UN and western countries to act - meant that hundreds of thousands of Africans lost their lives in the tribal violence that erupted in that country.

Using force of arms to eject Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and their Taleban protectors out of Afghanistan was a military success - but the country's medieval culture is extremely resistant to change and the Hamid Karzai government seems hopelessly corrupt.  

So Afghanistan must be regarded as a failure - in a wider sense.

In Iraq the jury is still out - the country is broadly divided into spheres of influence which favour the Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and the Iraqi Kurds - but Sunni element is still doing its best to ferment civil war. 

Next door in Syria - with not an American or westerner in sight - over 70,000 people have lost their lives in the past 18 months - as a result of another murderous civil war between Shia and Sunni Muslims. 

As in Libya in 2012 - there are many people urging the UN western powers to intervene in Syria - and that argument is again finely balanced - as the French are finding out in Mali.

Now we know why it was right to invade Iraq

By David Aaronovitch

Ten years after the war began, the country is more secure and democratic. The alternative was Syria on steroids

Public life these days proceeds by anniversaries, mythologies and statistics. So Tuesday is the tenth anniversary of the parliamentary debate that permitted Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Two weeks ago we had the anniversary (for some far more personally significant) of the Great Iraq Demonstration. On March 20 it will be ten years since the invasion began. And I’ll also include, for reasons that will become apparent, March 16, the 25th anniversary of the gassing of the Kurdish/Iraqi town of Halabja.

The public mythologies — the constantly repeated “facts” that are almost certainly wrong or just not facts — include the routine doubling of the numbers on the demo to two million, the assertion that “a million” Iraqis have died violently since the invasion, the repetition of the claim that Tony Blair lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the tacking of the word “illegal” on to the invasion although there has been no such finding by any relevant court.

Such mythologies were scarcely needed to assist an argument against the invasion. Someone like me, who reached the conclusion in the winter of 2002-03 that Saddam Hussein had to be removed by force and argued it in print and in public, has a lot to answer for. By the most trustworthy estimates, 180,000 Iraqis have died, along with more than 4,000 Americans and 179 British military personnel. The financial cost has been staggering, running into trillions of dollars.

Although the power of the US was amply demonstrated by the defeat of Saddam, its reputation was horribly damaged by the occupation. The administration of Iraq was characterised by incompetence and infighting in the Bush Government. The human and public relations catastrophe of Abu Ghraib created the most potent symbols that any anti-American could wish for. And then there were the seemingly casual military brutalities such as the 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad.

There have also been more intangible costs of invasion. I doubt now whether it made much difference to what has happened in Afghanistan, but it has certainly made the West timid and anxious whenever confronted with even the most limited intervention. Iraq, I think, exhausted us.

I continually meet people who have never heard the argument in favour of removing Saddam. Labour supporters of the invasion have all disappeared — the old have had enough and the young maintain the new Ed line (“I was abroad at the time, I didn’t say anything, but I was agin it”). The Tories have reinvented their pre-invasion history to depict themselves as unfortunate dupes of the unscrupulous Blair. Nothing — and I mean nothing — could be farther from the truth. And then there are the vocal “anti-war” demonstrators who believe that Mr Blair is a war criminal who, despite the failures of successive inquiries to indict him, will one day be brought to justice. Maybe, just maybe, when Chilcot reports at the end of the year ...

It is exhausting to revisit some of these arguments. And, actually, redundant. What good can it do? The trouble is that owning the past allows you to own the future. So if the conventional historical view becomes that Iraq was a dreadful error for which nothing at all can be said, that leaches into present and future.

Much of that judgment should be made in Iraq itself. I went there in 2004 and found a country dazed and chaotic. “These years under Saddam have changed the characters and psychology of the people,” a student at Baghdad University told me. “You can’t change it back so quickly.”

In 2006-07 Iraq was almost, but not quite, in a civil war. Then the US “surge” happened, the Sunni minority turned on the jihadis, and life began to improve. In 2006 29,000 people died in Iraq as a result of violence. By last year it was 4,500. By comparison with most countries that’s bad. But in Venezuela, a country of comparable size and ironically much loved by some of those who so hate Mr Blair, there were nearly 22,000 murders in 2012.

In 2010 62 per cent of Iraqis voted in the general election. This falls short of the 100 per cent turnout for the unanimous re-election of Saddam in 2002, but beats two out of three of our most recent general elections. Iraq’s economy is growing at about 11 per cent a year. The last poll I have, taken in April last year, shows 55 per cent of Iraqis optimistic about the economy.

The greatest concerns were lack of jobs and the appalling state of some basic services, such as water and electricity. Worry about security showed high regional variation, being a top concern of nearly half in the western Sunni area, but less than a tenth in Kurdistan. There was an even split on the question “Iraq today is a real democracy”.

Those are the stats. But when historians judge the Iraq war they also have to deal with the counter-factual. What would have happened if the 2003 invasion had never taken place? Would that have been better or worse? And by how much?

That’s why I mentioned Halabja. Saddam was not a Robert Mugabe or a Korean Kim. He was far worse — a terrible blend of external aggression and internal repression. In 1980 he invaded Iran and 400,000 died. In the Eighties he killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds in a genocidal campaign. Both times he used chemical and biological weapons. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait. In 1991 he put down the Shia uprising with up to 50,000 deaths. His refusal to abide by UN resolutions in the next decade led to sanctions that had a terrible impact on Iraqis.

No invasion, and Saddam, or his murderous sons, Qusay and the psychopathic Uday, would still be there. Or not? “No!” object many anti-war people. “Saddam would have been toppled by the Arab Spring! Or there’d have been a coup!”

And I look at Syria — where Assad, the palest version of Saddam, has presided over a repression and a civil war that has killed 70,000 in two years in a country significantly smaller than Iraq. Right now, the unaided Syrian opposition is compromised by extreme jihadis filling the vacuum we have left.

If Saddam had been left unscathed, can one imagine what he might be doing now as Syria implodes? And if he’d been sprung by the Spring, surely Saddam’s civil war would have been Syria on steroids; the conflagration that could have absorbed the region.

We feel more strongly about Iraq, where we intervened and shared the trauma, than about Syria where we didn’t and haven’t. How we’ll judge our response ten years on from the first demonstration in Damascus I have no idea but a great foreboding.

Culpable Homicide


I'm no expert on South African law - but I suspect the term 'culpable homicide' has the same broad meaning the world over.

To me it means that someone accused of culpable homicide has caused another person's death - but has done so without malice or intent.

Now this a sensible aspect of the law although it is subject to abuse - since it is quite common for criminals to argue to argue that their actions were unintentional - that the deceased person  'ran on to the knife', for example.

Or that they fought back against their and died in the struggle - so their death was 'accidental'.

If the dead person was on their own - which is not unusual - then the accused person is often the only witness which can make it more difficult to secure a conviction - without other  evidence capable of undermining the 'accidental' version of events.

Yet in the case of Oscar Pistorious - I fail to see how his defence lawyers managed to keep a straight face when they argued that their client should face only a charge of culpable homicide - and not murder for killing Reeva Steenkamp.

Because even taking Oscar's story at face value - he shot four times through a toilet door a point blank range with a powerful handgun.

Which was clearly a deliberate act and he must have understood the likely consequences - for anyone on the other side.

So even if you swallow Oscar's version of events - his intent was surely to kill the person on the other side of the toilet door - albeit his 'mistake' lay in not realising that the person he was shooting at - was his girlfriend, Reeva.

And that's before anyone starts to look critically at the rest of his incredible story - about shuffling around on his backside allegedly in mortal fear for his life - without noticing that Reeva Steenkamp was not in bed but had got up and gone to use the bathroom.

I'm sure that much more evidence will come out when Oscar finally stands trial - but to my mind Oscar's behaviour and that of his family - has treated Reeva Steenkamp and her family with huge disrespect.         

MPs' Expenses


I see that Nadine ('Mad Nad') Dorries is in the news again - only this time she's complaining about the Parliamentary watchdog (IPSA) for launching an investigation into her expenses.

Now I can't get too worked up about that I have to say - because IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) says it has reason to believe that she might have wrongly claimed travel and accommodation costs.

Well either she did or she didn't - and one way or the other the truth will come out.

But what did surprise me was the discovery that MPs who are the sole carer for a child under the age of 21 - who is in full-time education - are entitled to claim up to £2,425 extra in accommodation costs if they register the child as routinely staying at the home in question.

Now why should MPs get extra help with accommodation costs just for having one of their children come stay - what sense does that make?

I find it hard to believe that this is a genuine expense - because to qualify as a work-related expense you would expect there to be some benefit and clear link to an MP doing their job.

On the other hand Nadine Dorries does suffer from an unfair press - over her swanning off to Australia to take part in 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' - because there are plenty of other, more senior politicians - across all parties - who are much more serious offenders on that score.

Rampant Sexism (12 November 2012)

The Conservative MP for Mid-Befordshire - Nadine Dorries - swans off from the House of Commons for up to 30 days to take part in a celebrity TV programme - which is made in some remote part of Australia.

Result - she gets 'pelters' from all quarters and deservedly so - including from the Deputy Labour Leader - Harriet Harman - while standing in at Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs).

Ms Harman famous for her support of equalities issues even made a lame joke at Nadine's expense - something about the Tory MP having to deal with all kinds of snakes and toads - before she even arrived in the jungle.

So why is the row in the House of Commons so sexist?

Because lots of other MPs swan off when it suits them - including Harriet's Labour colleague and former Prime Minister - Gordon Brown.

Except Gordon is away from his day job for much more time than Nadine Dorries - 70 days a year (every year) in one job alone - at the New York University in Abu Dhabi, for example.

Yet no one says a word - or makes jokes at Prime Minister's Questions.

Maybe they'll start doing so now.

I certainly hope so because it would be a breath of fresh air - and thoroughly deserved.

Son of a Preacher Man


The newspapers report that the son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson - Jesse Jackson Junior - has pled guilty to misusing (i.e. stealing) around $750,000 in campaign funds.

Now that's a whole lotta money and it funded a luxurious lifestyle - which included the purchase of a gentleman's gold-plated Rolex watch worth $40,000 - would you believe.

Amazing and hypocritical - in equal measure.

Jesse Jackson Junior and his wife - Sandra Jackson - face the prospect of jail for their crime spree - plus stiff fines which are likely to run to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As I read the story I was reminded of the hit song from the 1960s by Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man - so here's a YouTube link. 

http://youtu.be/dp4339EbVn8

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

You Gotta Have Faith


I was struck by the reaction of Catholic worshippers to the news that Cardinal Keith O'Brien had been accused of 'inappropriate behaviour' towards four of his colleagues - three practising and one former priest. 

Instead of saying something along the lines of - 'How terrible, I hope the church authorities investigate these allegations and report on their findings as quickly as possible'.

All I heard from people coming out of Sunday mass were comments like - 'I don't believe a word of it, the Cardinal is such a good man'.

Now I don't know the Cardinal personally.

So I can't say whether he is a 'good man' or not - but what I do  know is that throughout human history 'good men' and 'good women' have sometimes done terrible things. 

In fact the whole business reminded me of the Oscar Pistorious trial in South Africa - where Oscar's family queued up to tell the cameras that their golden boy would never hurt anyone - even a fly.

Yet Oscar freely admits to killing his girlfriend - Reeva Steenkamp - with a powerful handgun and in circumstances that are highly suspicious to say the very latest.

But this cut no ice with Oscar's family - the whole thing was a tragic accident and Oscar was a victim - not a criminal who deserved to be locked up in jail for taking another human life.

I suppose the reason people behave this way is that they have faith - which is blind of course - faith involves believing in something or someone even when all the physical evidence tells you that what you are being asked to believe - is simply not true.

So contrast this ridiculous behaviour with the media storm engulfing the Lib Dems at the moment - over allegations that a senior party figure (Lord Rennard) had harassed and 'behaved inappropriately' to various Lib Dem women in recent years.

What did the Lib Dem hierarchy do? 

Well they set up a proper inquiry of course - with some serious independent input - and said that all of the allegations would be properly investigated and answered - publicly.

What they didn't do was to say that the party had complete faith in Lord Rennard - who must be innocent of all charges - because he is or was a 'good man'.

Contrast the Lib Dems behaviour with that of the Vatican or Cardinal Keith O'Brien - who has, of course, now resigned and has stood down from any further active duties - with the 'consent' of the outgoing Pope, Benedict XVI (also known as Joseph Ratzinger).  

Political Honours


I had a chuckle to myself when I found out that the head of the NHS in England and Wales - Sir David Nicholson - was once a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Once upon a time I found it quite incredible that there so many people with supposedly 'left-wing', progressive politics - were so desperate to accept a political 'honour' from the great and good - to become honorary members of the British establishment .

I suppose I shouldn't really have been surprised because there is a long tradition of people in the labour movement turning their back on principle - before heading off to Buckingham Palace to accept a bauble from Her Majesty.

Makes you wonder how progressive and 'left-wing' these folks really were in the first place - I suppose.

And in Sir David's case I think we have the answer - but just look at the company he's in - including the former 'Sir' Fred Goodwin, the one time boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland.    

Top Hats and Boiler Suits (August 25th 2009)



Another great story to appear in the press recently concerns William McIlvanney - one of Scotland's most celebrated and talented writers.

McIlvanney revealed that he turned down an OBE in the Queen’s honours list – and went on to compare the honour to "putting a top hat on a man in a boiler suit".

William McIlvanney explained that his decision was private - unlike that of artist and writer John Byrne - the inspiration behind the smash hit series Tutti Frutti - and all the madness involving The Majestics, Eddie Clockerty and Miss Toner.

But John Byrne was making a serious point - when he rejected an MBE for services to art and literature recently - to signify his "absolute disgust" at the Iraq war.

William McIlvanney told the Scotland on Sunday that had written to Downing Street to say he would not be accepting the OBE for "purely personal" reasons.

"It's something that I tried on in my mind, and I found it didn't fit," he explained. "The sleeves were too long, and it just wasn't part of me.”

“It felt like trying to put a top hat on a man in a boiler suit.”

"The idea of rejecting an honour isn't something I've done with any anger, or to demean other people. There are a lot of people who carry out unsung work. I'm only too happy for them to be recognised."

McIlvanney said: "There have been a lot of honours given for dubious reasons in the past, like providing your wife as the king's bed warmer. The system is riddled with ludicrous elements."

But not everyone takes such a noble stand - there are lots of trade unionists only too glad to accept such honours - as a quick Google search shows:

• Bernard McGill (MBE) – from the north east regional TUC
• Felicity Mendelson (MBE) – from Unison (north east)
• Anne Middleton (MBE) - former deputy regional secretary Unison (Scotland)
• Terri Miller (MBE) – from Unite (south east)
• Matt Smith (OBE) – current regional secretary Unison (Scotland)
• Yvonne Strachan (OBE) - former regional organiser TGWU (Scotland) – now Unite

And that’s the eternal battle within the trade union movement – how to challenge the establishment – while resisting the temptation to become part of the establishment.

Some people do it better than others - you pays your money and takes your choice.

Michael McGahey – a Scottish miner and former leader of the NUM – would never have crossed the road for an MBE or OBE.

So hats off to Mick McGahey, William McIlvanney and John Byrne - so long as it's not Top Hats, of course.

Computer Scammers


I had a call the other day - an unsolicited call - from someone (a con man) who was out to perpetrate a computer scam - a nasty fraud.

The chap - who said his name was Mack and that he was calling from Manchester - claimed that he was representing Windows and my internet service provider.

And for a little while Mack sounded quite plausible - with ghastly tales of how my computer was sending out error signals to the main server.

I insisted on getting a telephone number from the chap - as I grew increasingly suspicious about his call.

I said that I would ring Mack back - which I did a short time later and found out that calls to the number were being screened by an automated answering service - which told its own story.

The number involved was 0131 208 0347.

I have since found out through a friend that this whole business is a well organised scam - perpetrated by people who are knowledgeable enough to sound convincing.

But whose real purpose is to try and persuade their 'victims' to allow remote access to their PCs - and then offer to fix non-existent problems - after relieving such people of a significant 'fee' from a credit card.

So if someone like Mack contacts you - then do what I did.

Tell them where the hell to get off - then pass on their details to your local trading standards office.    

Weasel Words


Rangers Footbal Club is in the news again - after some its supporters insisted on signing offensive songs  at an away match in Berwick at the weekend.

The club issued an apology after TV microphones picked up the offensive chants - and a spokesperson said:

"The club is disappointed by certain outbursts of inappropriate singing by a section of the support at Berwick. Our fans have been excellent this season both home and away and we do not want to see this tarnished."

The Rangers manager Ally McCoist added:

"I didn't know anything about it until I came in after the game. Our supporters have been nothing short of sensational home and away this season. If they were a little bit out of order today, I apologise."

Now I'm sure Rangers really are sorry for the conduct of a minority of their fans - because who would want to be associated with this kind of knuckle-dragging behaviour in modern day Scotland.

But I think the use of words is important - particularly the phrase 'a little bit out of order'.

Because what we're dealing with here is sectarian and idiotic behaviour - which is also a criminal offence that deserves to be taken seriously by every football club in the land.

I suspect that the fans who enjoy damaging Rangers' reputation in this way - would be less likely to persist if the club's leading figures and spokespeople were more forceful - and less mealy-mouthed in their response to such incidents.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Gold, Silver and Bronze


BBC licence payers must be glad to learn that their 'TV tax' is being spent so wisely these days - bu the 'heid bummers' at Auntie Beeb.

Witness this extract of a report from The Independent newspaper on the fall-out from the Jimmy Savile affair:

"The BBC yesterday released documents relating to the review, conducted late last year by Nick Pollard, the former head of Sky News. Collectively they portrayed a BBC management that was obsessed with procedures and utterly incapable of getting to basic truths. The organisation's executives mistrusted their own journalists who had done the work on the ground and were desperate to cover their backs.

The most scathing descriptions of the BBC's failures were put forward by the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman who described the episode as a “balls up” and the BBC's repeated failure to run the Savile story as “pathetic”. He was damning of the apparent determination of BBC management to make Mr Rippon the fall guy for the whole affair: “I think the BBC's behaviour now is almost as contemptible as it was then.”

As it tried to manage the crisis, the BBC grandly styled itself in terms of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) at a moment of national peril. Mr Entwistle appointed himself Gold Commander, with deputies given the rank of silver and bronze. But in reality that management team – described by Lord Patten in evidence released yesterday as having “more senior leaders than China” – was chaotic and “faffing about”, as the BBC Trust chairman put it."

Now I think the problem is that the top bosses at the BBC have been watching too much TV - or maybe taking their trips to the cinema too seriously as well.

Because all this Gold Commander, Silver Commander and Bronze Commander stuff - is like something from 'Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons' - where many of the key characters were colour coded (e.g. Lieutenant Green) just to make life easy for the viewer, presumably.

Or maybe the Gold, Silver and Bronze inspiration came from Resevoir Dogs - the grisly Quentin Tarantino gangster film - where the baddies were are all known as Mr Orange, Mr White and so on - before going on to cut off some poor chap's ear.

So come on BBC - get a grip before I explode with laughter at the sheer stupity of it all.

And for any readers unfamiliar with the delights of Captain Scarlet - here's a YouTube link to show what you've been missing all these years -  http://youtu.be/bV8YbLvGrb0

Turbulent Priests


Scotland's top Catholic - Cardinal Keith O'Brien - is in a spot of bother following allegations about his behaviour towards three priests and a former priest.

Apparently the Cardinal contests the allegations and is seeking legal advice - but other men involved  accuse him of  'inappropriate contact' - which is a rather strange use of the English language.

The Cardinal is on record as condemning homosexuality - and has also been extremely vocal in his opposition to same sex marriage and gay adoption.

So it will be interesting to see where all this leads - in the days ahead.

In the meantime, I couldn't help wondering why Cardinal O'Brien had chosen the last few days to question whether the time has now come for Catholic Church - to abandon its insistence on a life of celibacy and bachelorhood for its clergy.

'Why not allow Catholic priests to get married, have children and lead 'normal' lives?' - is the question that is being posed.

Why not indeed? - I say. 

And while the church is at it - why not drop its ridiculous and harmful opposition to contraception - or its opposition to women priests, as well?

I can't see how these issues are any more fundamental to the church's teachings - than the traditional insistence that Catholic priests must remain unmarried and celibate for the rest of their lives.

Now all religions are a bit crazy, if you ask me - but as far as I know the Catholic Church is the only mainstream one to insist that its priests lead such unnatural lives.

So maybe the Church is about to drag itself into the 21st century - by getting rod of some of its more objectionable prejudices.

Coalition on the Cards


I don't have a vote in the forthcoming Eastleigh by-election - but if I did I think I would cast mine in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

My reasoning is simple: it's effectively a two-horse race between the Lib Dems - who currently hold the seat - and the Tories, but as far as I can see the Tory candidate (Maria Hutchings) is  barking mad - politically speaking, of course.

For example, Maria's a very different Tory to the Prime Minister - David Cameron - she is very anti-Europe and apparently would vote to withdraw from the EU altogether - if  an In/Out referendum were held today.

Maria is also against same sex marriage - not the biggest political 'crime' in the world maybe - but it puts her in the unreformed and unreconstructed wing of the Tory Party - which made the Conservatives completely unelectable for many years - not long after John Major (the last Tory Prime Minister) won the 1992 general election.

So although the Lib Dems might yet be punished - since the sitting MP (Chris Huhne)  resigned his seat in disgrace for perverting the course of justice and lying about his speeding misdeeds to the court - the Lib Dem candidate (Mike Thornton) seems the best of a bad lot, if you ask me.

And if that is the judgement of the voters in Eastleigh on Thursday, then the Lib Dems will not have collapsed - which means that the party is far from dead and buried and, in turn, suggests  that the outcome of the next election is likely to be - another coalition government.

Which is as it should be, I suppose - since none of the major parties can command a majority of the popular vote and form a popular government with the support of only 40% of the electorate - or less.

Like many other people I have my criticisms of the Coalition Government - but the fact is that any other form of government is a form of tryanny - and that is exactly what I said in a previous post about the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system still used for Westminster elections - but in very few other countries around the world.

First Past The Post (15 January 2013)

A spate of opinion polls have been published in recent weeks which suggest that the Labour party - out of all the major UK parties - enjoys the most public support.

Now this is hardly surprising given that we are now beyond the half-way point of a coalition government - assuming it lasts a whole five years - which has had to take some very unpopular decisions given the terrible mess of the UK economy.

Decisions that the Labour party would have had to make as well of course - if it were still in government - as the former Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling, admitted in advance of the 2010 general election.

'Spending cuts were inevitable, greater than those which took place under Mrs Thatcher's government' - or words to that effect was the message from Alistair Darling, as he told things straight to his party and the country.

But the real significance of recent polls is not that they put Labour is in the lead at this point in time - at around 39% - but that the party comes nowhere near commanding the support of a majority of the electorate.

And just as they did in 2010 the polls are likely to narrow as general election looms - just as the Conservative lead last time round got squeezed - leaving the party with less than 40% of the electorate's support and no option but to form a coalition government with the Lib Dems.

The point being that no single party will have a mandate to govern the country under the First Past The Post System - which is now only used for elections to the Westminster Parliament.

Elections to every other Parliament - the Scottish and European Parliaments - are conducted under some form of proportional representation - which is also the case for local councils in Scotland and elections to the Wales Assembly and Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland.

So coalition politics and coalition governments are here to stay - a fact of political life.

The question is whether or not Labour has the brains to get rid of FPTP and bring in a voting system which prevents a minority government taking power - with less than 40% of the popular vote.

In the 1980s just about everyone - including the Labour party - who did not support the Tories and Margaret Thatcher declared the Conservative Government of the day to be an 'elected dictatorship' - because it had won the election on 40% of the popular vote.

Yet MrsThatcher bulldozed her government's policies through the House of Commons with a FPTP majority of MPs - uninterested in the views or complaints of the opposition parties and 60% of the electorate who did not support the Tory party.

Ever since that time the UN, the UK and every other progressive government around the world has encouraged emerging democratic countries to embrace PR (proportional representation) - as a way of bringing peace and stability to troubled lands.

From the former satellite states of the Soviet Union to the countries which emerged from the break up of the former Yugoslavia - from Northern Ireland to Iraq to the countries of the Arab Spring the solution urged on has been the same: representative government or power sharing.

Because under PR minority parties cannot behave like tyrannies - as they do in Syria at the moment, for example - because they have to come to an accommodation with other groups and parties - to get the wheels of government turning effectively.

And by and large I think that's a good thing - which is why the UK should ditch FPTP for Westminster elections - because it's a fundamentally undemocratic way to govern the country.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Killing Fields


If you have £1.50 to spare this week - do yourself a favour and buy a copy of the latest Private Eye - because it has an outstanding analysis of the Mid Staffs Inquiry. 

Here's an extract - with some more to follow later in the week:

RETURN TO THE KILLING FIELDS

A chronicle of deaths foretold

Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive who refuses to resign, once joked that Andrew Lansley's disastrous NHS reforms were "so big, you can see them from outer space". On that basis, the Mid Staffs scandal is so rotten you can smell it from outer space.

When the Bristol heart scandal whistleblower Dr Steve Bolson was asked in 19998 how to avoid future disatsers in the NHS, he said simply: "Never lose sight of the patient." 

Thirty-five babies died in Bristol due to substandard care over a four-year period, and the unit was dubbed "The Killing Fields" by stafff (as revealed in Eye 793).

A decade and a half later, Robert Francis QC has found that 1,197 people died at Mid Staffordshire hospital between 1996 and 2008, 492 of those deaths happening between 2005 and 2008.

How could the NHS, with record funding, published death rates and armies of regulators lose sight of so many patients, some of whom died in appalling conditions? And who is responsible? 

Francis provided detailed answwers to the first question and completely ducked the second"

Now the language may be uncompromising, but so it should be - because what happened at Mid Staffs is truly shocking and it's simply not good enough that no one within the NHS takes responsibility.

Collection Rates


I heard an interesting statistic the other day.

Apparently HM Revenue & Customs wrote off around £5 billion in taxes last year - a figure  which represents around 1% of the £500 billion that HMRC manages to collect in a typical year.

Not bad, I thought to myself - because these are effectively 'bad debts' where people have died or a company has gone into liquidation - debts which in one way or another cannot be recovered or are too expensive to recover. 

But there's always room for improvement and no doubt the public finances could do with an extra £5 billion - in which case more power to HMRC's elbow is all I can say.

I also wondered how well other organisations do when it comes to collecting public money - Scotland's 32 local councils, for example.

According to the Scottish Government in 2011-12 the total amount of Council Tax that should have been collected (excluding Council Tax Benefit) - was £1.987 billion.

And by 31 March 2012 - £1.886 billion was actually collected - leaving a gap of £91 million uncollected.

Now that represents a collection rate of 94.9% - significantly less than HM Revenue & Customs rate you might say - but to their credit Scotland''s councils have improved their performance in recent years.

In 1998-99 the rate was 87.2%  but this has steadily improved over the years to reach 94.9% where it stands today.

Across the UK - assuming collection rates are broadly similar - this suggest that the total amount of uncollected Council Tax was around £1 billion - in 2011-12. 

So there's a lot to play for - £6 billion or so between central and local government - which would be a welcome boost to a struggling economy.

Times Are Changing


I quite like the chap who's the 'head honcho' at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) at the moment - Stephen Hester.

Because he strikes me as a decent bloke who has been handed something of a poisoned chalice - in having to dig RBS out of a hole not of his making.

In other words he's having to come along and clear up someone else's mess.

And it must stick in his throat somewhat that the people who were actually responsible for the mess - bankers and politicians - have long since buggered off. 

Some have paid little if any price, others such as the former RBS boss - Fred Goodwin - have departed the scene with suitcases full of money - and film-star pensions to boot.

Yet for all that I still can't see how Stephen Hester is entitled to a £780,000 bonus - only weeks after the RBS was fined £390m for its role in the global interest rate rigging scandal.

Now I'm sure that if there was anything that Stephen Hester could have reasonably done to prevent RBS being fined £390 million - he would have done it because he's clearly not a fool.

But nonetheless these events happened on his watch - after he joined the company - so how can he possibly merit an extra bonus on top of his basic salary is around £1.2 million a year - plus a pension contribution of around £400,000 much of which will be tax free, of course.

The times 'are a changin' as Bob Dylan once wrote - and although £780,000 must seem like so much loose change to some in the banking industry - the rules of the game are not what they once were.

So Fred Goodwin who was knighted by the last Labour government - on the recommendation of one Gordon Brown - happened to be in the right place when the music stopped, financially speaking at least.

Stephen Hester was in the wrong place by comparison - but he can still find a nice comfy seat and consider what it will do for him - as a human being - by helping to set the banking world to rights again.

If I were advising Stephen Hester, I'd encourage him to think longer-term - and resist the 'nose in the trough attitude' of so many of his predecessors who - along with senior politicians - came so close to crashing the UK economy completely.

For goodness sake the new Governor of the Bank of England - Mark Carney - is paid a salary of £800,000 a year and - unlike the RBS chief - he doesn't qualify for a big bonus payment.

So the best thing that could happen is that some of these ridiculously inflated salaries - especially those paid out of public funds - were taken down a peg or two. 

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Talk To The Hand

Peter Brookes cartoon
George Galloway is a terrible waste of talent - in  my opinion.

To my mind he is a political narcissist who sees the world through a mirror - so when I saw this Peter Brookes cartoon in The Times the other I thought it summed up his character and politics prefectly.

The latest attention-seeking incident came just the other night when George 'stormed out' of a pre-arranged debate in the Oxford Union on a motion that: "Israel should withdraw immediately from the (Palestinian) West Bank".

The Cherwell, a popular web-based news forum in Oxford, recounts the incident:

Less than three minutes into Aslan-Levy’s speech against the motion, Galloway was made aware that his opponent was an Israeli citizen. “I have been misled,” Mr Galloway then commented, interrupting Aslan-Levy’s speech. “I don’t debate with Israelis”. He then left the room with his wife, Putri Gayatri Pertiwi, and was escorted out of Christ Church by a college porter. When prompted to explain why Aslan-Levy’s nationality prompted him to abandon the debate, Galloway stated that “I don't recognize Israeli citizens.”

Now that seems a very strange stance for a politician to take - I wonder what would have happened in Northern Ireland if some of the key players had said - 'I don't talk to Catholics or Republicans', for example.

The same stalemate could be achieved by substituting the words 'Catholics or Republicans' - for 'Protestants or Loyalists' of course - in which case where would the Good Friday Peace Agreement be now?

As it happens I would have spoken for and voted for the motion had I been present at the debate - but I can't abide this 'Talk to the Hand' school of politics because it will  only further isolate and marginalise the Palestinian cause.

By contrast Barcelona Football Club have just announced that they will play a football match in the summer - against a team comprising both Palestinian and Israeli players.

Now that seems to me an idea worth supporting and following up - because it has at least some chance of making people think.

Patients and Customers


I read somewhere the other day that the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) is up in arms about Government plans to contract out - some functions of the probation service.

Now the union may have a point in certain points of detail, but the main thrust of their objection was that - as a matter of principle - probation services must remain within the public sector because only in the public sector would they be 'safe'.

Now I imagine that this kind of 'private bad, public good' mantra - doesn't sit too well  against the backdrop of the inquiry into Mid Staffs NHS Trust.

Where up to 1200 elderly patients lost their lives unnecessarily as a result of poor standards of care - which in many cases amounted to deliberate abuse and neglect.

Now I'm pretty sure that if these deaths had occurred in a private hospital or at a private care home - the solution for some people at least would be to nationalise the institutions involved and bring them all back into the public sector - where patients allegedly are always treated with dignity and respect.

But that's clearly not true as the Mid Staffs inquiry has demonstrated - so the issue of how best to provide such services is much more complicated than some folks would have us believe.

My mother struggled with the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease for years which went undiagnosed for a very long time - even though she was a referred over many months to her local NHS hospital for assessment.

The NHS doctors told my mum that it was 'just her age' and to 'get used to it' - before the family insisted on a referral to a neurology specialist - who diagnosed Parkinson's Disease within 15 minutes of her first visit, which I remember vividly as I was with her at the time.

The lesson that my mum's unfortunate experience taught me was that the NHS does not belong on a pedestal - and the 'public good, private bad' mantra is part of the problem at times - because it shuts down debate and scrutiny.

The key issue for any service - public or private - ought to be how satisfied the customers are with the service they receive, but how does anyone know if no one asks?

Which reminded me of a recent comment by an eminent NHS consultant who  suggested that a new word be found to replace the word patient - as this is derived from a Greek word meaning to 'suffer' or 'endure' - presumably in silence. 

I think that's a splendid idea - I'd rather be a customer than a patient any day of the week.