Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Times and devolution to Wales - Sept 1969.

Clearing out an old cellar space today and came upon a yellowed copy of The Times from September 16th 1969. A most interesting read. Two front page stories. First there's reports of an EEC summit conference to be held shortly in The Hague to consider terms of UK membership. Bill Cash MP is not quoted. Second story is about Whitehall greeting figures which demonstate that export-led expansion of the economy is finally underway. Amazingly, no politician of any sort is quoted. In Sept 1969, they would all have been enjoying their 4 month recess around the Med or in the West Indies. And then there's a photograph of Liberal Leader, the beautifully besuited Jeremy Thorpe with two handsome young men in swimming trucks on Brighton beach, chatting before a two day Liberal conference on constitutional reform. I promise you I have not made up a single word of this. So over to page 2, and what do we have here. A report about the interests of Wales not being properly represented at Westminster. Sir Goronwy Daniel, a man of fame when I first entered public life, insists that the interests of Wales are not being neglected. Sir Goronwy is of the view that at present the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State are well able to exercise considerable influence on the 'Whitehall and Westminster Gov't'. (No need for too much of this devolution nonsense perhaps). Sir Goronwy accepts the possibility of change and that the Welsh Office could be ready in a year or two to take over functions such as education, Home Office matters and agriculture. Wonder what Home Office matters he had in mind. But he is concerned that too much work would mean that the Secretary of State would not be able to cope, which in turn will mean a danger of Wales being increasingly governed by civil servants. He goes on to say that a reform of local governmnet is needed to reduce numbers of councils and councillors. Rest of report is about Lord Ogmore, a Labour MP who became a Liberal peer advocating a Welsh Assembly with extensive powers. Plaid Cymru are to outline its view tomorrow. What strikes me as interesting is how little has changed in 44 years!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Leonardo Glyn Martinez Davies (Leo) and others.

Couple of photographs of Leo and his dad and taid.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Last Word on EU Referendum til 2017

Shared an interview with Peter Hain on Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this morning. Not sure what reach the programme has, but its my favorite to appear on. Vaughan Roderick, a sort of Radio Wales Paxman without the sneer is most knowledgeable journalist I know in Wales. Always asks the one question you dont want him to - and very politely which makes it worse. Anyway, this morning's discussion was most odd. I couldn't for the life of me understand what Peter Hain was on about. Now Peter is a serious politician to tangle with. Crafty as they come, and been around a long time. So I was waiting for the 'killer line' - which never came. Seems he was demanding that David Cameron does pretty well what David Cameron has said he's going to do. The subject under discussion was an EU Referendum (again) - a subject designed to drive readers away from any blog that opens discussion about it. But its taking up so much Parliamentary time, and exercising some of my colleagues to such an extent, that I should set out what I think about where we have come from, where we are and where we are going - at least as far as I'm able to. It will be this blog's last word until 2017. I have always tended towards the Eurosceptic - driven by libertarian and anti-statist instincts. In 1975, after developing in YFC confidence to speak in public, I campaigned a bit for the 'Out' side. When the debate at that referendum started out, my side thought we could win, but as the campaign wore on, we were soundly trounced - an experience that some current politicians would do well to note! Today, I sense that the people feel that the EU interferes more than it should in matters that are properly affairs of the nation state. I also feel that the people of the UK want another referendum to establish whether they wish to remain members of the EU. It also seems to me that politicians across the EU are realising that Europe is losing competetiveness with other parts of the world. You might even say losing ground in the 'Global Race'. David Cameron seems to take the same view, and has developed a pragmatic policy to address all of these issues. In his Bloomberg speech last January, the Prime Minister announced that if he were to be elected as leader of a Conservative Gov't in 2015, he would immediately open discussion with our EU partners about what changes could be made. I suspect some EU leaders, notably Angela Merkel share some of the Cameron concerns. And then when we know what the result of all this discussion is, the British people will have their referendum in late 2017. Personally, the Bloomberg speech was good enough for me. I was happy to leave it at that. But not for all my colleagues. Some of them want to legislate in an effort to bind any future Gov't to holding a referendum in 2017. Its this which is swallowing up MPs time, and making meaningful engagement with constituents almost impossible. 3 Fridays at Westminster in November. Sometimes I do reflect how much easier it would be to be a Lib Dem MP. Sometimes, I'm aked which way I will vote in 2017. How on earth do I know. It depends what the negotiations produce. If there were to be no change at all, I could well vote to leave the EU. If there were to be substantive change I could well vote to stay in. There is absolutely no point whatsoever in being committed to a renogatiation with a closed mind. It would be good if this were to be my last word on this subject. It is my intention. But EU discussion is a bit like Bruce Forsyth - keeps coming back week after week.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Silk Part One and All That

Last week, the Prime Minister came to Wales with a veritable bag of Halloween 'goodies'. Firstly, and I put this first because its received nothing like the coverage it merits, is the next Nato Summit coming to Newport in Sept 2014. This is huge for Wales. President Obama walking in the steps of Tiger Woods at Celtic Manor will be beamed across the world. Biggest opportunity for Welsh tourism and recognition since...Ryder Cup. Now I don't expect an invite to the Summit, and no doubt the Welsh Gov't will put on some associated hospitality, but I do hope Welsh MPs, Welsh tourism and Welsh business are in on the act as well. Now the other package of announcements (which pushed the Nato Summit off the Welsh front pages) was what we can describe as an initial response to the Silk Report Part 1. This may well mean nothing whatsoever to you! In essence its about how Wales should be governed in the future - how devolution develops. Paul Silk was asked to produce the Report by the Secretary of State for Wales. It was published a year ago and the response had been long anticipated. Generally to be welcomed (by me anyway) but there remain uncertainties. A full response to the Report will follow in due course. But PM told us that Stamp Duty Land Tax and Landfill Tax are to be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales (as recommended). The Aggregates Levy and Air Passenger Duty are not. Upshot of this is that the Welsh Gov't will now have capacity to raise taxes for the first time. The Welsh Govt will also be able to borrow money, but I am a bit uncertain about what's involved here. My understanding is that some old existing WDA powers are being used to facilitate this. My understanding is also that its only proposed that the borrowing powers can be used for M4 and A55 inprovements. Also I'm not sure whether the tax raising capacity is actually needed to cover the borrowing if existing powers are being used, or if they are whether they are sufficient to finance what will be in excess of a £billion of investment. If its using powers already in existance, and limiting it to what UK Govt approves, not sure how much of a constitutional change this actually is. All will be revealed in due course. The biggie is devolution of income tax - as already happens in Scotland. The position is that legislation will be introduced at Westminster, giving the National Assembly for Wales the power to call a referendum on devolving to the Welsh Government the responsibility for levying half of our income tax bills, together with the power to vary the rate. There seems a view by many that the Silk Commission recommendation that this power to vary should apply to each tax band separately is what's envisaged. I do not believe this is what the Prime Minister said. As in Scotland, its only the power to vary the tax rate across the board. So bang goes the campaigning opportunity for Welsh Conservatives to promise a cut in 40p rate at Assembly Election, a real opportunity to sell Wales as an attractive place to move to. Such a promise in Wales would be wholly financially positive. Again all will be revealed in due course. Anyway, the Labour Party hate the idea of the Welsh Gov't becoming financially accountable. So easy just to blame Westminster Gov't for everything. The co-ordinated message coming out of the First Minister's office and the Shadow Sec of State for Wales is 'no income tax powers til the Barnett Formula is reformed' - in other words 'No Thanks'. Next step is the official response to the Silk Report Part 1 - which seems likely to be tied up with the 'Wales Bill' promised in the Queen's Speech. There is no doubt that the Coalition Gov't moved the devolution process on last week, especially with the granting of borrowing powers. But there's still a bit of water to flow under the bridge until we can be sure where it will lead. All will be revealed in due course.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Leonardo Glyn Martinez Davies

This day a fourth grandchild was delivered unto Glyn and Bobbie Davies, named Leo. His mother Zulma is an proud as punch and Leo looks at home in his big new world after a tough journey into it. Like all families there are problems to be faced, but today belongs to Zulma, Pat and Leo.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Engaging with Constituents and Rationalising EU Referendum Policy

Haven't visited my blog for weeks. Not been enough time. But have called in tonight to report on my emerging campaign for re-election as MP for Montgomeryshire in 2015. Not going to change practice much, but we do have to develop a different mindset. No point in standing without having a fair crack at winning. But in general, I'm going to stick by the rules that got me this far! Now it seems that I'm bookies favorite to win. In 2010, Mrs D risked a small wager on me and got odds of 8/1. I was told that at one stage a bookie offered 15/1. If I'd seen that I'd have bet on myself. I think its allowed. Anyway, I'm told it would be about 1/3 now. That's some turnaround. I should add that I dont think bookies have a clue about what Montgomeryshire thinks. What I do know is that its been Lib Dem (in its various forms) since 1880 - except for one blip in 1979, when the Conservatives won it, only to lose it to an unknown outsider in the Thatcher landslide of 1983! A cursory glance at history squeezes all complacency out of our thinking. Anyway, my strategy is to leave the actual campaigning to my team, which luckily, the super-efficient Simon Baynes has agreed to help me with. I'm just going to carry on engaging with my constituents, doing my job, setting aside all negative comment about my opponents. In fact, I don't really intend to discuss them at all. And at the heart of my strategy is 'the community meeting'. Old fashioned I know - but trust me. Arranged the first at Berriew on Friday. Between 50-60 came along and raised enough issues to keep my office going for days. Had to call a halt after near 90 minutes. Plenty more issues after the bell. One of my constituents wanted to know my opinion on UK membership of the EU. Didn't have a definitive answer. This is what I said - which is really the point of this post! I have always been Eurosceptic, and as a young man campaigned for 'out' in 1995. But its not rational to say 'In' or 'Out' at this stage. What I can say is that my approach is driven by two factors. Firstly, the EU interferes too much in what should be the role of the individual state - which is why the Prime Minister will try to reform the relationship. And secondly, the people of the UK want a referendum on whether to remain part of the EU or not. This is what I reckon the people want, and this is what a future Conservative Gov't would give them. About a year ago, the Prime Minister announced that were he to be elected as leader of a Conservative Gov't, he would begin reform process in 2015, and hold a referendum in 2017. I'm happy with that. I was happy with that even without the Private Members Bill currently being debated in the House of Commons. Its just not rational to say I want 'Out' without knowing what 'In' would be. I know this cuts no ice with some of my colleagues, who have tabled an amendment to the Wharton Private Mmembers Bill demanding that an In/Out referendum be held before any attempt to reform and while we are still governed by a Coalition Gov't, one part of which will have none of it. This seems most unwise to me. And Nigel Farage has stirred things up a bit by promising not to put up a UKIP candidate against anyone who supports the Adam Alfriye amendment. Tempting! By this stage I think my constituent was uterly mesmerised. Thank the Lord she didn't raise the issue during the meeting, which reinforced the old dictum 'All politics is local'. Anyway I thought it was a great success, and will be planning my second 'community meeting' tomorrow.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Working with Montgomeryshire UKIP.

Seems to be quite a bit of discussion around concerning the possibilities of some sort of pact between Conservatives and UKIP to contest the 2015 General Election. Seems that UKIP leader, Nigel Farage went along to Manchester today and fell into discussing the idea. My understanding is that he's against anything at national level, but open to agreements at local level. Must admit I've no idea how such arrangements would work out in practice. Anyway, The Conservative leadership has absolutely ruled it out. But its provided a bit of entertainment for the twitteratti - especially when he tangled with the redoubtable Bill Cash at a 'fringe' meeting. Would quite like to have seen that.

But enough of Manchester. What about Montgomeryshire. I've always rather liked the UKIP people in my own area, especially when one of my oldest friends, David Rowlands was carrying the banner for them. I felt very sad when David died earlier this year. We had worked closely together as Montgomeryshire District Cllrs. and shared many interests. And their candidate in the Assembly elections, Christine Williams seemed a capable candidate. I've always found a cup of coffee at the UKIP stand at local summer shows to be a convivial experience. But I could never contemplate any sort of joint ticket at election time - never ever.

But lets look at policy. This is where I find it difficult to find clearly defined differences between me and Montgomeryshire UKIP. I suppose the first issue is the EU. We both agree there should be a referendum on continued UK membership. I'm not sure it can now be avoided anyway. Would not surprise me if all parties sign up to it by 2015. Perhaps I will differ from UKIP on how we will approach that referendum in 2017. Its just too early to know yet. Most Ukippers will be for 'out' whatever, while I want to see what changes the Prime Minister can win before committing myself. But without a Conservative-led Govt, there wouldn't be a referendum at all.

UKIP are as sound as the Coalition parties on the economy. We agree on the need for control of immigration - though the tone and language may differ. UKIP shares my implacable opposition to the Mid Wales Connection Project which will cover Montgomeryshire with pylons and turbines. And UKIP are now accepting that the National Assembly is here to stay, and we should focus on making it work in the interests of Wales. I even tried making a speech with a pint of real ale in my hand a few weeks back, which went quite well.

Where I have a bit of a problem is in tone of some of UKIP rhetoric, though it seems to be changing rapidly. MEP, Geoffrey Bloom was recently kicked out of the party for unacceptable comments. Thats growing up a bit. What I will say is that in my conversations with Montgomeryshire Ukippers, there is not a problem, even where we don't see exactly eye to eye on things. I suppose it is a bit of an irony that if Montgomeryshire UKIP does very well in 2015, it may gift victory to a party much less in agreement with them, and if national UKIP does very well, it may gift the Government of Britain to the Labour Party. Politics is an odd business.

The 'Weird Workings' of our Planning System

All of us have experience of telephoning some large corporation, and becoming exasperated by the sheer inefficiency we encounter. And its always on the 'service' side rather than the 'sales' side! But today I was reduced to laughter after having a Powys County Council planning policy explained to me. Thought it was worth sharing.

My wife and I own a field of about two acres near our house (which is in the hamlet, probably known as Cil). We have always valued our privacy, and in the past have never contemplated allowing development on land we own near us - even when we have been asked to consider proposals. Things change, as family circumstances do, and today, I decided to contact my Local Planning Authority to ask how to go about including our little field in the local development plan. And this is what I was told.

In 2011, the LPA (Powys) advertised widely, seeking invitations from land owners to seek inclusion in the Powys Local Plan. About 1,000 replied, and these responses are being currently 'worked through'. Impression I have is that this process is not going to be completed any time soon (probably never) - if ever. It seems (after some discussion)  that there is never going to be an opportunity to have our little field included.

Now this raised a few questions in my enquiring mind. So I removed my 'personal' hat and donned my 'political' hat and started asking some of them. For the purpose of this exercise we need to assume that our little field is the best located site in our hamlet from a planning perspective (which I think it is). Not relevant. There will not be an opportunity for its inclusion as 'development' land - ever. We missed the 2011 deadline. What if the ownership of the site had changed over the last 2/3 yrs (in our case, circumstances had changed)? No difference, and no mechanism for reconsideration. What if I were to put a planning application in for development on this field, better located for development than another parts of our little settlement? The Planning officers would recommend refusal of our site and recommend approval of the less suitable site. I promise you this is all true. And to trained professional planning officers is entirely logical!! And we are supposed to need more 'local needs' housing!!

So happens that we are not in the least bothered about the position at the personal level. But it is utterly bizarre. I suppose that's it was by a similar process that the House of Lords came to be created.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Great Men of Montgomeryshire.

Montgomeryshire is a quiet rural constituency, but she has an interesting history. Today, I spent a couple of hours at Llandinam Village Hall at a 'Presenting the Past' event. We do have castles, the gem which is Powis Castle,  and Montgomery Castle. Not sure if I should be counting Dolforwyn Castle. And there's Owain Glyndwr's Parliament Building in Machynlleth. Plus there's a lot of evidence of the Roman presence, particularly at Caersws. But its the Montgomeryshire people who have made our history that interest me most.

I suppose top billing must go Owain Glyndwr, who many Welsh people think is our greatest ever Welshman. But its too far back to count in this post. My nomination for that accolade goes to Robert Owen, a saddler's son born in Newtown who became one of the world's greatest (perhaps the greatest) business management expert. Normally he is thought of as a great 'socialist' (a breed who are making something of a comeback at present). But most of his great early and most important work was as a capitalist. He was the first to twig that the best way for an industrialist to make money was by taking good care of employees. Robert Owen also had the good sense to marry the daughter of a very wealthy industrialist, David Dale. Together they established not only successful businesses, but a whole new approach to industrial relations attitudes. This great Newtown man is probably better known in Scotland and the US. Best way to describe him is that he was a capitalist who became the first socialist. Like many innovative thinkers, he eventually went bust pursuing his dreams - and came home to Newtown to die.

And then there's the Davies family of Llandinam. David Davies of Llandinam was one of Britain's greatest entrepreneurs, building railways and Barry Docks. He made a lot of money. He was also elected Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire - one of several very impressive predecessors to the position which I now hold (but as a Conservative). His son Edward built the first Llandinam Village Hall, and his daughters, Margaret and Gwendoline built the still stunning hall at Gregynog to house their wonderful collection of art. Grandson, David Davies was elevated to the House of Lords as the first Baron Davies of Llandinam, and today's event was opened by his son, the second Lord Davies (and Lady Davies) who still live in Llandinam.

Probably leave it there - before I get carried away with Pryce Pryce Jones and the Owen Owens family from Machynlleth. Welcome any other nominations of Men of Montgomeryshire (and Women) who warrant inclusion in this company..

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Aberystwyth - the Not Kinky Town

Felt quite disappointed when going through week's unread Telegraphs to read an article destroying my mental image of Aberystwyth. When I lived and worked on our upland Montgomeryshire farm after leaving school, I imagined I'd missed all sorts of carnal pleasures which would have been on offer at Aberystwyth, the only university town in mid Wales. I imagined thousands of sophisticated students, free and emancipated, living the wild 60s life - a whole town replicating on a large scale the shockingly uninhibited behaviour on display at the hippy communes that were popping up all over the countryside at that time. Always thought I was missing out on the 'free love' and 'sex parties' we hard-drinking, rugby playing country lads could but dream of. But it seems that this is a very false image of Aberystwyth.

Ms Trish Murray must have had the same mental image of 'Aber' as I did because she opened one of her chain of Nice'n Naughty shops in the town. On sale were sex toys, erotic literature and skimpy underwear. Eve Egerton, who runs the Cabin Cafe opposite reckoned the shop window to be imaginative - even if "quite comical rather than sexual". Elderly Aberystwyth residents restricted themselves to looking through the windows, trying to work out what the various devices were for. It seems there's been a recent publication called something like '50 Shades of Grey' which had sold quite well in Aberystwyth, and had stimulated an interest in observing some of the apparatus mentioned. But no-one went in to buy any of the goods for sale - despite Nice'n Naughty having been voted the Best Adult Retail Chain in the UK.

Ms Murray has concluded that the people of Aberystwyth are just not 'kinky' enough.  Nothing like as much business as in all the other 14 Nice'n Naughty shops, with their 'imaginative' windows. So she's closed it down. And destroyed my image of Aberystwyth. It seems its just a lovely gentle Welsh seaside town where the university students work hard, eschewing the sort of activities I'd imagined. Ah well, I'll dream of deck chairs instead.

My Last Memory Walk at Welshpool

Over last few days I have organised five 'Memory Walks' in the main towns of Montgomeryshire. The 5th was around Powis Castle Park at Welshpool. It was a decent turn-out. Several residents from Llys Hafren Care Home joined us. Other notables were Councillor Ann Holloway who walked a very long was, John 'Gunner' Evans, who is a constant critic of my political views, and Huw Cookson who did the organising. Hidden behind the group is the ever shy Mrs D. The purpose of my walks was tom raise awareness of dementia, and funds for research into what is a terrible disease, which most families have some experience of. I was really pleased we did it. All the walking groups will be posted up on our website.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dai Greene at Machynlleth Primary School

Thought I'd put this photograph up to share with those who may call by this blog as a sort of tribute to the memory of April Jones, the 5 yr old little girl from Machynlleth who was so shockingly taken from her family almost a year ago. The photograph was taken at Machynlleth Primary School (Ysgol Gynradd Machynlleth) which is on Bryn-y-Gog Estate, where April and her family lived. It is of me, World Champion 400 mtres hurdler, Dai Greene, and headteacher, Mrs Glyn. Let me tell you how it came about.

In the spring, Paula Ratcliffe invited MPs to join her in a short run around the Westminster area of London. It was part of the post-Olympics process of involving primary age children in sport. Reason I ignored my back problems to join in was that for each MP who did it, an Olympic athlete would visit a school of our choice in the constituency. Six of us ran. I thought Ysgol Gynradd Machynlleth (April's school) had experienced something so awful that it was the obvious choice. I was really pleased when told it would be Dai Greene who visited. Could not have been anyone better.

Dai was absolutely brilliant with the children. For two hours he had their total attention - firstly inside answering questions, and then outside doing exercises and training routines. It was a pleasure to watch him work. Dai Greene is a quiet, serious man, dedicated to what he does. Mrs Glyn had organised a great day, and must have been really pleased how it turned out. In the week when the people of Machynlleth remembered April at her funeral, it was reassuring and quite uplifting to see the laughter and fun as the children move on from a very dark event.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Machynlleth Memory Walk.

A few of those who joined me last night for a Memory Walk around the historic town of Machynlleth, promoting the cause of Alzeimers Disease. We finished up (and are photographed posing) outside the Owain Glyndwr Institute and Parliament House, which is where I would be spending my week as an MP if Owain had not turned back at Monmouth. Cllr Michael Williams (3rd from left) took us around the town trail.

Spot Adam Jones competition.

Great picture of British Lions outside No 10 yesterday. Very upset I couldn't join them. Would have loved to shake the hand of Brian O'Driscoll, who along with Ritchie and Dan Carter are the greatest players I've ever watched playing the special game. When I saw this photograph in the Telegraph, at first I thought it was 'Spot Adam Jones' competition!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Syria - a few weeks on.

Syria has almost disappeared from the Westminster agenda. After what many of us thought the fiasco of the 'recall' of Parliament over two weeks ago, its no longer a 'hot' issue. But it remains hugely important. I felt the need to reflect on where I see things at today. No doubt the perspective will change again over the next few months/years. Would not be surprised to be drawn into the occasional post on the issue.

It now seems fairly clear that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This will be confirmed by the UN. Use of such weapons has been a worldwide taboo for a century, and crosses an internationally agreed 'red line'. There has to be an international response. If not, the message to offensive dictatorships are obvious. So far most of us will agree. Where we might disagree is the form that response should take. Initially, it seemed that the US President and the UK Prime Minister favoured military intervention - generally thought to be limited to Tomahawk rockets being used to degrade Assad's military capacity. Many MPs, across all parties did not favour this course - certainly without a much stonger and more stategic case being made. Many were unsure that such a strike would improve the security position in the Middle East. And many of us wanted certainty about what the precise objectives of the strike were to be. The upshot was that the motion put before MPs did not authorise military intervention - which meant I could support it. In the event, the 'meaningless' motion was defeated, as was a meaningless amendment tabled by the Opposition. No motion of any sort was passed. I did not good position for the British Govt to be in. I would have preferred options to have been kept open. But the Prime Minister was left with little choice other than to act as he did - telling us he "gets it", and immediately announced that there would be no British involvement in any military action.

Reality is that the only world military power capable of a meaningful strike is the US, and it soon became clear that despite all his threats and posturing about action, President Obama decided not to. What followed is too convoluted for a blog post. Reality is that instead, Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin took over leadership of the issue. He is now leading the talks on removing chemical weapons from Syrian soil, allowing President Obama to give impression to his electorate that he's still calling some shots. In the short term this is a very good result. None of us can predict where military action would have led. But it seems to me that there are two significant consequences. Firstly, Bashar-al-Assad is now secure as the Syrian leader. While the leaders of the world are discussing with Assad the decommissioning of his chemical weapons, there can hardly be a serious attempt to remove him from office. And secondly, Syria is now securely within the ambit of Russian influence. Assad owes Putin big-time. Syria may well become, in effect, part of a new Russian empire. In terms of international politics, Mr Putin has played a 'blinder' and is the only and overwhelming victor of the gas attack on innocent people by Assad.

Perhaps it will look a bit different in a few weeks time.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Impact and Potential of Shale Gas

Anticipating major debate over next few months about extraction of shale gas in the UK. Note the certainty which is held by many significant persons, but I sense its too early to fully commit. but it does seem to me that establishing the potential is a no-brainer. Which is why I met with Cuadrilla, the shale gas developer this week. Would like to visit the Balcombe site in West Sussex to see what's happening, but Cuadrilla have only a couple of weeks left on site - and the drilling there does not involve hydraulic fracturing anyway! Looks like lots of noise and wrong target!

Lets start by considering what we know about potential benefits. Developing UK-sourced shale gas as a major part of our energy mix would create between 50,000 and 100,000 direct jobs, create thousands more jobs in the wider UK manufacturing sector, provide massive tax revenues to the Exchequer, reduce dependency on imports from unstable regions of the world, reduce carbon emissions in several different ways and spread prosperity within the UK from the South East to the North of England. Rather a good CV I'd say.

Major issue for me will be impact on landscape/environment. How much unsightly disturbance will be caused. It seems that the great thickness of the shale seam (far greater than in the US) will allow several wells to be clustered on the same site. I'm told that a site of just two hectares could incorporate 10 wells, creating around 1000 jobs. Compared with onshore wind, the impact on landscape would be small - and the gas would be moved by pipeline rather than pylons!

Hoping that the any opponents of shale gas and 'fracking' will comment outlining the downside. What are the negatives? Those sometimes used are just not credible after minimal research. There is no evidence whatsoever that 'fracking' causes earthquakes. And this stuff about shale gas coming out of taps with the drinking water has been shown to be total nonsense. But we do need to have a regulatory regime in place to ensure o threats to water tables, and that water supplies are adequate.

Not sure how much on an issue this is going to be in Wales. Should find out when the Welsh Affairs Committee look at 'Shale Gas in Wales'. The Bowland Basin comes South as far as Cheshire, but not into Wales at all I think. Its going to be a big, perhaps transformative issue.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

One Day Old; Looking Cuter


Last night at around 9.00 a baby granddaughter was delivered unto us. She is to be named Keeley. Here is a photograph of Tim, Adrienne, (no longer to be known as baby) Darragh and Keeley. Cute or what!

Friday, September 06, 2013

How to perfect the art of 'Cow-Tipping'.

Am writing this blogpost for the benefit of Margo Lillie, Dr of Zoology from the University of British Columbia who has been telling 'The Modern Farmer' that it is not physically possible to push over a cow which is sleeping standing up. She was challenging the myth that 'cow-tipping' as its known, is a sport Young Farmers indulge in after being ousted from their local pub after a skinful. Ms Lillie reckons her mathematical formula dispels the myth of 'cow-tipping'. She says the idea that drunk men could steal into fields and shove sleeping cows onto their sides is not only absurd but scientifically implausible - and that it would take two strong men to overturn a cow, and at least six if the cow woke up.

Ms Lillie's analysis is based on Newton's Second Law, which as we all know states that force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. To shove over a cow of normal size would require 1360 Newtons of force. Well I've news for the professor. I have knocked over many a cow off her feet on my own - though never when drunk and never when she's been asleep. Its just a matter of technique.

For it to work, the cow has to be fairly quiet, and distracted in some way - perhaps by placing a bowl of delicious food in front of her. You stand alongside the cow's neck and reach your arm over to the other side and approach her nose. Moving like lighting, insert two strongest fingers in the nostrils, and pull powerfully upwards and backwards. It helps if your other hand grips the cow's ear for a firmer hold. The cow will simply topple over towards you. You have to be agile enough to move out of the way as she falls, and avoid pulling her too far back - so as not to create danger from flailing hooves. Its essential to ensure the head continues to be forced backwards at all times - with a firm grip kept on the nostrils. If your fingers slip, move away smartly, especially if she looks cross. Should add that I'm not recommending this. I realise modern men are not what we used to be in my youth.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My take on this week's recall of Parliament

I like to reply promptly to emails and letters from constituents. But I have received so many expressing a view of the case for UK involvement in a possible military strike against the Syrian Gov't that I cannot. Any response on this matter is complex, and I just do not have the time to reply properly. So I'm writing a blog post and pointing those I need to write to in the direction of it.

Lets recap. A few days ago chemical weapons were used to murder over a thousand civilians in a suburb of Damascus. After initially refusing to allow UN inspectors to assess the truth of what happened (as far as possible), Bashar al-Assad allowed the scientists in. David Cameron entered into discussions with several national leaders and it seemed highly likely there would be a military strike against the forces of the President of Syria. Parliament was recalled on Thursday. Most of us fully expected the motion under debate would be to grant the Prime Minister the authority to involve British forces in the attack.

Like many other MPs, I was deeply concerned about voting for a military strike, and felt that I might be forced to vote against my Gov't (for the first time). Main concern was that I could not see what such an attack would achieve. I also decided to email those constituents whose addresses were held in my office to gauge opinion. I received a huge number of replies, the majority of which were opposed to British involvement. However, the motion tabled on the evening before the recall was not what I had been expecting. David Cameron had been seeking to create a consensus with Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, and  a motion had been produced which was thought to satisfy his concerns - even though, after he had spoken to his own MPs it didn't. The motion condemned the Syrian Gov't, it allowed time for the UN inspectors to complete their investigations, and included the provision that before any British involvement in military action, there would have to be another vote of MPs (where  the evidence of UN inspectors would be available) to authorise it. This was a great relief to me. I could no longer see any reason not to vote with the Government. In fact I could not really understand why we were being recalled at all. It was probably because it was too late to cancel when it was realised the motion tabled was meaningless.

Anyway, the MPs turned up (apart from a few notable exceptions). The Gov't motion was defeated. So was what I considered a politically inspired Opposition amendment which said much the same thing. David Cameron immediately announced that he accepted the 'view of the House' and that Britain would not play a part in any international military response. And we all went home. It is impossible to yet judge the implications of all this - except that there will be no more jokey references to the French as "cheese eating surrender monkeys"! I expect the President of Syria to be much pleased by developments.

Personally, I was disappointed that the Govt motion was defeated. While I am not at all convinced that Britain should be involved in a military strike, I would have preferred  to keep options on the table. Actually, I do not think there would ever have been a second vote. But on the other hand, there is also a sense of relief that the matter has been killed off now. I do not think the people of Britain or the MPs that represent them would vote for a military strike against the Syrian Gov't.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Case for action against President Assad

Over recent days I have been in  a real quandry about what I should do in the vote for which Parliament is being recalled tomorrow. Like everyone else I was appalled that the Syrian Gov't should have used chemical weapons against its own people. This despicable act is anathema to every concept of humanity and decency. But I need to feel reassured that military intervention will actually help the position, and be to the long term benefit of Syria, its people and its neighbouring countries. Was hoping that tomorrow's speeches by party leaders would help clarify. Best idea of what Prime Minister would say was in the Foreign Secretary's essay in today's Telegraph. So I thought I'd print it for anyone who wants to read it.

The faces of the victims of last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria are haunting. We still do not know how many people died. Médecins Sans Frontières, an independent humanitarian organisation working with hospitals in Syria, estimates that there were 3,600 casualties, including 355 fatalities, among them many children. 

According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing more than 100,000 people so far. But it is now infamous for another, equally chilling reason: this is the first time that chemical warfare has been used anywhere in the world in the 21st century. 

For nearly 100 years, the international community has worked to build a system of defences to protect mankind against the use of weapons of mass destruction – including chemical weapons – to prevent the kind of attacks that are now taking place in Syria.

The First World War exposed the sheer horror that chemical agents inflict. Ninety thousand soldiers on all sides died agonising, choking deaths from the use of mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene on the battlefield, and up to 1.3 million people were blinded or burned by them. Wilfred Owen wrote in searing terms of the “froth-corrupted lungs” and “incurable sores” of his fallen comrades. Chemical weapons developed since that war, such as nerve gases, are even deadlier than those of a century ago.
The power of these weapons to inflict mass, indiscriminate death shocked the world into banning their use in international conflict through the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol. Customary international law now completely prohibits their use, including in internal conflicts like that taking place in Syria. 

There have been decades of painstaking work to construct an international regime of rules and checks, overseen by the UN, to prevent the use of chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles. This is codified in the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which seeks the complete global elimination of chemical weapons – a treaty that Syria refused to sign. 

With a few horrendous exceptions, including the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam Hussein’s campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, the global consensus surrounding the use of chemical weapons in war has held firm. Countries like our own have been able to focus their efforts on trying to universalise the UN Convention, and keep chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
We all live under the protection of this global system of arms control, just as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has spared us from the threat of nuclear holocaust, which blighted my parents’ generation. These rules and conventions are a largely invisible part of the global landscape and are undoubtedly in our national interest. The work of maintaining and upholding them is a constant struggle in international diplomacy, and the events in Syria have the power to undermine them fatally. 

Over the past year we have seen evidence of the repeated small-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. We know this from physiological samples that have been smuggled out of Syria and from other sources of information. 

This amounts to extensive, continuous and escalating use of chemical weapons by a state against its own citizens. We have tried to deter the Syrian regime from continuing these attacks, by raising our concerns at the United Nations Security Council and passing direct messages through diplomatic channels, working with Russia. But last week’s large-scale attack shows the regime has simply ignored these warnings. 

We strongly support the work of the UN team on the ground in Syria. We hope that the information they obtain will help build a fuller picture of the attack – adding to the evidence which already exists – and to help ensure that those responsible for this war crime are held accountable.
The team has a mandate to gather evidence about the attack, but they are not empowered to determine who was responsible for it. All the evidence and information available to us, including from eye-witnesses, leaves us in no doubt that the Assad regime was responsible. The attack took place in an area already controlled by the opposition; regime forces were carrying out a military operation to clear that area; and there is no evidence that the opposition possess any chemical weapons stocks, let alone the capability required to deliver them on the scale needed to cause mass casualties. 

For five days after the attack the regime bombarded the area with conventional weapons, refusing to allow UN inspectors to visit, during which time crucial evidence would have been destroyed or degraded. To argue that the Syrian opposition carried out this attack is to suggest that they attacked their own supporters in an area they already controlled using weapons systems they do not possess. This opinion is shared by our allies and by countries in the region. Yesterday the Arab League passed a resolution stating that it holds Bashar al-Assad and the government in Damascus responsible.
We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons in the 21st century to go unchallenged. That would send a signal to the Syrian regime that they will never face any consequences for their actions, no matter how barbarous. It would make further chemical attacks in Syria much more likely, and also increase the risk that these weapons could fall into the wrong hands in the future. 

But this is not just about one country or one conflict. We cannot afford the weakening of the global prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. We must proceed in a careful and thoughtful way, but we cannot permit our own security to be undermined by the creeping normalisation of the use of weapons that the world has spent decades trying to control and eradicate. 

This actual, repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria is a moral outrage, a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a challenge to our common security. We are now weighing with the United States and our other allies how to respond in a way that is legal and proportionate. The goal of any response should be to prevent further similar humanitarian distress, to deter the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold the global ban against their use. 

The United Nations Security Council should rise to its responsibilities by condemning these events and calling for a robust international response. But all previous attempts to get the Security Council to act on Syria have been blocked, and we cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes. 

Tomorrow, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate these issues, and to make its views known. This is a moment of grave danger for the people of Syria, a moment of truth for democratic nations to live up to their values, and a weighty test of the international community. The way ahead will not be without risks, but the risks of doing nothing are greater.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Access to Cancer Drugs in Wales

The Rarer Cancers Foundation has opened a can of worms today by informing us that people living in Wales and suffering from cancer are four times less likely to receive new cancer drugs than if they lived in England. Actually, this can of worms has been open ever since the National Asembly for Wales was voted into being in 1999. Health care is devolved and inevitably, differences in approach will be taken each side of Offa's Dyke. Fair enough in principle. But I live where this difference is most noticeable. Most of my constituents are referred to 'English' oncologists, but they live in Wales and their access to cancer drugs is limited by the Welsh Gov't. This is a recipe for public confusion and discontent.

But this debate is not as straight forward as much of today's reporting will portray. The position is that the Dep't of Health has decided to establish a Cancer Drugs Fund for England, which enables doctors to prescribe  new cancer drugs which have not been fully and formally recommended by NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence - (or 'Control of Expenditure! as its sometimes known). The Welsh Gov't does not treat cancer as a special case in accessing new drugs, believing its approach to be fairer to all patients. There is no special access to a cancer drugs fund in Wales.

I have taken an interest in this issue for many years - fuelled by my own experience of bowel cancer in 2002. So happens, I was not prescibed drugs. The tumour had not spread and the butchery was enough to do the job. But the experience was traumatic enough to give me an understanding of how I might have felt to be told I needed a specific drug - and then to be told that because I lived in Berriew (Wales) I couldn't have it. But if I lived 10 miles away, in England I could. This is not just hypothetical. Its exactly what happened to another Berriew man recently, Bernie Gill. He was refused access to a drug recommended by his oncologist. Sadly, Bernie died a few weeks ago.

I fully accept that its constitutionally proper to have different approaches to health care each side of the England /Wales border, whether it be access to free prescriptions or waiting times for treatment of variable length. But access to life-prolonging or life-saving drugs is a step too far for public acceptance, in my opinion. The issue is just too sensitive. The context in which the debate takes place is just too traumatic. Nothing does more damage to devolution in Montgomeryshire than this. Personally I do not join in the criticism of the Welsh Gov't over this issue, even if I do think the Cancer Drugs Fund is a good idea. But I do think the UK and Welsh Gov'ts should make a real effort to work together in this most sensitive of policy areas to deliver us a common England and Wales system.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

More on the 'Fracking' Debate

Had a text today from a friend in the food retail business, who has experience of being informed by the local police that safety of her business and people who worked within it could not be protected from a large gathering of protesters - animal rights extremist campaigners. She had been very frightened for her safety at the time. While she was supportive of peaceful legal protest, she thought it wrong that businesses going about lawful work should be harmed or stopped from operating. It was the decision by the police in West Sussex to 'advise' Cuadrilla that they could not provide protection and should cease to operate while the protest continues that instigated her text. Must admit this sort of threatening behaviour transfers my sympathy from the protesters to the 'frackers'.

It seems that the Church of England's sympathies are headed in the same direction. A few days ago we learned of reports from the Diocese of Blackburn that 'fracking' is a threat to God's Creation. I thought at the time it was a bizarre comment, and was surprised that the BBC gave it any coverage at all. Charles Moore, in the Telegraph today recalls the very same Church condemning the Thatcher Gov't for 'tearing the heart out of communities' by closing uneconomic coal mines. Work that one out!  By today it seems the Church of England has done an about-turn and is now in favour of 'fracking' - and compares those who oppose it as akin to those who scaremongered about the MMR vaccine which caused the recent Measles outbreak.

Personally, I want to know if 'fracking' for shale gas is environmentally safe before committing to it. But its worth lifting a couple of points from the Charles Moore article. As much energy is produced on 4 hectares of shale gas producing land as the entire British wind farm industry. And because of where the Bowland Basin is located, cities of past glories like Liverpool will be given a real opportunity of renaissance. The reason the Church of England is so supportive of finding out the potential of shale gas is the impact it may have on the cost of living, particular for the poorest in society, and the creation of employment and prosperity outside of the South East corner of England. I cannot help but feel that much of the antipathy to shale gas is the threat it represents to wind turbines and the infrastructure needed to support it, so illogically loved by the BBC and others. When I think of a legitimate business being forced by intimidation to cease operating, see the BBC pursuing its usual agenda of huge imbalance in reporting positive/negative aspects of the shale gas story, and learn that it may kill off the proposals to desecrate the Mid Wales landscapes with 600 turbines and 100 miles of cable, I feel my sympathy in this debate heading one way only!

End of Season Premiership Table

First day of new Premiership season. Here's my prediction for the last day.

1st - Manchester City
2nd - Manchester Utd
3rd - Chelsea
4th - Arsenal
5th - Spurs
6th -Liverpool
8th - Everton
9th - Southampton
10th - Fulham
11th - Aston Villa
12th - Cardiff
13th - Swansea
14th - West Ham
15th - West Brom
16th - Newcastle
17th- Norwich
18th - Stoke
19th - Crystal Palace
20th - Hull City

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Future of Stroke Services for Mid Wales and Shropshire

For many years I have taken a close interest in Shropshire NHS services because they are so important to Montgomeryshire. I want services we depend on to be as accessible as reasonably possible. And I was warned 30+ yrs ago that Shropshire could not support two DGHs. The warning came from Dr Paul Brown, who was the top 'guts' specialist and a squash playing colleague. He was fiercly opposed to the building of The Princess Royal Hospital. He predicted it would eventually mean the closure of The Royal Shrewsbury - though I do not believe this will happen. We discussed it a lot, and I've always known the day would come when reality would have to be addressed. A few yrs ago the plan was to build one new hospital to replace the the current two at Shrewsbury and Telford on a new site between the towns. Would cost best part of a £billion. Not feasible. So we are looking at a genuine merger into one hospital on two sites. The horrors of the Mid Staffs scandal has forced the issue. This post is about one aspect which typifies the questions that must be faced - stroke services.

Last June, the Trust was faced with a consultancy staffing gap at Shrewsbury, and felt there was no option but to transfer all hyper-acute and acute stroke services to Telford for a two month period.  Stoke rehab was still at Royal Shrewsbury. A review of how it had gone was carried out on Aug 1st. This is what the Trust tell us emerged.

"The meeting received clear feedback that a single site hyper-acute and acute stroke service is delivering positive benefits for stoke patients."

In the first six weeks of operation, 129 patients were seen, half of whom would normally have been treated at Shrewsbury. 12% of patients were thrombolysed compared with 10% in the previous 7 mths. Transfer time led to no missed opportunities to thrombolyse. 95% of patients were admitted to the ward within 4 hours rather than 75%. 94% of patients received CT scanning as opposed to 87%. 99% of patients received at least 90% of care in an acute stroke unit as opposed to 84%. Now I've been around long enough to know that you can prove anything with statistics. But these outcomes must give us a difficult bone to chew on.

What we are being told is that the temporary move to 'maintain' services in the face of staffing problems has actually led to an 'improved' service with better outcomes - reduced mortality, reduced morbidity, reduced disability and shortened recovery times. We are also being told that clinicians have raised concerns that these improved standards (which have described to me as "astonishing") could not be maintained if the service returns to a two-site model as programmed in September. Now this puts the hospital bosses (and me) in a bit of a quandary.  How can I ask for an early return to a model which we are told will lead a reduced service in an area of care in which I have a special interest.

Decisions. The Trust has decided to extend the single site service until Oct 14th to reinforce review findings. The Trust also proposes that an assessment should then be made about the way forward over the next year. The Trust will look at impact on pre-hospital, in-hospital and post-hospital care, considering access, clinical outcomes, patient experience, feasibility and wider operational impact. I feel I need another discussion with hospital bosses for satisfaction that we are not being fed stats that lead inexorably to their favoured conclusion. This will be done.

But the big issue for me is the longer term. I fully accept that a review of how best to deliver services across the range of care must take place. I'm keen that Montgomeryshire plays a part in this review. I have written to the Chair of the Powys CHC to ensure this happens. And its absolutely crucial that the 'interim' arrangements for stroke care do not rule out that the single site of future stroke care provision  (if thats what is decided) could be in Shrewsbury. I warned you this was not a straight forward issue.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Facing up to the Shale Gas Question

Having a few emails condemning my support for shale gas. Which is interesting in that I've not declared any such support. Its true that I do think no UK Gov't can avoid establishing what the potential of this energy source is, and whether it is recoverable at acceptable financial and environmental cost. I do try to base my judgement on evidence, and assessment of benefits or otherwise. So lets consider some of what we think we know so far.

There is a lot of shale gas under the UK. The Bowland Basin, an area covering much of Lancashire, Cheshire and an area to the East contains enough gas to supply the UK's gas needs for 50 yrs, even if only 10% of is accessible. This is a bigger deal than North Sea oil. And it seems there may be another massive resource in the Weald Basin as well. And we haven't looked everywhere yet. We also know that the exploitation of shale gas has transformed the US economy, and is making the US independent of energy supplies from the the Middle East. However we do not know how accessible or recoverable this amazing resource is - or how much of it can realistically be recovered. But already we know shale gas has the potential to transform the British economy, and in particular create a wealth boom away from the South-East.

It does seem that the Coalition Gov't is becoming increasingly enthusiastic. I've felt that George Osborne has been supportive for some time - and Owen Paterson - and Michael Fallon. But now the Prime Minister has come out with all guns blazing as well. And even Lib Dem Energy Sec. of State is in favour. But there are also opponents, particularly on the Lib Dem benches. Not sure whether this is driven by a genuine concern about 'fracking' or a fear that their beloved wind turbines will become obsolete.

Anyway, I need to learn a lot more about shale gas. Are the scare stories just scare stories, or does the opposition have genuine substance. How intrusive are the wells in the open countryside. Similar oil wells have been accepted with little fuss. And I need to talk through the business case and the practical difficulties with people who know. So I have a meeting with Cuadrilla arranged soon after Parliament resumes in Sept.. And I intend to arrange a visit to an existing well site to see for myself. We are facing what may be a transformative economic opportunity, acceptable in environment terms, which we would be deeply unwise to ignore. We (and I) need to decide.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Introduction to Reorganisation of Shropshire NHS Services.

I've always taken a close interest in how the NHS is organised in Shropshire - despite it sometimes has been difficult to engage interest in Montgomeryshire. But I've stuck at it. Its also the case since devolution in 1999 (with health being devolved) that the Welsh Gov't has been keen that Welsh patients be treated in Wales wherever possible, rather than across Offa's Dyke in England. But this applies only to patients needing elective surgery of course. Those needing urgent or emergency treatment are still sent to Shrewsbury and Telford because they are nearer. I've always been antagonistic to this approach. Firstly, it has in my opinion inevitably led to less consideration for Montgomeryshire when services are being reconfigured in Shropshire. And it would not be surprising if some resentment might be engendered when the work with potential for 'profit' is retained in Wales, while work with potential for 'loss' is sent over the border.

Anyway last week NHS leaders in Shropshire announced a comprehensive review of services. Not a surprise. Three of the top bosses have announced that over the next six to nine months they will be leading a debate across Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin and Mid Wales focusing on how to provide acute and community services that best meet the needs of urban and rural communities. This is extremely important to Montgomeryshire - which is why I spent this afternoon travelling over to the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford to discuss this with Peter Herring, Chief Exec of the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospitals Trust.

There are several drivers behind this process. Firstly, the fact that we are living longer disproportionately increases the demand on NHS services. Increased demand is putting ever more pressure on a system never designed for such a workload. But secondly (and this has an effect on me personally) there are the horrors of what happened in Mid Staffordshire. Huge numbers of vulnerable people dying as a result of unacceptably poor care. We can no longer take the risk of allowing acute services to operate without the presence of a consultant with the appropriate skills. This makes it very difficult in Shropshire, which is effectively one hospital split on two sites. This is driving the need for debate. The shadow of Mid Staffs is dark and long.

Most concern seems to about A&E. Media are reporting the possibility of one of the two hospitals losing its A&E. While I do not think this at all likely, (and was specifically ruled out in the announcement letter) I do think we could end up with two rather different A&Es. There could be one with a focus on major accidents and wounds associated with violence, while the other could be more focused on heart attacks, strokes etc. Such an arrangement might enable more patients to move straight to the treatment bed, bypassing A&E altogether. It could be an improvement.

Far to early to take a view on all this yet. My interest (and the reason I've always taken a close involvement in Shropshire health matters) is that I want the best access possible for patients from Montgomeryshire. And I want them to be an integral part of the discussions. I have written to the Powys Community Health Council asking that public meetings be held in Llanidloes, Newtown, Welshpool and Llanfyllin when we have more idea of what the discussion is about - probably early in 2014. There will be several aspects of this issue which will appear on this blog site over the next few months.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hiring immigrant labour.

Today's Telegraph has a headline which activated my interest. It read 'Tesco hiring immigrants on the cheap, says Labour'. It seems that a Labour MP intends to make what's termed a 'keynote' speech tomorrow in which he intends to name Tesco and Next as being 'unscrupulous employers' and being 'guilty' of employing immigrant labour at rates lower than would be paid to British labour. I suppose this sort of talk feeds into the paranoia which surrounds the whole immigration debate. Anyway, its an issue that did once crop up in my experience. I will share it with you, dear reader - in a 'factual' rather than an 'opinionated' way.

Between 1999-2007, I represented Mid and West Wales in the National Assembly for Wales. Around ten years ago I was approached by several constituents, including councillors in one of the towns (not going to identify it) complaining about an influx of hundreds of Poles who were taking all the jobs of locals, and behaving in a threatening way, preventing local people being able to walk their own streets. I decided to raise these concerns with the local Police, and with two of the employers who were deemed 'guilty' of bringing all these Poles in. Let me share with you what I was told. Firstly, the Police. They had not received a single complaint, though people had discussed the issue with them. Its true that there were a lot of young men, sometimes loud and boisterous, outside pubs, in largish groups speaking in a foreign language, Polish. The Police told me there had not been any trouble at all. None.

My discussion with the employers was even more interesting. For years both had not been able to recruit enough dependable staff locally. The benefit system was encouraging potential employees to accept a job, and leave after a few days. The recruitment process was so costly, they both decided to enter into contract with an agency, which bussed in workers every day. For some reason (which I cannot recall) the agreement terminated, and a new agency was engaged, which sent nothing but Polish immigrants - lots of them. They were described as excellent workers, enthusiastic, committed and dependable. Far from costing less, they were actually more expensive than local employees. Both businesses were mostly employing labour at around minimum wage - but plus the agency fee for the Poles. Very soon, the Poles stopped being bussed in, and rented flats and houses locally. Generally they were said to be hard-working, family orientated, church-going with many keen to attend English language classes.

At the time, I thought the sudden influx of so many Polish workers all together may well cause trouble. It did not. I still think it would have been better if there had been some control on numbers at the time, but it was absolutely not true that local businesses were employing immigrants because they were 'unscrupulous employers'. Come to think of it, it was a Labour Gov't in power at the time. Brass necks come to mind.

And that's what I thought of when I read today's Telegraph article. Must admit I might have been influenced by an interest in the Second World War, and the suffering of the Polish nation on behalf of the allies. There may even actually be something in the 'keynote' speech I will definiely not be listening to, but I suspect that a lot of it will be  b******.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Bamboo in variety

Horse and Teak Balls as Art

After a month and more without access to my blog, have managed to get it fixed. And am just getting back into the swing of things with a blog about developments in the garden. New additions this year are a horse made from African oil drums, bought at Hampton Court Flower Show, and a few teak balls bought from Charlies at Coed-y-dinas. As is my practice I leave my spade in the photographs to give perspective.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Vatterfall Wind Power Ltd sidesteps local opinion

Received a nice innocent seeming letter from a Swedish energy giant today. As always with these giant energy subsidy junkies, these 'nice' letters are not what they seem. Vatterfall Wind Power Ltd has withdrawn Planning Application No M20070972 - a planning application for a under 50 mw wind farm in West Montgomeryshire. Such applications are dealt with by Powys County Council, the Local Planning Authority. For those of us who are opposed to desecration of the Mid Wales landscapes by multiple wind farms and National Grid pylons, this is bad news - because Vatterfall is submitting an over 50 mw wind farm application instead.

The new planning application will not go before the Local Planning Authority at all. Because its over 50 mw, it goes directly to the Secretary of State at the Dept of Energy and Climate Change. And the reason behind this is that Vatterfall think the Sec of State will ignore local opinion. This cynical move will be dressed up to demonstrate that its actually beneficial to the area!Its the way they tell 'em. Its a straight forward strategy to circumvent local opposition by going direct to DECC, which it knows cares not for local opinion or landscape or disturbance to populations in areas like Mid Wales, which are of no consequence. What really grates on me is that I will have to sit in Parliament listening to DECC Ministers talking about this lunacy as wonderful investment in rural Wales.

 Personally, I do not think we will recover any sort of control of our own destinies until DECC is would up. The takeover of our lives by the EU has nothing on the bullying domineering attitudes of DECC, with its advance attack units of foreign owned giant subsidy swallowing energy companies and the even less responsive National Grid.

Peruvian Lilies

The garden is looking a bit jaded in the current hot spell. No garden has much of a chance when its pushing 30 degrees every day. But we have lots of alsteomerias to brighten things up. They come in a range of colours and heights. We have about 20 different varieties. They flower for a long time. And if you just pull them up after the flowers die off, they will reward with a second flush in a few weeks time. My favourite is the little red peruvian lily in the first photograph.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cheating in the Cattle Judging Ring

Following Stuart Broad's act of non-sportsmanship yesterday, the Telegraph today has a truly shocking story about dirty tricks at the Great Yorkshire Show. For 155 yrs, the finest cattle breeders from across Britain have entered their finest in the battle for rosettes. A 'first' or 'champion' rosette can put thousands on the value of a beast and more importantly 'bragging rights' in the livestock market bar. Its a matter of honour, and cheating is unthinkable. But it seems not at this yr's Great Yorkshire.
I used to be a judge of dairy cattle, and in my YFC days represented Wales at the Dairy Show in London. First time I visited the great city, and learned about things I didn't know existed. Key to the best dairy animal is the udder, its general shape, its firm atachment at the escutcheon preventing any tendancy to by pendulous, the neat positioning of the teats, and being nicely pushed forward along the underbelly. Rarely would one see a perfect udder, there always being some minor fault. But it seems these may have been corrected by using superglue. In order to give more firmness and shape to the udder, air may have been pumped in before the judging and the teat blocked with superglue. Now I've glued the odd petal into head of a Chrysanthemum or a Dahlia immediately before judging, but I do think to glue up a teat is going too far.
Its not that I'm claiming sharp practise is unheard of at agricultural shows. Dental work, bit of false colouring, and there was even glueing false hair to tidy up the top line not unheard of. Telegraph reports that a false tail has been glued on, though this is new one on me. But I really do draw the line at superglueing teats. I dread to thing what might be happening in the Bulls competition.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Presumed Consent - Sorry cannot edit for some reason

Something strange is happening in the Welsh Assembly.

Professor John Fabre

Professor Emeritus, Kings College London, and past President (1992 – 1995) of the British Transplantation Society.

In January 2008, the Guardian commentator Polly Toynbee referred to the argument for presumed consent for organ donation as a “fight with the forces of superstition and reaction” In this spirit, the Welsh Assembly is proceeding apace with legislation to enable doctors to presume consent for donation unless the deceased person has registered their name on a national “opt-out” register or has unequivocally told their family that they do not wish to donate their organs. The mantra is that presuming consent in these circumstances will increase donation rates and save lives – a heroic banner by any reckoning, especially for politicians.

In 2007 the then Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson made presumed consent an important component of his plans for the NHS, and the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, considered it the foundation for his “transplant revolution”. However, against this strong tide, the Department of Health’s Organ Donation Taskforce, after the most comprehensive examination ever undertaken of presumed consent, reported in November 2008 against it. The Taskforce encompassed a large committee of experts, and the report ran to several hundred pages . Here is the their conclusion. “The Taskforce’s members came to this review of presumed consent with an open mind, with many sympathetic to the view that presumed consent seems an obvious step forward. However, the more the Taskforce examined the evidence, the less obvious the benefit, and the more multifaceted and multidimensional the issue of increasing organ numbers was revealed to be. It became clear that what appeared to be a simple idea to increase numbers may not in fact generate additional donors in sufficient numbers to justify the significant investment needed to put a new system into place. Moreover, there are risks in going down the opt out route which could impact negatively on organ donation. The Taskforce reached a clear consensus in their recommendation that an opt out system should not be introduced in the UK at the present time”.

Nothing has happened since November 2008 to justify a change in this recommendation. Quite the contrary. Donation rates in the UK have risen spectacularly from 2008, after being static or falling, since 1989/1990. The number of donors per annum over the years 2007 to 2012 have been 809, 899, 959 1010, 1088 and 1212. This represents a rise of 49.8% over the 5 years from the 2007 baseline. The donation rate is still rising – the early figures for 2013 show a rise of 9.5% over 2012. This remarkable transformation, which presumably would fit Gordon Brown’s definition of a transplant revolution, has of course been achieved without presumed consent. It is a direct consequence of the carefully considered recommendations made in January 2008 by the Department of Health’s Taskforce, mainly in the area transplant coordination (for example the identification and referral of potential donors within intensive care units). Another crucial area is of course consent, to which we shall return.

In their zeal to save lives and to blaze what they see as a bold new trail for Wales, and to set an example for the UK as a whole, Welsh Ministers and the large majority of Assembly Members are behaving in a rather depressing fashion. Uncomfortable truths are being ignored. False statements are being accepted without challenge. Silly propositions are being accepted as facts. Disingenuous statements are being made without obvious qualms. There appears to be a collective loss of common sense and suspension of critical judgement.

As often happens in these situations, we have rebranding. What is “presumed” consent in the rest of the world has become “deemed” consent in Wales. Whether one is deemed to have consented or presumed to have consented is a fine point – but in practice it is the same thing, and for the sake of clarity I shall stay with “presumed” consent.

Point 1. Spain and presumed consent .The fact that Spain does not operate a presumed consent system is being studiously ignored and sometimes misrepresented. This is important because Spain has consistently had the highest donation rate in the world, and the best consent rate. If the Assembly were to accept this simple truth it would have several crucial but uncomfortable implications - hence the averted gaze.

Spain passed presumed consent legislation in 1979. However, it was not until 1989, when crucial organisational changes were instituted, that Spain’s donation rate began to rise to the pre-eminent position it currently occupies. Many observers have, wrongly, attributed Spain’s success since 1989 to its presumed consent legislation. To correct this misconception, the Director of the Spanish Organ Donation Organisation, Dr Rafael Matesanz, was the senior author on a paper published in the British Medical Journal in October 2010 Here is what the paper says. “Crucially, Spain does not have an opt-out register for those who do not wish to become organ donors. Not a penny is spent on recording objections to organ donation by Spanish citizens, nor on public awareness of the 1979 legislation. Clearly, the presumed consent law in Spain is dormant, and it pre-dates key policy changes made in 1989. In these circumstances, Spain’s outstanding deceased organ donor rate cannot reasonably be attributed to its presumed consent laws”. How can there be a legally binding form of presumed consent without giving citizens the opportunity to opt out, and without even making any effort to inform citizens of the existence of the law? When this was pointed out to Lesley Griffiths, the former Minister for Health in Wales, she replied that the Assembly’s Social Research officials had found “…….a wide consensus in research papers which consistently categorise Spain as a country with an opt-out system of legislation”. That is true, but hardly a substantive response, on two counts. Lesley Griffiths and her successor Mark Drakeford must surely be aware that having presumed consent legislation is one thing, and operating a presumed consent system is quite another. Moreover, although most research papers over the years have indeed classified Spain as a presumed consent country, others have not, and the latter might be the better informed. The Ministers have simply gone with the majority because it suits them. When the Director of the Spanish Organ Donation Organisation seeks to explain the basis for the misconception about Spain and presumed consent, and makes it clear that Spain does not operate a presumed consent system, nobody seems to listen.

The Ministers seem unaware that in Spain the explicit consent of the family is required. The consent (presumed or explicit) of the donor is insufficient. The family must sign a permissions form for organ donation to proceed. The central role of the family is demonstrated in Spain’s approach to donor cards. Here is what the National Organ Donation Organisation (Organizacion Nacional de Trasplantes) website says: “The donor card is a document that testifies to our desire to be an organ donor after death. However, the card has no legal value. We need to tell our families our desire to be donors, to authorise the removal of organs after death” In Spain, the explicit consent of the donor at the time of death by the carrying of a donor card is not sufficient to permit donation. The responsibility for permitting donation rests with the family. In these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can sensibly persist in the contention that Spain operates a presumed consent system.

Once it is accepted that Spain does not operate a presumed consent system, several issues need to be addressed:

• Lesley Griffith’s claim that the introduction of presumed consent legislation in Wales is an essential component of any strategy to improve donation begins to wear thin.

• Clause 102 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill must be recognised as containing a misleading factual error. Under the heading of “Evidence base to establish impact of Proposed Legislation” it states “For example, an opt-out system is operated in Spain and it has the highest donation rate in the world…”. Such a false statement at the core of the official papers underpinning the proposed legislation makes a mockery of the democratic process, and could mislead Assembly Members to vote in favour of this controversial Bill.

• Several of the papers quoted as supporting the introduction of presumed consent (especially that by A. Abadie and S. Gay) incorrectly classify Spain as a presumed consent country.

Point 2. “Soft” or “hard” presumed consent - the proposed role of the family in Wales. The system proposed in Wales has consistently been described as “soft” presumed consent, to distinguish it from hard presumed consent where donation may proceed without consultation with the family. The importance of the family has been constantly stressed. For example, in an interview with The Observer in May 2010, the First Minister for Wales, Carwyn Jones, said “We have decided on soft presumed consent, where relatives can veto organ donation, because we want to make it as easy as possible” Clause 16 of the Stage 1 report of the Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC) states that “A soft opt-out system is one ……where the next of kin will be involved in the decision-making process”. In a letter dated February 2013 to a concerned Welsh citizen, a government official wrote “Organ donation will remain a clinical decision in which families are always involved” and “families will be fully involved in the decision-making process”.

However, the truth is that the family will not be involved in any substantive fashion. Doctors will check the opt-out register, and if the deceased person is not on it (and therefore consent can be presumed) the family will be consulted purely to confirm that the deceased person did not oppose donation. Clause 44A of the Explanatory Memorandum states that “the next of kin will be able to say whether they have any information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the deceased person would not have consented”. If they have not, it is proposed to proceed with the donation. Clause 245 of the HSCC report states that “The family are merely being asked if they have any information that the deceased would have objected”. Clause 253 of the HSCC report states that family members “are not being asked to make a decision on donation, but rather to provide information. This is because the deceased has already made a decision to have their consent deemed”.

It is clear that the family will not be asked for their views regarding donation. The repeated reassurances that the family will be involved in the decision-making process are plainly disingenuous. Wales is in fact proceeding with what most people would regard as hard presumed consent.

It is worth looking at the legal position. If someone makes it clear in their lifetime that they do not wish to donate their organs, for example by going on to the proposed opt-out register or indeed any opt-out register even if not backed by legislation, that is their legally recognised view. Nobody can overturn it, and doctors cannot remove their organs under any circumstances. Equally, if someone makes it clear that they do want to donate their organs, that too is their legally recognised view, and nobody can overturn it. However, doctors are under no legal obligation to comply with the deceased person’s wishes. Doctors can therefore use their discretion as to whether or not to proceed with donation, for example in the face of family opposition or distress or any other factor which might adversely affect transplantation. A family opposed to donation for whatever reason, and with sufficient social confidence to express their opposition to the process engulfing them, can in practice halt donation if they show severe distress or express strong views opposing donation.

Point 3. The wishes of the donor. The wishes of the deceased person are said to be of fundamental importance in all the discussions and documents emanating from the Assembly. However, there is quite obviously no way of ascertaining the wishes of a dead person who has not put their name on an opt out register, who has not subscribed to the existing Donor Register, and who has not discussed donation with their family. The reality is that the absence of an objection cannot be taken as a reliable basis for consent. It defies common sense to say so, however legally expedient it might be, and it is humbug to adopt the posture that the presumption of consent defends the wishes of the donor.

Point 4. The current system in the UK involves expressed consent from donors or their families - it is NOT an opt in system. It is frequently stated that the UK has an opt in system for organ donation (simply because it does not have an opt out system!). This is not the case, and it is a very important point to note. This misconception implies that the 69% of the UK population who have not joined the Donor Register cannot become donors, and is sometimes seen as an argument for presumed consent legislation. For example the BBC Wales political reporter Carl Roberts states today that the proposed presumed consent legislation “….would mean a change from the current opt-in system, where would-be donors have to sign a register” . Another example is a statement from the First Minister for Wales. In the interview mentioned in point 2 above he stated “At the moment, if people are not carrying donor cards then it is presumed that they didn’t want to be a donor”. This is completely wrong. If people are not on the Donor Register and do not carry a donor card, no presumption is made about their wishes. In the current system, where the wishes of the deceased person are not known, the decision rests with the family. It is of course very valuable to join the Donor Register. However, the reality is that more than 60% of organ donors in the UK have not joined the Donor Register.

Point 5. There is a “majority” in Wales in favour of the proposed legislation. Various surveys have shown that between 49% and ~65% of Welsh citizens are in favour of the proposed legislation. This usually just fits the mathematical definition of “majority”. However, for a controversial Bill affecting all citizens, this is what the French once referred to as “un petit oui” – a little yes. More importantly, those voting in favour assume that they are voting for a soft opt out system where the family is involved in a substantive fashion in the decision to donate. They also assume that there is no alternative to legislation. Respondents are unlikely to know that the country with the best donation rate in the world and the best consent rate does not operate a presumed consent system.

Point 6. The aspect of donation directly addressed by presumed consent legislation is consent. It has been repeatedly stated that the presumed consent legislation will be one of a package of measures to increase donation. However, there can be only one direct beneficial effect of presumed consent legislation - an improvement in the consent rate. All of the associated measures (e.g. publicity) can be instituted without the legislation. Moreover, some measures will have no effect on consent but improve donation by other means, for example by increasing admission of potential donors into Intensive Care Units. It would help to focus the debate to acknowledge that the legislation itself can improve donation only by improving consent rates.

The consent rate in the UK, i.e. the percentage of approached families who approved donation, was 56.7% in 2010 and 55.4% in 2011. The corresponding figures for Wales were 63.5% and 58.7% respectively. By contrast, the consent rates in Spain in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were 81%, 84% and 84%, without presumed consent. This is a huge difference, and represents a massive and dreadful waste of organs. If the consent rate in the UK could be increased to 80%, this would represent an increase in the donation rate of more than 40%. In Wales, it would represent an increase of ~30%, higher than that envisaged for the proposed legislation. This high level of consent has been consistently achieved in Spain by promoting better public understanding of transplantation, better public appreciation of its outstanding benefits, and optimal approaches to the family at the time of donation – not by legislation. This is surely achievable in Wales, and is an area where Wales could indeed lead the way for the rest of the UK.

Point 7. The recent fall in donation rates in Wales. The number of donors per annum in Wales over the six years 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 has been 45, 35, 41, 66, 67 and 52 respectively. These numbers are small, and it is essentially impossible to ascribe the large fluctuations in particular years to particular causes (e.g. the rise of 61% in 2010 and the fall of 22% in 2012). It is therefore unwise of those opposing presumed consent to attribute the fall in 2012 to possible negative effects of the proposed legislation. It is equally unwise of those promoting presumed consent to see the fall as a threat and to respond with unfounded blandishments. Here is what Mark Drakeford said in the debate in the Assembly on the 16th April. “What happened in the last year is simple when you understand it. It is not so much that the rates of organ donation went down, it is that the number of people who were able to be donors went down in the first half of that year. That is a good news story, because we do not want people to be in the awful circumstances where they can be donors”. The number of potential donors is influenced by many factors, for example the occupancy of ICU beds and hence the probability of admission of patients who might become donors, as well as other factors when the patient is in the ICU. To describe the fall in donor numbers as good for Welsh citizens, if not for transplantation, is nonsense.

Point 8. The “robust” international research. The research under-pinning the proposed legislation is almost invariably described as robust, presumably in order to give it greater authority. However, it is not so. The Department of Health’s Taskforce had concerns about the selective inclusion of countries for analysis in these research studies. This, and the incorrect assignation of Spain as a presumed consent country,are some of the problems.

But why cling to old studies with uncertain conclusions? The simplest and most convincing “international” research one can do is to look around the world today. If one does that, it is clear that two of the top five countries for organ donation (Spain and the United States of America) do not operate presumed consent systems.

Point 9. The “robust” assessment of the effects of the proposed legislation. Given the substantial effort that has already put into the proposed legislation by various Committees and Assembly Members, and the very substantial future costs, it is frequently stated to be of the utmost importance that the effects of the legislation be not just assessed, but “robustly” assessed. Given the major fluctuations in donation rates in Wales in recent years (noted in point 7 above), the fact that the legislation in Wales will be introduced along with several other measures such as a publicity campaign, and the fact that the Department of Health is planning to introduce additional improvements nationally in the coming years, it is plainly obvious to all except the most credulous that to disentangle the effects of the legislation in any meaningful way is impossible.

Point 10. The future. If additional donors are to come from the proposed legislation, it will be from families who are not happy about organ donation by their loved ones, but who lack the confidence to say so if it is left for them to oppose the system unasked. This is not a healthy foundation on which to build transplantation in Wales.

In the debate in the Assembly on the 16th April, Byron Davies, the Shadow Minister for Transport, gave his view that “…..when someone dies without giving or withholding consent, the family, as the surviving representatives of the deceased, has the final say”. That must surely be the principle on which to move forward in Wales. It is the principle on which the outstandingly successful Spanish system is based.

The tragic irony of all this activity and lobbying for legislation is that the objective of substantially improving donation rates is achievable more cheaply, more effectively and in a socially inclusive manner without legislation. Wales should aim for a consent rate of 80%, which the Spanish have achieved consistently for many years, without presumed consent. The idea that you can legislate for consent is naïve. Addressing the issue of consent in a considered and comprehensive manner is the next logical step to build on the success of 2008 – 2013, both in Wales and nationally.