Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One Rule For One...

The Northern Rock debacle goes on. And on.

Not content with shovelling shedloads of British taxpayer's money into the bottomless pit that is Northern Rock; not content with shelling out ninety thousand pounds each and every month for a "Saviour" to drag the bank out of growing chaos, our increasingly unfathomable Government have this week tried to exempt this fiasco from its Freedom of Information legislation.

In other words, to prevent the public from finding out how public money is being used to 'rescue' the bank.

This is even more strange coming as it does from the very Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act in the first place. The legislation specifically states that nationalised institutions - err, like Northern Rock for instance? - must be subject to its provisions...

Fortunately, Opposition Leader in the House of Lords Lord Strathclyde managed to defeat this cynical nonsense, voting instead for an independent audit of the books within three months followed by an annual audit so we can see where our money is going.

The whole story reminded me of last year's Government settlement to Kent County Council. Despite some of the best local government finance officers in the land, we still could not work out how the Treasury had arrived at their figures. Since the Government had helpfully provided us with the Freedom of Information Act, we decided to use this to ask Government to explain its calculations. Their response? They wouldn't tell Kent how they had made up our settlement figure.

Sadly, the Government weren't prepared to allow Government legislation to be used to obtain information about the Government.

How does the saying go? One rule for one...

It could be your card that's being cloned

Last night, I wrote a posting about a Newsnight feature on the unreliable nature of chip and pin technology; about how Stephen Murdoch and Saar Drimer from the University of Cambridge had exposed the flaws in the system; about how high streets stores and banks had denied such weaknesses existed.

This morning, I found a response posted from Saar Drimer himself, thanking me for commenting on the article and attaching links to further information. Now isn't that how the Web should work?

This issue is critical to all of us - chip and pin is fast becoming the "only game in town" for banks and high street retailers. So we should expect those same banks and retailers to invest in plugging every known gap, every flaw, every shortcoming in their system.

A few minutes on BBC television can only scratch the surface. Saar and his Cambridge Computer Science colleagues have set up an excellent blogsite - "Light Blue Touchpaper" on their work, and the least I can do to thank Saar for his contact is to add the link to this to my Blog Roll on the right hand side of this screen.

Take a look - make yourself aware. It could be your card that's being cloned.

An Impossible Dilemma

I met with a constituent of mine this evening. He wanted to discuss some "problems" with me. Little did I know how difficult the conversation was going to be.

My constituent was in his seventies with a wife of around the same age. In the last few months, she had begun to show signs of dementia. He had immediately tried to have her assessed at a local NHS facility, but this had taken much longer to achieve than he at first thought. The reason for this, NHS staff had told him, was "cutbacks" - in budget, in staffing levels, in capacity.

Now his wife had been assessed, her condition had worsened and he was now told to look for a permanent residential care placement for her. And so the search began - for a residential care home which could handle clients with dementia. Somewhere that could cope with his wife's worsening condition, so she wouldn't be shunted from home to home as her condition became more complex.

And, because their finances exceeded £21,000 excluding property, they would be "self funding", although he did say that the NHS would contribute to the costs if weekly costs were greater than his level of disposable income.

His dilemma? "All the good local homes are full - there's no space anywhere. I don't want to put her miles away. And I'm driving myself mad thinking that - if there is a spare place - maybe that home isn't very good. Why does it have spare places? Why isn't it full up?"

I referred him to some KCC professionals who should be able to help him find a good placement for his wife, as well as our Online Care Directory - you can find this at

But I suspect none of us would want to have to make the decisions my constituent is having to confront, for all the tea in China. It's an impossible dilemma.

Quaking in their bed

Kent was one of several areas to experience an earthquake last night. Radio Kent's breakfast presenter John Warnett asked listeners to call in with their experiences of the incident.

Minutes later an email from "Jeremy from Canterbury" came in. "I was awake when the earthquake began" he told listeners. "..and I recall the precise moment the earthquake began. It was when my wife flopped down onto the bed.."

I assume his wife was listening to another station...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Opening the doors to our bank accounts?

Did anybody watch Newsnight tonight on BBC2?

There was a fascinating feature on the security of chip and pin systems - you know, the machines into which you put your card and tap in your PIN number when you're paying for goods electronically.

Two Cambridge University researchers - Stephen Murdoch and Saar Drimer, showed how easy it was to experiment on a PED (PIN entry device) which they bought for £30 on eBay. Eventually they found they could insert an extra wire onto the circuit board which would 'hijack' both card and PIN data for use in cloning fake cards.

Although "chip and pin" technology has brought down High Street fraud, the problem is simply displaced - often to Eastern Europe. In 2006 a total of £430m was lost to fraud, and almost a quarter of this, £99.6m was lost through cloned cards.

Banks, high street retailers, even industry watchdogs - all were quoted as saying they were "confident" that the pin entry systems were safe.

So how come two men with £30 to spend on eBay showed that it's anything but safe? Surely if our banks and retailers can increasingly refuse to take cash or cheques, we as consumers should insist that the systems used aren't opening the doors to our bank accounts?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The success story of a local open prison

Sunday's papers carried the story of G-TRIO, the Cessna 172 which crashed in a garden at Lyminge at the weekend, shortly after take off from Rochester. However, the story continues today with the news that the aircraft carried as its passenger an inmate from Blantyre House open prison in Goudhurst.

Whatever the reasons for a day-release prisoner flying around over Kent, whatever the poor judgement shown by the pilot leading to the crash, let's hope we don't see any fingers of blame pointing at the prison.

I recall visiting Blantyre and being really impressed by the culture, by the officers, and by the inmates, who were only too aware how lucky they were to be spending the last eighteen months of their sentence at this facility.

I later called in a work team from Blantyre to decorate the youth hut at Henwood Recreation Ground in Pembury. They were cheerful, friendly, hard working and the locals who met them had nothing but admiration.

So let's try to separate two stories - one involves the activities of a day release prisoner; the other is the success story of a local open prison.

It's the little wins that count

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I campaigned strongly against the Government's stance on television licencing, which penalised frail elderly people just out of hospital and recuperating in intermediate care homes.

It seemed that - even though they may have had a licenced TV set at home, they still had to purchase a TV licence for any set they might have watched whilst in recuperative care. The BBC itself covered the story -, as did Radio Four's "You and Yours" along with several national dailies, and every local paper, TV and radio station in Kent.

Kent on Sunday revisited this story last week - - "Thousands in Fear of TV Licencing Authority".

Today, however, I got an email from the TV Licensing Press Office:

"With reference to your comments in the attached article from Kent on Sunday, we thought you would be interested to know that the TV licensing regulations for care homes have now changed and people no longer need to buy an additional licence to cover them during respite stays in residential care.

"TV Licensing has a duty to enforce the licence fee and apply the law correctly, as we were doing at the time in the 2006 case mentioned. As the article states, we also assured you at the time that we would not prosecute people in the situation described.

"Given that the law has now changed, it is untrue to say that this matter affects "thousands of people" in Kent. TV Licensing has no reason to believe that people in Kent are unduly worried about their TV licence, but should you have evidence to the contrary, we would urge you to contact us, so that we can rectify the situation."

Does that mean "you were right, we're sorry and we've now changed the law"?

As they say, it's the little wins that count.

Heat or food? It's your call

You may recall that last week I told you about a call from Kent on Sunday, who wanted a quote on the astonishing levels of profit from energy companies in general, and British Gas in particular, and how it related to older people in the county.

I was delighted to read a very balanced and informed piece yesterday from Jenna Pudelek - "OAP's charity rails against energy firm's fat cat profits". (Click on the article to the right to read)

Ann Hunter, Chief Officer of Age Concern in Ashford set out the very clear choice confronting many elderly residents. "The concern is they could use the little money they get for heating rather than food because when you're on a limited income you have to look at every penny you get."

What has our society come to? We allow energy providers to become bloated oligarcies, charging ever higher prices, with no compulsion to bring in alternative energy, no market regulation, and largely toothless regulatory processes.

Demography tells us to look forward to higher and higher numbers of elderly and frail people, who deserve to be supported and cared for in their twilight years. And yet what's the choice we present them with?

"Heat or food? It's your call..."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shameful in the extreme

Yesterday, there was a substantial protest outside County Hall by users of the Queen Elizabeth Foundation Resource Centre, a day centre for adults with physical disabilities in Dartford. I have instigated a consultation to replace the "bricks and mortar" services provided there, with more community-based services in line with both Government and County Council thinking.

But change is often - and understandably - viewed with suspicion, and officers from Kent Adult Social services are working slowly and steadily with service users to assess their needs and help them create individual, personalised packages of care that will better serve their needs. BBC South East ran a story on the protest at lunchtime and the evening news bulletins. In it, local Labour County and Borough Councillors were joining in the protest, rightly standing up for their local constituents.

However, what irked me most was that Liberal Democrats - none of whom speak for this area - had induced the disabled users to hold a banner proclaiming "Kent Lib Dems - Standing up for Disability Rights".

I hope the "Councillors" in question can live with their consciences - hijacking a legitimate protest as a party political publicity stunt is going way beyond the boundary of acceptable political behaviour, and is shameful in the extreme.

photo courtesy of Kent Liberal Democrat website - read their version of the story at

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How very, very sad

If you've ever watched the movie "The Matrix", yesterday felt very similar for me, as I left home just before 7am and sped across Kent to be in Canterbury an hour later. I was due to be interviewed live on Radio Kent, at exactly 8.20 by telephone from the boardroom at Kent Business School on the University campus. The phone would ring precisely two minutes before the interview, and if I wasn't there to pick up, listeners across Kent would know I was late!

The fog was atrocious, as I travelled across the county to Maidstone, up Detling Hill, then down the A2 towards Canterbury. I turned off onto the Canterbury road at five to nine, and got to the edge of the university campus at five past. I broke into a sweat as I turned into the car park, and was duly greeted by someone from Kent Business School, who showed me into the boardroom. Just time to scribble the three or four main points I needed to make, and the phone rang. "Morning Kevin, John will be with you in a moment" said the producer, leaving me to listen to the show over the phone until John Warnett announced the proposed closure of the Canterbury Day Opportunities Centre.

I was quite content that I'd put across all the points I needed to, and that John has given me a fair hearing. Of more surprise when I got home last night at around 11.30pm and checked my emails was a particularly biased, spiteful, personally insulting message referring to the interview.

Was the writer affronted by our plans to close the Day Centre? Were they morally assaulted at our treatment of adults with disablities?

No. They were aggrieved that my vision of choice, freedom and opportunity for disabled people seemed to be along similar lines to that of the Labour government, and that this might cost Conservative votes at the next election. How very, very sad.

Profits up 500%? What a gas..

Just had a call from Kent on Sunday. Like most right-minded people, they too are disgusted by the news that British Gas, just weeks after hiking their prices by 15%, they have announced profits up 500% on 2006.

They made the point, quite rightly, that the rise in fuel prices would hit older and vulnerable customers worst, and asked for my comment.

With the Government set to begin decommissioning North Sea platforms this year, Britain's domestic supply is fast running out. In the meantime, however, I made the point that Government should step in to regulate this largely monopolistic market.

Local government too, could play its part. I felt it odd that councils should be paying companies to collect and take away domestic waste simply to drop into holes in the ground - particularly when the technology exists to convert this waste into energy. I said "I may be a bit mad, but surely if the seven county councils in the South East got together, we could reprocess this waste on a large enough scale to be feasible, even if we redistributed the fledgling green energy to one specific market - say elderly people."

"I like that quote" said the reporter as she finished our conversation.

What's the betting that the headline will say "KCC Cabinet Member admits to being a bit mad"?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Google and the World Wide Web

I was fascinated to hear today how the web search engine Google actually works.

I'm told that if the hundreds of thousands of software "crawlers" used by Google to search web sites for key phrases were actually allowed to crawl over the real Internet, it would grind to a halt and crash in minutes.

Instead, in a secret location in America, over one hundred thousand computers sit in darkness in a collection of hangars. Each computer is tasked with downloading a small part of the world wide web, over which it runs the Google crawlers once downloaded.

A small team of maintenance staff patrol this facility, and when a computer malfunctions, it is immediately replaced with another.

What struck me was that the entire Internet could be downloaded onto just 100,000 computers. It seems amazing that - just fifty years ago - the processing power of the largest industrial mainframe computer could today be surpassed by the processing power of a single musical birthday card. Perhaps in fifty years the entire Internet will download onto a mobile phone?

And the point is?

With Fidel Castro now handing over the reigns of power to his brother Raoul, I fell into conversation today with a Canadian who enlightened me as to the somewhat "sledgehammer to crack a nut" approach that America took to keep Cuba in its place.

I'm told that under its Constitution, America can't actually prevent its citizens from visiting Cuba. Instead, whilst its visitors can travel there, they're not actually allowed to spend any American currency whilst on the island. In case this doesn't work, American ships are prevented from visiting with a law that says if you land in Cuba, you cannot dock in any US port for two years.

Lastly, Cuba has always been fairly "hand to mouth" with its fiscal policies, and depends on imported oil to run its power supplies. When Cuba orders another tanker full of oil then, America apparently waits for it to be enroute, then often buys up the entire cargo for twice the market price. Since Cuba cannot afford to pre-purchase the oil, this is entirely legal, resulting in a last-minute non-delivery, and another blackout in Havana.

And the point is...?

Monday, February 18, 2008

We're paying his salary

The Northern Rock pantomime goes on. And on.

Following the announcement that Ron Sandler, former boss of the London Stock Exchange has been drafted in to rescue the failed bank, I see from the excellent Iain Dale's blog ( that Alistair Darling, our illustrious Chancellor of the Exchequer and Guardian of the Public Purse, has agreed the remuneration which Mr Sandler is to be paid.

£90k per month. WHAT? I'll say it again. Ninety thousand pounds a month. Do you think Mr Sandler will give us an update on his progress?

After all, we're paying his salary.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

And the cash just keeps on flowing

After a debacle seen by many as the collective low point of the Treasury, the FSA and the Bank of England, the Chancellor's statement today that "it is better for the Government to hold on to Northern Rock for a temporary period" will be seen as a further sign of uncertainty and vacillation.

Shares will be suspended from tomorrow (Monday) and the nationalisation - the first in three decades - allows Government to appoint a panel to decide the level of compensation to award Northern Rock shareholders.

The news will be equally upsetting for both Northern Rock management and staff, and Virgin boss Richard Branson, both of who had prepared takeover bids for the ailing institution.

With upwards of £55,000,000,000 - yes, that's fifty five billion pounds - of British taxpayers' money thrown at the fiasco that is Northern Rock to shore up loans and guarantees, Chancellor Alistair Darling's pronouncement today must be about as welcome as a bacon sandwich at a barmitzvah.

The appointment of Ron Sandler, former boss at Lloyd's of London to head up the nationalised organisation, will doubtless instil confidence in shareholders who feel, in the words of BBC Business Editor Robert Peston, that they have been "fleeced".

A Licence to Smoke

From the Government who brought us the smoking ban, who put thousands of publicans and restarateurs in dire straits, last week came the next bright idea - the "£10 Licence to Smoke".

Chairman of the 'Health England' quango, Professor Julien le Grand - yes, that's a real person's name - proudly stated that if his idea was accepted, smokers would have to complete an annual form and submit this with a photo and £10 fee, to apply for a 'Licence to Smoke'. Without this, they would be unable to buy cigarettes in shops. Professor le Grand suggested that having to apply in this way would put off vast numbers of smokers, helping this lunatic control-freak Government towards their next nanny-state target.

"You've got to get a form, a complex form - the government's good at complex forms; you have got to get a photograph." he said "It's a little bit of a problem to actually do it, so you have got to make a conscious decision every year to opt in to being a smoker."

Clearly Professor le Grand feels that a ten pound fee would succeed where cancer, emphysema, thrombosis, lung and heart disease, Government tax greed and more recently, social pariah status has not.

If this idea of a licence is such a great idea, why haven't Government considered it for alcohol? If young people had to apply and pay for a licence to buy their lager and alcopops; if they had to show this licence to buy drinks over a bar; and - more to the point - if the Police were entitled to confiscate this licence if the bearer were found consuming alcohol in a public place or behaving antisocially under the influence, maybe we wouldn't have out-of-control town centres every Friday and Saturday night up and down the country.

The whole world's gone stark raving mad

I see from today's papers that Katie Price - or 'Jordan' to most of the Western world - is being courted by Labour to take a "senior Government position".

And just as I gear up to make cheap jokes about Gordon Brown's Prime Ministerial boobs being even bigger than those of his new adviser, I see that Labour may have to move quickly to prevent David Cameron's Conservatives making Ms Price "an offer she can't refuse". It seems they want her to advise them on women and family issues.

What was it Tony Hancock said? "The whole world's gone stark raving mad..."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

The Department for Transport, led by husky-voiced Ruth Kelly, MP for Bolton West and ex-Education Minister, ran a public consultation until March 9th last year, on the current tariff of charges. As a result, 178 responses were sent direct to the DfT, but a further 5,500 responses were sent in via local MPs; two MP websites registered a further 3,592 and 1,234 responses respectively, a campaign spearheaded by the Kent Messenger harvested 3,389 responses, and there were 937 e-signatures on the 10 Downing Street website.

In total, 14,652 responses in addition to the 178 sent directly to the Government. But in a remarkable manipulation, Ms Kelly chose to ignore the larger figure on the basis that "it is possible that some people may have registered their opinions in more than one place. Unless otherwise stated this summary refers to the 178 responses submitted directly to the Department."

Amazing - ignore 99% of responses in case any of the 1% are doubled up. That'll be a fair consultation then Ms Kelly...

But the plot thickens. Following this "consultation", Ms Kelly now suggests that 'local' residents should pay a discounted crossing charge, whilst charges should rise for everyone else. What defines local? Suggestions include Dartford, Thurrock, Gravesham and Basildon.

So two of the twelve Kent districts - Dartford and Gravesham - get cheaper crossings, whilst our other ten Districts should actually pay more. Ms Kelly ignores the fact that we've all contributed to the construction through our taxes, and we're all paying off the Supported Borrowing which Government gave us in lieu of the revenue they promised us - see here.

Why didn't Government just ignore the views of local residents and enforce whatever scheme they thought would give them even more of our hard-earned cash through yet another stealth tax?

Silly me - that's exactly what they've done, isn't it...

(photo courtesy of

Friday, February 15, 2008

An eye for an eye

In a week that a report from Professor Nick Bosanquet for the Reform group calls for a constitutional change in the health sector making value for money mandatory, spare a thought for Colin Valder.

An elderly man from Brighton, by his own admission "an out and about person" who 'likes visual things' Mr Valder has "fought for King and Country, never been out on strike, never been unemployed, never broken the law, and paid taxes all my life". Now his eyesight is failing, and he desperately needs an operation.

The NHS however, presumably not wishing to waste money saving both his eyes, have told him that he must go blind in one eye before they will operate to save the other.

Apparently the Government may issue guidance soon which might allow this operation to save both Mr Valder's eyes. In the meantime he will just have to wait and hope.

One suspects that in fighting for King and country, even Mr Valder's enemies could not have thought up a more upsetting torture.

A vision for choice and independence

In September last year, Kent County Council launched Kent TV, our internet-based TV service. The channel gives us the capacity to bring news and advice right into the homes of Kent residents.
The service is completely independent, being run for the county by Ten Alps, the production company owned by Kent resident Sir Bob Geldof.

Within just a few months, thousands of viewers log on every week to see the various programmes - on places, people and services. A new channel "How To..." will launch shortly, giving online advice for access to public services.

This week, I gave my first interview for Kent TV, explaining our vision for providing choice and independence through Kent Adult Social Services. You can see the interview at:
If you have any question or comments, please let me know by posting a comment here.

Currying favour?

A strange twist to the immigration tale yesterday. It appears that in an effort to be seen to be tightening up on immigration criteria, our Government threatens Britain's favourite dish - curry.

In something of a fervour to qualify its "come one come all" policies, Labour tweaked its rules to ensure a steady flow of skilled craftsmen from Eastern Europe. However an unintended consequence has been to exclude many less skilled Bangladeshis, cutting off the supply of staff to our Indian restaurateurs.

At least we won't see a similar problem if ever "neeps and tatties" loom large on the national palate. Most of Brown's administration seem to be from North o' the Border.

Islington upon Camden

Clearly exhausted from throwing all that public money around, civil servants have thrown millions at "the wrong Newcastle".

Two point eight million pounds of Local Authority Business Growth Incentive cash - or LABGI to its friends - has been given to Newcastle-under-Lyme rather than Newcastle upon Tyne by mistake.

It's easy to do, I suppose. By Labour government standards, £2.8 million is mere loose change. Leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Simon Tagg complains bitterly that "if we do have to pay it back, it should be over twenty years". Sorry? What does he mean, "if"?

Perhaps Kent should change its name to Islington upon Camden...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Have we learned nothing from Victoria Climbier?

Today saw the shocking and sickening story of little Jessica Randall, who lived just over two months. She never stood a chance - abused both physically and sexually from the moment she was brought home from the maternity unit.

That her father, Andrew Randall personifies evil is clear. That he could have carried out these acts of cruelty and torture is beyond belief. That her schizophrenic mother did nothing to prevent the slow death of her own daughter is tragic.

A post-mortem found nine broken ribs and a fractured skull among her injuries. During her many visits to Kettering General Hospital, over thirty health workers came into contact with Jessica, yet not one of them saw fit to trigger child protection procedures.

Have we learned nothing from Victoria Climbier?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

hello hello hello

A friend told me with some bemusement this evening about an episode on Saturday. It seems a group of young men, walking home from the pub feeling the worse for wear, noticed that my friend's wife had left the hatchback unlocked on her car. A moment later they had leaned in, taken off the hand brake, and were rolling the vehicle across the road and onto the green opposite their house.

A passer by knocked in the early hours and told my friend, who put on some clothes, grabbed the car keys and moved the car back. Realising this was an annoying yet harmless prank, my friend retired again for the night.

Just moments later three police cars came screaming round the corner, and a number of stab-vested officers pounded on my friends' door. It seems the neighbours had seen the incident and phoned the boys in blue.

But no matter how much my friend protested that this was a prank and that he wouldn't be pressing charges, the police still wanted a statement. Again and again they asked him for his name and date of birth, and when he finally said "look - I don't want to report this, there's no point", the boys in blue told him "but we have to fill in a report".

The real choker came the next day, when my friend's phone rang. It was apparently a senior police officer, ringing to give my friend a Crime Sheet Number.

For what possible purpose? There was no damage, no theft, no real victim and certainly no suspects. This was an open and shut case of blind bureaucracy taking up time which could have been spent in other ways.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Final Insult

I met an American lady this morning; a very kind, intelligent American lady. She's a single mother who, concerned about her English-born daughter's future, applied for British citizenship.

She had got a near-perfect score for her "Britishness" test, failing only the answer to the question "Where would you go to apply for a National Insurance number?". She was overjoyed today to find that her application had been approved.

However, she explained to me that this aspiration for a UK passport comes at a price. For the test alone, she had to buy a revision book at £20 and pay £35 to take the exam.

The processing fee came to £650, to which she finally has to add £60 odd for her UK passport.

The irony of all this? The lady in question has worked and paid tax in Britain for over twenty five years.

The final insult was that they never even bothered to take up her references...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Crimes against older people

In one of the most sickening crimes I've read about in a long time, sisters Alice and Annie Horsman - 100 and 106 years old respectively - have been robbed in a distraction burglary by two men posing a Water Board officials.

The men asked to enter the sisters' house to 'test the water' then stole a large amount of money from the living room.

But it did remind me of two very elderly sisters living in Kent who found it increasingly difficult to climb up their stairs. After much discussion they called in a stairlift company to give them a quote. Satisfied with the price, they had their new stairlift installed. Unfortunately, it stopped working within days, and despite several calls by the sisters, the company absolved itself of any responsibility, leaving the sisters heartbroken and several thousand pounds poorer.

As they could no longer get upstairs to their bedrooms, they took to sleeping in two high-backed dining chairs with blankets pulled up around their necks, and the matter was only resolved when their neighbours reported the matter to Kent Social Services.

My question is - which, if any, of these two undoubted crimes against older people is the more disgraceful? And which is more widely perpetrated?

Three point four billion pounds is not enough

I see from Kent on Sunday today (, page 7) that the Television Licensing Authority are still alive, still well, and still terrifying innocent licence holders with threats of £1000 fines for evading a television licence. Last year, over seven thousand people across the county were prosecuted for not having a valid licence.

But even though the 25 million licences across the UK, at £135 each bring the Government nearly £3.4 billion pounds a year, they still persecute the elderly and frail. I ran a campaign back in 2006 because elderly people staying temporarily in care homes for respite or for recuperative care had to pay £135 for an annual licence if they wished to watch TV in their room. Even though they may have had a fully licenced TV back at home, this licence was tied to their address, not their set so they couldn't just go and get their own TV.

I fought the campaign across the summer of 2006 - see here - and even though I was told in a live debate with TV Licencing on Radio Four that " wouldn't be in the public interest to prosecute a load of old people...", still the Government wouldn't look to change the law. The BBC Charter had just been renogotiated, and that was that for another eight years.

And how many elderly people would risk watching TV without a licence with any chance that they might be prosecuted hanging over them?

However, what most incensed the public of Kent was when we discovered that if any of those elderly and frail people had been convicted of a crime and sent to prison, they would have watched their own TV in their cell without any need to buy a licence. The great British taxpayer covers both TV and licence...

The good, the bad and the CPA team

So the inspectors have left the building. Friday saw KCC's Seminar Lecture Theatre packed to the rafters with staff and councillors to hear the Audit Commission's seven-strong team give us their feedback on three weeks of inspection.

We heard that they felt KCC was "unusually outward-looking"; that we sought "the wider well-being of the community - often beyond the traditional sphere" and how we had an "open staff culture"; "empowered managers" and "high calibre Cabinet, managers and staff".

But we also heard we could be "dazzled by our own brilliance"; that we should "lighten up" and "develop modern community leadership".

The presentation of findings lasted for over an hour, and left us feeling quietly hopeful that we can retain our four star excellent status. The inspectors will now write up their report and defend it against a Consistency Panel" in March, before giving KCC a chance to appeal against anything, before which the star rating will be published in early June.

For the sake of our staff, our Members, and the Kent taxpayer who receives our services, I sincerely hope we keep our four stars, but learn from the experience and make the County Council even better.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Joined up government

So the Labour Government in the person of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith proposes that parents be made responsible for their children's consumption of alcohol, or that children enter into "agreements" with youth workers to control their binge drinking.

Is this the same Government that gave us legislation to make town centres "alcohol free zones" where police officers would arrest young people found in posession of cans?

And the same Labour Government which allowed smart brewery chains to package their drinks in "tetra pak" style milk cartons to evade the very legislation they'd just brought in?

Right hand knowing what the left hand's doing - just what we need for joined up government.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The ABC of PSTCs

According to evidence unearthed by the Financial Times, the NHS have 'suppressed' evidence which prove projects which were giving "very good value for money" were then scrapped to redirect cash into buying £750,000,000 of private care for patients.

Private Sector Treatment Centres or PSTCs - were the 'Great White Hope' of Labour's reduction in hospital waiting lists. Staffed primarily by South African or Scandinavian teams of doctors and nurses, the intention was for these centres to (no pun intended) 'hack' into waiting lists for scheduled procedures, performing routine operation after routine operation, cutting down the numbers of patients waiting for surgery.

The idea had serious drawbacks - firstly these 'routine operations' allowed our newly qualified trainee surgeons to hone their skills on more straightforward procedures. PSTCs cherry-picked all this simple work, leaving trainees with more complex operations and little opportunity to practice. Secondly, the cost of these centres - which to attract overseas "contractors" was much higher than employing home-grown expertise - was topsliced directly from the budgets of the hospitals where they were based, leaving cash-strapped hospital with even less money.

'Independent' review teams called in by Government stated that the £550m spent on PSTCs, together with a further £200m spent on diagnostics, "represented good value for money". Strategic Health Authorities agreed the deal "was appropriate and very welcome".

But just a year later, Health Secretary Alan Johnson has cancelled most of the contracts, claiming that the massively improved NHS no longer needs the help. Already Government is spending tens of millions of pounds compensating out of pocket businesses for the tendering costs they have lost.

UBS's Ken Anderson who negotiated the contracts, left just a few months later, as did Lord Norman Warner, the Health Secretary who pushed the deals through. And the only real losers? You and me - the taxpayers. Just another day, another massive waste of hundreds of millions in public money.

Better luck next time? How long can this go on?

Turning in his grave?

An update to my earlier post about my daughter's dental treatment. You may recall that the orthodontist told us that his waiting list for NHS treatment was at least a year long, but that - miracle of miracles - we could go private and receive super-deluxe treatment - essentially a couple of hours' worth of surgery and a brace - for just three thousand pounds.

A colleague of my wife's told her today that he and his family actually go to Poland for their dental treatment - and pay around ten percent of the private fee in Britain.

Poland? What on earth has happened to our National Health Service? Aneurin Bevan must be turning in his grave.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Comprehensive Performance

As part of Kent County Council's current inspection by the Audit Commission this morning was my turn to be interviewed about Kent Adult Social Services.

I spent just over an hour with Jane Scott, Leader of Wiltshire County Council and Rita Lally, Director of Adult Services at Buckinghamshire County Council.

We discussed a whole range of issues, and I endeavoured in an hour to give some idea of just what was important to us in delivering the best social care to the people of Kent.

It was a tall order, but a very full conversation. Time alone will tell whether I and my colleagues across KCC have been able to prove to the Comprehensive Performance Assessment inspectors that kent deserves to retain its current "Four Star Excellent" status.

Press for Lunch

Met Bernard Ginns, Editor of UK Free Newspaper of the Year Kent on Sunday today. We had agreed to meet for a working lunch in my office, the idea being to understand each other a little better.

Kent on Sunday have been supportive champions for many of the issues raised by Kent County Council - supporting our campaigns on Government funding going north, on TV licence waivers for older people in recuperative care, and on Government paying KCC its Asylum debts.

So it was interesting to discuss some of the issues affecting Social Care in Kent, the financial pressures, and the ways in which we could work together to raise the public awareness.

I was very grateful to Bernard for popping in, and look forward to a warm and positive relationship.

Putting the bite on

I suppose we should have seen it coming - no simple appointment card for us, but a huge colour glossy brochure which cost over two pounds to post! My wife took my eldest daughter to the orthodontist today, looking at x-rays and discussing future treatment. He proposed a course of treatment, which involved some surgery to correct odd growth of wisdom teeth, and a brace for around eighteen months to give her straight, white teeth in time for adulthood.

Since my daughter is not yet teenage, and we were seeing the orthodontist on the NHS, we assumed of course that any treatment would be on the National Health. How wrong we were!

The orthodontist went on to explain that his "NHS waiting list" was so long that he wouldn't even be able to see her for the best part of a year. However, if we were to pay privately, the same orthodontist could see her next month. In addition he added - pointedly in front of my daughter - the ugly NHS brace could easily be replaced with the new transparent alternative if we paid privately.

This "brave new world" of private dentistry could be ours from just £3000. What? Yes, three thousand pounds. There were easy pay options, and added extras - whitening, straightening, you name it - it was ours for hard cash.

We're now looking around for an NHS orthodontist who doesn't have a year-long waiting list. Let's hope the next one doesn't have any expensive cars, mortgages and hobbies that need paying for.

Flipping ludicrous

Quintessentially English and the stuff of "and finally..." news items on TVs throughout the land, for more than six hundred years the bells of Ripon Cathedral have marked the start of the annual Pancake Race.

But no more. Yet another victim of our risk-averse society, the Very Reverend Keith Jukes, the Dean of Ripon has declared that intrusive and disproportionate Health and Safety legislation is a main reason why the race is now to be cancelled. Despite the worst injury in recent memory being a cut knee or grazed shin, insurance companies refuse to cover the event without bureaucratic and expensive measures.

It's the same in Blackpool, where Health and Safety legislation has forced Blackpool Council to cancel the Ballroom dancing for pensioners amid fears that they may injure themselves as they spin around the floor.

It reminds me of a situation some years ago where I and other local Councillors called for more lighting to a dark area of Tunbridge Wells Common, in order to make it safer for those walking home from the station. The answer came back that this would not be possible.

Apparently, to put up lights would imply that there was a reason why the area had become unsafe, and therefore the insurance company would double the premiums.

The Whitstable Oyster Festival, for years a source of pleasure and fun to local residents, also closed its doors a couple of years ago because it had been drowned in bureacracy, legislation and risk assessments.

Isn't it time for society to put its collective feet down and stop this bureacratic and obstructive nonsense?

Monday, February 4, 2008

No spitting, no touching people inappropriately

That nice Hazel Blears has done it again! In an effort to ease tensions in communities with an influx of migrants, town halls will now offer a "newcomer pack".

Full of invaluable advice to help with integration into British society, nuggets such as "Don't spit", "Don't touch people inappropriately" and the classic "Queue in shops" will allegedly ease the tensions caused by Government having totally underfunded local services in growth areas, and having little or no record of migrant numbers anyway.

Helpfully, "action plans" are now due to be worked up with local councils by Government, who intend to invest some £50m over the next three years - that's £88 a year for each of the 190,000 new migrants who enter this country on average every year. What a difference that will make to local councils struggling to provide services...

Ms Blears said today: "As a government we have a role in ensuring that the diversity which is a real strength of this country is successfully managed..."

Why start now when chronic mismanagement has been so easy for so long?

Choice and Dilemmas

I spoke at a recent seminar for local government - "Choice and Dilemmas: The Future of Local Adult Social Care" with Ivan Lewis, Minister for Care Services at the Department of Health.

A small invited group of officers and politicians from London boroughs, county councils, professional bodies and social care media joined myself, the Minister, and Annie Stevenson, Senior Policy Adviser with Help The Aged.

It seemed to me sensible to set out the pressures and issues affecting Social Service departments - the cost of the Government's choice and personalisation agenda; the need for better access to health and social care for all; and how a simple change in legislation would allow us to build much-needed capacity in the voluntary and community sector.

The Minister agreed that fundamental change was required - we needed to rethink the way we delivered health and care services if we were to cope with more demand, from more people, with less money. And although I had to contend with the odd jibe about Kent TV, it was refreshing to leave politics aside for a while to find that everyone in the room had common ground - better services in a changing society.

Mr Lewis will be seeking the views of us all in his Green Paper on financing adult social care later this year. I really hope he's still in listening mode.

Smokers of the world ignite

In a shrewd marketing move, Marlboro today announced its intention to trial the new "Intense" brand of 'bite size' cigarettes in Turkey.

At just 7.2cm long, the new Marlboro will last an average of seven puffs - just enough for a "quick puff" by harassed smokers forced outdoors in all weathers by the smoking ban in more than fifty countries.

However, it will apparently deliver the same strength at half the size - essentially being double strength. How long before smokers are clamouring for a full-size double strength version?

At the same time, a Liberal Democrat MEP in Brussels has laid down a motion calling for the abolition of low energy-efficient goods - top of the list of which are apparently pub patio heaters. The move, which will cost the British pub and catering trade an estimated quarter of a billion pounds a year in lost earnings, will cause even greater consternation - and presumably even shorter cigarettes - among smokers everywhere.

Perhaps a worldwide protest with the old slogan - "Smokers of the world ignite...?"

A Place for Everything

Just in case any of us were wondering, that helpful Hazel Blears has come to our aid yet again. The Department of Communities and Local Government - for that is the name of her department this week - is gearing up to send out a "Place Survey" to every household.

Of course, in case this questionnaire gets reviled and slated by residents as a complete waste of time and money, local councils are being asked to send the survey out on behalf of Government.

The survey, branded "Invasion of Your Privacy" by Kent on Sunday newspaper, will ask if you are happy with your accommodation (well I'd quite like a six bed detached please...) and whether your local area is "a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together." Just in case you don't know where your local area is, the Government helpfully defines it:

"...the 'local area' is defined as within 15-20 minutes walking distance, which is a distance of three-quarters of a mile to a mile at an average walking speed of 3mph."

It also asks whether you have "none, moderate or extreme pain or discomfort". Well I wouldn't have if I didn't keep getting daft surveys through my door...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tender and tender again

Most of us will have spent frustrating times crawling along the A21 at Castle Hill, as the two lanes merge into one.

So it was welcome news when the Government advertised for a firm to 'dual' this stretch of road in August 2006. At around £145,000,000, it attracted interest from several big contractors - McAlpines, Laing O'Rourke, Skanska, Nuttalls and May Gurney all sent in their bids.

But now it has emerged that because of a "funding crisis" the Government hasn't yet chosen a preferred bidder. In fact, word is that if they don't choose someone by the end of this month, the whole process may have to start again.

And if the contractors incur costs in re-tendering, who do you think they'll pass that on to?

That's right. You and me - the taxpayers. Why can't Government just get its act together?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Another crossing, another ripoff?

I notice this week that the Leaders of Kent and Essex County Councils, Paul Carter and Paul Hanningfield were lobbying Government to provide a third Thames crossing. Hardly a week goes by without thousands of commuters suffering hours of nose to tail holdups because the Dartford Crossing just isn't sufficient to cope with today's traffic volumes.

But it did remind me that, when the Dartford Crossing was first approved by Government, Kent and Essex County Councils - being the strategic authorities at either end of the new crossing - were promised that, once the toll revenues had covered the cost of the construction, the ongoing anual revenue would be shared between the two councils for "traffic improvement and road schemes".

Opened in 1991, the costs were actually paid off by 2003. But once the Government saw the scale of the income, a strange 'short-term memory loss' kicked in and the 'cake' that was to be shared became a few crumbs - just a million pounds each per year out of what now amounts to over £50,000,000 income.

We should have counted ourselves lucky - because within a few years even that payout became £1m of 'borrowing approsal' - in other words the Government kindly allowed Essex and Kent to run up a million pounds of debt which they had to pay for from their own coffers. So the Government keeps the entire £50m a year windfall. Today, around 17,000 heavy goods vehicles use the crossing, and the Government are now looking to hike up the tolls yet again.

Another Government sponsored Thames Crossing? Or another Government cash cow?

Consistently hypocritical

You may have noticed recently in the local press that Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats have changed their Chairman.

Gone is Dr Alan Bullion, whose misinformed comments regularly graced the Courier letters page. A recent attack was against myself and County Councillor Roy Bullock, reviled by Dr Bullion for the ultimate sin - "Not Living In Our Electoral Patch". Shame on us.

We're told that Dr Bullion is standing down as Lib Dem Chairman to allow him to concentrate on his parliamentary campaign as candidate for Sevenoaks.

And where does Dr Bullion live? Just off Oak Road. In Sherwood.

Consistency is everything in politics, and at least Dr Bullion is consistently hypocritical...

St James' Ward

Went out today to St James' ward with Greg Clark and a team of Conservative friends. No campaigning, no asking for votes - we simply knocked on doors, said hello, put faces to names and gave our email and phone number contacts.

We were really well received - given plenty of issues which we'll go away and sort out. Issues like pavements, quality of road surfaces, speed of traffic at St James' school - all making a difference to the quality of life of local people.

These Saturday morning "Street Surgeries" work really well, and there are more planned across the Borough. Maybe we'll knock on your door next!