Tuesday, 24 September 2013

'Red Ed' or not, Miliband is playing shrewd politics

So far, so predictable; energy companies reacted with apocalyptic warnings of blackouts faced with Ed Miliband's plan to freeze energy bills for two years if a Labour government is elected in 2015.

First, Angela Knight, chief executive of Energy UK (and former Tory MP and head of the British Bankers’ Association) said:

‘Freezing the bill, may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000 plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.’

Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey was even more worried: ‘When they tried to fix prices in California it results in an electricity crisis and widespread blackouts. We can’t risk the lights going out here too.’

Yes, the Californian experience; suddenly, every critic became an expert in the 2000/2001 horror story when blackouts were widespread. Today’s conclusion was that price caps were to blame, though no one mentioned the failure to build any new power stations as the population increased by 13 per cent, or the extensive criminal actions of Enron, as possible mitigating circumstances.

Ed Miliband knows energy prices are a problem. So does David Cameron. Since 2007, the average prices of gas and electricity has increased by 41 per cent and 20 per cent in real terms respectively. An average annual bill is now over £1,400.

Coping with such bills is a problem affecting more and more people, especially as wages rises stubbornly stay behind inflation. The National Debtline received 15,592 calls between January and June this year from people struggling with their bills, an increase of 111 per cent in five years.

All the while, customers see energy companies' profits soar to record levels. According to figures assembled by Labour in August this year, the total profits of the big six - British Gas, Eon, nPower, SSE, Scottish Power and EDF, responsible for supplying 98 per cent of the country - was £3.74billion in 2012, up from £2.16bn in 2009. Energy company fears about the implications of such a measure may well be genuine, but they will fall on uncaring ears.

When David Cameron announced his plan to force energy companies to offer the lowest available tariff to customers, almost a year ago now, the prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters: ‘The point is, in practice this market is not operating for everyone.’ New laws were needed as energy companies had failed to reform and clean up their ‘bewildering array’ of tariffs as Cameron had asked. Cameron thus declared himself for the consumer and against the big six energy companies.

Politicians of both parties know that customers, whether rightly or wrongly, feel they are being fleeced by what is effectively a cartel. They both agree that ‘something must be done’.

Cameron is in a tricky position; coming out as a champion for the energy industry is not an option. No doubt, questions about the legality of Ed Miliband’s scheme will be raised, though the advice I've seen so far says that it is. And, of course, Tories will make great play on ’the return of Red Ed’.

Already, some hysterical commentators are fatuously heralding the return of ‘class war’, ‘the politics of envy’ and ‘divide and rule’. Yet – though there is a palpable shift to the left – Ed Miliband is gambling people won't mind a little bit of state interventionism if it means holding down bills.

It remains unclear how the plan will work. Miliband wants to ‘reset the market’, whatever that means, and to break up the big six, though quite how is a mystery. It almost sounds as though Labour is planning a form of temporary renationalisation of the sector before reprivatizing it in hopefully more competition-friendly bite size chunks. Is this vaguely realistic? I have my doubts.

But regardless of whether it happens or not, Miliband, in easily his most commanding, fluent, powerful speech as Labour leader, has come up with an idea which may well prove popular. And with a marginal general election two years away, politically that may be the most important thing.

When is a resignation not a resignation?

I’m aware it’s not the biggest political story of the day, what with publisher Iain Dale’s comical sumo bout with a veteran anti-nuclear protester (speech, what speech?) but good old Godfrey Bloom from Ukip has succeeded once again in putting smiles on faces. Read more

Monday, 23 September 2013

HS2 needs an alternative, not just scrapping

There is an ever-so-slim danger the Labour Party might soon have a firm policy to defend as Shadow Chancellor Ed
Balls gave the clearest indication yet the opposition are preparing to dump their support for HighSpeed 2 (HS2). 
In his conference speech, the Labour bruiser repeated his line that there would be no ‘blank cheque’ for the inevitably controversial scheme. 

And he said:

‘The question is – not just whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.’

As someone who fails to be convinced by the pro-HS2 arguments I should be pleased, but alarm bells are ringing in my head that simply scrapping the scheme – which has already cost hundreds of millions of pounds without so much as a piece of ballast being put into place – will simply result in lethargy filling the vacuum. HS2 needs to be replaced with a coherent, well-argued, realistic vision of Britain’s rail network, not scrapped in favour of our traditional shambolic, day-to-day, knee-jerk, panicky, management which has typified much of Britain’s transport policy for so many years.

Even the most maniacal supporters of HS2 – and on Twitter there are inevitably some CAPITAL LETTER SHOUTING fanatics who clearly weren’t allowed into debating societies – must accept the case for HS2 has not been won. 

Yes, capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is an issue but alternatives have not been exhaustively sought. The business case is flimsy, the dangers of sucking money from the regions into London – rather than the other way round – are just ignored, and the passenger number predictions are likely to be exaggerated, much as HS1’s were.

The problem is frequently, those arguing the strongest for HS2 are the ones who have the most financially to gain from the train line; their assertions cannot simply be taken at face value.

The issue of vested interests undermined KPMG’s report when it was released a fortnight or so ago. It was commissioned by HS2; obviously it would focus on the positives. And it had some glaring omissions as highlighted by Robert Peston here. He wrote that:

‘….many of the gains to the regions that KPMG calculates are based on the reasonable notion that companies will be established in places where transport links are better. But it has taken no account of whether those regions actually contain available land to site new or biggest companies or have people with relevant skills to employ.’

He added, damningly, that KPMG was ‘ignoring one of the fundamental causes of lacklustre growth in many parts of the UK, which is a shortage of skilled labour and of easily and readily available land’.

It's too late for the coalition government to abandon it as too much capital, political and other kinds, has been invested. And while this may just be another politician trying to keep all people happy all the time, with its eye-wateringly hefty price tag,  it is very easy to see why Ed Balls and senior Labour figures might want to ditch the whole plan. Suddenly, they would have made huge savings and could plot to redirect the money into their pet projects. But the whole rail network could lose undoubtedly needed investment and suffer as a consequence.

Already, a Labour source has indicated that while Balls is committed in principle to the rail link, he has no alternative route in mind. No mention of more east-west connections, more electrification, or countrywide fast broadband provision to negate the need to travel at all. 

The most convincing and articulate champion of HS2 is Andrew Adonis. The project's architect, he is a genuine train enthusiast. As transport secretary he took the radical step of taking trains around the country, to actually experience what train travellers had to put up with. In his August New Statesman article he was scathing about the management failures already besetting the project, bemoaning the complete lack of legislation for even the first phase of the line to Birmingham after three years of coalition government. He has urged for the creation of an HS2 minister to get a semblance of coherence and control on the project. Neither the coalition or the opposition has responded to his pleas and created such a role.

We are yet to hear what he makes of Labour's latest prevarication but I imagine it would a blend of annoyance, anger and disappointment.  If HS2 does get ditched, it will need someone like him to pick up the pieces and forge an alternate vision.


We have now heard what Andrew Adonis has to say about Balls' HS2 threat. Speaking at  fringe event in Brighton, he said: 

'I'm very mindful of HS2 and where we are on this too. We cannot as a party preach long-termism and not practise it ourselves. We have got to be very clear about that.
We are the party that started HS2. I published the plan three years ago. We set the whole thing our, we set out the rationale, including capacity.
'We went through the whole thing. We did a major job of work.
'You have got to in politics, you cannot say that your principles and all that apply to other people but they don't apply to you when short term political advantage might rear its head. We have got to stick with this. It's very important.'

And, bitterly, he told the New Statesman the only thing the coalition had done 'since coming to office is add £10bn to it'.

He's clearly still flying the flag.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

At least we have a piano

There's no question the NHS needs to improve. Its recovery rates from too many cancers are woeful. Yes, they've improved, but they remain woeful. Agency nurses, who may be good individually but lack local loyalty and accountability, are too widespread. GPs have contracts which pay for responsibility without accountability, while A&E avoid working weekends and leave it to junior doctors to tackle the chaos of Saturday night.

The system makes mistakes. I have a family member whose broken back was missed by an X-Ray; my grandmother died at Wexham Park Hospital, much to the apparent irritation of a senior nurse and a close family member lost a baby when she shouldn't have done. These were not good experiences.
But, and it is a big but, the Channel Four news programme last night comparing the death rates of the NHS with the United States health system left me little short of livid with frankly shoddy use of statistics.

Ostensibly they have a good story. Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director, is to investigate after being shown statistics which reveal the death rate in the NHS was 58 per cent higher than the United States back in 2004, 45 per cent in 2012.

Channel 4 claimed to have access to exclusive data but the viewer only heard comparisons between the United Kingdom and the United States; other countries' figures were kept secret for reasons of 'confidentiality' which is a shame.

But no mention is made of the methodology. Professor Brian Jarman has been credited with highlighting the unusual death rate at the Stafford Trust and he deserves credit. But, his 'HSMR' system is no longer used by the NHS. It doesn't, for example, include deaths within 30 days of discharge.

No comparison between hospital deaths and home deaths in either country was made.
In US, 29 per cent of people died in hospital in 2010. In this country, it's roughly about 58%. Moreover, the cost of treatment in a US hospital was not mentioned, let alone end-of-life bills.

The programme had several moving, disturbing stories from family member whose loved ones died, having apparently suffered unnecessarily, while in hospital. All undoubtedly tragic. Yet, no further investigation is done. No causal link between the deaths and the NHS is made. They just died in hospital.

No comparison is made between health spending per capita. In 2011, in the United States it was $8,608, while the UK spend $3,609. Quite a contrast.

Life expectancy isn't noted either. For all the US spend per head on health care - and let's ignore the multitude who get no health provision at all, as the US government does - it lags behind Britain. For men in the UK it is 79, in the US 76. Meanwhile for women, in the UK you can expect to reach 82, in the US 81.
And for the record, US GDP per capita in 2012, according to the World Bank, was $49,922, the UK's $36,941.

But, I repeat, this is not to say genuine issues were not raised and investigations should be held into aspects of NHS care and death rates. But casual statistical use undermined an otherwise good story. And this is not what Channel 4 News normally does.

And perhaps most riling of all, the Channel 4 journalist was terribly impressed to find piano music echoing from the hospital she visited in the United States. Mayo hospital was 'impressive, with piano music paying in the lobby and sunshine streaming into the rooms' her blog read. Not sure there's much British hospitals can do about sunshine, especially in comparison with a centre in Phoenix, Arizona.

But, I was even more impressed to find a pianist playing a grand piano in the atrium at Guys and St Thomas' during my frequent visits there a few years ago. Better than piped muzak in dull, hotel-style ersatz, this was a patient having fun.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Accidents, hospitals and Uri Geller

The last couple of days have been dominated by frequent trips to a pair of hospitals after my wife had a fall while carrying our baby in a sling, injuring her hand to break her fall and protect the little one.

I don’t have a tale of hospital woe to report. Swabs weren’t left in open wounds, the incorrect part of the body wasn’t x-rayed. It’s fair to say all the service we received was good; reception staff courteous and helpful, nurses attentive, radiographers efficient, doctors sympathetic and reassuring.

And, for those that are interested, thankfully, apart from a small bone in my wife’s wrist possibly being broken and our daughter suffering a few bumps and bruises on her head and knee, they both escaped lightly; my wife’s shock and upset being the most serious consequence. And the whole experience did much to remind me of what lovely neighbours we have, with several rushing to our aid and helping throughout the evening.

None of this, however, made the process anything less than tortuously slow forced, as we were, to go from Beckenham Beacon – a small, old cottage hospital, nearby – to the Prince Royal (PRU) in Farnborough – a huge, PFI-funded, monolith, seemingly miles from civilisation, that no doubt played a part in the South London Health Trust going into administration. At the Beacon, the x-ray clinic was closed for the day; at the PRU we waited in the Urgent Care clinic, our baby exhaustingly perky. And why are hospitals always so damn hot?

The most curious aspect of the evening occurred as we were waiting for a taxi to take us home. As we waited in the dark, empty foyer of the Princess Royal’s main reception, I noticed a plaque on the wall:

I apologise for the angle; I was on fixed phone to cab at the time

What on earth was Uri Geller doing planting a time capsule beneath the hospital? Was he paid an appearance fee for his time? Did they have money to burn back in 2001?

Unsurprisingly, the event attracted little press coverage at the time but Mr Geller’s own website is informative as it references a brief write up in The Bromley News.

To celebrate the first stage of the new £155m hospital being built on the Farnbornugh site in Bromley, a time capsule was buried yesterday (Wednesday) created to Inform and intrigue future generations of Bromley residents. The time capsule was Buried by Paranormalist, Uri Geller, in conjunction with Bromley Hospitals Trust. As well as plans for the new hospital and NHS memorabilia, one of Uri Geller's trademark bent spoons was included, together with a DVD record of his life.

It fails to reveal whether Mr Geller was paid or not, but we can be sure when the Princess Royal is razed to the ground, whoever discovers the capsule will no doubt be grateful for a bent spoon and an inevitably modest DVD of his life. I imagine they’ll pop it right back in the ground.