How democratic are doctor politicians?

A group of 240 doctors recently threatened to stand against leading members of the government in the next election, in protest at the NHS Bill (Now the Health and Social Care Act). They are ‘shocked at the failure of the democratic process and the facilitating role played by the Liberal Democrats in the passage of this bill’. They follow the example of Richard Taylor MP, a consultant physician who won his Wyre Forest seat from a junior health minister in 2001, campaigning against the closure of the A&E Department at Kidderminster Hospital.

My immediate reaction to this news was essentially that it’s a free country, and anyone can stand for parliament if they like. I’ve seen very little comment about this, however, and I have begun to wonder about the legitimacy of such a campaign.

There were two possible scenarios when this initiative was first announced on 19th March. The first was that the government would bow to the pressure from this group of healthcare professionals and drop the bill. That was always unlikely, and that moment has now passed. The second scenario, which could still come about, is that this group stands 240 candidates in the general election, and wins a number of seats. It seems to me that both scenarios, for different reasons, are a potential threat to democracy.

In the first case, an unelected group would have imposed their will on parliament, forcing the government to alter its legislative plans. Surely, no matter how much one might dislike the NHS Bill, this is not acceptable? The doctors argue that ‘the will of the citizens of this country’ has been over-ridden by the coalition government. Has it? The two major elements of the reforms – the dissolution of the Primary Care Trusts and the handing over of their commissioning powers to GP consortia, and the opening up of healthcare provision to ‘any willing provider’ – were both in the Conservative manifesto. As we know, the Conservatives won more votes and more seats than any other party, and went on to form the coalition government with the Lib Dems, with both reforms finding their way into the coalition agreement.

We don’t know yet whether these doctors still plan to launch their ‘revenge’ strategy. But suppose they do. How would that fit with the way democracy works in this country? We can assume that they will have strong views on the NHS; but there has been no mention yet of their other policies (on free schools, for instance, or how they might stimulate economic growth, or whether they would replace Trident). Even if a small group were to be elected, they could exert considerable influence, given the likelihood of another hung parliament. An NHS campaign would have considerable popular appeal – but would a group of MPs elected solely on the back of such a campaign have genuine legitimacy?

Richard Taylor’s political activities were mostly confined to health issues. Other policies he pursued included support for Section 28, the renationalisation of the British railway system, and the availability of cannabis as a controlled drug. He also opposed the Iraq war. It seems reasonable to suppose that all the new ‘NHS’ MPs would also embrace an eclectic variety of views. I’m not convinced that would be good for transparency and clarity in our political system.

First published 26th March 2012 on Liberal Democrat Voice: you can read the Liberal Democrat Voice article and comments here.

What would Labour have done with the NHS?

Sid Cumberland

There have probably been more words written about the NHS than any other topic since the coalition government was formed nearly two years ago, with most attention falling on the tussle between the coalition partners over the final form of the bill.

But we should not overlook Labour’s contribution to the current maelstrom; no matter who had come to power in 2010, they would have had to grasp the nettles which were flourishing following Labour’s 2006 National Health Service Act, which brought widespread competition into the NHS (though without the public debate that is now taking place). The 2006 Act opened up the NHS to the risk of EU competition law being applied in a way that leaves commissioners unable to choose the best way of delivering services. And Labour’s legislation meant that private providers were favoured over NHS hospitals and paid millions for work which they never did.

Lib Dems, in the Commons and the Lords, are not only fighting Andrew Lansley’s ill-considered reorganisation of the NHS, they are also plugging the many loopholes left by Labour’s 2006 Health Act, including:

  • out of hours work was handed over to the private sector
  • Labour rigged the market in favour of the private sector (e.g.Independent Sector Treatment Centres were paid around 11% more than the NHS price)
  • There was no overall cap on private income for Foundation Trusts
  • There was no provision in the legislation to say all private income profit must be reinvested in NHS services
  • Labour deliberately went out of their way to encourage the involvement of the private sector. Labour’s PFI contracts for the NHS have left the Government a total liability of £65 billion.

The involvement of the Lib Dems will surely leave the NHS in a better position than it would have been had the Tories had it all their own way. But what about Labour? What would they be doing now, if they had won the 2010 election? Well, it’s worth having a quick look at their 2010 manifesto, which includes the following:

“All hospitals will become Foundation Trusts … Foundation Trusts will be given the freedom to expand their provision into primary and community care, and to increase their private … services … We will support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care … Patient power will be increased. Patients will have the right to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality at NHS costs … We will expand patient choice, empowering patients with information, and giving individuals the right to determine the time and place of treatment.”

Hmm. Sound familiar?


An interesting message from a Labour supporter … to Ed Miliband

Sid Cumberland

This is well worth a read. Personally, I’d be much more worried if I were Ed Miliband than if I were Nick Clegg – and Alex Hilton’s blog post makes it quite clear why Ed M is in such trouble.

I have a considerable amount of respect for local activists of all parties – I know how hard it can be to keep your own particular faith when your leaders seem to have lost theirs. Here’s an indicator of how hard it is for this particular Labour activist:

“It shocked me that party members, unions and MPs would back you regardless of the fact that you were so clearly not up to the job, have no vision for Britain and can’t communicate very well.”

Oh dear …


Actual votes, in actual elections…

Lots of people are getting worried/rejoicing about low opinion poll figures for the Lib Dems. Well, here are some actual figures for the first three months of 2012:

The Parties’ vote shares in local by-elections over the last 3 months were:
Con                                           33%
Lib Dem                                    26%
Lab                                            22%

That’s actual voters actually voting (5,000 of them).


Should black people be entitled to the same shabby treatment as white people?

Sid CumberlandLike the summer riots, the Stephen Lawrence case provides us with yet another attitudinal Rorschach test; we screw our eyes up, peer closely, and conclude that what we have seen is just what we expected. At least, that’s my view, after hearing Paul Dacre’s astonishing self-congratulation on Tuesday. For him, the verdict was ‘a glorious day’ for the Lawrences, the police, British justice, politicians, British newspapers (especially, of course, the Daily Mail, without whose ‘relentless campaigning’ none of this would have happened). For me, it was a good day; but it was also a reminder of the arrogance, incompetence and racism of the police, the ambiguousness of our justice system, the laissez-faire attitude of our political class, and, of course the hypocrisy of the British press. (The relentless campaigning the Mail is famous for is reflected by these recent headlines: ‘One out of every five killers is an immigrant’, ‘Each illegal immigrant costs us £1m, says study as Government faces calls for amnesty’, ‘UK migrant total is ‘three times the world average’’.)

The police response wasn’t much better. Cressida Dick tells us that the police force has been ‘completely transformed’ in the last twelve years. Hmm. I wonder if that’s the force which has seen section 60 stop and searches rise from 7,970 in 1997/98 to 149,955 in 2008/09? With black people 26 times more likely to be stopped than white people?

I do wonder if we’ve been distracted by the ‘institutional racism’ tag.  I’m thinking of the long string of cases which have nothing to do with racism, where the police have not only misbehaved, but have also completely misunderstood public reaction to their behaviour. Harry Stanley (1999). Pamela Somerville (2008). Ian Tomlinson (2009). Nicola Fisher (2009). Mark Duggan (2011). In all these cases (and more) the police have been asked to account for their actions, and have essentially given us a two-fingered salute. When the standard response from the police to any query about why they have shot/hit a fellow citizen amounts to little more than ‘We felt a bit threatened’, it might be a good time to re-look at the whole relationship between the police and us, who pay their wages.

There is clearly a disconnect between the police and the citizenry. Here are some issues which currently concern people:

1) police officers collecting their wages from the taxpayer, and bonuses from journalists for providing information;

2) police officers working as agents provocateurs (Mark Kennedy, 2009);

3) hundreds of serving police officers having criminal records (including burglary, robbery, supplying drugs, perverting the course of justice)

4) senior police officers promoting the use of plastic bullets and water cannon at protests;

5) and, of course, the inequality in stop and search mentioned above.

Brian Paddick suggests: “The police must accept that many people feel they are over-policed and under-protected. The police need to work a lot harder to convince some people that they are on the same side as the communities they serve.”

It would be a shame if the end result of the Stephen Lawrence saga amounted to little more than black people being entitled to the same shabby treatment as whites. A glorious day for the press, the police, the politicians? I don’t think so.


Lib Dems Welcome Prison Sentence For Lord Hanningfield

In response to the nine month prison sentence imposed on former Essex County Council Leader Lord Hanningfield, for the House of Lords expenses fraud, Cllr Mike Mackrory, Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition Liberal Democrat Group on Essex County Council commented:

“The public have every right to expect that people who abuse their position to defraud the taxpayer, must feel the full force of the law. The case exposed a shocking misuse of power which has undermined the reputation of hard working local councillors. We now await the further police investigations into the outstanding allegations of fraud within Essex County Council by Lord Hanningfield.”

The BBC reports:

Paul White, 70, was convicted of six counts of false accounting relating to nearly £14,000 of claims in May.

White has said he will seek leave to appeal against the verdict. If granted, the Court of Appeal will hear the case.

He was found guilty of claiming money for overnight stays in London when he had actually returned home to Essex.

Peers were able to claim up to £174-a-night when attending Parliament, if their main home was outside the city.

But during his trial in May, the court was told White submitted false claims for hotel bills including one when he was actually on board a flight to India at the time.

He also fraudulently claimed for train fares and car mileage.

Passing sentence at Maidstone Crown Court, Mr Justice Saunders said that while there were “ambiguities” in the expenses system in the Lords, it was clear that White had claimed for expenses “he did not incur”.

“He knew when he accepted a peerage that the job of a working peer was unpaid and he did not have to accept the honour,” he said.

“It is not for me to say whether peers should or should not be paid but whatever you think of the scheme, it was not for any peer to take money to which he was not entitled on the basis that he believes he is worth it.”

Mr Justice Saunders said White’s dishonesty and that of others had had “serious consequences” for the reputation of Parliament.

“Great trust was placed in peers to be honest in their claims for expenses. The public expects no less of them. Lord Hanningfield and others have broken that trust.”

Astonishing and worrying – all Rayleigh Councillors are kept out of the District Council Cabinet

Chris Black
Chris Black

So, the elections are over for another year … and thanks to everyone who voted Liberal Democrat in Rayleigh this May. We had two councillors elected, and actually got more votes than the Conservatives. (They don’t like us mentioning that!)

And we have had one or two successes in the council chamber lately. After a lot of work, led by my colleague June Lumley, in the autumn we will get back a cheap rate 40p parking charge for the first half-hour in council car parks. We were also pleased to see that you will be able to pay by mobile phone (handy if you are stuck at the dentists, or getting a perm!) We’re still not satisfied – we’d like to see free parking after 6 pm to encourage early evening trade. But we’ll keep battling away.

However, I want to write about something that alarms me – not as a Lib Dem – but as a resident of Rayleigh. It’s about how the District Council’s most important committee, the “Cabinet” (officially called the “Executive”) is going from bad to worse from a Rayleigh point of view.

The new situation is that no Rayleigh councillors are in the cabinet at all. It’s astonishing and worrying. And it matters. Rayleigh is by far the largest town in our district; it has the biggest shopping centre; it contributes well over 40% of the total income to the council. All the other large villages and towns are represented. But there’s no Rayleigh member to express a view in important meetings.

I guess I should explain the background a bit. The cabinet consists of the Conservative leader of the council, Terry Cutmore, plus 7 other Conservatives that he picks. Councillors who aren’t in the cabinet aren’t normally allowed to speak at all at the meetings – even if you want to point out a mistake, or even if they are discussing part of your council ward. That’s unlike most other council meetings.

Other councils – like Essex County Council – allow minority parties to have a representative in their cabinet so they can at least make suggestions. And if a Lib Dem were included in the cabinet we would put forward a councillor from Rayleigh. But unfortunately the Conservatives decided the cabinet would have 8 Conservatives and 0 others.

There is still some control over things. For example, we can ask for something to be dealt with at a meeting of the Full Council instead of the cabinet – that’s what we did with car parking. Though by that stage the Conservative councillors were so whipped into line that hardly any of them spoke and the whole meeting on car parking charges, budgets, types of machines and methods of payment was over in 16 minutes!

Decisions can also be ‘called in’ by 3 backbench members or by the Chair of the Review Committee. But quite often things can’t be called in at all because some decisions are urgent.

Now I’ve never liked the cabinet. I prefer the traditional system of having committees, where all councillors are fundamentally equal and everyone can have their say and every part of the district can be represented. The old system is also about £46,000 a year cheaper, because the council wouldn’t be paying substantial extra payments to councillors.

And this year the Cabinet has no Rayleigh councillors at all. There’s one from Ashingdon, one from Barling , one from Hawkwell, two from Hockley, two from Rochford and one from Great Wakering . A totally unbalanced arrangement – which may well put Rayleigh at a disadvantage when some issues are discussed. There are 12 Conservative District Councillors in Rayleigh – not one of them has been included.

By the way, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Council this year are both from Rayleigh. You’ll see their photos in the papers a lot as they visit places, and we wish them well. But these are really ceremonial posts, and have nothing to do with the cabinet.

Another worrying sign is the “Local Development Framework Subcommittee”. That’s a long title, but this is basically a panel that decides which bits of the green belt get houses built on them. It’s made up of 5 Conservatives and 1 Lib Dem. I’m the Lib Dem, so Rayleigh and Rawreth have some representation. But guess what – the Tories haven’t picked any Rayleigh members for this one either. Why is that ?

As Lib Dems , we will carry on regardless. At least we aren’t under the Tory whip and can say what we like, which helps us achieve things. We will push to get big issues discussed at Full Council (like car parking). But it’s worrying to see that the ordinary Rayleigh backbench Conservatives have been completely outmanoeuvred and sidelined.