Tuesday, October 03, 2006


(When they're not scared of their own shadows)

David Cameron's policy chief has declared there will be "no limit" to privatisation of the National Health Service under a Conservative government. In comments that threaten to damage the Tories' carefully crafted new image on the eve of their conference in Bournemouth, Oliver Letwin has outlined plans for a huge increase in the use of private companies in healthcare provision. His vision would reduce the NHS to a commissioning body, with many patient services provided by a range of businesses.

Letwin, chairman of the Tories' policy review, said that contracting out healthcare was in the best interests of patients and any reputable organisation should be allowed to compete for the work. Andrew Lansley, shadow health secretary, has given only vague indications of the party's plans for the health service, focusing instead on the need to free it from red tape and Whitehall targets.

Letwin said the Tories would have "no hang-ups" about use of the private sector in healthcare, although the NHS would remain free of charge. Asked if there would be any limits, he said: "No limits, no. Let the commissioning bodies decide where patients can best be cured. If people can provide services under the NHS which are good services - social enterprises, private bodies or NHS foundations - if they can satisfy the commissioners within the NHS that the best way is through them, then they should be part of the show."

Conservative Central Office immediately tried to play down the remarks, insisting there was no plan to break up the NHS. Letwin's remarks threaten to undo months of work by Cameron and his team to convince voters of the party's commitment to public services. Labour strategists greeted his intervention with glee, saying it exposed the Tories' real intention to dismantle the NHS. "This plays perfectly into our hands," said one. "We'll say Cameron's touchy-feely image is all window dressing but underneath they are the same old Tories who believe `private sector good, public sector bad'. " Labour, which has extended the private sector's role in the NHS, has said that it expects independent operators to have no more than 10% of the business during its current term of office. Ed Balls, the Treasury minister and a close ally of Gordon Brown, said: "David Cameron's plan for the privatisation of the NHS means the end of free healthcare as we know it."

Letwin outlined his vision for the NHS as Cameron faces his first conference as leader. He is under pressure for his refusal to detail his policies since taking over from Michael Howard last year. In his opening speech today he is expected to say it would be "superficial" and "insubstantial" to "make up policies to meet the pressures of the moment". He will tell delegates that policies rushed out without careful consideration will not stand the test of time. "Policy without principle is like a house without foundations. We must think for the long term," he is expected to say.

Cameron will set out his big idea as "social responsibility" - that businesses, doctors, teachers and parents should be trusted to resolve their own problems rather than have solutions dictated to them by government: "When we see challenges to overcome, we do not just ask what government can do. We ask what people can do, what society can do." Cameron's advisers believe that although Labour's intentions have been good, it has tried to solve problems by imposing too many regulations, such as making it mandatory for parents to fit child booster seats in their cars or imposing targets on NHS trusts. "We are more in favour of supernannies than the nanny state," he will say. One example which Cameron may cite in his speech is allowing parents to use childcare tax credits to pay neighbours, friends or grandparents for looking after children - rather than, like Labour, restricting the state benefit to established local government schemes.


Greens 'aid destruction of planet'

(What fun!)

Environmental groups are setting back the fight against global warming with misguided and irrational objections to nuclear power, according to Britain’s leading thinker about the future. Climate change will be the greatest of many significant challenges for humanity over the next century, and every tool available, including nuclear energy, will be needed to prevent it wrecking the planet, James Martin told The Times.

While the anti-nuclear campaign is well-intentioned, it fundamentally misunderstands the safety of the latest generation of reactors and threatens to hold back a technology that could be critical to the world’s future, he said.

The criticism of groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth by Dr Martin, a computer scientist and physicist, will be keenly felt as he is himself a prominent green who has spent much of his large IT and publishing fortune on research into global warming and environmental science. Last year, he donated £60 million to the University of Oxford to found the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation, the first school of its kind dedicated to studying problems of the future such as climate change and emerging technologies.

Though nuclear power generates very low carbon emissions, most green lobby groups are opposed to it because of the problem of disposing of waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years, and the risks of an accident.

In The Meaning of the 21st Century, his new book published today, he names climate change as the greatest challenge currently facing humanity, and openly endorses nuclear power as part of the solution. The “fourth-generation” nuclear plants that could be built now are profoundly different from older designs, with safety features that make meltdown impossible, low waste output, and fuel that is not suitable for bombs, Dr Martin said.

He is keen on the pebble bed reactor, an experimental South African and Chinese design, in which the fuel is incapable of melting. A prototype has been built in Beijing. “With the pebble bed reactor, the fuel is easily disposed of, and it can be divorced absolutely from the bomb industry,” he said. Green critics of nuclear power, he said, are delaying adoption of this technology. “I think they are misguided. South Africa would have had a pebble bed reactor running by now if it hadn’t been for Greenpeace.”

His book sets out a number of grand challenges for the next 100 years. While the greatest of these is global warming, he also lists water shortages, which will lead to wars, the loss of global biodiversity, terrorism, diseases such as pandemic flu and HIV/Aids, and the emergence of biotechnology and artificial intelligence that could change the fundamental nature of humanity.

Nathan Argent, a Greenpeace spokesman, said: “While the fourth generation of reactors produce less waste by volume, they produce more of the most radioactive and long-lived waste, and there is still no safe way of dealing with this. We argue that the better way to tackle climate change is to decentralise power generation and make it more efficient.”


Refreshing signs of returning sanity over school sport in Scotland

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton but the battle against apathy in modern day Scotland is being lost on our school sports pitches. Jack McConnell has condemned the trend for non-competitive sport in Scottish schools, saying children should be pitched against each other to "foster aspiration and promote a sense of achievement".

The First Minister, in an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday, said government inspectors would only award top marks to schools which encouraged competitive sport. In what is expected to become a manifesto commitment at the next Holyrood election, McConnell wants teachers to encourage results-driven games during PE classes and outside school hours. The move is an attempt to reverse the decline in school sports since the teachers' strike of 1985 and represents a direct attack on the growth in recent years of "potted sports" with no winners or losers, and sports days without prizes.

McConnell said: "There are far too many schools across Scotland where there is a minimum amount of competitive sport or still an aversion to competitive sport. "Whether or not a school promotes competitive sport will become one of the ways by which we measure whether a school is a good school. "I want to see us having a clear set of guidelines across Scotland, a very clear direction that we expect them to take: competitive sports days, competitive activities for youngsters both in school time and out of school time. "I would want to see the inspectorate measuring that as a key part of performance ."

In recent years some schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire, Fife, Aberdeen and Falkirk have had non-competitive sports days which have no individual winners and losers. The move dismayed Olympic swimming champion David Wilkie who recently claimed that political correctness and "inclusivity" in sport has fuelled a culture of defeatism north of the Border.

McConnell told Scotland on Sunday: "Competitive sport does a lot to stimulate the brain and make young people more alert, while it also gives young people something to aspire to, then keeps them working hard, hopefully giving them a sense of achievement. "It's an incredibly healthy thing. Unless we challenge youngsters at an early age then we're not going to have people competing on the athletics track or the football pitch."

McConnell, a former maths teacher, went on to blame the 1980s Conservative government for eroding the "community spirit" of school sports days, as strikes prompted many to stop sacrificing their free time to organise competitive sport.

The First Minister's intervention follows high-profile incidents where competitive sport was frowned upon. In 2002, Brian Harris, the head sports officer with Edinburgh city council, provoked criticism by suggesting that children on the losing side at a football match would be spared "psychological hurt" if the referee scored a few goals on their behalf. A year later the head teacher of an English primary school ruled that parents should be banned from school sports day because children would be "embarrassed" if they lost a race in front of them.

Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokeswoman, said there was nothing wrong with backing competitive sports but "McConnell should get back to basics". She said: "The Executive, under his leadership, has failed to recruit enough PE teachers to replace those who are retiring. Nor has he delivered the two hours of PE that every pupil should receive at school."

Jamie McGrigor, the Scottish Conservatives' culture and sport spokesman, denies claims that the past Tory government was to blame. McGrigor said: "The Conservatives have always encouraged competitive sport. It has been Labour's socialist dogma of preferring dumbing down to excellence that is to blame. They see winning as elitist and the fact that some people are born to run faster than others as something to be ashamed of. I am delighted Jack McConnell wants to see far more competitive sport but he should remember that it was Labour that caused this problem in the first place."

Teachers and unions were also split on whether more competitive sport is needed. Ronnie Hamilton, principal teacher of PE at St Augustine's High School, in Edinburgh, which has 18 sports teams, including three girls' football sides, said: "I am more convinced than ever that competitive sport is a positive thing for everyone. In 39 years of teaching I cannot think of one instance where being included in healthy competition did not benefit a pupil."

However, David Eaglesham of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) dismissed the plans and accused McConnell of electioneering. He said: "League tables of which schools do the most competitive sport are exactly what we don't need. This would have to be something the First Minister negotiates with us. Teachers already devote a great deal of goodwill to assist competitive sport but goodwill is no way to operate a system that will later be assessed by government inspectors. I can't avoid thinking that there is an election coming up and that this influenced these comments."


Unclear and present danger

The public is still not fully aware of the gravity of the threat posed by Islamist extremists, Britain's anti-terror supremo says:

Britain's top counter-terrorist cop has no doubt the nature of the threat has changed dramatically. Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard's 51-year-old head of counter-terrorism, talks with quiet resolution about the challenge of Islamist terrorism and how it has turned British policing upside down. People often say to Clarke how well placed the British authorities must be to deal with Islamist terror given their long experience of Irish Republican Army killers. No, he responds emphatically. It's a whole new ball game with no defined rules of engagement or carefully delineated boundaries. "The current terrorist threat is almost the reverse of all those parameters," Clarke said in Canberra this week. "What we see is global in origin, global in ambition, global in reach. The networks are loose, they are fluid and they are incredibly resilient," Clarke told a security conference.

Defeating the threat demands a level of resources, including sustained surveillance, unprecedented in modern law enforcement. "Unless you have pace and scale on your side, you will fail to deal with these terrorist conspiracies that we are currently seeing," he stressed. Clarke tells Inquirer the threat posed by radical Islamists in Britain is growing in scale and complexity. "I think the only sensible conclusion is that it is ... because if you look at the pace of terrorist activity since 9/11, it's clearly unabated and there appears to be a consistency, almost a regularity, in the attack patterns. "I don't want to sound unnecessarily gloomy, but I don't see many positive signs in terms of it being diminished." He points out that British authorities have managed to foil four or five attacks in the past 12 months. But the "sad probability" is that another attack will get through at some time....

Clarke says Britain's experience of Islamist terror, including last year's London bombings and the recently thwarted plot to blow up airliners flying to the US, is driving far-reaching changes in the way police now operate. It used to be that police would only intervene in the final stages of a terrorist plot, making arrests at or near the point of attack, with the strongest possible weight of evidence to put before a court. However, Clarke says the scale of the threat means "we can no longer afford to wait until that moment". "It's a complete shift in scale. Mentally we have had to completely change our response in terms of interdiction and intervention to prevent an increased risk to the public."

Clarke says earlier action to pre-empt a mass casualty attack also dictates the need to engage closely with local communities as a key element of counter-terrorism strategy. He believes the British public is still not fully aware of the gravity of the threat posed by Islamist terror groups. This is despite the fact there are now 90 people awaiting trial on terrorism charges. "We have a whole series of trials which over the coming months and years will unfold in the UK. When that hard evidence is produced the public are able to see what has been planned over the last months and years, that will contribute to their understanding of the threat."

Clarke warns it is vital that the aviation industry examines the implications of the foiled plot for air travel. The plotters had been planning to smuggle liquid explosives on board several planes. "I can't go into details about the methodology except to say its very innovative. That will give a clue to the fact that now in response ... new protective measures are required. The methodology is such that there must be an enduring threat to air transport." So a serious threat to aviation safety remains which has to be addressed? "Absolutely," comes the reply.

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