Thursday, September 25, 2008

Circus fans face silent comedy after ban on clowns' trumpets

British bureaucrats never stop their search for ways to disrupt the lives of others

The grand finale of Zippo's Circus fell strangely flat before its Birmingham audience. Three Spanish clowns, Nicol, Michael and Pappa, had been due to introduce themselves with a blast of trumpets. However, this had to be cut from the act. Also gone was the moment, midway through the routine, when Nicol sounds three notes on a tuba, which then explodes, the bell landing on another clown's head while Nicol blows a puff of smoke from his rear. And instead of the recorded flamenco track that usually accompanies their performance, there was silence.

These last-minute alterations were insisted upon by an official from the licensing department of Birmingham City Council. Half an hour before the show was due to start, the officer was insisting that the show could not go on if the clowns sounded their trumpets, or blew the exploding horn. It would need to be classified as a live music performance and the Big Top would require a licence.

Martin Burton, proprietor of Zippo's Circus, and a former clown himself, was not amused: "I'm a big fan of silent comedy, but this is ludicrous." Mr Burton had thought such issues had been settled in lengthy exchanges with the council's licensing department before the circus even came to town. "There was some discussion about whether skipping on a tight-rope was dancing," he told The Times yesterday. "Tight-rope walking is not regarded as regulated entertainment requiring a licence; dance is."

They also considered the trained horses, and a Jack Russell called Clopsky ("his master's wife is Russian"), that leaps over a gyrating German acrobat and perches on the acrobat's feet while he performs a handstand. Neither Clopsky nor the acrobats were thought to be performing regulated entertainment: it was neither dance nor professional sport. "Although the acrobats wouldn't like to hear me say this, they are not Olympic quality," Mr Burton said.

Finally, there were the clowns. Mr Burton thought he had persuaded the council that the music in their act was purely incidental. "It's just a quick blast of trumpets at the start," Mr Burton said. "Then three notes from the exploding tuba: pa-pa-pa-bang!" Nevertheless, long after the health and safety officials had left, satisfied that all was in order, an official for the licencing department remained. "Normally we would have stood our ground, but we had only half an hour," Mr Burton said. "I agreed to cut the music. It was ludicrous."

Jacqui Kennedy, director of regulatory services at Birmingham City Council, said: "Under the Licensing Act 2003, elements of the programme proposed by Zippo's would fall into the category of regulated entertainment and such events would require either a licence under the Act or a temporary event notice." The Act, in force since 2005, means that circuses could technically require a licence for every site they visit. "It's $2,000 a time and we are visiting 30 different places," Mr Burton said.

While some circuses have closed, Mr Burton has opted to negotiate with each council in turn. Birmingham has been the first to object. Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors, told The Times last night that an application would shortly be submitted to Whitehall for a change in the rules. "There is now an acceptance that something needs to be done for circuses," he said.


NHS midwives deal with three births at once

Midwives are "overworked and overstretched", sometimes caring for three women in labour at the same time, according an expert.

Since 2001 there has been a 16 per cent rise in birthrates yet there are vacancies for midwives in every part of the country, according to the Royal College of Midwives. The Government has pledged 3,400 extra full-time jobs (4,000 including part-time workers), but research for the Darzi review into the NHS shows a shortage of 4,288 midwives. The shortfall is estimated after comparing it with the NHS "gold standard" for safer childbirth, which demands one midwife per 28 births. London has the worst shortages with 1,150 more midwives needed to meet a 20 per cent rise in the birthrate.

Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary at the RCM, said: "Women keep hearing about Government policy statements, such as one-to-one care from a midwife, but they are not getting that sort of treatment in many areas. "Our members are telling us that they are overworked and overstretched and are running between beds dealing with, in some cases, three women at once." The RCM added funding for maternity services has been cut by $110 million. Miss Silverton added: "The maternity services have long been described as a postcode lottery - but our regional NHS responses paint a shocking picture of just how loaded that lottery for maternity care is."

By next year ministers have promised women will be able to choose whether to have their child in hospital, at home or in a midwife-led birth centre. The Government has promised $660 million of extra funding for maternity services over three years.

But, according to Miss Silverton, research shows nine out of 10 maternity units do not know where their share of the œ330 million had gone, and it could have been diverted into other services. She said: "It is not enough for the Government to say it has put money into maternity services, but then fail to make sure the money actually goes where it is supposed to." The Department of Health said: "Our maternity services are the safest they have ever been. We are committed to improving outcomes for both mothers and babies."


'Pointless' NHS complaints system to be made less rigid

The Department of Health has promised to overhaul the system for making complaints about NHS care after a survey found that more than two thirds of patients think that the process is pointless. The report by the Patients Association described the NHS complaints system as "cumbersome, variable and takes too long". Of nearly 500 patients polled, 69 per cent said that they had wanted to complain about the healthcare they had received in the past five years.

For those who complained, 29 per cent described the process as totally pointless, 20.5 per cent as pointless and 19 per cent as slightly pointless. Only 2 per cent said that the experience had been "very useful". More than four fifths (81 per cent) believed that there was not a culture of openness in the NHS when errors occurred and that staff were not encouraged to report mistakes.

The association's report concludes: "While patients will always accept that errors will occur in any health service, what they will not accept is the fact that staff are not open about admitting such errors occur."

On the matter of recent MRSA outbreaks and other healthcare-acquired infections, 47 per cent of patients blamed NHS trust managers. Nurses and cleaning staff were blamed by 16 per cent of respondents, and 10 per cent believed that doctors were responsible.

Three quarters of respondents felt that trust in doctors and nurses has decreased compared with five years ago. As a result, 96 per cent said they believed that patients questioned the actions of doctors and nurses more than they used to.

The Department of Health said it would be reforming the system so that patients' concerns were taken seriously. An official said: "We know that people find the current complaints system confusing. Some may also avoid complaining because they feel too intimidated or worry about damaging their relationship with their GP or social worker. This must change. "We are introducing a streamlined approach that will remove the need to follow a rigid set of procedures and replace them with a more open, flexible and personal service." If patients fail to resolve complaints at a local level they can forward their concerns to the Healthcare Commission, the NHS regulator.

The Patients Association called for NHS trust boards to be publicly accountable for an "open, transparent and timely resolution of complaints". It also wants an end to system where standard complaint responses vary depending on the region. Katherine Murphy, the group's communications director, said: "Every complaint matters. Ignoring complaints results in wasted resources, frustrated patients and cynicism about the system."


Below: Britain's Greenest newspaper blames increased incidence of Legionnaires' disease on global warming

As the figures from Britain's Hadley climate centre show, there has been no global warming since 1998, so the paper CANNOT be right! The disease may be exacerbated by hot weather but you don't need climate change to have hot weather! There have ALWAYS been spells of hot weather!

Britain has suffered its first deaths from infectious disease attributable to global warming, official figures suggest. Cases of Legionnaires' disease, the bacterial lung infection which kills more than one in 10 of those it infects, reached record levels in August and September and experts say the extreme summer weather is the most likely cause of the rise. Doctors say that as the world gets hotter, Britain could be threatened by diseases such as malaria, spreading from the tropics. In 2003, an estimated 2,000 UK deaths, mostly elderly people, were attributed to the 90-degree summer heatwave which was blamed on global warming. But the record levels of Legionnaires' disease reported by the Health Protection Agency this summer are believed to be the first example of an increase in infectious disease in Britain driven by climate change.

Legionnaires' disease is a bacterial infection spread through water. It is not transmitted from person to person and is caught only when infected water is inhaled as a vapour. Hotel showers are a particular risk. There were 128 cases of Legionnaires' in August, the highest since records began in 1980, and more than double the total in August 2005 of 63 cases. To the end of September this year, there have been 340 cases, almost 100 more than in the whole of last year, and the highest for the first nine months of any year. A total of 177 cases were diagnosed in August and September.

Public health experts blame the sudden leap on climate change. The hottest July on record, then a wetter than normal August are thought to have provided ideal breeding conditions for Legionella bacteria. Carol Joseph, a specialist in Legionnaires' at the HPA, said previous peaks had been linked to single outbreaks, such as that in Barrow-in-Furness in 2002 when 179 people were infected by a leaking cooling tower.

But the latest surge covers all regions and cannot be traced to one or two outbreaks. Dr Joseph said: "This latest peak [in August] is exceptional. We think this is some kind of weather effect. There are always more cases in August and September because of the warm weather and because more people stay in hotels. There is a definite link with hotels that have poor water systems and dodgy showers. Only a small proportion of these cases had travelled outside the UK.

Other countries such as Denmark had a similar rise in cases during hot spells of weather, Dr Joseph said. The annual total of cases in Britain is on course to exceed 400 for the first time this year. The total has exceeded 300 every year since 2002, having remained below 200 for the previous 20 years. Improved reporting had contributed to the rise.

Legionnaires' disease affects three times as many men as women and is commoner in those over 50, though it can strike at any age. It starts as a flu-like illness with muscle aches, fever and tiredness then pneumonia. It can be treated with antibiotics.

A Met Office spokesman said July was the hottest July since records began in 1659. In August, temperatures fell, rainfall was 10 per cent above average and sunshine 15 per cent below average. September was also the hottest on record. Asked about global warming, the spokesman said: "It is the sort of thing we would expect to see in accordance with the climate models."


Financial Crisis: Bankers and the City of London provided a roof over people's heads

by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

Go on. Admit it. You don't feel altogether sorry for those bankers, do you? When you read about the collapsing pillars of the temples of mammon, you don't feel the tears beginning to prick the corner of your eyes. When you read that the masters and mistresses of the Universe are being expelled from their glass palaces, ferrying their possessions in cardboard boxes, you can't quite find it in you, somehow, to mourn. Oh no. On the contrary. You snuffle and truffle your way through the yards of newsprint, searching for fresh news of folding banks and speculating who will be next.

So Lehman Brothers has bitten the dust, and the gloomy reverberations are being heard in Porsche dealerships on both sides of the Atlantic. Merrill Lynch has been sold, and now the tide of destruction is lapping about the feet of Morgan Stanley and - can it be true? - Goldman Sachs!

Amid the anguish, amid the despair, I am afraid I detect in the coverage a tiny but audible batsqueak of glee, and sometimes it is more than a squeak. Every Lefty from Alex Salmond to Gordon Brown is queuing up to kick the "spivs and speculators", who are apparently the authors of their own destruction, as well as the destruction of immeasurable wealth across Britain and the world.

At the very moment last week when banking stocks were a sea of gore, and thousands of jobs were being lost, the Prime Minister thought fit to announce that the "City must clean up its act". In respectable conservative free-market newspapers you will find yammering columnists demanding new laws on usury, so that nothing of this kind can ever happen again.

As the banker-bashers survey the wreckage of Lehman Bros, the main complaint is that the carnage does not go far enough. Why, when ordinary people are suffering from plummeting house prices, are these ex-Lehman partners allowed to waltz off with multi-million pound bonuses?

Why, when they have so terminally stuffed the financial system that most people are finding it tough to get a mortgage, are these incompetent loan sharks still cruising the world in their yachts and Bugatti Veyrons? Yes, there are some pretty strong feelings out there: Schadenfreude at the bankers who have been punished, indignation at those who have not.

Which is why it is time for this column - ever alert to the noble but unpopular cause - to enter a note in defence of the banks, the City, and the general practice of lending money for profit.

Let us be clear: the banks have been greedy, sometimes hideously greedy. And they have collaborated in encouraging the greed and credulity of home-owners, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have taken on more debt than they can manage. The banks have made it worse by taking that bad debt, and chopping it up into funny parcels called derivatives, and selling these products to each other to make even more money; and then they have made things much, much worse by lying. They have been lying to each other about the extent to which they hold this toxic stuff, and so trust has broken down, and the banks have stopped dealing with each other, and no one can get any credit, and the short-selling hedge funds have begun to close in - quite reasonably - to sell the banks' shares and start the bloodbath.

Last week we seemed to be faced with a full-scale run on the banks, and governments in America and Britain had no choice but to act. The Labour Government has flouted competition rules to protect HBOS, and both governments have banned short selling. It is an incredible turn of events, and for a free marketeer it is quite dizzying. There can be no doubt that government has a duty to get involved, not least to protect innocent depositors. Someone needs to make sure there is no more sharp practice, and that someone is government.

How come Lehman was allowed at the last minute to whip an $16 billion cushion away from London, and transfer that cushion to New York? The result was that the defenestrated bankers of New York had a softer landing than Lehman folk in the City. It looks damn suspicious. We need an answer, and fast. But we should also remember that whenever government gets involved in the market - whenever they use taxpayers' money to defend the price of a share or a currency - they create a risk and they create an opportunity.

When Hank Paulson nationalised Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he was issuing a feeding call to the sharks, as obvious as the boasts of Norman Lamont that he would fight to the death to protect the parity of sterling against the German mark. The hedge funds saw a one-way bet, then and now, and the paradox is that Paulson's initial actions may have made the banks more vulnerable, not less.

What will happen in January, when the rules on short-selling expire? And whatever else government does, we must remember that regulation introduced in response to one crisis almost always helps to create the next one. London's recent success as a financial centre - and our edge over New York - has been at least partly to do with the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley rules that fettered American markets.

Before you attack the bankers of London, remember that this is one of the few global industries in which we truly excel; the City contributes about 9 per cent of Britain's GDP - think of all the professions and trades that feast, directly or indirectly, on the nourishment provided: the lawyers, accountants, PR firms, architects, interior designers, builders, taxi drivers and just about everyone else.

And before you go whingeing to me about house prices boosted by City bonuses, I leave you with one final thought: whatever the disasters of the sub-prime sector, these products allowed millions of Americans to own their homes, and the vast majority are making their payments. They will enjoy the long-term benefits of home ownership, and that is thanks to the ingenuity and enterprise of people who lend money for profit.

Of course there are spivs and speculators out there. But before we get carried away with neo-socialist claptrap, we should remember the huge benefits brought to this country by bankers and the City of London


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