Wednesday, 10 December 2014

90 Syrian refugees from 3.2million; are we doing enough?

Listening to the reasonable-sounding James Brokenshire, it is clear the government is very keen we should all be immensely proud of our contribution towards alleviating the plight of the millions of Syrian refugees, forced to flee their homes by the wretched, increasingly fractured conflict in the country.

And we must not for a second think its problems over net migration have in any way impacted upon the United Kingdom only accepting 90 refugees in the last year.

The immigration minister was speaking as an Urgent Question had been asked in the House of Commons about the government’s failure to accept appeals from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to increase the numbers of refugees allowed into the country.

Overall, Western countries have agreed they will resettle up to 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next few months. This is not a tiny number but only a dent in the 3.2million people who have fled the country and meagre in comparison to the almost 1.2million in Lebanon, 1.1million in Turkey and 630,000 in Jordan. And the UK and the United States have refused to commit to any increase whatsoever. Nevertheless, the country should be very proud of our efforts, as James Brokenshire said on ten separate occasions, variations along the lines of this:

‘This government and this country can be proud of what we are doing through this assistance and our political focus – and, yes, through the vulnerable persons relocation scheme in providing asylum.’

It is certainly true that the UK is donating more aid to the Syrian crisis than all other countries bar the US. This is the biggest refugee crisis of our generation by a considerable margin. As well as the 3.2m who have escaped the violence by leaving the country, 6.5million Syrians are displaced within the country. The United Kingdom has committed £700million towards humanitarian relief. The focus of this money is to alleviate the suffering of refugees being hosted in neighbouring countries, providing water for up to 11.5million people, supporting 600,000 medical consultations and funding 5.2million monthly food rations. This is all hugely valuable work for which the government should rightly be applauded.

But to continually claim a decent number of refugees are being offered asylum here stretches credulity. Moreover, it bears no historical comparison either with previous crises of a similar scale. For example, Britain accepted 25,000 Ugandan Asians after Idi Amin expelled them in 1972; 4,455 Kosovan refugees were airlifted here between April 25 and June 25, 1999 and by the end of 2002, there were 1,575 Rwandan refugees still in the UK.

Time after time, Brokenshire repeated the line that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme was working effectively, liasing ‘closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify the most vulnerable cases displaced by the conflict in Syria and to relocate them to the UK’. The criteria of this scheme must awfully strict for only 90 possible cases to have so far been identified. Either that, or those carrying out the work are being staggeringly inefficient.

After Yvette Cooper suggested the government’s reluctance to take in more refugees might ‘cloud their conscience over helping refugees’. Brokenshire rather got on his high horse, saying such a claim ‘was not worthy of our proceedings’. But it’s hard not to come to that conclusion.

James Brokenshire

Yesterday, Radio Five Live hosted an emotive call-in show on the issue, with a succession of callers shouting down the phone offering comments such as ‘we should be looking after our own first’, ‘we should be rebuilding towns for them’ so ‘these people’ don’t have to come to this country. Another lady said that ‘if we hadn’t opened our borders to 560million in the EU, we would be in a better place to take these refugees’. Britain was a ‘small island totally at breaking point’ before adding that, if Germany took 30,000 refugees, one day in the future they might get EU citizenship and ‘eventually become our problem’. A lovely sentiment, of which the lady speaking felt immediately ashamed.

The government’s net migration target lies in tatters, and it is attitudes like those above, fostered by Nigel Farage and UKIP, which are currently driving the government’s spluttering policy.

Nigel Farage, it should be noted, has backed Syrian refugees coming to the UK, though he has shied away from providing a specific number. In December last year, the UKIP leader said:

‘I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think this country should honour the 1951 declaration on refugee status that was agreed…. the original ideas of defining what a refugee is were good ones and I think, actually, there is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people fleeing Syria, literally in fear of their lives’.

Neither Brokenshire nor the Home Secretary has met with the Refugee Council to discuss the current crisis; as experts in their field they could at least offer sage advice. And they have, with other leading aid charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty International, called for the government to offer up to 10,000 resettlement places to Syrian refugees.

Refugee Council Advocacy Manager Anna Musgrave, said:

‘Britain should be offering safety to thousands, not hundreds of refugees from Syria, in this case, numbers speak louder than words. Failure to act swiftly will leave more refugees struggling to survive in the region and a permanent stain on Britain’s reputation for offering safety to people in their hour of greatest need.’

James Brokenshire and the government can be as proud as they like of their resettlement programme. But, as with their repeated failureto stand-by the Afghan translators who served alongside our soldiers so bravely, to continue to ignore the pleas of the international community, the United Nations, the Church of England, charities and a loud public voice, will do lasting damage to Britain’s long-standing reputation as a country which offers refuge to the desperate.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The day after the night before

I expect there have been a lot of sore heads in the pub industry today. Campaigners, who have spent years trying to challenge the power of the major pub companies (pubcos), might have woken with headaches after celebrating defeating the government over pub rents and the beer tie; pints were eagerly consumed first in Whitehall before the party continued at a south London pub.
Meanwhile, in the board rooms of pubcos, executives are likely to have been rubbing their foreheads in anguish, watching as their share prices plummeted; at one point Enterprise Inns' shares dropped 17 per cent and Punch Tavern's slumped 11 per cent. It must be worrying times for both companies, especially as each is laden with more than £2billion of debt.
The reaction to the vote, which will mean pub tenants tied to pubcos will be able to demand a market rent option (MRO) and buy alcohol from providers other than their pubcos, who often charge a far higher rate (up to 70%) than the open market, has been predictably split.
The campaigners are joyous; the pubcos and their supporters, on the other hand, are despairing. They have spent much of the day predicting apocalyptic levels of pub closures and a vast numbers of redundancies. It is certainly true to say that these are uncertain times and it is hard to be sure of what will ultimately happen.
For the campaigners, yesterday’s vote is an enormous success. These are not professional political lobbyists or campaigners but publicans, or former publicans, trying to challenge a system they see as grossly unfair. Along the way they have been supported by organisations such as Camra, who believe the vote ‘will help keep pubs open and ensure the cost of a pint to consumers remains affordable’ and the Federation of Small Businesses who claimed today the result would be a ‘boost to local economies while giving consumers greater choice’. Greg Mulholland MP, who has spearheaded the campaign in parliament, was understandably in an effervescent mood after the vote and received plaudits from his colleagues – such as Tim Farron – for his not insignificant efforts.
The British Beer and Pub Association, on the other hand, has been predicting doom in the industry as a consequence of the vote. There is barely a news programme on which its chief executive, Brigid Simmonds, hasn’t appeared today. In each appearance she has repeated the claim that the government’s own research shows ‘1,400 more pubs closing, with 7,000 job losses’. The piece of research she is referring to is this by London Economics, commissioned by the Department of Business, and she is certainly quoting it selectively. It actually predicts the closure of between 700 and 1,400 pubs, with the consequent jobs losses of between 3,700 and 7,000. Ms Simmonds has only referred to the top figure.
The London Economics study only consulted pubcos to make its predictions, each providing a sample of between '300-400 anonymised pubs'. It is fair to say that pubcos have a vested interest in this debate and there appears to have been little effort to gauge the opinion from any other side in the exchange.
The report also finds one more reason why pubs might close that hasn't been much mentioned by the BBPA; that several of the stakeholders it interviewed believe the UK is 'still operating excess pub supply of approximately 6,000 pubs'. Definitely a gloomy prospect, but not one that can pinned on Tuesday's vote.
And finally, Ms Simmonds fails to take into account that pubcos have already declared their intentions to dispose of huge numbers of pubs. For example, in their 2013 annual report, Punch Taverns, owners of more than 4,000 pubs, say they want to focus on their core business of 2,990 pubs. Their plans for the non-core division - compromising of 1,106 pubs - is to dispose of them 'over the next four years'.
Enterprise Inns, meanwhile, wanted to dispose of £70million worth of pubs by the end of September this year. It may well turn out that both firms use yesterday's vote as cover for their already declared intentions. Of course, 'disposing' of pubs doesn't necessarily mean they are going to close; but supermarket chains must be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect.
Contrastingly, according to a survey published in 2013 by the Federation of Small Businesses, 88 per cent of tied pubs said they would be better off if they operated under a ‘fair rent’; 74 per cent said they would spend more promoting their business; 74 per cent said they would hire more staff and 65 per cent said they would cut the price of beer.
Another frequently repeated claim from Ms Simmonds is that the beer tie has been a success in this country for almost 400 years. This doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Fifty-seven per cent of tied publicans struggle on less than £10,000 a year. Of Enterprise Inns pubs - they have more than 5,000 - they had 579 'business failures' in one year according to their 2013 Annual Report; down on previous years but nothing to boast about. These are not symptoms of a system working well.
And I have lost count of the numbers of tenant publicans who have contacted me personally to tell me about their suffering; struggling under unimaginable amounts of debt caused, seemingly, by the unreasonable demands of pubcos, themselves trying to shift their own debt mountain. Many of these tenants - all, without exception, hugely hard-working people desperate to run good pubs - have now lost their pubs, their homes, their livelihoods, their health. Pubcos have consistently failed to respond adequately to their concerns; it is their lack of action that has led to this turn of events. 
They won't give up of course. The lobbying campaign by the pubcos and the BBPA against these changes has been huge and they have well placed - and immensely senior - allies to almost the top of the Conservative Party. They will hope the government finds a way to drop this amendment. But,  if these changes lead to the demise of the pubco, they need only look in the mirror to find the founders of their own downfall.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Will MPs finally vote to challenge pubcos?

Parliament has been treading water for some months now; MPs spending more time grinding teeth, impatient for the next General Election, than actually participating in worthwhile debates.

But tomorrow, MPs have an opportunity to vote for something which might actually make a difference to the lives of thousands of publicans across the country, who claim to have been suffering greatly under the pubco ownership model (for background on this fiendishly complicated issue, see here).

For finally, after years of campaigning, scores of MPs from all parties are set to back an amendment to the Small Business Bill, which will put a 'market rent option' for tenants of large pubcos on to the statute books. This means that landlords who lease their pubs from the biggest pub companies – those which own more than 500 establishments – will be able to have their rents independently reviewed to ensure they are fair.

And the amendment, tabled by the campaign's parliamentary champion Greg Mulholland, Tory Brian Binley and Labour's Adrian Bailey, could also see tenants able to buy their beer from any supplier, rather than be compelled to buy exclusively from their owners at a marked up price.

The issue's complexity has been its worst enemy for it deserves more headlines than it has garnered. The closure of a local pub is frequently a local tragedy; a community loses its heart, a neighbourhood is deprived of a meeting and sharing place. The mass closure of pubs which Britain has witnessed in the last couple of decades is a huge national shame; a vital cultural seam that threads through our whole national consciousness has been neglected and allowed to decay by governments of all colours. In the ten years after 2002, more than 10,000 pubs have closed, a huge number of which were tied pubs.

If passed, the changes might mean some relief for tenants struggling to live on barely £3,000 a year, and those battling not to end up like Stoke Newington's Kirsty Valentine, forced out of The Alma after a rent dispute. It could curb the practice of churn, which sees tenant landlords forced out of their pub, only to be replaced within a couple of weeks.

Getting to this stage has been a slow old process and, for a time, it seemed the coalition might run out of sufficient parliamentary time to pass any legislation. And even now, despite the recommendations from endless committee reports and reams of evidence, the government has resisted these measures when it eventually outlined their proposals to tackle the pubco issues. While Vince Cable proposed a statutory code for pub companies, campaigners have argued it would remain toothless regulation without this ‘market rent option’. 

While, this option has big support amongst publicans and tenants, the pubcos themselves have lobbied hard against the such changes, with eager support from the British Beer and Pub Association. The latter, quoting widely a widely discredited report, claim the measures could lead to more than 1,400 pubs closing and the loss of 7,000 jobs. It's worth remembering that even if this were true - and for such a dire outcome to emerge it would require the wilful and self-destructive connivance of the pub owning companies - this is actually at slower rate than the current rate of 31 pubs closing every week, according to CAMRA. I do wonder who the BBPA imagine they represent; pubs or pubcos?

Support for the amendment is strong on the Labour benches and has wide backing among the Conservative benches - curiously not including Burton MP Andrew Griffiths, who has been something of an ally of the pubcos - and the Liberal Democrats. Victory for the campaigners must feel unnervingly, worryingly close. But, the government could still defeat the rebels and it has to make its way through the House of Lords; so this long-running saga has some way to go yet.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Politics should rise above playground abuse

Eric Pickles is not a slim man, you may have noticed, and he has long been subjected to the familiar jeers of the ‘who ate all the pies?’ sort - in this, he is a successor to John Prescott. Ed Balls is afflicted by a stammer – it is, for example, ‘impossible’ for him to start a sentence with an H. It is largely kept under control but it has emerged at a few moments, ruining high profile appearances in the House of Commons and prompting mockery.

Ed Miliband can appear socially awkward and seems unable to eat a bacon sandwich in public without pulling a face which looks as though he has swallowed a particularly energetic wasp, much to the amusement of many. Gordon Brown is Scottish and blind in one eye, justifying the charmless Jeremy Clarkson’s description of him as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’.

Picking on such characteristics, over which people have little control, reflects the standard pattern of primary school bullying. In such circumstances it may provoke guffaws amongst a bully’s peers, laughter amongst a gaggle of skinny teenagers on a chilly, windswept sports pitch; but by the time most of us reach the sixth-form and the junior common room, it is those slinging such abuse who look like the idiot. But in politics, pitifully, this bullying remains a daily feature of the soap opera.

For all the high profile and worthy campaigns against bullying, it sadly seems increasingly to invade public life and appear as a form of entertainment. A couple of weeks ago The Apprentice returned to our television, expanded to include 20 candidates, all - probably deliberately - selected for their ability to behave with competing ghastliness. The seam running through the show seems to be bullying, the wannabes competing viciously between each other while Alan Sugar barks nastily from above. Perhaps the absence of this mean streak made The Great British Bake-Off such a success.

There is, of course, a rich history of clever, acid – and frequently rude – barbs being flung across the chamber of the House of Commons but it is too easy to look back with rose-tinted spectacles and paint politicians of the past as master orators, always ready with a cleverly constructed aside. Few will forget the hitherto mild-mannered, 'dead sheep', Geoffrey Howe bringing out his rapier and sticking it into his colleague and boss with such vigour.  For every perfectly judged quip, such as when Michael Foot said of Norman Tebbit, ‘It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi-house-trained polecat’, there was a Tony Banks. The late, former Sports Minister, once dismissed Margaret Thatcher as a ‘half-mad old bag lady’ and said, when Hague became Conservative leader, they had ‘elected a foetus as the party leader’, adding ‘I bet a lot of them wish they had not voted against abortion now’. 

We can look much further back into our political record. Lord Kenneth Baker, who held several cabinet posts under Margaret Thatcher, is a great enthusiast of political caricature, which has a long, venerable, and excoriating, history. He is a trustee of The Cartoon Museum and collects 18th century cartoons, recognising the importance of works by the likes of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. These artists could be particularly vicious, never shy of focusing on a public figure's physical defects if it suited them. Gillray reserved special scorn for the Whig politician Charles James Fox, who often appeared, gruesomely, in his works:

Charles James Fox sharing a chamber pot with Lord North (a modern twist of this can be found here)
Baker himself, wasn't spared. Inspired, perhaps, by his oleaginous image, he was transmogrified into a slug by the Spitting Image team, though it was his decision to douse himself liberally with hair oil.

At what point does a clever - if deadly - political putdown become school-boy nastiness? Footballers are constantly reminded that they are role models and what they do on the football pitch is replicated up and down the country. Spit excessively, and children playing footie in the school yard will spit; swear and they will swear.

Politicians also bear this responsibility. The jibes above have little or nothing to do with the achievements - or otherwise - of our politicians, they focus on aspects the individual is powerless to alter. Mockery becomes cruelty when the victim is powerless to resist. When politicians descend to such cheap ridicule so casually, it is no wonder that public forums - such as social media - can become dominated with equally facile abuse. Politicians will not always succeed but they should try, if only for the sake of healthy debate in public life, to aspire to something better.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Mark Reckless = Gluttering Snodgripe

A gluttering snodgripe, recently

Mark Reckless is a ‘gluttering snodgripe’, a ‘flouty pelmvessle’ who should be ‘hodded into solulence’. Not my words, but those of the 'legendary Jim Hill', or @jamesworse, who appeared briefly in a Michael Crick film on Channel 4 News this evening after being asked about the former Tory MP for Rochester and Strood who has defected to those 'agents of change', Ukip. It can be seen here, the best bit starts 34 seconds in).

And really, it's hard to disagree with the sentiments. It is all very well for Grant Shapps to tell the Conservative Party Conference that Reckless ‘lied and lied and lied again’ – and coming from Michael Green, some might think this is a bit rich anyway – but had the Tory party chairman used the language above he would have garnered a bit more attention.

For James Worse, with these nonsense words and neologisms (think Jabberwocky, William Archibald Spooner and Polari), expressed the opinion of the Tories, and so many other people, much more succinctly and accurately than anyone else. Forever, to me, Reckless will be a 'gluttering snodgripe' (a twist on 'sodding guttersnipe' perhaps?) no other comment, worthy or otherwise, can hope compete. It should appear on his political epitaph.

And as he told me earlier this evening:

For all the brutal cunning of Denis 'like being savaged by a dead sheep' Healey and lyrical theatricality of Michael 'semi-house trained polecat' Foot, this must ranks as one of the most dismissive, contemptuous, descriptions of any MP ever uttered.

Far more nonsensical than any of these phrases is Mark Reckless' belief that his dream of leaving the EU is likely to be brought forward by joining UKIP, than if he had stayed with the Tories. His defection, along with Douglas Carswell's, paint a picture of a political party that is still fracturing from a fissure that has been painfully widening now for more than 20 years. More than ever, it looks like Ed Miliband's Labour Party will win the next election more by accident than by design, and if the recent polling by Lord Ashcroft and the latest from ComRes for ITV News is anything to go by, with a majority. 

As for, Mr Worse - who performs 'experimental sound improvisation like 'Shrivelled Mole' below -  according to his Facebook page, he is 'writing an on-going epic, entitled "Flark of the Dandibus"' which he hopes never to publish, but 'instead for it to exist only in performance - like they used to do by the fire in longhouses, in the good old days'. I can't wait to attend such an occasion.


We've just had to endure George Osborne's speech and this is what Mr Worse thinks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer:

Monday, 22 September 2014

'Have you anything to share with the nation?'

It was the sort of event which would have made Harold Macmillan proud. The prime minister holding court at his country pile, with a select band of supporters – the vast majority male of course – to spend the day discussing political devolution in England, deciding what they think would be good for you. And then, at the appropriate time, a senior member of the party would deign to emerge and tell an expectant media what they had decided. One presumes that hacks present swiftly doffed their caps and said ‘thank you, guvnor’ in unison.

With great magnanimity, William Hague – for he was the senior minister – said the government was ‘open to discussions with the Labour Party and other parties as well’, and somewhat preposterously claimed that there had already been lengthy discussions on the matter of English devolution.

‘The issue of fairness for England – as well as for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – I think is one that cannot now be avoided. That is something we have to face up to.

‘It has been discussed for a very long time. The time has now come to make some decisions about this.’

While it is certainly true that the West Lothian question is an issue that has been raised over the years, to suggest there has been any serious discussions about political reform – less still, reached any conclusions – is disingenuous to say the least. And other aspects, such as regional devolution, comprehensive reform of the absurd House of Lords, and extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds seemed not to warrant a mention.

Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert and former tutor of David Cameron, has spent much of the day warning against rushing into political changes in England. And, writing persuasively in The Times, said:

‘The Scots have been thinking about their constitution for years; they set up a constitutional convention in 1989 to produce proposals on devolution.

‘The English have only just begun to think about their constitution. Their thoughts could be brought into focus by a royal commission which would hold public evidence sessions throughout the country, beginning a dialogue between government people.

‘After a constitution has been drafted, it must be submitted to the people for approval in a referendum. It would need a solid majority in each component of the United Kingdom. If the current turmoil stimulates a search for a long-term constitutional settlement, then the referendum process in Scotland will have brought real benefits to the whole of the United Kingdom.’

David Cameron would do well to listen to his former lecturer. Instead, though, he wants English devolution to be carried out 'in tandem' with handing out more power to the Scots, promised in the famous cross party 'vow' published in the Daily Record before last week's referendum. Any failure to deliver this pledge to Scottish voters will do enormous damage to the reputation of all politicians in Westminster.

On the one hand, though, it is tacit acknowledgement that the Conservatives have nothing to lose by pursuing this aggressively English agenda; the party has been effectively wiped out north of the border with only one MP defending a seat.

Meanwhile, on the other, he knows it is an uncomfortable issue for Labour, as they have 41 Scottish MPs, who have been relied upon in the past when a Labour government has wanted to force through controversial measures in the past. Bafflingly, it seems that Labour haven’t drawn up any alternative devolution suggestions within England, despite the fact that an appeal to English nationalism was bound to be the Conservative's tactic. As a result, Labour’s response to questions regarding English votes for English Laws, is genuinely shifty and unprepared. Simply saying it's 'David Cameron's trap', while being self-evidently true, isn't sufficient.

Another aspect to the prime minister's actions is that it offers an opportunity to compete with the UKIP in going after English nationalist votes. Until the fall out of the Scottish referendum, I had no idea the English were so downtrodden. And yet, according to a ComRes poll for ITV, published this evening (22-09-14), 61 per cent of people think England it taken for granted in the UK. 

It is clever party politics from David Cameron, but to indulge in such games over major constitutional change, and gear up to making it a dividing line at the 2015 general election, is wholly inappropriate. He may well be able to briefly assuage his troublesome backbenchers, but trying to railroad through reform in such a high-handed, patrician and tribal manner, won't do the British constitution any long term good at all.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Brown delivers the speech of his life

Tony Blair is Scottish. He was born in Edinburgh, the grandson of an Orangeman and butcher, and went to school  at the prestigious Fettes College in the Scottish capital. This former prime minister hasn’t stayed silent on the independence debate referendum, saying just on Saturday that a Yes vote would ‘not be sensible, politically, economically or even emotionally’. It is not the sort of comment which is likely to endear him to any Scots and unlikely to sway any wavering voters. Which is why he hasn’t been allowed to be anywhere near the Better Together campaign, he is probably only second to Margaret Thatcher in the Most-Disliked-Politician-in-Scotland table.

All of this is in stark contrast to Gordon Brown. The conventional wisdom has written the former prime minister off portraying him as a dour, glowering figure, sulking in Kirkcaldy and rarely venturing into the House of Commons despite still being an MP. But the political biographies will have to be rewritten, especially, as seems increasingly likely, the No vote finally comes on top. It is probably too strong to say that a No win would be down to Gordon Brown’s impact, but it is undoubtedly true that the introduction of this true political heavyweight into the debate has shifted the balance.

Up and down the country, Brown has been speaking without notes, fluently and powerfully addressing rallies, galvanising the No campaign. Yes, it has basically been the same speech over and over again, with the same jokes about football failures, the same invocations of historical Scottish figures, the same warnings of the risks of voting for independence. But, regardless of the politics, it is a good, well-crafted speech. And the more Brown has given it, the better it has got, culminating with his appearance at Mayhill Community Central Hall, in Glasgow this morning (Wednesday, September 17). Prowling like a caged lion, his arms enthusiastically enacting the sentences as he spoke, the Kirkcaldy MP delivered one of the finest oratorical performances of our lifetime.  Oddly, though the contents of the speech are of course, important, the sheer style, and panache of the performance, means that one could disagree with every word and still come to the same conclusion.

Of course, Blair knew how to deliver a good speech. He could be fluent, funny, self-deprecating, confrontational and passionate; but ultimately, with Blair, one never knew if he, himself, actually believed what he was saying. With Brown today, though, there is no doubt that it came from the heart, the words almost erupting from within like an unstoppable force. Barack Obama, on his day possibly the English language’s finest orator, often gets compared to a preacher and Brown too, delivered his speech like an archetypal Scottish minister –he is the son of one, of course –  and it was after almighty crescendo that he bellowed the biblical line ‘what we have built together, let no nationalism put asunder’. (In the actual printed version of the speech, attached below, Brown apparently says 'Nationalist' at this point; 'Nationalism', which he said, works better).

It is something when grizzled hacks from the Daily Mail and The Sun can do no more than acknowledge the mastery of Gordon Brown’s oratorical skill. Brown has always been a powerful speaker, though his message was frequently dulled by power and his tactic of repeating the mantra of the day over and over again. In the context of a tightly fought referendum, this was the best speech of Brown's career.

There is no doubt Gordon Brown has shaken the No campaign from its complacency, appearing just as panic was setting in after an opinion poll gave Yes a narrow lead. He has injected it with energy and provided it with what it has desperately needed, a positive message in favour of the union, simultaneously celebrating Scottish identity and British identity – much of this can also be found in his book My Scotland, Our Britain. 

But, despite its undeniable power, will Brown’s contribution sway any votes? He left Downing Street after a tumultuous few years, the country reeling from an economic storm, his reputation severely damaged. But, still, possibly. In such a tight election, for the No campaign to win, it only needs a few votes to swing from one side to another and it could well help make the mind up of wavering voters. With this grand oratorical flourish, Gordon Brown could yet confound the political rule book and show that all political careers do not necessarily have to end in failure.

*The full text of the speech can be found here.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Gordon Brown; the Unionist's final throw of the dice?

When David Cameron was finally able to evict the ‘squatter holed up’ in Downing Street after the General Election in 2010, he must have thought he wouldn’t have worry about Gordon Brown again. The irony, therefore, that the Prime Minister is trusting his one-time opponent basically to lead the final stages of the battle to keep the union together must be painful indeed. Any personal animosity has, for now, been swept aside.

It is hard to conclude that the MP for Kirkcaldy’s intervention, pledging an array of devolved powers to Scotland, was anything other than an act of desperation. All three major Westminster parties have pledged their support for this package of constitutional reform, regardless of whether there has been any consultation with voters about what exactly they want. Moreover, while the reforms are apparently exclusively Scottish, it will rapidly prove to be an impossible position to maintain; Wales and Northern Ireland would certainly want something similar and regions, Cornwall, the North East, Yorkshire, will clamour for reform. Nick Clegg has already acknowledged this, saying further devolution in Scotland will:

'signal a much wider rewiring of the governance and constitutional arrangements in the country as a whole, particularly governance within England which remains an unusually over-centralised country'.

Hence, regardless of whether Scotland votes yes or not, Britain is on the cusp of potentially huge, and rushed, constitutional change.

Brown has been thrust into the limelight at this late stage as even his opponents are recognising that, despite his pretty disastrous time as prime minister, he remains the equivalent of Heineken; he can reach voters other pro-Union political figures just can’t reach. Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg have cancelled their appearance Prime Ministers’ Questions to head to Scotland and campaign for a No vote, but their presence is, if anything, a boost to the Yes campaign. Alex Salmond said today: ‘The message of this extraordinary, last minute reaction is that the Westminster elite are in a state of absolute panic as the ground in Scotland shifts under their feet.’ The farcical scenes around the country of the Saltire being raised above town halls and even Downing Street, as if such an act would swing a floating voter, rather gives credence to the SNP leader’s view.

The toxicity of the Tories in Scotland cannot be underestimated; in my recent trip up there the venom reserved for Mrs Thatcher was still fresh and vivid. In many ways, the imposition of the 'Bedroom Tax', though applicable nationally, echoes the hated Poll Tax. Hence, One of the SNP’s strongest lines, repeated over and over again, is voting for independence is the only way Scotland can avoid ever having to endure a Conservative government again, conveniently forgetting that the Tories haven’t won an election since 1992 and, in parliamentary terms, remain virtually wiped out north of the border.

Ed Miliband has been inept, unable to harness the millions of Labour voters the party is normally able to rely upon; the Labour Party’s brand has been damaged by Alex Salmond constantly calling them the allies of the Tories. Such a comment would make any Labour voter in England bristle with irritation but it will still carry power. Labour's recent time in office also does them few favours too. While it may have established the Scottish parliament, paving the way for the situation we have today, the party, particularly under Tony Blair, shifted to the right, no longer recognisable to many.

And Clegg? As it is his party keeping the Conservatives in power, thus enabling unpopular measures such as the ‘Bedroom Tax’, he will struggle to find a sympathetic ear.

Gordon Brown will be seen every day between now and the referendum. Yesterday, he spoke without notes, with power, passion and fluency – Cameron’s advisers would have raved at such a performance. It was an echo of the early speeches Brown made before he was rendered thumpingly dull by the process of power.

Much of the contents echoed his book My Scotland, Our Britain, the best, most positive, pro-Union argument I have yet read, where he explains how it is possible to a both proud Scot and a proud Briton. And it recognises how the debate is one of economics and politics as well as an issue of the heart. And the former Labour prime minister may yet still win the day for the Union cause. Combined with the potential for constitutional change, we are faced with the prospect of a quirky historical twist that Gordon Brown could achieve something more long lasting and profound as a backbench Kirkcaldy MP than he ever did as Prime Minister.


It hasn't taken long for politicians from England's regions to start calling for extra powers to be devolved. Andrew George, MP, for St Ives, tells the Western Morning News:

'All parties now acknowledge the benefits and opportunities of allowing the nations and the regions of the UK to manage their public services and shape their futures whilst releasing themselves from the dead hand of micromanagement from Whitehall.

'If Scotland and Wales can be offered further powers then Cornwall must be next in line. After all, Cornwall is already recognised as a distinct region for economic development purposes, as a separate people and for its distinct language.

'After all, who is best-placed to decide how Cornwall's housing stock and development plans are best managed? Inspectors in Whitehall or democratically elected representatives in Cornwall?

'Who is best-placed to manage Cornwall's health and social care? Health managers in Whitehall and Leeds or the people, patients and clinicians of Cornwall?

'Who is best-placed to decide ho Cornwall's economic development aid is spent? Ministers and mandarins in Whitehall or the business leaders, workers and elected representatives of Cornwall?'

The full article can be found here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Half Moon pub 'will reopen'..... one day

* The below was written prior to me finding this sign on the corner door of the Half Moon. I don't know when it went up but it was bone dry, unlike the rest of London. It would appear the Half Moon pub is being squatted. I'm hoping to be corrected.

It’s a terribly sad sight to see the beautiful Half Moon pub in Herne Hill closed. The pub's beautiful doors have not been opened to welcome a paying customer since the awful flood of August 2013 and rumours about its fate swirl endlessly around. Some claim to have heard it is going to be converted into an Asda, or a Tesco Metro, or maybe into a Wetherspoons clone or simply turned into flats. 
Thankfully the truth is a little simpler than that; the most likely outcome is that it will, one day, reopen as a pub. To understand why, below is the Half Moon’s entry on English Heritage’s Listed Buildings Register:
Public house. Dated 1896 on gable. Red brick in Flemish bond with rubbed brick, artificial stone, terracotta dressings; ground-floor with polished granite columns. Mansarded roofs of various descriptions, all turnerised. STYLE: Jacobeathan Revival. 
PLAN: rectangular corner plan, with corner itself chamfered. 
EXTERIOR: 3 storeys stepping down to 2 to left and rear. Seven-window range, one-window range at corner and five-window range to return. Five flat-arched entrances, that to corner designed as the main one. All windows are flat-arched unless otherwise stated. Ground floor treated as pilastrade of Composite order, supporting an entablature, which is topped by a pediment over each entrance. In the centre of main elevation a bulbous attached column supports a 1st-floor balcony set under a canted, open porch which is, in turn, topped by a truncated gable and a 2nd-floor balcony with pierced strapwork parapet. This ensemble set in a full-height, round-arched recess, pierced at top by a Serlian window with panelled over spandrel. The 4th to 6th window ranges are treated as a single Dutch-gabled bay with scrolled parapets and finials. A 1st-floor porch in the corner range with Elizabethan-style columns; round-arched window; window above set in aedicule consisting of pedimented hood that projects above eaves of high mansard roof, topped by a bellcote, which crowns the corner range. 2nd-window range on return treated as a gabled bay. Entrance porch with polished granite columns to rear of return elevation. On the main elevation, 1st-floor windows in the 3rd- and 7th-window ranges are tripartite and round-arched. The 2nd-floor windows alternate with round-arched recesses; the windows have scrolled aprons and plaques of brick cut and rubbed to resemble swags. High hipped roof to 2nd-window range which projects slightly to form a bay. High stacks to centre and end walls, some with floral decoration. To the rear of the return there is a single square stack in the plain of the outer wall. 
INTERIOR: public bar intact; original panelling and coloured glass; etched mirrors of original design. Some mirrors with painted decoration of good quality depicting birds and flowers. The proliferation of ornament across the surface of this building gives the whole a sense of vital unity through their sheer number, a design approach characteristic of large public houses built c1895. 
Such is the admiration of this building, not only is the exterior of the pub Grade II* listed, so too is the interior. This makes it very difficult to adapt for other uses. Any applicant would have to convince Southwark Council that the site couldn't operate as a viable pub once more; an extremely difficult proposition to establish considering the Half Moon's long service. An attempt to convert the pub into a supermarket, for example - the sorry fate of far too many pubs - would inevitably lead to dramatic interior changes and is almost guaranteed  to spark ferocious local opposition and also objections from English Heritage. Sadly, such a fate befell befell the George IV, in Brixton Hill recently. A lovely pub but not one, as far as I can see, benefitted from a heritage listing. It had also had a more troubled recent history which made it much harder for the council to resist the advance of Tesco, despite a vigorous campaign to save it. It is now another pointless Tesco Metro store.
The Dulwich Estate, owners of the Half Moon Pub, do have redevelopment plans for the building; it seems likely to have been these plans which led to the previous leaseholder, Robert Harrison, leaving the pub in March 2013. In an interview with journalist Jason Tate, Mr Harrison said:
I left the Half Moon in March 2013. My leased had expired and the landlord had not offered me a new one. I spent seven years at the Half Moon and during that time I gave my best attention to the upkeep and well-being of the premises. I would have liked the opportunity to continue - there was much more that could have been done - but unfortunately the landlords had other plans for the building.
(The full interview can be found here, search 'Half Moon Pub Remembered' and it should come up.)

The flood which closed the doors of the Half Moon
But The Dulwich Estate are committed to reopening the pub.
'When the pub was flooded it coincided with The Dulwich Estate's plans to redevelop the pub and provide flats on the upper floors,' John E Major, the chief executive of The Dulwich Estate, told me in a brief conversation.
He acknowledged that is was 'a beautiful building but it is not in great condition and it needs a lot of careful restoration'. The previous tenants have given up the pub and The Dulwich Estate are now in discussions with planning at Southwark Council about the way forward. While the Herne Hill Forum estimates the pub will reopen in June 2015, 'there is no target date to get it back open, it all depends on the planning process', Mr Major said, though he added:
'Obviously, it's in our interests to get it reopen again as a functioning pub as soon as possible.'
And the future of live music provision at the venue is still not decided either.
'Whether there is a music venue depends on the future tenant. Soundproofing could be done to enable the music venue to remain.'
Past experience suggests that the planning battle could be a fraught. A consultation was held in April 2013 about parts of the building being turned into flats and, according to the Herne Hill Society, 'local residents were concerned over the loss of the function rooms on the upper floors and, more particularly, the impact on the live music performances, an important tradition at the Half Moon. Could they ever be compatible with residential flats?'
There's a long way to go then, but hopefully, not too far in the distance future, I will, along with other fans of the pub, walk in to the familiar bar, order a pint and settle back to enjoy one of the finest pubs in London.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

'Will no one rid me of these turbulent priests'

David Cameron has a problem with bishops. Several of these troublesome fellows have spent the last few weeks castigating the government for failing to do enough to help Iraqi Christians.

As the influence and terror of the Islamic State has grown, Christians, along with the ancient Yazidi community, have faced a very stark choice; either to convert, flee or die. The threat of genocide is real. In the last week, horrifying reports have emerged that captured Yazidi men, women and children, refusing to convert, have been buried alive. Reuters reporter Humeyra Pamuk, for example, spoke to Samo Ilyas Ali – one of those who fled – who recounted what happened when IS forces entered his village and started digging holes in the ground:

‘We did not understand. Then they started to put people in those holes, those people were alive.

‘After a while we heard gunfire. I can’t forget that scene. Women, children, crying for help. We had to run for our lives, there was nothing to be done for them.’

It is against this background that the bishops have spoken so forcibly and implored the government to offer asylum to Christians, fleeing from places like Mosul and Qaraqosh, where Christian heritage dates back 1,600 years.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker, told The Observer

‘We would be failing to fulfil our obligations were we not to offer sanctuary. Having intervened so recently and extensively in Iraq, we have, even more than other countries, a moral duty in the UK. Given the vast amounts of money that we spent on the war in Iraq, the tiny cost of bringing some people fleeing for their lives to this country and allowing them to settle – and who, in due course, would be an asset to our society – would seem to be minuscule.’

Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, added:

‘I would be very disturbed if the government refused to do anything. The situation in Iraq is absolutely horrendous. It would sit very ill at ease with our values if nothing were to be offered. I am disappointed nothing has transpired so far.’

The pressure continues; in the last couple of days, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev. Nicholas Baines, has written to the Prime Minister, with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking for the government's policy towards Iraq to be clarified. Cuttingly, one of his questions reads:

'The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yazidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any one particular time?'

And the other day, the hugely admirable Canon Andrew White, from Baghdad's St George's Church - a man who has surely done more to promote a positive of Britain and its best values in Iraq than any other - appeared on the Today programme to add his voice to those campaigning to offer asylum to up to 30,000 Iraqi Christians:

'Christianity [in Iraq] could be nearly dead and Britain has refused asylum to any Iraqi and now we are desperate. It is a matter of life and death.'

Yet, despite the urgency of the situation and the vocal interventions, the government has remained remarkably silent on the issue; it almost seems as though they're embarrassed. After the first article appeared in The Observer, this was the comment which came from the government:

‘The UK has a proud record of offering sanctuary to those who need it. Every claim for asylum is carefully considered on its individual merits.’

This frankly pathetic, inadequate, statement hardly does justice to the horror of the situation.

It is, of course, true that, historically, Britain has opened its doors to the oppressed; Charles II allowed the Huguenots, escaping the Catholic Church in France, to settle here in the 17th century; more than 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in the late 19th century, escaping persecution, particularly in Russia; and in the 1972, many Ugandan Asians came here after being expelled by Idi Amin.

But is the claim still justified? Let's just glimpse at a few recent cases

1 - More than 2.5million have fled the fighting in Syria, packing into refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Britain has taken 500.

2 - The government has fought bitterly against demands to allow Afghan interpreters, who worked with British forces during the recent war, to come here and escape the obvious dangers they face. Reluctantly, they have agreed about half of the 1,200 interpreters who were still working with the British military on December 19, 2012, will be able to come here. It’s still hugely unsatisfactory and a betrayal of people who risked their lives to help British troops. Any who stopped working before this date will not be eligible.

3 - In the case of the Gurkhas – who fought for this country – a it took the charms of Joanna Lumley to embarrass the government into finally acknowledging their cause.

4 - And just a few weeks ago - despite a very high profile campaign against female genital mutilation - Afusat Saliu and her daughters were deported to Nigeria despite the very real risks her children could be targets for the horrible, abusive, procedure from her wider family.

Obviously, asylum is still offered to the desperate. According to the Refugee Council, in 2012 16,918 asylum applications were decided. Of those, ’64% of initial decisions were refusals, 30% were grants of asylum, 5% were grants of Humanitarian Protection or discretionary leave, and 0.5% were grants of leave to remain under family or private life rules'.

This isn't a party political issue, it's a problem which afflicts successive governments. Levels of immigration, rightly or wrongly, remains a major public concern and neither the Conservatives nor Labour - and increasingly the Liberal Democrats too - wants to be seen as a soft touch. The government seems afraid of acknowledging the desperation of the Iraqi Christian community, fearful of how it will be depicted in sections of the media ahead of what will be a tight general election. But simply relying on our 'proud record of offering sanctuary', too often seems to be an excuse for inaction, for blocking asylum and ignoring the plight of those who need our help. On top of all the suffering they are facing, Iraqi Christians do not deserve to be victims of such short-term political imperatives. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

What is happening with the Crystal Palace redevelopment?

A curious press release appeared on Bromley Council’s website on Friday, announcing a £2.4million improvement programme for Crystal Palace Park. Nine projects would be examined and a feasibility study drawn up. The projects included conserving the dinosaurs, conserving the sphinxes and south terrace steps and the Paxton basin. The amount of money is not huge and will not vaguely cover the nine projects listed. But the bigger question is why is Bromley Council spending any money on the park at all when the Chinese ZhongRong group are still in negotiations over a £500million reimagining of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace?

On a sunny, unusually warm day in February this year hundreds of people crammed in to a sweltering, sweaty, room to hear what might become of the park if the ZhongRong group get the go ahead to their ambitious scheme. As I wrote here, it wasn’t particularly informative. Bad-tempered from the beginning, the local community, evidently distrustful of planners and the council after decades of promises and inaction, broadly displayed suspicion towards the scheme, drowning out the few voices of support. Consultants Arup, who led the event, struggled to provide much information at all, as did representatives from Bromley Council and the Mayor of London’s office, who were also in attendance. No one from the ZhongRong was there, or at least made themselves known.

What was clear was a shortlist of six architectural practices had been drawn up with a winner due to be selected by the summer. And while summer has some time to go (hopefully), no winner has yet emerged and the whole grand scheme has been notable for its silence. The notion that an application might be submitted in Autumn this year - and building commencing in Winter 2015 - seems unlikely to say the least.

The delay appears to be within the negotiations between Bromley Council and ZhongRong. They were always going to be somewhat fraught, being, as they are, about selling off a large swathe of a public park to a private venture on a 125-year lease. Some observers have suggested - plausibly enough - that 'ZhongRong are making demands that cannot lawfully be met' but a council spokesman would not be drawn on this. Instead, he insisted that 'negotiations are on going'.

'We are going one stage at a time. The first step was the exclusivity contract. ZhongRong would then develop their plans and negotiations would continue about a land deal. These negotiations are on going.'

And, asked about Bromley Council spending money on restoring land which could be part of the redevelopment according to a map released a few months ago, he said:

'The map of exclusivity doesn't necessarily mean ZhongRong want, or indeed, are going to get, all that area. The idea around that is to get an area of land about which Bromley wouldn't enter into negotiations with other people. It was a way of giving ZhongRong some security.'

And he refused to say whether the timetable was slipping or not.

'We couldn't comment on the timetable. We want to be as open as possible with people about it and will give updates when we can.'

As for the money now being spent, we need to go back to when ZhongRong just made their presence noticed. Bromley Council had submitted an application for Heritage Lottery Funding for the park and it is likely they would have been successful had ZhongRong never appeared. In which case, the HLF would have given a £5million grant towards the park, on top of about £2.4million from the local authority and the Mayor of London's office. This £2.4million is that money.

And they know it is just a drop in the ocean of the funding the park really needs. The £60million masterplan which was halted a few years ago would need be about £100million in today's money, I am told. The council spokesman added: 

'£2.4million won't solve everything. We know that. Is it a step forward? Yes. Will it make a difference? Yes.' 

One wonders whether the ZhongRong plan will be the latest Crystal Palace to fail to materialise; a colourful, flamboyant intervention, backed by an overly-enthusiastic Mayor of London who is searching for vanity projects to create something of a legacy, and a council keen to rid themselves of a troublesome park. We will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The day I was poisoned by my future wife

This following is a true story.

We were going out for dinner. My girlfriend – now wife – works in the charity sector and that evening, more than 12 years ago now, an elderly, doughty, eager volunteer was cooking for us at her home in west London. I had a bit of a sniffle and, fearful I might pass it on to our 90-year-old host, my girlfriend mixed a sachet of Beechams powder in a glass of water, despite my protests that I’d never had the mixture before.

I took a couple of swigs, and put the glass down. 'Disgusting stuff, I’m not drinking any more', I said to the consternation of my girlfriend and her family. We went out, had a couple of glasses of wine, and returned back to her family home, where what appeared to be a committee awaited our arrival.

‘You shouldn’t have Beechams with vodka,’ my girlfriend’s mother said with concern. ‘I didn’t’, I protested. ‘Well, that’s what it tasted like,’ - going on to say she had taken it off her husband who thought he might as well finish it off; waste not want not.

My girlfriend leapt to my defence; she had poured the drink, of course she didn’t use vodka. She used water from a Vittel bottle that was sitting in a bedroom. It was then the reality of what had happened became apparent.

For another family member was a then biology student and one of her tasks was to preserve insects using methanol or wood alcohol, which she had decanted from a larger bottle – marked appropriately – into the much-easier-to-carry Vittel bottle - marked as water - which was left on a side in the bedroom in which she was staying. It was this bottle which my girlfriend used to the mix the Beechams and three of us had managed to drink it.

We all felt fine but rang NHS Direct just in case. The person on the other end was reassuring and thought as long as we kept drinking water there would be no ill-effects, but she rang the poisons unit just in case. Within minutes she rang back and urged us to go to A&E immediately.

It was almost midnight, I think on a Friday night. I remember moaning the last thing I wanted was to have my stomach pumped. A digital display at the A&E at Charing Cross Hospital indicated a wait of about five hours. The woman on reception laughed at what had happened; ‘oh they’ll give you alcohol for that’, she chuckled and told us not to worry about the wait as we were urgent cases who needed to be dealt with. She was right. In minutes we were ushered into rooms and details were being taken down. Alcohol, specifically ethanol, was, indeed, the answer, it turned out. It was explained that essentially, once digested methanol becomes formaldehyde and consumed in sufficient quantities can blind or kill. Ethanol - the sort of alcohol we drink conventionally - basically latches on to the methanol and, comparatively harmlessly, flushes it though the system through the kidneys before it becomes toxic.

So we needed booze and spirits in particular. A bottle of Polish vodka was brought from the freezer at the family home; cupboards, doctors’ drawers, and anywhere else were raided for bottles of spirit; the local off licences had sadly closed.

We were moved to the paediatrics room of the A&E department where we were instructed to drink; from memory, we needed to drink a double every half an hour. We were there for six hours. Elsewhere in A&E, lots of teenagers dressed as school kids came in suffering from various injuries; there was a school disco themed party going on at a club somewhere. Later a man came in with blood caked to one side of his face. He had been mugged. My girlfriend’s mother was now an exceedingly entertaining drunk and invited him to come round for dinner sometime. My girlfriend’s father had to be woken every thirty minutes to have alcohol poured down his throat.

At about 6 or 7am, alcohol drips had finally been located. I rang my parents to tell them what was happening and we were finally taken off to various wards to be cured.

I remember my first proper day in hospital quite fondly. I was drunk. I remember charging around the ward, tugging my drip along, pushing my way into the corridor to make calls on my mobile, much to the annoyance of medical staff. My second day was predictably wretched and my mobile was stolen.

We were all kept on alcohol drips permanently for the entire weekend. The poisons unit – based somewhere else – was closed until Monday and consultants couldn’t be sure we were in the clear until the unit was able to provide confirmation. Ultimately, I was first home after discharging myself on Monday afternoon, keen to get back to work. It was a mistake, I was ill for several more days. 

Thankfully, however, we all recovered fully but I gather we ended up in a medical journal somewhere, no doubt an article explaining how an entire family of apparently intelligent people can be really stupid.

I recount this lengthy tale now as the A&E which may have saved my life and eyesight is set to be replaced. At a meeting of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, future plans for healthcare in the area were rubberstamped this morning, ignoring protesters outside, among whose numbers included local MP Andy Slaughter.

The A&E at Hammersmith hospital is to be closed and Charing Cross is going to face dramatic change. The plan will see the hospital demolished, 55 per cent of the land sold off to the private sector for development. In its place a local hospital is to be created with an ‘emergency service appropriate’ for such an establishment. No one knows what this means. The local Conservative Party insists the A&E is remaining. This is what Peter Graham, the chairman of Hammersmith Conservatives, told me today:

And in the House of Commons, Jeremy Hunt said recently:

'I have decided that the outcome should be that Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals should continue to offer an A and E service, even if it is a different shape or size from that currently offered.'

And, it is true, it will remain. Until it is demolished. After that, no one can promise anything as that hasn't been decided. Jeremy Hunt's 'different shape' in unknown.

But, what we do know is that the numbers of inpatient beds at Charing Cross will be reduced drastically, from 360 to just 24, and we know it will not be a full, operational A&E unit, as it is now, as it simply will not have the capacity. If another family, in years to come, pitch up after being similarly poisoned, would they be treated? Or, would they be shunted elsewhere, despite the dangers that failing to start treatment swiftly can pose? Currently, it's impossible to know.

It may be that this £400million reorganisation is the best option for people in West London. In their statement, the Trust say:

'Today our Trust board approved plans to transform our healthcare services over the next five years. The clinical strategy considered today is designed to improve clinical outcomes and patient experience, to help people stay as healthy as possible and to increase access to the most effective specialist care.

'While continuing to provide excellent urgent and emergency services, we have to transform the way that we care for the vastly increasing number of people with long-term conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, and for our growing frail, elderly population.'

It has, nevertheless, provoked huge fury and upset. The campaign to save Charing Cross hospital is very vocal and it was the major issue which led to the Conservative Party losing control of the council at the last local elections, provoking much bitterness and accusations that the Labour Party lied during the campaign.

But, it is, perhaps, the insistence that an A&E will continue there, when it's patently obvious the current service will not continue and a less comprehensive service will appear in its place, that is causing the most frustration of all.