Saturday, 29 August 2009

The least bad healthcare system in the world

Following my posting earlier this year, I can now call up reinforcements in my argument against the anti-universal-healthcare herberts in the States. John Lichfield, the Independent newspaper's Paris correspondent, had a full-page article in last Thursday's paper, stating the case professionally. "Given the challenges faced by all healthcare systems in an ageing world", he writes, "stealing successful prescriptions from friends and neighbours makes sense. Except, it seems, to the American right." Lichfield has experience of the three health regimes in question: UK, US and French.

His conclusion, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, was: "The French have the worst health system in the world, except for all the other ones that we have tried." He points out that Canada, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as France come out ahead of Britain in World Health Organisation league tables.

He balances the account by pointing out the drawbacks: the French system is not free at the point of access (though there is now available a carte vitale, a kind of health credit card, which simplifies payments) requiring the patient to pay up-front and claim back the officially-agreed rate for the treatment; and the system costs the state about a third more than the NHS does the UK (currently €157.6bn as against £100bn). The French system also positively encourages patients to shop around for treatment, as opposed to the NHS (and Dutch health service) where the point of contact is a general practitioner.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Artificial medicine shortages in the UK

It is alleged that patients are being put at risk because medicines intended for UK patients are being diverted for export. The BBC report covers UK as a whole, but there is anecdotal evidence that users of Welsh pharmacies have experienced shortages.

Incidentally, the Welsh authorities appear to be more at fault in a related issue. A report states that delays in receiving treatment are aggravating the state of substance abusers in Wales.

Home Office data loss worse than first thought

In August 2008, prisoner data on a flash memory device were lost by an employee of Home Office contractor PA Consulting. It transpires that not only were details of 127,000 people mislaid, as was first reported, but also 250,000 items of data from the Drug Interventions Programme. The report from ZDNet is here.

Naif al-Mutawa: a name to watch

Not a terrorist leader, nor the dictator of a US client state, but a man whose ambition is to rescue Islam from the fanatics and foster a climate of religious tolerance, all through the medium of a super-hero franchise, the 99.

He and his sister were featured in a BBC Radio documentary which unfortunately is not available online, presumably for copyright reasons.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Visit Neath Port Talbot

It's good to see the county borough council extending its WWW presence. Too many people outside the borough believe that it is totally industrial, whereas the truth is the opposite: the heavily industrialised part is confined to a strip by the coast, and the hinterland is rural (apart from one or two sites where coal mining on a small scale is taking place). Of course, there was once much industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up the valley, but these sites, now long silent and often overgrown, are picturesque in their own right.

[For declaration of interest, see right-hand panel]

I would draw readers' attention particularly to the section of describes walking in the county borough. There is a downloadable booklet, which describes a selection of the many good routes. The Sarn Helen walk is particularly rewarding. It is tough going, not helped by churning by the motor vehicles which are allowed on the route for part of the year, but there are some spectacular views. It is also possible to see original Roman legionary road construction in a few places.

Putting my constituency hat on, I must also mention the work of Blaenhonddan Community Council and the Friends of Craig Gwladus, who have each produced pocket maps of various walks in and around Cadoxton and Aberdulais. Copies should be available in Neath & Port Talbot civic centres, and at the Aberdulais Falls visitor centre.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Australia now fourth in ICC world rankings

It makes it all the sweeter to read this on an Australian web site.

The Sydney Morning Herald report also says: "All the huff and puff of making amends for 2005 came to nought with Australia comprehensively outplayed over four days against an English side resolute in its belief, despite suffering a humiliating third Test defeat. Set an improbable world-record chase of 545, Australia were dismissed for 348 late in the day as long shadows crept across the Kennington outfield.

"The shadows will now creep over Australia’s selectors, coaches and players. Ricky Ponting's side has now lost three of its past four series, but this one will hurt most. How England were allowed to come back into the series following their innings and 80-run loss at Headingley is difficult to fathom."

England are not yet the complete item, but this series has brought on some younger players who will develop further, as will Strauss's captaincy.

Now attention turns to Northampton in midweek. Can Glamorgan produce another win on the back of the thriller in Swansea, and thus climb into the promotion zone?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Beveridge, Churchill and the NHS

In a detailed rebuttal of New Labour spin that the National Health Service was the sole creation of Aneurin Bevan, Seth Thévoz, a student of modern history at King’s College London, explains that not only was the first public mention of a National Health Service contained in the report of the commission chaired by Liberal William Beveridge, the Conservatives were also onside.

Tele-participation in party conference

The local Liberal Democrat web-site is advertising a facility for party members to quiz Nick Clegg by email for the Liberal Democrat federal conference which takes place in Bournemouth in mid-September.

I'd like to have seen the party go further, and open this facility to all people with email. After all, if journalists, most of whom are not party members (some very clearly not party members!) can conduct televised interviews on the stage at conference, and also chair events on the party fringe, many of which are excerpted for broadcast, why shouldn't the ordinary voter get a look-in?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Now the financial services lifeboat hits credit unions, too

I have already railed against decent mutual building societies being called upon, through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, to have their funds put at risk by failing banks.

Now Peter Black AM points out an even more immoral consequence of the current financial set-up: the credit unions, which we are rightly pressing on ordinary folk as a safe and legal alternative to loan sharks, could be put in the same boat as the building societies.

Peter Ricketts MBE

Belated congratulations on an award in the Queen's Birthday Honours this year which I was not aware of, until it was announced by the mayor at yesterday's meeting of Neath Port Talbot council:

Peter Ricketts, Chairman, Neath and Tennant Canals Trust. MBE. For services to heritage conservation in Wales.

This also gives me the opportunity to point out an authoritative comment from one of the canal societies to an earlier post here.

Rent escalator in unknown territory

Cllr. Des Sparkes has drawn my attention to an article in The Times. This suggests that, because a government formula linking social housing rents to inflation is likely to result in a reduction next year (the first time that this will have occurred), housing associations will not have enough money to invest in new developments, and may well have to cut back on some of their existing services, like wardens.

Housing is a complicated subject, and I don't know enough at this stage to evaluate the Times article or the implications for council housing, but it is clearly going to repay study.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Glamorgan international fixtures - and an anniversary

The England and Wales Cricket Board has confirmed the following international matches for the SWALEC stadium:

2012: England v West Indies one-day international (ODI); England v South Africa ODI

2013: England v Australia ODI

2014: England v Sri Lanka test match; England v India ODI

2015: England v New Zealand ODI

2016: England v Australia Twenty20 international

Yesterday, the Evening Post printed a two-page celebration of the win against Essex which virtually sealed the county championship forty years ago. I have a special reason for remembering that summer, because I was setting up the family home in Ynysforgan then, while snatching every opportunity to watch the cricket in Swansea. (At that time, the county had roughly equal numbers of matches in Swansea and Cardiff.) I didn't actually watch the final day, but was keeping up-to-date via my tranny.

It was great to see Eifion Jones and Ossie Wheatley still spry enough to re-enact the throw which ran out John Lever to clinch the win. If Lever had made his ground, and the last pair had made another few runs, the result would have gone the other way.

In a pretty comprehensive article, the Post missed Tony Lewis's comment after the match. Contemplating the likely wild and disastrous result in the emotionally-charged situation if "one of us" had fielded the ball, he remarked: "That was a very Anglo-Saxon throw".

Monday, 17 August 2009

My quote of the day

Fritz Lang wrote in 1947: "Wishes" and "needs" are not one and the same thing. The people may seem to wish for "sugar," but they need "sustenance," and they will not in the long run thank the man who sickens them with lollipops and then excuses himself by saying, "It's what you wanted."

He was writing about film, but the general message seems appropriate to governance as well - in particular the loan-fuelled boom which finally collapsed last year.

(The source is a preface which Lang wrote for a proposed book of articles on silent cinema which the late HAV Bulleid was hoping to publish after the war. Sadly, paper rationing prevented it then, but the collection has now appeared in electronic form, thanks to Kevin Brownlow, on the silentsaregolden website.)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

US health debate: motes and beams, apples and oranges

Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

I couldn't recognise the picture of our National Health Service as painted in some of the TV commercials quoted on BBC News recently. Certainly, there are faults (many introduced by the cack-handed attempts to privatise parts of the system, in my opinion), but one can practically guarantee being treated, whether one "is a prince or a pauper" as RMT's Bob Crow put it on "Any Questions?" yesterday. This is clearly not the case for large numbers of US citizens, as today's front page story in the Independent shows.

I can quite believe that, if one had ample means or continuing health insurance, care would be more timely and more pleasant in the US than it is in some parts of the UK. (Again, the anti-socialized medicine lobbyists always choose the extremes, like overstretched inner city surgeries, to illustrate their point.) But most British people are happy with the care they receive from the NHS, especially in an emergency. Indeed, the NHS is probably at its best dealing with emergencies; it is the routine which is open to criticism.

And there are no death squads, terminating people who are too expensive to treat, as Prof. Hawking attested on his recent visit to the States.

Comparing Apples and Oranges

Not only are the "anti" commercials traducing the NHS, but they also attack the wrong target.
The solution which Obama favours, and which is, as I understand, implicit in the two (!) Bills going through Congress at present, is one not of "nationalised" health care, but of social health insurance. This is the method preferred by France and Germany. One can understand the anti-Obama lobbyists avoiding discussion of these countries, because they provide a Rolls-Royce service. Indeed, the major complaint is that more money is spent on them than is absolutely necessary, that there is over-provision.

Most glaring of all is the absence in the debate (at least, as it has reached us over here) of Canada. This seems to me, as an outside observer, to be the best model for the USA. There is there a strong presumption from the centre of health provision for all residents, but the detail is left to the individual provinces. It struck me at the time of Hillary Clinton's abortive attempt to reform health care that the scale - the whole nation - was too large for the scheme proposed. Devolution to States (a good Liberal proposal!) could well be the way to go.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Harry Alan Towers

Matthew Sweet has just announced on Radio 4's "Film Programme" the death of "mountebank" (Sweet's word) Harry Alan Towers. He must have been in his nineties, a score one would not have expected him to achieve, given his amazing life story. There are stories of fraud, vice and moving nimbly between tax havens which will no doubt be told in full in the press of three continents.

I never met him, but I remember his face being picked out for me on one of those panoramic school photographs. The school in question was Oldershaw School for Boys (shortly after to be Oldershaw Grammar School) in Wallasey, one of the first truly public grammar schools, which I attended in the 1950s. My uncle Harry (himself quite a character) had been part of the initial intake in 1920, along with Towers.

The reason for his being identified for me was that Towers had taken advantage of the sudden increase in demand for material by the introduction of commercial television. He had set up a production company named (presumably with an eye to the transatlantic market) "Towers of London". This produced half-hour episodes of a crime series for either ABC Weekend or Granada TV. I can remember few details of this, except that it was formulaic and every segment ended in a chase, usually up to the roof of a building.

After that, it all seems to have gone downhill - or perhaps not. Towers was probably one of those characters who will never settle down to safe, moderate, prosperity but enjoy dodging authority.

Update 2009-11-8 : it seems my informant had the wrong Towers - or H.A.T. lied about his age. The Independent has just published his obituary, from which it appears he was born in SW London in 1920.

Neath Canal link complete

It may look more utilitarian than elegant (it will probably seem more part of the landscape as the concrete weathers), but the replacement Ynysbwllog aqueduct finally in place restores the Neath Canal from Glynneath to the town centre. Not only is the canal now completely in water, including the section in Clyne which had also been blocked, it is also possible to walk the entire canal path, crossing a main road - in Tonna - only once. There are two fallen trees across the canal between Tonna and Resolven, but removing these should be a relatively simple matter.

Once the problem of security of boats has been solved, the way is open for a regular summer service of boat trips through the beauties of the Neath valley. We residents have long known about these; it is time to publicise them in England and further afield to people who up until now have only associated the word "industrial" with South Wales.

The reinstatement of the aqueduct, and the reconstruction of three locks on the canal, was made possible by grants from the European Union.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Good news on registration of footpaths (possibly)

In the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2006 there is a provision that if a right-of-way is not already registered on a definitive map, concerned people will have only until 2026 to ensure that it is so registered.

No. 10 has now responded to a petition on the subject. Although the government has not yielded to the demand to repeal the offending clause, it has promised not to activate it until after a "stakeholder group" has reported on the difficulties raised. At least, that's how I interpret their reply. See for yourself at

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Email versus face-to-face

The local council, according to a report yesterday (for which I can unfortunately find no WWW URI), is discouraging its staff from sending internal emails in favour of walking down the corridor and conducting a face-to-face conversation. Not only is this good exercise for people in a sedentary job, but it also fosters better working relationships and exchange of useful information across departmental boundaries.

It also reduces the amount of hard information available for Freedom of Information requests and court hearings, but perhaps I am unduly cynical. ;-)

What is the Burmese junta up to?

Sydney Morning Herald reports that amateur observers, using Google Earth, have spotted a machine shop in the Burmese jungle, not far from where, it was earlier reported, the ruling junta was carrying out nuclear experiments.

Experts say that there is nothing to suggest that this is a nuclear installation. However, it does seem likely that the plant has some purpose which the undemocratic Myanmar administration does not wish to publicise.

There are people in this country who want the West to invade Burma because of its human rights abuses (such as the latest imposition on Aung San Suu Kyi). I couldn't subscribe to that - it was what got us into Iraq, at bottom - but if the junta is concocting something which threatens Burma's neighbours, then it must be put a stop to.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Celebration time

At long last, Glamorgan have come good. The county always seems to do well at Colwyn Bay, and perhaps the management should consider staging more than one week's worth of cricket there. (The same goes for Swansea, of course.)

For most of Thursday afternoon, it looked like the old story was going to be retold. A good start by the top order was wasted as the nominal batsmen seemed merely content to match Leicestershire's first innings total, rather than pass it and go on to build a match-winning total. Fortunately, the old hand Robert Croft and the apprentice Adam Shantry read the situation aright and put on 197 for the ninth wicket. Croft and Harrison (who has in the past not batted too responsibly) added another 73 for the last wicket, giving plenty for the attack to bowl at. Croft on his own scored more than England managed over roughly the same period in Leeds.

Then Shantry and the spin attack of Cosker and Croft administered the final blows. Croft's ability is well-known, but Cosker must be the most underrated bowler in the county championship. Today he finished with the remarkable figures of three wickets for twelve runs, off twelve overs, eight of them maidens.

The full scorecard is at

"We are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland."

The words of General Sir David Richards, who also said that Britain is in Afghanistan for the long haul. With respect, I suggest that Switzerland might be the best model for a future Afghanistan, because of similarities in physical geography and in the mixture of peoples, languages and religion. Monolithic central government has failed, as both the Russians and the Taliban found.

Where I would agree with the general is that the West should not attempt to impose a particular form of governance on the country.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Flaming Sambuca sexual defence

There is a wince-making report in the Telegraph of a drunken British tourist getting his fishing-tackle out in a Cretan bar and a Greek woman who applied the ultimate deterrent when he wouldn't take no for an answer.

"the British reveller took down his trousers and started acting obscenely. He then 'forcefully fondled' the Greek woman, who has been dubbed the 'Cretan heroine' by local media.

"After asking him to stop harassing her, she told police, she poured Sambuca, an aniseed liqueur, on him.

"This again allegedly failed to stop his advances, so she seized a lighter and set fire to the alcohol, local press reports said"

Looking forward to digital Freeview

It's less than a week now before this part of the world loses analogue BBC-2 in favour of digital TV for terrestrial transmitters at Kilvey Hill and its repeaters. Kilvey is just in broadcasting penumbra this side of Skewen, but I receive a decent signal from the Briton Ferry repeater.

I confess geekily to looking forward to having BBC-Parliament available in my living-room, as well as Channel 4 News. Less worthy is the desire to see whether 5 still runs those cheesy day-time soaps like "Sunset Beach", which I used to revert to when I lived in Pontardawe and wanted to put my brain into neutral after some hard programming.

I rather jumped the gun by buying a DTV receiver cum recorder through Radio Times' readers offers when it was announced, a year or so ago, that Kilvey Hill would be transmitting a digital signal alongside the analogue. Unfortunately, it soon transpired that, for technical reasons, digital could not be transmitted at full power while analogue was in operation, so I had only tantalising glimpses of what digital could do. Now I understand that the signal standard has changed subtly so that some of the early digital receivers do not work. Fortunately, I also have a more recent dual-standard portable.

The Burry Port pilot scheme went so well, that I am confident that the transmitter company and BBC will manage the changeover smoothly. However, even established digital providers can get it wrong. The Sydney Morning Herald reports a cock-up by Channel Nine down under:

"Channel Nine went dark for digital television viewers across the country this week after the network switched on its new digital channel, Go!

"The new entertainment channel, which will air shows including Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is scheduled to launch officially on Sunday, but Nine switched it on on Wednesday.

"Viewers with digital TV tuners found the standard and high-definition versions of Nine went blank as soon as they picked up the new Go! channel."

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Retouching, air-brushing and Bollywood posters

Liberal Vision has a lengthy critique of Jo Swinson's move to ban manipulation of advertising images and cinema publicity shots to enhance the attributes of female stars. This has also intrigued the press, if yesterday's Independent was anything to go by. (Note that we are all careful not to describe the process as "photoshopping", because PhotoShop is a registered trade name.)

Before computer manipulation, there was the literal airbrush, which was in turn an improvement on the retoucher's pencil. That this could give deceptive results in the hands of a master is shown by the famous photograph of Lenin haranguing a meeting with Trotsky by his side. After Stalin seized power, Trotsky mysteriously vanished from official versions of the photograph.

Making movie stars look better than they are is also not new. There are the marvellously overblown Asian and Middle Eastern posters advertising their dubbed or subtitled versions of Hollywood movies, or, in the case of India, local product. Men, as well as women, could suffer from a sense of inferiority if we took these depictions seriously.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Congratulations to Chester-le-Street

Durham's modern cricket stadium has been awarded a Test against Australia in 2013. Having won its spurs with Zimbabwe in 2003, Chester-le-Street should have been on the roster of major test grounds long ago. Unfortunately for Durham, the EWCB decided to change the system to a commercial bidding process - one which Glamorgan won fair and square in respect of the 2009 Ashes opener, I should emphasise. One could also say that it was overdue compensation for losing the bank holiday fixtures against the tourists when the county championship was reorganised.

As a member for forty years on and off, I am proud of the way Glamorgan won over the media in its handling of that test match, when so many things could have gone wrong. The fact that Sophia Gardens (as I still think of it) is within striking distance of Cardiff's many watering-holes may have had something to do with it; it certainly commended itself to the Australians in the crowd.

I am now looking forward to the Sri Lanka test in 2011, when the weather will, I hope, be better than the last time the Sri Lankans played in Cardiff. Sangakkara brightened the sole, dismal, day then with a century. I hope he is still around in two years time to entertain us - though, please, not at the extortionate prices we had to pay for the Ashes test.