Political thoughts 1 – the NHS and schools

The NHS is a valuable service for us all, and an efficient provider of excellent health services.  The UK is rightly proud of this national institution.  I would hope no political party would seek to damage the NHS.  However, that doesn’t mean it should never change.

When the NHS began in 1948, medicine was very different. Treatments we take for granted like scans, hip and knee replacements and many childhood vaccines didn’t exist. More people died from injuries at work or exposure to smog and other pollution. The NHS has rightly changed as our needs and medical technology change, but not all changes have been good.

For me, one of the most worrying was the move to ‘Trust status’ for both hospitals and other NHS services. Although still publicly funded, this became a way to expect parts of the NHS to stand – and fall – alone.

Derby has a bright new hospital, run by an NHS Trust.  The hospital was built, and is owned, though by a private business under a ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI) set up by Labour.  Over its lifetime, its cost will be paid many times over in rent and service charges, lining shareholders’ pockets with NHS money that could have gone to treat patients.

Labour gave schools similar treatment.  They continued Conservative work to make schools ‘standalone’ and new buildings were provided using this same PFI process. This means many schools also rent their new buildings, draining money away from teaching and making changes to buildings complex and expensive.

We now have Academies, Foundation Schools, University Technical Colleges and Free Schools, in buildings owned by the school, the council or private shareholders.  They have different rules and different ways of funding them, but does this help pupils?

A recent report from an all-party committee of MPs said ‘No’.

Liberal Democrats are fighting the privatisation of what should be public.  The recent announcement of funding for new school buildings, including Bemrose and Cavendish Close Infant School in Derby, was real money – not permission to borrow.  Liberal Democrats believe that wherever possible we should pay for what we want up front, not build up debt for the future, unless we can save money overall by investing now to cut costs or increase income.

Even with only one in ten MPs, after 4½ years of Lib Dems in Government it is possible to see Lib Dem priorities in action.  Lib Dem influence in government has slowed down NHS privatisation compared to the previous four years under Labour. And in spite of Conservative wishes, Lib Dems have given people on low incomes tax cuts, while more tax is being taken from the wealthiest in society than under Labour.

Like many people, I have children.  I don’t want to make them pay off our debts for all their lives, but I do want them to live in a fair society with good public services supported by a strong economy providing opportunities for everyone.

In government, Lib Dems are helping to balance the country’s books while still investing for the future.  In government again, Lib Dems will borrow less than Labour and cut less that the Conservatives, helping to achieve that vision for all.

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Derby ideas help JCB

The area before works started.  Note the areas marked.

The area before works started. Note the areas marked.

General deterioration.

General deterioration.

The 'Derby' sweeper unit on the JCB in action.

The ‘Derby’ sweeper unit on the JCB in action.

Bristles to the ground!

Bristles to the ground!

Spreading new tarmac.

Spreading new tarmac.

Patch one completed.

Patch one completed.

This morning a road repair crew arrived at the top of my road to deal with a pothole collection.  The worst ones had been filled a few weeks ago, but the general deteriorating area was today’s task.

This was particularly significant as last night I was at an overview and scrutiny meeting discussing next year’s budget.  This was recommending cutting £300,000 from the road maintenance budget…

Early on the road was quite busy with schools and commuting traffic, and I chatted to the team.  They planned to combine two areas of patching to avoid the strip between being the next to deteriorate, but would also have to do the work in more than one section due to working across the junction.

When I went out next, the area to be filled had been dug out using the grinder on the back of the JCB digger, and the debris was being swept up.

I’d not seen it done like this before.  They were being swept up by a sweeper unit on the other end of the JCB.  Really neat.  Using the digger’s bucket like a dustpan, and a horizontal brush like one on an upright vacuum cleaner it swept the area clean, and dumped the waste into the nearby lorry.

This may in fact have been the first to go on a JCB.

The idea came from the City Council guy operating the JCB, Peter Robinson.  Based on sweepers available for forklift trucks, it was built by a company in Yorkshire.  Final details were developed with JCB in nearby Rocester and it went into service about a year ago.

JCB quickly developed their own the ‘Pothole Master in time to capture the market for bigger patching around the Government’s capital grants for road repairs announced this spring – Derby received about £280,000.   The main difference is the cost – the City Council device was about £5000 and fixes onto the standard bucket.  The JCB device costs more and includes a separate (smaller) bucket.

It’s one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ inventions.

Simple. Obvious.

But only once someone else has done it.  Well done Peter!


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Dealing with Cold Callers

I’ve never worked in a call centre.  Neither do I want to.  How many of those currently working in one actually want to be there?

As I see it, there are two types of call centre; ones I call for help, and ones who want my help.

Research shows that being nice to people – such as giving presents, even holding open a door or making a compliment – makes one feel nice inside.  So I imagine that being in a call centre helping people with their tax forms or booking an appointment to give blood, has some positives.

But phoning people up to pester them to answer inane questions about products they don’t want to buy?  What positives do people experience from that?

Such people must go home feeling very depressed after a day of trying to persuade people to give them “just a minute” (knowing it will take two before they even ask the first proper question).  And do I want to answer their questions?  No.

So as I try to be polite, what is the alternative?

If I’ve time I try to turn the tables.   I ask them about their life.

Where are they phoning from?  How long have they been working there?  How much longer do they hope to be working there, or do they want to do something else?  What time of day is it there, and what’s the weather like?

As a result I’ve had some interesting conversations, such as a school leaver in Swansea, a student in India and a graduate in the Philippines.

And after a short friendly conversation it’s much easier to say ‘That’s been really interesting, thank you.  I hope that you have a good day.  Good-bye.”

And put the phone down!



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Nightmare memories

Last week I was very privileged to hear first hand from someone who saw something of the horror of Belsen at the end of the Second World War.

As a rebellious teenager, Barbara (not her real name) had joined the Field Army Nursing Yeomanry and was sent close to the front line as an auxiliary to the armed forces.  She had already experienced bombing in London, rushing in her ambulance to provide first aid to those she could help.

At the end of the war, as retreat became defeat and still only 17 years old, she was part of a convoy of ambulances and military personnel wending its way through Germany towards a camp at Belsen.   Those in the convoy had no idea what awaited them.

As the dismal concrete building came into sight they could see it still being guarded by German troops.  After a long wait outside the gates, the convoy entered an enormous desolate area, full of silent corpse-like people.

No one would say for how long these prisoners had been without food.  And they had mere shreds of clothing left on them, but it was the smell which Barbara remembers most strongly.  It was, she says, far worse that the smell of any animal sheds.

While British soldiers rounded up the German guards, Barbara and others from the ambulance convoy had to deal with the prisoners.  They were crouched singly, or in small groups, or walking aimlessly.   And apart from the occasional shouted command, the place was silent.  Eerily silent when there were so many people.

The prisoners shied away when approached.  They didn’t reply when spoken to.  They flinched in fear when touched.  Uniforms just meant pain.  Many were close to death, and the resources the liberators had with them were totally inadequate.

The convoy had brought food with them, but for people so badly starved the food would be too rich.  Drawing on her Girl Guide training, and the ambiguous uniform she wore as a members of the Field Army Nursing Yeomanry, Barbara ordered soldiers to find something to make a fire and pans to boil up some of the more conventional rations they had brought to make a gruel with which to feed the prisoners.  Most could take no more than a teaspoonful at a time.

Then taking two soldiers with her she went exploring.  Were there really no more clothes here?  Was there food?  What other horrors were behind the closed doors?

The liberators were shocked and traumatised by what they were seeing, but the soldiers with Barbara provided the practical strength to break down doors when needed as they explored.

Living quarters for the prisoners were huts with three-tiered shelves for beds – just bare boards.  The area was hotching with fleas, lice and other insects.  Barbara was thankful that she’d tucked her trouser-bottoms into her socks to give some protection from the various parasites.  And the smell…

They found what should have been the hospital.  Barbara froze at the entrance.  Impatiently one of the soldiers with her pushed past her, and also froze in his tracks.  This was a torture chamber, not a hospital.

What should have been operating tables had manacles.  There was electrical equipment with electrodes designed to be applied on, or in, the body.  On shelves were parts of bodies, wrapped in paper or in ice or loose.  There were rows of jars, containing unknown chemicals, ready to hand.  This was a torture chamber.

It was here that Barbara was sick.

Over the next three days, like the other ambulance crews in the convoy, Barbara and her driver ferried prisoners fit enough to be moved to hospitals elsewhere in Germany to be provided with care.  The ambulance had rarely carried even two patients at a time in London, but here they squeezed in as many as seven or even eight at a time.

It was rare for a prisoner to say anything.  Speaking took energy, and they had none to spare.  But one she does remember speaking, whispered to her in perfect English that he was a doctor.  She took his hand, leading him like a child to see a superior as he might be able to provide useful information.

Barbara has never knowing met any of those she helped save.  Afterwards she was debriefed; asked to remember many of the horrors she had seen.  Maybe that record still exists.

Traumatised by what she’d seen Barbara had nightmares, and still occasionally does.  Back in Britain after the war, she immersed herself in learning, going to university and becoming a teacher.

Barbara is now in her late 80s, and like many others who have experiences of war, she had never told her story.  I and others who listened to her felt privileged to be able to share it.

It is right that stories like this are heard.  We must remember, learn and do all we can to prevent such horrors in the future.



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