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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Column, May 29, 2007

I WAS never that impressed with Dixon of Dock Green.
He might well have been the avuncular beat bobby we all wanted on our street corner keeping a watchful eye on the local villains who could be relied on to declare it a fair cop whenever he felt their collars, while also keeping the local yoyth in line with a loving clip on the ear when necessary.
But he had also been brought back from the dead having died at the hands of a young thug played by Dirk Bogarde in ‘The Blue Lamp’.
So policing by chumminess didn’t work and Dixon for all his‘Evenin’ All’ community spirit was not much of a match for a tooled-up criminal.
Give me The Sweeney any day of the week, if I dialled 999, I didn’t want Jack Warner pootling along on his bike to have a stern word with the miscreants. I wanted Regan and Carter barrelling round in a Ford Consul five seconds after I put down the receiver to give the slaaaags a good kicking before hauling them off to a well-deserved stretch.
And this sums up our somewhat odd attitude to the police. When all we need is reassurance from them, then we want them to be all cuddly Dixon figures, ever-present, but not too intrusive. But if you’re actually a victim of crime then you want Robocop and a full armed response if someone’s nicked the milk off our doorstep.
The police will be forgiven for thinking they can’t win and that they are always going to be seen as friendly but ineffective, or else a ruthless tool of the police state.
Indeed the unfortunate office in the court presided over by Judge John Rogers must have been a little non-plussed to be ordered from court because he was wearing the full kit required of officers by the North Wales force now.
Judge Rogers inquired of the officer what he was doing in body armour, with CS spray, baton and handcuffs to boot. “It’s my work dress your honour,” was the not unreasonable reply. Nonetheless the officer was ordered from court.
I don’t dispute the judge’s efforts to preserve the dignity of the court. A dignity which has been assailed from many quarters in recent years.
However, sadly, body armour, CS spray and baton are the tools of the job for officers across the UK nowadays and the courts must surely be aware of this having heard testimony from so many officers who have had recourse to use these tools to arrest someone.
The alternative to going to court kitted up is to go in dress uniform. Now consider this scenario: a North Wales officer on the way to court in dress uniform stops to intervene in a robbery and is stabbed to death because he was not wearing his standard body armour, or is unable to prevent an attack on a member of the public because he is not carrying baton or CS spray.
I would think that of this happened then the senior management of North Wales Police would be hung out to dry by the media who would demand to know why officers were being sent out without the equipment to do the job.
A far more mundane occurrence would be for a criminal in the court complex, and I believe there may be one or two of them to be found there on an average working day, to take a dislike to the way his case is proceeding and to create a disturbance or even try to escape.
In such circumstances the staff and public in the court complex might be reassured to know that there are officers around in full kit capable of dealing with the situation.
Officers in body armour may not be what we like to see in our courts, but officers in body armour are a sign of what a violent society we have become and the courts themselves have played a part in creating that society.

LAST week I wrote about two MPs Mark Tami and Martyn Jones supporting an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act which would have excluded MPs from its provisions.
Opponents to the amendment, mainly Lib Dems and some Plaid portrayed this as an attempt to prevent scrutiny of such matters as MPs expenses.
Since then I’ve heard back from both Mr Jones and Mr Tami to explain the stance they took.
Mr Jones said: “My prime concern in supporting the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill, was simply maintaining the principle of complete confidentiality when corresponding with, and representing my constituents.
“I have been an MP for nearly twenty years, and throughout that time, I have defended this principle ‘tooth and nail’, and I will continue to do so.
“The last thing anyone wants is for confidentiality between an MP and his or her constituents to be undermined, and that is why I voted for the Amendments.
“My relationship and the service I give to my constituents has always been, and will remain of paramount importance.
“I am certain that the majority of my constituents would support how I voted.
“Only 22 MPs voted against preserving confidentiality - most of whom were Lib Dems and the odd Nationalist. They were cynically attempting to make political capital out of this issue.
“Given the fact that the Lib Dems has made so much political ‘noise’ on this subject, one would be forgiven for believing that they were there in great numbers to vote against this Bill.
“The reality is very different. Only 16 out of 63 Lib Dem MPs could be bothered to be at the debate. The absentees even included their Party leader, Menzies Campbell.
“Their claims in the debate, about the Amendments somehow concealing information about MP expenses, is complete nonsense.
“All our expenses and allowances are already in the public domain, and will remain so.
“As for this Bill, guarantees have been sought from The Speaker, the he will ensure that MPs’ expenses will continue to be made public in the future. I wholeheartedly support that.
“People come to me for assistance on a range of matters – some relating to deeply personal and sensitive issues. These matters must remain private between me and the constituent. They are no one else’s business.”
Mr Tami said: “If you or a member of your family suffers a gross injustice, or rape, or abuse, or homelessness then I am sure you would expect complete and utter confidentiality from those you go to for help.
“There have been many cases of sensitive information being passed to third parties, including harassment cases, details about bogus arranged marriages and destitute families. In some cases the consequences have been devastating.
“The amendment is aimed at preventing this. Your assertion that Data Protection laws prevent the release of information is wrong and it’s a little late to complain to the Information Commissioner once correspondence has been released.
“Moreover, exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are already in place for MP’s private correspondence and all Ministerial correspondence, so is it not right to extend that protection to all members of the public who wish to approach their MP in confidence?
“Clearly, many journalists would rather focus on the implications this amendment has for MP’s expenses, but the fact is that no changes to the current transparency will be introduced. Picking on this issue makes easy for cheap and easy news articles, but it shamefully ignores the need to protect the most vulnerable in society.
“Here we have an example of conflicting interests. Journalists wish to know every aspect of every person’s life because to reporters, we are all fair game for newsprint.
“But when your readers suffer at the hands of more powerful individuals or organisations, they must know their MPs can help without the risk of sensitive information being shared with anyone else.”
I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of the two MPs, however, at a time when their constituents are coming under ever more scrutiny and surveillance – be it by CCTV which has spread unchecked under their party’s government, or by the introduction of the ruinously expensive ID cards which everyone knows will do not a jot in the fight against terrorism – perhaps they ought to have thought through the impression this vote gives.
The Freedom of Information Act is already full of hole which allow public authorities to avoid giving out information. On top of that the government is also talking about changing the way in which it calculates the cost of requests so even more can be refused.
And now MPs vote to make yet another aspect of public life exempt.
While the tales of abuse and homelessness they use to illustrate their objections are persuasive, perhaps they can explain one thing.
If MPs’ correspondence was being obtained in such a way, exposing such sensitive matters, why is it then that the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, the watchdog set up to oversee the Act, has not received a single solitary complaint about the Act being used in such a way?

Column, May 22, 2007

LOVE mountain biking, but I accept that it is not without its risks.
If you choose to go up and down rock-strewn tracks on two wheels, the chances are that you will return from a trip with a few bruises and scrapes you didn’t have when you set out that morning.
I’ve fallen off more times than I can count, usually when trying something beyond my capabilities or that should only be attempted by someone with suppleness and reaction speeds that fled my aging frame about 20 years ago.
But I still love it and if anyone is going to get hurt it’s only going to be me. I accept that risk and I’ll admit that I do it because the risk is part of the enjoyment. There is a thrill to the fear of going down a drop where there’s a 50 per cent chance that I won’t make it to the bottom still attached to my bike.
If I’m injured, it’s me that’s to blame and I’m prepared to accept that it’s my own daft fault for going mountain biking.
Which is why I’m a little puzzled by motorcyclists.
They buy machines that are capable of outrageous acceleration and eye-watering top speeds, and yet they seem to expect us to believe that they do not buy these bikes to make use of these abilities.
I simply do not believe that anyone buys a bike of 500cc plus that is capable of speeds in excess of 120mph, buys it because they like the colour.
As a BBC documentary on speeding bikers has shown, they do it because they like the speed. They like the thrill that riding a powerful bike gives them and they like pushing their abilities to handle these machines on challenging roads.
The safest way to ride a bike would be on a deserted motorway in a straight line, but of course no-one expects bikers to do that. The most exciting place to ride a bike is on twisting roads where the bike’s ability to corner and accelerate are tested to the full.
And that’s where North Wales comes into the picture, because when it comes to twisting roads we’ve pretty much cornered the UK market haven’t we?
And so bikers beat a path to our door, with the sad consequence it has just been revealed, that 13 of them so far this year have met their end on the roads of North Wales.
Now, it might well be that there were other factors in those deaths, I will leave the coroners of the areas concerned to draw their own conclusions as to what happened. Lets face it the coroners service has had plenty of experience in dealing with such deaths in recent years.
And yet the motorcycling community would have us believe that all but a very, very few of them are not interested in the phenomenal capabilities of their machines, but would rather pootle along within the speed limit at all times.
Really? So why buy a 1,000cc machine then, when a 125 with an engine that sounds like a hair-dryer under stress would get you round perfectly well, if all you wanted to do was to stick to the speed limit?
One biker caught speeding by the North Wales police helicopter and subsequently banned from driving told the BBC that he would go and buy another bike once his ban was over and would do the same thing again.
I find it very hard to believe that someone riding a bike capable of 150mph isn’t tempted, quite often, to test its ability to go so fast. You only have to look at the way these bikes are marketed and take a quick glance at biker magazines to know exactly what they are interested in – blistering speed.
Now, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me, were it not for the fact that when motorcyclists crash they often get others involved, quite often in a car, van, or lorry.
It has to be said that it’s usually the biker that comes off the worst, so there is that going for them. When they risk life and limb it is usually their own and no-one else’s. But I think if I were driving a car that killed a biker, even if it were the bikers fault, that would be an experience that would leave a mental scar, although there were not physical ones.
Now bikers are saying their relationship with North Wales Police has been badly damaged by the showing of pictures of a dead motorcyclist to illustrate the dangers of speeding.
Perhaps that relationship would improve if bikers were a bit more honest with themselves and with us about why they love biking so much.

WHILE we’re on the subject of cycling, the new Highway Code is out and it has clearly been written by someone who has never been on a bicycle in their life.
Their advice to cyclists tackling a roundabout is to stick in the left hand lane at all times.
Word of advice – if you’re turning right, don’t even think about it, it would mean you going straight across the path of car drivers at least twice.
So the Highway Code is asking you to trust drivers to have seen you as they go round the roundabout and to have slowed down to let you cross in front of them as they try to exit.
Yeah, right.
Having a copy of the Highway Code in your hand will come as no comfort as they car you off to hospital, so do what’s safe, and use the roundabout just like very other vehicle on the road, left hand lane for going left or straight on, right hand lane if you’re going right – that way you don’t have to cross anyone’s path to get around it.
They’re talking about prosecuting cyclists who fail to follow these lethal bit of advice. I would rather be alive and in court than law-abiding and dead.

MEMBERS of Parliament are not often to be found there on a Friday, which is the day they very often return to their constituencies to carry out work there.
But last Friday a fair number were found in the House where they passed a Bill to exempt Parliament from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Those in favour of excluding MPs said it was to protect their confidential correspondence with constituents.
Critics said it was more to do with MPs preventing embarrassing disclosures, such as their expense being made public.
Two North Wales MPs who voted in favour of exclusion were Labour’s Martyn Jones and Mark Tami.
I e-mailed Mr Jones and Mr Tami over the weekend to ask them why they felt that MPs should be excluded from this legislation.
As of yesterday morning they had not replied. I hope they get in touch this week as I think this decision by MPs requires some justification and I hope they can provide it.

Column, May 15, 2007

FOR every ill of society today you can depend on a think tank somewhere coming up with a completely unworkable solution.
Just who these brains doing the thinking are is not entirely clear, but the think tanks go by some quasi-Latin name which seems to imply a depth of thought which is absent from their utterances.
The latest brainwave is an answer to childhood obesity – or how to get fat kids off their backsides so that they leave school with some semblance of mobility and without wearing a uniform that could double as a two-man tent.
And the big idea? Ban the school run.
Brilliant, give whoever thought of it in the think tank a great, big obese cigar.
On the face if it I can see the attractions of such a policy.
Anyone who has dared to venture out on the roads at roughly 8.15-9ish will know that they take their lives in their hands every day because of parents on the school run.
Quite why legislators felt the need to ban the use of mobile phones because they are distracting to drivers while allowing harassed parents to carry children to school every morning is beyond me.
The average school run driver is a) late b) distracted by that most distracting of sources, their own children and c) very often driving a 4x4 that would give a main battle tank a run for its money in a head-on crash.
I know how distracting children can be, my own three-year-old is perfectly capable of asking the exact same question 50 times without apparently drawing breath, and he thinks it’s ok because he prefaces it with ‘Excuse me daddy’, so he is being polite after all.
By the age of 10 they will have your psychological profile down to a tee and when it comes to pushing the buttons that make you detonate from the back seat, they will be past masters.
I never had been quite able to work out why mums and dads felt the need to deliver their children to school in a 4x4 but now it’s obvious that it’s because it’s the only thing with suspension tough enough to cope with their chubby kids by the end of their school career.
The fact is the only safe way to take children to school is to herd them into a small livestock trailer – I’m sure Ifor Williams of Corwen would make something appropriate, they seem to have made very other blimmin’ trailer in the British Isles – the use of a cattle prod would be perfectly acceptable, then wend your way to school with the soothing tones of Terry Wogan and nothing else.
But, as ever, I digress. The latest notion is to ban this because kids are getting fat and the theory is they would get more exercise if they had to waddle instead of sitting in the back of the car playing with their X-Station 3 or whatever bit of electronic kit is in vogue at the moment.
Great theory. Except for the small fact that way back the government allowed parents freedom of choice in picking which school to send their offspring to.
So instead of a bracing walk to the local comp, lost of kids would face a 10-mile hike to the school chosen by their parents because its Ofsted report said it achieved excellent results (never mind the fact that because so many parents have done the same it is now overcrowded and its pupil-teacher ratio is up the Swanee and it’s about to go into special measures.)
So far from being a health-giving stroll to school, many kids would face the sort of long march last undertaken by Chairman Mao and his followers.
The second fatal flaw, quite literally, in this bright idea is that in the golden age of schooling when we all skipped tra-la-la to school, the fastest thing on the road was an Austin Montego, which, in the terrible event it should mount the kerb and head straight for you, you had a good hour or two to sidestep it.
Now if you’re not taken out by a hot hatchback driven by some moron in a baseball cap you will be mown by a 4x4 driven by a parent temporarily distracted by their child’s insistence that they really must turn round and look at what they just found in their nose.
And just how would you police this ban? With the police, who have quite enough on their plate thank you without having to pull over 4x4s to see if the parent really has stuffed their children inot the boot to beat the ban (not a bad idea, try it to see if it cuts down the distraction.)
Has anyone thought of encouraging children to play outside a bit? I know, I know, fraught with health and safety dangers, but hey, lets give it a try. I’ve heard there’s a game once played by children before it became the preserve of overpaid male models, involving a ball, two sets of posts, and teams of 20-or-so a side kicking lumps out of each other through dinnertime, called football.
Perhaps I should join a think tank.

TONY Blair’s announcement of his departure typified his whole premiership and the contrasting views you have of his record.
It came just after he had visited the Northern Ireland Assembly to see both sides of the sectarian divide working to govern the province.
I was born in 1964 and Northern Irish violence was the background to my entire childhood and most of my adult years too.
One became accustomed to the steady drip of atrocity committed by both sides and the UK mainland campaign which saw the bombing of Birmingham, Guildford, and later Warrington as well as many, many others.
There is no doubt that lasting peace in Northern Ireland is a magnificent achievement, and Blair must take credit for seizing the opportunity presented to him and building on the moves made, lets not forget, by the oft-derided Prime Minster John Major.
But then all Blair’s achievements are coloured bay what continues to go on in Iraq – a bloody mess with no sign of the violence abating. Blair and Bush got rid of a monstrous dictator, for sure, but they replaced him with a state of lawless civil war which is still extracting a monstrous toll in that country.
Blair often talks about history and whether history treats him kindly will depend on what others no do to resolve the situation in Iraq and how many more lives it costs before that country finds the same sort of peace that Blair helped bring to Northern Ireland.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Column, May 8, 2007

I WONDER whether Churchill had to put up with this sort of thing.
In the midst of the Blitz as he contemplated the desperate battle to save this country from the jackboot did letters of complaint alight on his desk in the bunker.
When RAF aircrew on exercise occasionally ploughed into a hillside losing their own lives and taking several sheep with them, did anyone dare to protest at low flying back then?
The latest calls for an end to low flying over Wales come after a Hawk jet broke up on landing at RAF Mona, forcing the pilot to eject to safety.
This, opponents to low flying claim, is yet more evidence to show that we’re all at risk. Never mind the fact that it wasn’t low flying at the time, it was landing let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good old moan eh?
When did the British public decide that the RAF had enjoyed enough gratitude for saving our necks in the Battle of Britain and we could return to being a nation of whinging NIMBYs every time a jet passes overhead?
When on holiday a couple of weeks ago we were by Lake Windermere one day when the peace was shattered by two Harriers barrelling down the lake. Low? So low you could count the fillings in the pilots’ teeth.
Their sudden appearance was greeted with alarm and then disgruntled murmurs by the other visitors there. Banks junior, however, was dancing up and down shouting at the top of his lungs: “It’s the RAF, it’s the RAF” having been taught by yours truly that while the scream of the jets overhead might be a bit of a shock, the brave men and women who fly them are there to look after us.
Just in case anyone should suggest that my enthusiasm for low-flying jets is a luxury I can afford because I don’t see many of them, let me assure you that my home is slap bang on the flight path of both the RAF and the USAF too, so in the past month or so I’ve had Tornados, Hawks, a solitary Red Arrow, Tomcats and Eagles low enough to rattle the slates, as well as the occasional Hercules and multiple military helicopters too.
The Hawk crash last month was the fourth in nine years in or around Anglesey. Lest we forget, the RAF has seen higher attrition rates than that in living memory and the freedom of people to moan about the RAF was bought with the lives of young men who took to the skies in defence of their country.
If they hadn’t been prepared to make that sacrifice then the outcome of the war would have been very different and the whingers today would be trying to complain about the Luftwaffe, not the RAF, and they wouldn’t get very far doing that now would they?
Plaid Cymru’s Elfyn Llwyd wonders whether, in an era of modern warfare, whether low flying training is necessary any longer.
On balance, if I were a pilot going into battle, I think Mr Llwyd’s words would come as small comfort if I were shot down in flames because I couldn’t fly low, because Plaid Cymru, from the comfort and freedom of Wales had deemed it unnecessary in modern warfare.


THE coverage of the abduction of Madeleine McCann puzzles me a bit.
One can only hope that she is found safe and well (indeed, between the time I write this and it appears in the Daily Post that might well have happened).
But I do wonder that had she been the daughter of a single mum from a sink estate, rather than a GP and a cardiologist, whether the press would have been quite so understanding of the decision to leave her with her two-year-old brother and sister while they went for a meal, albeit checking the children every half hour.
The presumption seems to be that because they are educated, wealthy professional people, their actions are beyond reproach.
“We’ve all done it,” said one commentator of the decision to leave the children.
Well, I beg to differ, most of have not all done it, nor would we.
But remember this the next time some poor, less articulate, mother or father is caught leaving their kids home alone and see how they are hung out to dry.
The media coverage of this sorry story has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it.

SO the Assembly elections produced not quite the defeat Labour were fearing and not quite the sweeping victory Plaid Cymru hoped for and we get not quite a government as a result.
A coalition beckons which will limp on and how popular it is will, I reckon, depend on how decent a fist of being Prime Minister Gordon Brown makes.
Alec Salmond’s SNP may dream of independence, but with no overall majority and Labour and the Lib Dems opposed, it looks like it will remain a dream.
Here we’re still wedded firmly to the fortunes of England and so we’ll rumble on, tinkering at the edges of being a proper government, but always beholden to whoever is in Number 10.
The Assembly electoral system is such that results like last week’s are more likely than not, which might be what Labour wanted when they set the whole thing up.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Column, May 1, 2007

I FEEL very sorry for Mark Gibney.
He died an horrific death when his motorbike crashed into a car and no-one deserves a fate like that, whatever contribution they made to it.
I feel even more for his family, who have been left to grieve for him. The awful thing is that death is so common on our roads that the true loss of a person is never told, they become yet another statistic to most people, whereas their loved ones are left to mourn their loss.
But in the clamour to criticise Richard Brunstrom after he showed an invited audience pictures including those of Mr Gibney’s body, one group of victims seem to have been forgotten.
When Mr Gibney hit a car so fast he was decapitated by the impact, his headless torso was left embedded in the wreckage of the car, trapping a young family inside for 90 minutes.
Of all the people I have sympathy for in this awful event, it is them. They weren’t going too fast and yet they have to live with the memory of what happened to them that day. It is not something that will be easy to forget.
I understand completely the decision by Mr Gibney’s father to try to shield the family from the true nature of his son’s injuries. But in my opinion too much shielding goes on, and we, the press play our part in that too.
We have a family audience and we know that were we to tell the full story of what happens in these accidents the phone would be ringing off the hook with complaints.
So we talk about ‘serious head injuries’ and ‘multiple injuries’, ‘spinal injuries’ and so on, repeating the intentionally bland information given to us by emergency services who are also trying to protect the victims and their families from the gruesome truth.
And they are the other people I feel sorry for – the police officers, ambulance crews and firefighters who get called to deal with these accidents. Sure they’ve got training and counselling available and experience must numb them to the dreadful scenes they witness, but I’m not sure I would ever forget some of the things they have to witness.
Mr Brunstrom decided to show these pictures, not as some sort of shock tactic for the general public, but to inform journalists and others of the truth behind the Arrive Alive campaign. To show them the real nature of the events the campaign is trying to prevent.
Predictably, certain sections of the London-based tabloid press decided to ignore entirely the point he was making and go off on their usual ‘Traffic Taliban’ rants wheeling out Paul Smith of Safespeed to yak on about what an outrage this was.
Remember this – Paul Smith and his cohorts have never had to go around to someone’s house to knock on their door to tell them their son is dead.
The event by North Wales Police marked the United Nations Global Road Safety Week, in which it was revealed that road accidents are now the main cause of death worldwide of people aged between 10 and 24.
Deaths on the road in the UK claim 3,200 lives a year. That figure is dropping, but not fast enough.
That’s the equivalent of eight fully-laden jumbo jets dropping out of the sky every year. If that were to happen, do you think we would continue flying? Do you think there wouldn’t be public inquiries and calls for ministerial resignations for running an aviation system so dangerous?
And yet that is what happens on our roads, day-in, day-out. And that’s just the figure for deaths, on top of that you have just under 30,000 seriously injured. That is real carnage, rail crashes that grab headlines like the recent Virgin train crash pale into insignificance compared to what happens on the roads.
And yet when police officers like Mr Brunstrom and his Arrive Alive team confront us with the truth of what happens we hold our hands up in horror.
If one biker backs of the throttle just a fraction this weekend as a result of learning what really happened to Mark Gibney, and it is the biker who arrives home instead of a police officer bearing his family the worst of news, then for all the indignation, bluster and calls for his sacking, what Richard Brunstrom did will have been worthwhile.

OF course Prince Harry should go to Iraq. You don’t join the army unless you accept the risk of active service and he knew exactly what he was doing when he signed up.
His granddad and his uncle both served their country in times of war and there is absolutely no good reason why he shouldn’t.
Of course, were he to be killed it would be a tragedy, but no more so than for the families of the 112 service personnel who have died fighting there since the conflict began.
Much is being made by Royal correspondents getting an attack of the vapours about the fact he’s third in line to the throne, but surely the whole point is that there’s a line – in other words, should the worst happen, someone else moves up a notch.
The various lunatic militias tearing Iraq apart have made their threats, but I would just point out that he does sit in a tank and that he and his comrades in arms will be allowed to shoot back.
If members of the Royal family are not to be allowed to serve on active duty then they should not be allowed to join the armed forces. If they aren’t allowed to go where the action is then they become rather pointless figureheads, a role I would have thought the monarchy were keen to avoid.

THE merchants of doom opposed to holiday homes in North Wales often refer darkly to the fate suffered by the Lake District, where so many homes are taken by holidaymakers.
I’ve recently returned from a holiday on the shores of Lake Coniston and far from it being some resort bereft of locals, it was in fact bustling even in April, and there were plenty of lakelanders there making a packet from tourists like me.
This summer I’ll be holidaying on Llyn, in, say it quietly, a holiday home, and I’ll report back on the comparison between the two places.