Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine



Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.


I’d rather have Buzzards than politicians

What is it about politicians? I try hard to take a reasonable and fair-minded view of them and their antics – understanding, as I do, the failings of human nature – but I’m inevitably drawn into a rant about the duplicity, the breathtaking ineptitude and perhaps worst of all in an occupation that purportedly exists only to serve the nation – the complete lack of nous. It’s not that I don’t understand political expediency; I do. It’s just that time after time politicians present us with glaring examples of exactly how not to deal with things and then, when they are called to account all that’s heard is the clamour of back-peddling and evasion. When did politics become a second-class profession and cease being a calling?

Perhaps the Leveson enquiry will punch the tickets of a few of these smug, self-serving characters but while that particular drama plays itself out another little sideshow has grabbed my attention and it typifies the arrogant and casual manner in which we, the voters (when we can be bothered to vote, that is), are held.

In April our Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK (Defra) invited bids (worth £375000 over three years) for undertaking research into concerns of a specialist interest group and what measures it, Defra, could take to – put simply – make those concerns go away. The specialist group was the pheasant shooting fraternity and the concerns surrounded the predation of reared pheasants by an increasing buzzard population. The evidence for predation, by the way, was entirely anecdotal and based on complaints from gamekeepers but nonetheless people who rear pheasants for sport shooting say they are losing income as their profits are being, er, eaten away. Something approaching 40m pheasants are reared each season for shooting and the sport is reported by PACEC as being worth about £1.6b annually so the first thing that springs to mind – and a point not lost on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and other commentators like Mark Avery, who is a past conservation director there – is that Defra has no business involving itself and spending our taxes in the interests of a commercial sporting enterprise that could easily fund its own research. Bowing under the pressure, Defra yesterday dropped the proposals ‘in light of public concern’ but Tim Bonner, campaign director for the Countryside Alliance, was unrepentant and labelled the protests ‘mock outrage’ and a ‘trial by Twitter’.

Defra hasn’t explained why it took the view that this particular issue needed its attention in the first place (as opposed to spending resources, say, that might help the Hen Harrier from disappearing as a breeding species here) but it set about undertaking a desk study and arrived at some startling conclusions, the first and most obvious of which was that breeders should try placing cover around the pens so that the young birds could hide from the buzzards. In Barrowboy’s world that should have been that – you fill the woodland floor with fat, baby pheasants and birds of prey with hungry babies of their own will see an easy supply of food. Whilst most people with even the slightest knowledge of buzzards would have seen that to be obvious Defra went on to demonstrate further idiocy by calling for ‘research’ that also considered ‘permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre’ of the birds together with ‘nest destruction’. Aside from being astoundingly naïve these conclusions were witless in the extreme. To my mind Defra’s guidance to bidders that the ‘overall aim of the study is to develop mitigation techniques that significantly reduce predation levels of pheasant poults where serious damage is being caused by buzzards’ indicated a clear presumption of guilt as well as a clear example of government being partial in responding to lobbyists.

When the press picked-up the story last week after it received publicity on BBC Radio 4 there was a flurry of comment on the internet so Defra – remember I mentioned ‘back-peddling’ at the beginning of this post? – started back-peddling. They are well-used to this and have an interesting section on their website called ‘Mythbust’, which clearly aims to rebuff criticism in the guise of clarification. Look at what was posted on 24 May;

The Myth: There have been recent reports that Defra is proposing to cull buzzards or is about to implement a new policy to control their numbers. 

The Truth: Defra is absolutely not proposing to cull buzzards or any other raptors. We work on the basis of sound evidence.  This is why we want to find out the true extent of buzzards preying on young pheasants and how best to discourage birds that may cause damage to legitimate businesses. This would be only in areas where there is a clear problem, using non-lethal methods including increasing protective cover for young pheasants with vegetation, diversionary feeding of buzzards, moving the birds elsewhere or destroying empty nests. The results of this scientific research will help guide our policy on this issue in the future.  As the RSPB have said, the buzzard population has recovered wonderfully over the last few years, and we want to see this continue.

Setting aside the myths, the truths and the spurious nature of this clarification, here are some facts. Defra is not specifically proposing a cull of buzzards but it is proposing research that will have exactly the same effect; capturing, removing or confining birds or driving them away by destroying nests (with a shotgun if necessary) is culling, despite Defra’s semantics. Defra also states that it works on ‘the basis of sound evidence’ but clearly it doesn’t; if it did it would need factual proof that predation was a significant issue and not ‘anecdotal evidence’ that buzzards are wreaking havoc on planet Gamekeeper. It concludes by paying lip service to the RSPB, who led the outcry, yet that organisation was excluded from Defra’s own Project Advisory Group that would have assessed the study. The British Trust for Ornithology has also withdrawn, further reducing credibility and leaving the balance of the remaining members firmly weighted in favour of landowners. Leaving aside the questionable basis of the issue in the first place it seems unlikely to me that any valid results could have been achieved by such a half-cocked exercise.  

So buzzards can enjoy a relatively uninterrupted breeding season and I will be able to enjoy them soaring over my garden for the time being. One might say that Defra has been stupid and demonstrated a worrying lack judgement but that would be charitable. I perceive the implications as being far more sinister and don’t think this issue has gone away as I trust neither Defra nor its friends at the Countryside Alliance, who are little more than a lobby group for landowners. These issues arise through a lack of strong leadership and once again this has allowed a Government agency to act partially in the interests of a favoured lobby group. Yes, it’s good for the birds in this case but the bigger picture is of far more concern.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) reports that pheasant predation by all birds of prey averages less than 5% and in respect of buzzards a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology is more specific. It reported on a study covering forty buzzard nests between 1994 and 1995, during which 20725 pheasants were released. Based on responses from ten gamekeepers within the study area it was estimated that buzzard predation amounted to 4.3%; a long way from the 25-30% referred to as ‘anecdotal’ in Defra’s invitation to tender.

Two relevant conclusions reported were;

‘Predation by buzzards was recorded most often at release pens with little shrub cover, canopy that was deciduous and many released pheasants. Predation was worst in large pens with much ground cover and low pheasant density’

‘Radio-tagged buzzards were located most often at pens with open, deciduous canopy. Pens were most likely to be visited by buzzards that fledged nearby, but proximity of buzzard nests had relatively little influence on the level of predation’.

Journal of Applied Ecology, 38(4): 813-822 2001

Factors affecting predation by buzzards Buteo buteo on released pheasants Phasianus colchicus

Kenward, R. E., Hall, D. G., Walls, S. S., Hodder, K. H. 2001.




Bye-bye AV; back to business as usual

I had hoped to see a little more support for a ‘yes’ in the referendum on AV and with it, by implication, a glimmer of hope that election of our representatives would more accurately reflect opinion across a constituency. The expected result disappointed me but, truth be told, I wasn’t in the least surprised by the overwhelming kick in the nuts that our increasingly apathetic and bamboozled electorate delivered. The AV proposal on offer certainly wasn’t the best solution but it would, if nothing else, have unsettled the many politicians who see a seat at Westminster as a personal opportunity and not an obligation. It wasn’t to be and the possibilities of electoral reform being raised again in meaningful debate are too far into the future to contemplate.

Of all the constituencies in UK only ten out of about 500 delivered ‘yes’ votes [and of those only Cambridge is held by the Liberal Democrats] yet everyone I spoke to about AV seemed to have no idea how it would work, why it was being proposed and what the consequences of its being adopted would be. So what were people voting for or against? Of course, a clear, sophisticated and political ‘no’ campaign, supported by an increasingly well-liked Prime Minister, provided gentle guidance even if it was a little disingenuous. But then, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? Well, if you were advocating AV it would seem not; the ‘yes’ campaign, bespattered as it was with celebrities, seemed naïve, unclear and, eventually, whining. I heard more about how unfair the Conservatives were than about how AV was the important first step on the road to proportional representation. That old duffer Vince Cable has now described the Conservatives as ‘ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal’. Er, yes – perhaps realising that some while ago would have given your campaign more impetus, dummy. He has gone on to say that ‘you have to be businesslike and professional and you have to work with people who aren’t your natural bedfellows and that is being grown-up in politics’. Quite – so how dumb was Nick Clegg to describe the proposal as a ‘miserable little compromise’ at the start of the campaign? Badly wounded, he now appears less than capable as a senior politician and out of his depth, so one wonders, with this significant concession of the coalition behind him, whether his firmly held pre-election ideals can be transformed into political influence.

As for me, knowing that my MP’s safe seat is even safer, I’ll be checking to see if he’s using his secretarial allowance to resurface his driveway during this parliament.

Vote with Clegg – what’s the alternative?

When the general election was imminent last year I had a nose around the alternative attractions on offer to see if there was a party on the edge of mainline politics that appeared to have merit and which might seduce me into parting company with my important vote. It turned out that there was little choice unless one felt inspired or obliged on principle to support a marginal idea from a marginal group. And marginal they were, with policies that ranged from pensioner’s rights or the legalisation of marijuana to the eradication of socialism. If you’re interested, you can read it here. My reasons for exploring political new ground had a lot to do with my disgust at the collective behaviour of many of our elected public servants who believed that, once in Westminster, they were above the law and had to do little more than be photographed opening fetes or awarding Women’s Institute prizes. Despite my imploring [and boring] everyone I met in the pub, the market or on the street on a Sunday morning that they vote for an alternative my incumbent Member was returned. Amazingly, he managed it with a slightly increased majority, which I couldn’t understand at all given that he had used a huge amount of his parliamentary expenses to landscape his garden. That should have been enough to have him dragged out of town behind a buckboard but all I could do was try to vote the bugger out. Regrettably, there was no viable alternative and a significant number of my fellow constituents clearly felt the same way; so I guess he’ll have seen that as a mandate to carry on landscaping. The point is, my vote was wasted and I knew it was when I cast it. My constituency, like many in the country, is a ‘safe seat’ and our voting system only requires the candidate to get the highest number of votes, not a majority, to win. Had that not been the case perhaps more people would have voted against the expected victor and he may now be on unemployment benefit. Actually, somewhere around 71% of all votes cast in the 2010 election disappeared down the same plughole according to the Institute for Public Policy Research [ippr]. That’s 21 million or so across the country. Now we’re nearly a year down the road, the coalition is deeply into its juggling act of fulfilling election promises that can’t be fulfilled, public institutions say they are about to collapse and the proletariat is on the streets. Frustrating, eh?

None of this should come as a surprise in a system that meant me and 20,999,999 other people might as well have been line dancing as queuing at the local polling station last May. We trust politicians less and less and they grow more complacent. They are rarely as open, earnest or honest as they tell us they are and, after all, the quality of their political footwork is measured by the success of the inevitable compromise.

I have a lot of time for Nick Clegg and I share his pain. He clearly understands the need for compromise and, as an honest bloke with a fair measure of political integrity, he seems to strive to acknowledge other points of view. That was why he was so successful in the televised debates prior to the election last year. Unfortunately, he probably didn’t foresee any real possibility of being in government – let alone being deputy Prime Minister – or he might have been more circumspect about what he promised. He now finds himself in the most unenviable of positions by being a government minister on the one hand and a Liberal Democrat on the other; pragmatism versus idealism. A perpetual and, for the foreseeable future, hopeless state of compromise. This means that his every move is seized upon as either demonstrating a lack of credibility through supplicating to the Conservative majority or a betrayal of Liberal Democratic principles. Well, life in government is tough and sometimes you just can’t win. So you have to compromise.

But Nick Clegg’s best compromise yet might just be the start of something that improves on the nonsense we had last year. The Liberal Democrats declared in their manifesto that they would fight for proportional representation [PR]. They haven’t got that but, on 5 May, we are invited to vote in a referendum on changing the current voting system to alternative vote [AV]. No, it’s not what the Liberal Democrats really want [nor the ‘safe seat’ guys, either, for that matter] and not what Clegg is charged to deliver but, in pragmatic terms, it’s an acceptable compromise and it may just be the first step on the way to PR. So now I find myself with the opportunity – at last – of avoiding my vote being wasted while helping to impose a degree of accountability on the Member we send to Westminster.

So I’ll vote for a ‘yes’ and – to the other 20 million plus voters out there whose votes had less effect than those cast for American Idol – I advocate support for this first, small change to the current ‘first past the post’ voting system, which disenfranchises the majority of us and allows complacent, self-serving and frequently pompous individuals to cruise the gravy train to Westminster. AV is certainly not perfect and perhaps it will be uncomfortable for politicians who worry more about their careers than the interests of the people they are supposed to represent. A move to AV will be a first step towards changing that.

Lessons will be learned in 2011

While waiting for publication of the final report I’ve been absorbing all I can of the findings of the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April. Me along with BP, Transocean and Halliburton, that is. I’m in Florida at some point every year so have an interest of sorts in the outcome and, especially, the measures that will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The human and environmental reckoning remains outstanding and I’d like to take comfort in knowing that a recurrence will be avoided. Alas, having heard the utterances from BP this week I won’t hold my breath.

A lot is wrong with the way that powerful companies operate – by powerful I mean those with huge financial and political muscle – as they eventually get to do more or less what they want. The huge financial interests involved allow for the coercion of government and facilitates the bullying of subcontractors so they get their way in the end. According to the commission, which has released a chapter of its report, the root causes of the event were systemic’ and that ‘absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies’ may allow a recurrence. So no specific entity is to blame and all share some responsibility, which is what BP has strived to convince us of from the outset. In simple terms the commission concludes that ‘management and regulatory failure’ led to the disaster, which comes as no surprise and which, all things being considered, is not a bad outcome for BP. This was reflected in the statement they released after the findings were made public when, in cursory and arrogant terms, they again cited ‘multiple causes, involving multiple companies’ and that the company would ensure that the lessons learned from (the) Macondo (well would) lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling’.

Lessons will be learned, eh? When I saw that it had me thinking about how often I hear the expression and what it actually means. It’s platitudinous in the extreme but not an admission of wrong-doing; it’s dishonest and means in reality, ‘OK, something went wrong, we understand that you’re pissed, we’re not admitting guilt but we’ve acknowledged it and we’re moving on’. Now, of course, the job in hand for BP is to minimise the fallout from the event and that will be achieved by spreading the blame and the need for ‘lesson learning’ as far and as wide as possible.

BP was about 100 years old in 2010 and there is no questioning the experience and expertise that it will have built up. Halliburton started work on well cementing in 1919 and Transocean commenced well drilling in 1953. How, with all that collective experience, is it really possible that they hadn’t foreseen the possibility of what went wrong and put measures in place that would have managed the risks? The answer is simple – they probably did; someone somewhere took a decision in favour of cost over redundancy of safety systems. Saying that there are ‘lessons to be learned’ implies humbleness brought about by a gap in knowledge and infers contrition, but it doesn’t quite say that. In BP’s case it’s patently not the case and it’s as near as can be to being dishonest.

But it’s not just BP that advocates the learning of lessons; the rhetoric flows from all directions so you’d expect that lessons are being learned in a lot of other places, wouldn’t you?

In February 2009 the then Labour government was trotting out the same old line after snow and ice led to travel chaos on the roads and the closing of both bridges across the river Severn. With motorways blocked, drivers trapped in cars and families separated Lord Adonis, the Transport Minister, vowed that ‘lessons would be learned’ but it snowed again this winter and the chaos reportedly cost £1billion. In response the coalition Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced in December that the performance of transport operators would be reviewed. He reported that a national strategic salt reserve existed for the first time but went on to say that ‘I share the frustration of the travelling public and we need to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep Britain moving. Complacency is not an option. There are lessons to be learned……’.

The Commonwealth Games Federation [CGF] is the governing body for the debacle that led up to the games in Delhi last June. They met in Glasgow for a debriefing on issues such as running sewage, human faeces and falling ceilings in the accommodation, packs of wild dogs, poor security and a collapsing bridge that preceded the opening ceremony, where a lack of protection allowed the competition surfaces to be damaged. In a statement issued by CGF they declared that ‘lessons would be learned’ from problems in Delhi. What sort of lesson needs to be learned when a bridge collapses? I’ve walked on bridges built by the Romans, for heaven’s sake.

Just before Christmas some 40000 homes in Northern Ireland were without water after distribution pipes fractured in the cold weather, reservoirs emptied and management ran around like headless leprechauns. Conor Murphy, minister at the Department of Regional Development [DRP], admitted serious failures as he sympathetically explained how he understood the frustration and anger of being without flushing toilets, hot baths, cooking and drinking water over the holidays. He believed that ‘lessons need to be learned’ and put the point very sincerely. I’m sure that people collecting bottled water from car parks on Christmas morning in below-freezing temperatures agreed with him. But wait a moment – back in July four directors of Northern Ireland Water [NIW], which is the state-owned monopoly controlling water supplies, were fired because of irregularities in the award of 73 contracts. Paul Priestly, permanent secretary to the DRP and speaking at the time, said he found the failings ‘absolutely staggering’ so one wonders how Mr Murphy reached the conclusion that there were still lessons to be learned six months later.

On 2 January the coalition government’s Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, promised us that ‘lessons would be learnt’ after a riot at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex erupted when prison officers attempted to breathalyse inmates who had been drinking alcohol as part of their New Year celebrations. The ensuing conflagration caused damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms and resulted in some buildings being burned to the ground. At the time some 500 inmates were being overseen by six, yes six, prison staff only two of whom were actually trained prison officers. So what was there to learn about six people watching over 500 prisoners with virtually unlimited access to alcohol?

And just to prove what a piece of absolute nonsense it is last Sunday in The Independent it was stated that the success of the England cricket team in winning the Ashes as well as the rescuing of the Chilean miners represented opportunities for ‘lessons to be learned’ in how we manage our personal finances. Excuse me? In all honesty I struggled to make the connection but I certainly learned two lessons from the essay; first, the expression is trite and reeled off so frequently as to be meaningless and, second, I was reminded why I don’t read the Independent.

So now when I hear ‘lessons will be learned’ I tend to be more than a little cynical about the sincerity and the honesty of the person delivering the message as well as the organisation it’s coming from. After all, will BP double the number of safety systems as a result of Deepwater Horizon? Will ill-prepared Commonwealth Games hosts be excluded from consideration? Will we see more snow-clearing equipment or salt reserves even if we don’t need them for years? A realistic ratio of prison officers to detainees? Transparency in Northern Ireland? We all know the answer. And as for learning lessons about managing personal finance – doh!

Trying hard; could do better

It’s been interesting, as our parliament goes into its new short summer recess, to hear differing views on how the leaders of our coalition are doing. I’ve written before that I think this different approach to our traditional two-party system of politics could be a change for good and, in broad terms, I still hold that view. Yes, there have been glitches and, in a world where you are frequently judged on what you say rather than what you achieve, there are bound to have been catcalls from the sidelines. What intrigued me though, sniping from David Davis aside, was what would go into the end of summer term reports.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg looked good together at the outset and there is clearly a mutual respect existing that was never apparent when Blair and Brown were the incumbents. A couple of months of reality, public scrutiny and party politics have put more clear water between the Prime Minister and his deputy but for me two points of focus stand out as indicators of where we stand.

Last week Clegg stood in for Cameron at PM’s Questions when the PM was in USA. He was less at ease than in the famous televised election debates and his performance was unconfident and stumbling. He came under pressure and was mauled by Jack Straw, who as a former Foreign Secretary is a very experienced adversary. Whilst it could be argued that Clegg might have been better briefed his comment about the legality of the invasion of Iraq was misguided and politically naïve, particularly as Cameron had voted in support of the invasion at the time. Clegg was repeating a consistent and firmly-held personal view but he was speaking from the dispatch box and not from his sofa, so the views he expressed were those of the government. There were more uncertain responses before Straw went on to quote the results of a limited poll indicating a belief that the Liberal Democrats had sacrificed principle for power in joining the Conservatives to form the coalition. The government had to issue statements of clarification afterwards and the voters’ darling has been below the parapet ever since, tail firmly between his legs. I’ve read today that his personal approval rating – whatever that is it provides an indication of what the public thinks of you – has dropped from 72% ahead of the election to less than 10% now. Not good when your job is to win friends and influence people.

Following his trip to the States Cameron embarked on the tour that took him to Turkey and India. Of course, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘have a go’, as we say here, and he obliged by using some unguarded language in both countries. David Miliband’s comment that Cameron was a ‘loudmouth’ struck me as being a little unimaginative and spiteful rather than incisive and pertinent; not great stuff from an aspiring leader of the Labour Party. Charles Moore, in the Daily Telegraph and more specifically, accused Cameron of being hypocritical and telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. Well, he was on a trade mission so he would, wouldn’t he? Cameron, in less than diplomatic terms, had described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ and accused Pakistan of looking ‘both ways’ on terrorism but Moore asked why Cameron wasn’t expressing such comments at home when in England supporters of Hamas, of the killing of homosexuals, of female circumcision, of the execution of apostates, and of terrorism against all armed opponents of any Muslims anywhere’ are treated as partners by police and public authorities. Well, Gaza is just that, isn’t it? And it’s probably beyond reasonable doubt that what Cameron said about Pakistan is true also. Was offence caused because what he said was incorrect or because he had the audacity to say it in public? If Israel and Pakistan behaved better, no offence could have been caused. I don’t necessarily disagree with Moore’s concerns but I fail to see why voicing opinion abroad should preclude you from adopting a policy of dialogue at home, where you might actually achieve something.

For my part – and the need for exercising caution in international relations notwithstanding – I find it refreshing to have a politician speak his mind even if it does mean that a diplomatic slight is imparted. It seems altogether more honest than when Charles Moore, who is a respected journalist, uses criticism of Cameron’s expressing some commonly-held concerns to raise issues associated with his own right-wing views on dealing with home-based radicalism.

Despite the odd bump in the road the coalition is enthusiastic. The Guardian carried an interesting piece by Francis Maude, concluding that this government was more radical than that of Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not that’s true they are certainly trying to make progress at an alarmingly fast pace. Perhaps it is naïve to attempt so much so soon and the uncertainty in the footwork is there to see. We’ll all know soon enough but I think it’s long past time for a government to take a different view on major areas of public expenditure – health, education, defence, benefits – and at least try some new ideas instead of forcing through policies that are based on party dogma and idealism.

The strength I saw in a coalition was the basis of two parties being held comfortably together by each other’s strengths; twin stars each needing the other’s gravitational pull to remain in place and not go spinning aimlessly into space. I felt that one party’s extremes would be balanced by the other’s moderations and that the whole would be greater than the sum of the two parts. The accountability inherent in such a forced marriage would, I believed, make honesty on the part of each partner a necessity. That seems to be the case even if it is, as the examples above show, likely to cause glitches and provide fertile ground for criticism.

Defending your position is part and parcel of Cameron’s job and, quite frankly, the criticism offered thus far has been weak and unlikely to deflect him. Of more worry is the apparent inability of Clegg to impose himself and his party’s values in the manner of his pre-election performances. A poll result today suggested that his perceived ability to influence the government’s policies is diminishing and if that trend continues his weak performance will come under increasing attack and may become a liability.  

Those points made on the leaders of the coalition I’m also less than satisfied with their green credentials as this is far from being ‘the greenest government ever’, as was promised in one of Cameron’s early speeches. Yes, it does look as though energy and climate change are being addressed – and these are major political issues – but in doing so some of the more politically low-key aspects of the natural environment will fall by the wayside. The consequences of that will affect us more as individuals. This concerns me greatly but somewhere along the line one has to put trust in people and believe that they’ll do the right thing. On face value, Cameron and Clegg appear to be trying to do just that even if a lot of pain and heartache will ensue as a consequence.

I take a very sceptical view of politicians, whom I believe to be self-serving and duplicitous for the most part. So I’m not critical of the mistakes or the perception of weakness that flows from expressing honestly-held opinion.  The summer recess will give everyone some time to reflect on things; is honesty the best policy? Yes, but you need to think before you speak.