editorofthechron

The blog of the editor of the Congleton Chronicle Series. We cover east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, which are at the very top of the English Midlands Views expressed are not always official newspaper policy.

Assisted dying: a divisive topic

An assisted dying Bill — a proposal to allow terminally ill competent adults the assistance to end their lives — is due to come back before Parliament next month.

As can be seen from our letters page this week, it’s going to cause a clear division of views: the letter calls the bill “cruel and evil”. Others will take the opposite view, that’s it’s the state being compassionate, allowing people to avoid the suffering of an inevitable, undignified and/or painful death.

Congleton’s MP Fiona Bruce is a devout Christian and opposes assisted dying on doctrinal grounds. She told the Catholic Herald in June that she was “confident” that members of Parliament would “vigorously oppose and reject” the new Bill.

She presumably believes in the sanctity of life because of her religion. She softens this for the non-believing majority by couching it in terms with which they will sympathise, saying she’s worried that the frail, the elderly, the sick and the disabled will end (or be pressured to end) their lives because they don’t want to be a burden.

(It’s interesting that she is quoted in the Catholic Herald: she’s not a Catholic but Christians have common ground over this. We know left-leaning Catholics who dislike the Tories but agree with Mrs Bruce).

The argument seems to be as with bicycle helmets. Health experts oppose mandatory helmet-wearing, because for the population as a whole, the more people exercise, the better it is. The statistics show health improvements.

But if you’re a cyclist, mid-spill, there’s a 100% chance your head is to going to hit something hard and the outcome is not going to be an improvement in health. Compulsory helmet wearing suddenly seems highly desirable.

The same is true of assisted dying. Healthy people debating the issue for the country as a whole can take a lofty stance, talking about the general good, and principle. A terminally ill patient with no chance of improvement and only pain and the loss of dignity to look forward to will see the argument differently. (On the other hand: hard cases famously make bad law. It would be wrong for MPs to swayed by one person’s plight, however heart-rending it was).

It seems to me that there is no right and wrong in this argument.

Mrs Bruce is correct: we only have one life (God-given if you’re so inclined) and anything that encourages people to relinquish this marvellous gift should be resisted.

Then again, doctors already help people on their way, as long as the increase in pain killers that sees you off is given on medical grounds. People can end their own lives if they so wish, but without a law allowing assisted suicide, they could be forced to do so using means that are otherwise unacceptable.

If you want to die with dignity, you may feel the best time is just after you lose muscle control, (or just after the pain relief you’re receiving makes affirmative action impossible), with the assistance of family and your GP, and having said your goodbyes and made peace.

Far better this than taking an overdose without telling anyone, because you’re worried you won’t be able to at some future point.

Anyone who argues on these grounds — that people should be able to die with dignity, at a time and place of their choosing — is as correct in their conclusion as Christians such as Mrs Bruce are in theirs.

Christians believe a greater power – God – tells them how to behave and holds them to account. While they protect life because He wants them to, there must also be an element to their thinking that says it’s acceptable for an authority to tell people how to run their lives, whether it’s God telling them not to steal or the Government telling people they can’t die. Libertarian non-believers have no belief in a god, so no ethical grounds to say assisted dying is wrong, and lack a mindset that agrees with any authority telling people how to live and die.

Doubtless people will bring much into the argument, but all else would seem to be window dressing, or raised to confuse.

The Economist newspaper — which is in favour of assisted dying — recently reviewed the evidence and it seems that much of the claims people make are not borne out in reality.

The US state of Oregon has allowed assisted dying since 1997, and so has stats and facts to hand. It reports that assisted dying is not foisted on vulnerable and bullied patients: those who choose assisted suicide are well-educated and insured.

Some argue that death with dignity is already possible via our excellent hospice movement, but Oregon reports that people choosing to die typically already receive palliative care.

“They are motivated by pain, as well as the desire to preserve their own dignity, autonomy and pleasure in life,” The Economist said.

It also made the point that in Oregon 1,327 people have received lethal medicine, but only two thirds of those have actually used it to take their own lives.

(Oregon allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live who ask for them, if a second doctor agrees. There is a cooling-off period of 15 days).

The Economist also quoted a Swiss clinic, which said that the bulk of its services were counselling, and it talked many people out of committing suicide – it doesn’t just take their money and see them off.

It all boils down to whether you belief people should live out the full term of their lives, or whether, under certain circumstances, people should be allowed to quit while they’re ahead.

It’s a difficult decision for MPs with no correct answer.

Peppa Pig v The Planning Inspectorate

Returning to last week’s topic, the Planning Inspectorate’s over-ruling of local feeling and granting of permission for 270 houses off Padgbury Lane, Congleton, the decision document reminded us of something.

It took a while to pin it down: Peppa Pig. The report smacks more of Peppa’s imaginary pastel landscape than the real world.

For those unlucky enough never to have seen the children’s cartoon, Daddy Pig (sire to Peppa) is an architect and designs houses. It’s easy. He draws a child’s picture of a house — roof, four windows, chimney — and Mr Bull (the bovine in charge of heavy machinery) comes along and builds it.

That seems to be about the level of logic the inspector has been required to put into his report, which is clearly driven by a briefing from on high to ignore the facts and just build houses. We’re sure the inspector is a qualified man who knows his stuff, but the Government needs houses and the Planning Inspectorate is required to allow appeals where it can.

So the appeal decision uses lots of long words and technicals but all it’s basically done is drawn a child’s drawing of some houses, possibly adding a smiley face. Many of the comments seem as rooted in reality as the day Peppa turned one of Daddy Pig’s valuable blueprints into a paper aeroplane, which then miraculously flew to Daddy Pig’s office.

Thus: “I am satisfied that accessibility between the appeal sites and local facilities and services, the town centre and places of employment is not dependent upon use of the car.” This conjures up an image of happy people cycling into town and back for their errands or for work, adding to the hordes of people who already travel that way. Congleton’s famous for it, the massed bands of cyclists every morning on our well-marked and safe cycle paths. In theory the inspector is correct, in reality, it’ll just mean more cars.

In Peppa, all houses are on the tops of hills and that’s true for Padgbury Lane, too: Back Lane aside, most employment in town is at the bottom of at least one big hill, and anyone cycling has to battle the heavy traffic, which is why most people don’t cycle to work: traffic to battle with, hills to get sweaty on.

There’s a lot of talk of road improvements or “taking account of the mitigation available through the highways contribution” as the report says.

“The proposals would not materially worsen traffic movement or reduce highway safety,” the report states. Maybe Daddy Pig can draw a road in felt tip. In reality, at peak times the roads into Congleton slow to walking pace. When a river is in flood, you can add as many channels as you like — it will still flood.

Anyone who does cycle will regularly encounter the queues along Padgbury Lane, and the massive ones on the Holmes Chapel road into town, and a cyclist can overtake vehicles on Rood Hill and not see them again until well out of Congleton, no matter what figures the inspector has used. (He assessed traffic on half day closing, just after Easter, when some people were probably still on early breaks).

Some improvements are mooted it’s true, but we have reason to be suspicious in Congleton. The Wagon and Horses “gyratory”, when Daddy Pig and Mr Bull drew it with crayons, was going to make traffic better. In reality, it made the situation worse. (That was before Miss Rabbit stuck a convenience store on it, too).

Says the report: “Local concerns have been raised about the junction with the A34, with arguments put forward referring to difficulties in turning right onto the major road. The modelling predicts that the junctions at both ends of Padgbury Lane would operate well within capacity.” Translation: “Traffic backs all the way down to Porter’s garage as it is, and 270 houses with two cars apiece will make no difference”.

Then there’s the schools.

Says the report: “While Congleton High School may be full, that does not mean there would be no capacity in the education system at secondary school level.” Eh?

Translation: “Elvis might have been found dead on the bog but that does not mean he’s not working a chip shop in Knypersley”. It’s possible. Perhaps Daddy Pig will draw a school, and Mr Bull will knock it up the next day.

Congleton High School is full and the only other school is Eaton Bank, across town — even if there are places there, all of the kids in those 270 houses will have to be driven to Eaton Bank. Or to Sandbach or Biddulph, or Holmes Chapel.

Even Mr Bull would spot the flaw in this: the link road is meant to reduce cross-town traffic but if the Planning Inspectorate keeps approving houses on the Congleton High side of town, the traffic across town is going to increase as parents ferry their kids to Eaton Bank.

To be fair to the inspector, he does concede that improvements are needed on the A34. The developers — rather optimistically — suggested that widening the Newcastle Road arm of the Wagon and Horses roundabout would cost “about £10,000”, though the inspector suggested a more reasonable £305,000.

Road improvements for £10,000? Even Daddy Pig would scoff at that one.

Scheming plots or just bad planning?

I’ve got a friend who is big on “agendas”. Not the bundled piles of documents for meetings, which can be a little dull, but the reasons “behind” news stories.

He pauses the news on the telly and ask his (long-suffering) wife what the real agenda is. It’s a healthy approach, though should be used with caution: all editors of local papers are probably accused of “having an agenda” on a regular basis, and this is rarely true. The only agenda we have is to fill all that white space we have at the start of the week.

I thought of him when news came through that the appeal to build 300 houses on Padgbury Lane in Congleton had been won by the developer.

It’s easy to come up with agendas. As one Facebook friend put it: “Developers making millions under a Tory-led council and Government — who would have thought it?” They’re not necessarily true.

This column has in the past even suggested that the planning shambles we are enduring is a Labour-stitch up — a Labour minister agreed to the creation of Cheshire East with the support of no-one at all. She was possibly aware that the new authority would have no local plan, and developers would cause great annoyance to voters in Tory-held leafy Cheshire.

Most likely is that none of it is down to an agenda, merely a series of bad decisions, and people lacking in hindsight.

There’s the planning system itself of course. It’s allegedly a quasi-legal system but it seems to ignore dishonesty. Developers can persuade people who don’t live in an area to write in support of a plan, and councillors must take these letters into account, instead of throwing them in the bin.

We’ve seen developers counting traffic on a Monday when the schools were off, compiling misleading figures to submit as evidence. Again, planning law doesn’t laugh this out of court, but accepts it as valid evidence.

But still: human failings knock all these into a cocked hat.

I’m not going to rake up old issues but Cheshire East Council still has no local plan. It was created in shadow form in 2008, officially established in April 2009 and, the way things are going, will not have a local plan until 2016 at the earliest.

Deputy leader Dave Brown must rue the day he wrote to the Chronicle in early 2014 saying the local plan was “progressing very well” and promising that it would be finished in 2014, which represented just over four years (he ignored the council’s shadow year) and not the seven that we had hinted at. Now, even taking 2009 as a start date, it looks like seven years of anyone’s reckoning will be up before the plan is in force.

In Coun Brown’s defence, it’s clear the Government is not making it easy: not only did it create an unwanted new authority, it changed the planning rules. The country needs new homes and we’re going to get them.

Local plan aside, Cheshire East failed to support neighbourhood plans when they were first mooted. I have no idea why. We carried stories at the time saying parishes had received no support for neighbourhood plans, despite the fact that the council had a statutory duty to do so.

MP Fiona Bruce has raised the issue in Parliament, pointing out that the Government provided funding for neighbourhood plans for Sandbach, Congleton, Alsager and Middlewich but the funding was used to create town plans, which did not carry as much weight.

As Mrs Bruce said: “Had they been produced, these four towns could have been substantially protected from unwanted, planning applications…since neighbourhood plans, unlike town plans, carry strategic weight in the planning process, as everyone now knows.”

She said this before the elections so perhaps she exaggerated for tactical purposes; Labour’s Dr Darren Price, who stood against Mrs Bruce, is a planning boffin and said that neighbourhood plans carried little weight without a local plan being in force.

Mrs Bruce’s comments are supported on our letters page this week by Julie Brown, however, who says “the only mechanism to resist inappropriate development” would have been a neighbourhood plan.

Mrs Brown said Congleton Town Council was “in the privileged position” to have a plan funded by central Government early on but used the funding it received under the Neighbourhood Plan Frontrunner Project to produce a “toothless” town strategy. She doesn’t say whether this was because Cheshire East Council forced it into a town plan.

The unplanned developments that have been approved within Congleton town are a consequence of this poor decision-making, Mrs Brown believes. She’s right, but it’s that and no more: a series of poor decisions, coupled with changes in Government policy.

Is there any lesson to be learned? Not really. Even councillors are human and hindsight is marvellous. And council leader Michael Jones and Dave Brown have the elections to point to — they were re-elected, so people must have some faith in them.

But Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and its subsidiary local councils, who are at the stage Cheshire East Council was in 2009, could perhaps be warned and take more care.

Call for review of new court charge

A couple of weeks ago we commented unfavourably on the new criminal courts charge, a cynical way of taxing folk for whom most of us will have little sympathy.

The charge means that people convicted of offences will have to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case, paying less if they plead guilty. The fees are not means-tested and start at £150.

The new penalty is on top of fines, compensation orders, court costs and the existing victim charge and is not linked to the sentence given. There’s a minimum charge for magistrates’ courts and a higher level for Crown court cases.

The Government’s excuse is that it’s on the side of people “who work hard and want to get on” and that those who commit crime must pay their way, and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.

Logically that does not make sense. We don’t charge alcoholics, the obese and smokers extra for their health care on the grounds that their illnesses are self-inflicted. The argument — and it’s a fair one — is that boozers and smokers have paid for the NHS through taxation and deserve their treatment.

Similarly, most people are taxpayers at some point in their lives and the court system is funded through the tax system. The same argument surely applies.

If you’re going to charge users of state services then at least be consistent — charge library users extra for borrowing books, or walkers who go hiking in the national parks. Charge people who use the NHS, or least give a rebate to healthy who people who don’t make demands.

Instead, a class of people for whom no-one feels much sympathy — crims — are being whacked with an extortionate tax on criminality.

It’s not just us who have been critical of the new tax: there are have been reports of magistrates resigning, and now the Howard League for Penal Reform has launched a campaign for an “urgent review” of the charge. The Government has said it will review the charge after three years.

The Howard League has access to national data and has produced examples of how the new charge works: a teenager who stole sweets and ice cream worth £5, a woman found begging in a car park and a Stoke man who kicked a flower-pot after being stabbed are among the more unfair cases it cites.

It said the criminal courts charge “penalises the poor and encourages the innocent to plead guilty”. The charge puts pressure on people to plead guilty, as it rises from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates’ court to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.
The charge at crown court is £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. There are plans to charge interest.

Government ministers — the ones who claim mileage for walking across the road — have described the charges as “quite modest”, clearly seeing costs ranging from around £150 to £1,200 as pocket change.

Among the league’s examples were a homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, who was given a conditional discharge but had to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge.

The Stoke man was living in a hostel and kicked a flower-pot after being stabbed with a needle by a fellow resident. He then became homeless, appeared in court to admit criminal damage, and was fined £70 and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £20 victim surcharge.

One case cited was that of a person who wrote to their local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, for advice about the charge.
The person was due to appear at Newcastle Crown Court for an offence he said he did not commit. “I had planned on pleading not guilty (but) I have been told that if I am found guilty I will have over £1,000 in costs to pay. Is this true?”

The Exeter Express and Echo reported a case where a judge was forced to impose a £900 charge on a homeless man who had admitted shoplifting. s the defendant was led away, the judge asked the courtroom: “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”

The Howard League says the charge removes discretion from magistrates, though this is not strictly true: we’ve recently seen a case where a man was given no actual punishment for his (minor) offence but did have the new charge to pay — while magistrates cannot avoid imposing the criminal courts charge, they do have discretion over fines.

As we said a couple of weeks ago, people should not commit crime. In its defence, the Government has said the new charge will be paid last (after compensation, fines and prosecution costs), and if people go straight the criminal courts charge can be waived. (Though if you’re more affluent and pay it all off in one go, that presumably does not apply, introducing even more unfairness into the system).

If you want to find out more, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has a blog up at howardleague.org/francescrookblog/bringing-back-debtors-prisons/

Town councils must expect more scrutiny

Thorn-in-the-side of Congleton Town Council, Graham Goodwin is a bit like cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who, as far I can tell (not being a cricket fan) seems to annoy everyone intensely but is so good that it’s a mistake to leave him out.

There was talk at the council of — not to put too fine a point on it — barring Mr Goodwin from asking any more questions because he was, well, very annoying.

That would be have been a dubious decision anyway but is even more so now, since it appears he does have a point. Several points, in fact.

First there was the digital display unit.

Without the dogged persistence of Mr Goodwin (and others), this would not have to come to light.

In the fuss over the report into the DDU, a fairly obvious point has been overlooked — the council came very close to getting away with wasting £20,000 of public money, and breaking its own guidelines to do so.

Indeed, part of the problem in investigating the DDU was that the money was spent in a now-closed financial period — some town councillors felt the external auditor had acted beyond its remit by going back that far to look at the matter.

It seems logical to conclude that if a fuss had not been made, the issue would have been forgotten, the money quietly written off and the financial regulations left unchanged.

We — the people who fund the council — would be none the wiser. It came very close to being brushed under the carpet.

The same is true of the questions into councillors declaring an interest in businesses in which they are involved.

These arose because Coun Larry Barker failed to declare his directorship of a company that made a planning application when he was chairman of the Planning Committee.

No-one is saying that any deception was intended and there was certainly no personal or professional gain from his omission, but the fact is that it was against the rules — councillors have a duty to declare all business interests.

Again ,this would not have come to light had Mr Goodwin not made a fuss.

Mayor Coun Liz Wardlaw, in a letter to Mr Goodwin, said she would remind Coun Barker and all other members of the council of the need for “absolute transparency” in business interests.

She promised Mr Goodwin that she would be “speaking” to Coun Barker to ensure that he kept his declaration of interests up to date, and she would be advising all other councillors to do the same.

Councillors might find Mr Goodwin annoying (there’s no might about it) but he has highlighted two areas where councillors were remiss and which, under different circumstances, could have left them open to accusations of wrongdoing.

In the council’s defence, times are changing.

As Government cuts bite and more services are devolved to the towns, our town councils are moving away from their more recent history — overgrown parish councils (and I mean that kindly) — to larger authorities with growing staff and more responsibility.

Don’t forget that town councillors are unpaid, but are now expected to work in an increasingly complex area, whether it’s purchasing specialist kit or dealing with HR problems.

The time may well come when town councillors are paid and become more professional.

At least Congleton Town Council is open.

It publishes its minutes quickly on the internet (to be read by the likes of Mr Goodwin) and sends them on to us.

Looking at the other town councils in our patch, not all are so up to speed. Some have not published minutes for months, despite having shiny websites.

Moreover, in our Sandbach edition this week we report a spat between councillors over an alleged lack of transparency, and comments made on Twitter.

But openness is the future.

Critics like Mr Goodwin can sit at home and check councillors’ directorships, employers, social life, property ownership and former jobs, and compare this with their minuted actions, and comments made in the Press.

Town councils — and councillors — are going to have to accept that in an on-demand world, lack of transparency can only cause suspicion. And people who make mistakes will be found out.

Twitter and Facebook mean discussions previously limited to the council chamber can reach the whole community. It’s not what some are used to.

But it can only be good for local democracy — after all, this is all being done with our money.

With town councils taking on more work it seems it’s a case of “Graham Goodwin: every town should have one”.

Town’s VC – a flawed hero

On our letters page this week (30 July 2015), we carry a letter from Normandy veteran Dr Ken Tout OBE, a former tank commander, who is writing a book about VC winners and what kind of people they were in ordinary life.

He wants information about Congleton’s Sgt George Harold Eardley, and I was able to send him an editorial from 2014 that outlined how Sgt Eardley was an out-and-out rogue, whose bad behaviour forced him to leave town. (Dr Tout was delighted — some VC winners were noble men, others were not and it takes all sorts).

Sgt Eardley won his VC by storming three machine gun posts in Holland in 1944, but I knew of a dark rumour — which no-one has written about before — that Sgt Eardley did not actually do the deed himself, but shot the chap who did and claimed all the credit.

When I posted Dr Tout’s appeal on Facebook, two separate people contacted me with this same rumour, one having been told it by his father, a contemporary of Sgt Eardley’s.

It seems the rumour must have been a common in Congleton after the war, and a widely held belief among Congletonians. Maybe that was why Sgt Eardley left town.

In the sergeant’s defence, I have to say that former Chronicle editor Lionel Head, who lamented Sgt Eardley’s behaviour in the paper at the time, cast no aspersions on Sgt Eardley’s bravery in action. Lionel’s successor John Condliffe, who knew Sgt Eardley well, also did not believe the tale.

And logically it makes no sense, either. When the machine gun nests were stormed Sgt Eardley would not know that this action would win a VC, so would have no reason to shoot anyone, if that is what happened.

Far more likely is that it was a rumour started by friends and neighbours who could not square Sgt Eardley’s terrible behaviour at home with the bravery he showed in winning the VC.

If anyone has more information, I’d be delighted to hear of it, as would Dr Tout.

A flawed hero is much more interesting than a noble one!

See here for the original blog and Lionel Head’s comments: https://wordpress.com/post/44949309/6/

Mill disaster brings home the horrors of war

As some of you (hopefully) have noticed, we’ve been running a column each week covering the news of 100 years ago, the period of WW1.

It’s hard to grasp the reality, of swathes of young men marching away and some not coming back.

As LP Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and Congleton hundred years ago does not seem the place it is today.

That was until last week, when the Bosley disaster brought it home. The dreadful explosion saw four people killed and a local outpouring of grief and support as the community rallied round.

But in 1915 this death toll was, if not weekly, at least a regular occurrence. A Bosley every fortnight — it’s too awful to contemplate.

And it was worse in 1915, because families knew their loved ones were in harm’s way.

As we commented at the end of May: “Dread insomnia has made the nights a terror . . . the waking moments have been filled with the thoughts of the soldiers in the trenches, and the brave boys in blue watching and waiting”.

Thanks to Bosley, we can see this as no mere melodrama from the Chronicle editor.

That same issue we reported the deaths of three men: Pte Harry Macdonald, killed in action, Lce/Cpl Sydney Mitch-ell, victim to a German sniper, and Pte Jack Wilshaw, dead of shrapnel wounds.

A couple of weeks before, we reported the death of Lt Kenneth W G Meakin and Col Frederick Charles France-Hayhurst.

In June, one week saw three more deaths: Pte J Whitehurst, who had died from wounds, Drummer Sidney Green, killed in fighting, and Capt Oswald Armitage Carver, killed in the Dardanelles.

Only a week or so later, there were five more deaths: 2nd Lt Alfred John Haughton, killed in action, Pte James William Shepley, 2nd Grenadier Guards, killed in France, Lce/Cpl Frank Mullock, killed in an attack and buried behind the lines, Pte WG Morris, and Cpl George Sproston, who had relatives locally.

Into July and another week saw the deaths of 2nd Lt Alfred John Haughton, killed in France, and Pte Joseph Axson, killed in action.

How on earth did their families cope? They loved their families as we do today and grieved as much as do we.

Truly, war is awful.

Health trust ignores NHS guidelines

The row over the parking charges at Macclesfield Hospital — and soon, Congleton War Memorial –— rumbles on.
Perhaps it’s not surprising: in 2013 ParkingEye was bought by Capita for £57.5 million, and the latter has for long been known by Private Eye as “Crapita” and “the world’s worst outsourcing firm”.

Why hospitals would charge for parking is another issue but East Cheshire NHS Trust chief executive John Wilbraham has previously said that ParkingEye was brought in because some motorists avoided paying for parking or parked in the wrong areas, and made it difficult to keep enough spaces available for patients and visitors. Obstructive parking had even blocked emergency vehicles, he said.

Accepting the premise that parking charges deter non-patients from using a hospital’s free parking — though given the location of both Macc and Congleton hospitals, this is hard to swallow — it seems reasonable for the hospital to try and maximise revenue.

Less reasonable is Mr Wilbraham’s explanation for the cases where people have been wrongfully fined for parking, that is: after paying for a ticket.

He blamed patients, saying that motorists inputted their registration details incorrectly when buying tickets. He also said visitors would pay the correct amount and input their details correctly, but then park in a restricted area.

This may or may not be generally true: the one person we bumped into who had been threatened by ParkingEye was adamant that she had entered the correct registration, and was correctly parked.

Moreover, given the hospital’s user base — the old, the worried, the sick and the hurried — this seems more than a little unfair. People parking at hospitals are either ill themselves, or accompanying a visiting someone who is poorly. People with appointments might be rushing.

For a variety of causes, people are going to be stressed and entering their correct registration may not be as easy for them as, say, doing so during a leisurely shopping trip.

It’s because of these factors that the NHS has guidelines as to what hospitals should do when imposing charges, guidelines East Cheshire NHS Trust appears to have ignored.

The NHS recommends that trusts should consider installing pay on exit or similar schemes so that drivers pay only for the time they have used.

Macclesfield’s is pay on arrival, even though pay on exit is presumably easier for patients, who will be less rushed.

Macclesfield allows up to 20 minutes for drop-offs and pick-ups, but the NHS guidelines say additional charges should only be imposed “where reasonable” and should be waived when overstaying is beyond the driver’s control, for example when treatment takes longer than planned.

Moreover the NHS guidelines firmly state: “Contracts should not be let on any basis that incentivises additional charges, eg ‘income from parking charge notices only’.”

A number of readers have complained that this is what is happening at Macclesfield.

As we understand it, ParkingEye paid for the equipment and the trust gets the revenue from the parking charges — ParkingEye’s wedge is the money raised from the fines.

We’ve asked the hospital to comment on why it ignored NHS guidelines but, as this column was being written, it had not replied. We’d guess it would say the NHS advice is that – advice only. It says you can pay for parking at any point before leaving, though this is not the same as pay on exit.

In an era when everything needs to be “monetised” it seems sad that the time of the sick and their families has a value to the NHS.

***

Talking of ignoring guidelines, Congleton Town Council has apologised for ignoring its own financial guidelines but, as was seen last week, individual councillors have apparently failed to comply with the rules governing their actions.

Council critic Graham Goodwin is now digging into the events surrounding the Grove Inn/Lower Heath Stores and Coun Larry Barker.

Coun Barker was a director of Yu Properties, Yu Trading, Yu Developments (involved in the Grove planning application) and Lower Heath Stores at the same time as he was chairman of the town council Planning Committee.

He did not declare that he held directorships of these companies, though he resigned his directorships of the Yu companies in May of this year.

At the full council meeting last week, Mr Goodwin was told that such declarations were mandatory.

Just to make it clear: Coun Barker did not chair nor was he present at any of the planning meetings when Lower Heath matters were on council agendas, as the Mayor explained to last week’s full council.

But, given the mess it made of buying the DDU, Congleton Town Council needs to make sure that it and all its component people obey the rules that govern its work.

On this occasion, no-one is accusing Coun Barker of doing anything wrong, and he in effect declared an interest by absenting himself from the relevant meetings.

But the Simnet affair shows that relatively innocent mistakes can snowball and result in the loss of taxpayers’ money.

Coun Barker’s case is a warning shot to councillors on a personal level — under a different series of events, the omission of the directorships could have been viewed in a different light.

Criminal courts charge – a hidden tax on the poor or just criminals getting what they deserve?

If you read the court reports we carry, you will have noticed an extra payment that convicted people — or criminals, as they are known — have to pay.

Introduced earlier this year, the new criminal courts charge means that people convicted of offences will have to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case. The fees are not means-tested and start at £150, which is what most people will pay.

The fees are paid on top of fines, compensation orders (and legal charges) and are not linked to the sentence given, with a minimum charge for magistrates’ courts and the maximum level for crown court cases.

Skipping at random through a court list I found criminal courts charges of £180 (carrying a screwdriver as a weapon) and £150 apiece for driving while disqualified, drink driving and criminal damage.

Criminals already pay the victim surcharge — a penalty not paid directly to victims but distributed through the Victim and Witness General Fund — and now they have to pay towards the court costs.

I realise that criminals aren’t going to attract much sympathy — but that’s my point. It seems to be a fairly hefty tax rolled out with little public opposition, imposed on a class of people who can’t afford it.

Now I know all the arguments. I’ve sat through enough court cases to know that most people who go court are guilty, and are in court because they’ve broken the law.

All their excuses can be countered — there’s plenty of poor people who don’t steal, and plenty of people who struggle with life and don’t take drugs.

No-one makes you drink and thump your wife or get behind the wheel and drive. There’s the old saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time, and (bad language ahead) many people who commit crime are simply just little shits.

But even if someone uses poverty as an excuse to steal, they’re still poor and whacking an extra £150 debt on them is not going to make them either better off or less likely to offend.

The Government itself says that it’s on the side of people “who work hard and want to get on” and that those who commit crime must pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.

The trouble is, however high the moral ground as regards criminals, that seems to be the view of someone who’s never been poor, and, moreover, the point of view of a politician who’ found a backdoor tax that no “hard working families” are going to oppose.

The figures floating about also suggest that making a guilty plea will save a defendant money, which can’t be a good thing.

Thanks to plea-bargaining in the States, the outcome of court cases is largely out of the hands of judges and instead rests with prosecutors. They use the threat of long sentences to cut deals — even an innocent man might decide it’s better to cop a short sentence with a guilty plea than risk a long stretch by pleading not guilty.

We don’t want the same over here, where fear of costs pushes people to a guilty plea.

For summary (magistrates only) offences, the charge for a guilty plea is £150. For a not guilty plea and subsequent conviction, this rises to £520.

The charge for pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court to a triable either way offence — one than can go to trial at either the magistrates or Crown court — is £180, but the charge for conviction after a not guilty plea at a magistrates’ court is £1,000. That’s an £820 difference — would a poor person with a minor record decide to plead guilty to avoid the risk of a hefty charge?

Pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court is cheaper both for summary offences (£150 v £520) and in indictable ones (£820 cheaper).

There’s actually little difference between a guilty plea and a trial in the Crown court £900 v £1,200, though the former figure will prevent people pleading not guilty at magistrates and then guilty at Crown, which is actually a good thing.

Maybe I’m being too cautious but I don’t like the idea of a hefty backdoor tax imposed on people most of us don’t care for, or for making poor people pay it, though I should stress that if they go straight after being fined, the court can quash the criminal courts charge.

The idea of a financial inducement to plead guilty also seems wrong. True, most of those who go to court are found guilty but even a fair amount of people taking a conviction because they don’t want to risk being hit in the pocket does not seem conducive to justice.

Time to draw a line under DDU shambles

So we’ve finally got the result of the investigation into why Congleton Town Council wasted £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on a fancy display board that never materialised.

And make no mistake: whatever else went wrong, the town council gets top marks for transparency.

Unlike Cheshire East Council, which hid the report into the Lyme Green fiasco — and continues to hide it — the town council handed a printout of the report to a Chronicle reporter and then emailed us a copy so we could reproduce more of it.

They might be slow at owning up to the mistakes but they were open when it came to releasing the report, unflattering as it is. Bravo.

And further in the council’s defence — town councillors are unpaid. They’re basically enthusiastic volunteers who give up their time for nothing for the good of the town. It’s admirable.

Sadly on this occasion, it all went a bit wrong. As the report showed, the town council failed to follow its own guidelines when ordering the digital display unit (DDU) from SimNet and, to be honest, drifted along in a bit of a dream.

We’ve had some waffly explanations over the affair but Southampton-based BDO has produced a succinct summary, which is that whether or not the DDU cost more or less than £25,000 — accounts vary — the council failed to get three quotes, as required by its financial guidelines.

It also failed to get an expert on board, despite not knowing much about DDUs, and ignored its own credit search on DDU supplier SimNet, giving it four times the amount of credit that on-line company credit checks recommended.

Again, in the council’s defence, things are changing in local government.

The Government is making cuts and expects Cheshire East Council to make cuts itself. Cheshire East in turn is hiving off services as fast as it can, including dumping — sorry, “devolving” — work onto town councils. Congleton Town Council today has a lot more work than Congleton Town Council of even a few years ago.

It’s perhaps a combination of this extra work and the volunteer status of councillors that allowed the DDU to drift along — drift being a good word, as the £20,0000 disappeared with the same effectiveness as the Mary Celeste.

There are lessons to be learned for all our local councils, who are getting more responsibility across the board.

You must have a good set of rules and regulations and you must adhere to them.

You have to make sure that everything is minuted, and that somebody reports back to the council on any more costly projects on a regular basis.  As town councils do more, it stands to reason they’re going to have to take on bigger projects.
It also seems to us that the DDU affair fires a warning at local councils where one party has dominant control.

We’ve said before that party politics should play no part in local government, and this episode may well prove this.

The DDU was simply not discussed enough, and one could argue that this was because one party was in power and knew that its decisions would go through on the nod anyway.

Vagueness abounded in the DDU story: the initial meeting with SimNet was not minuted; a resolution was passed to buy the unit at “£15,000+”, with no company name and no guidance for the town clerk; the price went up from “£15,000+” to £60,000 (including VAT and monthly costs) but was not referred back to the council; the specs were drawn up but no name appears on them, and this spec was not reviewed or adopted for some time, and a credit check was carried out but ignored.

Again: we only know all this because the council has released the document, so good for it.

Now a line should be drawn under this. It is annoying, both as a taxpayer and as a local business — for £20,000 up front we could have given the council a full page in the Chronicle once a month for two years if we stuck to rate card, probably four or five years if they’d negotiated nicely — but we have to move on.

Hopefully, no matter what their public utterances — that nothing illegal was done, even though nothing illegal was ever suggested — those involved feel a bit daft and a little ashamed.

We all make mistakes. The Chronicle has made some that still leave us embarrassed a decade on. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Hopefully Congleton Town Council will be allowed to move on, and all other local councils will be grateful for the lesson learned.

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