Time for Constitutional Reform

May 23, 2009

The recent expose of MPs expenses has brought out into the open the disdain and lack of respect that most people in the UK today have for elected politicians.  I believe that this has always been the case to some extent, but since the days of Margaret Thatcher and accelerated under Tony Blair we have now moved to the point that that lack of respect is justified. Parliament plays no effective role in scrutinising or introducing legislation.  Individual MPs and select committees are the stooges of the party whips, and the government can effectively exercise untrammelled power free from scrutiny by parliament. Only the judiciary occasionally raises its head against the government.

We used to have an unwritten constitutional settlement (well we still do).  The executive and judiciary were all bound in with the legislature-the executive with the house of commons and the judiciary with the house of lords.  Although not an ideal arrangement constitutionally, it used to work effectively because of the respect that members of each of the three elements had  for each other and for the freedoms whiuch were preserved by the complex interactions such a constitutional arrangement engendered.

No More. Successive prime ministers have emasculated the house of commons, taken over the house of lords and filled it with stooges, and shown scant regard for the judiciary.  This current crisis of confidence is in fact the greatest opportunity to correct all this.  What we need is now:

1) A wholly elected house of Lords.   I would favour election by FPTP of 100-200 members geographically based around English local authority or county boundaries. This would be the “English Parliament”.  Devolved matters would be referred to the local parliaments or assemblies of Scotland,Wales and Northern Ireland, and matters affecting only England would have to pass this house

2) The house of Commons reduced to between 400 and 500 members.To be elected by PR with STV system

3) The Prime minister to be directly elected and to serve a maximum of 2 parliaments

4) Government ministers not to sit in the commons.  If an MP is appointed to the government there should be a bye-election

5) The houses of parliament, not the government to control the business of the commons-both the timetable and the composition of  select committees

6) Fixed term4 year parliaments

I believe this would give power back to parliament, solve the West Lothian question, Reduce the size of our government by 50% and restore self-respect and, eventually, public faith in MPs. 

Only one person has the power tomake this reality.David Cameron.  I hope he has the courage to do so


Leaders-born or made?

May 9, 2008

I have spent the last couple of days attending a course on leadership.  I have to admit to having been rather sceptical that one could teach leadership.  Indeed one of the exercises we did was to think of people we considered great leaders.  Some of the responses were typical, some less so:  Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Don Bradman, Mike Brearley, Margaret Thatcher, were a few of the names we came up with.  It struck me that the one characteristic they shared was that they hadn’t ever attended a leadership course!

On the other hand I was made to think about the nuts and bolts of leadership.  I think it will help me to make the most of my (limited) gifts, and it may make me a more effective leader.  I wonder whether it will make me a “better” one.  My instinct is still that some people have it and some don’t.  The difficulty is in knowing which side of the line you are


Has Murdoch Ditched Gordon?

April 27, 2008

I have been struck over the last week or two by the number of headlines in the Sun and the Times carrying pro-Tory messages.  In particular, the Murdoch press has come out strongly in favour of Boris for the Mayoral race.  More than all the disasters for Labour over the last 6 months, I think this may be a real turning point.  There are two explanations:

1) The News International press tries to reflect the feeling of the country as a whole to attract a larger readership


2) The Dirty Digger thinks that Gordon is a Loser and is not going to back him.

Murdoch has acute political judgment.  Neither explanation bodes well for Gordon Brown


A good doctor?

April 24, 2008

back after a long layoff:  I have decided that if I post only infrequently then I won’t get too many readers so I can be more than usually self-indulgent

For some reason I went through a period of what we used to call at medical school an ILA or “involuntary life assessment” today.  As part of this I was asking myself if I am a good doctor.  Certainly by most objective criteria (patient and colleague feedback, publications, grants etc) I do well.

On the other hand I know that I am a much better doctor at the beginning of someone’s cancer journey than I am at the end of life.  I am not alone in this, certainly.  But I and many other cancer specialists I suspect struggle with the transition from giving hope when there was little (at which I am good!), and knowing how or whether to maintain hope when there is none.  All of my patients have thought about dying, each in their own way, and many of them are happy to talk about it.  Some are not.  very few will introduce the subject. How does one know?  In reality there are a myriad of verbal and non-verbal cues.  What should I say?  Honesty of course-they deserve that.  But do people want or need to be told the bare facts-“You will die within the next few days,weeks,hours”.  At such a time what people need is a friend, not a doctor.

A famous professor at the Royal Marsden said to me words to the effect that an oncologist should be a guide on the journey, a strong ally in the fight and a friend in death.  I fear I am a very good guide, an excellent ally but perhaps a poor friend.

No amount of communication skills courses can give me that.  I hope experience will


Asleep but not dead…

June 13, 2007

In the meantime, who do you think will be the new health secretary?

Click here to take the survey now.


A dangerous trick of the mind…

May 22, 2007


The Medical Protection Society Casebook publication has a fascinating article today on Involuntary Automaticity (IA). This is what happens when the involuntary side of the brain takes over something that you do in the same way repeatedly, like driving. It may also account for why some medical errors are made, when we have fixed protocols for everything and IA takes over from the conscious checking mechanism. It’s also more likely to happen (to both parties) when 2 people are following a protocol which requires them both to check it, as they both involuntarily assume that the other person has done whatever it is they are supposed to check. So in a rather bizarre twist it means that changing a medical protocol from something which an individual has to make a conscious effort to think about and do into one which has pathways and guidelines which tell us what to do, with built in checks, may actually lead to more errors being made. This, rather worryingly is what pilots do on landing and take off.

It is also a particular issue in oncology where the driver is for ever more tightly controlled policies and guidelines, and is thought to have been a factor in the recent tragic case in Glasgow of a 16 year old girl who received a huge overdose of radiotherapy for a brain tumour last year. I can certainly think of occasions when I could have sworn I had checked something, but when I have double checked it it is clear that I can not have done.

Maybe it’s time to get rid of all the protocols and guidelines and go back to properly trained doctors taking responsibility for what they do, rather than expecting half-trained sub-consultants to get by through rigid adherence to defined procedures…


By a bizarre twist of fate at our clinical governance meeting we have just discussed a case where radiotherapy was given to the wrong area because a single mistake was made in annotation at the beginning of a patients journey.Despite (or because of) rigid adherence to protocol and an inbuilt check system, the mistake was not detected and ultimately led to this error, which thankfully should have no long-term sequelae. In retrospect this is quite a clear case of IA.  I was able to sound surprisingly knowledgeable about systems theory.  The Casebook article suggests the following remedies for IA:

  • Teaching doctors about systems theory
  • Adapting protocols to generate tactile and oral responses
  • Creating effective relationships between managers and clinicians
  • Using independent checkers
  • Developing different checklists to keep clinicians alert
  • Involving patients in their consultations more effectively
  • Minimising stress levels
  • Reducing distractions
  • Although I believe there is no substitute for good training and individual (rather than collective) responsibility, I think most of these sound very sensible, and especially the last three.  The patient in question knew the correct information which would have prevented him from getting the wrong treatment.  If only he had been asked…


    Brainless Myopic Anencephalic

    May 18, 2007

    What is the BMA for?

    I am a member of the BMA. It costs me nearly £400 per annum. I like the magazine, and I like to know what jobs are being advertised. Those are about the only benefits it brings me.

    The thing is that as I’ve already said, I don’t believe that consultants should need a trade union. We are professionals and experienced and can speak up and negotiate for ourselves. There are doctors who may benefit from a trade union, as they can be more easily exploited by the system. They are called junior doctors and they have just been completely shafted by the new MTAS system introduced by my favourite health secretary. What does the BMA do? nothing. In fact James Johnson wrote THIS letter to the Times today supporting the process.

    Now if I was the head of a trade union in which half my members were effectively threatened with random dismissal by a computer system which hadn’t even been through Beta testing, I think on the whole I would side with my members, and try to find a workable solution. JJ doesn’t see it that way and is presumably toeing the government line in the hope of being Sir James at some time in the future.

    Spineless, useless, worthless

    So back to my original question-what is the BMA for, and whose interests does it serve?


    Bread for the masses

    May 18, 2007


    I am all for freedom of choice, but for the life of me I can’t see what’s wrong with THIS


    Dogma dogma

    May 16, 2007

    Grammar schools are an odd thing to get hung up on.

    What we should be getting hung up on is these three facts

    1) There is less social mobility in this country now than there was 50 years ago, and less in Britain than in almost every developed nation It has even got worse (amazingly) despite 10 years of a Labour government

    2) 50% of children leave primary school unable to perform at a basic level in reading, writing and arithmetic.. This may not be surprising as many primary school teachers are now unable to pass basic literacy and numeracy tests

    3) Our universities are unable to differentiate between the bright and the average student when selecting because of the ridiculous number of people achieving straight ‘A’ grades

    My position is very clear, Academic selection and streaming are essential if we are to allow the brightest children in our schools to flourish. They are the future leaders of our country, our innovators, our scientists, our financiers, our doctors, our business champions, our civil servants. We NEED them to achieve their potential if we are to do so as a country. I do not think selective entry to school is necessary if schools have sufficient numbers of pupils and resources to provide a truly intellectually stimulating environment for the brightest children. If we are unable to provide that environment then we need selective schools.

    The corollary to that is that most of our children are not the brightest, and they need to be given the opportunity to thrive as well. This is where the Grammar school system let us down, or rather the secondary moderns did. Secondary schools should all be able to educate children to a university standard (whatever that is these days). If there is a selective school in the area then it needs to work in partnership with the local non-selected school to identify late developers and include them.

    I do not believe that binary selection at 11 is an appropriate way to sift our children, and late developers have to be given the same educational opportunities as precocious children (see above).

    But my major problem with education in this country is that too many state schools are simply too unambitious for their children. No matter how well they are educated, they are not given the ambition to succeed, the belief that they can be captains of industry or prime minister. The best they can hope for is to be a ‘B’-list celebrity. That is what is missing. That is what I hope City Technology Colleges and other secondary schools in the future will provide. But we have to prioritise the brightest children


    Into the ears of babes and sucklings…

    May 15, 2007


    I went to a football match on Sunday. I took my 7 year old son. I haven’t been to a live footie match for several years-in fact since I became a father. There was a moving moment of solidarity with the McCann family. After that, the singing started. Here’s a sample of what the Chelsea fans were singing to their Everton visitors.  (Those of a tender disposition do not read on)

    In your Liverpool slums
    In your Liverpool slums
    You look in the dustbin for something to eat
    You find a dead rat and you think it’s a treat
    In your Liverpool slums

    In your Liverpool slums
    In your Liverpool slums
    You s**t on the carpet, you p**s in the bath
    You finger your grandma, and think it’s a laugh
    In your Liverpool slums

    It goes on and it doesn’t get any better. Now I know that I wasn’t in the family enclosure, although I was surrounded by children. I know that football is an emotive part of may peoples lives. I think I have a sense of humour which is not especially delicate, and I have a more or less complete mastery of Anglo-Saxon vernacular, which I use regularly. But I don’t want my children or anyone else’s growing up learning to hurl ritual abuse at people. I don’t like them thinking it’s normal to be so tribal. I want them to be able to think as individuals, not as part of a baying mob. I also don’t see how it is very different from racist abuse. Not of course that I particularly like Liverpool myself!

    Maybe that’s my prudish middle class background. I certainly don’t remember having the same objections 20 years ago. But I’m not sure I will take my son back to Stamford Bridge, at least not for another 5-10 years

    Which is a shame because he absolutely loves football