Tuesday 25 August 2009

You have been watching....

Should Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, switch off his television and go and do something more useful instead? Like actually spending time with people in Moss Side, where gang-related shootings are down 82% and the local academy has been rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted?

“We have a growing 'Jeremy Kyle' generation of young men, alienated and drifting without a purpose in life.”
Chris Grayling, The Guardian, 11 February 2008

“But I think many parts of our society no longer know how to bring up children. We live in a country where in many places Frank Gallagher style parenting has become the norm and not the exception. Frank’s kids might have turned out alright but that was more luck than good judgement – and no thanks to him.”
Chris Grayling speech, 14 May 2008

“The Wire used to be just a work of fiction for British viewers. But under this Government, in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too.”
Chris Grayling, The Times, 25 August 2009

How do we get people to participate when they don't want to?

Some of you may have heard me on Beyond Westminster at the weekend, talking about how we can encourage greater public participation in decision-making, whether it be through primaries, deliberative democracy, citizens' juries, referenda, etc.. I may have come across as a bit sceptical about some of these ideas, as in 'fine in theory but how do we make them work in practice?'
I've just been to an meeting this evening which illustrated this perfectly. (And yes, I am now back in the office, but not for much longer - if only because there's a band tuning up in the Labour Club below, sending rumbling vibrations through my office floor, and I suspect I'm not going to like what I hear!)

It was a PACT (Police and Communities Together) meeting, held in the ultra-modern surroundings of the Bristol Brunel Academy (Really looking forward to good GCSE results from them this week. And incidentally, worth checking out the fitness centre that has now opened there; good to see it being well-used by the local community.)

I wouldn't usually be able to attend because I'd be in Westminster, so I've made a point this summer of pencilling some into my diary. This was my first one, for residents of the St. George and Speedwell areas.
There were two police officers present and two PCSOs. There was me. And there were seven local people, representing five households. Two of them didn't actually live in Bristol but over the border in South Gloucs; they'd come to the meeting because their son had been the victim of an attempted mugging in St George's Park.

We spent a useful enough 45 minutes discussing anti-social behaviour, policing the park, the lack of local youth facilities and a few other issues, but it was hugely disappointing that out a possible catchment area of maybe 10,000 households, the turn-out was so low. I thought perhaps it was because it's August, but then the police officer leading the event said that turnout was almost double what it had been at the previous such meeting, some 10 weeks earlier.

The lack of participation could be down to a number of factors. Maybe people are too busy these days. Maybe they're happy with things the way they are. Maybe they're disillusioned and think nothing would come of it. Maybe they didn't know it was happening... But it illustrates how difficult it is to get such things off the ground. How do we ensure participation is high enough to be meaningful, and the participants generally reflective of the community in question? Would the time of those four police officers perhaps have been better spent out walking the beat, talking to people on the way? Would my time have been better spent doing the same? (I cancelled a canvassing session to be there). Of course you have to start somewhere, but I've seen this happen time and time again. It's only when there's a hugely controversial local issue that people turn out in their droves.

I'm not saying we shouldn't attempt such forms of public engagement, but we have to be careful they aren't seen as a panacea to all problems, or used as a substitute for real action. One of the bugbears of my time as a councillor was how often the need to consult was used by council officers as an excuse not to take difficult decisions, or kicking into the long grass things they didn't want to happen. Yes, people should be consulted on issues which concern them. Of course they should. But we have to make sure it's a genuine consultation, which asks pertinent questions and engages with more than an unrepresentative but vocal minority - and that's sometimes very difficult to achieve, particularly at a very local level.

Anyway, my worst fears were confirmed... the band had been sound-checking with a Bryan Adams song, followed by 'Cum on Feel the Noize' and now 'Alright Now'. I am finding it very difficult to write. Time to go! For perhaps a slightly more coherent account of this, here's the Beyond Westminster clip.

Friday 21 August 2009

An update on the bus story

In today's BEP.The number of comments show the strength of feeling on this. And contrary to what one person says, it's not Labour's fault that Bristol doesn't have an Integrated Transport Authority. We want one, and the recent Local Transport Act made it easier for us to get one - it's the Tories and Lib Dems in surrounding areas who have blocked it.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Oyster card for Bristol a step closer?

See this report in the Telegraph about the Government's efforts to introduce smart ticketing, which is something Labour in Bristol has been campaigning on for some time with its 'brunelcard' campaign. I know First Bus are keen on this (although of course they don't want to have to pay for the new technology that would be required). It could significantly cut journey times and increase reliability, because you wouldn't get hold-ups waiting for people to board the bus.

Also in the news today, the OFT's report that lack of competition in the bus market has led to high fares, which has resulted in a referral to the Competition Commission. I gave an interview to the BEP today about it, which I suppose will be in tomorrow's paper. I don't see how it would be possible to reintroduce competition into the local bus market. You can't force private sector companies to come and try to compete, and there's a tidy carve-up of the main markets between the major bus companies at the moment. Here's a quote from John Major, of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents the bus industry which, to be frank, is patent nonsense*:

"Bus companies operate in highly competitive local markets and it is always in our interests to keep prices competitive to attract passengers out of their cars and onto our services... There is a great deal of competition between bus operators, large and small, although the biggest competitor for the bus industry is the car."

I'm not sure what could be done to persuade Arriva or National Express to start competing with First on key routes in Bristol (and it would only be the key, money-making routes) and even if they did, they'd probably just emulate what happened when deregulation first happened, i.e. use their reserves to run services at very competitive prices and then as soon as they've got rid of their competitors, whack the fares up. So you're left with outlawing some of the predatory practices mentioned in the OFT report (but that still leaves you relying on other companies being willing to compete). Or you regulate the current providers either by specifying maximum fares (as happens with the trains, on some tickets) or going down the Quality Contract route, which I've talked about many a time on here before.

The original Tory vision of a marketplace where passengers could pick and choose which bus they wanted to travel on, looking at fares and reliability and timings, is just not going to happen. It was a flawed vision in the first place, based on a dogmatic belief that market forces were the solution to everything and a hatred of anything that was municipally-owned or run.

*Nonsense except for the bit about the car. Cabot Circus are currently offering parking at £1 an hour for a maximum of seven hours. Not much on an incentive to get the bus if you're popping into town to see a film or do some shopping.

Japan bans Twitter during election campaign

For those of you who take a close interest in such things, here's how they're conducting elections in Japan, by cartoon. Perhaps I should be talking to some of Bristol's animators? (UWE runs one of the best, if not the best, animation courses in the country).

However, doesn't look like any of their parties will be appointing a Twitter tsar in the near future:

“But some modern electioneering tools are restricted. During the 12-day official campaign period, use of the internet - blogs, e-mail, websites, Twitter - is banned, preventing lawmakers from adopting the kind of youth-oriented campaigning that swept Barack Obama to power.”

Visit to the credit union

Had a very interesting chat with James Berry, the Chief Exec of Bristol Credit Union today, on a visit to their new(ish) offices in Stokes Croft, which are a huge improvement on their old premises in Old Market. James told me I'd come at a quiet moment, but customers were still queueing out the door. The CU has gone from strength to strength since most of the local credit unions merged into one. They've increased their customer base from c.2000 to c4500, and their assets from c£450,000 to c£2 million. They've now got a current account cash card, which James proudly told me he'd used recently in Egypt and Washington DC, and are doing a sterling job administering loans from the DWP's Growth Fund and the Child Trust Fund. They're also planning to widen their coverage soon to all of CUBA (the Counties that Used to Be Avon as we say here), and are in talks with housing associations about whether they can provide mortgages to people on relatively low incomes on part buy/ part-rent schemes. (In fact they've got a conference coming up on September 16th on housing-related issues, and I've agreed to be a guest speaker). All good stuff - and nice to know my (modest!) savings are in safe hands.

Actually, I should also flag up where the Government is with its review of credit union legislation - see here for more info. All good stuff, as I've already said!

The Twitter police

Someone has drawn my attention to this news-story.

'Police alerts during this year's Labour Party conference in Brighton and Hove will be put on the "micro-blogging" website Twitter. Newsflashes will be "tweeted" by Sussex Police as it prepares its largest policing operation for the conference from September 27 to October 1. Police in John Street station have planned Operation Otter for months.'

It's also been reported that the police will be using Twitter during the anticipated climate camp protests later this month. I really don't quite see how this will work. And if anyone can come up with a Twitter-related pun, (e.g. if this was in the States we could say the Tweets of San Francisco) I'd be very grateful. At the moment all I can come up with is 'putting bobbies back on the Tweet'. I'll get my coat...

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Because he's worth it...

Sir Patrick Cormack, Tory grandee par excellence, has ruffled more than a few feathers with his calls for MPs pay to be doubled - it's splashed all over the front page of tomorrow's Express. So thought I would take this opportunity to share with you one of Sir Patrick's occasional 'Commons Diary' features for the House magazine, so you can decide for yourself whether he's worth £120,000 a year.

Me talking about things

Did a podcast for the Guardian yesterday which of course appears under the nomicker 'Twitter Tsar'... Strange choice of headline - "David Cameron is more of a showman" - don't think it was particularly central to what I was saying, though it's true.

Also recorded a piece today for the Beyond Westminster programme on Radio 4, which goes out on Saturday morning (eleven o'clock? something like that). For once it wasn't about Twitter, or not as such. It was a three way debate with Tory MP Douglas (friend of Dan) Carswell and Austin Ivereigh, from London Citizens on representative democracy. Rather than try to relay all we discussed, I'll link to it when it's online. Or you can just be very old-skool and switch on your radio on Saturday.

Just a little of what I've been up to...

One of the good things about recess is that it gives MPs a chance to catch up with people from some of the key local institutions/ stakeholders. (The best thing about recess is not having to flit from one city to another every three or four days; in fact I gave up my London flat at the start of recess and won't start looking for another until the new parliamentary session is upon us in October).

So this week for example I've met with the Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive of Bristol City Council, along with my fellow Bristol MPs Doug Naysmith and Dawn Primarolo, for a very useful chat about how we can work together in future to get the best deal for Bristol, for example in accessing new funding streams. We also talked buses! (You can't have a meeting with the Council without talking buses - the Chief Exec told us she'd met with Sir Moir Lockhead from First Group and Justin Davies of First Bus in Bristol recently, but the thrust of that conversation seemed to be that First Bus is a ringfenced operation and can't be subsidised by First Group's profits - and fares aren't going anywhere but up. But the fight goes on).

And today I had a really interesting meeting with the Vice Chancellor of UWE. Nothing to blog about, but a really useful overview of how the university's funding stacks up (e.g. the NHS is a big funder because UWE runs nursing courses), and how they make decisions on student numbers and which courses to offer (e.g. whether every uni should attempt to offer courses across the board, or accept that it's not worth running under-subscribed courses and stick to their areas of strength). UWE is big on the STEM subjects, teacher training, nursing (etc) and creative/media courses, so we had an interesting chat about the value of vocational courses. And UWE doesn't differentiate between so-called 'hard' and 'soft' A level subjects. After all, if you're doing a media studies degree, an A Level in Media Studies is a hell of a lot more useful than Classics. We also talked about student finance, of course, and the availability of bursaries. And we also talked buses! The Uni puts on its own free bus service for students, (free at point of use but paid for as part of the initial package) to ferry them between campuses and from the city centre - and this is because First Bus is basically too unreliable. Under the terms of their licence the buses have to be available to everyone, not just students.

Tomorrow I'm catching up with the head of the Bristol Credit Union for an update on all that's happening there.

Squash - some pictures

In the ongoing saga of the sad fate of Wilbur the cat who fell into the clutches of a neighbouring python, here are the first pictures of Squash. Interesting bunch of people who comment on the BEP website....

Tuesday 18 August 2009

How I became a vegetarian

It was 28 years ago today, on 18th August 1981 that I became a vegetarian. I'd been toying with the idea for a while, and was starting to think I wanted to do it. I was at home on the day in question eating one of those little frozen pizzas with ham, cheese and mushroom for lunch, when the phone rang. It was a friend, calling to tell me that a trip to the local swimming pool by two of our closest friends, Mark and Joe, had ended in tragedy. Joe had drowned, aged 16. We never found out how or why it had happened, but the shock of the news brought home to me the fact that meat on your plate is the dead flesh of what used to be a living thing. It's not why I became a vegetarian, but it's how it happened.

In which I realise I'm stuck with Twitter tsar...

As people might imagine the past 24 hours or so have been pretty hectic, with lots of media and trying to keep up with people contacting me on Twitter about the new role. I have two problems doing the broadcast media - one is trying to remember my official job title - it's New Media Campaigns Spokesperson - and the second is trying desperately hard not to convert every word beginning with t into a tw. Very nearly said 'twelevision' on Radio Humberside earlier. Before we know everyone will be at it, and in years to come students of ancient English as she was spoke will spend many a twutorial discussing how the t- fell into disuse in all but the most neanderthal, Twitter-resistant parts of the country, like Witney. (Which I very nearly just called Twitney).

Anyway, because I've been speaking about it all day, in between doing the day job, I really don't have the energy to blog about it too. If you're interested have a read of the original LabourList 'launch' interview, and this, for a local news website, Bristol 24/7. And there's also this interview from a few weeks ago.

Mums against the Mail!

Have a read of this: http://enemiesofreason.blogspot.com/2009/08/mumsnet-and-mail.html

Monday 17 August 2009

And I mean this most sincerely folks... #welovethenhs

I've been enjoying the sun and touring my beautiful constituency of Witney today. But it goes without saying that just because I and most other politicians are not in Westminster at the moment, politics isn't somehow put on hold.

People still care about the issues they care about, and thanks to the internet they can voice their concerns whenever they want. Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder - if one were needed - of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS.

Millions of people are grateful for the care they have received from the NHS - including my own family. One of the wonderful things about living in this country is that the moment you're injured or fall ill - no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you've got - you know that the NHS will look after you.

That's why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice. So yes, we will spend more on the NHS, but we will also improve it so that it is more efficient and responsive to patients. People working on the frontline will actually be able get on with the job they signed up for, without getting tied up in a web of targets. And we will put more power in the hands of patients by giving them better information about the care they can expect to receive.

Underlying these reforms, and our whole approach to the NHS, will be one big ambition - that future generations will be even prouder of the NHS than we are today.
Comment on David's message on The Blue Blog

OK, I'm a bit slow with this - DC's email from last week. Not so much jumping on the #welovethenhs bandwagon as running frantically after it down the road shouting 'hey, wait for me!' as it accelerates off into the distance.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Just don't call me Twitter tsar

I suppose this is quite funny in an ironic sort of way. For reasons that I may well blog about tomorrow - or you can just read LabourList instead - I am currently the subject of many tweets on Twitter tonight. And because the folks that run Twitter limit people to 100 tweets per hour, it seems that I've exceeded my limit - I assume because people are mentioning my name, not because I'm tweeting faster than Usain Bolt. Oh.... actually, normal service has just been resumed. And the first new tweet says that my interview is up on LabourList.

Friday 14 August 2009

#welove the BBC

Well, when the alternative could be Fox News.... see here on why the NHS is a recruiting ground for terrorists.

#welovethenhs - the Daily Mash

Thought this deserved a blog mention.

#welovethenhs - Deamonte Driver's story

Since the #welovethenhs fightback started I've been meaning to dig out this horrendous story from the US a couple of years ago, about a 12 year old homeless child who died from a simple abcess on his tooth because his mother's Medicaid had run out.

I remember it particularly because around the same time a well-known Labour councillor in the South West had a son who ended up fighting for his life in similar circumstances; I can't remember the details but I think it was an abcess where the infection had spread, maybe to his brain? He was saved by the NHS.

Thursday 13 August 2009

A Transport Minister tweets

Got this message on Twitter tonight, from Paul Clark MP, who's a Minister in the Department of Transport.... @KerryMP talk to us at DFT about train fares and we will be happy to listen.
I'm going to drop him a line tomorrow.

And now the train fares are going up too...

Just had this press release in from Passenger Focus.

Many face 20% Off-Peak fare rises on First Great Western

First Great Western (FGW) is set to introduce new restrictions on its cheapest Off-Peak tickets which will mean many passengers travelling into London in the morning and out of London in the afternoon will see their fares rise by 20%.

On Sunday 6 September, FGW will replace its Off-Peak ticket with a new Super Off-Peak fare at the same price but with much tighter time restrictions. A 20% more expensive Off-Peak fare will be introduced to cover times excluded by the new Super Off-Peak rules. Off-Peak single journeys and a small number of peak journeys will become cheaper but car-parking charges will go up by 25% and Advance tickets bought at the ticket office will go up by 11%.

Ashwin Kumar, Passenger Focus director, said: “This adds even more complexity to an already complicated system. Passengers who have to travel at these times will find it hard to believe they are being asked to pay such increases when inflation is so low. This comes on top of First Great Western increasing their car-parking charges by 25%.

“The reduction in Off-Peak single fares at least allows passengers to mix and match different ticket types in one return journey. But passengers shouldn’t have to wade through a forest of complexity to get the best deal. Families with children wanting a day out in London will be particularly hard hit as the new Super Off-Peak ticket doesn’t allow a return from London between 3 and 7pm.

“These changes expose the fact that the Off-Peak fare regulation introduced at the time of privatisation does nothing to stop train companies progressively reducing the times at which we can use these tickets.”

These changes have come to light just before the 18 August announcement on inflation which will determine next year’s increases in regulated fares. Many believe the Retail Prices Index will be negative forcing train operators to lower their prices next year.


Passengers travelling from Penzance to London can currently use the 5.41am train arriving at 11.23am at a cost of £83. To make the same journey in September, it will cost £100 and the earliest Super Off-Peak fare will not arrive in London until 15.23 some four hours later.

Passengers travelling from Swansea to London can currently use the 07.59am train arriving at 11.02am at a return cost of £66. To make the same journey in September, it will cost £80 and the earliest Super Off-Peak fare will not arrive in London until midday, 58 minutes later.

Passengers travelling from Bristol Temple Meads to London can currently use the 9.00am train arriving at 10.39am at a return cost of £49. To make the same journey in September will cost £59 and the earliest Super Off-Peak fare will not arrive in London until 11.40am some 61 minutes later.

Passengers travelling from Pewsey to London can currently use the 8.09am train arriving at 9.21am at a return cost of £31. To make the same journey in September will cost £37 and the earliest Super Off-Peak fare will not arrive in London until 14.44pm some five hours later.

#welovethenhs - continued

I'm loving this - a real grassroots swell of support for the NHS. The support from Sarah and Gordon is particularly poignant, knowing what we know of their personal family experience of the NHS. For those of you who don't use Twitter, check it out - just go onto www.twitter.com and search against #welovethenhs. Someone should make a book out of this, or put a twitter feed on the Department of Health website.

The Change We See

Following on from the previous post, I was talking to someone earlier today about how Labour doesn't get the credit it should for its use of new media.

OK, the right-wing have a high profile presence in the blogosphere, with Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes and Conservative Home, which are all basically online diary columns. Labour has better MP bloggers, 'though I say it myself. And Labour is way ahead of the game when it comes to campaigning, with its use of things like the Virtual Phonebank, Google maps, LabourSpace, sites like Go Fourth, and MPs - even Cabinet Ministers - using Twitter actually to engage with people, not just to transmit information.

And before anyone else says it, yes, I recognise where they're at because that's where New Labour was once at, in the Millbank days; but there was a buzz, an excitement, a genuine passion and shared sense of purpose that bound people together then, not just a centralised dictat. (Although there was a bit of that too!) We were on a mission. I don't have any sense of that from the Conservative Party. They want to win. They badly want to win. But why? What's their vision of a Cameron-led country, other than the fact that they've got the keys to number 10 and get to sit on the Aye benches? I see the political positioning, I see the tactics, but I don't see the vision, or the passion. They are dead behind the eyes.

Anyway, that was a digression, which I may return to another day. What I wanted to just flag up was the latest online 'thing' (for want of a better word) from Labour. The Party has ventured into the world of crowd-sourcing with the launch of a new feature, The Change We See.

They're asking party members, supporters, anyone, to post pictures of how their local communities have changed for the better under a Labour Government. So in my patch that would be the City Academy, Bristol Metropolitan Academy, the Brunel Academy, the new Brislington Enterprise College, Barton Hill campus and other school buildings too numerous to list. The Charlotte Keel surgery. The Wellspring Healthy Living Centre. The new Children's Centre in Broomhill. The A420 Showcase Bus Route. The regeneration of Arnos Vale (although people might not quite get why I've posted a picture of a cemetery!)

Have a look at this for starters http://www.labour.org.uk/change-we-see. It's being launched across different platforms - ie Flickr, Facebook and Twitter - as well as allowing people to upload via the Labour Party site or email their photos in, in order to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved. Let those pictures speak for themselves!

Wednesday 12 August 2009


Much as I would love to blog about all sorts of things today, I didn't get in till 10pm and have got a busy day - in fact a very busy five or six days - ahead of me. Obviously lots of things going on, with the Alan Duncan and the Daniel Hannan/ US politicians/ Stephen Hawking NHS stuff.

I think today might be the day Twitter really proved its worth as a political communications tool, with #welovethenhs the top trending topic and people tweeting all day with positive personal experiences of using the NHS and a political defence of a national health service that is free at the point of need to all who need it. And Americans joining in too, and Professor Hawking and the Secretary of State for Health. It's the beauty of Twitter, that it's so immediate a form of communication. In the old days Andy would have had a press officer drafting a press release, running it past him, amending it, sending it out - now he just tweets!

One of the problems Labour has had over the years, which has been identified in focus groups, polling, and on the doorstep, is that people by and large have had good experiences of the NHS. But because negative issues dominate the headlines, such as MRSA or a tragic misdiagnosis, or NICE refusing to recommend a cancer drug, people don't think of their experience of the NHS as typical. They say positive things but then say, 'but I've been lucky'. So it's great to have a day when people are tweeting and retweeting their appreciation of the NHS, and recognising that it's not just them - it's all of us who are lucky to have it.

A moment on the tube

Beautiful moment on the Tube today... I was on a day trip to London for some meetings and to sort out some work in the Westminster office. Making the changeover from the Bakerloo line to the Jubilee line at Baker Street I ended up in the same carriage as none other than Sir Anthony ('people are just jealous of my house') Steen, the MP for the time being for Totnes.

The carriage is almost empty. Someone sits down opposite him, and opens up his copy of the Standard bearing the front page splash "Tory MP bleats: now we're living on rations".

Sir Anthony clocks it, does a double-take, whips out his reading glasses, and blatantly leans over to get a proper gander at the other guy's paper. If I'd been quicker off the mark, that would have been a priceless photo.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Toxic traffic

Apart from the news that Bristol is one of the laziest places in the country, and the fact we seem to be overrun with snakes at the moment, this week has also seen the appearance of Bristol East's very own Old Market in Defra's Toxic Top Ten (OK, there are fifteen of them, but doesn't quite have the same ring) because of the level of traffic fumes. I suspect a bit of a cut and paste job from the Lib Dem spokesperson - insert 'Bristol Old Market' here or fourteen other locations as appropriate - but what caught my attention was the Friends of the Earth response.

Their solution seems to be (a) street closures, (b) 20mph speed limits in the city centre and (c) the exclusion of vehicles in some areas to tackle the problem. Well OK, if you closed Old Market and the Temple Way area to traffic you would certainly solve its pollution problem. It would mean complete gridlock for the rest of the city though, especially the M32 and A4 which are quite bad enough already.

A 20mph limit wouldn't make a blind bit of difference either, the average traffic speed in Bristol city centre being around the 16mph mark anyway. (And yes, I do support a 20mph limit in residential areas, such as the Dings Home Zone, which isn't a million miles from Old Market, but let's not pretend it's going to solve the congestion and pollution problems in the city centre. I also support street closures, maybe in some places just on a weekend, but in others full-scale pedestrianisation, but that's not the answer for Old Market).

So what is the solution? Firstly, it's got to be about getting more people out of their cars and onto public transport, or indeed, cycling/ walking. We have one of the Showcase Bus Routes running along Old Market now (funded from the £43 million Government money for the Greater Bristol Bus Network, which has to be pointed out to people every now and then). But the buses are still too expensive and Dawn Primarolo and I have written again to Sir Moir Lockhead of First Group only this week, to try to get an explanation of why fares continue to rise. Secondly, it's about less polluting vehicles. And thirdly it's about sensible traffic management. For example, at the Temple Way roundabout, why have the (numerous sets of) traffic lights running all through the night when there is little or no traffic around?

A politician's word is her bond...

I told House of Twits (or House of Tw*ts as it's no doubt known by Mr Cameron) that I liked his website and would link to it on my blog. But I didn't and now his wife thinks he's a loser.

So... a big shout out (as Mr Cameron would no doubt say) for House of Twits and his wonderful website, http://www.houseoftwits.co.uk/ which is a good way of catching up with all things political in the wonderful world of Twitter.

Ironically, one of the most recents tweets to appear on there is this from Michael of the Independent, publicising a new website trying to hold MPs to account over broken promises - http://tinyurl.com/ktgj9x. Seems to be to me an open invitation to the type of constituents whose letters almost inevitably end up referencing MI5, the freemasons or some other form of international conspiracy which has prevented them getting their fence fixed for the past twenty years. But we shall see.


Points West tonight - on the Summer of Snakes in Bristol. Scroll in to about 6 mins 45 secs.

Monday 10 August 2009

Riot grrrls

There are some seriously feisty young female bloggers out there on the left of the blogosphere, and they're not afraid to pick a fight. Latest into the ring, bouncing on the steel-toe caps of her vintage size 3 DMs, is Grace from Manchester taking on Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan.

Sometimes I find Hannan totally ridiculous. Sometimes I find myself scared of his demagogic potential. No such wavering for Grace, all 5' 1.8" of her, who floors him with a swift left hook straight between the eyeballs. Have a read here.

PS As is only courteous... if you want to comment, please do it over on Grace's site. Otherwise it will just look like you're scared of her.

You can't learn English without talking to English people

I had a letter in the BEP today, in response to a Conservative Councillor's suggestion that a separate academy should be set up to teach children who don't have English as a first language, so that other children don't get held back by them.

The letter is self-explanatory but Councillor Abraham clearly has no idea how quickly young children pick up English. I had an friend at school, whose parents only spoke Italian at home. She started school not knowing more than a few words of English, but very quickly became bilingual. Ditto my nephews and nieces who lived in Spain for five years, picking up not just Spanish but Valencian too. And I've dropped in on an additional language class being held at one of the local secondary schools for pupils who have just arrived in England; I think there was one Somali pupil and the other four or five were from the EU accession countries. One little girl in particular, who'd been in the UK all of three months, was incredibly fluent in English already. OK, such pupils need a bit of extra attention and a bit of extra support, but it's not the children's lack of English we should be worrying about; it's their parents. But that's a topic for another day....

"cringe-making middle-aged cybermania"

This article by Jackie Ashley in the Guardian on the use of social networking sites is wrong on so many levels I don't quite know where to start. And I have work to do. A fuller response later, (perhaps!).

Bristolians: 'We're lazy!"

New survey out says that Bristol is one of the laziest cities in the UK. But a quick glance suggests that this is on the basis of self-certification. Can I suggest that Bristolians aren't actually any lazier than their comrades in places like Manchester, Cardiff and Newcastle; they just feel more guilty about it? Bristol is after all, the sort of place where cyclists insist that the mountains are just molehills and make us feel bad that we can't quite face the trek up to St George on a bike. (Or is that just me?)
The league table seems to be based on people who feel they don't get enough exercise, which could range from people who barely move from the sofa of an evening, to people who cycle to work every day but only make it to the gym twice a week.
Also interesting to see that in true summer survey style, 'no energy for sex' makes it into the headline but doesn't seem to be backed up anywhere in the text. I cannot of course comment on my constituents' activities in this area, although my (rather noisy) neighbours don't seem to have a problem!

How many students can you fit in a house in Clifton?

Doing emails while someone on BBC News is talking about HMOs and students, giving Bristol as an example. Debate is over whether Government should give councils powers to curb multiple occupancy. Here's more info - as I said, I'm doing emails, so mustn't allow myself to become distracted!

Update on Hands off our Heels

This puts the hysteria into context (as does John's excellent blog, which is linked to in the comments on the earlier post).

Sunday 9 August 2009

Wilbur goes national

Wilbur has gone national, with the Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday picking up on it. Glad to see that the Mail's readers at least are on Wilbur's side - take that, you cat haters! - apart from this person, who sounds like he should be one of my regulars:

"What a story, someone's poor cat gets eaten by a Python, wonderful, (well not for the cat owner) It's so nice to be able to hear of something in this country being able to do what it should do without nu labour trying to get there pound of flesh out of it first."
- John, Bedford, 8/8/09

As you can see from the JusticeforWilbur website, Wilbur's owners had been trying to get the Mail interested for a fortnight or more, to no avail. So what changed? Basically, a BEP journo saw it on my blog, called me up, I put them in touch with the family, it made the BEP's front page on Saturday, and then the nationals picked up on it. I say this not in an attempt to claim any credit, but as an example of how the mainstream media works these days. Of course, Wilbur's owners (I hesitate to use that word with cats!) could have gone to the BEP first, rather than holding out for a national - but it's all worked out well, and the petition now has more than 7000 signatories. Next stage will be to see what response I get from Alan Johnson; I wrote to him when this first came up.

I've just been looking at the comments on the BEP website, and it's interesting to see that the owner of the python - which is named Squash - has had his say. I think we need to make one thing clear - I don't see the issue as being what happened to Wilbur in Squash's own garden, or the danger of a child wandering into Squash's garden, which seems an unlikely occurence. The question is, what would have happened if Squash had escaped? We know, don't we, that snakes are 'escape artists'. I'm told the walls of the garden were low - and how high would a wall have to be to contain a 13 foot python? I don't see this campaign as being about protecting cats from unforeseen predators lurking in neighbours' gardens; I see it as being about making sure the neighbourhood is safe.

Thursday 6 August 2009

And now the brothers want to ban high heels

Given the fact that most stories which have appeared in the Daily Mail over the past week or so have been, let's say, economical with the actualité, I hesitate to take this story at face value. Union bosses seek to ban high heels at next month's TUC? "The predominantly male Trade Union Congress has proposed a motion decrying the stiletto heel as demeaning to women."

'Congress believes high heels may look glamorous on the Hollywood catwalks* but are completely inappropriate for the day-today working environment.' (*This is silly, there are no catwalks in Hollywood. They mean the red carpet.)

I don't know how Congress works but I suspect there could be many, many motions submitted at this stage, very few of which make it onto the final agenda. This could be a motion put forward by one branch meeting, attended by two men and a dog who work at a flat shoe factory somewhere in Northampton.

In the days of a resolution-based Labour Conference any local party could put forward a motion on anything, provided it made it through the CAC. (That's the Conference Arrangements Committee, conference virgins). I once had to move something at Central Region conference which referred to 'money grabbing cowboys and property sharks' and called for massive redistribution of wealth and punitive rates of taxation. It was passed unanimously. I may well have been the only person in the hall who didn't actually agree with it.

Anyway, I digress... back to the issue. Another possible interpretation is that the motion is about stopping women who don't want to being forced to wear high heels at work, which would make more sense. Some women can do heels, some can't. Dolly Parton apparently has to wear special shoes in the shower because she can no longer stand flat on her feet. (Though I may have read that in the Mail too.)

The Daily Mail has managed to track down Nadine Dorries who "said the extra height can help women in the workplace. She added: 'I'm 5ft 3in and need every inch of my Christian Louboutin heels to look my male colleagues in the eye. If high heels were banned in Westminster, no one would be able to find me.'" She does have very impressive Louboutins, five inch stiletto heels. I suspect she's wearing them just so she can tower over John Bercow and Alan Duncan, dangerous liberals that they are. Nadine then goes on to say: 'The TUC need to get real, stop using overtly sexist tactics by discussing women's stilettos to divert attention away from Labour chaos.' So it's a plot, is it?

Postcript: I've now just started reading the comments and we have Anji from Portsmouth injecting a note of common sense:

The TUC are NOT trying to 'ban high heels' or any other such rubbish. The reporting on this has been shoddy at best. They do NOT want to stop women wearing high heels if/when they want to. They DO want to stop employers making high heels *mandatory*! Therefore a woman who wants to wear high heels to work can do so. However, a woman who does not want to wear high heels, can go to work in flat shoes without worrying about her employer telling her off for 'breaching dress code' or 'looking unprofessional'. I suggest the people who are getting all up in arms about this, take a close look at the actual motion proposed by the TUC rather than relying on shoddy reporters' misinterpretations of it.

So there you go. It's another silly season story. And I'm perfectly happy to support the right of women NOT to wear high heels, so long as I'm allowed to keep mine.

Again, less to this story than meets the eye

I was going to blog last night about the Daily Mail story that middle class pensioners might start being means-tested for their free bus passes, but glad I held off. I've now had this email from Sir Jeremy Beecham, the (Labour) Vice Chair of the LGA:

Dear Kerry,
You may be aware of the lead article in today’s Daily Mail, and subsequent coverage on the BBC’s Today, which cites a report written by Oxera and commissioned by the Local Government Association which examined local bus services and the bus subsidy system. I would like to reassure you that the LGA and councils are emphatically not in favour of means testing free bus fares.

The Daily Mail article concentrates on a suggestion by Oxera that the concessionary bus fare “scheme is targeted too widely, benefiting many people on higher incomes with access to cars” and its subsequent recommendation that the concessionary bus fare scheme should become a “targeted” initiative focused on those who require such support.

The LGA makes it clear on page 5 of our publication that we reject this finding and state that:

“Means testing for concessionary fares is not the solution. Take up of the scheme would fall drastically, the benefits it delivers greatly reduced and administrative burdens significantly increased.”

Whilst we believe that there are problems with the way the concessionary bus fare scheme has been funded, and which ultimately has caused financial difficulties for some local authorities, bus fare concessions for pensioners are popular and councils are positive in their wholehearted support for them. Councils want their local bus schemes to be the best that they can be so that people are encouraged to use public transport instead of cars and therefore reduce congestion on the roads.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham
Vice Chair of the Local Government Association

Women's issues

Harriet was very good on Woman's Hour this morning - worth digging out and listening to if you get a chance, or I think it's repeated on Saturday afternoon. She put some of the sensationalist headlines of the past week into context, e.g. that we want to include domestic violence in the PSHE (Personal. Social and Health Education) curriculum for junior and secondary school pupils, which seems eminently sensible. Somehow from this, buried in the small print of a Government document, the Daily Mail managed to produce a front page splash - 'another feminist initiative' - which would give most readers the impression Harriet has spent the past week chained to the Downing Street railings, demanding we educate - sorry, 'indoctrinate' - our daughters on The Evil that Men do, and the Beast that is your Average Man. (Ditto the Daily Express with its 'putting CCTV into homes' story, which doesn't even have a grain of truth in it - see Tom Harris for more on that).

I don't have much argument with anything Harriet says. Yes, rape conviction rates are appalling low, and despite a lot of good work, educating the police on how to deal with rape victims, making the police interrogation and the court processes less of an ordeal, only a fraction of rapes are reported and even fewer prosecuted. Avon and Somerset is one of the worst areas in the UK for convictions.

I also agree that we need a mixed team at the top of the Government/ Labour Party. Not in terms of the Leader and Deputy Leader, as that's too narrow a confine, too prescriptive - but within the overall 'team at the top'. But it's not just about gender balance. It's about having a team of good men and women of different ages, different backgrounds, different life experience. Yes it's important to have women in there, but it's important to have the Alan Johnsons of this world are in there too.

Where I am slightly... not at odds, let's say 'slightly quizzical' - about what Harriet is saying, is on the argument that 'women are still responsible in the main for bringing up children and caring for elderly relatives, and therefore you need more women in Parliament to ensure that those issues are raised'. Yes. When you hear Harriet, who was elected to Parliament in 1982, talk about the struggle she and the small band of other Labour women had to make their voices heard until their ranks swelled to nearly 100 Labour women in 1997, you can't deny that having women MPs has helped put so-called 'women's issues' on the political agenda. Some of these issues are now mainstream - child care, early years provision, maternity leave, flexible working - and some men have been excellent on 'women's issues' (David Kidney on breastfeeding, for example).

But Harriet has also used this as a reason why there should be a woman as leader/ deputy leader, and this raises the question of 'What if the woman isn't a mother?' Increasingly many women aren't. (Is it one in three? Something like that). Quite a few women politicians don't have children, whilst most if not all the younger men in the Cabinet are juggling the demands of office with the even greater demands of having small kids at home who want to see their Daddy at night and will insist on waking up at godforsaken hours of the morning.

So if your argument for having a woman at the top or near the top of the party is based on the fact that a woman is more in tune with issues around childcare, family life, maternal health, etc, where does that leave women who aren't? The other woman in the race to be Deputy Leader, Hazel Blears, doesn't have children. The last woman to hold the position in the Labour Party, Margaret Beckett, doesn't either. Alan Johnson, on the other hand, had three children before the age of 20.

I don't have kids, never wanted them - and with five sisters it's unlikely, to be frank, that I'll ever be in a position of having to take on the caring for an elderly relative role either. (My mother may have other plans!) I think I have a pretty good understanding of what it's like to be a mother, from an observer's point of view, but am I better placed to raise such issues than, say, someone like Tom Watson, who seems to be a very 'hands-on' father of young kids? (I am an excellent auntie, by the way, but that generally involves being as unlike their mothers as you can get away with).

Of course there are other issues on which a woman's perspective is valuable, and it's not all just about child-bearing and child-rearing. But if we place too much emphasis on 'women as mothers' then we risk alienating those who aren't yet and those who never will be, whether that's through choice or circumstances. And we miss the opportunity to emphasise, as we need to, over and over again, that bringing up a family is a father's job too.*

*Let's not get into the thorny topic of single-parent families, or gay adoption here! I'm not saying families need fathers, in the sense of absolutely must have them, just that we shouldn't treat child-rearing as solely a woman's job.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Feminazis on the march

Ellie, over on her Stilettoed Socialist blog, has dealt admirably with the latest story in the Harriet Harman 'raving feminist takeover of Government' saga. Shaping up to be the new Sadie, although the old Sadie is still in very fine form and has also taken the Mail to task in her usual inimitable style. (Can I say 'inimitable' if I've just said Ellie is the new Sadie?)

I'll only add one comment... unless there are plans to segregate the classroom into 'bad boys' and 'good girls' whilst these lessons are taking place, then it's obviously not just boys who are being taught about domestic violence, it's all the kids. And then that kind of renders the rest of the story ridiculous, doesn't it?

Meat = power

I know there are probably all sorts of logical reasons why I shouldn't be appalled by this - but still my automatic reaction was Yuk! And Viva! is quite right to say they'd do the environment a lot more good if they didn't 'produce' such meat in the first place.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Is Twitter a TWOT (Total Waste of Time?)

Someone - a young lad by the look of it - has tweeted me (and yes, I still feel silly saying that), complaining that MPs should be working instead of using Twitter and in my case suggesting that I should be fighting to lower the cost of public transport, as I have apparently never done so. He also said 'bus fares have gone up again, but at least we'll soon have a Tory government' (who would of course in their very first Budget introduce swingeing taxes on car ownership, bring in a nationwide congestion charge, and put it all into subsidising the buses).

I've suggested he looks at this blog and my website for ample evidence of what others might deem an unhealthy obsession with First Bus, and also tried to explain insofar as one can do so in a few tweets that (a) Tories deregulated the buses, (b) local Tories and Lib Dems across the four councils have been less than helpful in our efforts at joint working, e.g. on the need for a Strategic Transport Authority, or on the location of park and ride schemes, (c) the Conservatives in Parliament voted against the Local Transport Bill, which gives councils more powers to introduce Quality Bus Contracts - i.e. taking back control of the buses - as well as more support for STAs; (d) the Government has given £43 million for the Greater Bristol Bus Network, and (e) I'm spending most of tomorrow in Brislington, talking to local people about plans for the A4 Showcase Bus Route. I didn't mention the fact I'm currently in correspondence with the First Bus boss and indeed the First Group boss about fares, but that too... And yes, fares are still going up; I have influence, not control in such matters.

But apart from all that - and also leaving aside the fact that it is 11pm and one might think I'm entitled to some 'me time' - I wanted to just deal with the suggestion that MPs are wasting their time on Twitter. Yes - some of it is a bit silly (though fun). Some of it is about bonding with people who share a similar sense of humour or a similar political outlook. Some of it is about getting into arguments with political opponents, and there's a fair bit of political point-scoring. Sometimes it's about passing on information, publicising things, bringing them to wider attention.

But basically what Twitter comes down to, is this: It's about communicating. It's about engaging with people. It's a conversation, a dialogue, and anyone can join in. And don't we politicians get criticised all the time for not doing that? So far today I've exchanged tweets with people about the Family Intervention Project in Bristol and the Daily Express' hugely misleading frontpage story today (and Ed Balls has too). Yesterday I was tweeting with someone about the new rules on acquiring British citizenship. I've also been DM-ing someone about various Conference related stuff; someone I've never met, actually, but we exchange ideas on Twitter regularly. I've also been tweeting about the SATS results in Bristol; publicising the fact Mike Foster (DFID Minister) and Ed Miliband are now on Twitter; and, I confess, indulging in some rather silly banter about Michael Gove's bizarre comments about Spandau Ballet. (I spent much of today on hold, making various phone calls; it passes the time and takes your mind off the 'your call is important to us' messages).

And yes, I've also been into my constituency office today, although no actual appointments. Tomorrow I'll be at the annual Bristol Play Day (fingers crossed that the rain stops by then), then joining police and council officers for a walkabout in Broomhill, then visiting various shopowners who have raised concerns about the A4 Showcase Bus Route, then joining Councillor Simon Crew for a drop-in surgery in Brislington, and then going to Brislington Labour Party's branch meeting. And then I'll get back home, having been out and about for nearly ten hours, and if I decide I want to go on Twitter, I will!

Asking for it

So, Benson 'the UK's most loved carp' (with so many to choose from!) is no more. Actually, the news has just referred to him as 'the people's carp'; that's even better.

For the record, no, I don't agree with angling but I accept that many people enjoy it and, in the same way that I don't expect everybody to give up eating meat tomorrow, I don't advocate in any active way for an angling ban. Except to wind up Martin Salter when I see him.

But regardless of your views on angling, these quotes from the BBC report are nonsense, aren't they?

'...anglers, such as Martin Ford, editor of magazine group Angling Publications, say fish like Benson, who are caught often, actually choose to take the bait, knowing it's on the end of a hook.
"When they get to that size they will get very selective about what they eat and very often they may not be caught for 14 to 15 months.

"So, does pressure perhaps become detrimental to the fish? Yes and no. Some choose not to be caught." Mr Ford says .... if a fish was traumatised by the experience, it would not choose to go through it again. "Benson has made a choice to visit the bank and see what the other side of the world is like."'

Good SATS results for Bristol schools

Today's provisional Key Stage 2 results were published today, and Bristol schools achieved their best results ever. Although the increase in the percentage of pupils achieving Level 4 or above this year wasn't huge, it was better than the national average which saw a slight drop. And put it in the context of the past 11 years.... pretty impressive.

In 1998 - 55% achieved Level 4 in English. In 2009 it was 76% (up 21%).
In 1998 - 47% achieved Level 4 in Maths. In 2009 it was 74% (up 27% - for those of you who couldn't pass Key Stage 2!)
In 1998 - 59% achieved Level 4 in Science. In 2009 it was 85% (up 26%).

So - not perfect, not something we should be satisfied with - always room for improvement - but worth noting.

I know this much is True

Bizarre interview with Michael Gove in the Telegraph, in which he says that Cameron is someone "you could imagine snogging like we did to True by Spandau Ballet." Expect a press statement from Mr Gove's office soon to clarify that he didn't actually mean that he himself indulges in fantasies of 'snogging' Cameron to a backdrop of mellow bellowing from Tony 'Tory' Hadley. He also says in the interview that "some people see Cameron as some sort of milquetoast, pantywaist..."

I'm not sure what's more off-putting. The fact that a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet still uses the word 'snogging'. The fact that he either (a) imagines indulging in such an act with his party leader, or (b) thinks it's a good thing that his party leader is someone who can readily be imagined indulging in such an act. Or the fact that he uses words like "milquetoast" and "pantywaist" (which sounds like something Spandau Ballet might well have worn) in everyday conversation.

For the record, the slowdances I remember at school discos were 'Always and Forever' by Heatwave or 'If You Leave me Now' by Chicago - but that's because I stopped indulging in such activities at the age of about 12. I could divert into reveries of how the current Cabinet are punk/ New Wave/ post-punk industrialists, with perhaps a touch of Two Tone/ mod, whereas the Cameroonites are frilly-shirted New Romantic fops - no substance and a fairly dubious sense of style - but I'm meant to be working. And because it doesn't stack up at all on the Labour side once you start to think about it.

Incidentally, I hear word on the grapevine of a colleague who went up to the press gallery on a Friday afternoon to remonstrate with the Telegraph about their 'holiday' questionnaire, to find the desks deserted; they'd cleared off early. Remember journos, it's a recess, not a holiday!

PS The rumour doing the rounds on Twitter that Michael Gove has also suggested that George Osborne is 'the kind of guy you could imagine working out to Musclebound by Spandau Ballet in the gym' is entirely without substance. I know because I started it. Ditto the one about Eric Pickles appearing in the video for Paint Me Down.

Monday 3 August 2009


According to my latest website stats, I now have someone in Guam taking an interest in my goings on. A prize is anyone can tell me where Guam is without clicking on the link or looking it up. And no cheating.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Sadie says....

Ok folks, lazy post coming up - this is genius. And I'm off to visit my grandfather.

Another piece on snakes as pets

The Sunday Telegraph has today picked up on the Florida snake story. (And for the person who commented on the earlier post saying reptiles have never killed anyone... you're wrong).

Saturday 1 August 2009

More on snakes

Andrew Clark, New York
20 July 2009, The Guardian:

The death of a Florida toddler in the coils of an 8ft (2.5 metre) Burmese python has sparked an official crackdown to eradicate a menacing population of slithering predators in the sun-drenched holiday state. A small band of newly licensed trappers hit the trail this week of pythons living in the swampy wetlands of southern Florida. Experts believe that as many as 100,000 of the reptiles are loose in the region, in an unfortunate outcome of a fad for keeping exotic pets.

Earlier this month, a two-year-old girl , Shaiunna Hare, was strangled to death in her bedroom near Orlando by a python belonging to her mother's boyfriend. The snake had escaped its glass cage during the night and wrapped itself around the child's crib.

The tragedy galvanised Florida's politicians into action over mounting alarm about the danger posed by pythons, which grow as long as 8 metres, weigh up to 89kg (14 stone) and can eat animals as big as deer.

"It's just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades," said Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from the state.

Native to Africa and south-east Asia, pythons are interlopers to Florida and face no predator to keep them in check. Florida locals blame a booming wild population on irresponsible pet owners who release pythons into the wild when they become unmanageably large. Others trace the problem back to hurricane Andrew which destroyed pet shops, hatcheries and zoos as it swept across the Floridian peninsula in 1992. Wildlife experts fear that if left unchecked, the snakes will decimate the population of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.

Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, last week licensed an initial group of fewer than 10 python hunters to begin trapping the snakes. Pursued by a pack of photographers, the hunters snared a 3-metre long python during their first foray on Friday.

"[Pythons] don't make a lot of noise, when they're agitated, they may hiss," said Shawn Heflick, a licensed hunter. "They can hold on pretty tight but they're well camouflaged and when they sit in vegetation, they're pretty hard to see."

Accustomed to alligators, Florida locals are not easily fazed by wildlife. The subtropical state numbers black widow spiders and fire ants among its more exotic residents. But pythons are proving particularly chilling. The snakes reproduce rapidly, laying as many as 100 eggs at a time.

"We do have a serious python problem, and this programme is a good first step in helping to stop the spread of this exotic species," said Rodney Barreto, the chair of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Curbs have been imposed on keeping pythons as pets - including a compulsory annual $100 (pounds 61) permit and embedded microchips to track escaped pets. But animal rights groups have called for more radical steps.

The Humane Society of the United States said a ban on the trade in pythons would be more effective than any hunt for wild snakes.

"We should not pursue wasteful and futile strategies like bounty programs and public hunts," said Wayne Pacelle, the society's chief executive. "They won't work, and could do more harm than good."

The Floridian authorities are encouraging anyone who spots a python to call a telephone hotline. In an increasingly elaborate operation, researchers at the University of Florida are even working on miniature drones which can detect the heat given off by pythons from the air.

If the initial hunt proves promising, many more trapping licences could be issued. The hunters are ready for the kill.

"They've got beautiful colouration and they're sleek and powerful," said Heflick. "They're actually magnificent animals. They just don't belong here."

Expert warns of deadly threat from 'pet' snakes
(c) 2009 Llanelli Star

There are at least eight potential killer snakes in Llanelli, warns an expert.

Geraint Hopkins, who is also known as "The Snakeman", has urged owners to make sure their reptiles are looked after correctly to avoid a repeat of the tragic case of a toddler in America who was killed by a pet python .

He believes it is only a matter of time before a similar tragedy happens in the UK after seeing an increase in people buying deadly constrictors as pets.


The world was shocked last week after a Florida toddler was strangled by a 2.5-metre albino Burmese python that escaped from a holding tank in the girl 's home.

Mr Hopkins, a recognised snake expert who helps Dyfed- Powys Police capture escaped reptiles, said: "Young children have been killed in Florida before, this is not the first, and it's only a matter of time before something like this happens in this country.

"In the past couple of months I've had an increase in calls from the police and council over large snakes seen in the wild in Carmarthenshire."

Mr Hopkins, who has several snakes himself, said numbers were growing in the county.


"They are quite easy to buy from pet shops or the internet," he said.

"I know there are at least eight or nine people keeping very large constrictors in Llanelli alone.

"When people buy them, they are only two or three feet long, but they can grow up to 18ft. Anything over eight or nine feet can be dangerous. Once they have a hold of your neck it's difficult to get them off - it will probably kill you.

"They can be quite friendly but there's always a risk of them turning. Even if you had one for years, it can turn on you. Snakes do not make pets, essentially they are wild animals."

If people do insist on keeping them, Mr Hopkins warns: "It's very dangerous to keep a Burmese python or boa constrictor in your bedroom, it's asking for problems.

"They are great escape artists.

"They should be kept in a locked vivarium in a locked room."

They also require a lot of looking after.

"A boa constrictor eats fully-grown rabbits and the larger ones will devour a baby pig, they are not something you can give a mouse to," he said.

Finally, he said anyone wanting to get rid of such reptiles, contact an expert.

"Whatever you do, don't leave them go in the wild or sell them on," he added.


I've been contacted by constituents about a horrible incident which led to the death of their cat, Wilbur. More details can be found on here, but basically Wilbur made the mistake of straying over into next door's garden, as cats do. Meanwhile the neighbour had decided to let his 13 foot long python out for a stroll... and Wilbur fell prey to the snake. He was crushed, asphyixiated and consumed whole. The owners had to live in the knowledge for the next week that their beloved pet was slowly being digested inside the snake's stomach. I don't think you have to be a cat person - which I very much am - to find that horrible.

I'm checking out the legal situation but it appears from what the RSPCA and police have told Wilbur's owners that the snake owner did nothing wrong. Have a look at the website, and see what you think. Would you be happy to have one of those loose in one of your neighbour's gardens? If you had young children playing in yours? I'm amazed actually that there aren't tighter rules on owning such pets - or an outright prohibition. As the website shows, there have been incidents around the world of similar-sized snakes killing children or even grown men.

PS I haven't yet responded to Wilbur's owners, as I only saw their email on Friday, but I hope they're happy with me publishing details of this on my blog, so that people are aware of their campaign.