Friday, 30 November 2012

Eye on the Hill

Gr8 to have G8
THE world is a big place. You may think it is a long drive from Belfast to Portrush, or from Bangor to Newry but that does not even give you a sense of scale compared to the world. The journey from Omagh to Lisburn may seem tortuous but it is but a small jaunt on the global scale.

And in this great big world there are a lot of people – really there are billions of them. And there are hundreds and thousands of reporters wanting to cover the great and the good. And frankly, we can’t see them all fitting into Fermanagh.

Fields will be rented for a tented village of reporters; and the reporters will want to rent the next-door field for protesters ready to burn a village in protest at something or another.

Yes, Prime Minister David Cameron announced last week that the G8 is coming to the land of lakes and mists, the mystical land of Fermanagh…

With the Big Cats of the world economies coming prowling there will be thousands of support staff, thousands of security personnel and thousands of reporters. In the course of research (we looked up Wikipedia) we discovered that the county of Fermanagh covers 715 square miles. Taking away the watery bits of Lough Erne, that leaves insufficient dry land for all the prime ministers, presidents and global brokers.

We have two concerns. One, can all the dissident ‘terrorist’ numpties and riot addicts please go away and not try to represent Norn Iron up as something it is not.

The second is that Fermanagh translates as ‘men of the monks’. We hope that the global leaders keep the spirit of faith, hope and charity to the fore as they make their moves on the economic chessboard.

We also hope that our stall selling exclusive G8 World tour t-shirts, the GR8 Ulster Breakfast Fry-up and bags of Tayto Cheese ‘n’ Onion crisps will attract the appropriate passing trade.

Knock, knock…
“KNOCK, Knock!” “Who’s there?” “Joe.” “Joe who?” “Joe Public.”
“Sorry, but you can’t come in.”
“Why not?” “You just can’t.” “Why?” “Just because we said so.”

We dream of a time of total accountability, when transparent government is transparently delivered, for all to muse over the findings, decisions and progress.

Then we woke up and the dream was gone, replaced by the closed doors of committee meetings in Parliament Buildings.
This week just past had five meetings of committees which were all or in part closed to members of the public. While one, a briefing on legal advice, was legitimately closed to avoid prejudicing any future action, others varied from the sublime to the ridiculous.

On the ridiculous side the Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements: Welfare Reform was listed as: Closed from 2.34pm (2 mins), suspended from 2.36pm (1 mins), closed from 2.37pm (4 mins), and public from 2.41pm (31 mins). Look it up on the Assembly website and that is exactly what is says!

The Business Committee was also closed for three minutes, but the Justice Committee was closed in total, for the entire evidence session with Attorney General John Larkin QC on the criminal law on abortion, while the Committee for Education was closed for a 25 minute session with the Assembly Bill Office.

The week before there were three closed committee sessions, and the week before that there were a further three closed sessions.

Now, apart from commercial confidentiality, protecting individual’s identity in relation to personnel matters and ongoing legal matters there should be no circumstances when any part of Assembly proceedings are closed to voters and taxpayers.

When a session is closed it only piques the curiosity! An open session is more likely to be disregarded unless it is something that affects you, or in our case, our clients. But close the doors and the very nature of our beings mean we feel the urge to know more. And in the wake of Leveson and the BBC scandals there will be too few willing to ask the searching questions…

On a sickie
OH dear, oh dear, oh dear, we’re sorry to hear that you are sick, and please get well soon.

That must be the sentiment resounding round the corridors of the civil service, as once again we learn that it has missed its target of an average of 10 days sickness. It may be down from previous years, but it still is over that mythical target of 10 days average.

You will be pleased to know that the Department of Health has the lowest average days off sick, which is sort of to be expected.

The Department of Justice is the worst offender, with an average 12.6 days off on a sickie.

But we now ask the ladies to put down the cudgels, set aside the dirty looks and forgive us. We are duty bound to point out that women take more sickies than men. This is not us saying this, so you can stop throwing hairbrushes now! It is the NI Statistics and Research Agency!

We also could not help but note that the largest number of people who are off sick are those who are absent because of anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illnesses.

While we would all like to see a bigger private sector in Northern Ireland, the constant stream of criticism about the public sector may be having a real tangible impact in the era of austerity.

In simple terms if you cut staff in an office, less people are doing the same amount of work. It is inevitable that the workload will create a more stressful environment, leading to higher levels of sickness. And then the civil servants are told their wages are too high and their pensions are inflated, making the stressed more stressed  by implied guilt.

Rather than dwell on the rights and wrongs is it more appropriate to ask how this is being managed at senior level. If reductions are being made, how is this being compensated for in productivity and how are Executive ministers communicating this?

The answer…nobody knows!
We’re all a little bit more cautious in 2012
THERE used to be a certain gay abandon that Northern Ireland’s populace frolicked through their lives, never fearing that a trip, sporting accident or paper cut would lead them to pain and agony.

We had our world famed health service, with trauma specialists, kindly junior doctors and skilled nurses on hand to apply a sticking plaster, weave a few cunning stitches and bring the recently dead back to life with a few hundred volts.

The days when we could turn up with an ailing child or ill grandparent and be greeted with a concerned gaze and ushered into a cubicle now seem to be something from bygone halcyon days of idyllic pastures when all the summers were sunny and snow came every Christmas.

Now turn up at an A&E department it is like you have turned up at military field hospital; trolleys filled with the merely very ill, cubicles filled with the really, really ill, ambulances backed up outside and if you are lucky and you’re only just seriously injured you might get seen the next day.

Reports that circulated last week showed that not one of Northern Ireland’s A&E departments was meeting the four hour target to treat patients.

Many reasons have been espoused as to why this had happened. The closure of the Belfast City Hospital A&E department; the lack of junior consultants, registrars and other staff wanting to pursue a career in emergency medicine being among some of the reasons.

Health minister, Edwin Poots, has been among those in the firing line; although to be fair one retired consultant told the BBC that every time Mr Poots or other officials were due to appear, a purge was undertaken and fresh bleach was sprinkled over the place, so maybe the minister didn’t see the true picture.

But really we were staggered when the report acclaimed that there were less people waiting 12 hours or more for treatment. Surely they are kidding! Surely this is a joke!

What reason can there be for remarking about anyone having to wait in an A&E department for more than 12 hours?

We can only presume that managers at health trusts are trying to pre-empt any privatisation scheme by charging patients waiting more than 12 hours hotel rates.

Why else can anyone with any managerial nouse really allow this to continue? MLAs and ministers may rant, but ultimately the management of the system must be improved. We already have out-of-hours GP’s services, we have a plethora of information on the internet from trusted sites like NHS direct, but none of this will stop sportsmen and women being injured. None of this will stop older people needing emergency admission because of respiratory failure.  None of this will stop fractures because of slips on icy ground. None of this will stop industrial accidents or road traffic crashes.

So Northern Ireland’s health trusts need a plan to reduce this. Shiny new buildings and calling a few beds an ‘admissions ward’ are not enough.

We suggest that Minister Poots with colleagues on the Stormont health committee arrive at Northern Ireland’s A&E departments unannounced a couple of evenings, then call the managers to join them on the frontline. However, we won’t be there as we really cannot stand the sight of blood.

Four packets of fags
FOUR packets of 20 cigarettes, six pints or a half decent two-course meal in a city centre snazzy eaterie. That’s the cost to all of us for legal aid cases.

Yep – Minister for Justice David Ford has his beady eye on the legal community and the costs of legal aid once again.
According to recent reports, legal aid costs every person in Norn Iron £29.28 compared to a cost per person of £11.26 in bonny Scotland.

And it is in civil cases that legal aid also seems to be costing us a small fortune. For those of us with a memory span greater than an MLAs, last year solicitors and barristers went on strike when Minister Ford cut legal aid in criminal cases. Will we see a similar lefty response from the bewigged and besuited?

They’ve already told news outlets that as barristers are so smart and intelligent it is only they who can represent the most vulnerable in society and that they are the guardians or truth, justice and nice homes in North Down.

In a head to head, who do we fancy in this fight? Minister Ford gets the popular vote; the legal eagles get the grudging support of unions backed by the Law Society and Bar Council, and it seems like a stand-off.

But which brave barrister and stout solicitor will stand firm in the face of the rage from a resident of the Falls or Shankill Road who is told that they are on strike. Which, legal firm will have the courage to say to the claimant that they’re withholding services  in a wages row to an unemployed worker owed back wages. If they do, we salute you Mr and Ms Legal Eagle (and any strike should last about a week and two Nolan shows….).