Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine


Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

Closed today: The rehab hospital that should be at the cutting edge of NHS care

Gossoms End Community hospital, Berkhamsted : Closed today

Gossoms End Community hospital, Berkhamsted : Closed today


When my wife Margaret was struck down by a stroke on holiday and  lost her mobility one of the  redeeming features was that after her initial care in Truro she was transferred at our GP’s insistence to Gossoms End Community Hospital in our home town, Berkhamsted.

As a result of her stay there and later at the now closed  Holywell rehab unit at St Albans Hospital she has progressed in two years from help to get out of bed and living in a wheelchair through to the first stage of slow independent walking without any aids.

That is in no small part to the loving care at Gossoms End which led me to write a blog two years ago praising the work there.

At the time I said :

“What is particularly good is that some one has properly planned this facility so that stroke victims and people recovering from serious injuries can get proper physiotherapy and nursing care in a decent environment. The hospital unlike Watford, the main accident and emergency hospital for West Herts, is under no pressure to throw people out at the earliest opportunity. The cost of running it is much less than using a ward in acute hospital.

But the real key is that this is a nurse and physiotherapy led unit – with a weekly visit from a consultant and a doctor on call. The result is that the driving force  behind the care is to find the most suitable  rehab treatment for the individual patient.”

Alas that is no more. The unit closed  today because the Herts Community Health Trust  which runs it has overspent on agency staff because they can’t get full-time staff. It has faced criticism over staffing levels at other hospitals. Staff have been transferred elsewhere.

If you read the latest board minutes you see a trust that is struggling to provide services across Hertfordshire It is short of staff in key areas, facing an emergency financial crisis and failing in its ambition to become an independent foundation trust. Indeed it can only achieve the latter as far as I can see by slashing services so it can become profitable. Most of the key issues at the board meeting have a red or amber tag – meaning they are facing a disaster unless they slash costs in four weeks by closing down every possible service.

This local example to my mind illustrates the lie by our national politicians particularly by Jeremy Hunt, the health  secretary – about the state of the NHS. They trip out figures boasting about how much extra money there is. They haven’t a clue about integrated planning. They don’t know  and  don’t care how one policy – high house prices in Hertfordshire probably contributes to difficulties in recruiting staff -impacts on another. They are incapable of joining anything up – silo politicians.

In the meantime they talk about  so-called government policy ” care in the community” or ” no care in the community” as I prefer to call it. This is just an excuse to close down facilities and dump the sick ,ill, disabled and the insane on their families knowing that taxpayers don’t have to pay out. And if they haven’t any family, well, they will probably fall over and die and that will be a saving on the pensions bill.

To my mind closure of such facilities is short sighted. It means they only half rehabilitate people, failing to draw out their full potential and not wishing to acknowledge that new medical research shows that stroke victims  continue to improve for a much longer period than people thought. We are lucky that we can still afford to pay for Margaret to have private physiotherapy. I notice the lack in improvements among those who can’t.

I realise we have been lucky but I fear for anybody who has the misfortune to have a stroke in Hertfordshire today. Don’t expect the board members of Hertfordshire Community Health trust to do much about it.

Labour leadership: Stormin’ Corbyn winning the new battle of Berkhamsted

BERKHAMSTED CASTLE pPc Credit:geograph-org-uk

Pic Credit:geograph-org-uk

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire is not known as a centre of left wing radicalism. It has had only two revolutionary moments in its 1000 year history . They were the capitulation of the English to William the Conqueror in 1066 at Berkhamsted Castle and the Battle of Berkhamsted Common in 1866.

The latter was a remarkable story, A wealthy MP, Augustus Smith, was furious that a local landowner had enclosed common land above the town. So rather than just protest he took direct action. As a book, The Short History of Berkhamsted reveals he hired ” a miniature army of Cockney” toughs” and Irish labourers and charted a special train to convey them from Euston to Tring at the dead of night.”

These 120 men armed with crowbars tore down the iron railings overnight and the next day a newspaper reported ” “In carriages, gigs, dogcarts and on foot, gentry, shopkeepers, husbandmen, women and children at once tested the reality of what they saw by strolling over and squatting on the Common and taking away morsels of gorse to prove, as they said) the place was their own again.”

An Act of Parliament later guaranteed the freedom of the Common and Lord Brownlow who had tried to enclose it gave up.

Fast forward to 2015 and another extraordinary revolution seems to be taking place in the town if not the country..At a barbecue organised by the Berkhamsted and Tring branch of South West Herts Labour Party, members are talking about voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn Mp, popular with Berkhamsted Labour members

Jeremy Corbyn Mp, popular with   Berkhamsted Labour members

Now Jeremy has not had to bring in Cockney ” toughies” or Irish labourers to prove his point ( though they are many still in his Islington North constituency) but merely appear at local hustings with either other candidates or their representatives.

Both new members of the party and long-standing members are saying they are fed up with Labour apologising for what it stands for and don’t know what the other candidates for the leadership want to do. One lumped Andy Burnham,Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall into the same mould. She described them as vanilla – bland and tasteless with no ideological view of society.

They contrasted this with Corbyn who at least knows what he believes, doesn’t apologise for being a member of the Labour Party and would take the fight to the Tories and revamp the organisation. I saw no sign of entryism ( which the Sunday Times suggests) here among the new members – after all Chorleywood was never a bastion of the Militant Tendency even in its heyday. And John Mann MP is ridiculed for wanting to halt the election.

Angela Eagle Benefiting  from Yvette Cooper's pro women campaign.. Pic credit: The Guardian

Angela Eagle Benefiting from Yvette Cooper’s pro women campaign.. Pic credit: The Guardian

This doesn’t mean that the people  who are going to vote for Corbyn agree with every single policy he stands for – but they seem to want something different from the present, in their words, uninspired rivals. The only pause for thought is whether this will split the party – but the history of the SDP suggests otherwise. And Yvette Cooper’s point about Labour being a club for the boys has made some impact  but not in the way she wants..It has caused people to think of voting for Angela Eagle as deputy to  gender balance their vote for Corbyn. I shall still plump for Tom Watson.

I sense rather like in the run up to the general election in Scotland that something big is happening and is becoming unstoppable. Already neighbouring Hemel Hempstead constituency party has decided to endorse Corbyn and it looked like that grassroots Labour members have suddenly decided they are fed up with the status quo and wants something different..

The impact if Corbyn wins will be game changing. Defeated Labour candidates in some areas are taking the opposite view as this article in The Guardian shows. They see that Labour didn’t take into account the views of working class voters hating scroungers and more immigration. I hear this too from the working class carers who assist my disabled wife. But don’t they realise what these voters want is NO immigration ( Britain is full that’s why public services are bad, they tell me) .They want a ban on foreigners holding British jobs and the ABOLITION of benefits for scroungers. Are Will Straw and Jessica Asato going to stand on a Labour platform banning anybody from abroad working in Britain and the abolition of large swathes of welfare to get their vote? I would be surprised – it would make an interesting article in Left Foot Forward.

Would Will Straw really campaign to stop foreigners getting British jobs to get working class votes?

Would Will Straw really campaign to stop foreigners getting British jobs to get working class votes?

No, Labour has to decide where it stands on all this and then campaign and educate people that it is cuts in public services not more immigrants that is causing a lot of the problem. That is why I am still deciding whether I should take the plunge and back Corbyn or stick with either Cooper or Burnham.

Plebgate comes to the courts

This weekend the Inforrm blog  ran a interesting preview of the start of the so called ” plebgate” libel case in the courts which halted the political career of Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and chief whip.

The incident became infamous after The Sun published that Mitchell had sworn at the police protecting Downing Street and called them plebs for refusing to open the gates to allow him to wheel his bike through them.

I reproduce their blog below which includes a lot of good references to TV coverage and media articles on the subject.

On Monday 17 November 2014 the most high profile libel trial of the year will begin in Court 13 at 10.30am before Mr Justice Mitting.  This the joint trial of preliminary issues in two claims and is now listed for two weeks (reduced from the original three).

As is well known, the claim arises out of an incident at the gate of Downing Street on 12 September 2012 when words were exchanged between the then Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell MP and a police officer, PC Toby Rowland.  On 21 September 2012, the Sun reported that Mr Mitchell has shouted “you’re fucking plebs“.  This incident became known as “Plebgate“.

On 7 March 2013, Mr Mitchell issued defamation proceedings against the Sun.  It filed a defence on 17 May 2013 pleading justification and a Reynolds defence.  This case gained early notoriety in legal circles because the Master disallowed the whole of the claimant’s costs due to the late filing of a costs budget.  This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal (Mitchell v News Group [2013] EWCA Civ 1537).

On 12 December 2013 PC Rowland issued a libel claim against against Mr Mitchell based on statements made by Mr Mitchell on six occasions between December 2012 and December 2013 in or via the media.  PC Rowland complained that, in these statements, Mr Mitchell accused him of fabricating allegations and evidence against Mr Mitchell, spreading these to the media as part of a plot to frame Mr Mitchell, and deliberately destroying Mr Mitchell’s career.  Mr Mitchell’s Defence is that these allegations are true.

The case has been before the Courts on a number of occasions.  There have been several applications for third party disclosure from the Metropolitan Police in these actions.  Judgments were given on these on 27 March ([2014] EWHC 879 (QB)) and 11 June ([2014] EWHC 1885 (QB)).

On 24 July 2014 Warby J ordered that each of those actions should be tried by a Judge sitting without a jury, and that there should be a joint trial of certain preliminary issues in the actions, starting on 17 November 2014.  Warby J gave a judgment explaining why he had ordered the trial of preliminary issues ([2014] EWHC 2615 (QB)).

In September 2014, the Sun filed an Amended Defence in which it relied on seventeen incidents which, it alleged, showed “high handed and rude” behaviour of Mr Mitchell towards police officers. There was a report of the contents of the Defence in the Press Gazette.

Warby J conducted a pre-trial review on 23 and 24 October 2014 and made orders permitting the parties to rely on expert evidence in phonetics and “field of vision/trajectory analysis” or optometry.  He also refused to exclude the “similar fact evidence” relied on by NGN and PC Rowland concerning other alleged incidents between Mr Mitchell and police officers ([2014] EWHC 3590 (QB)).

Mr Mitchell later filed an Amended Reply in to the Sun’s Amended Defence rebutting itsReynolds defence.  There was a report of the contents of the Amended Reply in the Press Gazette.

Mitting J will try three preliminary issues.  The main ones are, in each action,

  • what natural and ordinary meaning(s) the words complained of bore, and
  • whether in such meaning(s) they were substantially true.

Mr Mitchell is represented by solicitors Atkins Thomson, who have instructed James Price QC and Victoria Jolliffe.  News Group Newspapers are represented by Simons Muirhead and Burton, who have instructed Gavin Millar QC and Adam Wolanski.  PC Rowland is represented by Slater and Gordon LLP, who have instructed Desmond Browne QC and Catrin Evans.

We will have regular reports on the trial.

There was a preview of the trial in Saturday’s Guardian by Owen Bowcott: “Multimillion pound Plebgate libel case comes to court“.

The Channel 4 news item including the CCTV footage of Mr Mitchell leaving Downing Street on the night in question can be viewed here:

Result: NHS acts on a serious medical misdiagnosis on the Isles of Scilly

Isles of Scilly; beautiful and tranquil but medically problematic

Isles of Scilly; beautiful and tranquil but medically problematic

Readers of this blog may just remember that over three years ago I suffered a serious injury – a triple shoulder fracture – when I tripped and fell awkwardly on a rocky path on Tresco on the Isles of Scilly.

An accident 28 miles off mainland Britain is always a tricky problem – but mine was compounded by the failure of both a duty doctor and nurse at St Mary’s Hospital – the GP led hospital on the islands – to realise this had happened. It was never X rayed and both staff thought I had bruised and sprained my shoulder.

 It was only when my wife made consult my own GP in Berkhamsted – a week after the  accident- that I was sent off to Watford General Hospital who discovered I had been walking around with three broken bones – and  the main bone between my shoulder and elbow had almost come out of its socket. Due to heroic efforts by one administrator at Watford they managed to find me a bed and I had a  five-hour operation to put me back together. This I might say after physiotherapy is  now 95 per cent back to normal. I have also been full of praise about the surgeon who did it,Andrew Irwin.
I put in two complaints to the NHS authorities in Isle of Scilly – one about the service – when I discovered the hospital had an X-ray machine but only a radiographer available for two hours a week. So bad luck if you had an accident outside Tuesday afternoon.

 I also complained about the doctor’s failure to diagnose the problem – and got an apology and found the doctor had been sent for retraining to deal with accidents on the mainland.

 Until today I had not heard anything positive about the paucity of X-ray services, only a rather defensive reaction saying that it was difficult to do anything. It certainly made me worried given the Isles of Scilly is a mecca for all sorts of sports from sailing, windsurfing,diving,rock climbing as well as great walking country.

Imagine my surprise to receive a communication through NHS Choices today to say the hospital has now replaced its ageing X-ray equipment with a new digital X ray – presumably allowing computer images to be sent to other major hospitals. It added: “Extending access to a radiographer is work in progress and is being looked into by the Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group and the Islands Health and Well Being Board. With regards to staff training, MIU training up-dates are provided twice a year by the MIU Lead. She will revisit limb examinations on her next visit. “

 Well it may have taken over three years but I am glad that some action is being taken. To my mind it shows that it is worth complaining if the NHS fails to deliver – authorities do appear to take note, even if it takes time.

Result! West Herts Hospitals Trust changes patient ambulance services after scandal of a 5 hour wait

West Herts acted on complaint

West Herts acted on complaint

My complaint about the appalling situation that left my wife, recovering from a stroke, waiting five hours for a privatised patient ambulance at Hemel Hempstead Urgent Care Centre to take her back to Gossoms End rehab centre in Berkhamsted has yielded results.
The West Herts Hospitals Trust, which manages the contract for Medical Services Ltd, the private company providing the ambulances, ordered an investigation into the incident and a review of the service.
The inquiry confirmed that my wife, Margaret, had in fact, waited 5 hours 15 minutes for the ambulance.
It then found the following damning facts:
The excessive delay was caused, as I expected, by the company supplying insufficient numbers of ambulances to do the job. They had only two vehicles – an ambulance and a seven seater minibus – on that Saturday afternoon and evening – to supply the entire needs of West Hertfordshire.
The company did not manage the call -indeed it appears it disappeared off their radar because they didn’t have proper management controls to check why nobody had turned up.
Neither the company nor Hemel Hemsptead Urgent Care Centre even reported the delay – which amounted to a big breach of Medical Services Ltd contract – until days after the event. Indeed there is a hint in the report they may not have bothered – if I had not publicly raised it in this blog and with the Berkhamsted and Tring Gazette.
The report is honest enough to admit that both Medical Services and the West Herts Health Trust have let my wife down. West Herts admit ” it could have been avoided with closer controls and proactive management of the activity levels.” The investigators also found “no examples of good practice ” in managing this contract.
The good news is that West Herts and Medical Services Ltd have pinpointed deficiencies in the service and are taking action to put things right.
The main changes are:
Medical Services will contract some patient ambulance services to a taxi firm where people are mobile enough to get in a taxi.This will mean that people like my wife who couldn’t get out of her wheelchair to get in a taxi will get priority ambulance treatment.
Medical services Ltd will review ambulance rosters to put more on at the weekend and employ an additional member of staff at Watford.
The senior management at Medical Services Ltd will take direct charge for a trial period of their control room and take action if anybody is waiting for more than an hour.
West Herts are also strengthening their management procedures and using the information to change the procurement of new contracts. This includes financial penalties for breach of contract – all patients not to wait for more than two hours is written into current contract.
There are two lessons to be learned from this. Far too many people are happy just to grumble rather than complain if the NHS service is not up to scratch. this shows if you do complain you can get something done.
Second, West Herts Hospitals Trust are to be congratulated for taking the complaint on the chin and doing something about it. They have also been honest and open in releasing the report to me without having to go to the trouble of putting in a Freedom of Information request.
The proof of the pudding will now be whether the services does improve – but I see Medical Services Ltd contract is up for renewal next May. They had better step up to the plate.

Coming your way: £3.8 billion to spend on public health

Norman Lamb: off the cuff and off piste at Localis  Pic courtesy of The Guardian

Norman Lamb: off the cuff and off piste at Localis
Pic courtesy of The Guardian

In the middle of the biggest wave of austerity to hit England since the 1930s a cool £3.8 billion will be handed over to your local town hall and local NHS from 2015. The aim will be to switch money from your big hospital to your local community to spend on public health and social care.
Do you trust your local council to spend it wisely? Who will know what it has been spent on? and it will it unleash clever new ideas as promised to help local people?
This was a point of a press conference yesterday by the rather arcane titled think tank,Localis,to publish a report asking precisely that. Read it here.
It was launched by a Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb, who began well by throwing his boring Whitehall brief on the floor and launching a passionate off the cuff speech calling for new ideas to stimulate local public health services.
As he was off piste, he refreshingly condemned those private companies exploiting lowly paid care workers, some even on below minimum wage rates,or zero hour contracts, and not being paid for travel between seeing different customers. He might have added that they should join a good union like Unite or GMB to take up their plight, but then he is a Liberal Democrat.
What is interesting about this initiative is that it might do some good. It means more freedom and money for local people to find ways to help the elderly, disabled, the local alcoholics and drug takers and if combined with better housing, transport, planning, job creation and children’s services it might make a difference.
But it is a big IF and it is clear from the Localis report that people have to be made accountable for how this money is spent and that has not been properly worked out. As the brilliant local government expert Tony Travers put it, that you know better who to complain about the dustbins than you do over public health. And he did not get a satisfactory answer from the minister.
In Berkhamsted as a previous blog pointed out we already have the makings of this at Gossoms End, a NHS community hospital with a GP surgery, a nursery, physio and local sheltered housing attached to get good local care. The minister said that the people of Great Yarmouth and Yeovil are also soon to benefit from new community schemes.
In the meantime an invitation to see Gossoms End is still there, Norman. That is if you can get your bossy civil servants to give you any space in your diary. And they may lynch you for throwing away their boring prepared speech.