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News Comment
a personal view of the week's news from Erithacus

The stock markets had a strange week with the FTSE100 finishing down 31.8 on the week at 5601.9. Heavier falls had disappeared by mid-week as investors showed signs of an increasing level of confidence, and huge rises in the U.S. markets on Thursday seemed to confirm that the worst was over. The confidence faltered somewhat on Friday, however, as bad news from UK technology and telecommunications companies combined with poor jobs data from the U.S. to depress the markets once again. Although the technology-heavy U.S. Nasdaq index had managed to climb over 80 points on the day by the time it closed for the week, it had been 50 points down when trading finished in London. The Dow Jones index stayed over 100 points lower for Friday having dropped around one-third of its gains from the day before. Perversely, many analysts believe the poor U.S. jobs data, which showed a decline of 86,000 jobs in non-farm sectors rather than the 58,000 increase expected, will actually improve confidence in the stock markets by making a further interest rate cut more likely at the Federal Reserve’s next policy meeting on May 15th.

Sir Nigel Wicks, the new watchdog for parliamentary sleaze who took up the position of Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on March 1st and was formerly a top civil servant at the Treasury, has been commenting on the importance of investigating allegations into MPs conduct this week. Although he stressed the need to avoid the complaints procedure being used for "trivial tit-for-tat allegations between rival parties and MPs", he confirmed his intention to bolster the authority of the Commons Standards and Privileges committee, to clarify the role of the prime minister in enforcing the ministerial code, and to give greater authority to the system for dealing with allegations against MPs and ministers. Interestingly, he also said he wants to set up a programme of rolling research to assess public attitudes to public figures, and establish what impact he and his Committee are having. A brave man, some might think. Or a foolish one. Would you want his job?

As indications seem to be appearing that the foot-and-mouth outbreak may at last have peaked, attention is being drawn to failures to have learnt the lessons of the 1967 outbreak. A military report drawn up after that last major outbreak has been available to the government from the beginning of the present crisis, and highlights exactly the problems that have been faced by the UK in recent weeks. In particular, it stresses the failures of the Ministry of Agriculture to put effective measures in place for dealing with the backlog of carcasses, and the failure of the government to utilise the army early enough. Conservative defence spokesman Iain Duncan Smith speaking on BBC radio this week, drew attention to the government’s failure. "If they read the report they either certainly didn't understand it or read it with their eyes shut", he said, "Every mistake that has been made was made in 1967-68". A government spokesman said it was unfair and unrealistic to make comparisons with 1967.
Of course it is unfair. How could we possibly expect any government to have learnt lessons from the past? Quite unreasonable.

The British Royal Family are, according to Consumer Affairs Minister Dr Kim Howell, "all a bit bonkers." The remarks follow the unguarded comments by the Countess of Wessex which were secretly taped and partially published this week. Supporters of the Royal Family are horrified by these comments and the week’s events. Gerald Howarth, a Conservative MP, launched a blistering attack on the attitude of New Labour towards the Royals. "Their attacks on her [the Countess of Wessex], and the Prime Minister's silence, could be seen as the latest round in New Labour's republican agenda," he said. "First they removed most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, now they seek to discredit minor royals and then they will leave the sovereign isolated." He added: "Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, should take a grip instead of standing neutrally between press entrapment, blackmail and betrayal and a young and vulnerable member of the royal family." Although Downing Street made it clear that the comments from Dr Howell did not reflect government policy, a spokeswoman would only comment, "The Prime Minister's support for the monarchy is well known, and that remains the case."  Does it?

Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest nations and, as many will know, is a country where devastation by floods last year left 700 people dead and more than 500,000 homeless, and has been hit by major flooding again this year. Yet with problems far from over, we hear that they are taking the time and trouble to consider problems elsewhere in the world. As exaggerated reports of Britain’s problems with foot-and-mouth and our own flooding of last year circulate even in Mozambique, it appears that the speaker of the country’s parliament urged politicians to dig deep in their pockets to find money to aid 200 people of Yorkshire whose homes were damaged in the UK’s floods. The amount raised, some 1,000 meticals although worth only around £40 here, is a large amount of money for people of Mozambique, and shows incredible generosity from Mozambique’s leaders. It was, perhaps, only a gesture. But it was a gesture that shows an awareness of the problems of others, and concern to do something for them even if only in a very small way. It may also have been a small thank-you for the aid sent to them during the worst of their troubles.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be so amazing. And perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there are people, even politicians, who can really look further than their own problems. Easy as it may be for us to make small donations to "disaster funds" and for our politicians to pledge our country’s money and resources, I just wonder how many of us, or our politicians, would have done the same as the Mozambique politicians have just done if WE were in their place?
And may I suggest that a few more of us might like to dig into our own pockets and direct a little more cash towards the charities still working in Mozambique?

7th April 2001                        


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