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A party in disarray and on the verge of mutiny.

Byline: Jon WALKER

The botched merger of our ambulance services seems to sum up the state of the Government at the moment.

Plans were drawn up to create one giant service by merging the four existing ambulance trusts in the West Midlands.

The Government launched a consultation, but there seemed to be little doubt that the merger would go ahead, particularly as our police and fire services are also being reformed to create huge, region-wide bodies.

However, the strength of feeling against the reforms in Staffordshire, which has the best ambulance service in the country, led to a re-think.

Perhaps it is significant that Labour MPs vocally opposed the changes in Staffordshire. In other parts of the region, opinion has generally split along party political lines, with the Conservatives opposed to mergers and Labour in favour.

It might also have helped that Staffordshire contains a number of important, marginal seats.

In any case, the decision was made to exclude Staffordshire Ambulance Trust from the merger.

The campaigners had won a famous victory. Ministers had listened to public concerns, and the ambulance service was saved.

Or so it seemed. When full details of the new ambulance services were published, the new West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust was described as covering "the Government office region for the West Midlands" - which includes Staffordshire.

The Department of Health document explained: "Staffordshire to remain separate for up to two years, working in partnership with the West Midlands during that period."

In his statement to the House of Commons, Health Minister Andy Burnham stated simply: "For now, Staffordshire ambulance service will remain a separate trust, working in partnership with the new West Midlands ambulance service, but will eventually merge at a later date."

He was then asked in separate questions by Sir Patrick Cormack (Con South Staffordshire) and Janet Dean (Lab Burton) to promise no merger would take place in two years time "unless the neighbouring merged ambulance service has reached at least the standard of Staffordshire".

However, he gave no such assurance. Lord Warner, another Health Minister, went a little further, claiming in a briefing to the media that there was no deadline for the merger.

But asked to explain how this squared with the documents published by his Department, he simply said he hadn't seen the documents.

It was all a bit of a farce. And it is just one recent example which suggests a Government in disarray.

Tony Blair appeared to promise foreign nationals convicted of crimes in this country would be deported, regardless of the situation in their homeland.

Ministers have been forced to backtrack. Whatever sections of the public and media might say, the Government really can't deport someone if it knows they will be killed or tortured on their return home.

Right now, it's not clear exactly what the policy is, or whether the Government has the will to carry out policy which conflicts with human rights law.

The Prime Minister also prompted a mutiny in his party by strongly hinting that Britain will build nuclear power stations, before a review has reported back.

And one of his former key allies, Charles Clarke, is out for blood after being sacked.

The reshuffle earlier this month was supposed to relaunch the Government, but it still has an air of chaos about it.

Read previous Jon Walker columns at w ww.birminghampost.net/walker
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 19, 2006
Words:563
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