Friday, December 16, 2011

Taxpayers' Alliance gets it wrong on police commissioners

As usual, the TPA is busy pushing the Conservative agenda. Their weekly email today announces another major piece of research highlighting the cost of police authorities - the current structure for scrutiny and control of the police services. The TPA claims that

Directly elected police commissioners will replace the highly paid, but not directly accountable, chief executives of police authorities
They explain that these chief execs get paid an average of £90,000 a year, as part of the annual operating costs. In the West Midlands force area, the chief executive of the police authority (not the chairman, for the sake of clarity) gets paid £109,000 plus pension costs.

Except that the TPA have got it significantly wrong.

The chief executive will continue. As the Home Office admits (emphasis added)

PCCs will be required to appoint a head of paid staff and a chief financial officer. The head of paid staff will be responsible for employing the administrative staff and for acting as monitoring officer for the PCC. The chief financial officer will be responsible for advising the PCC about their financial obligations and the impact of their spending decisions. The PCC may appoint other staff, but all employees will be politically restricted and appointed on merit. The PCC will be required to publish organisational charts and salaries of all staff. PCC staff will be able to join the local government pension scheme in the relevant force area (this is the same pension entitlement as police staff).
Police and crime commissioners do not replace chief executives. They replace the police authority itself. In terms of allowances, that currently costs about £10 million a year (taking the TPAs own figures). The salaries of individual commissioners alone will eat up £4 million, quite apart from any additional staffing or expenses costs - the new police and crime panels to scrutinise the commissioners will consume a further £2 million. Suddenly we're up to £6 million a year as direct costs and once you account for the costs of the elections (£25-£50 million every four years, working out at about £6 million a year if you accept the lower figure) then you suddenly find out that replacing the police authority will actually cost about £12 million a year (or possibly £18 million if the higher election cost figure is right), dwarfing the current police authority member allowances cost.
Good to see the TPA supporting sustaining public sector jobs and public sector pension schemes.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I'm an unashamed convert to the idea of an elected mayor for Birmingham. I believe that we need a single point of contact that has a credible mandate drawn directly from the people of Birmingham so that they can go into bat to get the best deal for our city from government and other national and international partners and investors. We need someone able to make decisions, lead on action - and to be held directly accountable for those decisions and their performance, in the way that a council leader isn't.
This isn't a party political issue, even though I remain very critical of the poor quality of civic leadership shown by the current occupants of that office. When Birmingham needed leadership over the summer rioting, Mike Whitby was invisible, pushing his deputy out instead, but the problems are systemic and not entirely Whitby's fault - he just exemplifies them.
Even as an aspiring council candidate, I can see the weaknesses of the current model at both ends of the spectrum. The council is very slow to change and innovation is stifled by a bureaucracy with a fixed mindset and that all too often feels happiest within the comfort zone of their silo. We know that these are difficult times - the most challenging in a century - for our city and we need local government that is agile, responsive and capable of change to suit local circumstances. Birmingham City Council likes the 'one size fits all' mentality, for that offers security and simplicity, but that doesn't fit the needs of our diverse communities. 
Regionally, the council often adopts an 'Our Way or No Way' approach, which drives away other authorities that should be our partners. Why there should be a Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership and a second one for Birmingham defeats me - our futures are tied together and cross-border working is absolutely crucial to both sides of the West Midlands. We need to look beyond our borders into how we should - how we must - provide regional leadership.
Much as the other boroughs may dislike it, Birmingham remains the powerhouse and has the potential to develop global credibility that will enrich the whole region, but Birmingham's leadership needs to recognise that it has the responsibility to head a partnership, not dominate our neighbours. We really are all in this together.
For me, there are two arms to this strategy. Firstly, a yes vote next May to a city Mayor and secondly increased devolution to genuinely localise services. Here there is a political point to be made - the Tory/Liberal Democrat administration adopted the localised model that Labour offered in 2004, but failed to drive it forward as Labour intended, to bring all services right down to the lowest possible operating level consistent with efficiency. The closer you are to your people, the more responsive you have to be. That's why I'm a big supporter of the ward and constituency committee process - instant local visibility of decisions taken.
Richard Burden wrote a fine piece for LabourList a few days ago and it is certainly worth a few moments of your time to read it. Cllr Phil Parkin, a relatively sane Tory from Sutton Trinity ward, is also a supporter and makes the sound point that aside from the councillors in the Cabinet, formal councillor influence on strategy is strictly limited. A separation of executive power might actually lead to greater influence for councillors through the scrutiny system, which may find even more freedom to hold the mayor to account. 

Thursday saw Nick Clegg dangle the carrot of more powers for mayors or local authorities, although he did add the caveat that these powers would be dependent on local leadership being up to the job. Whether that is code indicating the expectation that these powers will go to mayors is up for question - some think so, others think that these powers will be devolved to local authorities in due course. One thing that is clear is that central government wants to have a single point of contact when they need to talk to Birmingham and Birmingham will benefit from having a single voice, with a clear, city-wide mandate able to speak for our needs.
The No campaign is laughably poor. John Hemming is fronting it with all the charm of a bulldozer, appearing on the Politics Show to warn that the public might vote in a lunatic who could only be removed through sectioning under the Mental Health Act. At the moment, short of criminal behaviour or serious personal financial problems, we can't remove our councillors or even our MPs, no matter how consistently embarrassing they might be or how often a judge might criticise their performance.
Aside from that, it is a little insulting to the electorate - some of whom voted for Mr Hemming - to suggest that they would be taken in, over the course of a six month campaign in the full glare of the modern print, broadcast and social media, is rather hard to believe. Similarly, John worries about a 'power freak' - which is a little rich coming from someone who was in the House of Commons for a matter of months before announcing his candidacy for the leadership of his party, let alone a man who remains in tight control of his party locally and expects to be their candidate for mayor, despite his opposition to the existence of the post. Their website offers speakers to oppose the move to a mayor, but wants to set the rules of the debate in terms of the size of the panel and representation from others. There is an argument to be had about whether the mayor is a good move or not, but the No campaign isn't making it. Even the website is titled Vote No to a Power Freak - which isn't actually an option in the referendum, last time I checked. 
Compare and contrast the amateurish nature of the 'No' campaign to the 'Yes' team's more professional offering, which offers a far more positive starting point to the campaign.
Birmingham is not broken. It is a city with a great history and the potential for an even greater future - we just need to make sure that we have the right people and structures to help write the next chapter. A vote for the mayor next year is a step on that road and all journeys have to begin somewhere. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lib Dems opinions revolving

Liberal Democrats believe that European co-operation is the best way for Britain to be strong, safe and influential in the future. We will ensure that Britain maximises its influence through a strong and positive commitment... Work through the European Union for stricter international regulation of financial services and banking... Work with other countries... including bringing forward urgent proposals for a financial transaction tax 

Liberal Democrat manifesto, May 2010

What Clegg said on Friday morning, in the wake of Cameron's disastrous departure from the negotiating table: 

"The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the coalition government was united, were modest and reasonable. They were safeguards for the single market, not just the UK. There were no demands of repatriation of powers from the EU to Britain and no demands for a unilateral carve-out of UK financial services. What we sought to ensure was to maintain a level playing field in financial services and the single market as a whole. This would have retained the UK's ability to take tougher, not looser, regulatory action to sort out our banking system."
Aside from the utter drivel that this government would take tougher action than that likely to come out of the EU, that's Clegg supporting the PM and opening his mouth before he had the chance to understand the full implication of the utter cock-up that Cameron's decision will prove to be for the future of the British economy. William Hague - who was utterly sideswiped on the Today programme on Friday morning as he was apparently completely unbriefed on the increased role for the IMF - has said that Clegg was fully briefed and in full agreement with policy.
Hague insisted the coalition was on board with the deal as he confirmed that the Liberal deputy prime minister and the chancellor, George Osborne, had been kept abreast of developments by Cameron. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that Clegg "signed up" to what had happened.  

Taking us away from the negotiations is ludicrous. The 'Tobin' financial transaction tax that apparently scared the City could only be brought in by unanimity - it isn't subject to qualified majority voting - so Cameron could have retained a genuine veto over that issue. Rather than do so and demonstrate a commitment to working as part of a union with which our future is inextricably connected, Cameron has gone for the short term gain of calming his party and feeding the instant gratification demanded by the City donors. He could have stayed involved and kept Britain in the conference room - a tenet of British policy over Europe for decades under all governments, even under Thatcher - but he chose not to. 
Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats have been in quiet and irrelevant revolt over the past day or so and Clegg is now apparently manufacturing anger to order
Just 24 hours after appearing to back Cameron, sources close to Clegg made clear that the deputy prime minister believed the PM had been guilty of serious negotiating failures that risked damaging the national interest, British jobs and economic growth.
Clegg's fury puts the coalition under the most severe strain since its formation 19 months ago, with Europe now seen by some MPs as a potential "deal breaker".
One source said Clegg "couldn't believe it" when he was woken at 4am in his flat in Sheffield to be told that talks on how to save the euro at the Brussels summit had "spectacularly unravelled".
Accusing Cameron of failing to play the diplomatic game effectively, the source added: "He could not believe that Cameron hadn't tried to play for more time. A menu of choices wasn't deployed as a negotiating tool but instead was presented as a take it or leave it ultimatum. That is not how he [Clegg] would have played Britain's hand."
Publicly supporting the PM and then openly briefing against him within 24 hours isn't good form. But then neither is publicly burning through all the totemic policies of the Liberal Democrats. Tuition fees were only the beginning. 
Still, you can always rely on John Hemming to support his political friends
I think Cameron was right to use the veto on changes to the treaties. It is entirely right that the 17 Eurozone countries resolve how to get greater fiscal unity which is essential for the success of the Euro and consequential success of the UK. However, that does not mean that we have to sign up to that. We should not try to stand in their way and prevent them resolving their difficulties. However, it is not surprising that unanimity amongst the 27 EU states is difficult to achieve.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rebranding ain't gonna fix this, Nick.

According to the Mail, Clegg has called in the rebranding experts to advise on how to make the party more popular.
Leaked documents reveal that the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted that voters have no idea what his party stands for.
And he apparently thinks that this is a bad thing, rather than a core part of the party's strategy thus far. Both Labour and the Conservatives have fairly clearly defined identities and a related tribal following, both of which the Liberal Democrats. This has allowed them to plough a peculiar furrow unencumbered with baggage, which has manifested itself in a peculiar brand of oppositional opportunism - taking a position in opposition to whichever party is in power and squeezing either the Labour or Tory vote into backing the Liberal Democrat candidate as the 'least worst' option to keep out the other side. While this proved very effective in building a good base of elected councillors and MPs, it was dependent upon the party being the 'safe' option and either being unable to make decisions that offended voters or to be able to blame others for them. Once you are a party of national government, then that option is no longer available to you. 

He appears to have hired proper snake-oil salesmen too. 

the ‘brand advisers’ hired by the Lib Dems have advised Mr Clegg to aim for a less principled approach towards political campaigning. They suggested that once a ‘strategic, long-term brand model’ for the party had been devised, MPs should discover ‘shorter-term themes, straplines and soundbites’ to ‘support short-term political expediency’. A presentation was illustrated by a diagram showing four different ‘audiences’, each of which should be given a different version of the ‘message’.
Anyone who has ever looked at the Liberal Democrats knows that this is exactly the model that they have employed over the years - delivering a message that the audience wants to hear and changing it to suit local conditions, even if that means delivering diametrically-opposed campaigns in different wards. The brand consultants have repackaged existing Liberal Democrat techniques and sold them straight back to the party. That's a kind of genius, really. 

The problem that Clegg has is not that voters have no idea what the party stands for, but that many voters have now seen the party defined by their role in government and don't like how it turned out. Enough voters have a pretty clearly negative image of the party to render the brand toxic in their eyes - they don't have the brand loyalty. Referring voters back to the ending of slavery when the main issue in people's minds is the economy also indicates just how far away from reality Clegg is.

History teaches us that parties can only decontaminate their images once they are out of power. It took Labour over a decade to become a credible alternative choice to the Tories following 1979 and roughly the same timeframe for the Tories to clean up their public image - although their current performance is putting that transformation to the sword. History also shows that changing image also requires changing those who deliver the message - including the leader, which is why defeated Prime Ministers resign as party leader. If Clegg believes that he can reimage the party whilst he remains leader and the party remains in government, he's either going to be the first man to achieve it or he's deluded beyond comprehension.  

I know where my money goes. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The myth of restrictive employment law

We've been told that employers want to hire, but are put off by restrictive employment legislation and the constant threat of tribunals. Oddly, when Vince Cable asked Britain's small businesses what was holding them back, just 6% cited employment legislation as an obstruction to hiring and this doesn't surprise me at all. I've worked for some very large British companies and for some small ones and whenever I've been involved with recruitment - and I have hired over 200 people in my career - we've discussed business needs and costs, but I have never, ever worried about whether we could get rid of the new employee. Indeed, I call as a witness, the noble Lord Heseltine, speaking on the Politics Show on Sunday 20th. 
"When you start talking about enabling people to sack people.... the sort of companies I understand don't sit there saying 'We've got to be able to get rid of people, so therefore we mustn't invest - the risks are too high.' If you're really an enterprising business, you invest because you think it is going to be a success. You might have to readjust, but you can do that"
Businesses hire because they need people to drive themselves forward and to grow. 

Vince has already promised to roll back the unfair dismissal eligibility to two years, just as it was in 1999 - as if that held growth back over subsequent years. It may be that this is simply a performance to allow the Liberal Democrats to demonstrate that they are restraining the worst excesses of the Conservative Party, but perhaps that is the best case scenario. 

It doesn't even make economic sense - a cowed workforce, scared for their jobs are hardly likely to consider moving house or buying the big ticket items that the economy needs us to buy. This is not a recipe for growth, nor will it create jobs. It will simply make more people unemployed and that is bad for those individuals, their families, their communities and our country. We can't afford these changes. 

If you have to get rid of an employee - and sometimes, that is the right thing to do - there is a process to ensure that you do it fairly and properly, in line with natural justice. It doesn't strike me as unreasonable to treat your colleagues as human beings, rather than as mechanistic resources. In fact, it seems to me to be the ethical and progressive way to behave. Look at the German model - their economy has done rather well, despite protection for employees and even the presence of employees on corporate remuneration committees.  

Show me the evidence that winding back our employment protection - protection that is hardly amongst the most stringent in the world - will generate growth or that employers are crying out for change and I might listen. Only might. 

To close, another reminder of the nous demonstrated by that renowned left-wing firebrand, Lord Heseltine. 
"you want to be very careful in political terms that you don't get the reputation that all you are trying to do is to make life rougher and tougher for large numbers of people who, in the end, you want to vote for you."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hemming vs Hemming

The other interesting event actually occurred before the broadcast began, as a minor domestic disagreement broke out between John Hemming and his estranged wife Christine. As the crew were checking for levels and getting the audience used to blokes wandering around with microphones on poles, Christine raised her hand - for she was in the audience, a couple of rows in front of John. She introduced herself only as Christine, surviving after redundancy on jobseeker's allowance of £67 a week and that she used to have a weekly bill of £100 a week at Tesco (which explains how John used to claim £400 a month for food on parliamentary expenses). At that, John raised his hand and the microphone was ceremonially presented to him, for him to point out that the woman who had just spoken was his wife and that she also received £500 a week from him (any money paid for the support of children is exempt from JSA calculations, benefits fact fans). He also said that he wasn't going to be 'stunted' by the BBC - an accusation that Stephen Nolan fiercely denied. John then went and had a chat with the producer in a quiet corner and the producer then had a similar quiet chat with Christine. I don't know what was said, but she didn't attempt to take any further part in the debate, although she did stay for most of the evening. Not sure we've heard the last of her. 

Poverty Debate

Sunday's Radio 5 Live poverty debate with Stephen Nolan was an interesting way of spending late Sunday evening and early Monday morning. It all started when Edwina Currie, who has never been afraid to speak whatever enters her mind, said on an earlier Stephen Nolan show that she didn't believe that we have people in this country who can't find money for food. Unsurprisingly, this led to an outcry and this debate was the outcome and I managed to secure a ticket. For three hours, the evidence was piled up in front of Edwina - Patricia, who runs one of the expanding number of Trussell Trust food banks; Nigel, who is opening a food bank in Sparkbrook; a CAB volunteer who knows that there will be a queue outside the office first thing on Monday and that it will include people who have to try to cope on just £5 a week for food; the eloquent community worker from Coventry who works with people who are on the very margin of society; Louise, who has to rely on family members to help buy food for her baby; or the elderly lady who is facing up to a £100 cut in her winter fuel allowance to pay for the electric heating in her poorly-insulated flat. For three hours, people bore witness to the troubles afflicting people who are clinging on to what passes for an existence in this country and for three hours, Edwina denied it all with a disregard for basic humanity not granted to many.
She has form, of course. Many years ago, as a government minister, she attended a meeting at my old university, when she was asked from the floor what she felt about the old people who would surely die during the difficult winter ahead. Her response was brutally simple 'We've all got to go sometime, dear.' Unsurprising for someone who felt that the best advice for the elderly at risk of hypothermia was to "wear woolly hats and long johns."
Her expertise doesn't just cover poverty, of course. She is an expert on HIV transmission "Good Christian people who wouldn't dream of misbehaving will not catch AIDS"  and on cervical cancer "Nuns don't get it, virgins don't get it" - a comment that was actually cited as a reason why some women did not attend for a potentially life-saving smear test, for fear of being marked as promiscuous and, of course, she was the woman who nearly closed down the British egg industry and saw 2 million hens slaughtered as a result.
As I said, form as long as your arm.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Quinn Wins

Thursday saw the conclusion of the late-autumn by-election campaign in Sparkbrook and a good solid win for Labour's Victoria Quinn and her team. There was a good solid Labour presence on the ground, a stark contrast to the limited Lib Dem presence and the gaggles of Respect members hanging around the polling stations.

The by-election was caused by the resignation of sitting Respect councillor Salma Yaqoub due to ill health and actually called by a couple of Green supporters.

Labour -   3932
Respect -  2301
Lib Dem -   395
Green -       179
Con -          133

Comparing that to the May results, that actually works out to a simple Butler swing of 6.25% from Respect to Labour. The other three parties' vote share has hardly shifted (for the anoraks, the Lib Dems and the Tories dropped by less than a percentage point and the Greens' shifted up by just under half a percentage point. It also gives Victoria a fairly thumping majority of 1631 - actually increasing Tony Kennedy's solid 969 in May. Turnout was - unsurprisingly for a grey, occasionally drizzly day in November - down from the 44% in May, although 33% turnout is quite respectable for a council by-election and higher than some of the turnouts in May.

As always, by-elections are singular beasts and this one can only be used to draw some conclusions about the likely future of Respect as a party grouping on Birmingham City Council and the future isn't a bright one. On this form, Respect will go from having three councillors at the start of May 2011 to having no councillors at all after next May's elections. The loss of Salma from active politics has hurt them badly and not even a flying visit from George Galloway could save them. Out on the ground on Thursday, I even ran into one of their former key workers who had come home to Labour after being disappointed by the failure of Respect to deliver on their grand promises for Sparkbrook.

That leaves Labour with 57 councillors (excluding the Lord Mayor) and one step closer to a majority next May.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gordon Bennett..

Cllr Matt Bennett was clearly in the wrong in sending an email to all 120 City Councillors, officers and contractors that called a fellow councillor - even a political opponent - a rather rude name. The Birmingham Mail redact the exact word, so we are left to guess exactly what he called Cllr Tony Kennedy - 'twit', possibly?   Who knew that Tony was so sensitive?

The core of the problem is that Amey have sent out an email saying that despite a multi-billion, long-term contract, their 'stewards' would no longer attend routine evening ward committee meetings - meetings that are attended by councillors, officers and members of the public. It seems odd that this rule has been introduced after an attack on a member of staff last year and Amey are only now concerned about the safety of their lone workers. A blanket ban on attending ward committees seems to be an excessive step and it is interesting to see the Tories defending this case of 'elf and safety gone mad.' (And for the record, I've a fair bit of experience safely managing lone workers myself).

The cynical amongst us wonder if this is more about costs than safety.

What the Euro revolt says about Cameron

Some excellent points from the Nottingham University politics department.

Cameron seems to be living his premiership on fast forward - he's managed to spark the biggest Tory rebellion on Europe, losing by more than John Major ever did. Tony Blair took six years to lose a vote by a comparable amount and he had a larger majority to play with. Pretty much half of the Tory parliamentary party not on the government payroll or ladder decided to vote against their leader and it is very interesting that over half of the rebels were not old sceptics, but new boys and girls with just over a year in parliament under their belts.

Rebellion is addictive - once you've done it and burnt your ministerial bridges (at least under this Prime Minister), what's to stop you doing it again? For all Cameron's protestations that he has no problem with the rebels and that the matter is closed, he knows that this particular wound is very far from healed. As Tim Montgomerie points out in the Guardian, there is real distrust of this PM amongst his troops - he is seen as being too close to the Liberal Democrats. He wasn't helped today by Nick Clegg's ill-timed promise to fight against any move away from Europe, when internal government order would have been best served by silence on Clegg's part. It is a pretty solid rule in British politics that the electorate does not trust divided parties and the Tory party is divided three ways - the Euro-sceptics who understand the realities and are in the government; the Eurosceptics who stand on their principles and speak for most grassroots Tories; and Ken Clarke.

Montgomerie also raises another issue that has implications for government - that of Cameron's personal work ethic. This government has raised laissez-faire to an art form, but there is a point where you wonder whether it is an attempt to let a thousand flowers of chaos bloom or just laziness on the part of Downing Street. Some of the appalling management over the past year or so - Gove's BSF debacle, Spelman's trials over forests, Gove's books debacle, Lansley's reversals over the NHS and any of the range of avoidable ministerial disasters - all would have benefitted from closer attention from Number 10. Gordon Brown may have been too focussed on the detail personally to see some of the bigger issues, but Cameron appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. With the economy in dire straits and our trading partners in Europe on the verge of panic, now is not the time for the captain of the ship to be resting.

It isn't a question of if, but when the next revolt occurs and unless Cameron takes demonstrable control rapidly, he will find himself on a course for the rocks. Of course, the party can be brutal when it needs to - will they drop the pilot before the next election?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Ed is spot on in handling the EU referendum vote.

Sunny Hundal reckons that Ed Miliband is making tactical mistakes by whipping Labour MPs to vote against a referendum vote in today's debate in the Commons. I think he's wrong and that Ed is spot on.

Whilst it is true that there are different views amongst Labour MPs - Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer are both known as sceptics,  they are nowhere near as bad as the headbangers in the Tory party and there are real gains to be had in supporting the government on this.

Firstly, we should argue strongly that whatever the views about the case for or against a referendum, now is not the time. The focus of the government, business and the political class should be solely on the economy. There is little else of any significance other than steps to economic growth and diverting attention to a political argument. Even more ludicrous is the idea that the European leaders would entertain Britain attempting to renegotiate our position at a time when they are focussed on keeping their countries functionally solvent. We can argue we are acting in the country's best interests, not working out our obsessions at a time when the country can least afford it.

Secondly, there is a tactical reason why backing the government is a good thing on this occasion - it frees up Tory MPs to vote against their leader's wishes and drips further water into those cracks within the party. If it can spark further resignations from junior levels of the government, that just adds to the tactical value. Being able to say that Cameron only held the line as a result of Labour support would be a tremendous victory.

A referendum would put the issue to bed for another generation and I'm convinced that it would be won. With businesses, trade unions, the government and most of Labour (oh, and the Liberal Democrats) lined up in favour of Europe against the massed ranks of the flapping white coats.

So, on this occasion, Sunny, I think you're wrong. Ed is exactly right. Vote with the government this time and enjoy the ongoing squirming.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Calm down dear

So far, the Tories are working overtime to alienate their traditional supporters. They've battered the police, accused the National Trust of being radical left-wing wreckers and now even the Women's Institute, the keepers of the nation's jam, have had enough
“The way they engage with women is not terribly good,” she said. “I don’t know if they listen to us really, quite frankly... We seemed to speak more with ministers a couple of years ago. I have not had as many meetings."
That's 210,000 women alienated over legal aid for domestic violence divorce cases, cuts to public services, cuts to childcare and the scrapping of the 40 year old National Women's Commission, which was established solely to feed the views of women into government.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Just a quick quote

"If individual parliamentarians think it appropriate to act as one-person tribunals of appeal from judicial decisions and without troubling to read the evidence, it may not be the end of civilisation as we know it, but it can lead to a little constitutional untidiness round the edges."
Mr Justice Eady to the Young Bar law conference, 8 Oct 2011. With reference to Hemming, J.

Sorry I've not been writing of late - just no time. I've been missing a stream of great stories though....

Friday, September 30, 2011

Emptying your bins at 80 mph - the ongoing failure of evidence-based policy-making

Commissar Eric has been all across the media this morning, pushing the policy announcement about his plans to restore and protect our human right to have the remains of our curry collected from our bins once a week. I'm not sure that it quite qualifies as a human right alongside the right to life, but that's hardly relevant. Indeed, it isn't relevant that there is no evidence to support the Pieman's ludicrous claims that it will prevent rat infestations or increase recycling. The fact that all the studies demonstrate quite clearly that fortnightly collections actually push people to recycle more and that there is no demonstrable link between rats and fortnightly collections isn't important. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Pickles has managed to find some £250 million - from departmental savings, or so he claims - to support waste collection authorities who want to restore this service. It isn't clear if this is a one-off payment, ongoing support or even what percentage of the cost that this will cover for cash-strapped local authorities.

Equally, Philip Hammond will be delighting the Clarksons of this world by promising an 80 mph speed limit on motorways (although that's out to consultation, so not actually a definite change yet). Apparently, this is going to have an economic benefit by allowing people to get to business meetings faster. The evidence for this is equally poor - in fact, we'd be better off encouraging teleconferencing and we know that the faster you go, the more fuel you consume. Indeed, we'd probably be better off with more variable speed limited stretches of motorway - getting there at a constant, if slower speed, is often faster than travelling at high speed for short bursts before running into a traffic jam. Even the AA - hardly a bunch of leftie treehuggers - reckon that travelling at 80, rather than 70, will use 25% more fuel than the lower speed, increasing CO2 emissions, cost and dependency on fuel imports. If you struggle to see the economic benefit, you'd be right, but you would also miss the point.

The point is that the Tory conference is next week and Pickles and Hammond are throwing some morsels of red meat to the membership. Yes, we know that higher speeds will mean more accidents and more environmental damage, we know that the £250 million found for bins is 70% of the Arts Council budget or a quarter of the scrapped Future Jobs Fund, but at least the Tory members can feel that they've got something.

Evidence is for wimps.

Poop Poop!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Birmingham syndrome - or denial is not just a river in Egypt for the Liberal Democrats

If you happened to see the debate on Newsnight on Monday when Paxman faced an audience of conference-going Liberal Democrats and tried to get them to confess their sins, you would have been struck by their unity of purpose and self-belief that they had no choice but to go into coalition with the Tories, that they were doing the right thing and that the electorate would come to understand this in due course and might reward them at the next election. Of course, some of this is hardly surprising - most of those who choose to go to any party's conference are true believers in their party and any doubts are generally kept for the more private meetings. However, their denial of the obvious, that the party is teetering on the edge of an electoral precipice, is remarkable - Kevin Maguire was the only voice of sanity in that discussion. Perhaps this is a form of Jerusalem syndrome.

The Liberal Democrats aren't accustomed to government and the compromises that this brings - they are attuned to being the party of eternal opposition, the safe place to put your vote knowing that it won't do much damage, the centrist party that disaffected Labourites and Tories can swing towards to keep their eternal foes out of office. For years, that has been a very successful election ploy - hence the 'two horse race' graphics that are a feature of every Liberal Democrat campaign, promising that one party cannot win here, so making it safe for supporters of that party to vote Lib Dem to keep the other side out. Make no mistake, having your party in government is very seductive - power is the only way to get things done and most Labour supporters would agree that Labour over 14 years did achieve many things in line with Labour ideals and principles, as well as making mistakes along the way. The same would be said by Tories about Thatcher and Major. Governmental records are always imperfect in the eyes of their party activists - it is the art of the possible, not necessarily the home of the idealist. As an aside, that's why I've always believed that Labour supporters struggle when we are in government - we attract idealists by the coachload who believe in an imperative to improve life for the many and get disappointed when we fail to build a new Jerusalem by the end of the first term.

If we look ahead to the next election, then one of two narratives seem likely and both revolve around the economy, which is likely to remain the most pressing issue for most of the decade.

In the first - the government ideal view, perhaps - two years of pain and grief in cuts are resolved by 2013/4, there is growth in the economy, people start to feel more secure as private sector jobs replace the ones lost in the public sector and perhaps Osborne is able to offer some pre-election tax cuts in the 2015 budget, just as the government goes to the country. The public are relieved that they can see the sunlit uplands ahead, accept that the service cuts were necessary and have adjusted to the new reality, so are prepared to give the government another chance. Given that the Tories will be able to paint the economic revival as their doing - after all, the Liberal Democrats opposed swingeing cuts in 2010, as did Labour -  Cameron and Osborne will come out fighting, expecting their just rewards as the economic saviours of the nation.

The Liberal Democrats will be left to trumpet their supporting role, hoping against hope that their two horse strategy attracts Tory voters desperate to keep Labour out of office in Labour/LD marginals, but they will quite likely be deserted by many of their soft-Labour supporters, risking the LD/Con marginals falling to the Conservatives. In reality, Labour will remind the electorate at every opportunity that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories on controversial legislation and by the nature of things, some of that legislation will have caused problems in services that people hold dear. Even if you think that the government has it right on education, health, defence or crime, something is bound to go wrong with implementation and the Liberal Democrats will be held jointly responsible. The likely outcome here is a Tory majority, with a rump of Lib Dem MPs, some of them new and untested, but probably no more than half of the number that they currently have.

In the alternative view, which is likely to gain ground as the juggernaut of depression looms large on the carriageway ahead, the economy stagnates, unemployment rises and inequality grows further. Any tax cuts from Osborne are perceived as desperate bribes or the plans are postponed. Perhaps the Tories throw their friends to the wolves and say that if they had been allowed a free hand, rather than being restricted by the Liberal Democrats, then they could have resolved things better - there are bound to be a few green shoots by that point. The plaintive cries from the Liberal Democrats about what they achieved in government, that they have 75% of their manifesto enacted, will be drowned out by Labour reminding them that the Lib Dems voted with the Tories and pushed through the failed economic plans that cost jobs and didn't encourage growth. Perhaps some of the Tory/LD marginals will be saved, as Labour voters hold their noses and decide that an impotent Lib Dem is better than a Tory, but the Labour/LD marginals will fall apace and return a Labour majority, with again, a rump of Lib Dem MPs numbering no more than 25.

However you look at this, the Liberal Democrats appear to be stuffed. If the economy recovers, the credit will go to Cameron and Osborne. If it tanks, the Liberal Democrats will be seen by the electorate as equally to blame - the voters are cruel masters and will brook no whimpering from Clegg or his successor. In the meantime between now and 2015, the Liberals have a number of big local election days to come and the historic experience is that being in government is toxic to your local chances. 700 councillors disappeared this May and we can surely expect similar results on upcoming election days. For all some Liberals were excited about a handful of council by-election wins, those are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This will erode their activist and councillor base and that will take time to rebuild - look at the experience of Labour or the Conservatives. It took each of those parties a decade to recover from their beatings in 1979 and 1997 to the point where they regained campaigning credibility and realistic momentum.

The suggestion being touted is that the Liberal Democrats will engineer a divorce at some point late in the coalition and probably replace their toxic leader - although none of the other potential candidates appear particularly attractive and Chris Huhne's speech was positively soporific, given that he has piloted the Green Deal through parliament (a Labour policy, I will note). Whether this will allow them to put some clear water between them and the Tories sufficient to allow the public to tell them apart is questionable. Even if the split were to be engineered over a 'point of principle' - the 50% tax rate currently looks like a prime candidate for the cause - will the public forgive the Lib Dems? I'm very far from convinced.

None of this is helped by the boundary changes, which - if they come to pass for 2015 - are likely to cost the Liberal Democrats about a third of their current English MPs before a vote is cast. Nick Clegg sacrificed their electoral chances for a badly-timed referendum on electoral reform, one that they were always doomed to lose and thereby put electoral reform off the public agenda for a generation - indeed, I'd be surprised if I see it return within my lifetime. He and his colleagues threw away the one totemic policy that has survived since the days of the SDP and in return, they are colluding in a shameful attempt to fix the electoral system to deny any other party a sniff of government.

Putting my party hat back on, the real lesson for Labour is that we need to train our fire on the Tories. They will be the only other party in the game come 2015.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hemming - he feels your pain

"It's obviously very sad when people lose their jobs, but they need to understand why it's in everyone's interest"
John Hemming MP, BBC News 21 Sept 2011

Can anyone think of somebody else who should lose their job and it would be in everyone's interest?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Welcome to Birmingham

This poster is almost directly opposite the Liberal Democrat conference venue - a reminder of another broken promise as they celebrate their success in government.

Friday, September 16, 2011

George Osborne's admission of failure

"George Osborne has warned that the Bank of England’s strategy of quantitative easing is a “leap in the dark”. The Shadow Chancellor described the decision to effectively print more money as a “last resort”, necessary because of the “complete failure” of Labour’s other measures to tackle the recession. He told BBC News, "I don't think anyone should be pleased that we have reached this point. It is an admission of failure and carries considerable risk.” He stressed, "Let us hope that this approach taken by the Bank of England does lead to an easing of credit conditions.” And he warned, "This is a leap in the dark and we will see whether it works."
"George Osborne has opened the door to new forms of quantitative easing by the Bank of England as concerns mount in the Treasury over the state of the economy. Speaking to journalists in Marseilles, the chancellor made it clear he saw no barriers to a second round of quantitative easing – creating money to pump into the economy – if a request came from the Bank, and raised no objections to the possibility of the Bank extending its purchases to assets other than gilts"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pushing the boundaries

Proposals to change the parliamentary constituency boundaries leaked within a couple of hours of them being released to the denizens of the parliamentary estate. Based upon the leaks, here's some thoughts on what it means for Birmingham.

Aside from the big news that commas have been abolished from parliamentary constituency names, it has some interesting effects on the Birmingham parliamentary landscape, given that the commission has a new mandate to cross borough boundaries in an attempt to equalise the size of constituencies within 5% of a national average.

The headline is that Liam Byrne's Birmingham Hodge Hill is rudely dismembered and disappears. While Selly Oak also vanishes, there is still a constituency that is a recognisable replacement as Birmingham retains seven constituencies entirely within the metropolitan boundary and two that reach out into other boroughs. We also have several wards that belong to Birmingham only at local level.

Here's a quick guide with some very quick and dirty views on the notional winners of last year's election on the new boundaries. I tweeted some other figures last night, but I've refined them to take into account conversion of council votes to parliamentary votes and the willingness of voters to vote for two different parties at parliamentary and local level. I have genuinely tried to be objective in my views on the likely outcome for each new seat, but the discussion is open. Of course, these notional majorities are based on the figures for the last general election and we know that the political landscape has changed massively in 18 months, so this is, as Peter Snow used to say, just a bit of fun. Don't bet your house or your career on these figures.

Birmingham Northfield - Lab HOLD
This retains the current Northfield wards of Kings Norton, Longbridge and Northfield, but brings in Bournville from Selly Oak. Notionally, Labour has a majority of just around 1800 votes in this seat, but the Lib Dem vote would be decisive here. My first pass over this constituency actually gave it an 1100 vote Tory majority, but I've revised my calculations.

Birmingham Perry Barr - Lab HOLD
Handsworth Wood, Lozells & East Handsworth and Perry Barr, but now with added Aston from Ladywood. Sure to be a rock-solid Labour seat, with a majority even on last year's figures in excess of 11,600 - over double the runner-up Lib Dem vote.

Birmingham Yardley - Lib Dem HOLD
This keeps Acocks Green, South Yardley, Stechford & Yardley North, but exports Sheldon - a solid Lib Dem seat, even this year - to boost Lorely Burt's chances of hanging on in Solihull. To maintain the size, it acquires Bordesley Green from the defunct Hodge Hill constituency. Notionally, this is now a 1200 vote majority for the Lib Dems, but I would posit that this is incredibly vulnerable given local shifts in the vote and - even trying to hold back my partiality - would expect this to go Labour under the new boundaries. Losing Sheldon will hurt.

Sutton Coldfield - Con HOLD
Shock horror here. Sutton Four Oaks, Sutton Vesey and Sutton Trinity stay at home, while Sutton New Hall plays away in Erdington. Joining the party is Kingstanding, but this still leaves it as a safe Tory seat with a 12,300 majority.

Birmingham Erdington - Con GAIN
A previously solidly safe Labour seat now crosses the floor, as the safe Tory wards of Sutton New Hall and Solihull's Castle Bromwich join Erdington, Stockland Green and Tyburn to create a notional Tory majority of around 3000 votes. Yet again, though, you would have to question what happens if the Lib Dem vote collapses. Gareth Compton, the former Tory councillor and chair of the local party seems happy with the outcome, as well he might. This could be the first seat to send an Alden to parliament. And not the one you'd expect.

Birmingham Edgbaston - Lab HOLD
Whilst Deirdre Alden is crowing about Gisela's apparent imminent downfall, I'd question that logic.  Only Edgbaston ward survives in the new seat, which is really the new Selly Oak as it has the peculiar combination of Moseley & Kings Heath and Sparkbrook rolling in from Hall Green as Selly Oak loses its eponymous constituency and jumps into the mix as well. I'm predicting a 4400 Labour majority here - possibly more as the Respect vote collapses in Sparkbrook and comes home, as well as the problems for the Lib Dems in Moseley.

Birmingham Harborne - Lab HOLD
Colour me surprised - and Deirdre needn't get excited either. She gives this a notional Tory majority, but I think that's wrong. My initial figures also gave this a 2000 Tory majority, but refining them reverses that to a 2100 Labour lead. This new seat is made up of Bartley Green, Harborne and Quinton from Edgbaston with the addition of Weoley from Northfield and Old Warley from Sandwell, which imports a net 400 or so Labour votes. I've classed this as a hold, as this really replaces the current Birmingham Edgbaston, but I think that this one could absolutely go either way and is a classic marginal. As with many, the Liberal Democrat vote will be crucial and if Gisela were not to stand, then the loss of the incumbent personal vote could wipe that majority out at a stroke. Realistically, this one is in play.

Birmingham Ladywood - Lab HOLD
Holding on to Ladywood and Nechells and bringing in Hodge Hill and Washwood Heath, this should have a virtually indestructable Labour majority of over 8000 - assuming that the Lib Dem vote is maintained. Which it won't be.

Birmingham Hall Green - Lab HOLD
This keeps Hall Green and Springfield, but brings in Brandwood and Billesley from the disappearing Selly Oak. I'm giving this a 5500 Labour majority, but there's a notional 10,000 Lib Dem votes up for grabs here, so again, if they transfer to another party, they could be decisive.

So, Liam Byrne will be looking for a new seat, whilst all the other Birmingham MPs should be able to shuffle round a bit without too much of a fist fight. Of course, Liam has an option - he just needs to follow Bordesley Green and look to Yardley, raising the possibility of an entertaining bout between him and Hemming. I know where I'd put my money. Additionally, the loss of Erdington to the Tories leaves Jack Dromey in trouble.

And of the wards that drift off into other orbits? Sheldon goes to Solihull, which might help Lorely Burt, but I rather doubt it, given the general mood of the country. Some of the southern Solihull wards now slope off into an elongated Kenilworth & Dorridge seat, bringing it up to the borders of Birmingham in Shirley. Shard End drifts off into a peculiarly revised Meriden seat, which I suspect could be rather closer for the Tories in future than it is now. Soho moves over to a Smethwick seat and Oscott goes to Walsall South.

This whole proposal is dependent on the single round of consultation and a final vote through parliament. Given the axe that will fall on a number of seats - Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron and John Leech all look very vulnerable to these changes and even Vince Cable could find himself fighting Zac Goldsmith - there is no guarantee that it will be put into place in time for the next election, so this might yet prove to be a colossal waste of time. Rumour has it that some government supporters are already looking for something to sweeten their parliamentary retirement in return for a vote for Christmas.

UPDATED: Adjusted position on Harborne slightly and corrected an oversight on Erdington - I forgot that the safe Tory seat of Castle Bromwich crossed the border.

UPDATED AGAIN: I may have misread Cllr Alden's post on her not-a-blog site.... She's added another one now *waves*. I haven't checked the rules on boundary moves for sitting Labour MPs, but I don't think she's far wrong. She does make the assumption that all MPs currently sitting will be seeking re-election - it is quite possible that Roger Godsiff may decide to call it a day and Steve McCabe would actually seem to have a reasonable claim on Hall Green, as it will contain two of his wards, rather than the one that falls into Edgbaston. Oddly, Roger would have a reasonable claim  Edgbaston only contains one of his. Don't let the names confuse you. She has a point about why Edgbaston continues to be called that, when it only contains the Edgbaston ward and bears no real relation to the makeup of the current constituency although I don't think University is an awful lot better. You could say the same about a number of constituency names, in fairness.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Send in the clowns....

Don't bother, they're here....

Musicians and clowns pictured here in advance of ArtsFest.

Cllr Martin Mullaney has been fulminating lately and claiming that the local press are biased against him and his Regressive Partnership ilk. I can remember similar arguments being posed in private by Labour figures before we lost power in 2004 and the truth is the same now as it was then.

The Birmingham Post and Mail aren't biased against the Tory/Lib Dem coalition because they are operating under instructions from a left-wing cabal running Mirror Group. They are simply going where the stories lead them and that usually means in the direction of money and power, which points them squarely towards the local authority and its political leadership. With the current problems at the heart of the authority, there is plenty of fuel for these stories. Martin would be better focussing on his job, rather than on imagined media bias.

For more than six months, the higher echelons of the City Council have been of the opinion that the current coalition will lose control in May 2012 and I fully expect that by the end of 2012, the Birmingham Post and Mail will be infuriating the new Labour majority leadership as Paul Dale and the others hold them up to the light.

Tax principles?

With Vince Cable apparently threatening the nuclear option of resigning if the banking changes aren't carried through, perhaps more interesting is the apparent fight over the future of the 50p tax rate. 

Chris Huhne is quoted as saying
If the cut in the top rate of tax is just a way of helping the Conservatives' friends in the City to put their feet up, then forget it. They are simply not going to get the votes in the House of Commons.
And Danny Alexander added that
Our priority is to reduce the tax burden for people on low and middle incomes. I think the last thing we need at a time when everyone in the country is feeling the pinch, where we are asking people across all parts of the economy to help contribute to those efforts to deal with the economic problems, to have a focus on the tax burden for the wealthiest. 

All this follows on from Vince Cable's comments last month, which proved the opening salvoes of this little battle 
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have always made it clear that if there is scope for cutting taxes and, there isn’t a great deal for scope at the moment, the priority is cutting taxes for people on low and middle incomes
Clearly, they are quite right. Cutting the top rate of tax at the moment would send all the wrong signals, despite some of the wilder claims from the right, who appear to think that we should incentivise the rich by cutting taxes, but challenge the poor by cutting their income. On the one hand, this is a restatement of Liberal Democrat principles, but on the other, it is ideally placed to deflect some of the discontent that is to be expected at this week's party conference right here in Birmingham. More broadly, it also puts some clear water between the Tories and the LibDems, thinking ahead to the general election campaign of 2015, when that gap may be the difference between electoral annihilation and the survival of a rump of MPs. It might even provide an opportunity to engineer a political separation prior to the election as the sense self-preservation becomes overwhelming. 

Whether anyone actually buys this political posturing as an example of principle is a different matter and on the current attitudes of the electorate towards the Liberal Democrats, few will. 

Monday, September 05, 2011

An open letter to my MP

Dear John,
While there are many things on which we disagree politically, I'm writing to you as a constituent, using a service provided by 38 Degrees, to ask you to stand up for a service that has been vitally important to my family and to the lives of your constituents, as well as being perhaps the greatest innovation in British healthcare - the NHS itself. Without it, I would not have a daughter, a mother or both of my parents-in-law.

I know that Lib Dems are planning to meet in Parliament tonight to talk about the NHS reforms.

These changes weren't in anyone's manifesto and certainly not detailed even in the Coalition Agreement that you and your party agreed to.

As you may be aware, 38 Degrees has sought legal opinion that indicates that competition law will apply to the NHS, risking long drawn-out and expensive legal arguments over contracting of services. The cost of the restructuring will directly impact on front line services to patients - we're already seeing waiting times rise and this will get worse over the coming years.

The bill will remove accountability for the NHS from the Secretary of State and transfer it to local, unaccountable commissioners and will create a massive, confusing postcode lottery.

We even found out over the weekend that the government is already discussing opportunities for foreign healthcare providers to take over NHS services on a for-profit basis. The government is intent on selling off one of the most cost-effective healthcare systems in the world, despite opposition from every level within the medical and care professions.

Don't be a part of destroying the National Health Service. Make our voice heard in tonight's meeting and stand up for the NHS and your constituents. Make the right decision, John. You won't be alone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hemming's Law II

A while back, I wrote about a case in Doncaster where John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to raise a very difficult family law case. As I wrote at the time, this was a very difficult case involving allegations of child abuse made against a father by his former wife. The case reared up again this week, as the President of the Family Division took a rare decision to name all the adults involved because of the lengths that the mother and her unqualified 'investigator' went to to put these 'scandalous' allegations into the public domain, in clear breach of court orders. He wanted it to be clear that there was absolutely no credibility to the allegations about the father, having reviewed the evidence - the third judge to do so and the third to find no evidence against the father. Indeed, it was felt that the mother's behaviour in coaching the daughter to repeat the allegations against the father actually caused significant harm to the child.
"These proceedings have had a serious effect on the life of the father and have threatened the stability of the child. Her mother's actions are wholly contrary to her interests. The father is entitled to tell the world, and the world is entitled to know, that he is not a paedophile, that he has not sexually abused his daughter and that the allegations made against him are false."
The 'investigator' and 'child psychologist' Elizabeth Watson apparently referred to herself as 'Elizabeth of the Watson family' - an indicator that she may adhere to the delusion of the 'freeman on the land' brigade, who decline to accept jurisdiction of the law courts on anything other than their own terms, which are needless to say, entirely at odds with centuries of public jurisprudence and based on rather peculiar interpretations. This may go some way towards explaining why the judge lost patience with her and jailed her for 9 months for contempt of court - that and her insistence on breaching court orders. Indeed, the judge nearly ruled her to be mentally ill.

John Mann, the redoubtable Labour MP for Bassetlaw - and whose constituent Vicky Haigh was at the time - is furious and has called for Hemming to resign as he is unfit to hold office following his abuse of parliamentary privilege. 

Liberal values?

Oh for the good old days when you knew what the Liberal Democrats believed.

Way back in 2003, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, Paul Burstow spoke in a party conference debate on banning the smacking of children. 

"It is a terrible indictment of our society that, though smaller and more vulnerable, children still have less protection under the law...We are not pleading a special case for children, just equality and the freedom to grow up without violence... What changing the law does, as we have seen in Sweden, is it provides the backbone to the educational campaigns by sending out the message as a society that it is not OK to hit a child." 
 Speaking in support of the motion, Baroness Walmsley added,
"Learning from Europe, we should scrap this archaic law to discourage hitting children and help us promote positive and more effective forms of discipline.The law educates and sets standards in all spheres of society, including how we behave in the home."

In less than a decade, we now have John Hemming MP - a man increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories - calling for parents to be allowed to hit their children, against the policy of his own party. Perhaps even more shocking is that the Daily Express described him as a senior Liberal Democrat, when he is clearly a loose cannon on the gun deck and irresponsible at best.

The inquiry into the riots must look at the way in which the state undermines parental discipline. Smacking children rarely does any long-term harm.
Well, that's not what assorted charities believe and not what the research shows. It doesn't work and it raises children to believe that violence is the right response. Let's ask Miriam Stoppard:
Scientists from Canadian and American universities have found that smacking kids, instead of using ­non-physical punishment, such as time outs, actually defeats the purpose. It leads to poorer discipline among the kids who are smacked. They may comply with rules in the short term to avoid being smacked but in the long term they fail to understand the reasons behind corporal punishment. The researchers have also found that it reduces a child’s emotional intelligence.
The NSPCC are also quite clear on it - it is never a good idea - and I would tend to believe them rather than Mr Hemming's peculiar views.
Parents may believe there are occasions when only a smack will do. For example, your child is really cheeky and disobedient; your toddler runs into the road; one of your children bites a playmate. It can be tempting to think a smack sorts out these incidents quickly, but it does nothing to teach your child how you want him to behave.
Instead, it:
  • gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions
  • may lead children to hit or bully others
  • may encourage children to lie, or hide feelings, to avoid smacking
  • it can make defiant behaviour worse, so discipline gets even harder
  • leads to a resentful and angry child, damaging family relationships if it goes on for a long time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Slugger' Lines gets tough on the causes of crime at home

Predictably, Cllr John Lines is eager to throw his weight around to demonstrate his right wing disciplinarian attitudes.
"We have 65,000 council houses and hundreds of these looters will be going before the courts, so I am quite positive that many of these criminals will be council tenants. I have thousands of decent law-abiding families queuing up for council houses and will waste no time getting rid of these scum of the Earth."
As we know, when it comes to violence and anti-social behaviour, Cllr Lines is something of an expert

While I have no time for tenants who make their neighbours' lives a misery or those who consistently disrupt their neighbourhoods, I'm concerned that eviction isn't used excessively to punish families for the offences of a junior member - I'd ask if that is likely to build broad faith in the system or perhaps set up further problems down the line as a result of disillusionment now. Some of those policies that may make the right wing disciplinarians feel all powerful may have unforeseen consequences ahead as they cause further disconnection between people and the community - exclusion is rarely the answer. The alternative, support and intervention, is far more challenging, but potentially far more effective. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The next big issue

I've noted before that the Tory party has historically been perceived as the party of law and order - capturing that ground was key to Labour's victory in 1997 and when we left office, crime was falling and we had more police officers than at any point in our history. Although Thatcher was no friend of the public sector, she ensured that the police were properly paid and reasonably resourced. Politically, law and order is always a top line subject - consistently towards the top of people's concerns - and is, after all, at the heart of what the state should prioritise, the protection of its citizens. The police are also a service that is consistently trusted by the public, far more than politicians or the media.

All of that makes the current government's attitude to the police all the more surprising. Previously, it has seemed to be labelled in the same way as the rest of the public sector and ripe for 'reform' or 'cutting' as it is better known. The result has been predictable and the government seems to have lost the confidence of the dressing room, with the police staff associations lining up to express dissatisfaction and concern.

16,000 sworn officers are to be released through recruitment freezes and forced retirements. To put that into context, that is the same as firing every officer in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, West Mercia and Staffordshire. To add to that, there are a further 16,000 civilian police posts to be removed and we can expect many of those roles to be filled by officers, taking still more away from frontline policing. No sane person can expect this to leave the quality of policing untouched - although the Home Secretary maintains that it will. 16,000 is also the number of officers from across the country deployed to London to quell the looting that has scarred the capital. Indeed, despite the assurances from the Home Secretary and Nick Clegg, more than half of the British public believe that the police are already under-resourced, despite the best efforts of the chief constables. As Hugh Orde puts it
Chief constables have minimised the impact on the frontline. We will have to have some very honest, straightforward conversations with government in years three and four. We have to understand what sort of service we want and what we want it to do, and not do
That does not sound like a service looking forward to working with tightened budgets, although it should be said that they felt able to work with Labour's planned 12% cuts, but not with the 20% promised by the government.

The scrapping of the world-leading Forensic Science Service has also been criticised as ham-fisted and rushed, as it has forced police services into unexpected and truncated tendering processes with various private providers in what is an experiment in the almost total privatisation of a vital function of our justice system - other countries keep that firmly in public hands. The service may not have been a money spinner, but then the legal system is supposed to administer justice, not turn a profit.

The disorder will put funding of the police straight back on the table - it seems impossible that the police service will be required to cut as deep as the government demanded, so we can surely expect the government to review the situation urgently. If they do not, then it is a fair question to ask if the police would be able to respond to this sort of issue if it were to happen once they have finished their budget cuts. With the security-hungry Olympics only a year away, can Britain afford to risk a repeat of the past few days? Once ministers see the bill for riot damage that will be presented to police services across the country over the next couple of weeks as insurers and others seek redress for their costs, then the reality will finally strike home. This is a massively destructive electoral liability for the Tories - lose this one and they have lost a cornerstone of their political genetic blueprint. The fact that, thus far, the Tories are facing down the police and promising that the cuts must continue is intriguing and will prove to be a political mistake.

That is not to say that the police should not be looking to raise their game. In recent weeks, the News International saga has take a number of police careers and looks likely to take more before it concludes, as vast quantities of previously concealed dirty washing is laundered in the glare of publicity. The Duggan shooting last week typified a mendacious approach to the truth from the police when faced with potential controversy - they spun a story in the favour of the police in the sure knowledge that the fastest story sticks. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, many people will only remember that when stopped and challenged by armed police officers, Duggan opened fire, leaving a bullet embedded in a police officer's radio. The fact that he didn't fire and that the bullet has now been demonstrated to be police issue is indicative of the spin to which the Met press team have been used to putting on a story. Remember the story spread about de Menezes following the shooting - he wore a bulky coat, he ran from police, he vaulted barriers at Stockwell underground station? All untrue, but all stuck in the popular memory, despite being later overtaken by the facts revealed by investigation, but all pushed to friendly correspondents in an attempt to minimise damage to the Metropolitan Police.

But, just as this past week has shown some of the worst and best elements of society, the police have risen to the occasion, after a shaky start when they lost control of parts of London, simply because they were outnumbered and unable to respond fast enough to flashmob disorder, blossoming in one part and then fading away to appear somewhere else. Have a read of Inspector Winter's fine account on his blog and in the Telegraph, an anonymous officer caught up in public order policing away from his day job in specialist surveillance.

The criticisms of the police that I have heard have made me angry.
When you have 20 or 30 officers facing a crowd of hundreds, many of them armed with bricks and petrol bombs, and you know you have to obey the limits of the law even when your attackers are not – well, solutions are just not as simple as critics would have you believe. We were outnumbered, encumbered by our equipment and drained.

Would water cannons and baton rounds have helped? In practical terms, water cannons take time to deploy and the riots were so fast moving that they would have been quickly left behind. Also, their presence would have ramped up the aggression. As for baton rounds, we would immediately have faced an outcry from the usual complainers.
We have trained and trained for this. But in the situations we’ve found ourselves, with riots kicking off all around us, another three starting almost as soon as we had contained one, there was simply no viable way to take back the streets at a stroke.
I have maintained throughout this week that the more repressive forms of crowd control were not the answer to this disorder, both for operational reasons and because they would fundamentally shift the relationship we have developed with a police service that operates with our consent. The correct response was what developed over the next few hours and days - overwhelming numbers of police out on the streets with the mobility to respond and intelligent deployment to flashpoints. That has been followed up by an unprecedented number of suspects being arrested, charged and placed before a court within a matter of hours. Indeed, Inspector Winter revealed that he'd been on a warrant execution where the suspect had slept through the noise of his door being battered down and was awoken by the police, allowing Insp Winter to utter the immortal line 'Get your trousers on, you're nicked' - something he has been waiting fifteen years to do (although we assume he followed it up with the formal caution).

It is a mark of how fractured the relationship between the government and the senior ranks has become that there is a very public spat ongoing between them over who can take the credit for bringing the situation under control, given that the PM, the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary were all on holiday when it kicked off and by the time they returned, plans were already well advanced. The acting commissioner of the Met, Tim Godwin acidly observed, even as senior government members are prowling the riot-hit communities to demonstrate that they care, that
“I think after any event like this, people will always make comments who weren’t there.... The issue around the numbers, the tactics – they are all police decisions and they are all made by my police commanders and myself”

Theresa May has been pushing the line that she ordered the redeployment of numbers of police and a shift in tactics and Sir Hugh Orde has joined the fray
That politicians chose to come back is an irrelevance in terms of the tactics that were by then developing... The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference – they were a function of numbers being available"
The Home Secretary yesterday very pointedly praised the front line officers for their efforts in quelling the riots - ignoring the senior officers who made the whole thing work. Intriguingly, a source is suggesting to the Independent that Cameron had to be talked down from putting the army onto the streets, a decision that would have had dramatic consequences for this government and the police. That seems credible, given Cameron's wild promises to deploy water cannon at 24 hours' notice that followed, but is rather disturbing in what it indicates about Cameron's leadership and crisis management skills.

Aside from the lunacy of their plans to cut police numbers - something that nobody outside government believes can possibly leave front line policing unaffected - there is also the ongoing issue of the next Commissioner of the Metropolis. On current form, it seems unlikely that either Godwin or Orde will be in line for the job, although Orde is probably the best one to take on the role of leading a service in crisis at the top command level. Cameron has this whacked-out idea that he wants to appoint an outsider, Bill Bratton, the former chief of police in both New York and LA and credited with turning round both those forces. Frankly, this seems an insult to senior British officers - that not one of them is deemed capable of doing the job and that we should have to turn to someone with no experience whatsoever of the culture of British policing. Ironically, it looks as though Cameron's plans may founder on immigration grounds, but Bratton is to be invited over to consult on riot control. Again, Orde weighs in
The leadership of this service understands policing. We all started where our brave officers were the other day. We start at the bottom, we move up and we learn and we move on.
And through all this, nobody has yet raised the imminent spectre of the elected police commissioner, who would have been the centre of blame for the unrest and disorder, despite having no operational control over the police service in their care. The police are being politicised and it is to their credit that the senior officers are fighting a rearguard action against it. For all their faults, we need an independent police service that is professionally run, not one at the whim of an elected official.

This government is eroding the ability of the police to do its job, it is eroding the political independence of the service and it is demoralising the men and women that we rely on to deliver it. They have lost confidence in their political masters and that should worry us all.