Friday, 9 November 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners - a bad idea, but vote anyway

Next week, we will be asked to go to the polls to elect 41 new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Optimistic commentators are predicting a turnout of 20%, or even less.

Until the last few days, there has been little or no publicity given to these new jobs, so I thought I’d share my thoughts about why I think it’s a very bad idea, but why I still think we should all vote.

A deeply flawed concept…

On the face of it, it’s an attractive idea to abolish ‘bureaucratic’ police committees and replace them with one person who is directly accountable to the electorate. However, there are several reasons why this is not the case.

The current system is more democratic. Police Authorities (in my case the Greater Manchester Police Authority) is made up from councillors drawn from across the area and representing all political parties. The interests of different areas (e.g. Oldham and Manchester) are therefore represented. In future a single person, the PCC, will have the powers currently vested in those committees and will be expected to represent the views of the entire police force area, however diverse that might be. This is a retrograde step.

The PCCs will be politicians, whatever they say to the contrary. There has been much comment on the lack of high calibre candidates for these roles. The Lib-Dems, for example, are only fielding 24 candidates, and a quick glance down the lists of those standing reveals a large number of has-been and never-quite-were politicians. Some candidates are ex cops, or former army officers, who will no doubt say they are apolitical, but that’s rubbish. Once someone stands for election, and is put in charge of a multi-million pound budget, they are by definition politicians, so let’s not kid ourselves.

We are told that the PCCs will only concern themselves with strategy and will stay away from operational issues. Now, I’ve nothing against politicians per se, but I worked closely with them for nearly all of my working life, and I never met one who wasn’t primarily motivated by keeping the position they held and getting re-elected. There is no way that these politicians will not seek to influence strategy, budget priorities and operations in ways that enhance their popularity and re-electability. That will happen, it’s just a fact of political life. I’m not saying they will do anything improper, of course, but look at national and local  politicians and try to find one that doesn’t seek to benefit the people who vote for them. [I’m excluding from this argument the Lib Dem’s disgraceful volte-face on tuition fees which has alienated the entire student vote.]

The 192 candidates are not representative. I don’t have ethnicity figures, but 82% are male according to the ACPO website. I’d be willing to bet that very few are from minority ethnic communities. Given that these ‘stale, male and pale’ (according to Vera Baird QC, a Labour candidate)  PCCs will have the power to appoint Chief Constables and other very senior ranks, can we imagine that those appointments will improve diversity at the top of police forces? Can we imagine either that PCCs will appoint candidates who they know are going to disagree with them and hold very different views? I, for one, don’t want to see a series of yes-men, or women, appointed to run police forces.

But Vote Anyway…

So if PCCs are such a bad idea – and as I hope I’ve made it clear I think it is – why should you bother to vote? I’ve struggled with this question myself, and I think there are two main reasons.

Firstly, as a matter of principle I believe tha taking part in any election is a civic duty, part of the responsibilities we have as members of a democratic society.

Secondly, whether we vote or not, someone will get elected. Although the BNP decided at the last minute to boycott the elections, UKIP is fielding a significant number of candidates, including in Greater Manchester, and there are several ‘English Democrat’ candidates. I don’t know anything about the independents. The fewer people that vote, the greater the chances that an extremist candidate will be elected, and I don’t think anyone sensible would want that.

So there you are. A deeply flawed concept, destined, I believe, to fail. But it’s going to happen, so please take the trouble to vote.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Don't believe everything you read!

I read in The Times today that this week the cost of living hit its lowest level for two years.

A little later, I saw a TV advert saying that everything in a store was ‘up to half price’.

And when the Mail runs one of its almost daily health scare stories, it gets hysterical about the risks of an illness being ‘increased by 20%!!!’

Now, I only just scraped a pass at ‘O’ level maths (although, to be fair, according to Michael Gove that probably means I’d be A* at GCSE (I wouldn’t)) but I’d like to look at little more carefully at those statements.

Firstly, the level of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (the truncated index the Government uses to depress benefit and pension increases) stood at 2.2%, the lowest for two years. So far from the cost of living being at its lowest, it’s at its highest, just going up more slowly.

Secondly, when the store says ‘up to half price’ it doesn’t mean, as it’s saying, that half price is the most you’ll pay; it means, of course, just the opposite, that you’ll get up to half the price off.

My final example isn’t a lie, but is open to easy misinterpretation. A 20% in anything sounds like a lot, but if your chances of getting a particular illness are, say, 1 in 1000, this increase means your chances have gone up to 1.2 in 1000. Hardly a cause for mass panic

Now all of this isn’t just me being my usual picky, pedantic self. Having the time to watch and listen to a lot of news, I encounter almost daily statements that are misleading or inaccurate, misquotes, factual errors and so on.

Whether you think these are just genuine mistakes, made in the haste of having to meet the insatiable demand of 24 hour news reporting, or put a more sinister interpretation of deliberate misinformation, it is clear that we all need to be on our toes to scrutinise and check what we are told.

Now you, dear reader, know this and do it already. But we live in a society where people admit to their lack of numeracy almost as a badge of honour. Schools would do young people a great service by teaching them how to use the numerical skills they are gaining to question everything they hear or read to check that whether deliberately or accidentally, they are not having the wool pulled over their eyes.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Supporting the strivers? Are you having a giraffe?

I have complained here before about bad language, but it has to be said that this government are the biggest load of hypocritical, lying, arrogant s***s ever to have held power in this country. Bar none - even Thatcher!

Today, Cameron said his party supports aspiration, the strivers. 

And yet this is the party that will turn out tens of thousands of young people with no qualifications and no hope when the E-Bacc replaces GCSEs. 
That took away the hope of thousands of children who worked hard to achieve their GCSE Grade C and then saw it stolen from them.

This is the government that sacked thousands of hard-working disabled people when they closed Remploy.

This is the shower that will cap housing benefit for thousands of hard-working families on low pay so that they will be forced to move away from family, friends and schools.

This is the coalition - yes, Lib Dems, you're just as bad - that wants you to be able to 'sell' your employment rights for the promise of some potentially worthless shares, wants your employer to be able to sack you for no reason at all in the first 2 years of your employment.

Is this how aspiration and striving are to be rewarded? Those earning £1m a year have aspirations - to pay less tax, and that of course has been rewarded by a £40k a year tax cut - that's about 50% MORE than the average national wage.

All in it together? The only thing this government is in is an elite of the wealthy and powerful, who remain untouched by the vicious and vindictive attacks on the rest of the country.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How much for cash?

If your plumber, gardener or motor mechanic offers you a cheaper price for cash, and you accept, you are probably going to be complicit in some sort of tax evasion, be it income tax or VAT. It is hard to argue with the proposition that this is morally, if not legally, reprehensible since it means that the tradesperson concerned is not paying their full and fair contribution to society.

I get that, of course. However, I would be more inclined to take lessons in morality from Government Minister David Gaulke were it not for the following:

Large corporations, and super-rich individuals, pay wealthy accountants and lawyers to ensure that they  do not pay their full and fair contribution. Indeed, Gaulke used to be just such a lawyer, and his wife still is. Nothing unlawful, of course, but exploiting every possible loophole. Whilst the Government makes idle threats to tackle this 'morally repugnant' conduct, nothing is actually done about it. It is believed that Vodafone were 'let off' as much as £8bn tax in a sweetheart deal and Tory funder Lord Ashcroft lived as a 'non-dom' to avoid British tax for 10 years as a Peer of the Realm before finally giving up that status in 2010.

Government outrage seems to be selective. While David Cameron was quick to name and shame comedian Jimmy Carr, not known to be his greatest fan, he seemed less interest in discussing the tax affairs of a high number of Conservative supporters.

The Con-Dems have also demonstrate a selective approach when it comes to what is morally acceptable. Closing down Remploy, for example, and throwing some 1500 people with severe disabilities out of work is OK. Giving millionaires a tax break while slashing benefits to those most in need is fine.

As the poor get poorer, it isn't surprising that offered the opportunity of a small discount in return for paying cash people are going to think 'why not'?

And on a practical point, have you tried paying your window cleaner by credit card recently? With the withdrawal of the cheque guarantee card last year, and the planned phasing out of cheques in years to come, just how are small bills to be paid if not with cash?

I do like a good biblical quotation, and there is one here that seems to fit the bill perfectly:

How can you think of saying, 'Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,' when you can't see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye. (Luke 6:42)

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Right To Vote For Prisoners

David Cameron says that the thought of prisoners having the vote makes him feel ‘physically ill’.

I could suggest any number of issues that should have priority for the Prime Minister’s nausea. Just for starters:

  • Vital benefits taken from disabled people, the chronically ill and their families;
  • Job losses in key front line professions such as social workers, nurses and police officers;
  • Massive hand-outs to the rich through cuts to the top rate of tax;
  • Horrific executions in Syria while the international community stands by and expels a few diplomats.

I could go on. My point is that of all the horrendous issues facing this country and the world, the question of whether people in prison should have the right to do what less than 40% of the rest of the population can be bothered to do is one that should cause him the least loss of sleep.

Britain imprisons a lot of its people – 151 per 100,000. Only Spain in Western Europe incarcerates more (320 per 100,000), although we are nowhere the world-leading position of the USA, which locks up a staggering 750 per 100,000. Iceland only locks up 55 per 100,000.  A recent report said 70% of prisoners suffered from two or more mental illnesses and many, particularly women, are in prison for relatively minor offences.

We send people to prison to punish them, protect society and hopefully to secure some sort of rehabilitation, although resources are so tightly stretched that this latter is taking a back seat. Which one of those objectives is served by denying prisoners a say in who runs society? Surely trying engage offenders in the democratic process, helping to them see some of the causes of their situation and the impact of their crimes is an essential part of turning their lives around?

Opposition to this European Court ruling on the part of the Government – aided and abetted by Labour – is much more about populist ‘we won’t be told what to do by Europe’ bravado.

In stark contrast, three members of the House of Lords – Peers of the Realm – who recently served prison sentences for stealing public money have, upon release, retained their peerages and right to vote in Parliament on the laws of this nation.

Does that make you feel sick Mr Cameron?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A roof over your head - but where?

I was moved this morning listening to a recently widowed single mum, who lives in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. Out of the blue, she received a letter from the Council telling her that they were offering her accommodation which met her needs, was a reasonable offer, and that if she refused this offer the Council would consider that it had discharged its responsibility to house her. In other words, take this or you're on your own.

Now you might think that this isn't unusual, and not unreasonable. The problem for this woman, however, was that the accommodation was in Walsall. That's 130 miles from where she lives, where her child goes to school, where her friends and family are. She didn't sound sure where Walsall was, thought she'd been to Birmingham twice in her life, and had no connections there at all. Many similar cases have been reported in the past couple of days. Officially, the reason given is the lack of affordable rented housing in London. This lady's suspicion - and she isn't alone - is that people like her, who are perceived as a problem, are being shipped out of London to clear the way for gentrification developments, big profits and high rents. Heaven knows I don't often quote Boris Johnson, but yesterday he described this as "Kosovo-style social cleansing" of the poor in London. 

Just a bit of context. Councils are not under an obligation to find a home for everyone who wants one. They have a duty to accommodate people who are homeless, but only then if they are not 'intentionally homeless' (and this is open to a lot of interpretation), have a child or are vulnerable, and have a connection to the area served by that council. In the 'old days' this duty was discharged by putting families in what we used to call Council Houses. Now, it is by nominating to 'social housing' owned by housing associations or ALMOs (arm's length management organisations), or by putting them into privately owned rented accommodation, with rents paid to landlords through Housing Benefit.

So what has happened that has led to Waltham Forest, and other London councils, forcing people to move to parts 'as far flung' as they said on the BBC as Walsall, Stoke on Trent and Luton?

Since 1980, some 2 MILLION council homes have been taken out of the social housing market by being sold to tenants, at a significant discount. Prime Minister Thatcher calculated, probably correctly, that home owners are more likely to vote Conservative than tenants, and downsizing the housing stock fitted with her view that 'there is no such thing as society'. In Thatcher's Britain, if people were in need of a home the market would provide them with one. David Cameron recently announced a new impetus for the sale of social housing stock to tenants, with discounts of as much as £75,000 on offer. Presumably for the same reasons.

Having forced councils to sell homes, successive governments then prevented them from spending the money generated on building new homes. While millions of pounds sat in banks, and construction jobs were sorely needed, governments took no action.

This Government has capped the amount of Housing Benefit to be paid at £21,000 a year. A good populist policy - they get how much??? - but it ignores the fact that many people who receive Housing Benefit are the very same 'hard working families' that this Government claims to value so highly. It also ignore the actual cost of housing in the capital. Government Minister Grant Shapps claimed yesterday that rents are going down, but no-one else seems to think so.

The demand for homes to rent is rising and will continue to do so. My son and his girlfriend live in London. Both have secure jobs as teachers, and are reasonably well paid. They cannot see a time when they would ever be able to buy property in London, and young couples like them fuel the demand for rented homes. The forthcoming Olympic Games, in line with the Law of Unintended Consequences, are creating opportunities for profiteering for landlords, and stories are emerging of tenants being evicted so that landlords can cash in on short term lets over the Summer.

So what's the answer? There is obviously not a simple answer, or it would have been found. But it is clear to me that there needs to be a much stronger focus on the issue of affordable housing, not just in London but across the country. There needs to an ambitious programme of new build, creating homes and jobs. There needs to be an immediate halt to the sale of social housing. Benefit capping needs to be revisited. Private sector rent controls need to be considered. Creative options such are shared ownership need to be encouraged.

We have grown accustomed in this country to our children being better off than we are ourselves. Affordable housing is a key element in determining our standard of living and that seems to be increasingly out of their grasp. Something must be done, and soon!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

All In It Together?

Meet Sue. Sue lives in Greater Manchester with husband Dave and teenage children John and Marie.
Dave has multiple sclerosis, a long term, and ultimately potentially terminal  illness, and hasn’t worked for five years. He receives Disability Living Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (which used to be called Incapacity Benefit) which form a big part of the family’s income.  He needs a lot of looking after, and taking to numerous medical appointments, which Sue does, willingly.

Two days a week, Dave goes to a day centre, which means that Sue is able to work. She works for her local council as a Home Support Worker, earning £8.15 per hr. She works for 16 hours a week, and can therefore claim Working Tax Credit, which is a big help.

Marie is still at school. She’s bright, and her parents would like her stay on and perhaps go on to university.

John left school last year, and hasn’t been able to find work, although he’s keen and willing to work.

At the last election, Sue was disillusioned with Labour, and for the first time in her life voted Conservative.

Since the Coalition Government came to power, her life has changed:

  • The day centre Dave goes to is threatened with closure because of cuts to council budgets. Sue is starting to look round, but if she can’t find some alternative provision, she’ll have to give up work. She won’t be able to claim Jobseeker Allowance because she won’t be available for work. She doesn’t know how they’d cope without her money.
  • Sue is about to lose her Working Tax Credit because the rules are changing, and it will only be available to people who work a minimum of 24 hours a week. Even if she could find care for Dave, there are no extra hours available at work because budgets are so tight.
  • Sue pays into her occupational pension scheme. She can’t really afford the contributions, but is trying to ‘do the right thing’ and provide for her retirement. She’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s going to have to work for longer to get less pension, and doesn’t understand how this can be called ‘gold plated’. At current rates, her pension will be just over £5,000 a year.
  • Marie is saying she’s going to leave school. She had been hoping to help her parents out by getting an Education Maintenance  Allowance, but this was scrapped. She’s also very anxious about the idea of coming out of university with debts of over £30,000. She needs books for school, but she knows her parents can’t afford them. She planned to go her local library, but found its opening hours have been halved.
  • John spent a useful six months with the council under the Future Jobs Fund, getting some valuable training. They would have offered him a job, but their budget was cut. Now he’s been told that if he doesn’t take unpaid work in a supermarket his benefits will be stopped.
  • Dave has recently had a review of his ESA, which concluded that he would be capable of some sort of light work. Even if there were jobs, Dave doesn’t see how he could work, and is lodging an appeal. He has read that 40% of people who appeal are successful, which makes him wonder how good the assessment can be. He thought of asking the CAB for advice, but the local branch had its grant cut, had to reduce its opening hours, and has a three month waiting list. He is also anxious about government plans to change DLA - he can't believe it will be a change for the better. Dave is fed up with press reports demonising people who get disability benefits as  'scroungers'

This morning, Sue has read that the government wants to end national pay scales and cut the pay of public sector workers in poorer areas. Apparently her £8.15 an hour is stopping local private sector employers from recruiting high quality workers, even though the jobs page in the local paper has virtually no vacancies.

In the same paper, Sue read about:

  • Plans to cut the top rate of tax for people earning more than £150,000 because it’s a disincentive to them making even more money
  • Senior civil servants using private companies to reduce their tax bill
  • Big companies being let off millions of pounds of tax
  • Boardroom pay rocketing
  • Millions being paid out in bonuses to bank executives, even those losing money and refusing to lend to small businesses

Sue remembers that David Cameron and his chums said we were ‘all in this together’. She’s finding that increasingly difficult to believe.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

For F***'s Sake Stop All The Swearing!

For those feeling that for the period of Lent they should abstain from something that they really enjoy, but can't bear the thought of not drinking alcohol, eating chocolate or committing serial adultery, I have a suggestion. Give up swearing on Twitter. Please.

Now I'm not averse to the odd swear myself, as friends and family will confirm, but in my defence I would say two things. Firstly, I only do so in some sort of extremis, such as hurting myself, burning my food or hearing the latest inane pronouncement from Michael Gove. Secondly, I know my audience and, with the odd exception, am careful not to use foul language when in the company of people I know will be offended by it or who may copy it unknowingly. Pas devant les enfants, as they probably say at Downton. Or the servants, naturally.

Yet there are those on Twitter - I don't see it on Facebook but it may be there - who seem to think that no tweet is complete without some sort of profanity in it. It's never just raining, it's always f***ing raining. People they don't like are never fools or idiots, they are ... well you get the idea. Insert your swear-word of choice.

Now it's not that I find swearing in itself offensive: that would be hypocritical, although there are certain words I never use because they do offend me . However, I do think there's a time and a place for it. It should be reserved for those moments when no other word in what is one of the most comprehensive languages in the world will quite express what you mean and a setting where you are confident that you won't upset people who, presumably, you have no wish to upset.

Swearing is lazy. It says "there's probably a better word to describe exactly what I mean but I can't be bothered to use or find it."

Also, if four letter words populate your sentences when you are just discussing the weather, your job, or your evening meal, what expletives do you reach for when things are going really badly, when you fall on your backside in the snow or when the Government is about to sell the NHS off to the highest bidder?

You have only to stand close to a group of young people - whether or not they wear a hood - to hear a constant stream of bad language which most of us find objectionable. How much more witty and intelligent they would sound if they bothered to learn a few more adjectives. Oh, and a verb and adverb or two.

So here's your challenge. For the next six weeks or so, try to get through your interesting and amusing tweets without recourse to swearing. You won't be any the less funny or entertaining, and you might just gain a follower or two.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Just not tall enough!

I went for my routine diabetes check-up this morning, and had confirmed what I have long suspected: I'm just not tall enough.

My sugar levels are pretty much under control, my blood pressure is (as always) too high, and the little stick they dip in your pot of urine turned the right colour, but there remains this height problem.

I have always realised that this was an issue, but hadn't suspected quite how short I am. I thought perhaps an extra 7 inches or so would be ideal. But no.

It turns out that to sustain the Body Mass Index I have, I need to grow by no less than an extra foot, taking me from my average 5ft 10ins to a fairly unlikely 6ft 10 ins.

The other day, I stepped on my daughter's bathroom scales. I 'did the math' as we have learned from American TV to say, to convert the reading into stones and pounds, smiled to myself, and made a mental note to tell my daughter her scales were way out and that she perhaps needed to change the batteries.

Imagine my surprise when I stepped on the scales at the surgery to find that they were showing the same erroneous figure. Sandra, my fantastic diabetes nurse, assured me that the scales were in fact not lying and that I am what the medical profession like to call a fat bastard. Of course she didn't say that: she actually said I was obese.

This did not make me feel good. I've always struggled with my height - I suppose I mean weight - but I genuinely thought I was about two stones lighter than I now have to accept is the reality.

So I came home and signed up for Weightwatchers on-line. My initial target is to lose a modest - but still daunting - 6kg.

Why am I sharing this with you, dear reader? In the hope that by 'going public' I will feel more motivated, and more ridden with guilt if I fall by the wayside.

I'll let you know how my weight - or height, if that turns out to be a practical solution - progresses.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

A neighbour has asked you to call round for a New Year drink. His cousin is visiting, and you are introduced. The conversation goes like this:

You: Nice to meet you. Where do you live? Well, you've got to say something
Him: Paris
You: What area?   He could say absolutely anything at this point, it would meaning nothing to you, but you will say...
You: Oh yes, I know, do you like it there?
Him: Yes, it's lovely.  Uncomfortable pause. What do you do?

And in the answer to that one question he seeks to sum you up. From the one or two sentences that follow, and the accent in which they are spoken, he will make an instant assessment, right or wrong, of your:

  • Personality
  • Value to society
  • Social status and class
  • Education
  • Income
  • Political views

and whether he sees you as his equal, superior or inferior. Older readers think Two Ronnies and John Cleese. Younger readers click here to find out what I'm talking about.

For the reality is that that question - what do you do? - is really code for who are you?. We are, in so many ways, defined by what we do for a living.

And it's not only others who define us in this way; for many of us it's how we define ourselves. When we're asked that fateful question, how often do we respond with "Well, I'm a great Dad" or "I'm a socialist", "I love cycling" ? Never mind 'you are what you eat", the truth is "you are what you do for a living".

And there's my problem. Until July 2010, I had had a moderately successful career in local government, and my answer to THE question always began "Oh, I'm Head of ... whatever it was at the time... with the local council." Those two words - Head of - instantly positioned me as a senior local government manager with all that that is perceived to entail.

Then I was made redundant, took my pension, and retired. As most readers know, I care for my wife who has dementia. I hope I'm also still a great Dad, a sort of socialist, and I lied about the cycling. The point is, I don't have an easy answer to the 'What do you do' question. None of those activities describes me properly. So I often describe myself as a retired local government manager - what I did rather than what I do. If I'm being honest, it's because what I do doesn't sound as interesting or, truthfully, as important, as what I used to do.

This is an aspect of retirement that I haven't seen discussed anywhere. I'm fortunate enough not to have financial worries, my health is good, I have a loving family. My problem is, I don't have a ready answer - to others or more importantly to myself - to the question  "Who do you think you are?"

Suggestions on a postcard please ...