Monday, August 27, 2007

'If I want something, do I have to be bad?'

Rhys Jones' father is right - there should be no 'wrong place' or 'wrong time' where an eleven year old can be shot and murdered.

It's natural, that a whole load of people have reacted to recent murders of young people with their own pre-existing prejudices, and looked for someone or something to blame. These range from Sir Simon Jenkins on the failure of the government to bring in more elected mayors (because, as we know, in America they elect their mayors and there is no problem with young people shooting each other), to the right-wing pundits explaining how it is all the fault of lone parents who need to have their benefits taken away so that they can, erm, go to work and spend less time with their children as they are growing up.

Reducing the chance that other young people will be victims of violent crime will be a matter of doing lots of little things, and anyone who claims to have one single big magic solution isn't worth listening to. Over the past few weeks and months, I've heard people from different parts of the UK who live in areas where they are high levels of crime talk about what they think needs to be done. Their ideas don't fit into a pre-existing narrative about how everything is the fault of politically correct liberals from the 1960's or Maggie Thatcher, but I thought they might be even more interesting for exactly that reason. I've just picked out three which were mentioned widely.

I don't know much about education systems in other countries, in France children don't start primary schooling until the age of six, but by the age of nine, levels of attainment are higher than in the UK, because the nursery schools focus on teaching social skills, self-awareness and taking part in group activities, which means that when children start more formal academic education, they are able to learn more quickly. Alongside reading, writing and maths, this kind of social development, whether in the French system or some other, could be a core responsibility of schools. There are a lot of children growing up who get frustrated easily, find it difficult to interact with others, and lose their temper quickly - doing something about this has clear and obvious benefits.

One woman, bringing up a family in Glasgow, said that her six year old son came home from
school one day with a question. "If I want something, do I have to be bad to get it?" Another said that her friend who was in prison found he was enjoying it - as it offered a chance to make friends, try out new things and be sure to have basic things like three meals a day. There is something particularly alarming about the first of these experiences - it is right that small children get help and support when they first get into trouble, but it shouldn't mean that children learn that to get help or attention that they have to be bad. It's similar when holiday activities are available as part of 'diversionary programmes' aimed at small numbers of young people who have criminal records, but there is nothing for young people who aren't causing trouble to others to do.

This isn't an argument for cutting back on programmes which work with people who have criminal records or who are likely to go on to do so without help - they do a lot of good. But if it's not right for prisoners to have to skip meals, then a parent trying to bring up children shouldn't have to either, and those children shouldn't miss out on opportunities which are offered to their classmates who disrupt lessons.

The debate about policing appears to consist of whether or not we need more of them out not filling in forms but instead patrolling the streets (as opposed to working on specific programmes to address, say, gun crime), arguments about crime statistics over the years of interest mainly to politicians. None of this explained the experiences of people whose children had been harassed for no reason, or who had been victims of crime and had promises that someone from the police would be in touch which never materialised, or crimes which got ignored because 'that sort of thing always happens in that area', or programmes being started up, promises being made, and then priorities changing and people's trust being lost.

As with every other public service, there are many police officers who do a great job, there are challenges with resources, and there are expectations from the public which are sometimes completely impossible to meet. Services provided by the NHS or local councils are always being looked at to see how they could and should be reformed to make sure that they meet the needs of people (in the case of victims of crime, I think the word 'customers' is even less appropriate than usual). Many of the people who are most enthusiastic about this when it applies to other services seem to suggest that when it comes to policing, the only questions are those of providing more money and reducing the amount of form filling. That won't be sufficient unless other changes happen which address the problems which people find when they deal with the police.

The things which led to terrible and senseless tragedies like Rhys Jones' murder, and those of the other young people killed by guns, won't be solved overnight. There is a big gap between a lot of the solutions proposed by people who have a platform for their ideas and the power to act, and the people who have day to day experiences of these problems, and their ideas about what needs to be done. Trying to fit these events into a pre-existing narrative about poverty-stricken Liverpool or a 'broken society' will do nothing to make sure that in future children don't find themselves in 'the wrong place at the wrong time'.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Objective analysis

Enthused by his party's campaign on the NHS, one Tory activist decided to do a bit of research to 'prevent Labour's propaganda replacing objective analysis'.

He found the Commonwealth Fund's analysis (May 2007) and comparison of the healthcare systems in the US, UK, Canada, NZ, Germany and Australia. Here's what he discovered:

'My intention was to find a poor result for the UK to press the Tories to pledge to improve on it.

Guess which country on a whole series of measures and overall is ranked with the best healthcare system?

The report shows that in the past 3 years, UK healthcare has leapt from 3rd to 1st place on the second lowest expenditure!

I detest the statism of Labour, but based on this international report, Cameron is deliberately deceiving the UK population over the state of the NHS for political purposes.'

Friday, August 17, 2007

Good Riddance

A new report for Foreign Exchange Direct finds that the main reasons why people are buying property abroad are cold calling, rudeness in public places, political correctness, immigration laws, taxes, public transport delays and house prices.

So people who believe that there are too many immigrants are responding by, erm, moving to another country.

Personally, I would like to see an expansion of this 'one in, one out' scheme, where as more people come to Britain to escape persecution and work hard to improve our society, there is an equivalent increase in the number of tax-dodging racists who leave, though I do feel sorry for the people in other countries who will have to put up with them.

More John Redwood, please

I enjoyed John Redwood's report, complete with the entertainingly weird ideas like being able to turn left at red lights, giving trains rubber wheels so they could stop faster and putting cycle lanes on pavements rather than in the roads. Then there's the faith-based recommendations about scrapping regulations on things like money laundering and health and safety. There's something very pleasing about John Redwood being given plenty of time on the telly, just to remind everyone who might have forgotten that people like him used to run the country and want to do so again.

The proposals on inheritance tax seem to me like a victory for the Tories who want to be a right-wing lobby group rather than a possible government. The pressure from this report and from the wealthy people who run disinformation campaigns in the Daily Mail and so on about how many people are affected will probably mean that the government raises the thresholds a bit quicker in future. But going on about how taxes are unfair and too high, but then pledging not to cut them, which appears to be the current Tory position, is incoherent. For people worried that a future Tory government will mess up the economy again and cut important services if they win power, this is the opposite of reassuring.

Redwood also wants to reduce regulation of care homes, as a way of increasing the number of places. Long term care for the elderly and inheritance tax are clearly related issues. For many middle-income families, care home bills cost far more than any amount that they would pay in inheritance tax.

Redwood's vision is one in which increasing numbers of elderly people spend the last years of their lives in unregulated care homes, vulnerable to abuse in institutions whose first duty is to maximise profits for their shareholders, and then when they die, their beneficiaries receive tax-free inheritances based not on their own efforts but how little of their parents' money was spent on their care. A less appealing society to live in can hardly be imagined.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Good Old Boy #35

I have just been reading Frank Cook MP's biography on his website. It is much more comprehensive than the record which most MPs make publicly available. I'd only hitherto previously been aware of his (generally admirably lefty) voting record.

To get the full benefit, you do have to read it for yourself, but make sure not to miss out on:

*The record of the debate in the General Management Committee of his decision to buy his council house.

*His campaign against the law on handguns introduced after Dunblane.

*Criticism for his vote against capping MP's pay.

*His 'controversial' suggestion that the best way of ending Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons programme would be through a tactical nuclear strike.

*His disappointment that party activists fail to understand the time commitment involved in being a member of the Speaker's Panel and other committee membership.

*His anger at criticism from the Daily Mail for claiming expenses to landscape his garden in his home in London.

*The Amicus union stabbing him in the back and telling him that he should stand down, coming just after 'Gardengate'.

*The breakdown of his relationship with his CLP, with the result that there was certainly no question of an all-constituency leaflet delivery in the 2005 election.

Frank Cook is currently facing a selection battle after losing his trigger ballot.

Social Enterprise Zones

It's all to the good that David Cameron believes that the most urgent political priority for the government should be to help people whose living standards have not been rising over the past ten years. His new idea for tackling poverty is to support social enterprises with tax relief.

It can be quite difficult to check the detail of Conservative Party proposals, which often use words like 'social enterprise' or 'multiple deprivation' without any clear understanding of what the words actually mean. But if what he means is learning from the Social Enterprise Zone which has been running in East London since 1998, as evaluated here, then it would certainly be a step forward from the drivel that Iain Duncan Smith came up with.

There are a number of reasons for scepticism, though. Cameron writes that "there are parts of affluent Oxford, for instance, which rival parts of Liverpool in terms of deprivation. We need a more fine-grained approach to tackle multiple deprivation at the micro-level." But the Tories who run Oxfordshire County Council explicitly oppose this, and when asked to support new funding for social enterprises and sign up to reducing inequality, started laughing and explained that they thought that inequality was not a problem, and was indeed rather a good thing. If Cameron is looking for a fight with the Tory membership, this would be a good issue to do it on, because Tory councils are merrily cutting back on supporting for the voluntary sector and diverting funding away from more deprived areas.

Secondly, Cameron's idea seems to be for social enterprises to replace what he calls 'the large and lumbering agencies of government'. What is interesting about Newham's Social Enterprise Zone and comes through loud and clear every time that people in more deprived areas are asked about what they think should happen is that there is no support at all for cutting back on state-provided services. Instead, what social enterprises, at their best, do is complement public services, and help to make public services more effective and more responsive to local need. Making social enterprises more effective and maximising their potential to help people in poverty also involves dedicating more resources to the public sector, so that the public sector can learn from the community and meet the needs which social enterprises help to identify.

Social enterprises can do a lot to help offer better services for people living in deprived areas. But they are not a quick fix, not a replacement for the public sector, and it would be nice if rather than warm words about them, Mr Cameron's colleagues actually supported them.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

How to be the 'best Tories in the world'

Fraser Nelson in the News of the World (amusingly while other NoTW columnists such as Ulrika Jonsson are online, Fraser isn't) :

"Could we sign up some of Australia's Conservatives? They have the best Tories in the world.

PM John Howard is on course for a fifth election win. He's kept taxes low, got a grip on immigration and defends national values. No wonder many of the visa applications are from BRITS seeking a better life."

So to be the 'best Tories in the world' involves getting a grip on immigration so that more Brits can, erm, move to Australia.

As for 'on course for a fifth election win', the July polls have Howard's Coalition on 40%, with Labour on 47%.