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Saturday, 24 July 2010

Politics without the political class

At the level of the Parish, there is little room for political ideology. TV comedy scriptwriters have often tapped a rich vein of humour here; the Parish Council member applying the tenets of Das Kapital to the siting of a new bus stop, Hayek's analysis to a proposed change in opening hours to the village shop and so on. The comedy is about the absurdity using high-flown ideological theory in making decisions on small matters, about ordinary people donning silly ideological mantles as though they were, erm, MPs. The Marxist always turns out to be a secret capitalist, the capitalist to rely on wealth redistribution.

Nonetheless, our lowliest form of democratic body enjoys substantial democratic legitimacy. There are open elections, decision making is open and transparent, meetings can be attended by all. In law, the Parish Council is still a 'Corporation Public' and has existing powers to do some extraordinary things; it can run cemeteries and crematoria, swimming pools, build and run a conference centre, provide public toilets, run car parks, build and operate a theatre, cinema or opera house, build and run a golf course and operate and manage parks and greens.

Parish Councils do few of these things in reality. Some of them are done by District or County Councils, and many are subject to funding decisions made in Whitehall. But the structure is there; switch funding from the centre to local, and provide Parish Councils with two or three full-time officers, and we have already in place a ready-made structure to which to devolve more powers.

So why is Cameron totally ignoring them?

We've heard about how he sees the 'Big Society' working; informal groups of local people taking over the pub, or the school, or the village hall. No mention of whether they're representative, of whether they've been elected, and no mention of any structure of democratic governance within which they may operate. Thus a narrow interest group with no democratic legitimacy may, with direct Whitehall support, take over my village hall. Local referenda have also been mentioned; why go to all the cost and bother? Why not place matters within the competence of the existing Parish Councils?

I really don't get it.

Unless, of course, Cameron is running scared of creating a truly local, strong and legitimate democratic framework that threatens an existence wholly independent of the corrupt big parties and their bloated Metropolitan dags, the scum of the nation's Political Class.

Ah, yes. 'Localism Lite' - localism without any actual shift in power or democracy from the centre. But it really won't work.

Friday, 23 July 2010

National Citizen Service not national.

There was nothing wrong with Cameron's aspiration to offer the chance of a rite-of-passage experience to all 16 year olds; many from middle-class homes already organise their own (like my nephew's recent solo trip to Spain).

However, yesterday's announcement makes grim reading. Every year around 700,000 young people will reach the trigger age of 16; Cameron's scheme can afford to fund just 10,000 places a year, just 1.43% of 16 year olds. And I'll bet the sharp elbows of the articulate middle class will manage to snaffle most of the available places.

PC Harwood - a ticking bomb

For some men, physical aggression is as intrinsic to their makeup as it is to a pitbull. Short of castrating them, there's little one can do to contain it. The most fortunate of them find themselves a niche in life where their aggression can earn them a living, the Paras perhaps, or similar. The least fortunate collect criminal convictions at an early age and waste their short lives in a rage of incarceration and control.

From time to time one of them becomes a copper. He'll get a reputation amongst his colleagues for provoking trouble, never backing down, never walking away and always looking for the slightest excuse to use violence. A constant trickle of complaints and ill-will may result in him moving from work where he has regular contact with the public to the TSG, where he can testosterone-bond with others away from ordinary people. Perhaps even here he'll have a record of poor discipline, a weak ability to restrain himself from the premature application of baton, shield, knees and boots.

Leave him in place, and sooner or later someone's going to get killed.

And just as a pitbull's DNA isn't the dog's fault, the consequences of leaving such an impaired officer in place aren't wholly his own fault. PC Harwood had an appalling disciplinary record, and the risks should have been recognised and acted upon by his superiors long before Mr Tomlinson died.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Cleggy's dirty little secret

Cleggy isn't the sharpest knife in the draw, as his dismal performance at the dispatch box only too adequately demonstrated. So when he set up his 'Tell us which laws to repeal' website perhaps he was hoping to be flooded with demands to feed feral pigeons without penalty, or erect windmills around the Elephant without the bother of planning consent.

In fact, the site has been flooded, overwhelmed and filled with folk wanting the smoking ban repealed; this single subject outdoes all others in terms of comments, numbers of votes and the like. But clearly this isn't the result Cleggy wanted - so the site's administrators are doing everything they can to disguise the fact. They've hidden 'smoking' from the big topic sidebar but included 'business regulations' in there. They 'hide' posts so that no individual smoking post can attract top numbers, and the search engine is utterly farcical. There are dozens of posts complaining about this distorting admin ... which have also been well hidden and difficult to find.

As an example of how a risibly biased and corrupt 'consultation' can be manipulated as well by the current government as it was by the last, this web page has no equal. And just like Liebore, the Cleggies only want to hear the consultation they agree with.

Shame on the lying rascals. I'd string the lot of 'em up by their testicles from Westminster Bridge for this deceit.

Some Summer reading for Cameron

In 1940 Britain stood alone against the menace of Nazism. The US was still in peace mode, its coasts lit up so brightly that German U-boats picked off British merchant shipping with ease. It would be almost another two years before the US entered the war. US industry was asleep, US manpower dormant. For another year and a half, Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia would still be best buddies. In 1940 it truly was ourselves, alone.

Even on D-Day in 1944 British and Empire forces outnumbered US troops. It was only after the French ports had been opened, the bridgehead established, that the US became the senior partner. Then, the products of America's massive industrial economy flowed across the Atlantic in Liberty ships, themselves often built in just a few days, and the US' vast manpower soon dwarfed our own armies in Europe.

Cameron's comment was a howler of epic proportions. So I'd suggest some Summer reading to sort those difficult dates out; first, the best of the readable correspondents - Alan Moorehead's classic trilogy on the Desert War 1940 - 1943 takes us from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end, and 'Eclipse' remains one of the best accounts written of the end itself. William L Shirer, one of Ed Murrow's 'boys', broadcasting regularly from Berlin through 1940 and only leaving in December of that year, gives us 'Berlin Diary'. Ernie Pyle's quartet of books, though only started in 1942, is a useful addition.

Then the 'heavies' - Ian Kershaw, of course, but not forgetting Alan Bullock's early work nor Trevor-Roper's account of the end, to give perspective to exactly what we faced alone in 1940.

Readers may suggest several others, but the above should be a decent enough selection for the obligatory week in Rock and later in Tuscany for longer.

Wobbly world economy

It seems the global economy is still a bit wobbly. Perhaps someone's noticed that those $500 trillion of derivatives that fuelled the credit boom haven't either been written off or inflated away. Anyway, in about five months the nation's most hated cohort (after the political class) will be announcing their bonuses for the year - nothing like the City's £8.8bn bonus pool in 2007, of course, but large enough to foster the simmering resentment, and coming shortly after the October spending review will bring the 'us' and 'them' into sharp focus.

Perhaps the wobblyness is just the bankers hiding their profits as the Sun shines.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society (2) - Party funding

The UK electorate stands at something over 45m voters. The combined memberships of the three main political parties total below 450,000 - fewer than 1% of the electorate are members of them.

It wasn't always this way. In the middle of the last century Labour had about 1m members and the Conservatives getting on for 2m; every town in the country with three pubs or more had a Conservative Association. The grass roots were long and deep, and gripped tenaciously on independent local democratic governance.

As Central Statism grew from the mid 1970s onwards, so local political engagement - and local democracy - began to die. Both Labour and Tory governments were responsible. Now in 2010, we no longer effectively have mass membership political parties. Instead we have central Metropolitan commercial 'brands', in the hands of a few and largely divorced from the people of the country they seek to govern.

There's a problem, though. They need cash. Their piffling memberships can't provide nearly enough in subscriptions, so they're forced to look to either the very rich or the Trade Unions for income. But they've got a cunning plan; how about using taxpayers' cash, from the 99% of voters who aren't their members, to maintain their incumbent power-sharing deal and exclude new parties from joining the democracy game?

And so in 2007 we had Hayden Phillips' despicable and grubby little report, rank with the foulness of corrupt recommendations that would have kept the big three in power forever with their sticky fists thrust deep into the public coffers.

And there the matter has lain until today. And I always knew it wouldn't go away.

On 8th July Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life held a day of preliminary hearings on party funding, including testimony from Phillips himself. Today, Kelly has published a Press Notice announcing a forthcoming public inquiry into party funding, to start this Autumn and report in the Spring of 2011.

The chance of a truly public inquiry is to be welcomed - particularly if it hears the voices of the 99% of us who aren't members of the one of the big three.

However, this bodes ill for Cameron's proposed Localism Bill, also scheduled for this time. For unless we find a way to re-invigorate local democracy, to decentralise not just the State but the central Party structures that are so entwined with it, then there will continue to be no shift in the balance of power between central and local.

The Big Society (1)

Surprising as it may be to some of my colleagues here on the Right, Localism wasn't invented by Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell when they published 'The Plan' in 2008. Nor was it invented by Alan Milburn in 2004, when he delivered a speech on the subject to Demos, nor by Simon Jenkins when he published his seminal paper for Policy Exchange (Chairman: Michael Gove) and Localis at the same time. Nor by Helena Kennedy and the 'Power' enquiry in 2006. Now we are to have a Localism Act, with the Bill scheduled for presentation to Parliament in early 2011 by Eric Pickles' department.

Already there are worrying signs that Cameron's government's actions just aren't matching the rhetoric on Localism, and I think I know why.

There is one subject that brings Cameron out in night-sweats, fearful at the terror as he jerks awake in the early hours - that of local government reorganisation. It's seen as a morass, a quagmire, and embarking on that reform road is as fateful as invading Russia and as equally doomed to failure. The complexity, the demands on Parliamentary time, and above all the one issue that the entire cabinet would willingly run naked through the Durham Miners' gala being thrashed by giant nettles to avoid, that of the reform of local government finance.

So Cameron is trying to implement a version of Localism Lite that doesn't actually involve any democratic reform. The danger is that this won't alter any of the balance of power either. Smaller government isn't the same as less powerful government nor the same as a more democratic society, as Philip Johnston points out in today's Telegraph.

The clue lies in the subtitle of Simon Jenkins' paper - 'A rescue plan for British democracy'. And it's not just about who runs the village hall, but about fundamental political reform. I'm going to split the latter issue into a second post to follow immediately.

How to kill a Squirrel

As Raymond Elliott has just found, you're not allowed to drown them. Nor are you permitted to blow them up with explosives or electrocute them, suffocate them or feed them into a garden shredder. And you certainly can't launch them from a clay trap and shoot them in mid-air.

The officially sanctioned DEFRA method for despatching a cage-caught grey squirrel is to release the creature into a stout Jute sack; it will immediately thrust its head into one of the two bottom corners. Take a tight grip on the sack and administer a sharp blow to the head with a Hickory hatchet handle or similar implement.

However, DEFRA officials may now be prosecuted by the RSPCA for such advice; the squirrel-huggers are advising that the only acceptable way to kill a captive grey is to chauffeur it to an official Squirrel Euthanasia Centre and 'put it to sleep' to the sound of soothing Mantovani lift-music after a last meal of hazelnuts.

The problem with the RSPCA's method is that you can't eat 'em after. I've grown quite fond of fresh grey country squirrel prepared in the Ghanaian fashion, with chilli, onion and a chopped hard-boiled egg. A better 'elevenses' has yet to be found.

Time to localise the Police

I am second to none in my admiration for police officers out on the beat, a visible and comforting presence on out streets, ready to meet every challenge from an aggressive beggar to a mad gunman. Unfortunately, they are in a distinct minority. Their colleagues have all sorted themselves comfortable 9 to 5 indoors jobs on specialist 'units' - domestic violence, drug rehab, trafficked women, domestic violence to trafficked women, bicycle crime and all the rest - where they can get away with not leaving the comfort of the station and the convenience of the canteen at all.

Lewisham council taxpayers pay for 1,000 full time Met police officers; deduct 10% for diplomatic protection and armed response detached duty, allow a further 15% absence from leave or sickness at any time, and divide the balance into three shifts and we should still have over 250 plods on duty at any time. Readers were incredulous when I reported that most of the time there are just 12 officers available to respond to incidents in the borough.

And now the Inspector of Constabulary has found that this mirrors the national picture - just 6% to 11% of our police are available at any time.

No blame should be focused on the humble copper. It's not his fault. It is instead a massive failure of management; all those shiny new MBAs amassed by the Superintendents upwards haven't done them a scrap of good. They're useless managers. Utterly crap. They've learned how to do Gantt charts but forgotten how to schedule shifts.

There is a very small amount of very important police work that needs to be carried our by specialist officers on a regional or national basis; terrorism, organised crime and the like. And experienced detectives in murder squads are vital. But the reality is that 98% of police work is local - call-outs to disturbances, vehicle crime, criminal damage, thefts and shoplifting, burglary, assaults and road traffic offences.

It's this whole latter class of bread and butter police work I'd suggest should be devolved to borough level here in London, with the cost of the borough force charged directly to local ratepayers, and under the strategic control of a borough Watch Committee made up of elected members and magistrates (but with tactical control remaining with the borough commander).

The truly specialist units would be run by the GLA / Mayor and paid for either by a precept to the boroughs for London regional activity or by the Home Office for national activity.

And for the lads on the Trafficked Domestic Abuse units and the like back at the station, it's time to pull those duty belts back on, get the Doc Martins and the hi-viz out of the cupboard and learn what rain feels like again.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Transport Ministers we could learn from

When there was a bad rail accident and several fatalities in Ghana a few years ago, the Transport Minister's first action was to visit the scene to pour a libation of palm wine to appease the spirits of the dead.

Now the Indian Transport Minister has announced instant compensation of 5 lakhs of rupees AND a railway job-for-life to the next of kin of those killed in last week's Indian rail accident.

Somehow it all makes announcing a five-year long official enquiry to an almost empty Commons chamber, as is our practice here after a rail crash, look rather anaemic.

Overseas Aid Budget - let's save the Loris

Throwing hundreds of millions in aid at India and China is absolutely lunatic. We should devote such budgets instead to something that betters the whole of mankind and for which future generations will thank us - saving the Loris.

The Loris is the end of an evolutionary branch of which little remains; it has no close relatives, its habitat is under threat and it needs our help. And it's damned cute.

Time to end free NHS treatment for illegals

It seems everyone knows except our government. And the BBC.

During a Radio 4 mini-documentary on immigrants, a young illegal Brazilian couple with child were interviewed. Both worked hard but illegally, neither paid any income tax or NI, and they were living in 'grey market' social housing. If what the UK really needed was unskilled and uneducated workers, these two would have been ideal candidates for legalisation. But it was when the interviewer asked about the child's birth. "In the maternity hospital, of course" they replied. "Didn't they ask any questions about your immigration status?" the incredulous interviewer asked. "Of course not!" they snorted.

Visit the maternity wards at Lewisham hospital and you'll enter one vast farrowing pen for Nigerian village girls. From their point of view, coming to the UK to have their babies in conditions of high quality medical care, and for free, makes absolute sense. In Nigeria, a health insurance scheme operates, excluding most except government employees, and 20% of children die before the age of five. Wouldn't you lie, cheat and fraudulently manipulate your way to the UK under such circumstances?

The problem is, this is costing us billions. Yes, billions. Billions we can't afford.

The NHS staff who are responsible, from the GPs' surgery that accepts anyone with an address to its lists to hospitals that maintain a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on immigration status, are without doubt good and well meaning people. They are healers and carers, and their job is to heal and care for all. But they don't pay for it - our imperilled economy does.

Individual voter registration gives us the opportunity to comb-out the million-plus illegals in the country. An audit of GPs' lists, with per capita payments only made for those of proven immigration or resident status, would also help solve the problem. But more than anything, a tough-love regime at the reception points of our NHS hospitals with stringent checks and a requirement for payment in full in advance for treatments given to ineligible patients will end this spendthrift waste. The US can do it, so can we.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Public pay - the differentials

When we're talking about pay in the public sector, the comparison with pay levels in the private sector is often meaningless, and an over-attention to drawing parallels between the two has led to some iniquitous disparities in public pay. Hutton is getting towards the truth of it when he writes in today's Observer that it's more about 'fairness' - and fairness starts with a level playing field within the public sector.

My default is to compare other public sector salaries to the basic armed forces pay scales. I reproduce these below.

Now, do you think that GPs should earn the same as Major Generals? Or, perhaps like me, you think they should be paid at about a Major's wedge? Should a primary school head earn as much as a Lieutenant General commanding a division, or should the head's pay be more in the Lieutenant Colonel range? For what it's worth, I also reckon council chief executives are worth no more than Major Generals and an NHS consultant at the top of his game no more than a Brigadier.

The spread, from the base salary to the highest, is about 7.5x. This is actually about right, and within an NHS hospital trust or a local authority this equates to a spread of about 6x between the base admin officer salary and the chief executive's - in fact, the spread that used to apply before the insanity of fat cat salaries at the top drew open the gap to something like 12x.

We've got to get the differentials right. If I were an Admiral commanding a flotilla of some of the world's deadliest warships, and responsible for the lives of the crews, the safety of the public and the defence of the realm I'd be a bit miffed to learn I earned the same basic salary as a Sri Lankan locum GP in Dulwich scratching his balls and enjoying a five day week with no call outs.