Sunday, 25 March 2012

When the police want the right to strike you know something has gone badly wrong.

Evening all; under plans contained in the Windsor review the lot of a policeman (or woman) soon really won’t be a happy one.

The Police Federation is to ballot its 135,000 members on whether they want the right to strike in response to government plans for a 20% cut in funding for the service and the widest ranging reforms of how it operates for thirty years. Included in this is the suggestion, made in the Windsor review that Chief Constables should be able to make officers redundant to cut costs.

The review says that for some staff associations, including the Police Federation, the absence of the right to strike is seen as the reason for protecting their members from the risk of compulsory redundancy. It challenges this claim citing as an example the armed forces, members of which don’t have the right to strike but can be made redundant.

Speaking about the review to the BBC this week a spokeswoman for the Home Office said ‘We must tackle the deficit and police forces need to play their part in making savings. We believe this can be done whilst protecting front line services.’ She added that the government would ‘consider the proposals in the independent Windsor review carefully, ensuring that the remuneration and status of police officers continues to reflect the important work they do.’

Even by the impressive standards set by the civil service this statement lifts mealy mouthed piety to a truly Olympian level.

The Police Federation, the national committee of which unanimously supports its members having the right to strike, will hold a rally before its conference in May so that, as a statement says, ‘police officers, friends, families and supporters can show the strength of their feeling against the budget cuts being applied to policing and the consequences for public safety.’

If you dress to the left politically there is something deeply ironic about the idea of the police going out on strike. Who will ‘kettle’ the people who usually do the ‘kettling?’ Maybe they’ll have to take turns at beating themselves up on the picket line.

Facetiousness though shouldn’t blind the left or anyone else to the seriousness of what this means. The idea of the police going on strike would only a couple of years ago have been unimaginable; now there is an outside chance of it actually happening.

There is a good reason why we pay police officers good salaries and generous pensions, because we also ask them to do the things we either can’t or won’t do. Not just the truly awful things like picking up the pieces (often literally) after road traffic accidents, but the niggling repetitive things like dealing with persistent anti-social behaviour or being a verbal punch bag for angry burglary victims who think the theft of their TV should be treated like the crime of the century.

These so called reforms will do nothing to make the police more efficient, in fact they could do irreparable damage to the service. Take 20% from the budget of any organisation and it will inevitably have to radically alter the way it operates, cut back on almost everything in order to continue delivering the most basic level of service, meaning that much of the work the police do to build links with often hostile communities will have to stop. As a result they will become an organisation that reacts to problems instead of trying to tackle their potential causes in a proactive way; a sure recipe for disaster.

If Chief Constables are given the power to make their officers redundant they will almost certainly end up doing so, just as once given the power to raise fees to £9,000 all but a handful of university vice chancellors did so. This is because these days such positions are often held by ambitious middle managers who can be easily strong armed by the accountants rather than people who understand the service their organisation delivers, be it teaching art history or catching criminals.

Incidentally saying that police officers should constantly live under the shadow of redundancy because soldiers, sailors and members of the RAF do is nonsense; one staggering act of ingratitude does not justify another.

These cuts are yet another example of the obsessive myopia afflicting the government; in the absence of anything resembling a vision for the sort of country they want Britain to be cutting the deficit at all costs has filled the resulting vacuum. This is allied with a uniquely Tory pig headedness that sees only policies that cause pain as being effective and equates a reasonable willingness to consider and change the course of your actions where appropriate as a sign of incipient weakness.

Perhaps after their epic year long battle over NHS reform the government thought the police would be an easier target for their cut at all costs tactics. In their fevered imagination they perhaps saw the late Jack Warner touching the brim of his helmet and stoically getting on with things, ours not to reason why, at least not to reason why when the orders are given by people who went to Eton and Oxford.

What a surprise it must have been for them to find out that modern police officers aren’t all cosy clich├ęs; instead they’re professional men and women with an understanding of their value and the values they uphold. There is very little likelihood the police ever will go on strike, the fact though that they are willing to discuss the idea of withdrawing their labour should make a government that is increasingly remote and complacent think again about how and what it cuts.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Declining levels of literacy threaten our future.

Levels of literacy amongst pupils leaving primary school in England have fallen sharply in recent years according to chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw. Reading standards showed steady improvement from 1995 to 2005, now though many pupils are going to secondary school without the skills they need to cope with the curriculum.

Speaking to the BBC this week Michael Wilshaw emphasised the link between literacy and academic success, saying, ‘our concern is that too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on, in most cases if they can’t read at seven they struggle to catch up through their school career.’ As a result many of these students ‘find it difficult to access the curriculum’ and as adults ‘lack the functional skills to make their way in the modern world. They are more likely to be unemployed, unwell or supported by the state.’

In future OFSTEAD, the body that inspects schools in England, would, he said, focus ‘more sharply’ on monitoring how literacy is taught.

The reaction from the unions representing teachers to Michael Wilshaw’s comments was swift and somewhat defensive.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT said the ‘critical importance’ literacy to overall academic success was ‘beyond dispute’. However she challenged the figures cited by OFSTEAD saying the number of students reaching the required standard of literacy at eleven and later at GCSE had in fact risen since the 1990’s. It was right, she said, for OFSTEAD to ‘monitor provision in this vital subject’; but that it should not pick and choose the evidence it uses in order to support a ‘predetermined view.’

Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that national tests were narrowing the curriculum and suggested this ‘may well be one of the major causes why children at primary school who’ve had an overemphasis on test items can’t access the secondary curriculum.’

Teachers have many justified reasons to feel antagonistic towards OFSTEAD and the government from an inspection regime that sometimes seems more interested in ticking boxes than improving delivery to the ever more fanciful ideas for what schools should teach dreamed up by the ambitious Michael Gove.

Then there is the small matter of the plan mooted this week to pay teachers, and other public servants, working in areas deemed to be poor less than those working in wealthy areas on the grounds that their cost of living is much lower. All of which sounds very sensible until you consider the not unlikely possibility of someone living in an area with a high cost of living but working in a ‘poor’ area. Perhaps whoever dreamed up this latest exercise in unfairness genuinely believes that all house masters live in cottages provided by the school and have a rosy cheeked wife on hand to provide bump suppers at a moments notice too.

The one area though where there cannot be room for dissent is when it comes to the importance of making sure every child leaves primary school not just able to read fluently, but that they read for pleasure too. Low levels of literacy are a disaster in waiting for the economy, inhibiting the development of new industries that could bring lasting prosperity.

Being able to read isn’t just about academic success, a skill to be drilled into the unwilling heads of students, it is one of the things that makes a person whole, shows him or her worlds and ways of life beyond their narrow personal experience and encourages empathy and tolerance. In short it is through learning the mechanics of literacy and the world books open up to us that we become civilised.

Instead of a dreary and mostly self serving argument between the government and the teaching unions over statistics what we need is a mature agreement that the problem of illiteracy needs to be addressed as a priority.

The government has to invest in good quality literacy teaching for both children and adults, a child who struggles to read often have parents with literacy problems of their own. It might be a good idea too to think about opening rather than closing public libraries, especially in disadvantaged areas where families struggling to survive on ever shrinking budgets can’t afford to buy books for their kids. Most of all the government must set teachers free of their bureaucratic shackles and let them get on with what they do best.

For its part the teaching profession will have to overcome its antipathy to synthetic phonics, as a means of teaching reading it isn’t a panacea, but those of us who learnt by that method in the 1970’s know from experience that it if often highly effective. There needs also to be a more structured and even, dare I say it, competitive atmosphere in classrooms; not least because this will help boys to focus and make use of the energy they otherwise expend on misbehaving.

Literacy is too important, bestows too many lifelong gifts that can illuminate otherwise troubled lives for anyone to miss out due to bad teaching and government interference.

And the winner is…..Paddington

Paddington Bear, the marmalade sandwich chomping creation of Michael Bond has been crowned as Britain’s best loved animated character at the British Animation Awards, beating off the likes of Super Ted, Wallace and Gromit and Alexandr Meerkat.

An awards ceremony for cartoon characters; that’s got to be more fun than the dreary old Oscars don’t you think?

I can just imagine Bagpuss snarling ****oles through a fixed grin as the mice on the mouse organ troop up to collect their prize and Super Ted (surely you’d have to be forty at least to even know who he was) sulking at the bar because he’s still big it’s the cartoon that have gotten small.

As for weepy podium speeches that seem to go on forever I’m sure the bear of the moment would fix the blubbering A lister with one of his famous ‘hard stares.’

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Disabled people will never trust the Tories again and with good reason.

Remploy, the government owned company providing employment for disabled people is to close 36 of its 54 factories with the loss of 1700 jobs.

Minister for disabled people Maria Miller said the sites were not financially viable and that the decision to close them was ‘difficult but important.’ She went on to sat that each job at Remploy was subsidised by £25,000 of taxpayers’ money whereas the Access to Work programme, the government’s preferred method of helping disabled people find work, required a subsidy of just £3,000.

The decision to close so many factories in one fell swoop was made on the basis of findings in a report written by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability UK, speaking to the BBC this week Ms Sayce said that is was important that the factories slated for closure ‘should be given the chance to show if they are viable.’ Good luck with that; a government in the mood to cut spending at all costs seldom changes its mind.

Shadow minister for the disabled Anne McGuire said that making a decision with such serious consequences on the basis of ‘a report by an individual is frankly not acceptable.’

Liam Byrne, shadow minister for work and pensions, said that closing Remploy factories was ‘the wrong plan at the wrong time.’ The Conservatives had, he said, promised to protect jobs at Remploy whilst in opposition, adding ‘now we know the truth. People with disabilities will never trust a word they say again.’

Phil Davies, national secretary of the GMB trades union said ‘I never thought I’d see the day that an organisation set up to provide sustainable employment for disabled people would be shut down.’ It was, he said, ‘an attack on the most vulnerable members of our society.’

The government has set up an £8million fund to help former Remploy workers but, as Anne McGuire told the BBC, ‘there are tens of people in each of the constituencies where these redundancies are going to be made chasing each job.’

Even by the standards of this increasingly out of touch government closing so many factories in one hit seems like a cruelly low blow struck against the people least able to be resilient. Liz Sayce may genuinely have written her report with good intentions and believe fully that the factories under threat should be given the chance to prove whether they are viable; it will never happen though.

A government that has systematically starved Remploy of support since taking office is hardly likely to support something that would expose the cynicism of its policies.

Defending the closures Iain Duncan Smith said that segregating disabled people form the rest of the workforce was a Victorian idea that had no place in the modern world. In doing so he seemed to wilfully ignore the fact that without the supportive environment provided by Remploy many disabled people will struggle and probably fail to find fulfilling work.

If anybody id guilty of holding Victorian attitudes it is Iain Duncan Smith and the rest of the government. Their attitude to the disabled, single parents, the unemployed and just about anyone outside their own charmed circle is let them sink or swim and if they drown who cares?

Quite a lot of people actually, people who may not be naturally aligned to the left but will still agree with Phil Davis that disabled people will never trust the Tories again and with good reason. Neither come to that should anyone else, this government is operation on the principle that everything it gets away with is a spur to trying something even more short sighted, selfish and damaging next time.

The growing number of people being left high and dry economically and socially by a government that its even its own members secretly admit has no direction or vision for the future will not forget what has been done to them in the name of balancing the books; they must not forgive either when it comes to casting their votes.

A slow train to nowhere

The days of above inflation rises in ticket prices for rail users are to end; more money is going to be spent on rolling stock and refurbishing dilapidated stations. Put out the bunting, get the champagne on ice; things are looking up at last.

Oh no, hang on a minute, the sting in the tail is a whopping £3.5billion cut in government funding for the railways; which probably means all the things promised above will be delayed until the twelfth of never.

Transport secretary Justine Greening said in parliament that the government was going to set about ‘building a more efficient and affordable rail network that serves its passengers better, encourages the rail industry to thrive and ultimately invigorates Britain’s economy.’

Fine words, but, unfortunately, ones that will never be turned into actions, instead what we’ll get are job cuts and a deteriorating service. The whole sorry mess will stumble on as before in the hands of greedy train operating companies and overseen by dim politician who have no idea what they want the railways to do; but they want them to do it more efficiently.

Pigs in the dock

Have you seen the new TV advert for the Guardian that turns the story of the three little pigs into a fable about freedom of the press?

It’s a brilliantly conceived piece of marketing and just a little bit bonkers.

I couldn’t help wondering what some of the other members of the fourth estate would make of popular fairy stories, Goldilocks and the three bears say.

The Daily Express would probably have the protagonists discovering that porridge either caused or cured cancer before hinting that Goldilocks looks (nudge, nudge) a bit like a certain princess with whom they are unhealthily obsessed.

The Daily Mail would be up in arms about British bears being forced out of their homes by porridge scoffing immigrants, all the fault of the EU, the welfare state and the BBC it seems.

The Sunday Sun, which isn’t the News of the World under another name honestly, would probably take the prize though with the banner headline:

Goldilocks: my porridge fuelled nights of passion with three hot bears.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Compassion matters however old you are.

A commission into care for the elderly by the NHS Confederation has revealed that the importance of compassion and dignity is often undervalued in the way care is delivered.

The report recommends that an emphasis be put on respecting the dignity of the elderly and that carers should avoid using patronising language. It also recommends that more should be done to improve the quality of life for older people, such as helping them to keep in touch with relatives, take part in activities or just having someone there to keep them company.

Sir Keith Pearson, one of the authors of the report told the BBC’s Today programme that whilst the NHS and the care home sector provided ‘excellent care’ in most instances there are small pockets in which ‘dignity has broken down’. There needed to be, he said, a culture change where people who deliver care are recruited for their values and then trained in the necessary skills.

I could not agree more, nothing so shames our society more than the shameful way we treat older people. Agreement that something must be done crosses the political divide and yet what we actually do is nothing very much apart from filling a library with reports telling us the same things over and over again.

Why could this be, are we stupid or insensitive? Have we bought wholesale into the baby boomer fiction that growing old is some sort of failing on the part of an individual rather than the destination we all arrive at unless some misfortune intervenes? Maybe; all those elements are certainly present in our attitudes to the elderly, but there is another, simpler answer to the question we always seem to overlook.

We fail to show older people the compassion they deserve because we fail to realise that compassion along with trust and respect is something people should expect from the society they live in over the whole course of their lives, not a benefit to be, grudgingly, given as their lives draw to a close. When people lives closer, less materialistic lives this was something they understood implicitly; in our atomised modern world it is a thing we have forgotten at the most dangerous of costs.

All our best impulses are rooted in promoting trust, compassion and respect from fighting the most brutally oppressive prejudices to putting works of fine art on display in galleries where they can be appreciated by the masses rather than leaving them in palaces to be ignored by aristocrats. Over the past thirty years these values have been under systematic attack from cynical politicians, a witlessly one dimensional popular culture and, it has to be said, the ignorance and complacency of people like you and I.

We recruited our leading figures in politics, business and culture precisely because they were skilled at telling us what we wanted to hear. Greed is good, because you’re worth it, there is no such thing as society; a litany of seductive selfishness with a scorpion’s sting in its tail.

Now that times are hard, harder than they have been since the thirties in some parts of the country, these same leaders don’t have the values necessary to keep people together. Instead they play on the same cynical themes that divide communities and stoke feelings of disenchantment because they have no answers and nothing of value to say.

It is right that something finally should be done about the shocking way elderly people are treated by a tiny minority of carers. Good conscientious care workers deserve to be paid properly and values for the service they deliver; cruel or incompetent ones deserve to be caught and punished, but treating a single symptom will not cure the wider disease.

The time has come for our society as a whole to bite the bullet of realising that we need to ensure that everyone regardless of age or origins has a decent quality of life. That may mean being a little less materially affluent, but in the longer term we will all be happier and healthier.

Cheese for Europe

Veteran lounge singer Englebert Humperdinck will sing the UK’s entry in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. I doubt it will do much to improve our chances of winning.

This is no reflection on the talents of Mr Humperdinck, he might not be my particular cup of musical tea, but his album sales and longevity mean he must have something the fans like.

Instead it is recognition of the fact that British performers are able to sell their records globally, ABBA aside most other European artists, even the ones who win Eurovision, are unknown outside their country of origin.

Since they will probably get nul points on the night Mr Humperdinck and his fans should just get on with enjoying taking part.

A horse; a horse….

According to evidence given to the Leveson inquiry this week former News International executive Rebekah Brooks was ‘loaned’ a retired police horse called Raisa by friends at the Met. If that wasn’t bizarre enough it turns out our own dear Prime Minister rode said horse on a number of occasions.

I can just picture him rising to the trot as his good friend Rupert sinks his claws into the country’s media. Tally-ho!

If some enterprising theatre company turns the Leveson inquiry into a stage play they are going to have to get Brian Rix in to do the script because it is rapidly turning into a total farce.