Sunday, 23 December 2012

An Olympiad of dunces

Spotlights rake the skies over Stoke, the red carpet has been laid out in front of Wetherspoons and Elton John is hosting an after party at the Monzil Indian Restaurant. Yes its time for me to hand out my annual awards to the movers and shakers of 2012; here we go then.

Worst idea of the year: There is really no contest on this one; the gong has to go to Chancellor George Osborne and his infamous ‘pasty tax’ announced in a budget so dire they had to invent a new word to describe it. You’d have to be a special kind of stupid to think that slapping a tax on one of the few small luxuries people can still afford wouldn’t cause mass outrage and it turns out that is exactly what Boy George is.

Least convincing apology: He’s sorry, really, really sorry and with a big fat cherry on top too; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg apologised for reneging on his pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees in a Youtube video that made Gordon Brown’s risible efforts of a few years ago look almost competent. Cynics say that in politics if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made; it looks like Numpty Nick can’t even get that right.

Special award for removing herself from public life (sponsored by Charles Darwin): Despite strong competition from Louise Mensch this has to go to Nadine Dorries, her brief sojourn on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ mean that she and her odd collection of prejudices will be leaving the political stage at the next election; try not to get hit by the door on your way out dear.

Comeback of the year: It’s been a good year for Ed Milliband, he’s repeatedly put David Cameron on the spot at PMQ’s; Red Ed might not quite look like a prime minister in waiting but at least he’s been taken seriously now.

The ‘oh cripes!’ how did this happen award: This has to go to Boris Johnson, not for winning a second term as London’s mayor, Red Ken is a spent force and none of the other candidates came close, but for his utterly unlikely popularity with the public. Despite carrying on like a posh Homer Simpson on acid he’s one of the few politicians able to ‘connect’ with voters, despite his loud protestations that he has no ambitions to be PM David Cameron should watch his hack around Bojo.

Disappointment of the year: The ‘Occupy’ movement, this time last year their protest outside St Paul’s captured the attention of the world giving them a platform from which to say something important about the need for a fairer and kinder society. Unfortunately they fluffed it big time, preferring to preach to the converted instead, since then some former members have talked about doing outreach work in schools, which is all very worthy but does nothing to hide the fact that a once in a lifetime opportunity has been scandalously wasted.

Relief of the year: Barrack Obama beating Mitt Romney in last month’s US Presidential elections. The thought of the free world being led for the next four years by a weird android from planet Mormon who thinks ‘corporations are people too’ and that the almighty cares what sort of pants he wears would have been to scary for words.

Gold medal for self congratulation: This has to go to Lord Coe and the organisers of London 2012, ok Team GB won loads of medals (hurrah), but the opening ceremony was pretentious nonsense and the ticketing system an embarrassing shambles; worse still the promised legacy from the games looks like being consumed by a costly legal wrangle. Only if there isn’t tumbleweed blowing through the Olympic park in four years time should anyone involved in organising the games be patted on the back.

The ‘jumped the shark’ award: Sadly this has to go to Newsnight, the one time flagship of BBC News bottled it badly over the Jimmy Saville sex abuse scandal and has forfeited much of its credibility; like the Fighting Tameraire its next port of call should be the breaker’s yard.

I’d like to wish everyone who has read this blog in 2012 a merry Christmas and a happy new year; now I’m off to see if there are any onion bhajis left at Elton’s bash.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Is studying history about to become a thing of the past?

The study of history in schools in the UK could be about to become, ahem, history, as students appear to be falling out of love with the subject. A report for the all parliamentary group on history released this week that entries to study history at GCSE have dropped below 30%.

This will not please Education Secretary Michael Gove, who recently expressed concern that many 18 to 24 year olds didn’t know that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar or who built Hadrian’s Wall. You have to guess that they must have questioned the dimmer half of the demographic since there is a big clue in the latter question.

Anyway young people don’t know enough history, Michael Gove won’t be happy about it; so it follows that something will have to be done.

In its report the group criticises schools for teaching just an hour of history a week to thirteen year olds and for doing so in a way that doesn’t follow a logical chronology. Apparently it’s all Hitler, Henry (the eighth that is) and the pyramids with little to link things together. This, as Chris Skidmore MP, vice chair of the group told the BBC, produces a sort of ‘Dr Who history’ that made it ‘very difficult to generate understanding and a sense of chronology in such abbreviated time periods.’

The group would like to see history included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) when it replaces GCSE’s and for the curriculum to focus more closely on key events in British history. They fought shy of recommending that history be made a mandatory subject up to sixteen, but it was recommended that citizenship be forced out to make room for more extended teaching of history.

In response a spokeswoman for the Department of Education told the BBC that the government was ‘looking at history’ as part of its review of the national curriculum and wanted to ensure that students were ‘engaged and inspired by the subject.’ Commenting on the proposal to replace citizenship with history in the new EBacc Andy Thornton of the Citizenship Foundation said proponents of the change were ‘defending their own subject based on ignorance of another’s.’ He added that through studying citizenship students were ‘inducted into the social order of the day, empowering them to play their part in its stability and prosperity.’

The teaching of history, particularly British history, is vital, if you hold anything like liberal views that it is a given that you accept the best way of learning to respect and value the culture and traditions of others is by understanding your own first. The trouble is we seem somehow to have ended up in a situation where people on the right of the political spectrum believe themselves to have a unique understanding of our nation’s history and how it should be passed on.

This has produced some truly odd ideas, many of them firmly lodged in the busy brain of Michael Gove. He seems to view history, as he does most subjects, through an odd sepia toned filter, as something carried out by kings, princes and, we might suppose, Education Secretaries with their eye on the main prize, at which we groundlings can merely gawp in wonderment.

In reality the world and the subject have moved on, the teaching of history, unless it is merely to be a process of dinning dates into the heads of students, has to reflect the diversity of experience and origins to be found in British life. As for making history part of the new EBacc, all well and good but something else will have to be pushed out to make room, unless, of course, the new qualification is going to share the sad fate of GCSE’s by becoming a bloated repository for whatever fad happened to be preoccupying the Westminster villagers the week before last.

If, as seems likely, it is citizenship that gets the push then the people responsible really don’t understand their subject. One of the dominant themes in all of human history is how power is devolved from the hands of the few into those of the many. It is a story that is still being played out today in Egypt and Syria and one that may, if we aren’t careful, skip back a few chapters here in Europe.

Young people, and those of us who aren’t so young, should study history because if you don’t understand the mistakes made in the past you are doomed to repeat them; not understanding how democracy works and what we all need to do to keep it working produces the same sad result.

Monday, 10 December 2012

A good week for thumping the poor

Cuts to benefits could put the poorest people living in Stoke-on-Trent into debt and into the hands of high interest loan dealers. For the most vulnerable people the bad times that started rolling in 2007 are fast turning into an avalanche.

According to figures released by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) over the weekend the number of people seeking help with council tax arrears has risen from 610 in 2008/09 to 1236 this year, the total debt has risen over the same period from £466, 97 to £1.3million.

Further cuts to childcare payments, out of work benefits and sickness benefits are also going to hit the most vulnerable people hardest.

In a truly Victorian touch the council will be required to deduct £25 from working claimants of council tax benefit as an ‘incentive to work’. If you’re an investor now might be a good time to take out shares in gruel; the workhouse may be making a comeback.

A spokesperson for the CAB told the Sentinel that the changes to benefits will increase levels of personal debt and force vulnerable people to ‘borrow, often at exorbitant rates, from home credit providers, payday loans and pawnbrokers.’

Deputy Council Leader Paul Shotton told the Sentinel ‘welfare reform is not something we choose to do but something forced upon us and every council nationally,’ the council was, he said, ‘mindful of the potential impact and we want the changes to be as fair as possible.’

Whatever your opinion of their regeneration plans, and mine isn’t high, there is no argument that the council have been forced into a corner by the government over welfare reform. They have been unwillingly recruited as the hired muscle for a programme of withdrawing the support of the state from the most vulnerable members of society that revives notions about the deserving and undeserving poor belonging to a bygone age.

Pious talk about giving claimants and ‘incentive to work’ rings hollow when jobs are rarer than hen’s teeth. Many people lucky enough to be in work are struggling as food and heating costs continue to rise whilst wage levels remain stagnant, for them benefits aren’t a windfall; they’re a lifeline.

There was a time when I had a certain degree of respect for Iain Duncan Smith, unlike many former leaders of the Conservative Party he didn’t retreat into a cosy world of executive directorships and gentleman’s clubs; instead he set out to see how the other, poorer, half live. At least he’s supposed to have done, which makes it surprising that he’s managed to survive the experience with every one of his prejudices intact.

The biggest of these is that anyone, working or not, receiving benefits is a ‘scrounger’ living high on the state reared hog while everyone else struggles. This is demonstrably wrong, a fact attested to by the sad lines of people queuing up at food banks, the alarming rises in homelessness and mental illness to be found in areas blighted by high unemployment and low wages; areas just like Stoke in fact.

A life on benefits isn’t a free ride, it’s a miserable trudge through dependency and despair that all too often leads to a very dark place indeed. It isn’t just the government that wants to get people off benefits and into work, the vast majority of claimants are desperate to work too, this won’t be achieved though by telling people to pull their socks up and try harder.

Pretending it can might play well with the sillier sections of the Tory party and the tabloid press, but politicians with expensive educations and serious responsibilities should take a more nuanced approach. It isn’t a matter of carrots and sticks so much as working constructively with people to find them work that actually pays; not an easy task but a vitally important one none the less.

If the current misbegotten government can’t grasp the necessity of carrying it out then vulnerable people in Stoke and many other towns around the country will continue to struggle. Alone and abandoned with the only help on the horizon a loan from a company that hides sky high interest rates behind a cheery jingle.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The start of an awkward conversation about the city’s budget

On a wet Tuesday evening last week I headed down to the Civic Centre to attend the launch of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s budget consultation for 2013.

The event took place in the Jubilee Room, a rather gloomy wood panelled space with heavy red drapes at the windows and a print of George V in full ceremonial uniform glowering down from the wall, a reminder of the slightly fly-blown civic grandeur that will be lost if the building is sold off to developers.

All the big guns of what the council, somewhat pompously, bills as its ‘cabinet’ were present, sitting at the front of the room and looking for the most part more than a little uncomfortable. They, as did most of the audience, knew this was not going to be an easy evening.

Front and centre was council leader Mohammed Pervez, a portly man in a grey suit with a speaking style that alternates between nervousness and exasperation; not a good combination in a politician with something unpopular to sell to the public. The consultation was to be, he said, part of a ‘meaningful conversation’ with the public about the city’s finances; specifically how £21 million in savings can be found in addition to the £56 million already made overt the past two years.

He reiterated what are to regular observers of politics in Stoke familiar themes about the lack of a financial settlement from the government, it is expected some time in December and is unlikely to be generous and the refusal of ministers to recognise the challenges faced by the city. The meat and drink of the presentation that followed though was that the council will have to tighten its belt and go on doing so for years to come, if predictions made by the Local Government Association are correct there may be little in the budget beyond funding for statutory services.

The latest round of efficiencies will, he said, involve large ‘savings’ from the budget of each of the council’s directorates, the sale of buildings and the merging of departments along with another two hundred to two hundred and fifty job losses. Those council employees who keep their jobs will, again, go without a cost of living increase in their pay settlement, although the council have agreed to give the lowest earning workers the minimum living wage of £7.45 per hour; cold comfort in hard times.

The language the bad news is delivered in is drawn straight from the lexicon of middle management, it is all about ‘efficiency savings’ and cutting ‘ back office costs’; the council is going to move from providing services to ‘commissioning’ them from companies in the private sector. It seems that three years of austerity economics have provided our culture with as many words for spending cuts as others have for snow.

The delivery veers between the dull and the downright bad tempered, like many a politician before him Mohammed Pervez knows all too well the soporific effect of statistics and provides a blizzard of them here. He also gets more than a little testy during the question and answer section what asked how the council can justify taking out a huge loan to build a new Civic Centre whilst at the same time cutting vital services.

The logic behind this move, if you can did it out of rather a lot of waffle boils down to ‘if we build it they will come’, meaning that if the council moves to the new Central Business District on the outskirts of Hanley investors will soon follow. If you think this has more than a touch of magical thinking about it you’d probably be right.

Pouring investment into Hanley is both a bone of contention and an article of faith under the ‘Mandate for Change’ that is the bedrock of the council’s regeneration strategy. Residents of the other five towns making up the city feel aggrieved that so much investment is being aimed at the city centre whilst their own communities are being left to crumble; Mr Pervez and his cabinet cite this as an example of the parochialism that has held the city back for decades and say that if investment if focussed on Hanley the benefits will, eventually, trickle down to the rest of the city.

Whilst it is possible to feel sympathy for the Council Leader as he struggles to balance a budget without much help from a government that sees no votes for either coalition partner in Stoke, the unavoidable fact is that much of the thinking underpinning the city’s regeneration strategy is flawed. Almost every former industrial town in the region is trying to re-invent itself along the same lines and there is only so much money to go round.

It was hard not to come away from the evening without feeling a sense of gloomy resignation, the council it seemed, was defending a position on which it had already decided rather than seeking suggestions from the public. It was suggested that the council would consider suggestions sent in as to how to save money and promote the city to investors, I can imagine the postbags filled with letters saying don’t sell the Civic piling up to following day and promptly being tipped into landfill.

As exercises in public engagement go this felt more like box ticking than the real thing, sadly Stoke council has form in this area having run a Community Empowerment Network that folded because it wasn’t taken seriously or given much in the way of independence. That inevitably fosters an atmosphere of weary cynicism; people feel there is little point in taking part in a conversation if they aren’t going to be listened to.