Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fleshing out the Big Society

I see that on Liberal Democrat Voice Chris White, leader of the Lib Dem opposition on Herts County Council has taken a swipe at the ‘Big Society’ dismissing it for having ‘meatless bones’ and amounting to ‘not very much at all’.

Now don’t want to pick a quarrel with Chris, who I generally regard as a kindred spirit. But I do get frustrated at the tone of begrudgery that many Lib Dems adopt when discussing the Big Society. More generally it is symptomatic of a Lib Dem intellectual cringe towards the other parties – as soon as they adopt our language and ideas we decide that those ideas can’t have been very good after all. So I will just outline why I take a more benign view the Big Society and the debate surrounding it.

In a modern liberal democracy any new idea is likely to be limited in scope. If Francis Fukayama’s proclamation of the End of History after the Cold War was mostly wrong-headed, there was a kernel of truth fighting to get out – that utopian ambitions for organising society were discredited and the best that the western democracies can hope for is to manage our existing system better. So any guiding principle of any democratic government is going to be about what it chooses to emphasise and prioritise not about turning the world upside down. Viewed in that light, the Big Society can be a useful way of thinking about the coalition’s agenda.
As Chris acknowledges, there is much that is Liberal in the language of the Big Society. Indeed in my view it belongs more to modern Liberalism than anything else. Back in the 1980s when I was cutting my political teeth, the divisions between the parties seemed to be as follows. Labour wanted to see a compassionate society with a high level of public services, and saw the state as the only possible vehicle for providing them. But their approach was patrician, they tended to be suspicious of the third sector, community organisations and anything get gave citizens more direct power. They seemed inclined to believe that the state and its experts knew best in all things. On the other side, the Conservatives seemed ideologically at war with the public sector, believing that services, if provided at all, should be delivered by private companies.

By contrast Liberals shared many of Labour’s aspirations, but were sceptical of their 'one size fits all’ attitude towards public services. Community politics meant that public bodies should be accountable to the citizens they served, and needed to engage with voluntary and community groups and the like. The mantra was about giving power back to people rather than concentrating it in the hands of benevolent but paternalistic politicians and experts. Of course things have moved on since the 1980s. New Labour’s advocacy of a ‘stakeholder society’ was symptomatic of a move away from paternalism, and whether through pragmatism or conviction the Conservatives under Cameron have abandoned much of their anti-public sector rhetoric. So both parties have moved towards our worldview.

Therefore, whether or not one likes the specific term ‘Big Society’, we should be attempting to lead the debate and put Liberal flesh on the bones. ‘Volunteering, mutualism, localism and letting people get on with it’ are not a bad starting points for thinking about a healthy society –though they must go hand-in-hand with, not replace business prosperity and strong public services. Chris argues that ‘comfortable conventions of self-confident middle class households cannot be seen as a template for what may be needed in run down estates’. But surely deprived communities would benefit particularly from a spirit of self-help, where people can make their voices heard and where there are active community organisations to speak up on their behalf. Perhaps making sure that poorer and excluded groups have as sharp elbows as the affluent middle classes is a vital part of building a Big Society.

Wiki-wanderings - was the Millionaire quiz fraud Major innocent?

I can't remember now what I was looking for, but wanderings in Wikipedia took me to the entry for one James Plaskett, who has written an extended essay arguing that Major Charles Ingram who, along with alleged accomplices, was convicted a few years back for cheating on the television quiz programme 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' is innocent.

I found Plaskett's arguments rather convincing, although he is preaching to the converted in my case. I always thought the prosecution petty, vindictive and self-serving by the production company, and the evidence flimsy and unconvincing.

James Plaskett is clearly an interesting character, being a chess grandmaster, £250,000 winner himself on Who wants to be a millionaire, married to the poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley and brother of the person who invented the snickometer at cricket. At least that's what it says on his Wikipedia entry.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pop stars ask the big questions

Oh dear, this blog seems to have become a bit earnest and angry, focused on defending local authorities against the nonsenses of certain ministers in our otherwise excellent government.

So, it's time to change the mood, calm down and reflect. Here are some important questions to ponder, posed by musical artistes, popular beat combos and the like who appear in my iTunes list.

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? – Nick Lowe

Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? – The Waitresses

Who Knows Where The Time Goes? – Fairport Convention

What Time Is Love? – The KLF

Is This All There Is? – Nanci Griffith

What Good Am I? – Bob Dylan

Has The Whole World Lost Its Head? – The Go-Go’s

What Is The Light? – The Flaming Lips

Why Should The Fire Die? – Nickel Creek

Why Are People Grudgeful? – The Fall

Why Would You Wanna Live? – Wilco

Where Is My Mind? - Pixies

What Is Life? - George Harrison

Friday, February 18, 2011

Conservative minister calls for an end to PE teaching in schools

Well, perhaps not quite, but if you follow the logic of DCLG minister Bob Neill's latest comments that's where you end up.

What he has done is attack 'Crazy non-jobs like cheerleading development officers' in local authorities. Now my council does not employ any cheerleading development officers, but ever supportive of the coalition government I'm keen to engage with how Mr Neill's comments might more generally be applied.

Let's reason through why a local authority in its misguided, non-job friendly kind of way, might create such a post. I imagine it has something to do with promoting physical exercise, health and fitness, particularly in the light of much-discussed concerns about obesity levels. Cheerleading is the sort of activity that might just tempt people who wouldn't normally take much exercise to do so. Foolish local councillors might even think that such activities are in line with the government's professed approach to public health, namely that:

society, government and individuals share collective responsibility for public health and the new public health system will encourage all to play their part in improving and protecting the nation’s health and well-being.

But apparently not, and this is simply a non-job. So one must infer that Mr Neill believes councils and public bodies have no business spending taxpayers' money on promoting fitness and physical exercise and should cease such activities forthwith. What does this then imply for public policy?

• Schools to save money by ceasing to teach physical education and sacking their PE teachers.
• No taxpayers' money to be wasted on competitive sport in schools.
• Local councils to stop providing sports pitches for hire, reducing the cost to the public purse of their maintenance.
• Councils also to stop providing swimming pools, swimming lessons and leisure centres.
• The government save money by scrapping all Department of Health initiatives to promote physical to exercise.
• A small fortune to be saved by ending all public spending on the Olympics.

Presumably this is not what Bob Neill is advocating. Indeed if councils actually stopped providing sporting and similar facilities right-wing ministers and media would denounce them for political correctness gone mad etc. So the minister is not actually putting forward an argument that he actually believes: it is merely a cheap shot and the latest instance of ministerial gunboat diplomacy.

For avoidance of doubt let's just pause to say that I quite accept that local authorities like any bureaucracy can and sometimes do have posts that don't achieve much in practice. This may or may not apply to cheerleading coordinators. But to know for sure one would have to look into the specific circumstances - what is the postholder doing, how many people are benefitting, is their work making a different? etc. I doubt very much whether Bob Neill has done this.

A final point: another non-job he cites is 'press officers tasked with spinning propaganda on bin collections'. So one might reasonably expect that there are no press officers in DCLG then. Of course one would be wrong. It has a rather impressive website complete with its own 'newsroom' presumbaby written by paid press officers. And what useful information are they telling us? Well at taxpayers' expense they have published a press release from one of Mr Neill's ministerial colleagues to remind people they can stand for election as a councillor in May. You couldn't make it up etc. etc.!

If ministers want to stop wasting taxpayers' money on non-jobs perhaps they should start with their own department.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are the Taxpayers' Alliance demanding higher taxes?

I've never had much time for the Taxpayers' Alliance feeling that their purpose is not to protect taxpayers but simply to bash the public sector even if they contradict themselves in the process.

Here they are criticising a council for having too many recycling bins, even though the council argues that by getting residents to sort recyclables in this way, it saves the public purse £500,000

The logical implication is that the TPA would rather Newcastle-under-Lyme council ran a more expensive refuse service and put up council tax.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why not let MPs vote on individual civil servants' salaries?

I doubt if any of us who signed last week's letter to The Times imagined that it would leave its target, Eric Pickles, chastened. But his announcement today that the government will require councils to hold a public debate on any appointments of officers on a salary of £100,000 or more removes any lingering doubt.

There are a few points that arise here. I have a gut feeling (though sadly not enough time to research) that in my working lifetime salaries of high earners and senior managers have gone up proportionately more than those at lower end of the salary scale. I have enough lingering leftist sentiment to feel that this is not a good thing and ideally ought to be reversed.

However, local government can hardly be expected on its own to counter what is doubtless a national or international trend across public and private sectors. It ought to go without saying that local authorities can be large and complex organisations, often the largest employers in their areas, and deliver a range of vital services.

Senior local government managers are not part of an unofficial institute of pen pushers and petty bureaucrats. Many of them will be qualified in professional disciplines, at least some of which (law, town planning, chartered surveying, accountancy etc.) have a mature market in the private sector where they could earn more. Whether one attributes their decision to work in local government to an altruistic commitment to public service or to an inability to cope with the alleged extra pressure of the private sector, local authorities surely have to offer reasonably competitive salaries. Unless they really are supposed to recruit only from the least bright and able members of any given profession.

I doubt if many of us who serve as councillors want to pay senior managers more than is necessary to secure appointees who are capable of doing the job effectively, and there isn't an intrinsic problem with councillors having to justify their decisions in public.

But why is this restricted only to local government? If Mr Pickles' concern is to ensure transparency and accountability for high earners in the public sector, then why not apply this to all levels of government and state employment? Last year the government published a list of civil servants on high salaries. Why shouldn't each of these, when appointed, have their appointment and pay voted on by an open parliamentary debate?

The same might apply to those working for arms of the state outside central or local government. Last year there was a local controversy over the salary of the chief executive of the West Herts Hospital Trust, Dr Jan Filochowski, who apparently earned £246,000 in 2008/09. Now I have nothing against Dr Filochowski, under whose leadership the hospital trust's performance has undoubtedly improved. But he appears to earn far more than anyone working for Watford Borough Council and more, even, than the chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council. Why should his salary not be voted on by democratically-elected representatives who are responsible for the service (again this would mean parliament)? [Note here: I realise that the provision is not to be retrospective so I mean his successor if he were to leave his post].

I suspect local government already has more democratic scrutiny of top salary earners than other parts of the public sector - senior appointments have to be confirmed by full council meetings, albeit not currently in public session. If Mr Pickles is seriously concerned to have accountability for salaries of high earners in the public sector, he should get the government to practice what it preaches and give MPs a vote on the individual salaries of senior civil servants. Otherwise this is just a piece of humbug and yet another attack on local democracy.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Is Sally Bercow the new Lembit Öpik?

Both seem to have the problem of not appreciating how certain types of publicity undermine such serious political purposes as they may have.

Delayed gratification

This blog has been silent for a couple of weeks or so. Such all too common gaps in postings are mainly the result of busy meeting schedules leaving little time and that issues I might have wanted to post about no longer being news by the time I do have an opportunity to post.

Another problem is that often my instant reaction to an issue will differ from what I think after further reflection. But again by the time I have made up my mind the rest of the world has moved on.

So perhaps I should draw inspiration fromt the new magazine being launched called Delayed Gratification, which promises to be 'last to breaking news' and commits itself to 'returning to stories after the dust has settled'.

Whether this will be a success remains to be seen, given that it seems to go against the spirit of the age, that the title is rather middlebrow for such a highbrow venture and that the cover price of £12 is rather steep. But I wish it well!