Monday, October 31, 2011

Adoption row: just another exercise in council-bashing?

I can’t claim any great expertise (or even knowledge) on the subject of adoption, but instinct and logic incline me to be very sceptical of the government’s latest exercise in council-bashing.

Take, for instance, David Cameron’s statement that "It is shocking that of the 3,600 children under the age of one in care, only 60 were adopted last year - this is clearly not good enough.” This takes it as read that the more children in care under 12 months old who are adopted the better. But is this a reasonable view? Unless parents have explicitly given up their children for adoption, then one hopes that in many cases local authorities will be trying to return babies to their birth parents if at all possible. A rush to arrange adoption is not necessarily the best solution. (One might even expect Conservatives to agree with this).

The other measure mentioned is how quickly councils arrange adoptions after agreeing that this is the best outcome for a particular child. But it hardly takes a moment’s thought to work out how this might be affected by factors other than the council’s ability to arrange adoptions. If the social services department is more reluctant than others to decide that children should be adopted then its success rate will appear higher because it has fewer cases to resolve. The reverse would also be true.
That is leaving aside the issue of whether socio-economic or demographic factors might make it easier to arrange adoptions in some areas than in others.

Given how serious an issue this is, how important to people’s lives, it seems unfortunate to say the least that Cameron and Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton are using this as an excuse to pick a row with local authorities. Doubtless there will be some councils who really are not doing a very good job, although one suspects there will be others who are ‘named and shamed’ who have actually got sound reasons to explain their performance. Whichever way, government gunboat diplomacy doesn’t help.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Paul Tyler and 38 Degrees - pressure groups should be subject to scrutiny too!

Writing on the Guardian website last week, Lib Dem peer Paul Tyler took issue with the lobbying methods on the NHS bill of campaigning organisation 38 Degrees. He commented:

The kind of exaggeration 38 Degrees used made people ask whether simply filling up someone's inbox with a lot of half-constructed half-truths was a respectable way to campaign. The organisation had not asked people to engage with any of the detail of this issue, and had given a false impression about the headlines. Some would say this route leads us into a form of one-click rent-a-mob – what is now termed "slacktivism" – enabling ill-informed and disconnected instant electronic communication to take the place of genuine political discussion and interaction.
Regardless of the precise rights and wrongs on this specific issue, I think Paul Tyler highlights a wider point about the credibility and ethics of 'third sector' organisations and the campaigns they run and the free pass they are often given by the media.

So we see the NSPCC, which provides very little direct care for children, running ever more emotive advertising campaigns, which no doubt provide them with funds for another round of horror-movie-style ads.

Similarly, visiting a National Trust property earlier this year, I was shocked to see them running a disingenous campaign against the government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), as if there every National Trust property was about to be surrounded by new housing estates. (The NPPF is far from perfect and many legitimate criticisms can be made of it, but this should not descend into caricature). Likewise, last year we had homelessness charity Shelter engaging in questionable use of statistics to generate publicity for themselves by attacking local authorities.

Third sector organisations are by no means necessarily noble and disinterested parties. They too have their vested interests - publicity helps them raise funds and gain competitive edge over their rivals. So they have every reason to make their claims sensational and their tactics noisy. Equally, they are likely to be represented by those well-versed in the political game. Campbell-Robb, the director of Shelter worked in the cabinet office under Labour; when MacMillan Nurses denounced the government over benefits earlier this year, their media spokesperson was former Labour parliamentary candidate Mike Hobday.

Of course, charities, NGOs, pressure groups and the like have a vital role to play in any democracy, but their arguments and campaigning tactics should be scrutinised as closely by the media and treated with a degree of scepticism. For that reason Paul Tyler's article is timely and welcome.

PS: I suppose for the sake of full disclosure I should mention that I had my own little local run-in last year with a well-known third sector organisation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lib Dems have a duty to contest police commissioner elections

The decision of the Federal Executive that the party should not contest next year’s police commissioner elections is misguided and wrong. To be clear, FE hasn’t actually said that Lib Dem candidates must not stand, but there will be no federal funding for these elections and its suggestion that ‘Individual Liberal Democrats may support non party candidates’ is hardly a rallying cry for local parties to fight energetic campaigns.

Perhaps I will be in a tiny minority in feeling so strongly about this, but it seems to me that the whole issue has been bungled by the party from start to finish. As a result, we have a mess from which we don’t even emerge with honour intact.

The election of police commissioners was always going to be a problem for the party, as it was one of the few elements of the coalition agreement that provoked strongly-held and near-unanimous opposition among Liberal Democrat activists. Although it was clear that the coalition would have a change of heart on creating police commissioners, in practice it wasn’t a problem as the elections were to take place on the same day as next year’s local elections. So we could fight two elections for the price of one, just as we do when European and council elections are fought on the same day.

Then came this year’s disappointing local election results, in which a difficult situation was made worse by many non Lib Dem voters turning out to vote No in the referendum and Tory or Labour in the council elections. At the Lib Dem local government conference in the summer, there seemed to be a strong view from councillors, campaigners and defeated candidates that having police commissioner elections on the same day as the local elections would be disastrous for our chances of holding council seats, and this opinion was expressed very strongly to ministers etc.

I found myself a lone voice in arguing the opposite case. The referendum did harmed in the council elections because the Conservative party threw all its weight behind getting its supporters out to vote, as the referendum became a must-win for Cameron. By contrast, police commissioner elections would largely be a local matter, influenced more by the ground war than the air war and in my view there was little cause for alarm. In the past we have not been harmed in the past by having European and council elections on the same day – arguably the need to knock up our local vote has helped us to get more MEPs elected. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with mayoral elections, and there too people largely treat them as local elections. In my view local government colleagues were drawing the wrong conclusion from this May’s double header.

This was not a popular view, however and there was near unanimity that the date of the police commissioner elections just had to be moved. But the consequences of the change of date needed to be considered also. If the police commissioner elections did not take place on the first Thursday in May, we would end up having to spend a lot of money and motivate activists to fight a set of elections that in most places we would have little chance of winning because of the size of the constituencies.

Regardless of whether it would help our prospects in council elections, the announcement in September that the police commissioner elections were being moved to November 2012 meant that it was highly unlikely that the Lib Dems would contest them seriously, or indeed at all.  Even before the date changed, the lack of urgency shown by the English party in developing approval and selection procedures for police commissioner candidates was a worrying sign that we were preparing to surrender without a fight any chance of influencing local policing. Likewise, at the recent federal conference in Birmingham there was a noticeable lack of training sessions, fringe meetings and the like on fighting police commissioner elections.

Federal Executive’s decision merely confirms what I feared. But while it may save the party money and spare campaigners the need to tramp the streets on cold, dark November evenings, it remains a bad decision. Effectively the national party is saying that having helped to create these posts it has no interest in ensuring that policing in our communities is carried out in line with Liberal principles. It is leaving it to the sheer chance of whether an independent, liberal-minded figure comes forward. Even then we are faced with the dilemma of whether to divert resources to campaigning for a non Lib Dem candidate or ignoring the election at the price of allowing authoritarian opponents a free run.

In my view, as a minimum, the central party should be look to use these elections as a campaigning opportunity. This would mean picking the best prospect of victory and treating it like a parliamentary by-election with the hope that at least one of the new police commissioners would be a Lib Dem. Elsewhere it should encourage the selection of candidates and a national campaign of talking to our supporters, to reaffirm their support, encourage them to vote in the police commissioner election and to recruit new members, helpers and so forth. In places with elections in 2013 this would help kickstart their campaign.

It occurs to me that there may be a Machiavellian hope lurking in some minds that by not contesting the elections, we are undermining their credibility and that if a series of local mavericks are elected the Conservatives will see the error of their ways and police commissioners will prove a short-lived experiment. I doubt whether this will be the case. Taking away people’s right to vote is unlikely to be popular.

Whichever way, the party nationally cannot expect to be taken seriously on crime policy if it effectively declares that it has no interest in taking responsibility for policing at local level. In my view it has a moral duty to contest these elections and the central party has a moral duty to give active support and encouragement to local campaigners to do so. Is it too much to hope that the party’s great and good will think again?

PS: Both Jonathan Calder and Anders Hanson have put forward strong arguments in favour of the Lib Dems contesting these elections.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One's a master spy, the other an Oxford scholar, yet neither can use a standard reference book

The recent conclusion of my time as a perpetual student means that I can now occasionally read books purely for pleasure, not as part of my studies. In particular, I can read the occasional novel, an indulgence largely foregone these last few years.

But perhaps because of years of studying obscure monographs and critiquing their arguments, I find myself doing the same with novels – reading them against the grain and searching for the weak link in the plot that undermines the rest of the story.

A case in point is the spy thriller Restless by William Boyd. The plot concerns the exploits of a woman working for British intelligence during the second world war and her revelation of this secret past to her daughter thirty years later as she seeks to resolve unfinished business.

To link the two time periods, Boyd has the mother (and spy) enlist the help of her daughter (an Oxford Phd student) to find the whereabouts of her wartime spymaster and lover who betrayed both her and his country. The only information they have to go on is a memory that at some point he received an honour, either a peerage or a knighthood. To track him down, the daughter has to consult her well-connected thesis supervisor, who seems to know everything there is to know about the great and good (or rich and bad).

At this point I groan and sigh. Our protagonist has been trained in the arts of espionage and can remember the most obscure details of what she has done and seen. Is it likely that she would be quite so vague about what honours have been conferred on someone she had once been in love with and who had tried to have her killed? Is it possible that neither our spy nor her Oxford scholar daughter would be aware that everyone who receives a peerage or knighthood is listed in Who’s Who? And just in case the villain tries to wrong-foot everyone by changing his name on being enobled, Who’s Who cross-references noble titles and family name. Each entry also gives an address for each subject, which would have relieved our heroines of the need for the elaborate piece of deception they engage in to be able to follow their quarry home and find out where he lives. It would have been so much easier to visit their local public library.

Marvellous things reference books! Yet I suppose if Boyd had allowed his characters use of them, the plot wouldn’t have been quite as exciting and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading a whole book in a single sitting, something I haven’t done for many years!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't mention the civil war!

Just about caught up after a fortnight in Andalucia and ready to start blogging again. Andalucia is everything on expects from the guide book: wonderful scenery, centuries of architectural history reflecting that southern Spain was territory contested between Christian and Muslim worlds.

With my interest in more recent territory, I looked out for signs of commemmoration of the Spanish civil war. I realised, however, that since the return of democracy the so-called 'pact of silence' has meant there is little recognition by public bodies of the legacy of the war. Avoiding raking up its poisonous legacy was no doubt intended to help embed a new democratic system.

So I was surprised to see engraved on the facade of the Sagradio church in Granada the name Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, a Falangist leader, who might have become a rival to Franco for the leadership of the nationalist causes, but who was executed by the Republican government in 1936. Around the inscription red paint has been splattered on the wall to symbolise blood.

I ask the guide of our walking tour about this. She tells me that recent legislation (presumably passed by the current socialist government) requires the removal of Francoist memorials from public buildings. But the church is exempt from this. It has clearly been unwilling to remove the de Rivera inscription and this has, quite rightly, led to protests.

While I knew perfectly well that the Roman Catholic Church aggressively supported the nationalist side in the civil war, one might have hoped that today it could be a focus for reconciliation, but evidently not. I ask the guide to what extent the church remains a right-of-centre political force in Spain, in a way that is not really the case in Britain. Diplomatically, she says: 'The church is still very powerful in Spain, and has plenty to say about Spanish society.'