26 October 2012

Evidence-based policy-making?

The new schools minister is getting his feet under the table.  The Telegraph reports:

David Laws attacked the “depressingly low expectations” that he said are holding back children in many parts of the country and preventing them from getting ahead in life.
Even in relatively affluent parts of the country, schools and careers advisers are failing to encourage children to “reach for the stars,” instead pushing them to settle for middling exam results and careers with “medium-ranked” local employers, he said.

What justification does Mr Laws offer for this sweeping attack on schools and teachers?

Mr Laws suggested that some teachers in state schools are still discouraging pupils from targeting places at Oxbridge and other top-ranked universities.
“I still find, talking to youngsters across the country, the same depressing low expectations I found when I went to university in the 1980s,” he added.
“The students you met, who were often the first students from their school who had been to Oxbridge, said they were often encouraged by teachers and others to think that Oxford or Cambridge were not the places for them and they should think of somewhere more modest.”

Accordingly, on distinctly anecdotal evidence, based on his experiences in the 1980s, he presumes to lecture those with years of experience in the field.  Apparently, Mr Laws used to be a merchant banker; to me, he sounds like a pub bore.


Quote of the day

Nicola indulges herself with some clever semantics.  Pick the bones out of this:
Sturgeon told BBC Radio Scotland: "Given the fact that previously the impression had been created that we had legal advice, that we were not prepared to reveal because somehow it didn't suit our purposes, I think was an unfortunate one."
Is she saying "sorry" or is she trying to avoid saying sorry?


Bad karma

Do you believe in luck?  Or, more specifically, bad luck?  Until now, I have been inclined to put the Government's troubles down to incompetence, in particular to a failure to think through implications or to a premature response to newspaper headlines, as well as an arrogant assumption as to their own abilities.  There are numerous examples, from selling off forests to imposing top-down radical change on the NHS (not to mention badgericide).

But yesterday, when the Government arguably might have had one of its better days with the apparent recovery of the economy from recession, Ford had to spoil the party by announcing the closure of two UK plants.  Hard to blame the coalition for such misfortune as, by all accounts, Ford's actions are a reflection of the Europe-wide downturn in demand for motor vehicles.

But, if even the gods have chosen to throw their tuppenceworth in the scales weighing against Cameron and his chums, what future for the administration of the posh boys?

25 October 2012

Always look on the bright side

There is little more depressing than to be in a holiday resort when the skies are grey and it is chucking it down.  And it is expected to continue like this through to the weekend.  The bars over here are really not designed for wet weather, with their minimalist interiors and their unfortunate adoption of the smoking prohibition.  Nor am I cheered up by the somewhat pathetic GDP increase, meaning that the UK economy has only managed to recover to where it was a year ago.  Better than a further decrease, I suppose.

Still.  I have been able to keep up with the ironing.  Furthermore, taking a beer from the fridge is not exactly a hardship.  I have a nice wee Spanish chicken roasting happily in the oven and I'm about to put the roast potatoes in.  And I can look forward to a double ration of Euro football this evening.  It can't be too bad.


Wayne plays on the left wing

So Wayne Rooney has revealed hidden depths:

They think Mitt’s all over... he is now, says Wayne Rooney.
The Manchester United striker – known more for his love of hair gel than politics – has revealed he is hooked on the US presidential election.
And after watching all three late night TV debates between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, the England ace has put his full support behind the Democrat to regain the White House.

I have to wonder, however, what a professional athlete thinks he is doing by staying up in the middle of the night to watch the telly.  Does Sir Alex know?

Do I feel guilty?

Well not really.  But some lord thinks that maybe I should.  The Independent reports:

The former head of the benefits agency provoked uproar today by suggesting the retired should be encouraged to undertake community service – or have their pensions docked.
Lord Bichard said older people had to make “a more positive contribution” to reduce the burden they place on the state.He made the comments during a session of committee investigating the impact on public services of an ageing population.
Lord Bichard, 65, asked fellow members: “Are there ways in which we could use incentives to encourage older people, if not to be in full time work, to be making a contribution?”
He argued that the pension system should incentivise recipients to do more to help look after the “very old”.

Do I place a heavy burden on the state?  Doubtful.  I have a bus pass, but I don't use it more than once a month on average.  My prescriptions?  I don't get on with doctors, so tend to buy my drugs over the internet.  And I don't qualify for an old age pension until 2014.

Over the years, I paid my income tax and my NI contributions.  Indeed I am still paying income tax on my occupational pension.

So Lord Bichard may wish to stick his suggestions where the sun don't shine.

24 October 2012

Climbdown alert

It's a quandary, or a dilemma, or maybe just another car crash.  The Guardian reports:

David Cameron appeared to slap down his senior law officer in the House of Commons over voting rights for prisoners as he told MPs that prisoners would never get the vote under his government.
Just two hours earlier, Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, had told a parliamentary committee Britain could be thrown out of the Council of Europe and be subject to large compensation claims if it ignored a European court of human rights (ECHR) ruling that prisoners should be allowed to vote.
But Cameron told prime minister's questions he was prepared, if necessary, to put the issue beyond doubt by staging another Commons vote to reject the court's ruling that British prisoners should be given a limited right to vote.
The prime minister told the Commons: "No one should be in any doubt. Prisoners are not getting the vote under this government." 
We'll see.  Staging another vote in the Commons will no more resolve the issue than the first vote did.
Besides, why die in a ditch over the matter?  It is not as if ECHR is demanding that the franchise is extended to all prisoners.  Would it really damage democracy so badly if some lower category prisoners were allowed to vote?


The red mist descends again

With friends like The Spectator, the Conservatives have no need of enemies.
No PMQs would be complete without Cameron losing his rag. Keen to whip his backbenchers into a righteous frenzy, he began to honk out a list of statistics that are moving in the right direction. ‘Crime down!’ he bellowed. ‘Inflation down! Unemployment, down! Waiting lists down!’ But instead of relishing these figures he allowed his cheeks to flush purple with indignation and excitement. ‘The opposition leader can’t talk about the real issues,’ he thundered, ‘because he’s not up to the job.
‘Good to see the crimson tide is back,’ said Miliband coolly.
Not content with booting the Tories, the magazine has time for a glancing blow in the direction of Fat Eck:
The session ended on a harmonious as note as the three parties came together to gloat over the hallucinations of Alec [sic] Salmond. The SNP leader has been caught talking to imaginary lawyers about Scotland’s future within the EU. Like all paranoiacs, he believes he was talking to real human beings and not to figments of his fevered brain.


23 October 2012

An everyday story of country folk

You might have assumed that, if you were planning a cull of badgers that incorporated a payment of a certain amount for each badger killed, it would be important to establish clearly from the outset how many badgers there were, especially where the overall number of badgers to be killed had to reach a target percentage.  Not this government.  The Guardian reports:
As the final preparations for the cull were made, a census showed there could be twice as many badgers as were originally thought. Farmers complained this would increase the cost of the cull and they could not afford to foot the bill if required to kill at least 70% – the proportion that scientists say must be achieved for the cull to succeed because escaping badgers would spread TB more widely and increase, not decrease, cattle infections.
So the government will announce today that Mr Brock is to be spared, at least for a while.  So good news if you are a badger, but bad news for our incompetent government.  How many u-turns is that?


22 October 2012

Music of the week

Nostalgia is not quite what it used to be:

Auntie messes up

Some thoughts about the Savile affair:

1.  The BBC appears to have slipped up in its editorial judgements, particularly as regards the Newsnight programme.  But such things happen in all media organisations.  Indeed, if Savile’s proclivities were widely known, as seems to have been the case, one wonders why it was left to the BBC and ITV to pursue the matter.  What were all those bold, investigative journalists on the newspapers doing?

2.  The BBC is now going through an agonising process of publicly questioning itself.  Doubtless, this will blacken its reputation.  But it is essentially a healthy process; reporters, producers and management will get to argue their corners, and there is every indication that the truths will come out.  Compare and contrast a certain other media organisation which moved heaven and earth to conceal its misdoings and which, to this day, is seeking to assign responsibility to so-called “rogue” individuals.

3.  I came across Savile on several occasion when I used to run marathons and half marathons.  Savile used to start at the front of the race and, although I never even attained club runner status, I would catch up and pass him after a couple of miles.  He was unmistakable, given his attire and the fact that he would be surrounded by heavies.  I would never see him again during the race.  But, when I reached the finish, I would learn that he had completed the race some half an hour earlier.  Did I complain?  It never occurred to me;  I assumed he was running for charity and, if he cheated a little, it was no skin off my nose.

4.  With the benefit of hindsight, that wonderful facility, we can all throw stones at those who turned a blind eyes to crimes and misdemeanors.  How much easier to let sleeping dogs lie.  There can be no excuses, however, and we must all share our portion of guilt over failing to expose this nasty little man.   

Homage - of a sort

Catalonia - "like Scotland but with a better football team"  (here)

No argument from me, though the weather is also a bit better.


It's all so predictable

What is the next fiasco to befall our coalition government?  Well, you can take your pick:

1.  There's the latest bright idea from Cameron on crime:  "tough but intelligent" we are told.  "Weak and dumb" seems more appropriate, as the Great Leader would not appear to have thought through the financial implications.

2.  The child benefit changes are always worth a shot, as HMRC do not appear to have got to grips with how to implement the changes to the system.  And as this is an Osborne initiative, it is bound to end up in a mess.

3.  Meanwhile the proposed universal credit sinks deeper and deeper into the mire.  Leave aside the monthly   payments, the ill-fated computer system and the requirement for HMRC - DWP live updating.  Now it appears that the new system will penalise the disabled.  Oh dear ...

4.  Can anyone explain what the Prime Minister's policy is towards the EU?  Does he want the UK to leave?  If not, why does he keep half-promising a referendum?  And is Angie about to kick him in the nuts?

All this pre-supposes that Ministers will manage to keep their noses clean in the interim.  No more ranting at policemen, no revelations of illicit relations with flame-haired newspaper editors, no more fare-dodging on trains.

"Dysfunctional" is the word I'm looking for.


Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?

It is not like me to know the names of Catholic saints, but the references to Catherine Tekakwitha rang a faint bell.

The wonders of Google reminded me of the link to Leonard Cohen and his second novel Beautiful Losers, a book that has sat neglected on my bookshelf for at least 40 years.  I vaguely remember reading it and thinking it quite raunchy for its day.  You can still buy it here.


20 October 2012


Seems a bit harsh.  The guy who messed up the Boat Race by jumping in the Thames gets a six month prison sentence.  Would community service not have sufficed?

I might have suggested that the judge was an Oxbridge man, but I understand that he was a she.


Brief encounter

And as the curtain goes down on one minor scandal, yet another erupts.  This time, it concerns Slasher's preference to sit in a first class seat on the train while paying a second class fare.

Yes, the Tories will go to extraordinary lengths to remind us that they are a bunch of posh boys who will do anything to ensure that they do not have to sit next to the peasants.


On his bike

So cheerio to Thrasher.  He might have thought that he could have hung on but - alas - politicians can no longer get away with berating the lower orders.

A victory for us plebs?  Well hardly:  Thrasher has been replaced by yet another Old Etonian and a baronet to boot ...

And so ends Gate-gate, with a lament for a man who apparently does not know what he said.


17 October 2012

Muddled thinking?

The Attorney General has vetoed the publication of Prince Charles' "black spider memos".  The Independent reports:

The letters, thirty of them, written between September 1st 2004 and April 1st 2005 represent, according to Mr Grieve, the Prince’s “most deeply held personal views and beliefs” and “are in many cases particularly frank.” Consequently, their publication could “damage … the Prince of Wales’ political neutrality” and “seriously undermine the Prince’s ability to fulfil his duties when he becomes King.”
“The Sovereign cannot be seen to favour one political party above another, or to engage in political controversy,” Mr Grieve said, in a ten page document explaining his decision. “Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future Monarch, because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is King.

Would the damage to the position of Prince Charles arise from the publication of the memos?  Or does it arise from the fact that he wrote them in the first place?  Even if we do not know the actual contents, the fact that the senior law officer of the government thinks they might "damage" the Prince's neutrality and "undermine" his ability to reign as king suggests to me that the ball is on the slates.

Can no-one save us from this meddlesome prince?  Or at least tell him to keep his political views to himself?

16 October 2012

We're not alone

I see that the proposed referendum in Scotland has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Europe.  The Guardian reports:

Catalonia in north-east Spain will issue a challenge to Brussels when its voters are asked to declare whether they want an independent state within the EU.
Regional leader Artur Mas said on Monday he planned to ask the question, including the reference to the EU, during a four-year term that starts after regional elections on 25 November – even though Spain's prime minister,Mariano Rajoy, has threatened to block a referendum.
A yes vote in the referendum would not just create a constitutional crisis for Spain, which has no mechanism for allowing the independence of one of its regions, but would also issue a clear challenge to the EU, which has no system for the breakup of a member state. A new entity could have future membership blocked by just one member country.
The Catalan referendum would take place around the time of a similar vote in Scotland in 2014 and could be followed by an independence vote in the Basque country, where nationalists and separatists are expected to win elections this weekend. Basque nationalists have long pursued the dream of joining the EU as a separate state on an equal footing with Spain.
"Do you want Catalonia to become a new state within the European Union?" is Mas's preferred wording for the referendum.
He told the newspaper La Vanguardia that a definitive question would be agreed by the Catalan parliament, where he can expect to renew his majority on 25 November. He said he would like to follow the Scottish example and negotiate a referendum with central government, but Rajoy's conservative People's party (PP) government has vowed to use Spain's constitutional court to declare any referendum illegal.

Life may be about to become complicated for our European overlords in Brussels.  It is not just Scotland in the frame; Catalunya and the Basque country might be heading in a similar direction.  And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Belgium might be inspired to take a final step towards disintegration.  Nor are certain parts of Italy immune to centrifugal forces.  In these circumstances, the EU may have to move away from its present policy of sticking its head in the sand and pretending that nothing will ever change.

15 October 2012

The known unknowns

In two years time, we shall have the opportunity to vote for Scottish independence.  Will it be an informed choice?  I doubt it.

Essentially, we shall be deciding whether the SNP should be allowed to begin the process of negotiations leading to independence.  Both sides will tell us their version of what is likely to happen if we choose to go down the road of independence but there are likely to be huge differences in the scenarios that they put before us.

Would an independent Scotland be an automatic member of the EU or would we have to submit a formal application?  Either way, there would have to be Treaty changes, so that the outcome would be dependent upon the agreement of all the Member States.  Both sides of the independence debate will produce legal and political arguments for and against but the issues will not be resolved before the referendum.

What currency would we use?  Again, nationalists will say one thing while unionists will say another.  There might be some form of tentative agreement between the sides on the way forward but don’t bet on it.

How much of the UK’s national debt would Scotland inherit?  How much of the oil?  How much of the defence establishment?  Would Scotland be able to get rid of trident submarines?  You may ask politicians on both sides but don’t expect a clear-cut answer.

If Scotland were to remain part of the UK, would we be offered more devolution?  If so, how much more and how soon?  Would it be a UK led by a Tory or a Labour government?  Would it be a UK playing a full part in the EU or standing on the sidelines?

So, should we or should we not vote for independence?  How can we tell?

14 October 2012

Prejudice rules

As a quintessentially urban bloke, I know next to nothing about the countryside.  But I doubt if you will find a better example of how evidence-based policy making is a stranger to this government:

Britain's top animal disease scientists have launched a devastating attack on the government's "mindless" badger cull, accusing ministers of failing to tell the truth and demanding the immediate abandonment of the killings.
The intervention by dozens of the nation's most senior experts, in a letter in the Observer, comes as farmers prepare to begin the cull in Gloucestershire and Somerset, possibly as early as tomorrow. The government's own chief scientist has refused to back the killings.
More than 30 eminent animal disease experts describe the cull as a "costly distraction" that risks making the problem of tuberculosis in cattle worse and that will cost far more than it saves.
It used to be said that MAFF had been captured by the farmers.  It seems that DEFRA, its successor, may also be regarded as the political wing of the NFU.

12 October 2012

The kids are alright

The principle that those who are 16 and 17 should be allowed to vote is to be welcomed.  Even if there are technical problems:

The Electoral Commission has warned that the current system excludes nearly all 16-year-olds. They can only put themselves on the voters' roll one year in advance if their 18th birthday falls in the year after 1 December. Because registration ends each October, that means only teenagers who are older than 16 years and 10 months can do so.
Most teenagers eligible to register in advance – a group known as "attainers" – are already missing. The Guardian has established that only about a third (44,000) of Scotland's 123,000 16- and 17-year-olds are included in the current local council roll.
Niall McCluskey, a Scottish advocate expert in human rights, said failing to include every 16-year-old would leave Holyrood open to legal challenge: "It's potentially discriminatory. If your general principle is that 16- and 17-year-olds ought to be able to vote, these rights have to be practical and effective. If they're not, you can fall foul of human rights law."
With goodwill and not a little money, these can be resolved.  But on the practical basis that the younger you are the less likely you are to exercise your ballot, the far greater problem will be persuading this new electorate to turn up in the polling station.

10 October 2012

Cameron channels Talking Heads

Don't worry about the mixed metaphors, feel the vibe, man.  The Prime Minister goes metaphysical:
"Britain may not be in the future what it was in the past because the truth is that we are in a global race today and that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours – sink or swim, do or decline," he will argue.
It reminds me of that song by Talking Heads:
Well we know where we're goin'  But we don't know where we've been
And we know what we're knowin'  But we can't say what we've seen
And we're not little children  And we know what we want
And the future is certain  Give us time to work it out
The name of the song?  'Road to Nowhere'.  Appropriate enough, really ...


09 October 2012


Secretary of State for Education:



Quote of the day

David Cameron branded burglary a 'crime of violence' today as he backed plans to give householders more powers against intruders.
"When that burglar crosses your threshold, invades your home, threatens your family, they give up their rights," he said.
Actually, they don't.  But perhaps Mr Cameron does not know the meaning of "inalienable".


Beating up burglars

It's the latest attempt to tickle the Tory Party's erogenous zones.  Unfortunately, it will become enmeshed in a semantic quagmire.  The Guardian reports:

The justice secretary will say: "Being confronted by an intruder in your own home is terrifying, and the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side. That is why I am strengthening the current law.
"Householders who act instinctively and honestly in self-defence are victims of crime and should be treated that way. We need to dispel doubts in this area once and for all, and I am very pleased to be today delivering on the pledge that we made in opposition."
The change to the law, which is likely to be signalled in the next Queen's speech, will for the first time mean that householders can use "disproportionate" force in exceptional circumstances. Under the current law, homeowners are allowed to use "reasonable force" to defend themselves in their home or on the street to protect others, to prevent crime or to protect property. But the force cannot be disproportionate.
Grayling's change will mean that if a householder uses force which he or she believed was reasonable at the time, but was in fact disproportionate, then that could be deemed to be lawful.

Synonyms for "disproportionate" include such words as "excessive" or "more than necessary".  By definition, what is disproportionate cannot at the same time (or even at a later time) be considered reasonable.  If a householder goes beyond reasonable force, then also by definition it must be disproportionate.  If Mr Grayling can come up with an explanation which will meet legal requirements, then he will be a rather better linguistic philosopher than I think he is.

In any case, with overcrowded prisons and overloaded courts, has the Justice Secretary nothing better to do?


08 October 2012

Lazy sods of the world should unite

Well we would, if we could be bothered.  The Independent reports:
The Tory leadership is attempting to use the conference to reach out to middle-income "strivers", announcing that council tax would be frozen for the third year and rail fare increases capped at 1 per cent above inflation.
Are you a striver?  I'm not.  Nor am I a "hard-working family", which was the desirable thing to be under the previous government.

So which party cares about the lazy sods?  We have a vote too, you know, even if we frequently can't be arsed to use it ...

Playing to the gallery

It must be a sign of desperation: to advocate a policy which has absolutely no hope of being implemented.

THE GOVERNMENT yesterday indicated that it could introduce visa restrictions for some EU citizens in an attempt to net reduce immigration into the UK.
Both David Cameron and home secretary Theresa May indicated their support for the plan, which has been added to a wide-ranging Whitehall review of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
“I believe in free movement, but two weeks ago, I visited two factories in a week, and I asked the question: how many people do you employ from other EU countries? In one it was 60 per cent, in the other it was 50 per cent,” Cameron told the BBC. “Heavens above, we have got so many unemployed people in our country that we want to train and educate and give apprenticeships to and get back into work...we’ve already capped immigration from outside the EU on economic grounds.”

Both Cameron and May must be well aware that there is no possibility of securing any further limitation on the right of EU citizens to move to the UK.  They may not like it but free movement of labour is a cardinal principle of the EU Treaties and could not be moderated unless the UK were to leave the EU altogether.  So why raise the issue?


06 October 2012

Music of the week

Compare and contrast

Ah yes, Maria Miller, the new equalities minister, opts out of the page 3 controversy:

Asked if she thought topless pictures degraded women, a cause recently reignited by the nomorepage3 petition, she sidestepped. "It is for newspapers to decide what they print and it is for consumers to decide what they buy.
"That is the way it should be, and I don't think it is right for ministers to dictate what goes on any page of a newspaper, whether it is page 3 or not."

And yet, this same minister, apparently regardless of medical evidence, is more than willing to dictate when a woman may have an abortion.

As they say, go figure ...


05 October 2012

Putting the boot in

You might wish to see the latest Labour poster:

Choo-choos a gogo?

So all those politicians and journalists blaming the civil service for the west coast trains fiasco may have jumped the gun.  The Independent reports:

A former Goldman Sachs banker in charge of private contracts for the Department for Transport was named yesterday as one of the officials suspended for their alleged role in the West Coast rail franchise fiasco. Kate Mingay, head of commercial at the DfT, is believed to be the most senior of three staff suspended on Wednesday.
She ran a team responsible for the finance model in the bidding for the West Coast Main Line franchise. The decision to strip Sir Richard Branson's company, Virgin Trains, of the multibillion-pound contract and award it to FirstGroup instead was scrapped after the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said there were "significant technical flaws" in the bidding process because of the DfT's mistakes.

It is easy to label civil servants as obstructive incompetent bureaucrats and this has resulted in the increasing appointment of outsiders to senior posts in various departments.  Unfortunately, these thrusting, decisive individuals have not been brought up in the cautious ethos of the service where it is important to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, with decisions and recommendations to Ministers subject to proper investigation and consultation.  Instead, it is in the nature of these privateers to cut corners and disregard the fuddie-duddies insisting on due process.  And, indeed, that is why Ministers have encouraged their recruitment.

The results are now becoming apparent.

Oh and yes, I may be biased as, some years ago now, I was one of the fuddy-duddies ...

03 October 2012

Quote of the day

By Ed Miliband:
"Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?"


No way to run a railway

If I were a FirstGroup shareholder (which, thank the Lord, I'm not sir), I would be seriously annoyed with the Department of Transport.  The Guardian reports:

The future running of one of Britain's most prestigious and lucrative rail services, the West Coast main line, was thrown wide open after the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, announced that the competition had been cancelled following the discovery of significant technical flaws in the franchise process.
The news could potentially put other franchises due to be settled in the next two years on hold and will raise questions over the whole system, with unions and Labour considering calling for renationalisation.
The shock move means that the Department for Transport will no longer be awarding a franchise contract when Virgin's current one expires on 9 December, and will not contest the judicial review that Sir Richard Branson's firm sought in the high court.
In a climbdown that appears to vindicate Virgin's angry reaction to losing the franchise on 15 August, the DfT has indicated key staff will be suspended, apparently for incorrectly calculating the risk involved in the winning bid.
A spokesman for FirstGroup, which had been awarded the franchise, said: "We are extremely disappointed to learn this news and await the outcome of the DfT's inquiries. The DfT have made it clear to us that we are in no way at fault, having followed the due process correctly. We submitted a strong bid, in good faith and in strict accordance with the DfT's terms."Our bid would have delivered a better deal for West Coast passengers, the taxpayer and an appropriate return for shareholders."

A surprisingly mild reaction from FirstGroup.  All the bidders will have to be compensated and, given the costs of putting the bids together, that is likely to cost the taxpayer more than a pretty penny.  But for the DoT to discover errors after the contract has been awarded is quite extraordinary.  And who can have any faith that they will get it right next time?