Friday 25 July 2008

Why Clegg is right about tax

I keep seeing concerned Facebook messages and letters to Lib Dem News about the ambition set out by Nick Clegg to lower taxes. I've seen the message from the Beveridge Group about this, and Richard Grayson is right that it is a policy shift.

I think I'm on the other side, though. I don't think, and I don't think the Lib Dem pre-manifesto implies, that we should give any less priority to public services. The trouble with simply accepting Gordon Brown's spending levels as they are, without any demur, is that:

1. We have to accept without question his view of efficiency: the unprecedented increase in public spending since 2001, with very little to show for it - because it is delivered centrally, through a target and control system that renders local services increasingly distant and ineffective. Anyone who works in the public and voluntary sector will be aware of the staggering waste of resources by centralised, unaccountable quangos. The truth is that New Labour centralisation is making our public services less effective and this needs to be at the centre of our message. Simply accepting current budgets as they lets the government off this crucial hook.

2. We have to accept without question his white elephants: the £12bn on the NHS computer, similar amounts on ID cards, £70bn just to decommission nuclear reactors, even more to replace Trident and underwrite a new generation of nuclear reactors. And Iraq. Simply accepting current budgets means we have nothing to say about these, except the principle of the ideas - nothing to say about the vast waste of money.

Thrift is a core Liberal value, albeit rather a forgotten one. If we have ambitions about reducing the overall level of tax - and I think we should at the moment - they have to be part of a much larger ambition, to localise public services and make them effective, and to reveal New Labour spending as bogus, destructive and wasteful.

But if we accept their budgets as they are, we can't say any of that.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

We don't need government approved 'good' doctors

It isn’t that somehow making sure doctors are competent, and stay that way, is a bad idea. The problem is the way these things get measured in our miserably utilitarian Labour government.

Try reading an Ofsted report these days. You wonder why you have read through the whole thing without learning anything. It’s because inspectors use a computer programme which involves assigning numerical grades for various aspects, and the programme then translates these into approved sentences.

Similar programmes are being used to write equally mushy and meaningless school reports.

Try asking a health visitor for advice. They will simply test you, and your question, against approved government advice on the subject, and you will worry a little about the way they look at you.

Try appointing a new company to mark SATS tests, using an approved tick box commissioning system, and you find you have appointed an incompetent corporate that is very good at doing bids.

What will the effects be of subjecting doctors to the same tests? They will give you approved gobbets of government advice, they will run the simplest question through laborious online expert systems, and you will wonder whether you have been told anything at all.

It all comes down to Richard Rogers’ gripe about his cities report. He complained that the government had taken out the word ‘beautiful’ as an objective for our cities and replaced it with the word ‘good design’. The same impoverishment of language is happening in Ofsted inspections (‘good schools’) and now I fear we will get government-approved ‘good doctors’ as well.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

The real indefensible postcode lottery

I had my first experience of a school admissions appeal panel on Friday, a strange experience. Robin had been denied a place at our local primary school because we live in a long cul-de-sac in the middle of a large allotment, and the council refused to count the path we use through the allotments to get anywhere on that side of the house.

Still, we won, so I can’t complain. But sitting in the waiting room with the other parents, each with a thick pile of notes and documents in front of them, I suddenly realised how unfair the current schools admissions process has become. And it’s all because of the weasel phrase ‘catchment area’.

When we use a phrase like that, we assume that catchment areas are like constituencies – that their boundaries rub up against each other and that everybody lives in one. The clear implication is that people can choose between sending their children to the local school or to a school outside their catchment area, and that this is known as ‘choice’.

Actually this is all nonsense. The truth is that many people – probably most people – actually live outside the catchment areas of schools, which breathe in and out according to how many places they have. Most of them live outside the catchment area of any school in the north of my London borough (Croydon), and it is this category of children who really get a raw deal – allocated somewhere they haven’t chosen, maybe a long way away.

When commentators apply the phrase ‘postcode lottery’ to health, it doesn’t really fit. Different areas have different priorities after all. But the catchment areas of schools, shrunken as they are, mean a real postcode lottery. If you live outside them, you have a far lower chance of going to the school you want – any school, never mind the local one. You are a plaything of bureaucrats, a hopeless supplicant against the system. And all in the name of ‘choice’.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Why parents get the blame

So the McCanns are innocent. Well, there’s a surprise (by which I mean it isn’t)…

Let’s leave aside for a second the kind of pressure they must have been under from tabloid tittle-tattle, over and above the horror of losing their child. Let’s leave aside the blood sport in bars and dinner parties fought out at their expense.

What really scares me about this whole affair is the way that professionals – police, doctors, certainly child protection officers – consistently fill any mystery in these situations with the conviction that the parents must have done it.

Why should this be? I suppose there’s a natural unease about mysteries among professionals these days. They are afraid they will be blamed for not having the answers. But it is worse than that: the child protection industry has become so powerful that it appears to be almost their duty to suspect the parents. Time after time, as a result, parents who are faced with the tragedy of losing their child are immediately faced with a double one, when they find themselves under suspicion, arrest or worse.

This is a terrifying injustice, and parallel to the phenomenon that John Hemming has been revealing about the family courts, where children are removed from parents on spurious grounds – protected by legal secrecy – and find even those lawyers who are supposed to be helping them are actually colluding with the other side.

There is a principle about power we need to understand here. When people exercise power with impunity, it always becomes abusive. When a whole sector of public professionals believe that parents are the true villains, that principle becomes seriously frightening.