Category Archives: Uncategorized

Chipping in at Dale & Co.

Today the uber-blogger Iain Dale launches his new site ‘Dale & Co.’   I’ll be chipping in for him on various topics from time to time.  I’m still going to going to use guythemac.com for my more mundane, everyday witterings, I’ll just make sure I put my more considered stuff over on the new site where it will get more eyes.   I’ll link anything I write over there, over here, so that everything remains archived.

Anyway you can check it out at: http://iaindale.com

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Responsible Broadcasting?

I just watched the BBC 10 O’Clock news.  The lead story was the conviction of Levi Bellfield for the murder of Millie Dowler.  The reporter was asked why Bellfield had proved so hard to catch and enthusiastically explained that Bellfield was what the police call ‘forensically aware’ and that he took several steps to make himself harder to be found.  That’s a fair point to share and of interest to the news audience.  And that is where a responsible broadcaster would have stopped.  But this reporter didn’t stop.

He was keen to show he had been listening in court and so went on to list a couple of very specific things that Bellfield did while he was killing in order to leave no forensic trail.   Wannabe serial killers the nation over will have enthusiastically been taking notes.   Hard working police detectives the nation over will have been hitting their heads on their desks.

Responsible news coverage from our flagship broadcaster?   Or titillating, smug showing-off that puts us all a little more at risk?

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“1.6 Million Children in the UK Live in Severe Poverty”. Erm. Really?

Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’.   Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian.  Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head.  This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then).   So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’.   That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’.   I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’.    This figure needed some sniffing.

The original report is from Save the Children.  It can be downloaded here.  It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs).   A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.

When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution.  Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from.    We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.

Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time.  The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face.   I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham.   Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy.  To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous.  By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.

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My Tiny Brush With the Mubarak Regime (1993)

In 1993 I had my first sapping experience of what it must be like to live under a truly authoritarian state.   My misfortune took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo.   It is no surprise to me that this place has now become the focus of popular rage against the State.  My own Orwellian brush with petty officaldom has left me with an aversion to ‘big government’ that still influences my politics today.

It was the winter months and the much younger, slimmer me was backpacking around that part of the world.  I’d come down into Egypt by bus from Israel.  My original plan was to stay a couple of weeks, maybe hit North Sudan then get a sail-boat back up the Nile, get over to Suez and then ferry over to Jordan.   More aware travellers told me I had no chance of getting into Jordan with an Israeli stamp on my passport – the two countries were still technically in conflict so if I turned up with my current passport they simply wouldn’t let me in.  No problem – I could get a clean UK passport from the embassy and carry on with my plan.  Fair play to our consular staff, three days after I turned up at their door I had my nice new passport.   I was told I would have to go to the interior ministry to get a replica entry visa in my new clean passport or I would have trouble leaving.   The place I had to go to was called the ‘Mogamma Building on Tahrir Square’.  Now my problems started.

The Mogamma was an enormous 1950s Soviet-style-architecture building which acted as the hub for all aspects of the operation of Mubarak’s state machinery.  If you lived in Cairo and needed a licence for anything (and you needed a licence to do just about anything you may wish to do) this was where you had to go.   It teemed humanity.  Folk wanting permission to open shops, permission to import goods, permission to export goods, permission to go-to-university, permission to employ foreigners, planning permission for new buildings, permission to keep animals, permission to install satellite TV etc.  all had to find the relevant official, with the relevant Government stamp somewhere in this building.  They then had to convince the official to press that stamp on their piece of paper.  That step, as I found, could never be taken for granted.

I expected a long haul.  I got there at 9 in the morning and joined a queue.   Three-and-a-half hours later I got to the front.   I explained what I needed, I was given a desk number and told to report there.   Another long trip through a seemingly endless Labyrinth and I found my ‘desk’.  My heart sank.  Another enormous queue of people with tickets for the same desk.  I stood in line for another two hours.   I got to the front and was confronted with a stout, middle-age lady with a black Islamic head-dress and as stern-a-face as I’ve ever seen.  She looked me up and down  and curled her nose and lips.  Body language is broadly universal, so I don’t need translation to know when someone is looking at me with disdain.   “What?”  she barked.   I explained I needed a new entry visa.  She sighed.  “Give me your passport.”, she ordered.   I passed it under the glass.  She opened her top drawer, dropped the passport in and slammed the drawer shut.  She did it in one fluid motion without breaking her gaze of resentment at me..  “Come back this time next week – now go away”.  She sneered.  I tried to clarify.   She looked around me and shouted what I assume is the Arabic equivalent of “Next!” – I tried to hold my ground and ask for a receipt at least.  “This time next week.  Go Away.”.

You couldn’t travel outside Cairo without a passport so I spent the week exhausting the city’s charms.  The Egyptian museum is truly astounding – but other than that the technical description I would use for the place is ‘a shit-hole’.   The next Tuesday could not come fast enough.  I got there even earlier.  There was still an hour and a half queue to see my charming lady.  “You.” she said.  For a small moment I was pleased she recognised me,  it saved having to explain why I was there again.  “It’s not ready.  Come back next week.”.  I was dejected.  Again, I tried to protest.  She again looked around me and called the next person, and told me in perfect English to “Shut your mouth and go away”.

Another week to kill.  A miserable time, the local food had got to me, and I spent the week reading in the hotel room not able to get very far from a bathroom.   For my next weekly visit I had to bung up on stomach drugs in the hope I could last out the queue without disgracing myself.   A very uncomfortable queue (usual couple of hours).  Exactly the same script.   It required my every ounce of self control not to lose my rag.  I decided I was not going to move.  I demanded to see a superior.  She barked behind the glass to someone in her office.  They muttered to each other in Arabic.  The man came around to my side of the screen and told me “Sir, you must go.  Your passport will be processed by next Tuesday.”   I pointed out I’d been waiting two full weeks.  He looked at me earnestly “Sir, if it is urgent we can have an express service for 100 dollars.  It would be ready by end of day.”    Suddenly I realised I was being shaken down.   Two things stopped me just paying up.  The first was I was actually on quite a tight budget, the second was that I was still quite ill and realised that even if I got my passport that day I would still probably be stuck in my hotel recovering for another few days going nowhere fast.  I told him I didn’t have that sort of money, and would come back next week – when I expected it to be ready.  He said very politely “As Sir wishes”.  That was it for another week.

I was feeling much better on the final week.   I’d spoken to the embassy for advice and had my plan.   I got to the building before it opened.  I raced to the desk and was still beaten by a couple of others but this time the wait was only 15 minites.   As predicted, we went through the now usual weekly ‘not yet ready – so piss off’ dialogue.  I smiled, and told her I ‘would see her later’ – and made my way to the Egyptian Tourist Police Station.   The ‘Tourist Police’ in Egypt are an agency dedicated to stopping Tourists from being ripped off.  Mubarak knew that Tourism was vital for his country’s economy and anyone who went home bad mouthing Egypt could harm that revenue.  So he had a whole separate police-force just to look after people like me.  I explained my story.  The captain sighed wearily.   “Come with me.”   We marched over the Square, back into the building, up to the desk, he ignored the queue, banged on the glass and gestured with his thumb to the ‘lady’ to head to a corner office.  Her eyes narrowed and she snarled at me as she went to join him.  You could see through the window her standing arms folded as he jabbed his finger at her whilst shouting.  She half-shouted back, and for a moment I thought he was about to punch her.  She walked out the office, back to her desk, opened the drawer where she had dropped my passport three weeks earlier, pulled it out, opened the back page, picked up a rubber stamp on her desk and pressed it down.  She passed it through the glass and said.  “It’s done. Go away.”

The passport had never had to go anywhere.  The stamp could have been done in five seconds flat entirley at her gift.  She waited three full weeks and would have kept going until I paid her.  The policeman shouted at her once more and we left.  “Enjoy the rest of your stay in our Country” he wished me as he went back to the station.

Now as ‘police state experiences’ go I got off lightly.   I don’t even register on the scale of possible abuse of power.  I was merely delayed for a few weeks in a crappy hotel.   I wasn’t held in a cell, or tortured with electricity or any of the other nightmare things that citizens of dictatorships endure.  But it did give me a tiny glimpse of how crushing to the soul it must be live in the kind of place where your every interaction with government has the potential for you to be held to ransom simply because some minor official is bored by their pointless job and wants to show off their minor power or increase their pathetic state salary.  I imagine all of those thousands of people in that building, all chasing their licenses for this and that, and all being frustrated unless they had the means to pass on the expected ‘baksheesh’ to grease-the-wheels.    I imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who must have been frustrated by officialdom in that building over the last 18 years.  Those people who would have no ‘Tourist Police’ agency to help them solve their nightmare.   The collective frustration.  The accumulated economic damage to the Egyptian economy.  The simmering resentment of Mubarak and his elite.

So it is no surprise to me at all that they camp in their thousands outside the Mogamma building in Tahrir Square.  That the place hasn’t been flattened or burnt to the ground by the protesters is, in my view, testament to extraordinary restraint of the Egyptian people.  I wish them well.

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Oldham & Saddleworth Result: Thoughts

So that’s that then*. A solid result for Labour.  A hold with an increased majority. I think the result was about as expected – you could, I suppose, argue the Tories did slightly worse and Lib Dems slightly better than expected – if that is correct then it is a function of:

  • The Conservative CCHQ seemed to do no more than the bare minimum to support their candidate – there is suspicion that a tactical decision was taken not to allow a result that would undermine Clegg and this meant not fighting too hard. I’m sure there will be some angst between the grass-roots and the tacticians in the Party about this over the coming weeks.
  • Partly as a result of the above, and partly regardless, many Tories will have tactically voted Lib Dem this time around. Clearly not enough to compensate those switching Lib Dem to Labour.
  • The turnout was down but I would expect this to be spread evenly between the parties.

All in – no real news. Easily a good enough result to keep Ed knockers in the party on the leash, but not quite good enough that they wont still be straining on it.  As by-election swings go it is pretty undramatic.

*Full Result: Labour: 14,718 (42.1%) Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%) Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%) UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%) BNP: 1,560 (4.5%) Green Party: 530 (1.5%) Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%) English Democrats: 144 (0.4%) Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%) Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)

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Shock! Horror! Britain is Crap With Snow!

“[…] for Northerners snow is something to skive for and go sledging in while for Southerners it is a ‘national emergency’.”*

*Slightly misquoted from the book “Pies and Prejudice.” By Stuart Maconie

The first dump of proper snow each year is a very easy time to be a UK news editor.  The story has already written itself many times over the preceding years;   “Britain Woefully Unprepared for Cold Snap” is the headline followed by pages of:

  • outrage at lack of salt or gritters;
  • closed schools;
  • musings that Switzerland or wherever copes so much better with so much worse;
  • forecasts of the devastating economic damage that the nation will endure because thousands like ‘Mrs Jones from Guildford’ could not get to their job as a receptionist at the dentists or whatever.
  • Etc. etc. –

Given this current freak cold-snap is of a severity encountered this early once every couple of decades the newsmen can wallow  in a dreamland of subtle variations on the above being spawned from  copy-paste then minor edit of articles from last time around.  It’s a similar news phenomenon to the annual “GCSE Results at Record Level – Accusations of Dumbing-Down” circus.  I’m convinced most news editors book their holidays for the third week of August and leave that one pre-written on the deputy’s desk before they set off.

Anyway, I tend to be a bit more philosophical about snow in the UK.  When people predictably lament our lack of preparation I wonder – what do they really want?  Do they really wish us to spend an equivalent percentage of GDP on snow preparation that the Canadians or the Swiss do to cope with the few days a year we get hit?  If so, which services are cut or which tax do we raise to fund this elite snow-disaster-management hit-squad?

And the people who are moaning loudest – can I just check that they have taken personal responsibility for shovelling their own drive and steps?   And heaven forbid, while they were at it – have they actually thought of gritting their own street immediately beyond the boundary of their dropped kerbs or are they just sitting on their backsides moaning that big government only does the main roads?

Actually, on that last point I will join the curmudgeons and moan about the vanishing yellow or green grit boxes that used to be on every street so we could help ourselves.  These have vanished over recent years almost in direct proportion to the increasing prevalence of the view that for every ‘problem’ there is a government solution, as drilled into us by New Labour.

That aside, I’m going walk my daughter to the childminder then work-from-home today.  I can’t see the point in putting myself or anyone else at risk by setting off to the office.  My wife, who is a hospital doctor, doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – so she used healthy common sense and set off very early.  Once out of our side-street the roads were clear and she got to work quicker than normal thanks to gritted roads and lighter traffic.  All power to our supposedly ‘unable-to-cope-with-the-snow’ council for that one.

For everyone who is wound up I suggest you copy the kids enjoying their day off school and treat snow a bit like other annual inconveniences such as flu and food poisoning.  The difference is that if you get out on your sledge, build snowmen and have snowball fights then this ‘inconvenience’ can be enjoyed.  In a word Britain, pun fully intended:  Chill!

This article was first written in January 2010 and I will shamelessly republish it at first snow dump every year.

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Student Tuition Fees: The Weird Thing

When tuition fees were introduced in Labour’s first year in office I actually marched on Parliament in protest.  At the time I had just completed my Masters and was clinging on for one last year as my University’s Student Union President (still the most fun ‘job’ I have ever had).

Every press release I sent out, every letter of protest that was written, every person who gave me the opportunity to bend-their-ear got the same message.  It seemed to me to be self-evident that the introduction of student fees could only:

  • Lead to lower take-up of Higher Ed across the board
  • More worryingly – lead to even greater social exclusion for those from poorer backgrounds
  • Lead to University closures and a diminishing of Britain’s academic standing

The only crumbs of comfort I could think of was that if students were paying they would become far more fussy and demanding which would drive up the standard of tuition.

Here’s the weird thing:  I’ve never been more wrong with a set of predictions in my life.  The take up of higher education went up and up.  This includes an increase in take-up from people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Far from closures the number of higher education institutions and overall capacity increased.  I was wrong on every count.  The anecdotal evidence I have is that even my certainty that tuition standards and one-on-one teaching time would improve was  off.  I still find just how wrong I was quite sobering.

I obviously mention this now, because with today’s announcement that fees will increase to between £6,ooo and £9,000 per year the current crop of Student Union Presidents up and down the land are making the very same points as the once fresher-faced me.

Despite being proved spectacularly wrong on this issue in the ‘90s, to be honest I am still as nervous this time around.  I can’t sit here all smug that I got through the system with fees paid for and a maintenance grant because  I now have to worry about how my own two kids will afford the opportunities I had.  At some point we surely must hit the tipping point?  There has to be a cost that will put people off?  The headline £27k for a degree before living costs does sound overwhelming.

This prompted me to dig a little deeper into the detail of what is proposed.  As is so often the case the reality of the detail isn’t quite as alarming as the screaming headline – but it is still scary.  The proposals have students only repaying their loans at 9% of their income at a real rate of interest when they earn £21,000, up to inflation plus 3% for those earning £41,000 or more.   Any outstanding loans are written off after 30 years.  If you don’t end up in employment, you don’t pay anything back.  In terms of the technicalities of repayment and pressure to repay these proposals are actually a step forward from the current arrangements – though of course the overall amount to be repaid is much higher – but a step forward nonetheless.  A kind of ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangement.

It is still a whopping burden though.  I really do pity the kids who start life with that kind of debt, on top of already silly marginal tax rates to pay for the excesses of their parents’ generation.

Of course, Labour will oppose these moves.  That’s the nature and job of opposition.  There is no need to put forward an alternative, you can just yell ‘nay’.  The media will ignore that it was the Labour Government (actually Mandelson) who commissioned the Browne Report in 2009 that led to these changes.  In many ways this is history repeating itself.   In 1996 the then Conservative Government appointed Ron Dearing to do an ‘independent’ report knowing full well the recommendations that Blair and Blunkett would inherit and which led to the first tuition fees.  This time Mandelson and G. Brown knew full well what would be recommended by Lord Browne and that whoever won would have to go with it.  One silver lining for the loser of this last election was always going to be not having to catch and deal with being lobbed this particular ticking grenade.

The Coalition have actually watered down Browne’s recommendations a bit.  There is a cap on fees (albeit a quite high one), and there is more money for bursaries for the poor and early repayment levies so that the richer folk can’t get out of paying their share by paying off their loan early.

It is what it is.  The choice was always either to revisit student funding or cut back on HE provision.  Access to Higher Ed benefits the whole of society and so it was the right choice to revisit funding.

The changes are necessary but still depressing.  All I can do is hope that the weird thing happens again and that effects of student financing policy continue to be subject to counter-intuitive economic freakery that prove me, and all those earnest fresh-faced student union presidents, totally wrong.

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