Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Edukashun, Edukashun, Edukashun

Every year, we go through a familiar cycle. Exam results come out, and they are usually better than the previous year's. The government hails them as an example of increasing standards. The opposition pooh-poohs them as an example of easier exams.

So who is right? Certainly in the national conciousness, the apparent view is that the Tories are right. But is this view backed up by the facts, or is it just a collective set of prejudices based on tabloidism and nostalgia?

Well, the US based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement has report that comes out every four years - The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). The latest report covering 2007 has just come out, and it compares 60 countries around the world for 10 and 14 year old students' ability and the standards used.

So where is England?

In the top ten for both science and Maths for both age-levels, ranging between at 5th and 7th places. Above Germany, Sweden and the US in each case. The top five are dominated by Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, with Latvia, Russia and South Korea doing well.

Was this better than last time?

Yes. Last time (2003) England came 18th for Maths at age 14. This time England came 7th. What is more, the previous years were even worse - in 1999 we cam 20th and in 1995 we came 25th. So clearly there is a trend of improvement over the past 12 years, accelerated in recent years.

But guess what, the Tories are claiming that it's still a failure. That's right, we've moved up from 'mid table mediocrity' under the Major government to the top ten, and Michael Gove calls us 'Second Division'. Just as with the economy, the Tories will talk down the country in order to attack the government.

(hat tip: Bob Piper)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

So, what would you do then, Dave?

Do the Tories care?

Well, I still have no answer. They do want to hold an election (because they think they'd win it), and Cameron today has launched an attack on the Government's policy to spend money and give tax breaks to combat recession.

Thing is, if the Tories want an election over the economy and the recession, they could do worse than to tell us what they would do.

Well?

In the meantime, a couple of weeks ago the Tory Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wrote the following on his blog:

"Interestingly on many counts, recession can be good for us. People tend to smoke less, drink less alcohol, eat less rich food and spend time at home with their families."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lie detectors?

James Purnell (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), is talking about bringing lie-detectors in to help find people who are lying in order to get benefits.

Problem is that lie detectors don't work (last item). They tend to give many false positives, which means more work for people to do to investigate claimants (and despite the idea that the benefits agency won't take a failed test as evidence, the suspicion will likely be there for some time) but they can also be beaten by people who look up a few ways to do it. More info here.

EDIT 5 Dec 15:33 - I saw a very interesting (and far more detailed) analysis from Unity today. Essentially he's saying that lie detectors can 'work', but for detecting stress, rather than for detecting lies (honest people can be stressed under questioning, and liars can be ice-cold)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Do the Tories care?

A little history first. In the 1990-1, we had a recession in the UK. It was pretty bad, and it was the first one to seriously affect white-collar workers and middle management rather than just the manual trades.

The John Major government, through the genius of Norman Lamont had the job of seeing us through this period, and it was from these two giants that the following phrases came:

"If it isn't hurting, it isn't working"

"Unemployment is a price worth paying" (for low inflation)

As a result of their careful stewardship, the 1990s recession took us years to recover from. You can see how compassionate they were about the effects of their policies.

So to today, and have the Conservatives changed? It appears not. While the government is taking action to reduce the threat of recession and to help those affected (rescuing banks, extending lines of credit so that they can lend, reducing VAT, increasing income tax allowances and tax credits, restricting repossessions, assisting small businesses with their tax bills, investing in public services etc etc etc...), all the Conservatives can do is to oppose.

Take our local Tory councillor-blogger Duncan Crow. He's quick to tell us that everything is the fault of Gordon Brown, but a little reticent to actually come up with any concrete proposals. It's easy to sit around pronouncing doom and gloom, and using the benefit of hindsight, but surely our 'natural rulers' have some actual ideas for how to best deal with the current economic situation.

What is it that the Tories would actually be doing now, if they were in power? Doing nothing didn't work very well last time, but I seen very little, other than to say whatever the government does is either bad or would have no effect.

For example, when the government announces a cut in VAT by 2.5%, the Tories tell us that it's insignificant. Yet when they think that VAT may have been going up by 1% it would have been a disaster. Surely it would have less of an effect, being a smaller change, but I don't suppose such logic comes into play when you are on a mission to oppose the government at all costs

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Social Services

Again, the UK seems to be falling under the spell of hysterical moral outrage. A few weeks ago it was Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand who had roused the ire of the public (not that they are in any way excused, but what on earth possessed thousands of people to add their complaints to the already lodged ones?)

Now it's Baby 'P'.

Some of my friends have joined the Facebook group " Campaign to get justice for Baby P". I'm not sure what the point of such a campaign is to be honest. The only reason we know about the case is that the mother and the two men involved have been tried in a court of law and found guilty. There are at the last rough count three enquiries into the situation, not to mention the whole media circus which has led to the calls for sackings and all-but lynching of anyone who was anywhere near the family.

There are some islands of sanity in this deluge - notably the eloquent Unity at Ministry of Truth, and Aaron at Tygerland - but I'm just glad that I'm working at home this week instead of having to put up with inane chatter about the whole thing from anyone I have to avoid shouting at.

I have never had to deal directly with Social Services myself, but I do know people who have. In one case that I know about (not in West Sussex), Social Services were overly cautious about taking a child into care. Two years after they backed the abusive parent in a custody hearing, they have removed her after incontrovertible evidence came to light. In another (also not in West Sussex), a child was taken into care and the parents spent a long hard battle to show that they were not guilty of abuse.

Social Workers are damned either way. If they are too cautious, then it only takes the odd case to make them look complacent. If they are too protective of children, then they are accused of 'stealing' kids in order to make up imaginary quotas for fostering or adoption. The main problem with their job is that it's rarely black-and-white. A child can be accident prone. A seemingly respectable parent can be a sadist behind closed doors. Children can lie, and they can also be unbelievable when telling the truth. It's all very subjective and there must be many marginal cases all of the time.

It's not a job that I could deal with, as most of my day-to-day work involved precision and clear yes/no decision-making. Even politics as a profession often comes down to a more objective view than a lot of the tough situations that Social Work involves.

What makes the job harder, of course, is that it is unpopular and difficult to recruit for. Areas with known problems have an even harder time, and those with unfilled vacancies are going to end up with backlogs and high stress. The pay is hardly fantastic, and if you make a mistake either way you could end up on the cover of half-a-dozen tabloids. Unfortunately, of course, we need social workers because there are a large number of children and vulnerable adults who are at real risk and who need some kind of intervention.

However, let's not get facts involved. Let's not try to understand how the real world works, or even consider for one moment that hindsight is a lot clearer than prediction. Let's just have a media-inspired national panic and collective howl. It'll make us feel better, even if it solves nothing (apart from declining circulation figures, of course).

Harumph!

Monday, November 17, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid

Is George Osborne an idiot? Or does he just think that the voters are all fools?

Over the last few weeks, the Tories have been demanding tax cuts, saying that they are the best way to release cash into the hands of people and spur consumer spending and company investment to help take us out of recession.

Then at the weekend, Osborne was saying that we can't cut taxes because it would cause a run on the pound (which is is bit odd, because the currency rate is not directly related to the government's finances, it's to do with the value of the overall economy and predicted returns compared to other nations, and is more likely to be related to the interest rate).

It sounds to me like opposition for the sake of it. You can't credibly go around contradicting yourself in the space of a few days and expect people to think that you have a clue about how to run the economy. Of course, if your plan is to attack the government for political gain at a time of national uncertainty, it might just work - as long as people don't have those inconvenient memory things.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

So, why can't we....

We are going into recession. We have banks who are reluctant to lend. We have housebuilders stopping work all over the country. We have thousands of people (25,000 in West Sussex alone) on local authority housing lists. We have houses that are falling in value but people still can't afford to buy them.

So, how about a bit of actual socialism? Or, Keynesian economics anyway...

Let's start building public housing again. Let's use public money to buy out empty houses and half-finished building sites so that they can be worked on and rented out. It creates jobs, it makes housing more affordable and it could help spur activity in the wider economy.

If we can bail out banks for half a trillion quid, and reduce interest rates by a third at a stroke, can't the government allow and push local authorities into this?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Henry Smith and the truth - not easy bedfellows?

I expect that our Henry is up in Brum this week, hoping to bask in the glory of his leader. Maybe he's still down in Sussex, but keeping a bit quiet after being caught not quite giving the correct facts again - 'Cock up' over hospital mortuary - telling people that the mortuary at Crawley Hospital was closing, when it fact it is not.

Gosh, it's not like the Tories are trying to get votes by doom-mongering or anything?

He's been caught uttering mistruths before, by the Police. He's also been noted voting a nice big backdated pay rise for himself last year, while putting our Council Tax up by over 4% again*. Oh, and the 'Campaign for Pease Pottage Hospital' is doing so well that it's had to be relaunched by the puppet press this week, despite the fact that two years ago it was supposed to be a concrete plan and was in no way opportunitistic or flimsy (the 'full outline proposals' from December 2006 are still there, with the spelling mistakes and the back-of-a-fag-packet sums)

* Actually WSCC regularly puts up Council Tax by more than CBC does (pretty much every year except for the one in four when the County Elections are about to happen...). How they are going to manage if the Tories get in with their promise to freeze Council Tax? WSCC spending went up from £1.218bn to £1.441bn in the past year, which is an increase of 18%. George Osborne wants to cap councils to only increasing spending by 2.5% a year.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

And while I was near Midhurst...

In the context of Potholes, it had been said to me that Midhurst didn't have many of them - Col 'Tex' Pemberton the Highways Cabinet member until recently is from up the road in Haslemere - and I can say that the roads did seem quite a bit smother than they are around here. Not just the main roads, like the A272 or A286, but the little country lanes in between (we got a bit lost and then decided to look for the Three Moles in Selham).

Also, at West Dean we saw several police officers. Some were dedicated to helping direct traffic on and off the site, despite there being marshals who were doing the same thing. Yes, it was a busy place, but at least half a dozen coppers? I know that crime in Sussex went down recently, but I didn't think that the boys in blue had nothing better to do.

And while railing at the West Sussex establishment as we drove around the area, I realised that we were moving into the area that is known as the 'West Weald' and which was going to be in the South Downs National Park before WSCC and Chichester District started to complain at the loss of power that it would represent (they don't really want the National Park at all). It's beautiful around there in the Wealden heathland, and the Black Down dominates the area.

Why would 'conservatives' oppose a National Park, which is aimed at 'conserving' the character of an area? Well, they want to have control of planning and a NP Authority would usurp that. You see, while they would be happy to agree with conserving things from some developments, there are some very influential parties in that part of West Sussex who take an entirely different view when it means that money can be made. It is these who would lose out if a National Park restricts development, even if it is supposed to be keeping the countryside beautiful. The same people who ensure that their local roads are well kept and that the local police are there in force for rural shows even if they are missing in urban areas don't want their little paradise spoilt by not being able to control it as much as they can

Festival Week

In the past few days I've been to two different festivals, each dedicated to a single comestible.

On Wednesday I went up to Earls Court to the Great British Beer Festival, where real ale nuts from across the country gather to down halves of warm brown beer and stroke their beards. I did try to grow a beard myself, but it was still at the scraggy stage and started to go ginger, so the next day it was gone.

Still, I do love real ale, and for the past few years I've met up with old friends from university there for a catch-up and some serious drinking. The best beer I tried there was a local one - Hepworth's Prospect, an organic beer with a taste like smoke (but in a good way).

We didn't stick to British Ale, though, because we often like to end up at the 'Rest of the World' bar (or 'forrun muck' as it is sometimes known) for some Belgian beers, Czech Pilsners, German Weissbier and some American brews.

American? Yes, the Americans can definitely brew decent beer. Anything from Anchor is great (and I went around the brewery last year to see how they made it and to spend as much time as possible 'checking' the quality). One sceptic among us last year, who had unfortunately only experienced the mass-produced dross lagers that the US is known for was totally changed around by a bottle of Brooklyn Lager

Anyway, it was a great night and a shame that I had to go to work the next day.

Today, I went to the Chilli Festival at West Dean, which is a place that deals in horticulture and other traditional arts, and is set in the middle of the South Downs on the road between Midhurst and Chichester.

There was chilli infused everything - chutnies inspired by Asia, sauces from the Caribbean, smoked chilli, pickled chilli, chilli in chocolate, chilli in beer (oh, and there was plenty of beer at this festival too), chilli on sausages...

I found a really potent chipotle sauce (chipotle is smoked chilli) and some cheese with chill in it, which will both go down rather well. And a couple of plants, a nice ornamental one and one of a grade 8 'Super Chilli' variety. Oh, and the beer stall had a bottle of Hepworth's Prospect, which rounded off the week very well.

Yum

Monday, August 04, 2008

It's not just roads that don't get repaired

It's paths too.

It came out today that West Sussex County Council has over £19M worth of outstanding repairs to make on pathways across the county.

Every part of the county is suffering from this, but Crawley has been left with the worst of the backlog - well over a quarter of the work (by monetary value) - £5.6M.

I suppose that rural areas have fewer paths by the side of the roads, but I'm sure that Horsham can't be too far off having the same amount as Crawley, given that the district includes the town itself as well as some large villages. Mid Sussex has a few towns (East Grinstead, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill) and must also have a similar number of paths. Surely between the two districts there would be as much, if not work to do on paths. And yet the backlog for both combined comes to about £4.2M, still a fair amount less than Crawley.

When I was a councillor, I was always getting complaints about poor footpaths and roads. And whenever I passed them on to the County Council I would get the same reply, pretty much - that there was a programme of repairs and upgrades, but that particular road/path was not going to be dealt with soon.

Things have changed since then - WSCC has lost £6M on Fastway, has cut it's Highways budget and has grown a sizeable long term debt. Under such circumstances it's easy to see why they have got so far behind. What isn't so easy to see is why Crawley appears to have borne the brunt of postponed work.

Hat tip to the Crawley Observer

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Two kinds of hole

West Sussex have a problem with holes at the moment, it seems.

The first is the kind that any driver, cyclist or motorbike rider in Crawley can tell you about - potholes. There are more and more of these things popping up all over town, along with growing cracks, raised or sunken metalwork, uneven pavements and any other signs of poor maintenance and the use of cheap materials.


To help them to know how people feel about the state of the roads (that we pay our ever increasing Council Tax to WSCC to maintain) a new website has, as trailed, been set up.

If you have tales of potholes that are not being fixed after having been reported, or were the repair is inadequate, pop along and either leave a comment or use the email address: Join the Crawley Potholes Club

One possible reason that WSCC could have for it's failure to keep our roads up to standard could be that they are rubbish at handling money.

Firstly, they managed to overspend on Fastway by £6 millions and not notice until right at the end of the project. Cause - piss poor project management, and who led the project? West Sussex.

Secondly, when Henry Smith became leader of WSCC it had pretty much no debt. Now, even though they have been flogging off playing fields and old-people's care homes* they have managed to accrue about £300 millions in long-term debt. Much of this in Government-enabled credit, where WSCC were lent money so that they could build all the new schools and things that Henry would like to take all the credit for. The Government arranged to pay the interest for the first few years, and WSCC should have been working out a way to minimise the balance before that interest holiday ended.

The holiday is over, and instead of reducing their debts, the Tories at County Hall are racking them up further, and the interest is being piled on top.

In contrast, the Tories at Crawley have inherited a well managed pot of money - £100 million. How long before they widdle that lot up the wall as they close down services?

And potholes? Well, I have been looking at the West Sussex council website, and in particular at the amount that they spend on roads. In 2005/6, the amount gross revenue amount spent on Highways and Transport was £63M. In 2006/7, it had fallen by over £5M to £58M. In the same period, they increased Council Tax by over 4%.

What's more amazing is that in the budget for that year, the Tories has promised to increase spending by several million quid. So are they so inept that they can't stick to a budget, or were they avoiding spending money on Highways & Transport so that they could pay for the Fastway SNAFU?

Who knows? All I know is that some Tory councillors are more concerned with arguing over who goes to meetings or not, rather than how the authority that they sit on and help run is seemingly unable to handle money. I thought that the Tories were supposed to be savvy with cash...

* I was going to put a note in here about the d├ębacle following the sell-off and contracting out of care services for the elderly, but it deserves a post of its own

Closing down fun

In case anyone is not fully aware, the Tories at Crawley Borough Council have recently announced the following Play Centres are or will be closed down:

Ifield
Pound Hill
Northgate
Southgate

The first two are already closed. The second two will be open for the Summer Holidays and then close in September.

This comes after CBC has been given money by the National Lottery to improve access to services. What did they spend the money on? Partly to pay for a bus so that kids in Ifield and Pound Hill can get to the places that haven't closed. Seems to me like they used the money to help mitigate the removal of services.

There is talk of a school-based replacement service, but as WSCC would have to be involved, and the schools themselves, I think it has been incredibly premature of Crawley to cut services before the fall back is in place. After all, WSCC are a year behind their programme to restore hot school dinners, and I know of at least one school (Southgate Primary) that is apparently refusing to join in.

How long will the children of Ifield, Pound Hill, Northgate and Southgate have to wait if the same people are supposed to be providing after-school activities?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vexation

Duncan Crow, Tory councillor at both West Sussex and Crawley has got himself a blog, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

He recently put this little missive up: Our last honest Prime Minister, about John Major. Of course, Major was fairly well respected for his honesty and integrity (if not his competence or personality) until it came out afterwards that he'd had an affair with Edwina Currie.

However, the bit of his post that I was most struck by was where he was trying to wriggle out of flat out calling Blair and Brown liars with this little disclaimer:

I am not sure I can say lying as it may tempt a certain Labour Councillor who seems to habitually make vexatious complaints to the Standards Board about Conservatives Councillors to complain about me.

So who is this 'certain' councillor, and what 'vexatious complaints' have they been making? I've heard of the use of complaints for political purposes in other areas, but not around here very much. Is Duncan actually going to be able to tell us who it is that he is talking about, because it ought to be a matter of public record if vexatious complaints are being made.

Skuds (see comments from number 21 onwards) had a look at the Standards Board for England's website and found nothing that looked like a vexatious complaint from a Labour Councillor. I know, however, that often complaints are referred back to the local authority for their Standards Committee to investigate, so I have looked back at the last few years' worth of meetings in Crawley (I have a day off, waiting for Jas' car to be fixed, and can't be bothered to do the washing up yet). Since April 2004 the committee has met eight times, and all except for the last have published minutes. I see no reference to a single complaint investigation in all of that time, and the last meeting has no explicit reference to one in it's Agenda papers.

I have found a reference to the case of a Crawley councillor from before 2004 - he was a Labour councillor, the complaint was upheld (and he resigned as a result) and it originated from an officer over non-declaration of his financial interests and his response to it being discovered.

But nothing at Crawley stands out as being in any way as Cllr Crow describes.

What about West Sussex? Well I looked at the WSCC site and found their Standards Committee papers. It seems that it met more often - on average about three time a year - and I have found the following complaints:
  • In March 2004 a complaint was raised about Cllr Jake Clausen (Lib Dem) by the leader of the his own group, following a conviction for harassment. Cllr Clausen resigned shortly after the complaint was raised, and he was banned from standing as a councillor for two years by the Standards Board. His ban expired last year.

  • In December 2004 a representative of a Travellers group raised a complaint about Cllr Alan Phillips regarding remarks made at a public meeting (among other remarks he had suggested the slogan "if you want a traveller for a neighbour, vote Labour", a crass reminder of the racist leaflet that Tories in Smethwick put out in 1964 which used the word 'nigger'). He was no longer on the council by the time that it saw a report on the matter, and although he was found to have breached the Code of Conduct in respect of bringing the council into disrepute, no further action was taken. I don't know which party Phillips represented, and it's actually very hard to find the election results from 2001.
Neither complaint was 'vexatious', as both resulting in a finding of a breach, and neither of them had been raised by a Labour councillor.

So, I find absolutely no evidence for Cllr Crow's allegation that there is some Labour councillor out there in the habit of making 'vexatious complaints'. Indeed, if that were the case, it would only be known about if the cases were completed, and that sort of behaviour ought to have garnered a complaint to the Standards Board if it were going on.

Of course, Cllr Crow could be referring to cases that have yet to be determined - complaints that are still going around the system. In which case, it would appear to be prejudicial to say that they are 'vexatious' before it is actually known that the complaints have been rejected or not.

So, I'm wondering to myself about this one. In a post about honesty, is Duncan himself playing a little fast and loose with the truth, in order to play up the victim card?

Since May...

I've been meaning to get back to posting more regularly for a while, and I notice that back in May, almost 2 months ago, I promised to discuss Crewe & Nantwich.

Of course, since that by-election there's been Henley and Howden & Haltemprice. Before the local elections, and even with them, it could be claimed that Labour was just in the middle of a normal 'mid-term blues' patch.

The local elections in May 2008 were not much different for Labour nationally than the results of the previous year or (perhaps more significantly) 2004 - a year before the last General Election. However, the main difference is that the Tories are now a more credible force and they are able to maintain a sustained lead in opinion polls.

The economic situation is also confused and likely to become harder in some way. The problem is that oil and food prices have risen sharply (the price of oil has a major impact on the price of food, due to increased transportation costs and the surprising amount of energy used to grow food crops and create fertilisers). This is having an inflationary effect, making life harder for people on low and fixed incomes.

At the same time, the US-born credit crunch has combined with the long anticipated peak in the UK property market to start affecting economic growth. I remember way back in 1999 I was a bit worried when I bought my house that prices were unsustainably high. Since then they have more than doubled and every year various 'economic experts' have predicted a 'correction'. Now it's here everyone has suddenly begun to panic a bit.

However, we are not in recession, and even now there is likely to be a small amount of growth in the UK in the next year (technically a recession is two successive quarters of a shrinking economy in GDP terms). Of course, some sectors will be affected more than others. The current strength of the Euro means that the Pound is cheaper, making our exports more competitive - which is good for manufacturing. On the other hand, construction is getting hit hard and retail (having been able to rely on a steady stream of customers on credit) appears to have been doing poorly. Unemployment is going up again, although it's still relatively low for now.

The problem with the combination of low growth and high inflation is that the usual solution is to adjust interest rates, but the direction is different for each. To encourage growth (and counter the credit crunch), lower rates would allow more cash to flow. However, higher interest rates are the usual salve for inflation, the idea being that it restricts cash flow to reduce the demand-led pull on prices.

My opinion is that as the inflation is not demand-led but comes from the supply side, increasing interest rates is not likely to have as much of an effect as usual. However, the Bank of England was tasked (by Gordon Brown) with keeping inflation under control, but not explicitly to prioritise the rate of growth of the economy.

Anyway, all of this leads to uncertainty and pessimism. This will naturally reflect on the government whichever party ran it. As Labour has been in power for eleven years, and as Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten of those years before getting his promotion, it becomes even easier see it as down to Gordon and the party. That the credit-crunch was precipitated by the even more loopy borrowing rampant in the USA, and that oil and food price inflation are both global phenomena make little difference to most people.

So, the economy is leading to a wide-scale malaise in Britain, and is also leading to two problems for the government. Firstly, a slowdown in economic growth puts pressure on government spending but inflation leads to higher wage demands from public employees, so we are seeing more complaints and strikes from them. This adds to a picture of a government losing control - and is particularly bad when a Labour government is in open conflict with it's affiliated Trades Unions.

Secondly, the malaise is self-perpetuating. Just as a boom is often fuelled by people being confident and borrowing against a rosy future, a slowdown can be worsened if it becomes the main topic of discussion and people start assuming the worst. It is possible that we could 'talk ourselves' into a recession. At such a time, we would need a very confident leader who could project a more positive image. Gordon Brown, it seems, is not that leader. As much as I was opposed to Blair (and to Blairism) within the party, I did think that Brown would make a decent Prime Minister. A year ago it all looked very positive - even flooding in East Yorkshire seemed not to have a negative effect - and Brown appeared to be a welcome change after the populist and PR-led Brown. But while Brown is good during the good times, and while he was able to react well at first, there have been several areas in which he's been less than impressive and has appeared to be letting things get out of his control.

Last autumn, during the media-frenzy over whether Brown would call an early election or not (I still think he was right not to), there were a couple of wobbles where it seemed that the Tories were pressing the agenda, particularly on Inheritance Tax. However, the real seed of Brown's current unpopularity stems from his last Budget as Chancellor:

Brown did something very silly with Income Tax, using the abolition of the lower rate of 10% to help pay for a cut in the main rate of tax from 22% to 20%. For anyone with an income below £18,000 who was not on tax credits, this meant a loss. This was bad enough, but the worse thing was that Brown denied that anyone would be worse off. Frank Field and other Labour backbenchers had been questioning this for a year, but it was only when it became more immediate and Alistair Darling had missed the chance to deal with it in his first Budget that the media and the Tories started to really press the issue. The 'fix' was to play with Allowances, which did reduce drastically the number of losers among the low-paid but also meant that people on medium earnings got a further reduction in tax. As this 'fix' doesn't actually come into effect until the Autumn and is only really going to be in effect for this tax year unless further changes are made.

What this did was to undermine the claim that Labour was working for it's normal 'core' support, the working classes. Combined with higher prices for basics and greater worries about employment and debt, the last thing that people on low incomes needed was an increase in taxes. Even though that increase was small in cash terms, it was in some cases nearly 4% of total income.

Thing is, changing the Prime Minister (again) won't make a jot of difference. What is needed is what was needed about five years ago - a government that listened to it's own backbenchers and the party that got it into power, rather than being overly concerned with process and the latest polls.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Quiet, innit?

No particular reason for my being quiet, and the only reason for this posting is that I noticed that the links needed a serious sorting out.

Renewed Labour and Let's be Sensible have stopped months ago, and Labour Humanist hasn't written anything since Christmas so they are gone. I can't get on to Adam Brown's site - or all I can get is a blank page - and I notice that Duncan Crow now has a blog so that was an easy 1-for-1 replacement (can't have too many Tory councillor blogs getting publicity from me, can I?). Richard Symonds doesn't use the Crawley Independent to blog anymore, he's got his own forum which (once does contain the odd pearl of information about local doings, in amongst all the rest of what I can only call conspiracy theories, as much as it riles him).

The Crawley News site has been moved and relaunched. It's much better, you get most of the paper's stories and people can comment on them. The old one was shared with about three other papers based in Surrey (and was on icsurrey.co.uk) and was very difficult to navigate. I'll not comment on the quality of the journalism though. If you follow my other new link to the Maidenbower Forum, you will probably find someone moaning about grossly inaccurate reporting.

I know that there are probably a couple of new local sites that I should add in - Such as Ian Irvine's blog, but I can't remember what the url is and I'm about to eat my Sunday lunch soon.

Also, there's going to be a new blog for Crawley to 'celebrate' all of the holes that appear in the town's streets. When it's up and running, it will get a trail here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The godless meme

Like Unity, I'm not big on memes. But like Unity, I like this one

Q1. How would you define ‘atheism’?

The lack of belief in God/gods.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

No. My parents were not religious at all. My first introduction to the concept of 'God' was at school. Apparently I was pretty annoyed at Mum and Dad for not having mentioned this whole thing about one bloke making the whole world. It's not as if they 'made me' an atheist, they just didn't see any point discussing it, and left me to find out for myself.

As a child I was generally agnostic until I was about 11 or 12. The religion I was agnostic on would have been that fluffy Anglicanism that we English cling on to. I was a cub scout and in St Johns Ambulance as a cadet, so every week I had to pledge to God (and the Queen), and I knew that I was lying (on both counts).

Q3. How would you describe ‘Intelligent Design’, using only one word?

Mistaken

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

That's a really tough question, as there are loads of possible answers - the Human Genome project, space travel, quantum computing....

My background is Mathematics, and so it may not be 'sexy' or have an immediate impact, but I'd say Game Theory is a favourite, and I can apply it to playing Diplomacy.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’, what would it be and why?

I'm not sure that there is a 'community', or that there could or should be one. I'd rather that atheists as individuals didn't attack religion for the sake of it, but on the other hand I'd also want them to defend each other more robustly when the religious attack some of us.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?

I don't have kids, so I don't know how I'd react. I'd like to think I'd have some clue that a child of mine was religious already, so it shouldn't be a massive shock. I'd probably make a joke about them getting a free house.

I would not force my atheism on my kids, just as my parents didn't force theirs on me. I would, however bring my kids up to question everything, and I would certainly make sure that they were equipped to question their own beliefs (or lack thereof). If they decide that they want to become a priest, nun, whatever, then fine. As long as they are happy, and don't try to convert me.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I'm not sure about it. The most common one is the idea that everything has to have had a beginning, and that beginning is God. The challenge (if not a refutation), is that this is unknowable. Time could be infinite, in which case there is no beginning.

Q8. What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Dunno. Perhaps continuing to support the Labour Party even though Blair and Brown (and most leaders in fact) have been religiously motivated in some way.


Q9. Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I've not read much Dennett or Harris, but what I have is a little too confrontational for it's own sake. Likewise, Hitchens just likes to take an argument and let loose the rhetoric to show how clever he is. When I agree with CH I can nod along vehemently, and when he's wrong (as he is on Iraq in my opinion), he's an annoying git.

So it's Dawkins then, by default. Actually, I've read The God Delusion and it's pretty well presented (and is often misrepresented in order to demonise him and through him all atheists), so it's not just be default. He does, however, sometimes go a little too far when speaking.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I can't think of a specific person. Perhaps a Jehovah's Witness who's refusing to accept life saving treatment as a result of their beliefs.

Right, there it goes. I don't nominate people to pick up a meme (in fact, if a meme is a true meme, it would be taken up without me needing to).

Friday, May 23, 2008

A crushing disappointment

Manchester City qualified for Europe in the Fair Play League, with Fulham only 3 points behind.

The next placed team who weren't already going to Europe were West Ham, which might draw a wry smile to one or two passing readers...

(oh, and not only did the Tories win in Crewe and Nantwich, they hammered us, but more on that later on)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Talk about leaving it late...

Today was a nerve-wracking day. A lovely sunny afternoon wandering around Horsham was overshadowed by an ominous threat.

On the last day of the Premiership season, Fulham started just outside the relegation zone, only on goal difference over Reading and with a single point more than Birmingham. This mean that at Portsmouth, Fulham had to win to guarantee another season in the top division, or at least to do as well as Reading (playing at already relegated Derby City) and Birmingham City (home to mid-table and nothing to play for Blackburn).

I managed to drag the gf into a pub, but unfortunately it had no tv, and she wasn't in the mood to move. So I was forced to tangle with my phones' WAP in a low signal and a low battery to keep up with events.

It went a bit like this:

3:00pm. In the Crown, with a pint of IPA, breaking the news to Jas that I might be a little preoccupied for the next couple of hours.
3:15. See that Reading have scored against Derby. Oh. Still, it's early on.
3:35. See that Birmingham have scored against Blackburn. Damn. We really need to score a goal here. More beer required.
3:45 to 3:50. Keep checking to see if we've managed to take the lead going into half time. We haven't.
4:15. Blackburn have equalised at St Andrews. Come on Derby, you can get one back too
4:20. Derby 0-2 Reading. Come on Derby, you can get two back.
4:30. Derby 0-3 Reading. Ok, Derby, three goals in fifteen minutes, should be doable...
4:35. Birmingham get another goal. So we need more than a hugely unlikely recovery at Pride Park. We need someone to actually score for the whites
4.36. YESssss!! (three people in virtually empty pub stare at the odd man waving a phone about) Danny Murphy, who I have rated since he was playing at Liverpool, scores - on checking it was a header from a Jimmy Bullard free kick. Ten minutes to not throw away the lead...
4.45. No change in the scores, but no sign of games ending. Some signs of nervous drinking.
4.50. Reading and Birmingham have both scored again. Please let it be meaningless.
4.53. No whistles at all? Come on. According to Vodaphone, no games have ended yet? Are they trying to give me an ulcer?
4.54. Text from my dad, simply saying "yes", suggests that there have been some whistles going.
4.55. Call dad - turns out Birmingham scored again to make it 4-1, but the game at Fratton Park is definitely over.
4.56. Text from dad, simply saying "yes" (hmm, he really needs to learn not to keep hitting the 'send' button.
4.57. Phone dies. More beer. I rejoin whatever conversation I was supposed to be having with the gf. All is right with the world (and as Brum were relegated, the gf is happy, coming from the 'other' side of Birmingham, but only to the extent of disliking the Bluenoses rather than supporting Villa).

Now, I'm eagerly awaiting the update of the Fair Play table. Why? Well, England topped the European Fair Play league, and so get an extra UEFA Cup place. Which goes to the team at the top of the domestic Fair Play table who haven't already qualified for Europe.

Fulham were lying in 7th place last week, which sounds bad, but the top four are Spurs (in UEFA for winning the League Cup), Man Utd (in the Champions League for winning the Premiership), Liverpool and Arsenal (both through for their league positions). Everton were in 6th, and clinched a UEFA Cup spot today. So the only team ahead of Fulham for the Fair Play qualification were Man City, by 8 points (1199 to 1191)

And Man City had a player sent off as they lost 8-1 (Eight! ha ha ha) to Middlesbrough. They only lose three points for that, but it's entirely possible that the players were a bit 'robust' and showed their frustration as they were being taken apart.

So, we go from desperately fighting relegation (in every game for the last three weeks) to possibly qualifying for Europe.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Another poor day at the polls

Given the results in the previous two years, and the national political picture after the debacle of the 10% tax band, there was no real surprise at the outcome of yesterday's Crawley Borough Council elections.

Last year I looked at the trends in each ward and for each party, and I thought I'd do the same thing. We have now had a full cycle since the 2004 boundary changes and all-out-elections, so we can compare over the past 4 years and see the overall trends. In each seat this year, the person who was in position before May had been the most popular candidate of those elected in 2004.

Bewbush
2004 - 3 Labour, maj 193/216/275
2006 - Labour, maj 192
2007 - Labour, maj 374
2008 - Labour, maj 281
Again the largest Labour majority in Crawley. The incumbent had stood down due to ill health, and may have had some personal vote, but it does seem that there was a slip in support. The Tory got a similar percentage of the vote to last year, and Arshad Khan managed over 100 votes. The main difference to previous years was that the Lib Dems put no-one up and the BNP had a candidate. As is usual, the BNP took about 15% of the vote at the first attempt (they tend to slip back in later years).

Broadfield N
2004 - 2 Labour, maj 99/261
2006 - Tory, maj 0
2008 - Labour, maj 150
A popular local incumbent was re-elected here, and the Tories got fewer votes than in 2006. The Lib Dems lost about a third of their vote. Now the only ward with councillors from more than one party.

Broadfield S
2004 - 2 Tory, maj 22/52
2006 - Tory, maj 112
2008 - Tory, maj 165
The incumbent was Marcella Head, elected as a Conservative and who defected to the Lib Dems in 2006 over the Council Housing issue. She apparently endorsed Ian Irvine the Labour candidate this time, but in the end the Tories extended their lead in a two-horse race.

Furnace Green
2004 - 2 Tory, maj 155/318
2006 - Tory, maj 547
2007 - 2 Tory, maj 524/568
Tory ward, although was Labour until the late 1990s. No election this year.

Gossops Green
2004 - 2 Tory, maj 33/47
2007 - Tory, maj 150
2008 - Tory, maj 281
The Tory vote was about the same as last year, with Labour down and a BNP candidate in third. The Lib Dems lost half of their vote.

Ifield
2004 - 3 Labour, maj 96/100/191
2006 - Tory, maj 21
2007 - Tory, maj 59
2008 - Tory, maj 236
Last year I had this as marginal. The BNP have stood here several times and for the first time increased their vote, getting back some of the losses since 2004. The Tory vote went up by 100, and Labour lost about 80. The Lib Dems vote pretty much held. Where we had two independents last year, none stood this time.

Langley Green
2004 - 3 Labour, maj 268/303/352
2006 - Labour, maj 406
2007 - Labour, maj 148
2008 - Labour, maj 232
Safe Labour seat, although one of the councillors is always convinced that it is dead close. The Labour and Tory votes both went up, with the Lib Dems losing half of theirs (the normal candidate stood in Maidenbower instead, perhaps there's some personal vote there).

Maidenbower
2004 - 3 Tory, maj 682/744/779
2006 - Tory, maj 1132
2007 - Tory, maj 1215
2008 - Tory, maj 1386
Safe Tory seat. The Tory vote leapt up in 2006, and has been creeping higher since then. The Lib Dems and Labour tied for second place (and last place).

Northgate
2004 - 2 LibDem, maj 292/334
2006 - LibDem, maj 276
2007 - LibDem, maj 250
Liberal Democrat haven. No election this year.

Pound Hill N
2004 - 3 Tory, maj 778/795/831
2006 - Tory, maj 1280
2007 - Tory, maj 1001
2008 - Tory, maj 1082
Safe Tory. The Lib Dems overtook Labour to come second (the only ward in 2008 where the Lib Dem vote was more than the Labour total), and the only reason that I can see for the slip in the Tory majority is lower turnout, which is natural such a safe seat.

Pound Hill S and Worth
2004 - 3 Tory, maj 707/760/828
2006 - Tory, maj 1210
2007 - Tory, maj 1072
2008 - Tory, maj 1189
Safe Tory. The Lib Dems were in second in 2006, but Labour overtook them last year and maintained second place. The BNP stood here for the first time and came last - the only place where the Lib Dems beat them.

Southgate
2004 - 3 Labour, maj 3/50/51
2006 - Tory, maj 198
2007 - Tory, maj 179
2007 - Tory, maj 254
Marginal but getting safer for the Tories. The Tories won this seat in 2003 by 3 votes, probably helped by the Greens standing. The BNP and Greens used to stand here but didn't this time. The Labour vote went up, but the Tory vote went up faster. The Lib Dems gained votes (probably from ex-Green voters).

Three Bridges
2004 - 1 Labour , 1 Tory
2007 - Tory, maj 356
2008 - Tory, maj 297
The Tory vote did fall slightly, and the Labour vote went up slightly, but from being a knife-edge seat is firmly Tory for now. Last year there was an English Democrat and a Green, but they were absent this time. The Lib Dems did pick up votes (from the Greens again?)

Tilgate
2004 - 2 Labour, maj 84/87
2007 - Tory, maj 355
2008 - Tory, maj 97
Like Three Bridges, a major gain for the Tories last year. However, unlike Three Bridges, Labour came much closer to holding a seat as the Tories dropped 180 votes. The BNP beat the Lib Dems to third, both gaining a few votes.

West Green
2004 - 2 Labour, maj 147/274
2006 - Labour, maj 117
2008 - Labour, maj 180
Usually safe Labour. The winner this year was Bert Crane, who must be in contention for the longest serving councillor in the country (over 50 years). The Tory vote did go up slightly, the BNP shed votes and unlike previous years, no others stood.

Tories
Overall, a fairly stable set of results. Where they have made gains in recent years these have been consolidated (except for Broadfield North which was unusual). The only bad spot was Tilgate, which was won with a very large swing in 2007 and was much closer this time around. Now have a majority of 15 on the Council.

Labour
Another bad year. Some glimmers of hope where the vote went up (despite the national trend), but could not hold on to the remaining seats in Tilgate, Southgate or Ifield.

Lib Dems
Overall, the trend is down again. Back down to two seats after Marcella Head (who was elected as a Tory) stood down and no replacement candidate was put up in Broadfield South. In some wards shed a third of even a half of their vote, and did well in few wards where they couldn't pick up Green votes.

Greens
First making an impact in 2003 (after a Labour Councillor defected in protest at the Iraq war), they tried to expand with several candidates across the town in later years. This time no Green candidates stood at all, apparently to avoid splitting the non-Tory vote.

BNP
Stood in six wards this year, more than ever before. In most places where they stand for the first time, they get between 10% and 20% of the vote, and thereafter the trend is slowly downwards. Ifield is their best ward, where they picked up some votes this year, but not as many as in 2004/5.

English Democrats
Came in last year, stood in two seats, did pretty badly and not a word of them since.

Far Left
No candidates from any of the left-of-Labour parties this year, as was the case last year.

Independents
After last year when several independent candidates stood, only Arshad Khan with his self-styled 'Justice Party' remained. He did actually pick up some votes this time.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Interesting Answer

Nearly a year ago I signed up to They Work For You's service which sends you an email every time your MP speaks in the House of Commons. It's really quite useful if you want to keep an eye on what an MP is saying.

Yesterday, Laura Moffatt asked the following question in the 'Business of the House' debate:

The issue of children has rightly come up already in business questions. Would my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on the importance of play? The excellent children's plan published earlier this month demonstrates that organised play for children is a key part of their development. I want this debate to put off local authorities that are short-sightedly thinking of closing play centres on financial grounds alone. I want the issues properly explored to stop them doing so.


Well, clearly the MP shares suspicions that the Crawley Tories are planning to close Play Centres in Crawley (Northgate and Southgate have been suggested as targets), and are hoping to save money by doing so.

The answer, from Harriet Harman, was more interesting than the question though:

No local authority should cut play services. The Government have put an extra £250 million into children's play services and I know that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of children's services in Crawley. If the Conservative council in Crawley is cutting children's play services, it should not do so, and I suggest that my hon. Friend applies for an Adjournment debate.


So, if there's more money available, why would Crawley Borough Council wish to reduce provision in the town? What is the idea?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Local Tories at Play

The local Tories, having gained control of the Borough Council, have certainly been revealing their true colours.

First they tried to sell tenants a bunch of lies (or were they just ridiculously awful calculations that no-one bothered to check?), but thanks to the tenants, local opposition, the Government of the South East, the Audit Commission and the Advertising Standards Authority they failed. Still, the people of Crawley in their wisdom returned even more Tory councillors last May.

Now they are going for the Play Service. Last year proposals came out to 'rationalise' the play areas, which appear to have been put into abeyance for a while. Maidenbower will get a new play area though (which is fine, no problem at all, although the developers should have put it in years ago, not the taxpayers).

Instead of shutting down play areas, looks like the Tories are instead going to close down Play Centres. These are the places that stay open after schools close so that children can play in a secure environment before parents pick them up. They are incredibly popular during school holidays, because parents can't all get time off in six week blocks.

The two centres that I know of being under the knife are Northgate and Southgate. Southgate has in the last two years voted for a Conservative councillor. In order, presumably, to avoid the risk that people around here see what the Tories are up to and vote accordingly, the decision has been postponed until June.

Typically, the Tories will tell you all about the 2% increase in Council Tax, but won't tell you which services will be cut as a result. The truth is that they will be hitting the children, and given that delinquency is linked to a lack of provision for kids, adding to the problems of youths hanging around with 'nothing to do' until they get into trouble. It's not just hugging hoodies, it's increasing the problems for and associated with youth.

Vote Tory - have more kids hanging on the street corners!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cheers mate!

Skuds has dedicated a recent post to me, all about a subject which has already appeared on RMF a couple of times - the odd relationship between the media and the sex industry.

Not only is the Crawley News still advertising adult services (albeit with a 'disclaimer', which I like to think was a result of this humble blog's attention) near the back pages while reporting the case of a woman trafficked into the country and forced to have sex in a local brothel, but there was an outcry when the South Wales Echo did the same thing late last year.

As a result of a meeting with the government in November, it would seem that the Newspaper Society will be revisiting their guidelines on acceptable advertising. It would be good to know what those guidelines are, but they are available to NS members only. I can't even find how much it would cost to get the 'PERA' membership required to look at the 'Ad Points' section of the website, so I suspect it's not something I'll be buying. If a friendly journo / advertising editor happens by and can let me know what these guideline are?

Only I'm pretty sure that they already suggest that adverts for massage or escort services clearly suggest that 'extras' are also on offer, or if the publication could reasonable expect that to be the case. I'm not sure if the ads in the back of the News cross the line, but they are pretty close.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Is this value for money?

The Crawley News reports that the Tory leader of Crawley Borough Council went on a 3 day training course in South Africa, partly funded out of the Council budget.

Obviously, Lanzer will justify the cost of the trip, as he learnt a lot and was fired up on his return. The CBC payment only amounted to about £675, which is not a huge amount. The rest was from grants, which may or may not be funded by the national taxpayer.

The course involved looking at 'law and order' issues. The thing about this is that the Borough Council doesn't have a great deal of responsiblity for these. The Police Authority is a seperate body, with delegates from local authorities, but from West Sussex, not Crawley. So Bob Lanzer isn't on it. He might be on Police Liaison, but that's not really a 'leadership' position.

Of course, councillors do need to be trained up, and they should be exposed to external practices, otherwise they risk being too ingrained in parochialism. However, it appears that there will be some raised eyebrows at this particular item. Especially as the News has put it on their front page this week.