Friday, 30 March 2012

England Riots: Independent Panel's Final Verdict

You could be forgiven for thinking that the same report into last summer's "England riots" keeps getting re-published over and over again.

Such are the similarities of the conclusions being made that this would be an understandable mistake to make.

This week saw the publication of the final report by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel; an independent group of experts brought together by the government to look into the causes of last August's disturbances.

The report finds a whole range of reasons for the rioting, and comes up with a hotchpotch of recommendations, some of which could be best described as a little fuzzy, and had me wondering whether they had their priorities right.

"When people feel they have no reason to stay out of trouble, the consequences can be devastating."

If policymakers had to take on board just one sentence from this report, it would be this one.

The moral lecturing, stern words, and promise of stiff prison sentences, will have little impact when someone has reached a stage in their life when they feel they have nothing to lose by breaking the law.

As Camila Batmanghelidjh said last summer, many of the people caught up in the riots live according to "parallel antisocial communities with different rules...a subculture."

It is with this in mind that the panel called for everyone 'to be given a stake in society.' A society where its different components are working together. Where the police, schools, local authorities and voluntary groups work in tandem.

Similarly to a report last November commissioned on behalf of the Cabinet Office, the panel found significant discontent with the police as a driving factor behind the riots.

If this was the rioters' catalyst, to get one up on 'the law,' according to communities affected by the trouble, a number of other important factors contributed:

"...a lack of opportunities for young people; perceptions about poor parenting and a lack of shared values; an inability to prevent re-offending [and] concerns about brands and materialism..."

Frustrations were expressed that public services simply weren't doing enough to tackle any of these issues.

"We have found that it is too easy at every stage of their lives for troubled individuals and forgotten families to fall through the gaps of public service provision.

"They often have multiple issues, which no single agency can resolve."

In response, the panel has issued a series of recommendations. The most noteworthy of which include:

- better early intervention for 'forgotten families [who] bump along the bottom of society'

- financial penalties imposed on schools for every pupil leaving school without the appropriate levels of literacy, with schools covering the cost when they find a 'new provider'

- schools to work on pupils' 'self confidence' by 'building character,' in an acknowledgement that not all parents are good at instilling 'positive attitudes and behaviour.' This would certainly come under the 'fuzzy', 'wishy-washy' category

- better work opportunities for young people, with a 'job guarantee scheme' for those out of work for two years or more, and

- alternatives to prison for young people, and mentoring for those who have been to prison with 'wraparound support.

I want to explore a couple of these in more detail.

Whilst the panel has its 'red lines,' it is clear that some require more urgency than others.

It is a little concerning that the sections covering the role of school devote far more time to talking about the importance of 'character building' and 'personal resilience,' (nine pages) than looking at educational attainment (one page):

"It is easy to write off concepts such as 'character' and 'personal and social development' as an unnecessary and burdensome distraction for public services...However the panel believes it is important that this issue is not side-lined."

Surely, getting the basics right should be the overriding priority of schools?

Especially, when the report found that only one in ten rioters achieved five GCSEs grades A*-C.

We know from earlier research, that the report cites (see page 33) that poor attainment at school can lead to a whole cycle of problems. Only two per cent of those who achieved five GCSEs at grades A*-C are NEET (not in education, employment of training) a year later, compared to 36 per cent of those who leave with no qualifications at all.

The panel's findings pointed out the link between rioting and deprivation:

"Our unique analysis shows that 70 per cent of those brought before the courts were living in the 30 per cent most deprived postcodes in the country."

They went on to show that of the 10-17 year olds caught up in the trouble (26 per cent), 46 per cent were defined as 'living in poverty,' 66 per cent had special educational needs and 42 per cent were claiming free school meals. Against national averages of 12, 21 and 16 per cent, respectively.

The link between poverty and lack of educational achievement has been well documented, and is tackled in rigorous detail by a 2010 study carried out by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).

It found that:

"By the age of three, poor children have been assessed to be one year behind richer ones in terms of communication, and in some disadvantaged areas, up to 50% of children begin primary school without the necessary language or communication skills."

And these educational inequalities only widen over time:

"Using free school meals as the best available indicator of socio-economic background, statistics show that at Key Stage 2, 53.5% of pupils eligible for free school meals reach the expected level (i.e. level 4 or above) in English and mathematics, compared with 75.5% of pupils who are not eligible.

"Furthermore, these children are more likely to attend the lowest-performing schools in deprived areas."

Which probably tells you something about Oftsed inspections, considering the panel's report found that schools where the rioters came from had been, on average, rated by Ofsted as 'good' (see page 60).

When it comes to GCSEs, figures released last month, revealed that just over a third of teenagers from deprived backgrounds left school with five good GSCEs, compared with 58% nationally.

It would therefore have been preferable for the riots panel to have spent rather more time on educational attainment and how crucial an escape route it can be for those from poorer backgrounds (i.e. the rioters), than putting more energy into nebulous concepts such as 'character building' and 'personal development.'

One follows the other no doubt.

Where the report is strongest is in its call for better early support for 'troubled families.' It is here that it tries to deal with one of the issues that most cropped up during its Neighbourhood Survey: poor parenting.

Whilst this is an area of most contention for many on the right (unsurprisingly, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail attributed it to be the leading cause of the riots) it is also one of the hardest to pin down:

"There are no data available to enable us to assess whether there is any link between the quality of parenting and the likelihood of an individual being involved in the riots. However, we do know that being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59 per cent."

Instead, the panel focused its attentions on the government's Troubled Families Programme (TFP), which it supports, but found little relation between the TFP and the rioters' families:

"In a poll of 80 local authorities conduced by the Panel, only five per cent felt there was a great deal of overlap between the troubled families and rioter families."

Extending early intervention schemes to cover 500,000 families, rather than the TFP's 120,000 target, and getting disparate bodies to exchange information, are seen as two key areas to address:

"We recommend that providers work together and plan services around forgotten families, rather than focusing on individuals.

"State agencies dealing with the same families do not tell each other what they know or what they are doing, wasting time and money. We recommend the creation of a legal presumption to share data across local agencies."

Plenty of familiar findings for the government to digest no doubt.

As always, the question of whether similar events occur again depends partly on how much ministers are prepared to listen.

Are they able to put populist bluster - demanding harsh (disproportionate) prison sentences and lazily blaming 'broken Britain' -to one side, and engage with the experts and those affected by last summer's events?

Or do we continue with the usual cycle of criminality, followed by tough rhetoric, half-hearted solutions, diluted at the first whiff of anger by a right wing press baron?

I think we already know the answer.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Sunday 1 April 2012

Friday, 23 March 2012

Labour And The Next Election

Labour's next general election manifesto should be writing itself.

Not even half way through this parliament and the coalition seem content enough to hand the opposition a whole raft of controversial policies in which it can be attacked on.

Political gifts, neatly wrapped with an equal number of blue and yellow ribbons, are no doubt being stored in the cupboards of Labour HQ, ready to be taken out and ripped apart in the run up to 2015.

But, something's not quite right.

Despite the great avalanche of opposition to the NHS bill, seemingly from anyone who's ever set foot in a hospital, the trebling of university tuition fees, the attempts to dismantle the welfare state, one benefit at a time, all made possible by an ideological zeal that puts eliminating the budget deficit above all else, Labour isn't making the kind of headway it should.

Whilst it's still far too early to be thinking about the next election, progress in the polls can come incrementally; May's local elections a good way to start. That, and a few elected Labour mayors wouldn't do any harm.

Yet, surely there must be a feeling that if many of the government's policies really are that unpopular, why aren't the opposition benefiting?

A number of reasons can be put forward.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that the central tenet propagated by the government has been pretty much swallowed by the electorate: the urgency of deficit reduction has been accepted as a necessary evil.

So, and most crucially, has the (incorrect, on so many levels) assumption that Britain's shaky finances are a direct result of Labour's overspending and mishandling of the economy.

The fact that most of us on the left know this argument to be flawed no longer matters. Convincing the electorate of this from the moment the coalition took office has been a political masterstroke. It is from there that the government have been able to construct its narrative and taken an axe to the public sector.

Secondly, not all the government's policies are as disliked (enough) as the left would like to think. Capping benefits chimes with voters. Whilst higher tuition fees isn't exactly a voter winner, it's not really a vote loser either; those being directly affected the cohort least likely to vote.

Thirdly, and most frustratingly for Labour, a poll this week found support for its economic policies, but not for those hoping to enact them: 42% believing the economy in safer hands with Cameron and Osborne, against 25% for the Eds.

The fact that the economy, unemployment, and how secure and confident people feel about their present and future, will almost certainly play a leading role in the next election, makes this a worrying figure.

But, it's the voting intention stats that should most concern Labour. Leaving aside overall support, only 59% of its own supporters would give unconditional backing to the party on election day.

If the party harbours any hopes of an outright victory it desperately needs to seduce its own voters first. This particularly applies to its newly-found backers, recently escaped from the Lib Dems.

Once it's done this, it can get on with the far easier task of retoxifying the Tory brand; shouldn't be too difficult.

Highlighting, and then highlighting again, how their policies have explicitly targeted society's most vulnerable, how they've trampled over a British institution, with their needless meddling of the NHS, and that their "green" agenda was nothing more than a clever marketing trick designed to show the public their 'new' and cuddly side.

The final, and trickiest part, is to make the next election all about policies and not personality. A cruel quip perhaps, but as things stand, Ed Miliband just isn't seen as prime ministerial, and suffers from what some have labelled a "credibility gap."

Coming out with daring, original, and yes populist, ideas, will help close this gap.

This article was first published by LabourList on Friday 23 March 2012

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Occupy-Inspired Candidates

A story that caught my eye earlier this week was the news that a number of Occupy-inspired candidates plan to run for congress.

Now, the inspired bit is important as none of them have been officially endorsed by the Occupy movement.

According to William Dobbs, a press liaison officer from Occupy Wall Street's New York base:

"Occupy doesn't endorse candidates or parties.

"We want to be a squeaky wheel for economic justice outside of the system to get the attention of those in power."

Still, many of the candidates have expressed sympathies with the ideals and goals of Occupy, citing issues such as income inequality and the enormous gulf, both economically and politically, between those at the top and everyone else.

Mother Jones, an American bimonthly magazine, also operating online, and on the liberal end of the spectrum, puts their chances of success at anything between fair and excellent.

When I wrote about the Occupy movement in England last year, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. The hope that it'd spawn dozens and dozens of potential parliamentary or council candidates. It still might. We are, after all, three years away from a general election, but I'm not holding my breath.

This is not in any way to diminish the impact that the movement has had in the UK. It has only taken a few hundred people to highlight what many on the left have spoken and written about for years.

Financial rewards for failure, fall in wages and living standards for anyone not part of the 1%, even during the good times, tax avoidance/evasion. These are now very much part of the political lexicon, and should form the backbone of any centre-left/left wing fightback against anyone seeking to preserve and justify the status-quo.

But, I still believe that there's a far greater chance of reforming the system from the inside. Demonstrations, petitions, campaigns, can only do so much.

The aim is to get these people in politics. Without a new breed of radicals, little will change.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

When Sport and Politics Collide

As if having to contend with another tricky Test series on unfriendly wickets and the inevitable trial by spin wasn't enough, Andrew Strauss, England's cricket captain, spent Wednesday fielding questions about alleged human rights atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government during the final throes of its quarter of a century civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

Coming off the back of a Channel 4 exposé due to be shown later that evening, which itself followed a series of programmes broadcast last year detailing abuses throughout the war, Strauss was forced to be at his diplomatic best.

When asked to comment, he gave as honest an answer as he probably could:

"It's a bit of a tricky one. All around us we see atrocities taking place all over the world and in war a lot of unsavoury things happen on both sides.

"I personally think the political issues are dealt with by the politicians and administrators. But that doesn't mean we should stick our heads in the sand.

"If the British government feels there is a case to answer to a great enough extent that the England team shouldn't be touring somewhere then that is a call they need to make. Until that is the case, it would be wrong for us to focus on anything other than cricket."

No doubt Strauss would have preferred not have had to talk about this, but credit to him for not ducking the issue.

The question of how far sport and politics should mix, if at all, crops up every time England, or other nations, find themselves face to face with some of the world's most unpleasant regimes.

In fact, the question is largely a redundant one because sport and politics do merge, regularly, whether those in sport like it or not.

Long gone are the days when sportsmen and women could just go about their day jobs and be done with it. They're now ambassadors, role models, and sometimes most awkwardly, diplomats.

2003 and the cricket world cup was a fine example of where sport and politics collided, with politicians leaving their sport stars hung out to dry.

An exercise in farce, leading to utter confusion and bewilderment, played havoc with England's preparations. The question of whether they should or shouldn't play one of their group matches against Zimbabwe, the tournament's co-hosts, and a country run by the tyrannical leader Robert Mugabe, dogged the team for several months beforehand.

In the end, England decided to forfeit their points and not play in Zimbabwe, citing security concerns and fears over player safety.

But, it was the handling of this affair that did few favours to cricket's administrators.

The players could have been forgiven for feeling like they were caught in the crossfire as the ECB, those responsible for running English cricket, the ICC, cricket's world governing body, and the British government, spent several months coming out with contradictory statement after contradictory statement.

Finally settling on the view that England should not play in Zimbabwe, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, issued this wholly unsatisfactory statement:

"There are no legal powers available to the government to ban a sporting team from participation. However, in the light of the deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in the country, ministers have made clear that if the decision were for them, England should not play in Zimbabwe."

To which a baffled Nasser Hussain, the then England cricket captain, responded:

"It is faintly ridiculous to suppose that the England captain and management have the time to come to the informed moral judgment which it is necessary to make about going to Zimbabwe."

The government's stance had only served to leave its cricketers "in the lurch," as Strauss put it some years later:

"In the past there've been chances to show the strength of feeling here and the government chose not to."

If the England cricket team wanted to see an example of moral courage, they only had to wait until the tournament began, and a look to their future coach, the Zimbabwean, Andy Flower, for inspiration.

Along with team mate Henry Olonga, they both took to the field, for the match between Zimbabwe and Namibia, wearing black armbands to 'mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe.'

In contrast to the dithering and spinelessness of the ICC and ECB, they were praised as players who:

"Shine out like diamonds in a pile of mud."

Showing that they had learned the lessons of 2003, five years later, the government finally showed some backbone and, together with the ECB, spoke as one in cutting ties with the Zimbabwean cricket board and cancelling Zimbabwe's summer tour of England in 2009.

Andy Burnham, then in his role as Culture Secretary, said that the government's actions had lifted pressure off the players:

"It was quite unfair [in the past] to leave individual players in the position of having to make a moral judgement in the context of an awkward and uncomfortable position.

"The right thing to do was to provide clarity. We made the decision after giving it the longest possible time for the situation to change in Zimbabwe."

Away from cricket, the decision to award the 2008 Olympic games to China was not without controversy. Another country with an appalling human rights record was, to its critics, handed sport's premier stage to embark on a two week propaganda exercise for the government.

Boycotts were proposed but never carried through.

Ahead of this summer's games, a whole litany of athletes from repressive regimes will descend on London. Saudi Arabia will arrive minus any female competitors, banned by their government from taking part.

To what extent the UK is indirectly endorsing this policy by allowing Saudi Arabia to come at all is a point worth asking, if perhaps unfair.

As to whether England should be touring Sri Lanka, I would say yes, they should be. As much as some of us might like our sportsmen and women to behave like moral crusaders, the reality is that we'd also like them to do what they do they best: entertaining (and frustrating) us.

The lesson learned post-2003's Zimbabwe fiasco is that it's simpler, and more desirable, for governments to take a lead and sport to follow. English cricket has certainly benefited from this.

And like everything else in the world of politics, politics intervening in sport has, and always will be, an exercise in selectivity.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Thursday 15 March 2012

Friday, 9 March 2012

Time To Downgrade The Credit Ratings Agencies

"The three credit ratings agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval. Investors relied on them, often blindly...This crisis could not have happened without the ratings agencies. Their ratings helped the market soar and their downgrades through 2007 and 2008 wreaked havoc across markets and firms."

The damning verdict by America's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (see page xxv) which, in January 2011, laid significant blame at the doors of the main credit agencies, for the credit crunch and subsequent global economic downturn of 2008.

Conclusions don't get any less ambiguous.

And yet, and yet, the chancellor still woos them, still panders to them, warning the country that last month's 'negative' outlook for Britain's triple A rating was merely 'a reality check' that must be heeded.

Whilst other countries' triple As become doubles, and triple Bs disappear into the world of the derisory "junk" status, as far as George Osborne is concerned, our own rating serves to vindicate the government's austerity project.

But, very soon, the chancellor may well find himself as the only person believing the agencies' hype.

The effects of Standard & Poor's (S&P) US downgrade last year had a negligible effect on the market's confidence in the US, and in fact led to them buying up Treasury bonds and pushing down long term interest rates. Thereby echoing similar such behaviour in the past after other so-called 'safe' investment countries (Japan and Canada) had seen their credit ratings fall.

As one leading economics commentator points out, Japan has had its credit rating downgraded several times over the last couple of decades. The result?

"Japan is now paying the lowest long-term interest rates in recorded economic history."

Better just to ignore the credit agencies, he argues.

Timothy Geithner, US Treasury Secretary, lambasted S&P for having shown "really terrible judgment and [having] handled themselves very poorly. They've shown a stunning lack of knowledge about basic US fiscal maths."

The fact that just before the downgrade they had miscalculated US debt by about $2tn gave some credence to Geithner's anger.

When France lost its S&P triple A rating, President Sarkozy reacted with disdain, calling it a non-event and saying it "changes nothing." The European Central Bank's president, Mario Draghi, has questioned the importance of the credit agencies, believing them to be a distraction. "We should learn to do without [them]," he's said.

This week, the "Big Three," (S&P, Moody's and Fitch), who collectively rate about 95% of debt, were hauled before the Treasury's Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into their "accountability, transparency, and methodology."

All of which are finally coming under increased scrutiny:

"When they were minor players, it wasn't a big issue, but now unelected executives with, at best, a spotty track record are shaping the future of nations, sailing through storms which they helped to create on the way to ever greater profits."

In written evidence submitted to the Committee, The Co-operative Party, which is campaigning for reforms to financial services, drew attention to the agencies' conflict of interest:

"...the largest source of income for the rating agencies are the fees paid by the very companies that the rating agencies are supposed to impartially rate."

They went on to point out that:

"Despite the fact that inaccurate credit ratings were a primary cause of the crisis, agencies remain largely unaccountable to either investors or regulators. Part of the reason for this is their assertion that they merely provide opinions and as such are protected by free speech provisions. Yet major market participants are continuously encouraged and sometimes even obligated to utilise rating agencies."

The backlash has begun.

An edited version of this article was first published by Liberal Conspiracy on Tuesday 13 March 2012

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Paris: In Need Of A Damn Good Clean

I used to love Paris, part of me still does. All the usual reasons: nowhere does intimate chic like Paris. The city aches with delightful bistros, bars and restaurants like no other. A wander around at night and it sparkles; lit up, it's just magnificent.

But, my most recent visit has confirmed earlier suspicions. Each time I go, each new area I stumble across, brings me back to the same conclusion. This city is quite grubby. It's dirty. The Metro is extremely shabby looking; its stations downright filthy. Paris is in desperate need of a deep clean.

For decades, Parisiennes have turned complacency into a virtue: why need change, do anything different, when we know how much people adore our city, when we are the world's premier destination? People will still come no matter what we do (or don't).

The trouble is this complacency has become a flaw. They have allowed the city to look distinctly grimy. A walk around all its main central attractions will confirm this: litter, cigarette butts discarded almost everywhere, dog mess left, trodden in and dragged around, and its fair share of graffiti. White vans seem a popular target for tags.

On Saturday night, after having had a lovely meal out at a quintessential Paris bistro, located at the foot of the stairs leading up to the Sacré-Coeur, we made our way back to our apartment via the metro.

We were greeted with the sight of about 20 or 30 men laying about, some lying down, others wandering up and down the platform, smoking crack.

Now, I don't pretend this kind of thing probably doesn't happen elsewhere, but I've never seen it before. Not in London, not once on the tube, or at any tube station. I'm just not sure a group of guys would be allowed to get away with this in London. For one, every station has CCTV, and many have members of staff working nearby.

The number of homeless people in Paris also marks it out from London. Now, I know London also has a problem with homelessness, but it is much less overt than in Paris. It's been a while since I've seen so many men or women asleep, strewn across chairs at tube stations, or on the platform, or on their mattresses just outside, or in front of shops.

I also think there's a racial element to many of the problems that exist in Paris, which I won't go into here, but safe to say, Paris, and France in general, isn't renowned for its tolerance to "outsiders," or anyone with a foreign-sounding name, or its non-white population in general.

I'd still count Paris as one of my favourite cities, and I always love discovering new areas and great places to eat (not as easy as it sounds. It does seem to be much more difficult to find good, but inexpensive, restaurants. Although, I'd highly recommend this superb place. Have now been three times and it's always been top notch.)

But, the gloss, the love affair, has certainly worn off. What once made Paris wonderful, now seems to be the thing holding it back. Great capital cities can't stand still. I'm not advocating that it abandons its traditionalism, or that it populates itself with hideous skyscrapers or endless multinationals, but that it at least tries to make an effort and engage with the 21st century. Paris feels like a grand 20th century city.

But, before doing any of this, it just needs to get down on its hands and knees and start cleaning.