Archive for October, 2007

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Clawing back money from schools

31 October, 2007

Goodness me, how many more policy announcements is Gordon Brown’s government going to overturn? In a matter of weeks, we have had the scrapping of plans for a national road-pricing scheme, a re-think on the 18% flat rate capital gains tax and now the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, announcing that plans to allow Whitehall to claw back money from schools (saved by prudent head teachers for future projects) are to be abandoned.

 ‘Well, hurrah!’ as Bertie Wooster might say. But, if ministers keep on rowing back in such style, they’ll stand a good chance of qualifying for the coxed eight at the Beijing Olympics.

Apparently not everyone is pleased about the change of heart on raiding the school piggy banks: Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers’ union, NASUWT, is apparently ‘disappointed’ by the decision, and feels that pupils in other schools will be short changed.

Um, no.

 I have first-hand experience of just what happens in schools if they fear their budget might be cut the following year. They spend the money, not on what they need, but on anything at all, in order to guarantee the same level of income, ‘just in case’.

I call it the Cautionary Tale of the Ice-cream Maker. I returned home in 1987, having spent almost a year as a teaching assistant in Germany, full of enthusiasm for the country, and a confirmed evangelist for recycling (which I still am). However, I had been profoundly shocked when, one evening in January, my landlady came home with a large catalogue (she was Head of Domestic Science at a one of Nuremberg’s world-leading vocational schools) and announced that she and I ‘had to spend DM 2000 that night’. “But why?” I wanted to know, “because I haven’t spent my whole budget this year, and, if I have any surplus, it will be reduced next year.”

And so we leafed our way through: it was a dispiriting exercise.

Me: “Ice-cream maker?”

Bettina: “Got three.”

Me: “Another food mixer?”

Bettina: “Seven”

Me: (a little desperate now) “Bain Marie?”

Bettina: “Yes, it’s a possible; I don’t have as many of those.”

It was a farce. In the end, we ordered a great deal of new equipment that she didn’t need (including another ice-cream maker), which would simply lie and gather dust. The frustration for Bettina was that her class was expanding, and what she really wanted was a bigger classroom, but the school didn’t have the money for that level of captial funding, which would have to come from the State. If only they could save money every year, she confided, the school would be able to afford her bigger classroom.

Well, she had the equipment for it.

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Immigration and education

31 October, 2007

In his speech on Monday, David Cameron broached the subject of immigration, laying out the demographic challenges facing Britain today and how best to meet them and underlining his desire for Britain to engage in a ‘grown-up’ conversation about the issue.

Unlike his predecessor, he was not charged with playing the race card either by the press, or the Labour Party. How times change.

No one can doubt the economic benefit to Britain of the influx of skilled workers over the last ten years, but perhaps the most important question that arises from yesterday’s revelation that over half of the new jobs created in Britain since 1997 have gone to foreign nationals, is why these countries seem capable of producing young people with the skills British business needs, but we aren’t.  

What often impresses me most is the fluency with which so many skilled migrants to Britain speak English. In the Asda car park in Colchester (where I lived for three years, before moving back to Scotland in August), a young Kosovan has set up his own car valeting business. True, it is staffed by his friends and relations, all of whom share accommodation to keep profits at a maximum, but it didn’t matter what time of day I visited the supermarket, Mike and his friends were always, always working. I never once saw any of them standing chatting to each other. And the business grew.

OK, so I might have played a small part, as I raved to every mother at the school gate and every army family I spoke to about the level of the car valeting service – so reasonable too, just £10 for the Full Monty; how I miss it – but what struck me forcibly was that Mike, who in April 2006 spoke fairly broken English, had become fluent and assured by the following year.

I realized, with a jolt, that he, who had spent just over a year in the UK, now spoke more intelligible English than some of the young people I had listened to on the News, talking about the spate of gun killings this summer; young people who have spent 13 years in our education system.

With over a million young people in Britain not in employment, education or training, despite vast sums of our money having been spent on welfare and education, we need to ask ourselves if the Labour government has given us value for that money. 

Last week’s Channel 4 series, Lost for Words, laid bare how much damage has been done to our children’s prospects by ditching traditional teaching methods in reading: if our children can’t even read by the time they go to secondary school, what chance have they of learning any of the other skills needed by business today?    When more of our young people leave school with the skills they need to fill the job vacancies, then British business will have less need to look abroad, and the net result will be a natural reduction in immigration figures. 

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Douglas Alexander and Hopper

25 October, 2007

Forget Keyser Soze in ‘The Usual Suspects’, for my money Kevin Spacey’s real tour de force is the part of Hopper, the megalomaniac leader of the grasshoppers, in Disney Pixar’s ‘A Bug’s Life’.

I imagine that those of you with fairly young children are familiar with this multi-layered tale of insect oppression, teamwork and the benefit to communities of harnessing modern technology (but use it wisely, kids, etc.); for those who aren’t, well, “it’s a circle of life kinda thing.”

When Princess Atta, second-in-command of the ant colony, stammers that she isn’t responsible for a recent debacle, Hoppper, forestalls her: “First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.” 

The protests of Des Browne, Douglas Alexander and the PM himself, that the buttock-clenchingly embarrassing pigs’ mess that was made of the Scottish Elections last year ‘wisnae their fault’ will fall on deaf ears. Only the Scotland Office was able to take the final decisions: if it had all gone swimmingly, would they have been queuing up to share the plaudits?

I doubt it. 

It would appear that a cartoon cricket has a better understanding of what leadership entails than some of our most senior politicians.

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Managing the Post Office into decline

25 October, 2007

OK, so people in rural villages in Argyll will be reassured by Tuesday’s announcement, but there are still many elderly people who will be left inconvenienced by the closure of 7 Post Offices in our towns.

It’s not just the relationship that the more vulnerable in our society build with their local sub-postmaster/postmistress, (although that, in itself, can make the difference between companionship and long-term lonliness), it is the help and advice that is available to those who have difficulty with our ever-increasing bureaucracy.

How ironic that, in the week that Channel 4 focuses on the 25% of our 11-year olds who leave primary school illiterate, it will be adults with reading difficulties who stand to lose most from these closures: few of them have access to the internet, let alone the confidence to carry out business online; many shy away from telephone banking for the same reason.

For those who struggle with literacy, their local, trusted sub-post office can be a godsend: somewhere where they can get help with form filling without having to ask a stranger.

Talking to sub-postmasters and postmistresses recently, what unites them all is the sense of grievance that this government has taken away all of their business, but refused to replace it with anything else.

Take TV licences. No longer available from Post Offices. That in itself is bad enough, but not to allow Post Offices to install PayPoint outlets, which have replaced the Post Office as the alternative means of buying a licence, is the outside of enough.

I note, with interest, that the TV licensing website mentions that PayPoint is available in “newsagents, convenience stores, supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations”, but the Post Offices I have spoken to have all been denied the opportunity to install PayPoint.

 We must ensure that crucial services – like our Post Offices – are no longer managed into decline by this relentlessly metropolitan Labour government.

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The frustration of travelling to and from the islands.

24 October, 2007

Half term provided a welcome break from the incessant political activity that has engulfed me since my selection.

 Up at 0330 for the drive to Oban to catch a ferry to the tranquil and starkly beautiful Hebridean island of Coll.

Yes, 0330: the unseasonable departure times for ferries to the islands was raised with me more than once during my visit. There is a ferry that leaves at 1500, but it is on a Tuesday: those with children at Oban High School (there is no secondary school on the island) have lobbied for the later ferry to run on a Friday, thus allowing them to see their children for more than a few hours; they arrive late on Saturday morning and have to go back to Oban early on Sunday afternoon. So far, it has proved beyond the capacity of the Scottish Government and Cal Mac to grant this request.

Ferries. Most of us mainlanders tend to think of ferry crossings in the context of a rather leisurely start to a holiday – whether to Normandy or the Hebrides – but for the islanders they are, quite literally, a lifeline. Without the ferries they wouldn’t survive, but I experienced – at first hand – the ludicrous level of inconvenience that is experienced by those who live on or visit these islands, thanks to our lack of an integrated transport policy in Scotland.

We took a German friend to Coll with us. Unfortunately, she was flying back from Glasgow on Thursday, so had to leave the island on Wednesday. Her ferry arrived in Oban at 1315. The train for Glasgow left at 1320. There wasn’t another one until 1630, which would have meant her arriving in Glasgow at past 9 o’clock. So, we looked for a bus, but the first one she could take wasn’t until 1530. Whichever method she chose, she had to kick her heels in Oban for at least two hours. For someone used to the smooth efficiency of the German transport system (there is always a train waiting for ferry passengers, a bus waiting for the train, a tram waiting for the bus) it was incomprehensible.

I spent my first year in Germany when I was a student in the 80s. My lasting impression was of transport providers who communicated with one another: night trams stood waiting for the last train back to the suburbs from town, and night buses were regular, clean, well-lit and safe. If they could do it then, why can’t we, 20 years later?

It isn’t necessary to re-nationalise the whole transport system, just for different service providers to talk to one another, in the interests of providing the best standard of customer service possible.

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Managing the NHS

11 October, 2007

Have you ever wondered how our soldiers manage to perform so well, despite the exigencies of not enough kit or armoured vehicles? Simple: the principle of Misson Command (well, that and excellent training).

Mission Command underlies everything that the military does, and it boils down to one word: trust. Put simply (and please, no contributions from graduates of the Defence Academy; I am simply using it as an illustration) it means that the person at the top outlines a vision of what he wants to achieve (and, at the moment, they are all ‘he’) and then lets his subordinates get on with it. They have to achieve the task, but no one tells them how to do so.

This continues right down the chain of command, to the order given to a young Corporal to secure a piece of ground or a building. It is he, therefore, who decides what each individual man in his team should do and he who gives the orders.

However, the crucial part of Mission Command is that everyone understands the bigger picture, but is trusted to take whatever action is neccessary in the face of changing circumstances to achieve the aim, even if this means having to take immediate decisions without reference to higher authority.

I am not suggesting that this could be implemented in exactly the same way across the NHS, but no general is interested in the detail of how his field hospitals are kept clean. Nor is the commanding officer for that matter: he expects them to be so and trusts the staff sergeant in charge to do his job properly.

This Labour government is far too keen on micro management from the centre, instead of giving freedom to its hospital managers to ensure that the overall aim is achieved.

We need to trust those who run our hospitals to do the job properly, without interfering in their operational management by setting prescriptive targets from Whitehall. We also need to start focusing on outcomes as a means of measuring success in the NHS; it is cold comfort, if you are re-admitted to a hospital within a week of surgery – because you were discharged too soon, or because you have contracted MRSA – to know that you were offered your operation within the prescribed waiting time.

However, we also need to take a good look at those who have been put in place to run our hospitals: they often appear more interested in counting beans than saving spleens.

It is time that clinical priorities dictated how our hospitals are run, not Health Secretaries. They are there to provide the vision, to give everyone a mission to achieve.

Then leave it to those who work at the coal face to achieve it.

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Inheritance tax is a route to profligacy

11 October, 2007

Yet another commentator in the Herald today, who seems to regard saving for your children’s future as totally unnecessary. Anne Johnstone wishes her father good luck as he ‘spends his way to penury’, and avows that she plans to do the same. And when the money runs out? Why then the tax payer will pick up the bill, of course.

 Some people, however, aim never to be a burden on the state – my own father is one of them. Unlike Ms Johnstone’s, he is saving his way to security. Not only does he plan never to be a burden on the tax payer himself, but he hopes to leave his children with a degree of security, so that they can leave the state to take care of those who have no means of helping themselves.

Ms Johnstone’s vision chills the blood: a brave new world in which anyone who has made some money through hard work aims to die a pauper, and the rest of us are left to pick up the bill. 

If the tax man threatens to take large chunks of our hard-earned cash, why on earth should we save it? Is it the duty of those who work hard and save druing their life to support those who don’t after their death? The state needs savers: it can’t afford to support everyone in old age.

I have a friend who owns her own business, a business that is now – finally – starting to do well. Don’t expect her to engage in a discussion about Big Brother, or Strictly Come Dancing, or any other television programme for that matter: when others have returned from work and sat down to a glass of wine and some downtime, she is still at her computer, doing accounts, sorting pay roll, researching products or tracking deliveries. Computers have replaced ‘doing the accounts at the kitchen table perhaps’, but the work needed to make a small business successful doesn’t change.

What is more, she started grafting at the age of 14: when others were out, enjoying balmy evenings with friends, she was indoors, studying hard for her O grades, and later, Highers.

She deserves her money; she has worked incredibly hard for every single penny, and she has an absolute right to decide what becomes of it after she has gone. The one thing that she wants is to know that her children will have what she never has: a safety net.

But a safety net that the state doesn’t have to fund.

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What Gordon Brown could learn from David Cameron

8 October, 2007

Well, well: he started out as Arachne and ended up as Jeff Goldblum; Gordon Brown certainly has been caught in the sticky web of his own spinning.

The weeks of fevered speculation (will he/won’t he pop the question) are now officially over, but our PM’s burnished image has dulled a little in the light of his repetition (at Bournemouth), deviation (via Iraq) and hesitation (habitual).

And for what? A wizard wheeze that got out of hand: what does that say about his judgement? A glimpsed chance of personal glory: what does that say about his statesmanship? A hope of ‘grinding the faces of the opposition into dust’: what does that say about his belief in democracy?

The PM revealed his true colours this week: vacillating and hesitant, a cynical leader with an eye to the main chance, not the main task.

It is up to the Conservatives not to let that image wane.

Perhaps Gordon could have benefitted from David Cameron’s much reviled classical education: ‘carpe diem’.

He might yet regret that he didn’t.

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Helensburgh by-election

5 October, 2007

A frustrating result last night: just 15 votes separated us from the Lib Dems in 1st preferences, but we lost out on transferrable votes.

It was no reflection on the calibre of the candidate, or on the extraordinary amount of work that the team put into delivering such a focused and high-energy campaign; I enjoyed every minute of it and was consistently impressed by the commitement of all those involved.

Although we didn’t win, we covered a lot of ground and built a good platform from which to launch our General Election campaign, whenever the PM chooses to name the day.

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David Cameron impresses me again

3 October, 2007

Dropping my children off at school one morning in 2005, I got back into the car to drive to work, and switched on the radio to the middle of an interview with a politician. His voice suggested that he was a Tory, but what he was saying stopped me in my tracks – literally. I turned the engine off, and sat outside the school gates until he had finished speaking.

 I had begun to despair of ever again being able to vote for a party that stood for the things that mattered to me: a party that believed in social justice as well as the right of parents to choose independent education for their children if they wanted; a party that supported those who have been dealt a rotten hand in life, but wanted to reduce interference by the state; a party that believed in individual freedom, as well as individual responsibility. Most of all, a party that didn’t believe it knew better than I how to run my life, but did believe in offering real help to those who were unable – for whatever reason – to help themselves.

And suddenly, there was a politician really speaking my language: I had never heard of David Cameron before that morning, I admit, but I found myself looking and listening for references to him from then on. So, when he stood for the leadership of the Party, I was one of those who hoped that he would win.

He didn’t just bring me back to the fold; it was his outlook and desire to move the Party back to the centre that first made me consider standing as a candidate.

His speech to Conference today did it again. There was no high-flown language, no recourse to periods of rhetoric, designed to have us cheering from the rafters; there was just a steely resolve, an underlying passion to put things right for the people of this country. In a masterly response to those who say that he hasn’t thought things through, he presented us, and the country, with a clear idea of what he would set out to improve, and how he would do so.

Some critics have said that his ability to speak without an autocue was merely a stunt: well, it was to be expected, as David’s deftness and mastery of his brief contrasted sharply with the laboured performance of the PM last week, relying heavily as it did on rehearsed periods and scripted reminiscenses. A clunking performance indeed.

Of course, what had me cheering loudest was the amount of time he devoted to our hard-pressed servicemen and women – unlike the contempt Mr Brown showed them last week, with his cursory pat on the head –  like Mr Grace in ‘Are You Being Served’ – “You’ve all done very well.” The Army Families’ Federation may have been saying for a number of years that the Military Covenant is being broken daily, but it gladdens our hearts when the cause is taken up by the Leader of the Opposition.

An increase in the size of the army, to take account of its operational commitments – at long last. Let us not forget that it was Gordon Brown’s squeeze on MoD spending that meant a moratorium on recruitment in 2002, which led – among other things – to the amalgamation of the Scottish Regiments. I won’t be the only Service wife giving thanks today.

Mr Cameron came across as relaxed (quite an achievement for any public speaker – I had to address members of the South Lorn Conservative Association at a lunch yesterday, and I found that my appetite had deserted me beforehand – let alone someone who has the hopes of his party riding on him, and a bank of press photographers to try to ignore) and confident; a man who knew what he wanted to achieve – within the Party and the country – and how he would do so. He looked like a PM in waiting.

Not cynical, not wooden, just believable.