Friday, November 24, 2006

The Tory Tossers

The latest gimmick to come out of Tory Central Office is The Tosser, the first in a series of campaigns designed to reach out to young people via (yet another) website, The Tosser features a young man going on a spending spree with credit cards and store cards, encouraged by a loud ‘geezer’ who turns out not to be a real person but the young man’s ‘inner tosser’. The message is: hey kids, you’ve got to be responsible and not run up lots of personal debt.

Even the Conservatives admit this is a slightly strange one. After all, they’re not saying that their policy in government would be to restrict personal debt. Oh no. They’re just giving us advice. ‘We know this isn’t what you might expect from a political party, but we’ve decided that rather than doing what political parties have always done - criticising each other and making promises about what they would do if they got elected – we’d like to try and make a difference now. Why should we wait until we’re in government to start changing things? That’s the idea behind To create an online home for a whole bunch of issues, with practical things that you can do to make a difference.’ Apparently, we can look forward to further ‘stuff’ from the website on racism and homelessness.

The tone is cringeingly patronising, desperate to be down-wiv-da-kids, and could have been lifted from Jamie Oliver. The Conservatives seem to be saying that they can’t change anything, only we can, and only at a personal level. However, maybe this is the perfect preparation for government. After all, New Labour has spent the last nine years providing endless advice (with the force of law behind much of it) about how to eat, drink, shag, bring up our kids and all the other minutiae of our previously private lives. The latest Tory offering simply takes this to its logical conclusion - why bother electing MPs when we can elect counsellors instead?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Queen's speech: an appointment with fear

Blair's legacy will be a government defined by insecurity, internal confusion and the petty regulation of our lives.

Today's Queen's Speech is almost certain to be Tony Blair's last as prime minister. In many ways, it is his attempt to establish his legacy. The speech will sum up neatly Blair's premiership because the unifying theme of his legislative programme for the next year is fear. Fear of uncontrollable people in our society both criminal and terrorist; fear of too many people coming from the wrong countries; and fear of the weather.

Or, to put a positive spin on it, security from the 'front room to the global level' as home secretary John Reid put it on Radio 4's Today (1). That means a new criminal justice bill allowing on-the-spot fines for minor offences, possible fines for parents where their children have misbehaved, and reducing sentence discounts for pleading guilty. There will also be an organised crime bill to restrict the movements and freedoms of 'Mr Bigs'.

There will be a terror bill - although exactly what it will contain depends on what the government feel they can get past Parliament. For example, the government would like to extend detention without charge to 90 days from the present 28 days. Ministers also have to wait to see how much of their current legislation is thrown out by the courts. There might also be a religious hatred bill, particularly given the acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin last week. Apparently it depends on who wins the argument: the chancellor, and leader-in-waiting, Gordon Brown (in favour) or John Reid (not just yet).

The other high-profile bill will be on climate change. This will pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. However, the opposition parties and many Labour backbenchers want to see mandatory annual targets, too. Blair believes this is unworkable. Some might see the whole thing as surreal. What's going to happen if they fail to meet their own targets? On-the-spot fines for government? Anti-climate behaviour orders?

There's no shortage of other legislation, though: road transport, pensions, welfare reform, the child support agency, switching over to digital television, consumer protection, further education, and local government are all likely to feature in the coming session. Who says politicians don't earn their money?

It's a wonder that MPs ever see their families with the volume of legislation passed by this government. According to figures prepared by the Liberal Democrats and quoted by Philip Johnston in Monday's Daily Telegraph: 'Labour has, in nine years, brought in five Acts on immigration, seven on terrorism, 10 on education, 11 on health and social care and 23 on criminal justice. It has also created more than 3,000 new crimes at a rate of nearly one a day and passed more than 32,000 statutory instruments, which introduce new regulations by secondary legislation.' (2)

As Johnston notes: 'The problem is that this Government, more so than its predecessors, uses legislation to make statements that would be infinitely cheaper to deliver by way of a press release – and probably just as enduring.' He's not alone in his criticism. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, described this government's approach to legislation as 'the highest form of spin'.

There is a lot of truth in this. Blair's government, even more than the chaotic Conservative administration of John Major before him, has adopted a 'legislate first, ask questions later' approach. This has organisational consequences for the state where those who actually have to implement these laws spend a disproportionate amount of time feverishly trying to implement one reform, only for another one to come along 12 months later. Those who are foolish enough to criticise this obsessive legislative disorder are condemned as the 'forces of conservatism'.

As spiked editor, Mick Hume, pointed out over five years ago, the first thing the Labour government did when elected in 1997 was hand over much of their influence on the economy to bankers and 'independent' economists: 'With what was once the major arena for state intervention now off limits, the authorities have turned instead to a restless programme of rolling intervention in new areas of life... The government now has such an itchy legislative finger that it cannot resist announcing new initiatives in response to daily developments. One schoolboy is stabbed to death? Something must be done. Two babies are bought for adoption over the internet? Something must be done. Body organs are found in hospitals? Something must be done.' (See For fewer laws not more, by Mick Hume.)

The problem has been that the government has no organising principle. As a result, it is reduced to mere managerialism. This is not simply a problem for Labour, either. The entire political class is now so devoid of any positive mission that there is very little real debate in public life. All sides are agreed that terrorism, crime, immigration and the environment are huge problems that must be tackled. In fact, the major parties nick each other's ideas so often that there isn't even much disagreement on how these problems might be solved.

The root of this difficulty is in the disconnection of political life from everyday life. Politicians no longer have access to extended networks with influence over society. That means that they have lost any feeling of control over society that doesn't involve legislation; long gone are the smoky back rooms where deals could be hammered out with union leaders or big business or the like. And just as they have been forced to rely on the sledgehammer of law-making to crack every little nut, the role of these same networks as sounding boards for the practicality of their ideas has been diminished, too.

That disconnection with everyday life also encourages an exaggerated sense of danger that creates a mountain out of every little molehill. Like young girls freaked by every little thing that goes bump in the night, politicians are increasingly spooked by every little thing that goes bump in a council estate or mosque. Only a government utterly divorced from society could come up with the gimmick, announced this week, of providing a free online service to allow individuals and groups to petition the government. A practice, which was previously regarded as an irritation to politicians facing demands upon them from the public, is now recreated as a kind of automated consultation exercise. The message from on high is 'tell us what to think because we haven't a clue anymore.'

Which brings us back to that lack of an organising principle: in the absence of a vision for the betterment of society, fear has taken on the role of tying together and underpinning the work of government. When some argue that the politics of fear is being used to scare us into line with authoritarian measures, they only tell half the story. In truth, governments are acting out of fear, too.

Indeed, some now present that fear as a positive thing, something that can give some impetus to politics. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian recently, imagining looking back from the future on the current debate about climate change: 'The idea that the most precious freedom of all was freedom from fear gained force much later... Fear in the end was the only mechanism that was able to cut through the complacency and force the cultural change, the political pressure and the global cooperation necessary. (3)'

So there we have it: the Blair legacy is a government defined by fear (and considerable internal confusion), promising us more and more petty micro-management of our lives backed by an endless series of fines and penalties, often at the expense of long-standing legal principles. Clearly, he'll be missed.

Originally published on spiked.

(1) Today

(2) Home front, Daily Telegraph, 13 November 2006

(3) It's hard to explain, Tom, why we did so little to stop global warming, Guardian, 6 November 2006

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What 'child protection' means today

According to children's charity, Barnardo's, convicted child sex offenders should receive greater monitoring on release, including the use of mandatory polygraphs and satellite tracking to ensure that they are not engaging in predatory behaviour. However, the charity has rejected the notion of a 'Sarah's Law' where neighbourhoods were advised when a convicted paedophile moved into their area.

'Barnardo's is committed to protecting children from harm, but we feel that a Sarah's Law would offer a false comfort to parents and could put children in more, not less, danger,' said Martin Narey, chief executive of the charity, suggesting offenders would be driven away from supervision and into hiding. 'That said, the current arrangements for the safe supervision of dangerous offenders need to be strengthened and public confidence restored. Our report outlines how the use of polygraphs and satellite tracking could radically improve the effectiveness of supervision.' The implication is that we can trust the authorities but we can't trust the public not to turn into a lynch mob if told about an offender in their area.

Sex offenders are the easiest possible target for the extension of state controls and intrusion. Yet, the risk they pose is small. Most sex offenders - even those deemed 'high risk' - don't reoffend. According to a Home Office study in 2002, 'The proportion reconvicted of another sexual offence during [four- and six-year] follow-up periods was relatively low: less than 10 per cent, even amongst those who could be followed up for six years'. Although the figure is higher where the victim was a child not within the family unit (25 per cent), the study also found that nine out of 10 of all offenders deemed 'high risk' did not reoffend. These figures are substantially lower than for offences in general. For example, recent figures suggest that 57 per cent of adult offenders are convicted of another crime within two years.

If such monitoring is justified on the basis of such low reconviction rates, all serious offenders could be pursued in this manner - and, as we have seen with the Sex Offenders Register, definitions of what offenders should be covered can quickly expand to include groups that would never be considered much of a threat.

Isn't it more dangerous when a well-known charity, famous for providing homes for orphaned and vulnerable children, suffers such profound mission drift that it spends its time suggesting Big Brother measures to crack down on released offenders? It is indicative of what 'child protection' means today that Narey, the former head of the prison service and first chief executive of the National Offenders Management Service, is now the head of a leading children's charity.

Call to satellite track offenders, BBC News, 14 November 2006

Reconviction rates of serious sex offenders and assessments of their risk, Home Office, 2002

Two thirds of criminals sent back to jail within two years, The Times (London), 10 November 2006

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The 'school meals revolution': a dog's dinner

'It is about one decent man's heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system; about the exploitation of dinner ladies and everybody else who has to struggle away on the front line in a country which no longer values leadership, principles and standards; about the corruption of childhood; and the loss of virtue.' (1)

So said a columnist in the Daily Telegraph after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his Channel 4 TV campaign – nay, crusade – to rescue British school meals from multinationals, and children from their own bad eating habits and feckless parents. What has been the upshot of Oliver’s ‘heroic battle’? Increased bureaucratic monitoring of parents; fewer children eating school meals; even greater exploitation of dinner ladies; and local authorities struggling to pay for all this new found 'virtue'.

New rules on meals, including restrictions on vending machines, came into force in September. This week, the BBC reported on the results of a survey conducted in 59 local authorities to find out how they had fared. In 35 of them, fewer children were eating school meals – that is, they are no longer having a hot dinner during the day. Of these, 71 per cent felt that Oliver's campaign was one of the reasons. As it happens, Oliver is far from being solely responsible. But he has been the most high-profile promoter of an obsession with freshly prepared food, locally-sourced, at the expense of 'junk' containing salt, sugar and fat. If he's happy to accept the plaudits, he should also take a few brickbats.

The fresh-food obsession has been cut-and-pasted into a school meals service that doesn't do that kind of thing, and which has been in steady decline. With staff not accustomed to actually doing much cooking, instead just heating pre-packed food, the jump to food preparation has been mainly at their expense. Across the country, dinner ladies have been working late and starting early to get everything done – usually without extra pay. This is hardly a surprise. In the original series, Jamie's School Dinners, his sidekick and long-suffering school cook Nora Sands seemed to have her life taken over by the demands of making and promoting Jamie's food.

In May this year, spiked's Brendan O'Neill interviewed Cathy Stewart, a dinner lady in Hackney in London and a union rep, for the New Statesman. 'Overnight, we were expected to start seasoning meat and peeling hundreds of carrots - but that takes time and we're not being paid for it’, said Stewart. ‘They want dinner ladies to become professional chefs. But they won't give us the resources we need. We have outdated equipment and we don't have enough staff.’ (2) Stewart was balloting members about industrial action.

When the food is finally ready, many children are turning their noses up at it. It's not just that the food is unfamiliar – it's also not actually allowed to taste of anything. In post-Jamie’s School Dinners Britain, salt is treated like nerve poison rather than an essential element of flavour, and is banned from canteen tables. When given a choice, kids have tended to choose the 'junk' and vote with their feet against the new options. School caterers in Denbighshire in North Wales found that 40 per cent fewer children ate meals on 'healthy' food days (3).

If the kids don't like the food, they will struggle to find alternative sustenance like crisps and chocolate bars in school. The ban on 'tuck', along with the extra costs of ingredients, has been a double whammy for school food budgets. As the follow-up Channel 4 programme, Jamie's Return to School Dinners, showed at Kidbrooke School, this didn't stop children from eating sweets and savoury snacks. It simply meant that they bought them on the way to school instead – enriching local shopkeepers and depriving the school of important revenue; a sum that ran well into five figures in Kidbrooke's case.

In other schools, it is reported that children have set up their own ‘black markets’ in junk food, selling sweets to each other behind the bike sheds or in the toilets, as if they were dealing in deadly substances. This might show that children are as wily as ever when it comes to breaking the rules; it also suggests they are developing a pretty screwed-up attitude to the joys of food in general (see The junk food smugglers).

If the sums are getting uncomfortable at Kidbrooke, they're downright serious in Denbighshire. A report has warned councillors in the county that the school meals service is 'no longer financially viable' after servings were down by 100,000. The service lost £81,000 in the last year – a major blow for a relatively small local authority. Part of the problem was the decision to go for locally-sourced meat – a nice subsidy to farmers which looks like a luxury now that sales are down.

What started out as a crusade has become mired not only in the hubris of Oliver's fantasy of a 'school meals revolution' (replacing chips with ciabatta does not qualify as a revolution) but also in the dumping of every other modern food prejudice into the mix. For one thing, we've been forced to listen to Oliver's tirades against parents and packed lunches (see Jamie Oliver: what a 'tosser' and Are packed lunches the 'biggest evil'? by Rob Lyons). This tirade became a chorus of indignation from all right-thinking newspaper hacks when two mothers started supplying takeaway food to kids at a Rotherham school. The fact that the children were struggling to be fed in the ludicrously short lunchbreak, and didn't much like the food when they did manage to get it, was simply ignored. Parents getting involved with schools is usually regarded as a wholesome example of community spirit - except when it's off-message like this.

We also now have the prospect of ‘fat charts’ in schools, where children will be weighed by school staff to see if they are the ‘right weight’ for their age, height and gender (4). Such a measure will effectively institutionalise that age-old trend of bullying the fat kid of the class, where children who fall short of state-imposed waist measurements will be made to feel like outcasts not only by their peers but also by the school system itself. And these fat charts are also yet another example of the undermining of parents’ authority: the clear message is that mums and dads can’t be trusted to keep their children in shape, so the authorities will have to do it.

A significant chunk of the extra millions spent on school meals has actually gone to create the School Food Trust, a quango designed to promote healthy eating (5). Did we really need another body to tell us that kids are getting too fat, or remind us of the 'Seven Deadly Sins: food facts that every parent should know'? And vilifying the catering giants like Sodexho might provide a thrill for those who hate big corporations, but having handed a swathe of school meals over to them, it might have been easier to take a more constructive approach to working with them.

Jamie Oliver, and the government ministers and journalists who fell at his feet, told us that schools are feeding our children ‘shit’, and today's children will be the first generation to die before their parents. None of this was based in fact, but unsurprisingly such kneejerk scaremongering has had a negative rather than a positive impact. After Jamie has ridden off on his scooter into the sunset, the school meals service may actually settle down and recover - but only if staff and parents work very hard to fix it while quietly dropping or subverting many of his more nonsensical ideas, and while kicking against that new layer of school-meals bureaucracy that is at least as obsessed with lecturing mums, dads and their children as it is with replacing butter with olive oil.

Originally published on spiked

(1) Outside the Westminster village, heroes struggle to make Britain better, Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2005

(2) Jamie leaves a nasty aftertaste, New Statesman, 8 May 2006

(3) Jamie Oliver 'sparks slump in demand for school dinners', Daily Telegraph, 7 November 2006

(4) See Stop bullying fat kids, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(5) School Food Trust website.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Piss off - we're full

A Tory councillor and parliamentary candidate, Ellenor Bland, has been suspended by the party for forwarding a piece of racist doggerel that suggested that people from Pakistan were getting rich off welfare payments. It finished with a picture of the white cliffs of Dover, emblazoned with the words 'Piss off - we're full!'

It took the party about 90 minutes from the time the story broke to suspend Mrs Bland. Dominic Grieve, the shadow solicitor general, told Sky News: 'Members of the party shouldn't be sending racist emails of any kind. [It was] suggested that it's lighthearted, but it seems to me it has an underlying unpleasantness. I consider it offensive.'

But that couldn't stop the chorus of disapproval from the other parties. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat chair of campaigns and communications said: 'Despite David Cameron's best PR efforts, the Conservative party clearly continues to contain some deeply unpleasant elements.' The Lib Dems have reported the matter to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

The irony is that, as noted elsewhere on spiked, the head of the CRE has been able to get away with equally derogatory remarks about the new immigrants to the UK, from Eastern Europe. And 'Piss off - we're full!' seems to be the official position of all the major parties. Primary immigration into the UK was largely outlawed decades ago and it is extremely difficult to get the right to remain in this country unless you have some family connection, you're fleeing in fear of your life from somewhere else, or you're from another EU country.

Now the home secretary, John Reid, has announced quotas for those who want to come from Bulgaria and Romania after these countries accede to the EU. It seems that 'racism' is no longer a matter of policy but etiquette.

Moreover, with environmentalism now the new black amongst politicos desperate for a sense of purpose, how long before the dread term 'overpopulation' ventures out from the green ghetto and goes mainstream?

In the meantime, how about this for a more suitable piece of doggerel?

A Tory sent a racist pome
'We've got too many folks at home'
Condemned by various MPs
But really, everyone agrees.

'I have Asian friends' - Tory councillor defends racist poem, Guardian, 7 November 2006

Read on:

Eastern Europeans: the new 'white niggers', by Neil Davenport