It’s good to know the spirit of compromise is alive and well in the town council that serves the attractive town of Bideford in North Devon (mission – the exciting to deliver the information you need about our decision making processes and support community participation in local democracy) supported by sundry national lobby groups with an axe to grind.

The issue that has occupied a good deal of the energy and time of the sixteen elected representatives of the good folk of Bideford is the earth-shattering question of whether their formal council meetings should start with a prayer or not.

This otherwise quaint custom became a matter of contention because a councillor who is an atheist objected to the routine blessing of the council’s deliberations by a man of the cloth (I’m not sure whether the body corporate of the council is advanced enough to admit a woman of the cloth).  He claimed to be ‘disadvantaged and embarrassed by the practice.’

The council have apparently discussed this burning topic three times without resolution and the upshot is that the National Secular Society has taken a case to the High Court in support of the councillor concerned.  To highlight the absurdity of the case the disadvantaged and embarrassed councillor is now an ex-councillor, presumably having resigned out of disgust or been rejected by his electors for the same reason.  Judgement in the case is currently reserved (lawyer speak for a decision is yet to be given).

On the BBC Today programme this week a spokesman for the NSS was countered by someone equally small-minded from the Christian Institute, so listeners could get a balanced view of this important issue.  For balanced read two lots of propaganda instead of one.

What better subject could there be for a rant as the HelpGov blog transforms itself into something a little more contentious and sheds the need to consider what potential clients think about it?

I think the rant’s already happened, but just to pile on the agony, doesn’t it make you despair?  Surely sixteen sensible adults could reach a compromise on something so fundamentally innocuous?

In the meantime the euro is collapsing, we seem to be creating a lost generation of unemployed young people, the world economy is probably moving into prolonged recession and the planet is arguably warming up to a point at which Bideford, for one, may well disappear under rising sea levels.

The only saving grace in the whole sorry tale is that town councils in England, while perhaps ‘supporting community participation in local democracy’ do…well not very much at all.  Their big brothers and sisters – the district, unitary and county councils are much more sensible.  I hope.

Advertisements

Chancellor George Osborne has just announced that the coalition government’s council tax freeze in England will be extended to 2012/13 and will include the devolved administrations providing they abide by the same rules that he has set English councils (Scotland has already ‘enjoyed’ a council tax freeze for several years funded by its SNP government).

Put simply, the chancellor’s rules are that if a council limits its annual spending increase to 2.5% and does not increase its council tax the government will provide additional funding to bridge the gap.

Of course 2.5% is below the rate of inflation so in real terms councils are being asked to spend less money each year.  But that’s another story.

A typical headline that greets these initiatives is Chancellor throws lifeline to hard-pressed council tax payers.  I’ve invented that one but you’ll be familiar with the style.

These ‘freezes’ are typically said, in today’s easy cliché, to be a win-win-win situation:

  • The government wins because it helps keep inflation down and gets the credit for helping people (invariably characterised as ordinary decent hard-working people) in hard times
  • The council wins because it shares the credit for keeping the tax down
  • The council tax payer obviously wins because their tax doesn’t go up.

The truth is slightly more complex.

Take a look at the statistics.

Assume for ease of calculation a council with a yearly spend of £1,000,000, 75% of whose spend is currently funded by central government.  The £1,000,000 is unrealistically low (think 10 or 100) but the 75% is not untypical.

If that council accepts the government’s offer of 2.5% extra money and doesn’t increase its council tax, this is what happens over five years:

 

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5

Council spend

£1,000,000

£1,025,000

£1,051,000

£1,077,000

£1,104,000

Additional spend funded by central government

     £25,000

      £51,000

     £77,000

   £104,000

Total central government funding

  £750,000

 £775,000

   £801,000

   £827,000

  £854,000

% funded by central government

75%

75.6%

76.2%

76.8%

77.4%

In other words, the percentage of the council’s spending funded directly by central government creeps inexorably upward.

In the short term you might say ‘So what?’ and councillors certainly find it convenient not to have to raise the council tax.

But all concerned would do well to remember the old saying He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Scottish councils have already found this, with their council tax freeze linked to a concordat with the Scottish government that includes a single outcome agreement in which they and their local partners have to agree with the government how they will help deliver their national priorities.

A quick glance across the water to the Republic of Ireland gives a taste of what could eventually happen.  As Wikipedia (not always right but near enough on this occasion) puts it

Following the abolition of domestic property rates in the late 1970s, local councils have found it extremely difficult to raise money…[National government] is a significant source of funding at present…The dependence on Exchequer has led to charges that the Republic has an overly centralised system of local government…numerous studies…have recommended the reintroduction of some form of local taxation/charging regime, but these are generally seen as politically unacceptable.

To mix my metaphors, as the link between taxation and democratic representation is weakened councils will inevitably become more emasculated and increasingly the hand maiden of central government.

Not a good idea.


This blog is a one-person effort so if the one person’s otherwise engaged  the rate of production slows down.

For ten days this month I was away from the desk delivering D3 to her new university course in North Wales and then going on for a few days in the South West of England.  A lot of perhaps not very sustainable driving but also some great things seen and done.  For example

  • the varying fortunes of the string of towns along the North and mid-Wales coasts, with some looking very neglected while others had a positive sparkle about them (I didn’t realise Bangor had such a splendidly restored Victorian pier)
  • the strength of the Welsh language, not only in the north but down as far as Carmarthen and the excellent nearby National Botanical Garden.  It was great to hear it in everyday use
  • the seaside home of the old (young actually) reprobate Dylan Thomas at Laugharne.  I was amused by two contrasting items of information in the same room – a local newspaper of the time noting that “Mr Thomas died of an unexplained brain disease in New York recently” while an actor on a tape told us “Dylan’s last known words were ‘Eighteen straight whiskies on the trot.  A record’”
  • a brief visit to use the internet in Cornwall Council’s Wadebridge library – bright, obviously well cared-for, and helpful staff
  • a visit to a friend near Bristol whose almost-village tranquillity is threatened by a giant development that would swallow up a golf course and other open land and dump a football stadium in the middle of it
  • two wonderful days at the Eden project and lost gardens of Heligan, both inspired/developed by the amazing Tim Smit.  I suspect he’s a man who’s not easy for officialdom to deal with but he sure gets stuff done.

As I worked my way through this list I realised that it’s not just self-indulgent reminiscence.  In fitting with the theme of this blog you can see the hand, nearly always positive, of public agencies in almost everything I saw and enjoyed.  Well done government at all levels – EU (significant funder of the Eden project), Welsh assembly, councils and town and parish councils.

Footnote 14 October 2011 – I was saddened to see that the Poetry Archive web site claims Dylan Thomas’ last words were in fact “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.”  Much more prosaic.


Yesterday in what turns out to be Round 1 of this subject I wrote

[MP Nadine] Dorries … said that we… have “more abortions than anywhere else in Western Europe”…   I have neither the time nor the will to delve into this generalisation.

Somehow, overnight I summonsed the will to look at the data and again the truth turns out to be more complex than the politician’s easy generalisation:

Italics – most recent year available if not 2008

Source: Eurostat databases

As with all statistical data the devil is in the detail.  Ms Dorries talked about “Western Europe” and in the absence of an official definition I have used my own.  For one reason or another there is no data available for Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria or Portugal.

When commenting on her other claims on this subject I used figures for England and Wales as these are the headline numbers the Department of Health publish.  Scotland and Northern Ireland have devolved responsibility for health.  Strictly speaking I should also have excluded Welsh data for the same reason, which would have brought Ms Dorries’ claimed “200,000” abortions per year down to just under 181,000 in 2010.  This seems reasonable because the changes to the abortion law she seeks would only apply to England.  On the other hand, when making international comparisons, the only data available is at UK level, and only for 2008.

Having said all that, we can return to Ms Dorries’ claims and conclude

  • Yes, we did have the highest number of abortions in Western Europe, but only in 2008 (since when our figures have fallen slightly – data is not yet available for other countries) and only slightly more than France
  • However, on the much more meaningful measure of the chance of a woman having an abortion (the rate) France and the UK are virtually the same and have the second highest rate in Western Europe
  • The highest rate of abortions in Western Europe, considerably higher than either the UK or France, is in Sweden
  • There is arguably a cluster of four countries –the UK, France, Norway and Denmark – where the rates of abortion are not that different.

So the scary headline the highest number of abortions, with all its negative connotations, turns out to tell only part of a complex story.


I don’t have the figures in front of me but I can guarantee to you that 15 years ago the incidence of abortions was far far fewer than it is today.  Today we have 200,000 abortions carried out per year…I think 15 years ago the figure may have been around 40,000 per year – Nadine Dorries MP on BBC Radio 4’s World at One Programme 29 August 2011

Sometimes I despair at how some politicians use statistics.

The quote above is a classic example.  Here are the true facts:

  • No. abortions in England and Wales in 1996 – 167,916
  • No. abortions in England and Wales fifteen years later in 2010 – 189,574

It’s easy to get a number wrong.  But by a factor of over 4 (the 1996 number)?  Frankly it’s unbelievable.

My figures come from the Department of Health’s publication Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2010, as up to date and accurate a set of statistics on the subject as I could find.

Perhaps Ms Dorries didn’t find them.  Perhaps she found them and mis-read them.  Perhaps she forgot the detail in the heat of the moment.  Perhaps she has an alternative and more accurate source of data the rest of the world hasn’t heard about.  Perhaps, heaven forefend,  she was guilty of mis-representation.  Perhaps she was talking through…don’t even go there.

Here’s a more factual although less exciting look at the statistics.

First, the simple number of abortions each year:

Now the rate of abortions – to allow for the difference in the number of women aged 15-44 over time:

It’s quite a different picture isn’t it?  Here’s my take on the figures:

  • The number was much higher fifteen years ago than Ms Dorries claims, therefore any increase since then is much less than she implies
  • The number now is not 200,000, it is just under 189,600 – or 5% less than the claimed figure
  • Both the number and rate of abortions have tended to go up and down together
  • There has actually been a decline in the number and rate of abortions since 2006
  • When you look at the rates they have not varied that dramatically – from 15.7 per thousand women in 1996 to 17.9 in 2007 and 17.1 in 2010
  • If 1.71% of women had an abortion in 2010 (17.1 in 1,000) then 98.29% didn’t.

Ms Dorries also said that we (England and Wales, Britain, the UK?) have “more abortions than anywhere else in Western Europe”.  The latest Eurostat publication on the subject shows she may be on slightly firmer ground here but her statement takes no account of the relative size of each country.  I have neither the time nor the will to delve into this generalisation. [But I changed my mind overnight – see my post Politicians and statistics Round 2]

It’s not so long ago the Labour government couldn’t utter the word “policy” without preceding it with the adjective “evidence-based” and it’s still a phrase many politicians reach for to justify what they want to do anyhow.  A key part of Ms Dorries’ evidence base for her belief that abortion should be more restricted would appear to be dodgy at best, completely fallacious at worst.

Readers should not infer from this post that I have any particular point of view on the subject of abortion .  My interest is in the use and abuse of statistics and some of you will know that one of the services HelpGov offers is helping establish the facts.


Clearing out the attic of my house the other day I came across an unusual newspaper cutting lining an old chest of drawers.  It was undated but obviously came from the 19th century.  Readers may be interested in it as a curious throw back to times past as it clearly bears little relationship to modern society.

—————————————

In a move unprecedented since the introduction of the “Penny Post” by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli today responded to the Fenian Riots in our great northern cities by calling for the suspension of the now-familiar Royal Mail letter service.

Mr Disraeli told a crowded House of Commons that chief constables up and down the land were reporting that Fenian troublemakers were writing letters to each other to co-ordinate their nefarious activities.

“The problem,” he said “is that the service with its guarantee of same or next day delivery allows these Irish ‘gentlemen’ in one city to communicate almost instantly with those in other cities where there has been large scale immigration from Ireland. The problem has been exacerbated by the increasing number who are able to read and write and can afford the 1d postage stamp affixed to each letter.”

Reaction from other parts of society has been critical.

The secretary of the London Chamber of Commerce Mr Thomas Gradgrind said “This proposal does not seem to take account of the extent to which our great British industries rely upon swift communication with each other in order to progress the business of Empire.  This could be a major blow to many of our members.”  Private soundings taken by this newspaper from within government itself affirmed that the Board of Trade amongst others shares the Chamber’s concerns.

The editor of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post asked “How are we to despatch our daily edition to country subscribers, many of them gentlemen of the cloth, in the event of a suspension of the postal service?”

And Lady Cynthia Garside, doyenne of London high society lamented “This will be an absolute disaster for the social life of the capital.  At present one can despatch a letter to any respectable member of society in the morning inviting them to supper that evening, confident that they will have responded by the luncheon hour affirming their attendance or not.”

It is not known at the time of writing if Mr Disraeli intends, in the argot of our military men, to “stick to his guns” or whether like the Grand Old Duke of York he intends to march back down the hill again, having ascended half way to the summit.


Well done UK council chief executives.

They’re having a summit in October to think about the future of the important services local authorities provide.  Their debate will be structured around five propositions you can find on the web site they’ve set up to prepare for the event.

One thing they didn’t anticipate (who did?) will surely inform their deliberations – the “riots”.

I was pondering this as I checked out their site and in particular their

Proposition 4 Public services in a networked world

Although they can’t have intended it, this is absolutely central to what happened in England (media, Twitterers, politicians, foreign commentators et al please note – England, and even then only parts of England, not UK).

Spurred by this thought I dropped a note on the web site concerned.  Being of an economical and sustainable cast of mind I thought an expanded version might have a wider interest.

My thoughts started with something I’ve already looked at on this blog – the performance of the UK government Directgov portal during the disturbances.  That led me to thinking about social media and four distinct groups.

Central government itself

Given my other blog post it probably needs least comment of all here.  My characterisation of it to the chief execs was

An apparent social media paralysis…Directgov, their web portal, and its Twitter feed remained supine over the first few days of the riots

Local authorities

My own trawls did not reveal any hugely systematic or proactive use of the web and social media by councils, councillors or council chief executives.  Was I reading the wrong sources (let me know)?  I found three honourable exceptions.

The leader of Lambeth council was out and about in Brixton the morning after their disturbance and blogged about what he saw.  It had the smack of authenticity about it rather than the dead hand of PR

I was astonished to find Ms Cupcake, owner of a bakery on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, out in Brixton this morning handing out brightly-coloured iced cakes. She told me this was no day to sell cakes, and she wanted to show the world the true face of Brixton –smiling, generous, and big-hearted.

The chief executive of Haringey wrote for his peers about his experience on the SOLACE web site and the Guardian’s Public leaders network gave it a wider audience.  A thoughtful piece that concluded

I would love to close with some coherent thoughts on how we move on from this but as I reflect on the events of the last few days both here and across the country – reading the reports of the damage to our street maintenance depot which was attacked last night – I find myself like many others wondering how we got to this point.

I watched for council Tweets on the situation but few crossed my path amidst the thousands tumbling out, initially tagged #londonriots then #ukriots (but see comment on “UK” above).  An ironic exception was the prolific Twitterer Ruth Hyde @relhyde, chief executive of Broxtowe Borough Council.  Ironic because they’ve had no reported troubles.  But they’re next door to Nottingham which did and she’s been keeping her followers up to date, most recently with

Riots updates with Police and partners. Great communication from Notts police, Nothing yet reported in Broxtowe.

Note the praise given to the police.  She’s also been assiduous in re-tweeting their messages.  She gets the point in a way that many don’t – to the point, a conversational tone, up to date and frequent (but not excessive) Tweeting, informal and friendly.  A great example.  You feel there’s a real person there not the junior member of a comms team.  She deserves more followers (so get on over there and sign up) .

Rioters and would-be rioters

This is the group that’s had all the publicity.  Not only their use of social media including Twitter and Blackberry messaging to co-ordinate (co-ordinate probably pitches it too high) their activities but also their Tweets and videos showing the results.  So social media is immediately cast as the villian of the piece and bizarrely, for this particular business user, the Blackberry with its secure encrypted messaging in particular becomes a “problem”.

Community response

This for me has been the most inspiring use of social media in the current disturbances.  Just as baddies can use it to communicate so can goodies.  Hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles (love that) came out of nowhere and residents appeared on the streets almost instantly with brooms and dustpans to tidy up their own communities (although a big plus to many councils who were also mobilising their own resources for rapid clean ups).  And elsewhere in cyberspace you could hardly blink before people had web sites up gathering photos of probable looters (innocent until proven guilty of course) for identifying and reporting to the police.  This looked like the big society in action, although it has to be said without any credit due to the only begetter of the idea.

Which of these groups made most effective use of social media?  You’d have to say central government was pathetic, councils good in parts but, sadly, the baddies were expert.  The good news is that the positive community response was probably more expert (certainly more educated).

Nothing here about the police use (and monitoring, which we’ll probably never find out about in detail) of social media.  That’s another story and someone else will need to tell it.