A prime minister and chancellor said to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people.’   Party leaders rushing to publish details of their meetings with donors.  The main parties trashed by ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway in the Bradford by-election.  They’re at it again, aren’t they?  B****y politicians!

Well, that’s the common perception.

But who’d be a politician?  Everyone’s whipping boy (and girl) and ranking somewhere between pimps and estate agents in public perception of worth.

Who’d be a politician is an interesting question because given our party system, one answer is that damned few are qualified to even seek election, let alone achieve it.

The truth is the gene pool for our politicians is alarmingly small.

Back in 2009 the House of Commons library published some interesting statistics on political party membership.

In 2008, membership of the three largest UK-wide political parties was estimated to be

  • Conservative – 250,000
  • Labour – 166,000
  • Liberal Democrat – 60,000

In the same year, there were 46,147,877 people on the electoral roll in the UK (Source: ONS)

In other words, 1.03% of the electorate were members of the three main parties.

From that number, the parties need to find candidates for thousands of elected positions for the EU, UK, and Scottish parliaments, the Welsh assembly and for hundreds of local councils.

Consider also that most members of political parties will never be candidates for election.

Many won’t want to seek election.  Some may want to but would not get past their party’s selection procedure.

Let’s assume that the ‘non-candidates’ are 90% of a party’s membership.  It seems a reasonable figure although I have no evidence for it and would welcome better information if anyone has it.

These assumptions mean that the political ‘gene pool’ for the three main parties to seek electable candidates is no more than 47,600 people, or 0.103% of the UK electorate.

No wonder BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme today was able to find an Asian woman from Bradford whose interest as a candidate for election had been solicited at different times not only by Tories, Labour and LibDems but even by Respect, which is where we started with George Galloway (she turned them all down).

When we have it, we are neglectful of and indifferent to democracy.  What a contrast to countries where people yearn to be free and turn out in vast numbers, when they can, to vote.  A few years ago South Africa reminded us of this.  Today – literally – Burma fulfils the same role.

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






Additional spend funded by central government





Total central government funding






% funded by central government






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.

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

Not so long ago I was walking home with my partner just after 11 p.m. one Friday from a pleasant visit to the cinema in a well-off medium sized UK city that shall remain nameless, although my experience will be recognised by readers across these British Isles.

The main drag is a wide and even architecturally distinguished street and was busy with mainly young people out for the evening.

In sequence  as it happened we

  • had to step round a mixed male-female group probably in their 20s engaged in a loud and apparently alcohol-fuelled conversation where the adjective “fucking” (sorry, but if I hear this frequently in the streets at all hours why shouldn’t you have to face it in the privacy of your own web browser?) floated out above the general hubbub
  • swerved to avoid a splash of vomit by a shop door
  • ditto a broken bottle next to (not in) a waste bin
  • got bumped by a youth proceeding in a stagger with his pals along the pavement (“Sorry love” he called over his shoulder to my slightly shaken partner)
  • passed a small group of uneasy looking pensioners waiting in a bus shelter trying to appear inconspicuous , and
  • spotted a middle-aged man urinating against a wall in a side street.

That probably not untypical experience came to mind when I read a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary called Antisocial Behaviour – stop the rot.

My experience was trivial compared with some of the behaviour that the report rightly calls this blight on people’s lives.

The main thrust is that the police response to this sort of stuff, already mixed at best, is what gets cut in hard times but mustn’t be.

Coming at it (obviously) from a police perspective the report identifies three things that work:

  1. briefings on anti-social behaviour for all staff likely to deal with the issue (including neighbourhood, response and CID officers)
  2. tacking what is happening locally using data and intelligence
  3. problem-solving capacity in neighbourhood policing teams.

And it says two things tend not to work:

  1. graded police response systems that prioritise calls for attendance or non-attendance
  2. lengthy partnership processes.

There’s an interesting diagram in the report showing the relationship between harm and frequency of different sorts of anti-social behaviour (you may need to click on it to read the small print).

Just think of the partnership aspects of some of these.  Apart from the police they can involve

  • intimidation – registered social landlords (RSLs)
  • race hate – local authority, RSLs (again), Equalities and Human Rights Commission
  • noisy neighbour – local authority: environmental health, social services
  • drunk – licensing board, NHS, ambulance service
  • teens – education service, social services
  • vandalism and litter – local authority: environmental services
  • abandoned vehicles – Highways Agency, local authority: transportation, environmental services.

The list is partial.  And all of course potentially involve other players in the criminal justice system.

The report says there are some worrying indications that some partnerships are much less effective than accepted wisdom would have it citing:

  • significantly variable standards of service, with some delivering only marginal benefits
  • some are focussed on working together, not working for the public
  • some focus on strategy rather than delivery
  • many interventions take significant amounts of time to be delivered
  • an escalation of interventions, coupled with a culture of meetings, means that some problems are not gripped and as a result victimisation continues
  • the focus in many is on the strategy and process rather than the victim’s experience
  • there is little in the way of testing the value for money in approaches undertaken.

HMIC inevitably link this to community safety partnerships but to this old hand all these characteristics ring true of much partnership working across the public sector.

The report concludes that there are two alternative approaches to this blight.  One it characterises as damage limitation, which would include better partnerhip working.

The other it describes as

an early intervention strategy, similar to those in health and education sectors. It will require reform of police availability and a refocusing on what causes harm in communities, rather than what is or is not a “crime”, or what can be managed out of police systems.

To me that sounds like a need for even more effective partnership working, and not only across the public sector – not to mention trying to get to the root causes of the various behaviours.  Big society and localism, here we come.

Footnote: quote from Sir Denis O’Connor chief inspector of constabulary on BBC TV today – “Parts of town centres are now being left in the evening as surrendered territory”


Yes, it’s a hung Westminster parliament – maybe.

You have to sympathise with politicians and what they need to do.  In an election, of course, you have to say your aim is to win.  But since the first UK leaders’ debate poll after poll puts the three big parties at (roughly) 33% -33% – 33% each.

Even if the parties find it difficult to talk of a hung parliament (Lib Dems and minority parties of course prefer “balanced”) just about anyone else who’s interested is.

It’s a bad thing.  Unstable government.  An inevitable second general election.  Who will get into Downing Street?  How will the existing incumbent be got out?  The money markets won’t take it.  The economy is doomed…and so it goes.

Well, look North, West or North West – to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Or East to our  European neighbours.  Or further East and South to Australasia.  They all seem to be able to cope with this supposedly disastrous electoral arithmetic.

Take the instructive case of Scotland.  Not total harmony of course, but very workable government in ten and more years of devolution, first in a coalition and then with a minority administration.  It works, and so much better than the old Lib-Lab pact at Westminster decades ago.

And while we’re at it let’s remember many councils across the UK where joint or minority administrations work without the world collapsing in on them

The reality of course concentrates the mind.  Politicians do what they must – set out their position, make it clear what their bottom line is if they’re in the frame for government, negotiate their interests on an issue by issue basis if they’re not, remain aware of public opprobrium if they don’t make it work.

There seems to be something uniquely confrontational about Westminster, bolstered by tradition and even the shape of the chamber that makes it difficult to contemplate what happens routinely in many other stable democracies.  Let’s hope our new MPs learn the lessons from those other places if they’re “hung”.

The one difference of course, is that those other places have some form of proportional representation which makes it unlikely that one party will ever have a built-in majority.  Now will that be the Lib Dems’ bottom line if they’re in the frame for government?