Cowardice vs courage

If someone said that I spent too much of my time on this planet being a coward, they’d probably be right. I’m not talking about “Ha ha! He’s a sissy!”/”Nobody calls me ‘chicken'” out of TV and films. I’m talking about wider life decisions. Addressing and blogging about this also helps me (and I hope others) understand a little bit more about anxiety too, and trying to disentangle what for me is part of dealing with mental health issues on one side vs what WikiP describes as a personality trait with negative characteristics

The two big decisions – choice of A-levels and choice of university and subject chosen are probably the ones where had I displayed anything in the way of resolve and courage, things may have turned out differently. What was geography-economics-maths should have been history-politics-economics at A-level and and an undergraduate degree that somehow combined all three of those A-levels. Interestingly (as I’ve mentioned before) it was the mathematical skills that I learnt in A-level maths that seem to have been the most useful in the world of work. Funny how things work out like that. Turning around those decisions now is too late for me. Part of the ‘growing up’ experience for me is taking personal responsibility for what I did and did not do – and the decisions that I made. Rather than spending the rest of my days moaning about ‘the hinge factor’ type decisions, I try to look at what can be done to improve the lot of others & amongst other things help them find the information that will help them come to considered decisions. It’s one of the reasons why I think mentors can be so helpful.

After graduating, I asked myself whether what I had actually become was what I had wanted to become. (To which the answer was a resounding “no”). Yet at the same time there was still what I now see as this selfish urge to ‘prove myself’ – though to this day I’m not entirely sure who I was trying to prove myself to. Was it the people who drive the Life on a piece of paper mindset? Cowardice and selfishness are extremely dangerous drivers – especially in the same car. It was only when I worked out that what my head wanted was quite often different from what my heart wanted that things began to change. To give two examples: 1) my head wanted my ego to be stroked whereas my heart preferred to love and be loved; 2) my head was more dazzled/impressed by the more materialistic things in this world whereas my heart was not. For too long the former ruled the latter.

Going through the process of acknowledging the negative traits we have as individuals is never easy. It is however essential for anyone wanting to go down a path of personal self-improvement. For me it was – & still is a painful process as my general disposition is of someone who takes criticism personally. (The interviewer that grilled me at the Fast Stream Assessment Centre spotted this and even put this in the final report on my performance). It’s emotionally painful too when other people pick up on those traits – especially those ones that you’d really love not to have. In the past there have been times where I’ve said to myself “I wish I wasn’t like that.”

But it doesn’t have to be like that – or rather as I have been asking myself over recent years: “What are you going to do to change things?” It was one of the reasons why I chose to leave the civil service. The ‘easier’ decision would have been to have kept my head low, nominally going by the principle of “I’ll stay in the civil service until they sack me!” – which sounded great as a sound bite at the time to others, but in reality was a short term cloak to hide behind the really difficult decision that I had to make. Hence amongst other things why I jumped rather than waited to be pushed. Since then, having a blank slate (especially the blank financial one) has helped immensely because things that perhaps I was tied to or that had affected my decision making in the past (e.g. debt) no longer applied.

What I’ve tried to do in recent times is to avoid blaming other people and things for my own predicament. The main reason for doing so is that if I blame someone/something else, I take away my ability to do something about it. The other thing is: What if the person you blame turns around and apologises – for example the teacher who was particularly useless or the person that really hurt you? There is no come back for that. An apology in such a situation is all you are going to get. As for the people who have since passed away or the institutions that have since been dissolved…exactly. (I’ve had half a primary school & a secondary school flattened and rebuilt during & after my time there, and two of the three institutions that I have worked for full-time, for over 6 months have since been closed). At some stage you have to move on – though this is far easier said than done.

I separate cowardice from ‘anxiety’ because I tend to look at the latter through the lens of how this manifests in my mind and body – in particular the symptoms. One can be courageous but at the same time struggle with an anxiety disorder just as one can show cowardice and not suffer from such a condition. Helping understand one has helped me understand and deal with the other. It also means that I’m clear in my mind at least when a barrier is related to a lack of courage to when it is related to my own mental health problems. For example going to a new exercise class that you’ve not done at a venue you’ve never been to takes a little bit of courage. But the purpose of doing so (in my case) is to try and get into a habit of doing something physically high-impact that I’ve not done since school as part of dealing with anxiety. (It took me nearly a week for my thighs to recover from week 1).

Courage for me involves ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ – or even doing it because you feel the fear. There are also aspects about acknowledging what I do and don’t like – & not pretending that I like something just to impress someone, whether boss, date, acquaintance or complete stranger. It’s one of the reasons why after graduating I spent a fair amount of time trying out new activities – mainly evening classes, trying to get a feel for what I did and did not like. My anecdotal theory was to try these things out several times to find out whether I really liked them or not. Across a number of fields I’ve now found what works for me – across music, art, dance, literature, fashion, politics…well I’m still working on that one!

Was it cowardice run a twitter account under an avatar? Maybe, maybe not. It’s certainly been a damn sight more fun though! The other thing is that engaging with so many people through such a flexible medium is that I’ve stumbled across far more people with shared interests than I could ever possibly have imagined. Certainly with the people that I’ve met, I don’t feel any need to try and ‘impress’ them in anyway. I can just be me. And I’m comfortable with that. Given where I’ve been emotionally over the past decade or so, for me that is a huge achievement – one that I’m grateful to all of those who’ve helped me get there.

How we’re using social media is changing…

One of the things I’ve said in recent times is that I would like the impact of my social media usage (and the accounts that I have) to be greater than the sum of its parts. Over the coming weeks and months this is one of the things that I’m going to be putting my mind (and the minds of other people) to.

In terms of how and why people in general are evolving how they use social media, have a read of this superb post by @LouLouK which puts in far better terms some of the various things I have been pondering, plus a lot more besides.

Labour and Ed

Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership election due to the votes he received from those beyond the political party – i.e. those who were members of trade unions and/or affiliated organisations. To those unfamiliar with the history of the Labour Party, the idea that non-members can have a say on who becomes leader may sound controversial. I’ll leave it to Labour activists to argue the cases for and against. My observations come as someone who’s never been a member of a political party.

With Ed Miliband as party leader, I can’t help but notice a few parallels with the plight of William Hague when he became Tory leader. Who remembers “Team Hague” and the Baseball hats? Not that I’ve seen Ed Miliband wearing similar. Yet.

The first parallel was the manner of winning. My memory recalls that Michael Portillo was muted as a future leader for the Tories in the run-up to the 1997 general election campaign – one that most people knew Labour were going to win. Then there was the “Were you up for Portillo?” moment. That left Hague, Ken Clarke and John Redwood (who two years previously had challenged John Major in the “put up or shut up” event two years previously, sending his profile skyrocketing) as the front runners. The soundings after the election seemed to show that the parliamentary party wanted Clarke, but that the Conservative Party membership wanted Hague – who was further to the right of the Conservative Party. In the same way, the Parliamentary Party and the Party membership wanted David Miliband but the even wider trade union voters wanted Ed Miliband who at the time was further to the left out of all of the other candidates except Diane Abbott.

Both William Hague and Ed Miliband are intellectually very able. People may not agree with their politics but in terms of their disposition and ‘cerebral capacities’ they are able to deal with very complex and complicated issues…but are more comfortable doing so away from the television cameras & the soundbite tennis that does not allow them to expand on the arguments that, when making full parliamentary speeches has shown they are clearly capable of. For Miliband this was reflected in “Soundbitegate” and that “bizarre” interview on public sector strikes in the summer of 2011. During his leadership, Hague for me didn’t look at ease in the public appearance walkabouts – remember carnival time?

Both Hague and Miliband found themselves leading their parties after defeats that took out large numbers of their parties’ old guards. When this happens, this inevitably leaves a vacuum in the opposition party concerned. To use business-bovine-excrement-speak, Labour is still currently somewhere between the forming and storming phase. Miliband has been fortunate in that most of Blair and Brown’s former top ministerial teams that are not inside his have remained relatively quiet – as has Blair on domestic issues and Brown in general. John Major was the same.

Blair used the “We have to do this because of the mess the Tories left the public services in” line to devastating effect for quite some time – in the same way that the Coalition has been able to use similar lines on the state of the economy and public finances against both Miliband and Ed Balls – both of whom spent time as special advisers in The Treasury and whom the latter was a minister in. Thus they have to be careful with accusations thrown at David Cameron and his time as a special adviser in The Treasury regarding Norman Lamont’s time as Chancellor on all things Europe-related.

On 14 January 2012 Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chief Secretary was quoted in The Telegraph as saying that Labour are not ready to govern.  In part this is a reflection of the manner in which Blair and Brown managed the party under their tenures, as well as the vacuums they left when they exited. Ed Miliband’s victory seems to have taken out one of the figures who could have stepped into the breach – his brother David, who again has a strong intellectual capacity and was highly regarded as a minister for his ability to take on board very complex issues in a very short space of time. David for me also comes across as a more accomplished media performer too.

The Telegraph mentioned in its full interview with Reeves that it thinks that if Miliband does not win the next election, the next Labour leader will come from the 2010 intake. That I think is a sound observation – in part because such an individual is less likely to be ‘tainted’ by the problems within the party in the run up to the 2010 election – such as the infighting, ministerial resignations, the expenses scandal to the more distant issues such as the vote on the Iraq war.

One of the things it’s interesting to note about Cameron’s Cabinet is the presence of two former leaders of the Conservative Party – both Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Both were utter failures as leaders of their party in that they failed to win general elections – the latter never making it to the 2005 one due to the coup that ousted him. Yet both have roles as secretaries of state where Cameron has given them much more freedom than anything either Blair or Brown did with their predecessors. Perhaps the nature of the Coalition Government along with the general disposition of Cameron and Clegg against micromanaging departments and the structures for dispute resolution mean that micromanaging policy is less of an issue.

Both the Miliband brothers are young enough to make a return to a Cabinet post should Labour get re-elected. As things currently stand, I can’t see Ed Miliband as future prime ministerial material. That’s not to say he won’t grow into the role – just doing so in the burning bright light of the media glare makes it that much harder. Ditto with developing policy. If anything, perhaps what he should have done on policy development is exactly what David Cameron did when he became leader of the Conservatives back in 2005. Remember what he did?

Cameron set up six policy review groups to be chaired by one of the old titans of his party but managed by one of the up-and-coming politicians within the party at the time. He gave all of them a blank sheet of paper and effectively said “think the unthinkable” and see what you can come up with. Upon publication, we will thank you for the report, say it’s too early to state which policy recommendations will be adopted as party policy but will study it in detail over the coming months and years. In the meantime, he left it up to the reports’ authors to defend the policies concerned, knowing that any criticisms and limitations of said policies would not stick to the party because they had not been adopted, but would give enough scope for the party to improve and refine them over time before adopting them. With the likes of John Redwood, Michael Hestletine, Ken Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith and John Gummer all taking leads, all of them were big enough political names (all former cabinet ministers) to deal with any flak that came their way, while at the same time giving younger less experienced MPs and party workers experience of policy development. This is exactly what happened with the mixed reception that John Gummer & Zac Goldsmith had to face upon publication of their report. Goldsmith at the time was not a Tory MP, but was subsequently elected in the 2010 election after defeating Susan Kramer of the Lib Dems. Hence he came into the Commons with some experience of both making policy and having to publicly defend the policies that he had a role in formulating. It also got the media at least, talking about policies rather than personalities, spin and gaffes.

Should Labour have done the same? For example Estelle Morris and Stella Creasy on Education or Alistair Darling and Rachel Reeves on the economy. A process like this I think would have given the opportunity for the most talented of the new intake to get a feel for policy-making, allow the party to have that broader public conversation with its wider membership just as it did with the Conservatives, and allow the reports’ authors and those that worked on them to defend whatever ideas they came up with knowing that any shortcomings within their ideas would not necessarily tar the party as a whole given that the expectations had already been managed.

One of the ongoing jokes in Whitehall is that if the opposition party is too open with what its policies are, it runs the risk of the government of the day stealing them. This in itself speaks volumes about the lack of ‘choice’ across political parties – reducing politics to something of a technocratic exercise where politicians commission ‘independent reports’ by non-party-political figures before adopting all of the recommendations. Tuition fees is a classic case. By being more open about detailed policies (rather than soundbites such as an X-point plan for Y), Labour as it stands does run the risk of the Coalition nabbing some policies. But by not being more open, both party members and the wider public are left more at a loss at what the opposition stands for as well as who is providing that credible detailed alternative to the parties that are in government.

The Civil Service Fast Stream

I’ve been waiting for a bit of water to flow under the bridge before writing this blogpost mainly for the benefit of anyone looking to apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream – the main graduate entry programme for the UK civil service. This aligns with much of the advice I and others have given on The Student Room’s Public Sector Careers Boards. The Fast Stream was one of the few areas to be exempted from the recruitment freeze across the civil service. Those of you interested in equalities issues in the public sector may want to scrutinise the data for Fast Stream recruitment for 2009 & 2010 here, and for 2000-2008 here. At this stage I should also point out there is a similar highly regarded scheme for graduates looking for careers in local government.

As a former FDA union rep for those on the Fast Stream, I attended meetings with Cabinet Office to try and persuade them to take specific actions to help improve the diversity of applicants applying for the Fast Stream. My main idea was to follow the data on diversity statistics held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency – targeting their outreach programmes at those universities that scored highly on the various indicators (such as age, gender, ethnicity, schooling, family history of university application etc) that the civil service desired to see improvements in. I also pointed out that from my own anecdotal experience if living in Cambridge and being a part-time post-graduate student at Anglia Ruskin University, it was far more difficult to persuade ARU students to go to events hosted at Cambridge University’s colleges than the other way around. Thus would it not make more sense to host Fast Stream outreach events at the “new” universities (that tend to have more students from more diverse backgrounds) with students from more established universities open to attend as well, than vice-versa? Have a look at the statistics to see if you have noticed any change in the institutions that Cabinet Office is targeting. If there has been little change, then what Dame Anne Begg said in the Commons on 12 January in the Parliamentary Representation debate also applies for the Fast Stream: “We do not get the best person for the job if the best person does not even apply for it.”

The Fast Stream is not without its critics – and understandably so. I was also a member of the PCS Union throughout my career as a civil servant – elected as a branch secretary during my pre-Fast Stream days where I served for about 15 months before I transferred to London. (After the transfer, I kept my PCS membership as well as joining the FDA on the grounds that the FDA negotiated my terms and conditions but I did not want to leave what I saw as my big ‘work family’ that I had put a lot of effort into supporting as a rep). It was in 2010 that the PCS Union adopted a policy position calling for the scrapping of the Fast Stream programme on the grounds that it is

“…divisive and elitist. This scheme provides a fast track into government departments for the chosen few at the expense of others. It has succeeded in maintaining the white middle class domination of the Senior Civil service and restricting access to working class candidates.” [See motion A32]

The pragmatist in me was saddened but not surprised by the vote. While it’s extremely unlikely that the programme will be scrapped, it should send a clear message to Cabinet Office and to departments that there is clear friction between a sizeable number of fast streamers and non-fast streamers, and that part of that friction is being caused by the disproportionate number of people applying from more privileged backgrounds. Part of it I think also stems from a lack of understanding of the assessment processes by non-fast stream civil servants – as well as the existence of the in-service Fast Stream that I went through, which is a non-graduate route into the Fast Stream. My take is that the more diverse an intake the Fast Stream has, the more enriched it will become as a network.

In terms of the assessment process, this is one area that I do have confidence in. I’m not going to go into detail as to what I did – that’s the Cabinet Office’s call to decide what information they release about who has to do what. For the in-service process, my line manager at the time had to write a very detailed reference with comments on my potential across the key skills areas concerned. That had to be approved and signed off by both my head of HR and by the head of my organisation before my department even looked at my application. Prior to that, I had to have satisfactorily passed my probation period as a new entrant to the civil service back in 2004. (Something that normally takes up to a year). i.e. you can’t flounce into a very junior post and say “Put me forward for the Fast Stream”. For me, I was in the civil service for nearly 2 years before I put my application forward. At the time, the organisation I was with was going through a major ‘restructuring’ which saw the culling of lots of junior administrative staff – leaving me without a stable role following the zapping of my role.

Throughout 2006 I applied for promotion after promotion – mainly down in London. Emotionally I had reached the stage where I felt that in order to ‘grow’ as a person and to progress my career, London was where I needed to be. Every single kickback, failed interview and rejection was one that I took personally, yet at the same time there was this little voice inside me that was saying it was all happening for a reason. It was a tiny little ray of light, a glimmer of hope in what was at the time a sea of darkness as far as things seemed to be going at the time.

After 9 months of rejections, nothing further on the horizon and things looking particularly shaking in terms of job stability (in particular as a number of friends and colleagues were in the process of losing theirs through the redundancy/retirement processes), I slumped back into a stint with a lovely small team doing a job that I knew I was never really cut out for – I just didn’t have the disposition for it. Time was running out and the only remaining application that was outstanding was the Fast Stream Assessment. As it turned out my name was put forward for the assessment centre, but unfortunately one of them clashed with a time I was scheduled to be in Austria on a summer school. They were non-negotiable about this. Turn up or have my application put back for a year. I could not afford that – career-wise, emotionally or financially. However, that also meant having to pay the costs of flying back from Vienna to London (at my own expense) halfway through the summer school in order to do that part of the test.

In one of the few acts of ‘courage’ (i.e. where I was really anxious about doing something but felt the fear and did it anyway, as opposed to wrestling bears with my bare hands, stopping a bank robbery with a few well-aimed kicks or rescuing the helpless from a burning building – that sort of thing), I took the view that paying for those flights would more than repay themselves if I got onto the Fast Stream, and if I didn’t…then I probably was not cut out for it anyway.

The day of the main assessment centre was just as surreal. I stayed overnight in a hotel rather than running the risk of trains messing up. My mindset at the time was to take as much ‘risk’ out of the day of the assessment centre as possible. I was lucky that in the evening the 2006 Amnesty International Secret Policeman’s Ball was on TV that evening, taking my mind of things.

The tasks that we were all set were incredibly intense…yet strangely enjoyable. It was one of those occasions that you knew you were being tested and stretched but were really getting a lot out of it at the same time. The whole process covered five or six different activities and lasted for the whole day and was emotionally exhausting. At the end of all of the assessments a handful of us crashed out at one of the pubs near the Department for Transport’s HQ. I felt like a bit of a zombie. I had thrown everything I had at that assessment centre and came away knowing that the test was hard but fair, and that I had prepared and was properly prepared for it. I genuinely had no idea at the time whether I had passed or failed. What I did know was that I could not have given any more, prepared any more thoroughly or have performed any better on the day. If that wasn’t enough to pass then the reality would have been that I would not have been good enough for the Fast Stream.

Two weeks later I got the news that I had in fact passed. The sense of relief was something that I’ve only ever experienced on one occasion before (receiving my GCSE results) and on one occasion since (clearing my debts after leaving the civil service). The idea that I had made it through one of the most competitive assessment processes in the country was something that I don’t think ever quite sunk in. All of my fears about my future career and job stability evaporated on that news. I remember a real sense of both excitement and purpose at the time – remember that in all of this the economy was really booming and London itself was absolutely buzzing with activity – and I was now going to be part of all of that!

I’d love to say that the story had a “happily ever after” ending, but it didn’t. I didn’t go onto become one of the high flying senior civil servants treading the corridors of Cabinet Office or the Treasury (though I did get to go to both on various occasions). A large number of Fast Streamers decide for whatever reason that the scheme – and even the civil service is not for them. For me, my time on the Fast Stream was one where I grew up – and needed to. Personally I felt I needed more time in individual postings than the 6-12 months that is standard. My biggest achievements I felt was in the post that I was in for the longest, after I moved off of the Fast Stream. Lots of number-crunching, data and analysis while bouncing off of the expertise of talented people all reliant on the work of each other.

I worked with some of the most amazing and talented people I’ll probably ever meet. I got to see close up how policy is made, the dark arts of lobbyists in full flow, ministers from all of the three main parties, and even the current Prime Minister at first hand. I had a front row seat working on a bill going through all stages of Parliament. I spoke at conferences representing my then department to audiences both friendly and hostile. I had some major successes, I went to awe-inspiring places, I made some big mistakes and my fair share of failures too – but I learnt from them. It’s one of the reasons why I like to think that I’ll cut people some slack for genuine human error, while focussing in on what looks like systemic problems in large organisations that could have been avoided.

Ian Watmore of Cabinet Office was right to defend the civil service following criticism from parts of the private sector. David Cameron was wrong to tar so many civil servants as “enemies of enterprise” in his speech last year – obviously no one told him about the UKGovCamp gathering that I and some of the most forward-thinking public servants in the country had attended several weeks earlier. I’m going there again next weekend, meeting up with old friends while not having to worry about the constraints of being in the civil service as we seek to unleash the power of digital and social media across the wider public sector. Many of the people that attended last year were light years ahead of the rest of the country in this field, and I dare say many of the attendees next weekend will be too.

The event is sold out but lots of things will be live-tweeted and live-streamed, so if you are unable to attend, feel free to follow. You might learn something new that takes you somewhere that you didn’t even know existed.

Implications of the implants scandal

“Oi!! Puffles! What are you doing blogging about jubblies?”

Actually, it’s a lot more serious, and covers a far wider range of issues than the plight of a few glamour models. It was Fleet Street Fox who first alerted me to the wider issues in her blogpost of 4 January 2012.

“The root problem is whatever caused tens of thousands of women, for no medical reason at all, to feel so unhappy with their own perfectly-lovely frames that they paid four figures to be sliced and diced in order to look like someone else. You can blame the media, advertising, Hollywood, newspapers, or our pre-programmed female insecurity. It’s probably a bit of all of them, and there’s only one possible way of fixing it.”

She also covers the issue of reconstructive surgery for those people who for example have suffered from cancer. The implants scandal isn’t just about those having surgery for cosmetic reasons.

I don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to comment in further detail on how women are affected by this. The two issues that I am going to focus on are the legal protections available to patients that opt to go private only to find that private provider bails out when something goes wrong, and on the issues around how products are manufactured – and our trust in the standard that they are manufactured to.

Legal protections.

The Harley Medical Group’s announcement reported in the Evening Standard should send alarm bells ringing. Disagreement between the private healthcare trade body the IHAS and the Government has already broke out over who is liable. Just who is liable and responsible? A number of tweeple have commented that if the health risk is there, the NHS should step in and deal with that first, and deal with the costs/who should pay (i.e. taxpayer or private clinic) later. i.e. Don’t delay the treatment. Let’s not get into a debate about the deserving/undeserving when talking about people’s health. People will understandably be asking that if a private provider can respond like this a case such as this, could the same happen in other cases? With the growth of private healthcare and private providers in the UK, are some of the potential liabilities of taxpayers potentially being hidden? How do you stop private providers from trying to avoid their responsibilities because of something hidden in the small print?

The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley made a statement on this on 12 January 2012 in Parliament. With the above paragraph in mind, I’m surprised that he was not more clear on the need to put the health of all patients first, making clear that liability for the financial cost would not rest with them – rather that it would be something that would be resolved between the Department for Health and the private clinics concerned that had not offered replacement implants. Lansley stated that 40,000 people are affected. I’m surprised he did not mention the likely cost of replacement surgery for all of those people affected, separated for those who had surgery on the NHS and those who had it privately. That way, we would have some idea of the financial cost to the NHS for NHS patients as well as the financial cost to the economy. What is more difficult to measure is the further costs of those who have to take time off work for surgery, the ‘lost capacity’ of surgeon’s and healthcare capacity that would otherwise be used to treat other patients as well as the understandable anguish for those and their families who are affected.

Quality control.

Part of Andrew Lansley’s statement spoke volumes about regulation and inspection of the private sector.

“These events highlight the need to ensure the safety of people having cosmetic interventions. It is clear from the information that we have received from the industry that the safety information that it collects and provides to the regulator is of variable quality. Without good data, we have no way of knowing when problems arise.”

How long has this information been of variable quality, when did regulators first become aware of this (i.e. were they aware before) and what was done at the time? There are some industries where ‘light touch’ regulation does not work. Banking and healthcare are two of them.

As someone who has started studying engineering, I’m particularly interested in the quality control aspect – because something went wrong somewhere, and badly so. How was it that such large quantities of faulty implants could be distributed and exported all around the world before someone found out? Who was doing what random sample testing and when? Were continuous tests being carried out? If so by whom and what did these tests consist of? If the tests were taking place and did find something wrong, what was the method of raising them with the appropriate authorities? As far as the UK was concerned, who was responsible for certifying the implants as being safe and fit for purpose? Do we have a robust enough system of testing, retesting and recertification that can safeguard patients? One organisation I expect to come under scrutiny is the British Standards Institute – did the implants meet their standards? If not, whose standards did they meet and what sort of testing and assessment regime were they subject to?

In the following questions directed to Andrew Lansley, former Conservative Health Secretary and Chair of the Health Select Committee Stephen Dorrell asked:

“Does he further agree that there are some longer-term policy issues around the regulation of this industry that need to be addressed?”

In my view this is select-committee-chair-speak for saying “My select committee is going to investigate the longer term policy issues around the regulation of this industry.” Once the results of the initial inquiries initiated by Andrew Lansley have reported, I anticipate that the Health Select Committee will then look to launch its own inquiry. It would be interesting to see the likes of the Harley Medical Group defend their position under cross-examination – the results of which may highlight further issues not yet considered in the Health and Social Care Bill. (If it’s not too late by then).

On the Welfare Reform Bill

The defeat inflicted on the Government on three amendments in a row in the Welfare Reform Bill raised more than a few eyebrows – and not just those of Westminster watchers. Amongst other things, acknowledgement should be given to Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin for what I think sets a precedent in the use of evidence and of social media to enable thousands of people with disabilities to influence politics – and law-making. I’m referring in particular to the Responsible Reform Report, known on Twitter as the Spartacus Report.

Having seen up close what it’s like taking a bill through Parliament, I imagine that the civil servants both on the Welfare Reform Bill Team and those policy officials who have had to work up the detail of the policy and write all the briefing and speaking notes will now be working their socks off in response. Ultimately though, they will be implementing  and responding as ministers direct them to – which is their job. Hence the focus now moves onto the ministers.

My first question in all of this is “Who is the decision-maker?” Is it Freud? Is it Grayling? Is it Duncan-Smith? Labour MP and Puffles-watcher John McDonnell has already stated he has tabled a Parliamentary Question asking for ministers to make a statement in response to the Responsible Reform Report. That’s not to say ministers will be forthcoming. They could turn around and say “We disagree with the findings of that report” and leave it at that. Hence the limitations of, and my blogpost on Parliamentary scrutiny.

Chris Grayling, Minister of State for Employment at the Department for Work and Pensions has gone on record saying that he intends to overturn the Lords’ vote when the Bill returns to the Commons for considerations for Lords’ amendments – or constitutionally speaking, ask the House of Commons (probably with a three-line whip) to overturn those amendments. Where does this leave campaigners?

On the lobbying side, having a look at who has which majorities is a useful start. We still have a first-past-the-post system which means that there is a greater incentive for those MPs to make more of an effort to represent their constituents beyond party lines rather than toeing the party line. (Some may also point to the link between safe seats and expenses too – but does that claim stack up?)

The second place to look is towards the MPs sitting on the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee asking Dame Anne Begg and colleagues to hold an inquiry and/or a series of hearings into the Responsible Reform Report. That way, MPs would be able to properly cross-examine ministers on the key findings in a manner that would make it more than difficult for ministers (and their senior civil service policy advisers) to hide away from.

The nature of the Coalition means that the use of whipping is not as effective as a disciplinary instrument as it might have been in the previous administration – in particular where there are significantly fewer reshuffles with which to provide an incentive of a future ministerial post to aspiring MPs. Thus more concessions may need to be made by ministers (in particular to Liberal Democrat MPs) before the final text of any amendments from ministers are formally tabled when the Bill returns to the Commons.

I have no doubt that campaigners will keep up the media and lobbying pressure to keep this issue in the spotlight – one that took a significant effort to get the media to cover it. (It seemed that it was only the defeat in the Lords that forced the media to cover it.) When it comes to the Commons’ consideration of the Lords’ amendments, it looks like the Coalition will table amendments to strike out what the Lords voted on yesterday. Now is the time for campaigners to start asking their local MPs which way they intend to vote on those amendments. If they can persuade the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee to subject ministers to cross-examination on the content of the Responsible Reform Report, this might help ‘concentrate the minds’ of MPs further, as well as bringing greater levels of publicity and scrutiny to the policy content of the Welfare Reform Bill.

On Parliamentary Scrutiny

…it would be a good idea. (No, really!)

The nature of the Coalition inevitably meant that there would be a greater focus on Parliament in the news. Ditto with the fallout from the MPs expenses scandal. Civil servants across Whitehall were briefed on the increasing importance of Parliament compared to the Blair/Brown years with a greater need for the strength of argument, soundness of evidence base and consistency of policy when briefing ministers in their engagements with MPs. It’s less straight forward using the blunt instrument of whipping in a coalition.

While the election of John Bercow was somewhat controversial in Conservative circles (despite on paper being a former Conservative MP), I think he’s done a pretty good job. It may annoy some ministers and policy advisers who have got to be continually on their toes – in particular with regards to urgent questions, but let’s recall what Bercow set out in his manifesto. In particular, I draw your attention to the following:

Use of Parliamentary Time

  • the case for a Business Committee of the House with a backbench majority. Its role would be to control a proportion of the parliamentary timetable, deciding how much time should be allocated to each bill and debate
  • making pre and post-legislative scrutiny the norm, not the exception
  • greater use of Urgent Questions and Standing Order 24 Debates
  • a formal power for the Speaker to require a minister to make an Oral Statement to the House

 

Role of Committees

  • election by secret ballot of the whole House of the chairs of Select Committees
  • more formal powers for Select Committees to call witnesses and to demand the release of papers, with increased resources as necessary to allow for thorough inquiries to produce reports which can then be debated and voted on in the House
  • a role for Select Committees in public appointments, possibly in the form of confirmation hearings
  • requiring the membership of Public Bill Committees to reflect opinion in the House as expressed in the Second Reading debate or vote
  • a stronger role for Parliament, including Select Committees, in scrutinising the domestic budget process and the substantial volume of EU legislation.
  • The Public Accounts Committee does outstanding work but it is retrospective and greater parliamentary oversight of the whole Comprehensive Spending Review process could be invaluable. Likewise, the European Scrutiny Committee is important but it could usefully be bolstered by additional staff and resources

I think it’s fair to say that much of that has been implemented. BBC Parliament interviewed John Bercow at the end of 2011 asking him to review his time so far as Speaker.

I’ve blogged before on select committees (here and here). The more frequent use of Urgent Questions has also been welcome – not least because it makes it that little bit more difficult for the government of the day to control and manipulate the news agenda. Downing Street co-ordinates press releases and the media agenda from across Whitehall. On one side, having a level of co-ordination can give a greater sense of coherence of what the government is doing. On the other hand, there’s a very fine line between co-ordination and manipulation/spin.

On the issue of Urgent Questions, there is the risk that the exchanges could descend into predictable party-political point-scoring. One of the things I’d like The Speaker to make more clear to the general public (as well as to MPs) is what the criteria are for granting such questions. This (amongst other things) would help protect the impartiality of the Office of Speaker as it would become more clear why some were granted and others not.

The one significant shortcoming of the current model of scrutiny we have is that MPs cannot develop an argument through cross-examination unless they are in a fortunate position of being on the select committee that scrutinises their chosen target’s department. This means that there is next-to-no opportunity for MPs to follow-up the points that they try to make. Ministers can pretty much stand up and say “Yah-boo-sucks!” in response to any question that they don’t like (or rather “it was the previous administration that left us with the legacy of run-down public services [Labour post 1997] / appalling public finances [Coalition post 2010])

Once a month the ministerial team must appear before MPs in the House of Commons for its “Departmental Question Time” – where they have to face 2-3 hours of questions from MPs. The problem is that each MP only gets one question, and the shadow ministers only a handful between them. This means that, as with PMQs there is the inevitable risk of soundbite tennis and the “we are dealing with this bad stuff because of the things the previous government did that s/he supported!” sort of line that has regularly appeared over the past decade.

There is also the issue of scrutinising the decision-maker. This became excruciatingly clear when Mandelson and Adonis (in the Lords) were secretaries of state – unable to be cross-examined by MPs in departmental questions. While the junior ministers did a sterling job, MPs wanted to cross-examine the people at the top and Parliament did not have the mechanism to do so. But it’s not just that with ministers in different chambers. What about decisions clearly made by say the Chancellor or the Prime Minister where they overrule what a secretary of state wants? This was a particular problem under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown because their operation was incredibly centralised, leaving a number of their ministers being seen in some circles as little more than glorified spokespeople. Why so? The regular reshuffles for a start. It’s very difficult to get on top of a brief in a short space of time. I found this out the hard way as a Fast Streamer in the civil service, changing posts after less than a year in each – just at the time I found myself getting my head around the detail of the brief I was working on. If it was like that for me, imagine what it must be like for a minister who has to make the real decisions. I go into more detail in this in the blogposts on Reshuffles and Ministerial initiatives and pet projects.

So…what’s the answer?

There are a couple of things that could be done. The first is giving select committees the power to summon ANY Minister of the Crown to appear before them on issues that fall within their remit. The nature of select committees would mean that this really would be a ‘nuclear’ option but it would provide an incentive for Downing Street not to micro-manage things from the centre.

The House of Lords has select committees that cover issues rather than departments, and there has been some talk of evolving the Commons select committees to allow them to work together where issues cut across a number of departments.

Finally, I think thought should be given for Westminster Hall debates on enabling MPs to have the sort of debates with ministers where individual MPs can cross-examine ministers in the manner that we have seen with Robert Jay QC leading the line at the Leveson Inquiry. I can’t see ministers wanting to agree to that – especially as a number of backbench MPs are lawyers and barristers and would relish the chance of cross-examining ministers in the manner that they are professionally trained to do so.

What do you think of the above? Do you have further suggestions of your own or that you’ve seen elsewhere?

 

On High Speed 2

…and I’m not talking about a super-powered narcotic. Rather I’m talking about the new high speed railway that has been confirmed by the Transport Secretary in the House today (10 January 2012).

I don’t have a problem with HS2 or high speed rail in principle. The issues for me are on alleviating overcrowding the existing Westcoast Mainline (both passenger and freight), carbon emissions and the ability and convenience of getting from city centre to city centre without having to fly or go by car.

That’s not to say there won’t be or aren’t any problems. These were covered in the Transport Select Committee’s report into High Speed Rail. Any major public infrastructure project is going to cause problems for some people. If it was my house that was going to be flattened to make way for such a project, I wouldn’t be too happy either.

What saddens me on all things transport is that there is no high profile transport strategy  (that integrates high speed rail) and no high profile people at the top of Whitehall who seem to be championing it. The former was a key criticism coming from anti-HS2 campaigners. (There are pro-HS2 campaigners too). There is a transport strategy that is incorporated into DfT’s Business Plan for 2011-15 but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether such documents are the sort that capture the imagination of the people or whether they are aimed for an audience of politicians, specialists and technocrats.

I’ve not gone into the huge detail of HS2, but intuitively there are a number of things that make me wonder whether they were considered. These include:

A tax on domestic flights to pay for some of the construction costs of both rail lines and renewable electricity-generating infrastructure – both because of the climate change impact and also the aim to get more people using rail instead of flying. (I don’t doubt that this will have it’s “in principle” critics and those who see problems, such as the time lag of bringing in a tax vs when the infrastructure that it funds is ready, to whether the receipts of such a tax should be used to subsidise the fares of rail travel).

Public infrastructure bonds which were covered in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. Will there be more detail coming out on how much money from long term investors (such as pension funds) is likely to be invested, and how much money from future fares will go into repayments vs taxpayers money?

Integrating HS2 with key hubs and placesIt looks like it will connect with Heathrow airport, Crossrail, HS1/Channel Tunnel (see paragraphs 5 & 6), but it will be interesting to see what this looks like in practice.

Integration within the city transport networks of the main cities on the route and other smaller towns and cities. For example the ease of which people can move from one train to another, or onto the buses and trams. This for me is dependent on having talented and competent figures in the (northern) cities who can deliver the sorts of improvements to the transport infrastructure that have been seen in London over the past decade or so. It is also dependent on cities getting greater levels of transport funding too.

The wider ‘vision’ for transport & sustainability –  in particular the railways. Number 10’s website has a useful tool that allows transport watchers to keep tabs on what’s been delivered on all things sustainable rail. This for me includes the principle of incorporating renewable electricity generation (and the infrastructure needed) to feed into the electrified rail lines. I also wonder about any prospects of extending the Manchester spur out to Liverpool and to the ferry terminals linking to Ireland.

Risks of funding being swallowed up by “consultants” & non-productive spending – the amount of money that High Speed 2 is costing is huge. Why? What steps are going to be taken to prevent money from being splashed out on expensive conferences at plush venues that are of limited benefit? There is a significant amount of learning from past high-spending regeneration programmes from the previous administration. How will this learning be extracted and applied?

It could be that the construction of HS2 captures the imagination of people about public transport. I’d like to think so. I was one of many people awe-inspired by the renovation of  St Pancras (which I first flagged up in the blogpost Open data for transport planning). I wish we had architects of the likes of the Victorian masters who could design public transport hubs that reflected pride in public places rather than the bland tents of glass and plastic or the empty soulless spaces of concrete & steel that we see all-too-often.

There is also the issue of education and training. One of the issues that caused a political furore with the Olympics construction site was the significant employment of non-UK workers in what was otherwise an area of multiple deprivation. Given the levels of youth and longterm unemployment in particular, to what extent will the Government be mandating through the procurement processes that contractors have to take on apprentices and/or those who have been otherwise longterm unemployed? Given both EU employment laws and the principle that firms should be able to hire whoever they think is best for the job, finding a solution that deals with youth and long term unemployment while being compliant with the law and those principles, won’t be straight forward.

Please stop pricing us out of existence

This blogpost picks up on a number of themes written by @Penners_ in her article Living with grandma. Like may people in their late 20s and early 30s, I certainly didn’t plan on having to move back in with my parents either after university or during my working life. This blogpost amongst other things is going to look at the fallacy of composition when you start putting individual policies that in isolation may seem to make sense but when put together, make anything but.

Three of the big issues for me are housing, transport and education.

On the issue of housing, the article mentioned above covers several of the themes. There are also a number of other issues. Buy-to-let ‘investors’ are benefiting at the expense of first-time buyers on the back of the mortgage finance squeeze. There are also continuing problems of unused or under-used properties whether empty mansions or empty homes.  The fixed supply of land inevitably means that there will be limitations on what sorts of housing can be built where – to say nothing about planning laws, building regulations and the issue of who owns which plots of land and which buildings.

I’ve mentioned before that my former headmaster told us school leavers in the mid-1990s that our generation would not be in positions where we have jobs for life. We would have to reskill, upskill and change careers. The changes to how further and higher education is financed means that the cost burden has moved from the state to the individual. The rationale for replacing a system of grants and free education to one of loans is that individuals will benefit from higher incomes when they complete their education and training, enabling them to pay off any loans that they take out to pay for the tuition and other costs required. That may may some sense in ‘job-for-life’ careers, but where people have to continually retrain and switch careers, loan after loan after loan (that needs to be repaid) becomes a trap – the curse of debt.

There is then the issue of the cost of transport – something that I covered in In praise of public transport. What is the rationale for further fare rises? The Campaign for Better Transport asks this question in The Telegraph. Whitehall departments are among many employers that offer season ticket loans for their employees, such are the expense of season tickets. I commuted from Cambridge for a couple of years because I found London rents to be unaffordable. It wasn’t just the rent alone – there are utility bills too…bills that are also rising. Can’t afford a place of my own, struggling to afford the costs of getting too and from the office, repaying the loans and debts from university days…that does not leave much left.

While all of this is happening, there is an unemployment crisis – in particular with young people. It is one that goes beyond our own borders too – the Eurozone (irrespective of who is to blame) showing eye-wateringly high unemployment figures. How can people possibly pay off those loans if there are no jobs for them to go into? For those who are in work, the majority of them have had pay freezes or below-inflation pay-rises. The situation looks very bleak – in particular for poorer people who are being hit hardest by inflation.

There is then the problem of consumer debt – one that is getting worse. The desperation drives many people into the arms of payday loan companies – an issue that Stella Creasy has been continuing to go after.

While all of this is happening, the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of us is widening.

House prices are outside the reach of many of us, with rents seemingly going in the same direction. Those who do take out mortgages do so at eye-watering levels. Rents are becoming more and more unaffordable. Public transport is becoming even more unaffordable – assuming that the routes have not been cut as a result of the wider public service cuts. Tuition fees are now at the levels that people would have thought was the equivalent of the cost of a house only a generation or two ago. People are also having to spend more and more (in both time and money) on retraining for new careers as jobs demand more specialised skills. Combine that with intrusive saturation advertising exhorting people to go out and buy into the new crazes…is there any money left?

  • House prices at stupidly high levels & thus unaffordable for many people – loans
  • Tuition fees and course fees at such high levels as to be unaffordable for many people – loans
  • Public transport and season tickets getting to such high levels as to be unaffordable for many people – loans

At what point do people say “Actually, we cannot afford any of that!” Are people with the talent to go down a number of career paths already doing so? Are people who are suitable for certain jobs choosing not to go for them because of the costs of getting to/from work and/or the costs of renting close to the place of work? Because if that is the case, that cannot be good for the economy (because the most competent people best suited for the jobs/careers are not even applying for them) and it cannot be good for society (because people are being denied the opportunities to reach their potential).

Do any mainstream politicians have the vision, calibre and competency to do anything about it and stop the current system from pricing the rest of us out of existence? The number of longterm unpaid internships at the House of Commons-backed website W4MP isn’t filling me with a huge amount of confidence.

Economics – what does the data say?

Looking back on my time in the academia of economics at university, one of the things that strikes me is the relative lack of examination of data – amongst other things. Textbooks are full of graphs – supply and demand, purchasing power parity, unemployment against inflation, inflation against interest rates, IS-LM, you name it. But inspite of all of these graphs in the books, I can’t recall ever seeing the data behind these graphs.

Intuitively, things can seem to make sense when explained through. One of the biggest assumptions that is used in economics is ceteris paribus – ‘all other things being equal’. The murkier the waters become in mainstream economics, the more one realises that actually there are many things that are anything but equal, and thus the flaws in the models emerge. It’s also that area where political biases are spectacularly exposed – the biggest example being around immigration. Free movement of capital, labour and knowledge? What business is it of the state regarding who a firm chooses to employ or not employ? Yet the blunt application of such principles give the feel of such economists living in a social vacuum – the firm being able to hire and fire at will, not taking into account the human impact of the instability & the worries that such conditions have on people’s health. I can’t help but feel that the mindset of “firms externalising as many of their costs, paying their workers as little as possible thus leading to maximised profits = good” was taught. Little consideration was given to the impact that this would have on how the workforce performed. If you pay people more and treat them better, won’t there be a greater incentive for them to be more productive? Won’t that also increase the calibre of people who choose to work for you, putting you ahead of the competition? Who are the business leaders who will stick their necks out on the line, say they want to pay more than the market rate in order to attract higher calibre staff, deliver better products and services & more satisfied customers?

This in part comes back down to the title of this post: What does the data say? When I started working part time during my college days in the mid-1990s, the local supermarket had just moved off from manual pricing – i.e. where every single product needed a little sticky label on it for the checkout staff to punch in the price. One of my local newsagents still does this today. The local supermarket has since moved on to a system of scanning everything, enabling things like automated stock control. Amongst other things, this allows firms to look at shopping trends for individual products and potentially compare them against a whole host of different factors – such as an advertising campaign by a manufacturer, a discounting campaign by a local competitor to things like the weather or the success/failure for the England football team to qualify for a given tournament.

This got me thinking back to the graphs I was talking about at the top. What would all the demand and supply graphs look like if all – ALL of that automated data was plotted on axes? Which products would demonstrate that if you raised the prices, demand would fall? Which products would end up doing the opposite? What would the elasticities look like – i.e. which are the ones that would maintain a relatively constant level of demand irrespective of the price changes? Which are the ones that would change significantly at even the smallest of price changes? Would the graphs be different for big retails vs small retailers selling the same products? What about comparing shop retail versus internet retail? Are there any differences there?

Part of the thinking behind this is a result of hanging around with scientists – the ones that study the traditional ones rather than the social ones. Amongst other things, the sceptical mindset & the desire to test stuff is one of the things I’ve come away with – for example throwaway comments such as “That’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot!” Why would a chocolate teapot be useless? Because when you put hot water into it, it would melt…wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?!? The only way to find out is to make one! (See the Naked Scientists’ full article on this here).

Something like this I think would be a fascinating study. The problems are that this would be a stupendously labour-intensive study collecting the data in the first place (because not everywhere may be collecting it and those that may be, may not be collecting it in a form that is easily useable), and secondly, firms may not be willing to give such data away (due to commercial considerations) or may want to charge for it. But the technology is there to collect, process and analyse the data and break it down/disaggregate it for a whole host of different things. Making those data sets accessible I hope would allow researchers to test and retest some of those assumptions that mainstream economists take for granted. What would the analysis of all of this data tell us? Would the data reinforce what mainstream economics already teaches or would it pull the rug entirely from under it?