The case for a Leveson-style inquiry into banking

Summary

Thoughts on why I think we should have a full judicial inquiry along the lines stated in Ann Pettifor’s epetition.

Or put simply:

If you’re not convinced, feel free to read further…

I’ve lost count the number of times people have called for full public inquiries into things. ‘Bad stuff has happened, let’s have a public inquiry to get to the truth.’ Such inquiries are neither cheap nor quick. Nor should they be given the magnitude of what they are investigating happens to be. There are reasons why we should be careful about calling for them. One of the longest running inquiries in UK history – the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland cost around £200million. Hence criticism that it’s only the lawyers that benefit. If we are going to spend a huge amount of money on an inquiry, have some very good reasons to do so. The Saville Inquiry was justified in going ahead because so many people lost their lives on that dark day, and the flaws in the original Widgery Tribunal that led to Tony Blair’s administration launching Saville’s follow-up. (I.e. the issues being both deaths of civilians and possible miscarriages of justice). One could also say that Saville was essential for the Northern Ireland Peace Process too.

Criteria for a public inquiry.

Why should one issue or incident get a public inquiry and another one not? In the interests of fairness and due process there needs to be an agreed set of criteria that each case can be judged against. This forces the hand of both ministers and officials to assess the evidence on its merits rather than being influenced by people or organisations with vested interests or their own personal interests and possible prejudices. In each case, a minister will have to make the judgement call on each case as to whether it meets the criteria for a public inquiry or not – with the arguments for and against being set out clearly. As a process, it should be pretty straight forward.

As for what those criteria should be, the website PublicInquiries.org has a very detailed set of material that indicates the considerations the Prime Minister and The Chancellor of the Exchequer will need to make in order to decide whether to hold a Leveson-style inquiry. The considerations are summarised as:

  • Determining the need to hold an inquiry – how bad is this bad stuff?
  • Is there a legal obligation to hold an inquiry?
  • What would the inquiry achieve?
  • Public concern
  • Alternatives

Just how bad is the case with banking?

Very. There are a number of recent industry-wide cases that indicate problems are systemic. These include:

Those are the ones that have hit the headlines. The ones that have floated under the radar are all here.

In all of the above-four bullet points:

  • we’re not talking about petty cash
  • we’re not talking about a small number of individuals badly affected
  • we’re not talking about a few rogue people in a small number of firms
  • we’re not talking a one-off error of judgement

Is there a legal obligation?

I’m not a lawyer so I’ll pass that one over to legal watchers of this blog and of Puffles to comment on that one. (Please do – I genuinely do not know if something on the scale of all of these compels/compelled a public inquiry, or whether there is ‘reasonable expectation’ that there should be one).

What would an inquiry achieve?

PublicInquiries.org comes into its own on this one. Their bullet points are as follows:

  • establishing the facts
  • learning from events
  • catharsis or therapeutic exposure
  • reassurance
  • accountability blame and retribution
  • political considerations

Do we know the facts?

In terms of the headline ones, probably. But as we found out from Leveson, it’s the emails, the text messages and the cross-examination where different witnesses contradict each other that more than speak volumes. In terms of the details that created this toxic culture, we don’t know the facts. We don’t know about the lobbying of ministers, MPs, politicians and regulators. We don’t know what the politicians were thinking during what Chancellor George Osborne now calls “the age of irresponsibility” – an age that he is trying to pin down on Labour. I won’t go into the politics in detail. I can understand why Osborne has done this but this problem – as with the media and MPs’ expenses goes far beyond political point-scoring.

Can we learn from events?

Well…we can. Whether we will is a different matter. The evidence-giving process in itself will allow people to think for themselves what improved regulation and/or enforcement is needed.

Catharsis or therapeutic exposure

From Puffles’ Twitter feed I’ve seen there are more than a few people who want to see some chaps called Giles, Harlequin and Aurelien get an absolute roasting in front of the legal and judicial equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle Show. Ditto with the house masters of top public schools, oxbridge professors and even ‘nanny’ – for failing to instill sound morals into their charges during the latter’s early years.

While I don’t thing getting Jezza to shout at them will do much good, at least it would put some faces to the otherwise ‘faceless bankers and traders’ who otherwise have little public profile when compared to their remuneration. It’s not just bureaucrats that can be faceless – and I’ve called on previous occasions for more senior civil servants to have higher public profiles given their responsibilities and remuneration. Let’s make the same true for banking and finance. Let’s shine the light on the faces of those who make up ‘the markets’.

Reassurance

I’d like to think that we the general public want and need to know that the chances of these scandals happening again have been minimised as much as reasonably possible. It doesn’t help businesses small or large if they have no confidence in the banking and finance system. It speaks volumes of the finance system that payday loan companies now feel confident enough to enter the market charging extortionate rates.

Accountability, blame and political considerations

I’m not talking ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ blame here. There’s just as much saying ‘these people were responsible for this, and as a consequence they will be banned from X, Y and Z – e.g. working for a finance company, holding a directorship etc. There’s also the issue of the ill-gotten gains – the bonuses and the assets and status symbols acquired as a result. You never know, the forced sale of all of those houses and apartments may help release some of the pressure on the housing market in London and the South East.

There’s also accountability of current and former ministers. It’s one of the reasons why Ed Miliband needs to consider how he and Ed Balls would respond given that they were special advisers in The Treasury and/or ministers responsible or in Cabinet when much of this was going on. It would also force Gordon Brown – and possibly Tony Blair to properly account for their actions throughout the 2000s, allowing their critics to put their points to them in a way they may have felt did not get publicity at the time or have not ever been properly responded to.

Public Concern

This stems from Amnesty International and is cited on PublicInqiries.org.

The public concern here is that public trust in a key pillar of the economy has been significantly undermined. They relate to a defined series of events serious enough that only a judge-led public inquiry could get to the bottom of it and restore public trust. That’s my interpretation of the public concern in this case.

Are there alternatives?

Absolutely. Bob Diamond will be appearing before the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday. Cynics might say that he’s going to apologise for the fact that events turned out badly and that naughty boys did inappropriate things that inconvenienced quite a few people. I couldn’t possibly comment either way. Parliamentary inquiries are one route. Ministerial or ministerially-appointed reviews can take place – with various levels of timeframes and resources and varying levels of power.

The differences with a judge-led inquiry as highlighted in the epetition include:

  • The ability to send for persons, papers and electronic communications – i.e. once requested they must be retrieved and sent (with various stern penalties for obstructing said inquiry by destroying such material)
  • The ability to compel witnesses to give evidence on oath – lying on oath carrying the offence of perjury and a lengthy spell in jail
  • Cross-examination by expert QC. Robert Jay QC has provided excellent examples of how useful this can be compared say to select committee evidence sessions. Jay was so good at it that in the case of Adam Smith I almost felt sorry for the latter.

Conclusion?

A judge-led public inquiry is justified by:

  1. The need to restore trust in an essential component of the economy
  2. The number of people and firms involved in activities ranging from bad practice to flagrant law-breaking
  3. The number of people and firms negatively affected by 2)
  4. The amount of money involved relative to national income
  5. The impact that these scandals have had on UK Plc, and the consequences for the country’s trading relations abroad
  6. The need to put right the wrongs to minimise the chances of them happening again
  7. To hold those to account those that have broken the law

Cabinet Office comes to Cambridge

Summary

Teacambs welcomes Jane O’Loughlin from Government Digital Service (GDS)

Don’t say Puffles didn’t tell you! We were lucky to have the presence of Jane O’Loughlin from GDS at Teacambs the day after Puffles’ visit to GovUK Towers. I first met Jane back in early 2011 when I stumbled along to my first Whitehall Teacamp gathering in January of that year. (I was still in the civil service back then). So it was lovely to have her visiting to provide some much-needed rocket fuel to help give its local offshoot a great boost to its profile – which we more than received.

Prior to Teacambs, we headed to Shire Hall to meet some senior managers at the County Council. It’s one of those things where the presence of someone from Central Government alone can potentially go a long way. This is one of the things that I found when in the civil service on visits outside of London. The fact that someone from London had made the effort to visit & listen spoke volumes in itself – even if on several occasions it meant taking an ear-bashing! Amongst other things it showed to local people that whatever it was they were doing was on the radar of someone inside the corridors of power.

Jane’s presence alone showed not only to the County Council, but a host of other local organisations and public sector bodies that this grassroots gathering of social media advocates is something worth getting involved with. This was reinforced by Jonathan’s presence – and that of his colleague Sam Egbayelo too. I had met Sam at one of the social media awareness workshops I had delivered for the City Council earlier this year, and struck me as one of the people who already got not just social media as a series of tools, but also the mindset around it. As Sam has to deal day-to-day with the local general public, I felt the presence of him – or someone in a similar role with a similar outlook is essential for the success of Teacambs in the medium to longer term. The reason being his experiences will be of interest to other public bodies who are further behind the curve, that he ‘gets’ social media perhaps in a way others in an organisation as large as the City Council do not, and that he’s also a front-line institutional link between the Council and Teacambs. One of the challenges for me is to find other people like Sam in other public sector bodies in the county!

What did you discuss at June’s Teacambs? 

There were about 15 of us for June’s Teacambs, talking about social media and culture change in public sector organisations. Both Jane, along with Jonathan James, Head of Customer Services at Cambridge City Council, gave detailed insights on their experiences. There were three themes that I picked up:

  • The IT systems changes that needed to be made
  • The changing patterns of interaction from service users and the public
  • Trying to change the culture & mindset of staff

My main interest was in the third bullet point, but there were others there who were interested in the other two. We had a couple of people who had enough technical expertise and understanding to discuss the first bullet point, and the same with the second, including former councillor Amanda Taylor. Also *Thank you* to Keith Edkins (pictured here with Puffles at Cambridge Beer Festival) for taking a few photos of the gathering too! We were also pleased to have Tara Crabtree of the East of England Ambulance Trust joining us too. Thus we had a nice mix of local residents, local political types, representatives from public sector organisations and civil service input.

I’ll upload some more detailed content on the Teacambs website going into a little more detail on the issues we discussed in the bullet points.

Next month – the last Thursday of July – we hope to have Councillor Nick Clarke, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council talking about all things broadband. I’ve also had confirmation from Cambridgeshire Police and Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue that a couple of their staff are coming.

In praise of…the Government Digital Service

Summary

And it’s not just because they took Puffles out for a pub lunch!

Puffles and I were in London (again) on Wednesday to meet some friends from the Government Digital Service. The wander round GovUK Towers reminded me of the feelings I had when I transferred from a now-closed regional office to a central policy team in Whitehall – it was a huge step-on from what I had become used to previously.

One of the first things I noticed was the familiarity several people had with Puffles – but not with me. A case of “Yeah…who’s that bloke with Puffles?” but in a working environment rather than in a small bar near Kings Cross. Which I actually quite like because every time it happens I’m reminded of the growing influence of how people are using social media, and because Puffles is a nice safe conversation starter.

How does the GDS differ from a normal Whitehall department?

The absence of ‘normal’ office clutter for a start. They do ‘hot desking’ – a concept that during my civil service days I was initially hostile to because I’d never seen it work in practice. But it worked here. The stereotype of the ‘office cubicle’ and meerkat-style behaviour (popping your head up from behind your workstation) is non-existent because everyone uses laptops and all of the barriers between people’s faces that you normally find in such environments are done away with.

They had big screens, but but screens that fed back useful realtime information that could help inform people on what they were doing. Not the bland corporate messages imploring people to work harder but, for example some metrics on say social media chatter on a given issue. Useful given that this was the run-up to the publication of the Open Data White Paper.

It was also very public to the teams and people working inside as to who was doing what judging by the writing on the wall – literally. Post-its, cards and whiteboards the size of which I’d never seen all made it clear what was the essential stuff and what was the ‘nice to do if we have time’ stuff. Who needs round-the-table weekly updates when it’s all there in front of you being updated as you go along?

Scrapping the hierarchies

The place was also noticeable in that it was very difficult to spot who was in charge of everything. But being a creative environment it didn’t need to have a big boss with his own office guarded by an ante-room with a couple of secretaries posted to guard access. There was something beautifully autonomous about the whole set up. You got the sense that everyone there was there on merit, that they were working hard but were also having fun at the same time. (I can’t comment whether this is actually the case, but that is the impression I got!)

This is different from the days of having signs hung from the ceiling saying ‘Here sits the director of…’ in times gone by. You may not have needed the physical walls but there was always a sense that the area of the office where some of the senior civil servants sat was ‘sterile ground’ for which people should not tread unless they had permission. It was less that way with those senior civil servants that chose to embed themselves in their teams – a set up that I think made them far more accessible and gave them the ‘soft intelligence’ to nip burgeoning problems in the bud. With those ones that I worked with who adopted the latter approach, they seemed to be far more effective in their jobs and at managing their teams because they put themselves at the heart of them rather than as a disinterested overseer.

Combining the best of the public and the private sector?

Again, this was also a feeling I got. Many of the people there could be earning far more in the private sector. Yet at the same time the sense of the public service ethos has not been lost on them. Combining this with a very clear set of projects to work on, sound leadership and a critical mass of people from within this field working on it seems to have gathered enough momentum to change things.

I’m sure many of the people in GDS will probably find themselves back in the private sector at some stage, but for now here are a series of projects they are working on that are open and transparent – and increase the openness and transparency of the whole of Whitehall and beyond. Combine this with creativity and flair that a number of people have brought to the operation and it all looks quite exciting.

You could say that the culture was partly reflected by the welcome Puffles received. I can imagine in other places Puffles would have been seen as a security threat & locked away.

Puffles at GovUK Towers – visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London

At GovUK Towers they gave Puffles a desk and took a few pictures too! (This one by Emer Coleman). You can even see the **hugs** marks around Puffles’ neck!

Why the nice welcome for Puffles? Well apart from being a cute dragon fairy, Puffles (and I) are helping deliver on the whole social media and open data agenda. This is whether it’s in my own paid commissions on social media training or in the voluntary work that I do both off my own back and in collaboration with others – such as Teacambs. It all helps.

I’m not normally one to praise Francis Maude but he’s been one of the key drivers, along with Sir Bob Kerslake and Mike Bracken in the whole digital agenda. So credit where it’s due on this area of work. Interestingly, it may have been the splitting of the role of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service (along with the shrinking of the Department for Communities and Local Government) that may have freed up Sir Bob to help drive this from a civil service perspective. Would a civil service head have as much time to do so if he was also acting effectively as the Prime Minister’s chief civil service policy adviser? Possibly not.

In terms of the work that they have done, have a look at the new social media guidance for civil servants (esp if you are in the wider public sector as this is likely to come your way too), and the Open Data White Paper. With both of these documents, the processes by which these were put together and the way things are going to move forward for me are just as important as the content themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how they are delivered – not least because it’ll be a test of the new culture that the civil service (from the very top at least) says it wants to embrace.

If you are a serving civil servant – particularly in a policy field – you may want to get in touch with the GDS and arrange a visit. (Especially if you are a social and digital media type). What they have got there may pleasantly surprise you.

Liborgate – Banks behaving badly…again

Summary

Time for a Leveson-style inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of banking?

That’s what this petition is calling for – and I agree.

I’ve thrown my dummy out of the pram around all things banking, finance and economics before – remember: “You Bastards! Give me back my subject! ??

This is more a case of “You Bastards, give us back our money!” – remembering that the banks have been bailed out and propped up by the tax payer while all of this was going on. There are a whole host of issues here, and we’ve only just found the tip of the iceberg if Robert Peston is correct.

If the banking crisis didn’t bring down the banking system, there is every possibility that the legal fallout from this one could do just that. On Newsnight of 27 June 2012 one of the panellists in the USA – a former regulator said that the US Department of Justice had already identified that people had lost money as a result of this. Assuming that a court of law in the US can prove this, then potential liabilities for all the banks concerned could be massive. My personal take is that it would speak volumes of the UK regulatory system if it were the US and the EU that were to take the more punitive action – including criminal charges, and the UK none. Indeed, last night it was reported that no criminal charges were going to be filed.

Will it remain that way? Well Andy Wightman has already filed a complaint to the police alleging a breach of the Fraud Act 2006. Will we see those at the top of the organisations responsible (especially those that have moved on – Fred Goodwin for example) being held to account? I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Banking and party political funding

But it goes beyond banking. When we look at political party funding, a fair amount of money from the banking sector has gone into politics. Although the Conservative Party are probably most exposed to this, that’s not to say money from those in the banking industry (who may or may not have known about this) hasn’t gone to other parties. Hence why Labour in particular need to tread very carefully if they feel tempted to make this into a party-political issue.

The scale of this – like Leveson may well go far beyond party boundaries. I can’t help but feel that individual politicians will find themselves caught up in this. How many of them had friends and associates who were aware of this behaviour – and possibly benefitted from it? Will we see some difficult extradition cases to the US along the lines of the NatWest Three? Will we see newspapers trying to identify particular traders and managers, doing background checks on them and finding that they went to the same elite private schools and universities that the politicians went to?

I’ve barely touched on the economic impact of manipulating the interest rates – something first touched upon in The privatisation of interest rates. The costs are as such that I barely want to think. Has every single one of us who has taken out a loan in that period (I was one of them) taken a hit as a result of this behaviour?

Now put all of this in the context of a global economic crisis, polarisation of wealth distribution, public sector cuts, rising unemployment, rising costs of living…yes, this couldn’t have come at a worse time. As for the content of the emails released (see end of here), the whole thing would otherwise be a farcical gathering of stereotypical ex-public schoolboys getting caught with their trousers down…if it wasn’t for the fact that what they were doing was illegal and/or unlawful.

Someone blame the teachers!

Not that the housemasters of the public schools would be called in to explain how their former charges ended up doing such things any more than the professors of PPE at Oxford get questioned on the performances of todays frontbenchers (on both sides) in politics. Well…if you’re going to blame the teachers for bad things that happen in inner cities, doesn’t the same principle apply elsewhere? I’ll leave that one with you to wrestle with. (This paragraph wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, if you were wondering).

Coming back to banking, who’s going to sort out this mess once the dust has settled? Is there anyone else left to trust?

[Edited to add]

Kudos to Jon Snow of Channel 4 news.

First there was this blogpost highlighting Angela Knight of the British Bankers’ Association (and former Economic Secretary to the Treasury under John Major – is that post cursed?) refusing to do an interview…

…before things changed & she U-turned. Watch her in the face of Snow’s forensic questioning. The set up of Libor itself is astonishing – as are the lack of powers of the BBA.

Interestingly, Knight only recently stepped down as the association’s chief executive.

Calamity Chloe hits the headlines

Summary

Chloe Smith hits the buffers – but was it all her own fault?

As political TV interviews go, this one was excruciating. One that I expect is going to be recalled by many a political watcher. 

It should have been a fairly straight forward interview: The Government’s initial policy was A, it listened to representations from B, became clear that we were not aware of all the facts when deciding on A so new policy is C. Well done to those backbench MPs who campaigned.

Smith got caught when Jeremy Paxman asked her when she was told there was a new policy. In the grand scheme of things, it was a storm in a teacup. Or at least it should have been. Because of weak media performances, Chloe Smith – not the change of policy – is now the story. So much so that the ITV Anglia 6 o’clock news were calling her “Calamity Chloe”

Lines to take

I’ve written more than enough lines to take in the civil service to know when I’ve been fed one. Even the most fair-weather political watcher knows when someone is telling something they really believe vs when they are being given a ‘line to take’. Smith resorted to ‘lines to take’ that were completely inappropriate for the questions that were being asked by Paxman – such as “When were you told of the policy change?” Which is a fair question.

She was then asked about her supposed change of views on the back of the policy change. Things become tricky with the convention of collective responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the minister thinks, what matters is the collective decision of the government of the day – of which all ministers are expected to fall in line. Repeated U-turns make this convention much harder to stand by – not least because very busy ministers start becoming worried about what their government’s policy really is. This uncertainty can be catastrophic.

The reason I supposed Smith didn’t want to answer the question was that not being involved in a key discussion on the proposed policy change reflects badly on her status as a minister, badly on how Treasury ministers work, badly on the Cabinet in terms of how it functions (allegedly they weren’t told until the announcement was made in Parliament) and catastrophically on the Chancellor. This, I assume is what Smith would have thought was coming if she conceded on that point. The problem was, waffling made it worse.

Did the circumstances change?

I alluded to this point above – was there something that ministers did not know at the time of setting the original policy compared to the time when they decided to change the policy? This was the thrust of Paxman’s second question. Rather than responding to say “This is what’s changed and why I no longer stand by the reservations I originally had”, Smith responded with waffle. It showed.

Why did the Transport Secretary not know about it until not so long ago?

A serious question which no junior minister should be dropped into the bear pit with Paxman over – because it’s calling into question how the entire government of the day is managed.  Better in such situations to say “I’ve not been party to discussions between the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary” – which would have been a reasonable response for a very junior minister. Paxman was right to state that change in fuel duty is likely to be of direct interest to the Transport Secretary – just as changes to interest rates are likely to be of interest to the Minister for Housing. What is revealed here is the power of The Treasury over policy portfolios held in other departments. In terms of how this Government functions, what Paxman seems to be getting at is whether the change in the duty was a negotiated and agreed policy change or whether ministers in the Department for Transport were simply informed and expected to run with it.

Could Smith have said far more with far less?

Definitely – but by that time she seemed rattled. Paxman wanted to get Smith to confirm how the U-turn would be funded. When she said it would be from underspends in other departments, Paxman asked for examples. One reason Smith could have given for not giving them to Paxman was that they had not been properly analysed and would rather not respond rather than give incorrect figures only to have to retract them later on.

On Paxman’s final point – didn’t it make a mockery of cutting the deficit being the number 1 priority if underspends were funding tax cuts, she could have responded that the impact that this would have would support businesses and possibly lead to an increase in tax revenues. But then this would have led her open to attack from her Labour opponents on whether the cuts are ‘too far too fast.’

Could this all have been avoided?

Yes – easily. Either Osborne could have gone on, but the Chancellor seldom does Newsnight. A number of people pointed out that Gordon Brown seldom did Newsnight either. In which case wouldn’t it have been better to have put someone on who was familiar with all of the issues rather than a badly-briefed, under-prepared minister? In such circumstances a backbencher can normally be found. In this case, they had one ready and waiting – Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow who has been fighting for this policy change for quite some time – both in the Commons and outside. He’s appeared in the media many times – particularly locally, and he has engaged with the general public over it in his surgeries. (His constituency is a short trip down the M11 & trainline from me). He’s also blogged on the issue.

I’m not saying Halfon would have done a better job than Smith – whose constituency is nearby in Norwich – because of gender or background. It’s simply that he is more up-to-speed on the subject area than Smith – who has 2 full time jobs as junior minister and constituency MP – could hope to have.

In one sense it wouldn’t have looked great for the Government declining to put a minister up on Newsnight, but they do it all the time. Labour was the same. Quite often they’d put out a press release or a statement to the programme and leave it to a backbencher to fight their cause. What I struggle to understand is why communications managers within the Conservative Party did not do exactly that and ask Robert Halfon to take the Newsnight seat.

As it is, it looks like a setback to a young junior minister that some people had tipped for the top. Like others who have found themselves floundering in similar situations (memory reminds me of Yvette Cooper and David Lammy several years ago) I’m sure she’ll recover. It also looks – in the Westminster and politics bubbles at least – like the short term political impact of the policy change has been muted as a result. (This is irrespective of the medium term economic impact might be). Finally, it has called into question (again) the judgement and character of the Chancellor – questions being asked and accusations being made most damagingly from his own side.

It could so easily have been avoided.

[Edited to add]

This post by @FlipChartRick takes a different view, but is worth looking at – as are the first two comments – http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/this-was-no-car-crash-chloe-smith-will-go-far/

Anne Perkins in The Guardian looks at it from a gender perspective – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/fuel-duty-osborne-chloe-smith-newsnight

A Cambridge coding evening class/club?

Summary

I want one. Now.

Because I can’t make WordPress.org work in the way I want it too and there are too many gaps in my knowledge and I can’t sit still for five minutes and work from a book and I need people to bounce of and…and…and…I’m tearing my hair out!!!

The only providers I can find locally are corporate ones – and no, I don’t have a spare eight-hundred quid going. I had a moan about this back in February but little came of it other than a number of coding wizards tweeting the joys of a particular coding language.

Some of you may have seen this charming little digital video doing the rounds – all about Code Club. Is anything like this happening in Cambridge? Perhaps the stereotype is that we’re all geeks in Cambridge and that if anywhere doesn’t need something like this, it’s Cambridge. I beg to differ if the stereotype is to be believed.

Patience dear boy, patience. You’ve had too much coffee and sugar today!

Well…there is that. The energy of a power station combined with the attention span of a gnat is never a good combination. Ditto the curse of loneliness associated with being a freelancer who some may see as the sort of person who turns up to the opening of an envelope or a front door to make up for it. I assure you that’s not the case on the latter. It’s more a case of having a more clear vision of what I want to achieve, knowing it can be done but not really knowing how. That’s part of the whole “Cambridge L!VE” thing – there are a whole host of things that I know can be done but they are not necessarily things I have either the knowledge or capacity to do them myself.

The frustration I’m having is similar to the problems I had with French until my former French teacher introduced me to the concept of grammar. One thing I hold Thatcher and Major responsible for was allowing me to go through school up to the age of 15 without knowing what a verb or a noun was – or how to conjugate the former. Hence when my now late grandparents bought me one of those new electronic translators circa 1994, I wrote off the gizmo as useless because it could not translate word-for-word. I wanted to know what the “French” word for “was” was. When the screen responded “pt to be/etre” or something like that, I had no idea what to make of it.

Examples of the conundrums I’m struggling with are all there on my personal site – which I see as my ‘playground’ for learning as much as anything else. On the left-hand column how do I slightly tweak it so it’s not so close to the main central column? How do I tweak the end section of each of the posts and page? (The bit around the comments section). How do I get the icons for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn displayed properly and appropriately on the site?  Remember I want to learn how to do these things myself so they become as effortless as I find blogging. I don’t want to go down the route of asking people for one-off pieces of advice knowing I’ll probably forget it later on down the line.

So…what would work for you?

I’m almost designing my own evening class that I want to be delivered – or even a coding club that meets regularly that can get a reasonably sizeable group of us off up and running. A group that say would meet on a Sunday evening in a wifi-enabled pub on a similar formate of Teacambs but with a bit more structure. What I don’t want is a strictly formalised evening class taught by someone who sucks the life and soul out of what is actually a very powerful skill to learn. Last year I did an intro to web page design and the tutor killed it with the most unimaginative course book downloaded off of the internet somewhere. Creating a homepage for your dog? Get out of the 1990s!

A mini coding club for Cambridge? (Or at least my neck of the woods of it?)

Well…if you don’t ask you don’t get. Anyone with a clue about coding (and in particular on my part WordPress) fancy hosting a summer coding club in Central Cambridge on a Sunday (or other) evening to help numbskulls like me get over the first hurdles? I have no idea where to start – perhaps getting everyone to go through CodeAcademy together might be a start? Just makes a change from being stuck alone trying to work things out.

On housing benefit cuts

Summary

Why has the Prime Minister not opted for the more difficult decisions?

The Prime Minister delivered a speech on welfare reform which has polarised opinion. His supporters have responded broadly positively, while his opponents have responded with various levels of outrage – whether in terms of ‘class war’ or whether it signals the return of the ‘nasty party.’

Having a scan through various articles on welfare and its various components, it’s not entirely clear as to what constitutes ‘welfare spending.’ The Guardian from 2010 quotes Iain Duncan Smith stating the welfare bill as being around £87billion while the Prime Minister indicates that benefits for the elderly (which he states are mainly made up of pensions) take up £110billion of the total welfare bill. Which is it?

On the housing benefit issue, there are a number of areas where there feels – on the face of it at least – some confusion as to who is ultimately responsible for housing benefit. Is it the Minister for Housing? Is it a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions? Or is it ultimately a minister in the Treasury who pulls the strings? You then have the added complication of things going through local councils in an era of localism and the removal of ‘ringfencing’ of government grants. (DirectGov’s housing benefit pages are here)

The Prime Minister understandably wants to get the welfare bill down. Politicians have been wanting to do this for years – or at least targeting it better towards those that need it or certain groups.

The headlines on housing benefit don’t look great for those under 25. Opponents of Cameron too have gone after the myth that housing benefits are paid mainly to those on other state benefits – citing statistics that the vast majority of recipients are already in work.

The cost of living

This is the piece of string I’ve been wanting to pull at and untangle for quite some time, but it’s a knot that is far too tight and complicated for someone with the attention span of a fairy on sucrose. So I asked not to be priced out of existence instead.

On London rents alone, the picture looks depressingly bleak. Cross-reference that with social mobility issues and the internships in Westminster – the unpaid ones. Depressingly I’m noticing that a number of full-time jobs on that site are now asking people to have completed internships as one of the criteria/requirements for said jobs. Depressing if you are one of the people who cannot afford to do those internships in the first place, whether paid or otherwise. How many organisations pay interns a living wage that enables them to live independently in London? (i.e. not with parents/relatives or subsidised by either?)

Throwing a bucket of water at an inferno

Whether it’s ‘encouraging’ firms and employers to pay interns ‘fairly’ or trying to ‘do more’ to deal with problem X, Y or Z, too much of what is coming out seems to be a reflection of what ministers see as easier levers, than tackling the more difficult problems. The welfare bill is something that ministers feel they have more control over. By saying “Group X will now be excluded” the assumption is that the welfare bill will fall. But does it account for the consequences of such a move? For example will it push more young people into more substandard housing because they cannot otherwise afford the rent? In which case what will the knock-on health impacts be? What will the impact be on those who – like me have moved back in with parents? Much as I’m grateful for and dependent on their continued support, it shoots to pieces your self-confidence and self-esteem. Shouldn’t I have my own full-time job, house and car by now?

Housing has been an area of catastrophic policy failure for a series of governments and ministers for many years now. Labour did not help themselves with the regular reshuffles of housing ministers. It’s only very recently that people have started to realise that the main levers of housing are in The Treasury – where few housing advocates happen to reside.

The disconnect between house prices and salaries

I still can’t get my head around why the mainstream media likes the idea of house prices going up. Who benefits? The BBC quotes the average UK house price at just over £225,000 with the average median salary being between £20,000-£25-000. When I talked about mortgages with my bank a few years ago, I was given a 4:1 ratio of house price to salary. I’d have been lucky to have gotten just over halfway to the average UK house price. I’ve not even mentioned the rents – of which Shelter say that even they are becoming unaffordable.

What’s the plan, Cam?

It’s all very well saying “We need more affordable housing” but part of the problem is that we’ve moved away from a model of where the state builds houses to one where there is a huge reliance on ‘the market’. The model for state-funded new homes is one where a certain proportion of developments are purchased by housing associations for sale or rent at ‘affordable prices.’ Therefore you are constantly at the mercy of developers waiting to build and release houses onto the market at the best price, rather than to deal with the highest need.

The international housing bubble that is London also doesn’t help. This was an issue that came up around The Budget in March 2012. Furthermore, there are the predictions of a Eurozone-crisis-driven property boom in London driven by continental Europeans looking for safer havens for their investments. That’s before we’ve even looked at the growth of the empty mansion.

For how much longer can the UK – and London in particular – sustain such inequalities? How long before such inequalities start seriously damaging the UK economy – if they’re not damaging it already?

What difficult decisions does Cameron need to make?

On housing benefit, it’s not the state expenditure (or demand side) that he needs to look at, it’s the supply side. What data does he have on empty homes? What data does he have on multiple home ownership? What data does he have on property purchases from people living/working abroad and how do such purchases correlate with other data in those areas regarding housing and homelessness?

Some people may say that what people choose to spend their money on is none of the state’s business. Within its little silo, yes. But when you are dealing with one of life’s essentials – of which housing is one – and one that is in limited supply, you cannot pretend that the hoarding of said essentials by a certain group of people, or the very restricted access (as a result of high prices) to those essentials for the rest of us, doesn’t have any consequences. They do have consequences and they are very real.

Will any of today’s politicians seize the nettle on housing?

I’m struggling to find many. Not because they are bad people, but because they are constrained by their own ideology about what the state can & should (or rather cannot and should not do). Labour were constrained by it during their time in power. If they were not, local councils would have been buying and building houses all over the country to meet the demand for affordable housing. Don’t expect any different from the Coalition parties either.

Can politicians produce a comprehensive plan that brings together a series of interventions, measures, policies and plans that can deal with the supply side of housing? Things like:

  • building more homes in areas that need it
  • buying up and refurbishing more homes in areas that need them
  • changing planning laws to restrict the building of luxury apartments and rabbit-hutches of the buy-to-let mould in favour of family homes
  • forcibly converting artificially sub-divided family homes back into family homes
  • giving far greater resources and powers for council housing enforcers to take over badly-maintained homes owned by slum landlords – banning the latter from owning & letting property
  • bringing in land value tax as a replacement for council taxes, and taxing the super-wealthy areas at more punitive rates to unlock some of the funds for some of the above-mentioned policies

Bringing the above in could help reduce house prices – both purchase and rental – for many people. Greater supply at the much-more-affordable end could reduce both the number of people on housing benefit and the amounts paid out at the same time. But the political will is not there. The Prime Minister has made his choice and it is for him and his supporters to stand by that choice and argue why alternatives such as the above are not feasible – whether politically or practically in terms of delivery.

There is the problem of negative equity for ordinary people – but how many people will that affect and what can and should the state do? Can it differentiate between the ordinary home owner and the buy-to-let investor? (i.e. bailing out the former and letting the latter go bankrupt?) Should the state differentiate in that way or let the market go its course?

I can’t see the above policies happening in the near future, but at the same time I struggle to see how the continuing state of affairs is sustainable. It isn’t. Something has to give. And that’s what worries me.

What Puffles spotted on the blogs & online – 23 June 2012

Summary

A slightly new take on my blogposts and an attempt to make me browse through all the stuff I send through to instapaper.

Eurozone

Frances Coppola continues to dig around the Eurozone crisis with the quotation:

“JP Morgan estimates only €15bn of €410bn total “aid” to Greece went into economy – rest to creditors. No wonder they are cross”

That’s one hell of a statistic.

Jumbo Carr

Jimmy Carr got shredded on the telly over his tax issues. What’s made this episode particularly interesting is that it’s brought the issue of tax avoidance to the celebrity-magazine-reading types: i.e. something that’s gone far beyond the niche interests of the Westminster bubble and seasoned activists. Richard Murphy, who’s campaigned on this issue for quite some time goes for the legal vs illegal definitions.

Cameron got snared in all of this because while he was happy to give Carr a kick in the blokey-bojangles over tax avoidance, he refused to do the same with his chum Gary Barlow (who just got an OBE) and it went against his previous comments on expressing views on individuals’ tax affairs.

EU gets its testicles caught in a snare over science.

Well…it was either put together by a bloke or was designed with men in mind….wasn’t it? It was the “Science – it’s a girl thing” furore (which The Telegraph kept a copy of) that got a number of Puffles’ female science followers and followees – there are quite a few of them – understandably up in arms. Here’s one video response – and here’s another in the New Statesman.

On body hair…

Why is it OK for men to have body hair but not women? Actually, I remember someone saying that today’s footballers are proverbially bald compared to their hairier counterparts from the 1970s. Where did all the big beards go? Shutupcaf wrote an interesting piece about body hair and society’s expectations. Which song was it that said “Never read beauty magazines, they’ll only make you feel ugly!”???

While Femfresh gets its…now…what’s the word for it…?

There’s a theme developing here around women’s issues, but in part it’s a reflection of the articles that Puffles’ female followers are pointing out. This for me is a good thing. If I want to know what a male-dominated media & establishment are thinking & talking about I’ll turn on the telly or read a newspaper.

Stavvers pointed Puffles in the direction of this one. Femfresh got a kicking on two fronts. The first was on their product and the second was on the advertising. She blogged about it here. This is one of the rare occasions where a company has been absolutely nailed on both their advertising and their product – in a manner where it was very difficult to respond.  – and was one of the first to point out the company’s climbdown over the advert. While it was very well done, it doesn’t deal with the issues surrounding its product. As a standalone incident it’s quite funny to see a big company getting a kicking from social media users. But it’s not a standalone incident because there is a wider, darker context to this all around the treatment of women – reflected in the farcical banning of the word “vagina” in democratic law-making chambers.

The Government’s new policy is sponsored by…

This was an interesting one doing the rounds – Who funds you? is about transparency of think tanks. Just who funds them? Funnily enough the right-wing ones don’t come out too well on the transparency stakes.

But my chum Adrian said it was a good idea and he’s a good chap…isn’t he?

Adrian Beecroft’s report blew up in the faces of everyone after, under cross-examination by MPs he admitted that he had not done nearly as much detailed research as perhaps he should have done. The footage from the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee from 13:55:00 is particularly interesting. But then we knew Beecroft’s report was not the greatest piece of work in the world. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government tore it to pieces last month.

Civil service reform

I blogged about this on the day and took part in a Guardian Public Leaders’ Network Q&A debate a couple of days after.  But don’t worry, you won’t be seeing headlines such as “UK public sector led by magic dragon!” coming along anytime soon. They are certainly being much more open about the process compared to last time around – inviting people to post questions and contributions on Facebook amongst other things. Not everyone is happy with it. The PCS Union and Prospect have both come out against the reforms. Will Perrin gave an interesting perspective from a tech-ish point of view. Slightly linked to reform is the risks civil servants run when using social media by Sarah Burke. Essentially Puffles’ House Rule no.1 applies.

What about local government?

Some of you will have seen the fun and games Argyll and Bute Council had over their school dinner issues – as summarised by Adrian Short. Puffles gave the Council a kicking too. This incident will go down as a case study for many years to come. Almost everything they could have done wrong they did. But then Adrian also noticed that the Council had form on doing questionable stuff – as he spotted in February.

Localopolis in the meantime reminded local councillors of the roles they had – at least six different ones. There are a number of top ideas that are being collated in this blog – essential reading if you are a local government type.

GCSEs or O-Levels?

One of the things I like about Puffles is that on issues around education, Puffles is followed by (& follows back) a handful of people who are in the system – whether at secondary school or sixth form college. LissyNumber – who’s just done her GCSEs gives Gove an absolute kicking over the leaks around changes to the system. Interestingly, Ellie Sharman – who’s just done her A-levels turned her fire on the qualifications she’s just done, though was written just before exam time.

Dare to dream again?

Jon Worth posted this on his blog – and I sort of feel I’m in a similar situation. I’ve forgotten how to dream about positive things for the future to the extent where I get motivated enough to actually do something about it. Back in 2006 it was the opposite. I was having a huge amount of sand kicked in my face that year – some of it self-inflicted, but I never stopped dreaming of getting to a better place and never stopped working towards it. My mindset was “reach for the stars and get to the top of the tree” – or something like that. Better than staring face down in the gutter, where I feel like I’ve been ever since my mental health crisis back in April.

Turning up to lots of events has been part of an attempt to bounce off people (and get some positive energy back too) in order to get some motivation going. Easier said than done – I’m still at a stage where I can’t sit still for five minutes without checking Twitter. Just when does social media switch off? Comments on a postcard please.

“Yeah…who’s that bloke with Puffles?”

Summary

You know your social media persona has made it when…exactly.

Just a short half-sober blogpost after arriving back on the right side of 2am on a Saturday morning.

I turned up to @KayGeeUK ‘s party a short stumble from Kings Cross to find the biggest gathering of the #PuffleMassiv this side of #PufflesCamp2011. It was kind of surreal being in a venue full of people who were more than familiar with me – or rather my Twitter persona that is Puffles the dragon fairy.  And what a splendid evening it was!

I can’t say I was best pleased with the cost of the train tickets – but I seldom am this side of the Channel. But it was more than worth it. There were a host of people I had not seen for over a year, along with a number who I had interacted with but had not met face-to-face. Nearly all had not seen the ‘cuddly toy’ version of Puffles – who is one of the best ‘ice breakers’ I have ever stumbled across. In a venue full of social media users, pretty much everyone ‘got’ Puffles – either because they were followers, had seen tweets or knew more than enough people who were either of the former.

It was a textbook example too of how people are able to use social media to filter great people into their lives (as well as filtering out the bad people too). I may not have been familiar with faces, but I was more than familiar with most of the Twitter usernames. And vice-versa. When I turned up with Puffles in arms, the general reaction was ‘Yeah…who’s that bloke with Puffles?’ – or words to that effect. People knew who Puffles was, but they weren’t so sure with me until I told them I was ‘Puffles’ Bestest Buddy’. (Which is how I style myself in Puffles’ tweets.)

I’m used to the random questions I get from members of the public – normally from the self-confident middle-class types (but not always). Today was no different.

“Aren’t you embarrassed carrying that around with you? He is lovely though!”

said one. It was only when I explained the basics of Puffles on Twitter that things made sense to them.

Is it attention-seeking? Of course! But at the same time it’s a huge amount of FUN. As I was discussing with a number of people this evening, the people who get the most out of social media are the ones who use social media for fun. Those that read social media strategies tend to be the people who don’t use social media – and vice-versa. With the latter, we just ‘get it’ and get on with it. The problem is trying to explain it to those who don’t – often higher up in organisations and on far more money than the likes of me could ever hope to be on. Hence having to write strategies for them in order to help them assess and cope with the risks associated with it.

I’m not going to pretend there aren’t risks – there are, and they are potentially huge. The bigger they are, the harder they fall and all that. Not being part of, and accountable within a large institution means that I’m far less risk-averse than I was just over a year ago. It also means that I can laugh in the face of organisations that take an unreasonable but understandably cautious approach to social media. i.e. One where every post has to be approved by the director of communications.

This makes me wonder about the future of communications’ departments. Will we move from a ‘command and control’ method of engaging with the public to one where the communications department is a hub of expertise to deal with the big or the difficult stuff, leaving the rest of the staff to engage with the public in their areas of expertise? I’d like to think so.

Puffles (*waves*) nighty night.