Category Archives: Around the UK

Little value for money at the CQC

 

If, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” then the Care Quality Commission is starting to look like the most cynical organisation around.

Late last year, the CQC announced a new contract for the supply of Experts by Experience – or lay inspectors – who assist on its inspections of hospitals, care homes and GPs.

Four months after it came into effect, the contract is in chaos.

Experts are leaving in despair at the unravelling of a role the CQC itself calls “critical to the success of our work” as the regulator of health and social care.

Even the Chief Executive, David Behan, admits his own staff are finding it difficult to do their jobs properly. “The contract isn’t performing at the level we would want it to,” he told the CQC’s most recent board meeting in a remarkable understatement of a debacle that could have been predicted.

Well, actually, it was predicted.

Problems started as soon as Remploy, a private company, took over the contract for recruiting and training Experts by Experience in three out of four English regions. (The charities that previously did this work hung on to one area in the centre of the country and by all accounts continue to do it well.)

Experts by Experience are members of the public who join CQC inspections specifically to talk to residents, patients and their families and friends. They assess care through the eyes of the service users and make sure the views of some of society’s most isolated and vulnerable are represented in judgements and reports.

The first inkling of the value Remploy placed on this crucial role came when it refused to honour existing terms and conditions. Instead, it told Experts they could re-apply for their jobs – at half the pay. Not surprisingly, many (myself included) declined.

Those that did sign up have since reported a catalogue of failures that further de-value their work.

The whole point of the Experts is that they have experience in a particular area of health or social care. It might be because of their own needs, or through looking after a family member.

But Remploy, and the proliferating army of sub-contractors drafted in to administer the programme have consistently asked Experts to take part in inspections for which they’re not suited.

“I was booked in March for a hospital inspection in June,” said one Expert, reporting a common problem. “When I finally got details it was for a psychiatric service, for which I have no experience so I declined.” The sub-contractor took no notice. The Expert went on getting emails about the same inspection.

Several Experts report having to work out for themselves which of a long list of upcoming inspections they’re suited to and, from the first three letters of a postcode, how far away they are. Then they “bid” for the work. So much for the CQC’s requirement that Experts be matched to inspections according to experience and skills. What, many of us wonder, does Remploy actually do then?

Communication certainly isn’t the company’s forte. Emails often go unanswered. An Expert’s agreement to join a team for a specific inspection is not passed on to the inspector. An inspection might be cancelled or rescheduled but the assigned Expert isn’t told. Double bookings are almost routine. Inspectors are told there’s nobody available when willing Experts are sitting at home unused.

“Did an inspection today,” an Expert reported last week. “Yet again the inspector had initially been told there was no Expert available, then they had another contact confirming that I was the Expert, and then yet another saying again no one was available.”

Some Experts have been asked to travel absurd distances (despite the CQC explicitly wanting to save money on travel expenses). One was asked to join an inspection 190 miles away. Another was sent a list of possible inspections and replied saying there were three he was suited for. “I told them one was just two miles away (from my home). But I was given one 65 miles away.”

Those are just a few examples from the eight separate dossiers of complaints a group of us current and former Experts have sent the CQC over the past two months. Others have been passing on their individual concerns from the start. So have the CQC’s own inspectors whose meticulous plans for these complex and highly sensitive inspections are frequently thrown into disarray.

“I am sorry there has been some confusion over this,” wrote one inspector to a befuddled Expert. “I received an email last week saying an Expert by Experience was not available, so rearranged my schedule and postponed this inspection. Then yesterday I received your message and another saying a different expert was available! I have now been advised to cancel the request and re-book it.”

Resigning provides no escape from this Kafkaesque scene. One Expert recently told Radio 4’s You and Yours about the frustration and anger that had led her to quit. Three days after the broadcast, Remploy rang to book her for an inspection. Another got no acknowledgement of his resignation.  Instead, Remploy sent updated time-sheets on which to record his working hours.

In mid-April, a CQC official told me they’d met senior Remploy staff to inform them that the company was “non-compliant” in almost a dozen areas. These included communication, travel and failing to match Experts to inspections. There were concerns too about recruitment, training, data protection and performance management. Remploy was told to come up with a response. Further, high-level meetings would be held.

But since then, very little has changed.

The CQC says formal contract monitoring meetings take place on a monthly basis “to monitor progress against agreed targets.” But my specific questions about the extent to which those targets are being met, and what happens when they aren’t, went unanswered.

Chief Executive David Behan recently wrote to Experts by Experience apologising for a “difficult” few months. “The experience of transferring to the new contracts for many of you was not a good one,” he said.

Another understatement and one that fails to acknowledge that it wasn’t just the transfer that was difficult. It’s the shambles that Experts and inspectors are still trying to deal with every day that needs sorting out.

As Mr Behan points out in his letter, more money’s been committed in the new contract in order to get even more Experts involved in inspections. He says, “the need to deliver the best value for the public money we spend has never been more important.” With the new contract he goes on, “securing best value” has been achieved.

Really? Best price perhaps. But as any Expert by Experience, inspector or care home resident could tell the CQC, that’s not the same thing as best value at all.

Little Care, Little Quality and some Terrible Commissioning

(Part 2 of my story about the chaos that’s followed the awarding of a key public service contract to a private company and the impact that’s having on vulnerable people. You can read Part 1 here).

 

It’s about time Facebook designed a “jaw drop” button.

We Experts by Experience badly needed one when we watched the Care Quality Commission’s recent board meeting online.

We’d just been told that our jobs inspecting health and social care facilities were being transferred from a charity to Remploy, a private company majority-owned by a big US-based business. None of our previous terms and conditions would be honoured. We would be invited to re-apply for our roles – at around half the pay.

Bruised and confused, we tuned in to see what the CQC, which is responsible for the contracts, had to say.

“I think,” declared Chief Executive David Behan, “there’s been a very, very good piece of procurement activity undertaken.”

Thud. That’s when our collective jaws hit the ground.

This particular “piece of procurement activity,”  took two and a half years to complete.

As I predicted last week, it has resulted in a shortage of Experts capable of doing the job, and in a contractor that is clearly overwhelmed.

So much so that the charities which lost the contract for supplying Experts by Experience have now been called back in by the CQC to stop the scheme going off the rails.

Here’s why:

Remploy won the Experts by Experience contract in three out of four English regions. (In a curious fragmentation of the programme, Central England remains with the charities Choice Support and AgeUK who, incidentally, will continue paying a decent wage).

That was announced in early December 2015. Those of us affected (the majority of Experts) were told we would be transferred seamlessly to Remploy. It would likely be done under TUPE, a process designed to protect workers when the business that employs them changes hands.

But Remploy had other ideas. And on January 13th we were told there would be no TUPE transfer after all. Instead, we could all apply to the new contractor for the same Expert jobs – with a 51% pay cut.

Two days later, in response to my query, Remploy confirmed the new terms and conditions in a list of FAQs. Under the new contract, they would be paying us £8.25 per hour (£9.40 in London). Unpleasant, but perfectly clear.IMG_0133[1]

But then came that CQC board meeting.

“This contract is still in the process of being finalised,” said Chief Executive David Behan. “Detailed workings” would be discussed later that week he said. There were “issues that do need to be settled.” What’s more, there had been “inaccuracies” in what we had been told by AgeUK. He was clearly implying that we Experts had been misled.

We scooped our jaws off the floor and began scratching our heads.

The new contract was due to start in less than two weeks. Remploy had sent us their detailed terms and conditions – yet the CQC was still negotiating?

Two possibilities: Either they’d been unaware that Remploy intended to slash the wages of its Experts in half. Or the CQC had naively assumed we would simply accept the pay cut, ignore the implicit insult to the people we represent in care homes, and meekly hop aboard the private sector bandwagon charging through public services.

When we didn’t, a frantic backpedalling got underway.

Two days after the board meeting, the CQC announced that existing Experts who applied to Remploy would get £15.00 per hour for the first six months after they transferred.
An email from Remploy confirmed that temporary rate, helpfully adding that any decision to join them was entirely up to me.

I clearly wasn’t the only person un-wooed by the six month bribe.  At which point CQC backpedalling turned into blind panic.

Last Thursday, just four days before Remploy was due to take over the Experts by Experience programme, the CQC announced a further change.

If we signed up with Remploy we’d get £15.00 per hour for the first six months, and £12.50 per hour for the six months after that, with no decision yet on what the final level of pay would be. (I think we can guess. After all, new recruits are getting £8.25).

And still Remploy was struggling to get the programme fully up and running by the February 1st start date.

Some Experts by Experience who did express an interest in joining the private company have had no response. Others were immediately passed on to sub-contractors whose contact has been equally patchy.

A few were asked to do inspections . They were told to send in scanned copies of their criminal record checks. (Not the normal practice.) None were offered a contract, asked for their bank or National Insurance details, or given the reporting template needed to do the job properly. None have yet been issued with formal ID. I could go on…

Meanwhile a sub-contractor which ran an Experts by Experience recruitment day in January, has pulled out of the scheme. A spokesman wouldn’t say why, just that “the partnership [with Remploy] has ended.”

Not surprisingly then, the CQC desperately needs help. And who better to turn to than the charities that successfully ran the programme for years. The CQC has now asked Choice Support and AgeUK to supply Experts for inspections for the next two weeks – presumably at the Commission’s (that is, the taxpayers’) expense. The charities are by all accounts doing their best to oblige.

And after that? Who knows what’ll happen. The terms of the contract, and details of its execution and delivery have been changing almost by the day.

No, Mr Behan, this was not “a very very good piece of procurement activity,” at all.  

Calling time on my zero-hours job

I’m about to lose the zero-hours job I love.

Maybe “lose” isn’t the right word. But the contract under which I work has been taken from the charitable sector and awarded to a private company. The new bosses at the multi-million pound business taking over refuse to honour existing terms and conditions. They won’t even discuss them.

Instead, they’re offering exactly the same work with a 44 per cent cut in pay. (51 per cent for those living outside London).

So thanks, but no thanks. There’s austerity, and then there’s just plain insulting.

Let me explain. For the past two years I have worked as an “Expert by Experience” for the Care Quality Commission. I accompany CQC inspectors on unannounced visits to care homes for the elderly where I talk to residents and their relatives about their care. I visit people in their rooms, observe activities and meal times, assess the environment – from the state of the carpets to any bad smells – and then write a detailed report.

We’re called Experts by Experience because we’ve all had direct and extensive contact with health or social care services, usually as a result of caring for a family member. So we’re there to make sure the people using these services – and their families – are listened to.*

That requires patience, attention to detail, skilled interviewing and accurate note taking – sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

People in homes for the elderly typically have high levels of need. It could be serious physical ill health; it could be dementia – often both.

Conversations can be repetitive, fragmentary or non-existent. While the CQC inspectors wade through the minutiae of care plans and staff training files, check regulations and interview managers and carers, we sit and chat and observe how the residents actually live.

We wait patiently while they struggle to find their words. We watch interactions between staff and residents, listening for signs of disrespect and noting the many examples of genuinely warm and affectionate care.

Sometimes we pause, put the investigative work on one side and simply listen to life stories. A widow still grieving for a young husband lost in the war. A relative wracked with guilt because they can’t look after their loved ones in their own homes anymore.

Conversations can be unbearably intimate. Elderly women will tell you about the children they wished they’d had. Recovering alcoholics describe the families that fell apart in their drinking years.

Afterwards, we sift through it all, pulling out the important details. Our reports are woven into the inspectors’ final judgements of the standards of care, and include many direct quotes.

It’s interesting and rewarding work and, CQC colleagues tell us repeatedly, we are “unique and valuable” members of the inspection teams.

But evidently not valuable enough.

The CQC contracts out the Experts by Experience programme. It’s run by a number of “support organisations,” including AgeUK for whom I have worked on a zero-hours basis.

Now, after a protracted procurement process, AgeUK and a number of other charities have lost their contracts in three out of four English regions.

From February 1st, the programme will be run instead by Remploy – once a government agency, now a private company majority-owned by US health and human services business Maximus.

Remploy/Maximus have promised to deliver hundreds more Experts by Experience for the CQC. But the budget is tight and presumably they also have to deliver profits for their shareholders. Hence the big cut in our pay.

From £17.00 per hour, to £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere.

In other words, people with considerable expertise and years of experience, selected through a rigorous interview process and then given specialist training, are being offered the Living Wage.

Less than my student nephew gets for a match-day shift at the pub.

True, few of us became Experts for the money. And we’ve always put in extra hours for free.

But some Experts are retired and living on modest pensions. Others have caring responsibilities or disabilities that make this kind of flexible work a lifeline. For them, the pay cut (announced just three weeks before the new contract was due to start) is a real blow.

But more than that, regardless of personal circumstances, the terms of the new contract are insulting. Not just to us but to the elderly and vulnerable people we’re there to represent. From next week, it seems, their opinions and feelings will be worth roughly half as much as they are now.

So not surprisingly, we’re protesting. Or at least trying to.

It’s not easy communicating with other Experts. Though we have Contracts of Employment, we’re not apparently employees. We’re merely “workers” and as few of us are members of the recognised work-place union, it has declined to get involved. Welcome to the zero-hours world.

But bit by bit we’re connecting with each other and discovering that very few of us are prepared to work for a private contractor for such low pay. (Oh, did I mention they’re shaving an hour off the already short time paid for report writing and a few pennies off the mileage allowance too? The shareholders will be pleased.)

The CQC says it’s aware of our concerns but that the new contract is a good one because there’ll be many more Experts by Experience over-all. But who will they get for such low pay? And when are they going to be recruited and trained?

Calls to Remploy go unanswered. (The receptionist has no extension for the Experts by Experience programme). It has therefore been difficult to discover more about the contract discussions that the CQC says are continuing. So far, our protests have produced what the CQC clearly thinks is a sweetener: existing Experts who join Remploy will get “up to” £15.00 per hour for the first six months of the new regime.

A small pay cut to help a big company get its new business up and running so that it can then take an even bigger slice of our pay?

No thanks.

Unlike the vast majority of people on zero-hours contracts (cleaners, carers, food industry workers… admittedly a growing list), I’m a well educated stroppy middle class professional and I can afford to just walk away.

But I’m sad that an inspection this week was my last. Sad also that there are unlikely to be many (if any) experienced and qualified Experts available for inspections come February 1st.    

And mostly I’m sad – and angry – that the same free market, get-the-rock-bottom-price-whatever ideology that encourages faceless corporations to squeeze money out of public services has now swallowed up a socially valuable job I loved.

Once again, it’s the powerless and vulnerable who’ll suffer as a result.

(UPDATE: Thirty-six hours after this blog was published, the CQC acknowledged the concerns of Experts by Experience and announced an update on its contract negotiations with Remploy. Now, in addition to the offer of six months work at £15.00 per hour, there’ll be an additional six months at £12.50. After that, pay will be set at an as yet undecided rate. (That’s despite Remploy having sent us all details of the very much decided £9.40/£8.25 pay). A sliding scale of insult and uncertainty then. They can still count me out.)

(*While I do mostly elderly care, other Experts focus on homes for people with mental health problems or learning disabilities. We also join inspections of hospitals, GP surgeries and domiciliary care. All are affected by the change in contract)

 

Housing policy or moral crusade?

Photo by Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

David Cameron wants to replace “the country’s most run down housing estates,” with “attractive and safe homes.” It’s part of a package aimed at ending poverty, as the government puts it,  and “improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged.”

Well, that’s one way of addressing the housing crisis – with Victorian-style social reform. We’ll make old estates nicer and bingo! your life will be transformed.

Except – as anyone on a council house waiting list, or struggling to get together a huge deposit for a privately rented flat, or a monumental one for a mortgage will tell you – the housing crisis isn’t solved just by knocking houses down and starting again.

And regeneration isn’t as easy as Mr Cameron describes with characteristic trust-me breeziness in an article in the Sunday Times.

Many post-war council estates were badly planned. Others have fallen into disrepair because of wilful neglect or lack of funds. The Prime Minister’s right about that.

But one man’s sink estate is another man, or woman or family’s home. And experience tells us many residents, including owners, will be kicked out of those homes when the builders move in.

So before we rush headlong into Mr Cameron’s self-declared “mission” for a “social turnaround,” on our big housing estates, here are three essential questions that need to be asked.

1. What happens to leaseholders? Social tenants have a right to become owners under right to buy. But councils can force those owners to sell when they want to demolish an estate.

Photo Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

They use Compulsory Purchase Orders to do it and offer shared equity or shared ownership in a new home in exchange.

Which sort of works as long as the owner is offered a reasonable price under the CPO or is willing to take on a new mortgage to finance their share of a much more expensive home.

Schemes vary but all too often, the CPO is way below market price. The leaseholder can’t afford an equivalent property on the regenerated estate and ends up having to move, sometimes many miles away.

2. Guarantees for tenants. Mr Cameron says guarantees will be binding. But for which tenants? Will the promise of like-for-like homes cover everyone? Experience says not.

2015-06-29 19.33.50Take the notorious re-development of Barnet’s West Hendon Estate where only those with secure (life-long) council tenancies are being re-housed. Council tenants on fixed term (temporary) contracts have been booted out – even if they lived on the estate for years.

3. Say you do get a new home, will you be paying Social or Affordable rent? Under this government, the terms have become synonymous. But they are very different things.

Social rents set by councils and housing associations are based on local property values and average manual job wages. “Affordable” means paying 80 per cent of whatever the average market rent is. The difference between the two, in weekly rent, can amount to hundreds of pounds.
We know all this because in London alone, 50 estates have undergone regeneration since 2005. Eight thousand homes for social rent have vanished in the process and some bitter lessons have been learned. They’re catalogued in a detailed London Assembly report.

I urge Lord Heseltine, Chair of the Prime Minister’s new Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel to read the report carefully and learn from it.

Unless of course providing genuinely affordable housing is not what this big announcement is really all about.

If it were, the government wouldn’t be steamrolling ahead with a Housing Bill that extends right to buy to Housing Associations, forces councils to sell their most valuable assets and ends life-time tenancies for new social housing renters.

Nor would it have starved councils of funds needed to improve their ageing housing stock.

None of this government’s housing plans to date have done anything to help the “hard working families” Mr Cameron is so fond of invoking. They are the people most affected by the chronic shortage of housing and astronomical rents. They don’t get a mention in Mr Cameron’s description of gang-ridden “ghettos” and “cut-off, self-governing,” estates.

That’s because what the Prime Minister’s proposing isn’t a coherent social policy aimed at fixing a deep-seated and complex housing crisis.

No. It’s a moral crusade against social housing.

 

There goes the neighbourhood

photo 2[1]Mr Patel closed his newsagents a few months ago. Shortly after that, the 75 year old  hardware business further up the road shut its doors. Its neighbour, once a bathroom and kitchen design shop is now a giant pound store.

Yesterday Impulse Flowers, a local fixture for the past 28 years, lowered the shutters for the last time. The electric lighting show room across the road from the florist had already gone – due to “redevelopment” says the notice stuck on its window.

Next door, the manager of its sister store, selling light bulbs of every shape and size, stands in the doorway and surveys the changes on Holloway Road. “Look at it,” she says, pointing to a building once occupied by a fabric and wool shop. “It’s all restaurants and cafes now.”

And small supermarkets, some of them mini-versions of the big chains. Rumour has it, that’s what’s moving in where the light-bulb lady now stands. Or maybe it’ll be another branch of Costa, the ubiquitous coffee chain that already has at least three outlets on Holloway Road.

It’s not that the owners of the older shops want to go. “I think it’s more to do with landlords, their price increases,” says Frank, owner of Impulse Flowers, who’s finally off after losing a battle against yet another big rent hike. “They feel they need to modernise and they want to get trendy coffee shops and supermarkets in the high street.”

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank says the rot set in when a supermarket chain opened a small, local store in the neighbourhood. The chain was happy to pay what he calls, “an enormous amount” in rent. Now, the landlords are telling the little guys they should pay the same, “and we’re just not in a position to do so,” Frank says. “We can’t compete.”

(It turns out, the supermarket chains might not be able to either. According to a recent report, it’s charity shops followed by coffee chains that are filling in the holes in the high street. When the holes are filled that is.)

Of course, one could argue (as former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy did)  that all this represents progress.  Consumers are buying cheaper goods at places that are more convenient to them.

But the changes have a much wider impact – and not just on the individuals now shutting up shop. An entire community of businesses within five minutes walk from my home is being wiped out.

“It’s a bit quiet,” says Tim at the barbershop he’s run for the past 16 years. Tim’s a refugee from Kosovo who says he was made to feel welcome in the area as soon he arrived. Business was good at the beginning he says. Now though, it’s much harder “because circumstances change on Holloway Road.”

Tim’s referring to closings all around him. “The small businesses here, we used to go to them and buy things,” he says, “and they’d come for a haircut here.”

But don’t workers at supermarkets and coffee shops need haircuts too? Tim shakes his head. It’s different he says. “We don’t know them. They’re very rare customers.”

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

“It’s bad for the local community,” says Mr Patel, who’s stopped by Tim’s – not for a haircut but just for a chat, proving the barber’s point about the relationships between the small businesses in the area.

Mr Patel’s newsagents did well when he opened it in 1976. In recent years though, “the time and effort we put in, the returns just weren’t there,” he says.

“It was like a community shop,” Mr Patel goes on, explaining why, at any time of day one could find locals leaning on the counter chatting to the newsagent or his wife. “People were coming in for help and the whole family was there to provide it,” says the former shopkeeper. But with rapidly rising rents and high business rates, it couldn’t last. The newsagents closed – though Mr Patel hung on to the café next door.

That small high street businesses are suffering is well known. In the first half of last year, shops in the UK closed at a staggering 16 per day. Bad for them of course. But what isn’t talked about enough is the impact this has on a sense of community that affects all of us.

I want to live near a road where the Ugandan Asian former newsagent drops in to chat to the Kosovan barber who’s cutting the hair of a young man who works in the DIY store across the road. I like the fact the Dutch-born flower seller with whom I discuss politics and Arsenal, knows exactly what’s going on with the light-bulb lady and the other shops in her parade.photo 4

This is our community but it’s falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it. Islington Council has a Core Strategy which sets out its “strategic vision for the borough up to 2025”.

Published in 2011, it says the aim is to “promote a mix of retail opportunities” on the main roads of the area and “to provide a better range of shops.” Nice idea but it’s not happening. (Some of the dying businesses say the council’s own parking enforcements share part of the blame). In fact, it’s the opposite and as with so many other high streets in the UK, our wonderfully diverse, friendly, connected neighbourhood is disappearing before our eyes.

 

Scottish Parliament

Scotland, Please Don’t Go

ParliamentFrontI20050217Never mind the squabbling over sterling and North Sea oil, Scotland. There’s a very simple reason to vote No in the Independence referendum next month.

We don’t want you to leave.

A few days in Edinburgh have reminded me of all that we have to lose if Scotland drifts away.

A more collectivist spirit for a start. It’s not just the free university education, free personal care for the elderly, or free prescription charges the Scottish enjoy. One could (and should) argue about the financial wisdom of offering such largesse especially during tough economic times.

But what those policies (plus vows to keep the private sector out of the NHS) demonstrate is Scotland’s admirable sense of social solidarity, something that is being steadily chipped away here in England.

One can attribute that in part to the dominance of left-of-centre parties in Scottish politics. But even the Conservatives north of the border have a more progressive tone than their southern counterparts.

Their  manifesto for the elections to the Scottish Parliament for example, was far less judgemental than anything published by their Westminster friends. Families did not have to be “hard working” to warrant support. Immigration wasn’t mentioned at all. And some of the policies offered (merging health and social care budgets for example) are currently being considered by the Labour party down here.

It’s not that Scotland gets everything right. Of course it doesn’t. That’s why life expectancy’s lower north of the border. The Scots drink and smoke more than we do, eat less healthily and suffer more heart disease, lung cancer and strokes.

And like any western society, Scotland has become less equal in terms of wealth distribution in recent decades.

But not as unequal as England. Nor is there anything like the same show-offy individualism that we seem to worship down south.

I may have been overly influenced by my visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. From the unreserved seating to the cheerful queues, there’s a strong egalitarian spirit.

The performers have to start bang on time and, however grand, must leave the stage immediately at the end – strictly no encores – to make way for the next act.  You can always tell them how much you enjoyed the show when you see them in the bar afterwards. No publicists, no paparazzi, no playing the celeb.

And despite the annual grumbles about commercialisation of the Fringe, there really isn’t very much. With the exception of a certain coveted comedy award, sponsorship is in the background, an afterthought to the main event. It all feels refreshingly unbranded. Still simply The Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Then there’s the Scottish Parliament. For all its weird design and odd angles, it’s a delight to visit. Open, transparent and above all, welcoming.

You can wander almost anywhere. Past the MSPs meeting constituents by the big glass windows. Upstairs to the rather beautiful chamber or, with a free ticket willingly given out by the front desk, into a committee hearing. That’s how a Parliament should be, a place for the people as much as for the politicians.

So, Scotland, the independence referendum is not all about you.

We may not have a vote, but we care what happens on September 18th. More than 300 years together make that inevitable. It hasn’t always been a happy union and you may not like what we’ve turned into.

But the answer isn’t to cast us adrift now. Please stay and help us become a bit more like you.

 

 

Royal Baby brings world…..Meh

easelWho decided we were all excited?

Where did the memo come from stating as fact a collective holding of expectant breath? Not just in the UK but all over the world: All of us were apparently desperate for the happy news of the royal birth. All of us were thrilled to bits when the baby boy’s arrival was announced.

Except even the most basic analysis suggests we weren’t.

“The world waits” was a headline on the BBC’s online page for much of Monday after the Duchess of Cambridge went into labour. It was a strap-line for most of the day on the BBC’s rolling news channel where desperate reporters filled for hours while, in the case of one now wildly popular presenter, admitting they had nothing to say.

Across TV and radio channels, veteran royal watchers (nearly all elderly men) wittered on about “history in the making.” Beaming news anchors told us we could barely contain ourselves in our excitement over the arrival of the royal child.

It was the same earlier today. “Royal baby brings world celebrations,” was the BBC online headline. “World Welcomes the Royal Bub,” said an almost hysterical Sky.

But evidence of a global delirium is hard to find. A quick scan of newspaper sites from Indonesia and Ohio to Uganda and Kenya suggested not a jot of interest in the impending arrival of the third in line to the throne. (With the one exception being the Straits Times in Singapore). The Arab media has barely mentioned the news at all.

The birth itself prompted only slightly more coverage, little if any of it celebratory. Much of what foreign newspapers write merely reflects back at us what we’ve been told: that the entire British population is as besotted with the child as the new parents must be.

I blame in part the TV networks, particularly in the US. As the near-obsessional devotion to Downton Abbey suggests, Americans love it when their dated notions of a quaint old Blighty are confirmed. A beautiful princess, a future king, what could be more perfect for what passes as news on today’s celebrity driven infotainment TV?

In Canada the Queen is head of state and there’s a genuine affection for the royals. But that affection’s being manipulated by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who’s been busy re-shaping Canadian institutions to reflect long-lost ties with the UK. (Critics say it’s his way of countering multi-culturalism) The armed forces have had the word “Royal” added to their titles and their Maple Leaf insignia replaced by the crown. Canadian Embassies have been instructed to hang portraits of her Majesty on their walls.

So I understand and almost forgive the Canadian and US media for going over the top, but not the media here.

Somewhere it was decided that the British were all-a-flutter over the royal baby. That became the story regardless of the facts, and nobody has listened to the public ever since.

Not even the Royal-obsessed Daily Mail or indeed the establishment-friendly Telegraph. Comments on their abundant royal baby pages suggest a certain indifference – at best – amongst their readers. At least amongst those bothering to write in.

The once avowedly republican Guardian clearly got the mysterious baby directive (email? telephone call? sofa conversation? Who knows…) stating that all of Britain would rejoice. But their extensive and largely glowing coverage was met by reader gripes about the cost of the royals and the predictable arguments about whether we’d all prefer a “President Blair”.

And what of the gushing torrent from the BBC – an organisation committed to (and largely practicing) balance and impartiality on all other issues? It may have looked like a throng of people outside Buckingham Palace but in the scheme of things, they were a tiny proportion of the population. Never mind. They were the people whose enthusiastic views were sought and put on air.

Where were the counter-views of the vast majority who, my unscientific online scan suggests, might wish the parents and child well but don’t want to hear much more about it. And where was the evidence of the waiting world and the global celebrations? (Pro forma and utterly predictable congratulations from foreign leaders aside)

I fear the already bruised BBC couldn’t face another walloping by the government or the right-wing press. With last year’s disastrous coverage of the Thames Jubilee Pageant still haunting minds, editors clearly swallowed the cool-aid and gave us wall-to-wall baby-happy TV.

So the official line was created. Britain was going nuts for the royal birth. The foreign media picked it up and told their audiences we were going nuts. The coverage on news channels abroad fuelled the frenzy here.

Nobody asked the public (I don’t mean the self-selecting palace visitors) what they thought. And when we told them via twitter or comments pages, they took no notice.

So much for user-driven content and interactivity. A cabal of Old Media decided the news line and then told us what we, the weary public, believed.

 

 

Me and Mrs T

Liverpool docks regenerationA former dock worker, 60-ish, ruddy-cheeked, and too big for the bar stool in this central Liverpool pub.  Not somebody I’d expect to find channelling my thoughts. But yesterday, we were in tune on Margaret Thatcher.

This past week and a half, I have avoided almost every word written about her. I have turned the pages of the newspapers unread, ignored the radio and television programmes, written nothing, and commented only once. (I was caught off guard when CBC Montreal called in the middle of lunch, broke the news of the former Prime Minister’s death, and put me straight on air.)

It’s not that I lack intellectual or even journalistic interest. It’s just that I simply don’t care. My fight with Mrs Thatcher was over long ago. It started in the sixth form of school, and raged through university when I marched against apartheid (she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization) and her government’s homophobic Section 28.  I yelled ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out!” when required, and stood quietly at the silent vigil that persuaded Oxford Dons to refuse her an honorary degree.  I did my bit as I saw it at the time. (My views have since benefitted from perspective: I remember what came before – and after.)

So forgive me, but my emotions are long since spent where the Iron Lady is concerned.

The former docker felt the same. “Don’t get me wrong, I hated her,” he said. “But that’s the past, what’s the point of going over it all now?” We agreed it was time to move on and talk about today. The bedroom tax (“not a tax, a benefit cut,” he corrected me). Unemployment – still higher than the national average in Liverpool despite regeneration that has physically transformed the city since I last visited nearly 30 years ago.

“Get rid of the current government,” my new friend said, adding with a disconcerting glare, “the whole lot of them.”

Not that he was a fan of Labour’s Ed Miliband. “Why isn’t he fighting?” he asked. “He should be shouting about what’s happening.” This ex-docker was getting dangerously deep inside my brain. I shook his hand and left.

Less than a mile away, in the vast neo-classical elegance of St George’s Hall, I found a tea dance in full flow. tea dance in St George's Hall Liverpool Couples waltzed and tangoed in a magnificent ballroom, with statues of great Victorians lining the walls. For decades this grand public building, once home to the courts, lay abandoned and decaying. A symbol of a city that, as Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor advised her,  should be left to “managed decline”.

St George’s was brought back to life with a huge injection of lottery funds. Much of the rest of the city centre got up off its knees with government money leading the way. In 2008, Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture was a stunning success. Millions of visitors came, though one of the tea-dancers complained to me that “down south”, Liverpool didn’t get the credit it deserved.

But it survived, and according to residents is a better place to live now than before 2008. Maybe that’s another reason my ex-docker could let Margaret Thatcher go in peace.

As for me, I made a peace of sorts a couple of years ago when walking on a Saturday afternoon through one of the Inns of Court in Central London. There wasn’t a soul around. A car pulled up and a driver helped a beautifully turned out but frail old lady to her feet. Having gained her balance she instinctively looked around and seeing her public (my husband and me) smiled warmly and waved. I admit I was impressed and didn’t hesitate for a second.

I waved and smiled equally warmly at Mrs T.

Focus on abuse of women not welfare

Sometimes hell – or in this case, England – does freeze over and one finds oneself agreeing with Ann Widdecombe.

The former Conservative MP once spent a week with the Philpott family in Derbyshire, making a TV documentary about trying to get feckless father, Mick, off state benefits and into work.

The no-nonsense Ms Widdecombe quickly got the sum of the man. In interviews following his conviction for the manslaughter of six of his children, she’s described his “pent up aggression.”

She was shocked by his habit of addressing his wife and mistress as “bitch,” and his descriptions of “servicing” the two women on alternate nights. She concluded that Mick Philpott, father of 17 children by at least five women, was “a very controlling, very manipulative, entirely egocentric man.”

That fits exactly with what the judge said when sentencing him to life in jail. She detailed a history that included a conviction (and remarkably short prison sentence) for repeatedly stabbing a former girlfriend who had the temerity to leave him.  There had been violence in every relationship, the Judge said. He had groomed teenagers as sexual partners, taken money from his wife, even denied her and his mistress keys to the house where they all lived.

That’s the back-story but the debate over the case has been manipulated to fit the current political agenda. Mick Philpott didn’t work, he hadn’t had a job in years. He claimed all the state support he could and pocketed the child benefit attached to his kids.

“Vile Product of Welfare UK” screamed the Daily Mail. The Sun hoped that “this is the last time the state unwittingly subsidises the manslaughter of children”.

The predictable outrage and counter-outrage about welfare budgets is too appalling to even begin to address.

So let’s turn our gaze from money to people: The women whose lives Philpott made hell – his wife (also jailed today for her part in the manslaughter of her own children), former mistress, former wife, numerous former girlfriends. They were amongst the estimated 1.2 million women who suffer domestic abuse in the UK each year.

It may be a well-known statistic but it bears repeating: On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner in the UK. One in four women will be a victim of abuse at some point in their life. In any one year, 750,000 children will witness abuse in their homes.

Domestic violence was recently described by a senior police officer as “the single greatest cause of harm in society”.

And yet all over the country, services that help these women are being cut. Refuges, rape crisis centres, domestic violence outreach programmes have all suffered as councils have had their budgets slashed.

Late last year, the charity Women’s Aid, reported an estimated 27,900 women turned away from the first place they approached for help because of funding cuts.

One of the refuges faced with closure in the coming months is in Derby. That’s the city where Mick Philpott lived and where his children died in a fire he master-minded in a fury at having lost control over one of the women in his life.

And those are just the cuts to existing services. Where are the desperately needed funds for training the police and specialist prosecutors in domestic violence cases? The money to provide more support for victims when they get up enough courage to testify against an abuser?

These aren’t luxuries, they can break the chain of violence. Can it be right that despite a history that included stabbing a former girlfriend almost to death and head-butting a colleague, Mick Philpott was given only a police caution when, two years ago, he slapped his wife and dragged her outside by her hair?

Mick Philpott certainly milked the benefits system, that is clear. But what he did and what he was doesn’t tell us anything at all about the Welfare State. He is not “typical” of anything other than a controlling, abusing, violent man. There are more out there. There will therefore be more victims and our outrage should be directed at the lack of help available for them

 

 

Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.