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Archive for December, 2008

Saturday
Dec 27,2008

After I wrote the last post, I was sorry to see from today’s ‘Independent’ that during the election Barack Obama also gave credence to the MMR health scare. (I wasn’t surprised by John McCain.) So another one for Ben Goldacre’s book …

Saturday
Dec 27,2008

I have just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s book, ‘Bad Science’. Much of the book will be familiar to assiduous readers of his regular column in ‘The Guardian’ each Saturday, but even for them it is worth having all the arguments in a fuller form with the detailed references cited.
Ben Goldacre should be essential reading for all ‘opinion formers’ and indeed, given the prevalence in the media of misrepresentation of scientific stories and of pseudo-science masquerading as fact, we would all benefit from the crash course that Goldacre offers.

The book takes the reader through what constitutes a good scientific experiment and a meaningful clinical trial and then looks at how various widely-reported issues measure up. Along the way ear candles, the Brain Gym (shamefully promoted – with the connivance of the Department of Children, Schools and Families – throughout the school system), homeopathy, and most commercial nutritionism are systematically debunked. This leads into a discussion on the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry’s products are promoted and concludes with the way in which the media hyped up a manufactured scare about the MMR vaccine.

So why are people so taken in by pseudo-science, by health scares and health fads? I suspect, while the media should take a large chunk of the blame, the real reason is that as a society we have been collectively undervaluing science and technology for several decades. Not enough is done in schools to promote not only the wonder and excitement of science, but also a basic understanding of scientific principles and method. Perhaps as a first step Ed Balls and senior officials at the DCSF should have as their New Year Resolution to read ‘Bad Science’ and figure out how to include its central message in the National Curriculum.

Tuesday
Dec 23,2008

Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled his Christmas present to Londoners last Friday when he announced the results of the competition to design a new Routemaster bus for the capital.
Now far be it from me to mistrust Greek scholars bearing gifts, but the earliest Londoners will even see a prototype of the new bus will be 2011.

Of course, people have nostalgic memories of the old Routemaster. The open platform at the back provided an incentive to hop off and on at will – even when the bus was moving. One of the spectator sports for tourists was to watch City gents (ideally in bowler hats) run full pelt along the pavement into the road and then with a flying leap hurl themselves onto the open rear platform of an accelerating Routemaster. (I have to confess that even I did it on occasion, although – I know this is difficult to believe – I was young and foolish then and considerably less well-upholstered.)
However, there was a reason why the Routemasters were phased out (apart from them being colder inside than buses with doors). And that reason, of course, was that the encouragement to jump on and off them led to some appalling injuries to those who misjudged the jump.
An urban myth has been created that the bendie-buses have killed dozens of cyclists and pedestrians. (Mayor Johnson didn’t create this myth though he certainly fed it during his election campaign.)
The statistics I saw, when I was a member of Transport for London’s Safety, Health and Environment Committee, certainly didn’t bear out the myth: there were none of the falls down the stairs associated with double-deckers and serious injuries involving other road users were not statistically different from those for other types of bus.
So the question we will have to ask of the new Routemaster (if it is ever commissioned) is how many extra people will it kill or seriously injure? And is this really less important than nostalgic feelings and aesthetics?

Monday
Dec 22,2008

A large amount of today’s news coverage seems to have been about the alleged “row” between the Conservative Party and Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, who has overall responsibility for the continuing police investigation into the leaks of material from the Home Office which led to the arrest of Damian Green MP.

 

The story so far seems to be that the Mail on Sunday for reasons best known to their editor (and no doubt completely unrelated to his role in the Green case) decided to investigate Assistant Commissioner Quick and, in particular, whether there was anything reprehensible in the wedding hire car business run by his wife.  They couldn’t find anything wrong, so instead published a story alleging a “possible” security risk because the family home of the head of Scotland Yard’s Specialist Operations Directorate was also where the vintage cars used for the wedding hire business were garaged.  Then to make sure that any security breach was maximised showed pictures of Assistant Commissioner Quick, his home and the vintage cars.

 

The following day, as Assistant Commissioner Quick was in the process of moving his family away from the security risk exacerbated by the Mail story, he was collared by another reporter and made some tetchy comments suggesting that the whole farrago was part of a smoke-screen set up to distract attention from the investigation being carried out into the leaks from the Home Office and intended to create sufficient fuss to get the investigation dropped.  No doubt he shouldn’t have been so tetchy, although I suspect most people in similar circumstances might have reacted in even more forthright terms.

 

In response, the Conservative Party threatened to sue for defamation and David Cameron went into over-drive and, using the prestigious platform of his end-of-year interview with the BBC’s “Women’s Hour” called for the offending remarks to be withdrawn and for Assistant Commissioner Quick to make a full apology. 

 

Finally, after an apology was made in more fulsome terms than I would have been able to manage in the same position, David Cameron declared that the matter was closed and that the Conservative Party were “drawing a line” under the affair.

 

So what exactly was the Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, doing on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” programme a couple of hours later?  Apparently, he was very keen to go on air (or so I was told, when the programme contacted me to join him to debate the issue – I declined on the basis that that nice Mr Cameron had declared the matter closed and therefore further discussion was pointless). 

 

What in the event Dominic Grieve said on the programme was hardly drawing a line under the affair, as he said Assistant Commissioner Quick should consider his position and stand down from his role in respect of the inquiry into Home Office leaks.

 

So either David Cameron was being disingenuous when he accepted Assistant Commissioner Quick’s apology and said that it “drew a line” under the controversy or Dominic Grieve was deliberately ignoring what his Party Leader had said.

 

Either way, it begins to look as though the Conservatives really are trying to make sure that Assistant Commissioner Quick stops his investigations.

 

Sunday
Dec 21,2008

Advice from The Sunday Times is never dispassionate – particularly for a Labour Prime Minister.
So when it asks ‘Will Gordon Brown find the nerve to strike early?’ and call a General Election next Summer, the Prime Minister’s reaction should be to put a tentative circle round 6th May 2010 on his calendar.
Worryingly Charlie Whelan, who in his spare time is the political officer of my union, UNITE, has told the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald (sic) that an election in June 2009 would be ideal. He was, of course, Gordon Brown’s press secretary in the 1990s and his contribution to this debate is rewarded in the Sunday Times by a page two picture of him brandishing a large fish (still I suppose that’s better than a Miliband-esque banana).
Despite Whelan’s support, an election next year would be a mistake.
The Labour Party and the Government have clawed their way back in the polls on the basis of their sound and decisive response to the world economic crisis. (However, the Tories remain ahead despite their confused and inconsistent response to the financial situation.) An early election would be portrayed as an opportunistic distraction from the task of tackling the problems facing the country.

Saturday
Dec 20,2008

Commander Sue Akers is reported this morning as saying that youth gangs in London are becoming younger and more violent.  The messages she gives are remarkably close to the issues that emerged at a conference I chaired about six weeks ago.

The political importance of all of this (coupled with media sensationalism) sometimes clouds the need for a dispassionate approach to the problem and leads to a desire for an illusory quick fix.

It is worth remembering that (as the conference summary highlighted) that:

  • The problem has been made much worse by stereotyping which has identified gangs with black people.

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  • Thursday
    Dec 18,2008

    I have just hosted a meeting of Vauxhall Labour Party members in a House of Lords Committee Room.  This followed a request months ago from the Party Secretary, saying that it would be good to have a members’ meeting to discuss the work of the House of Lords and the proposals for Lords’ reform.  Despite the time of year and the flu/cough that seems to be afflicting a high proportion of Londoners at the moment, the meeting was reasonably attended with more than twenty making the pilgrimage across the river.  The discussion was enlivened by the presence of not only the current MP, Kate Hoey, but also of two former MPs (for other constituencies).  As a result, my remarks about the House of Lords being the end of the Palace of Westminster where most of the work is done, in terms of Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, did not go unchallenged!

    Interestingly, the members present were not convinced by the current proposals for House of Lords reform ….

    Thursday
    Dec 18,2008

    The decision by Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to drop the plans for direct election of some of the members of Police Authorities will be greeted by unalloyed joy by leading figures in the Association of Police Authorities and the Local Government Association.  Some of the statements made by opponents of the proposal make it sound as though there will now be dancing in the street across the country in reaction to the news that this allegedly unsound and hugely unworkable proposal is to be shelved. 

    The reality is that not many people are really exercised by the idea one way or the other.  And that, of course, was always one of the potential weaknesses of the plan: it was simply not clear that additional elections (even if on the same day as other local elections) would have galvanised voters and made them feel that as a result the police were genuinely more accountable.

    However the proposals were drafted, there were always going to be problems and dangers.  At present, the members of Police Authorities who are appointed by elected councils have to reflect the balance of political power on the councils across the police authority area.  If members were elected directly for each Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership district, that political balance would have been lost – indeed, in some areas only representatives of one political party would have been returned.  The requirement for each CDRP to be represented could have in some instances led to very large memberships of police authorities and/or the squeezing out of the independent appointed element.

    As turnout would not necessarily have been very high, this could have led to right-wing populists being elected in some areas – and the immediate effect would have been that a number of police authorities that are currently Labour-led would no longer be so.

    It was reported that some senior police officers were disturbed by the idea.  At one level, this reflected the distaste felt by them about the idea that Police Authorities should be part of their personal appraisal process.  However, more significantly was the concern about the “politicisation” of policing, particularly following the so-called “sacking” of Sir Ian Blair as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police by Mayor Boris Johnson.

    There were some genuine issues here.  However, the dangers could have been mitigated by a strengthening of the current distinction between setting policing priorities and the operational decision-making – with the former being the responsibility of Authorities and the latter the clear role of Chief Constables.  This probably needs restating anyway – particularly given the comments of Mayor Boris Johnson, in his capacity as MPA Chair, on the arrest of Damian Green MP.

    Nevertheless, the proposal for direct elections was trying to solve a real problem.  Many Police Authorities are not well-known in their localities and the police service does need to be made more visibly accountable for its direction and answerable for its actions at both local level and force-wide. 

    Similarly, I know that my position when I was Chair of the MPA would have been strengthened (in respect of the Mayor and for that matter the Home Office) had I had a personal electoral mandate to oversee London’s policing.  In fact, I was able to develop a strong relationship with the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, despite the things I had said about him prior to his election as Mayor in 2000.  As a result, there was no significant conflict and the issue of my mandate did not arise.  The matter has now been resolved in London since 2008 by the Mayor being given a much more direct involvement in policing than previously existed (whether Mayor Boris Johnson has yet used that direct role wisely and usefully is, of course, a separate issue).

    What Mayor Johnson will, of course, discover is that by taking personal responsibility for policing by becoming Chair of the MPA he himself will be held much more directly to account for any failures of the police service during his tenure.

    And while I am not predicting that there will be a long catalogue of policing failures in London over the next few years, I do predict that Mayor Johnson will find an excuse – sooner rather than later – to relinquish the role of Chair of the MPA and appoint his Representative-on-Earth, Kit Malthouse, as the de jure rather than de facto Chair.  Watch this space.

    Wednesday
    Dec 17,2008

    It has now been publicly confirmed that the nine applicants for the post of Met Commissioner (or “Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis” to use the proper title) have now been whittled down to four.  This follows a short-listing meeting earlier this week, chaired by Sir David Normington (Permanent Secretary at the Home Office). 

    The lucky four are:

    • Sir Paul Stephenson, currently acting Commissioner, who was Sir Ian Blair’s Deputy and was formerly Chief Constable of Lancashire;
    • Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of Northern Ireland and formerly a Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Met;
    • Sir Paul Scott-Lee, Chief Constable of the West Midlands; and
    • Bernard Hogan-Howe, Chief Constable of Merseyside and formerly an Assistant Commissioner at the Met (and the only non-knight in the list).

    They all have substantial experience and it would be wrong to describe any of them as the front-runner.  The race is genuinely an open one.

    The next stage is an interview for the four candidates at the Home Office in January, followed by an interview a few days later at the Metropolitan Police Authority.  The names will then be considered by the Home Secretary, presumably with the comments/recommendations from the two interviews.  Technically, the Commissioner is a Royal appointment with the Queen being advised by the Home Secretary, who must in turn have consulted the Metropolitan Police Authority and considered any representations made by the Mayor of London.

    White smoke by the end of next month?

    Monday
    Dec 15,2008

    The apparent departure of Paul Coen from the top job at the Local Government Association following what sounds like a major falling out with the new leadership of the Association is a good opportunity to ask what should be the future direction of the LGA.

    The LGA was formed to create a single body representing local government by the merger of the previous sectoral bodies (the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils) in the mid-1990s.  The idea was that a unified voice would strengthen the hand of local councils in their dealings with central government.

    I have to say (and this will probably mean that I will be stripped of my honorary position as Vice President of the LGA) that the reality has not lived up to this hope.  One necessary consequence of the merger was that the sharpness of the positions taken by the new Association became blurred as any statements or comments had to strive for consensus between the different parties on the Association and the different local authority interests.  The result was blandness.

    Not so predictable, however, was the loss of expertise.  The predecessor Associations had formidable teams of specialists working on different local government policy areas, such as social care, education, housing, finance etc..  These teams were able to provide high level advice to individual local authorities but more particularly their expertise meant that they could respond effectively to civil servants in the different central government departments.  They often knew far more about the policy issues than the relevant civil servants concerned and the effect was that the local government cause was pursued quietly and efficiently behind the scenes.  Over the last decade, these teams have been dismantled and local government has suffered as a result.

    I am sure that this loss of expertise was not at the heart of the dispute between Paul Coen and the leadership of the LGA, but I hope that what has happened will now provide an opportunity to look at the direction and purpose of the Association.