Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Suspending Belief

I received a very helpful reply to my recent letter to IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority)  about the payment of MPs' salaries and expenses - while they're off swanning about in the Australian jungle somewhere.

See post dated 22 November 2012 - 'Money For Old Rope'.

The answer is that IPSA is only the administering body when it comes to the MPs' payroll - any decision or instruction to cease payments to an individual 'honourable' member - must come direct from the House of Commons.

In other words MPs just make up the rules to suit themselves - and MPs like 'Mad Nad' Dorries continue to be paid even while suspended - unless the House of Commons instructs otherwise.

Which I imagine would take a vote on the floor of the House of Commons - or a decision from the Speaker of the House that a member should be suspended without pay.

What puzzles me is how an MP can be suspended with pay - if they are clearly unable to do their job?

And in the case of Nadine Dorries that particular point was clearly unarguable - though we may now hear more now that the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire is back in the country.

I heard a Labour MP on the TV the other day gleefully sticking the boot into Nadine Dorries and the Conservative Party - over the 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here' debacle.

At one level I have no problem with heaping derision on this particular MP - but what I would like to know from the Peoples' Party is:

'How can Labour make fun of Nadine Dorries and the Tory Party while they turn a blind eye to Gordon Brown's absence abroad for 70 days a year - at the Abu Dhabi Campus of the New York University.

Now that really is the politics of the madhouse - if you ask me.

Union Priorities

A regular reader has sent me details of a trade union campaign - in defence of public sector pensions.

Now the thought that struck me on reading the material was - 'that what unions should be all about' - raising their voices on behalf of ordinary members. 

Even though I disagree strongly with various aspects of the trade union stance - for example their support for 'final salary' pension schemes which favour the better off groups of workers - while doing nothing for the lowest paid.

The union leaflet explains what action has been taken to lobby and influence the Scottish Government - and urges individual members to do the same by contacting their local MSPs.

And you know what? 

By the time I had finished reading everything I was left with the rather obvious question:

'Why didn't the trade unions put the same effort into a big Scotland wide campaign for Equal Pay - over the past ten years?'

Because equal pay was (and still is) a much more significant issue in financial terms than pension changes for the lowest paid council workers - the majority of whom are women of course.

Many of the comparator male jobs in Scottish councils were earning 50% more - half as much again - as  women workers on the same grade or in comparable jobs.

So you would have thought that equal pay in Scotland demanded at least the same level of effort and resources - as the unions are throwing at their public sector pensions campaign.

But sadly not and that just goes to show how terribly conservative the trade unions are in lots of ways - good at fighting to defend the status quo for sure. 

Yet foot-draggingly slow at standing up to vested interests - within their own ranks.

Knowledge is Power

The BBC's web site carried an interesting report on standards in schools yesterday - which referred only to schools in England and Wales. 

The chief inspector of schools in England and Wales - Sir Michael Wilshire - is a widely respected former headteacher who was headhunted for the top job at the schools inspectorate - Ofsted.

In presenting the Ofsted annual report - Sir Michael is scathing about the serious inequalities that exist in far too many schools in England and Wales.

Particularly as the comparisons being made are being drawn between areas and schools that share the same general characteristics - in terms of the catchment population and background of their students.

So why is there such a big difference in standards amongst these schools - and what is being done to close this gap?

Which are the obvious questions Ofsted is posing - on behalf of all consumers of education - young people, their parents and society more generally including potential employers, for example.  

And to encourage local people to ask about the performance of their own schools - Ofsted has published a Schools League Table which has drawn a predictable, response from teaching trade unions and some of the council-run education authorities. 

As if things would somehow be better - if this kind of information were to be withheld and kept secret from parents and others with a legitimate interest in school attainment and educational standards. 

Now league tables won't solve any problems on their own - but knowledge like this is a powerful tool - and should be shared more widely - instead of being left in the hands of education professionals. 

Ofsted warns on 'unacceptable' gaps in school standards

Families' chances of having a good local school depend too much on which part of the country they live in, warns England's education watchdog Ofsted.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, publishing Ofsted's annual report, said this was leading to "serious inequalities" for millions of children.

Ofsted is launching a league table ranking local authorities according to inspectors' ratings of schools.

Sir Michael said: "The inequalities for local children are stark."

Figures published by the education watchdog show that in some areas there is a less than 50% chance of a good or outstanding school - compared with more than 90% in others.

The report also highlighted concerns about the quality of further education colleges, saying that for the second year running, Ofsted did not judge a single college to be outstanding for teaching and learning.

Ofsted's annual report said schools in England were getting better, with 70% of schools now rated good or outstanding compared to 64% five years ago.

An extra half a million pupils were now being in taught in good or better schools, it said, but almost 2.3 million children were still attending a "small minority" of schools that are less than good.

And the gap in standards between authorities facing similar challenges was too wide.

"That's why I intend from January to use Ofsted's new regional structure to inquire further into areas that are performing badly," said Sir Michael.

"We need to find out what is happening and inspect where necessary. We will also work with local areas to support then and help them link up with best practice."

Camden 92%
Barnet 91%
Richmond upon Thames 90%
Sefton 90%
Trafford 90%

The report gives the example that a child living in Derby or Doncaster has only half the chance of attending a good or outstanding primary or secondary school compared with a child living in Wigan or Darlington.

It says a parent in Coventry has only a 42% chance of sending their child to a good or outstanding state primary compared to a 92% chance for a parent living in the London borough of Camden and 91% in Barnet.

"There are differences between local authorities with similar demographics," Sir Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We'll be looking very carefully at what's happening in those local authorities with the same sort of population, with similar levels of deprivation, similar numbers of children on free school meals, where one particular local authority does extremely well and another one doesn't.

"We'll be asking a question - why is it parents in some parts of the country have less than a 50% chance of getting their children into a good primary school where there are other parts of the country where that chance is over 90%?"

Ofsted's rankings illustrate these differences by ranking councils in terms of the inspection judgements made about schools in their areas, including academies which are outside of local authority control.

That will increase pressure on local authorities at the bottom of the table.

Teachers' unions also warn that this is likely to be used by the government in a further push for schools to leave local authorities and become academies.

Telford and Wrekin 53%
Wakefield 52%
Thurrock 49%
Derby 43%
Coventry 42%

"Naming and shaming... would certainly suit the education department to push all local authorities into the position of converting schools to academies," said Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers.

David Simmonds, representing the Local Government Association, cautioned that local authorities had diminishing amounts of direct control over schools - because of central government directives and targets and the shift towards academies.

"Councils want to intervene more quickly, but decades of giving schools 'greater freedom' and 'protecting' them from council interference means that local authorities now have very indirect and bureaucratic ways to tackle poor performance," he said.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Sir Michael is right that standards in some local authorities are simply not good enough. There are still too many schools that do not provide a good enough education. We make no apology for introducing reforms to drive up standards in schools.

"The report recognises that sponsored academies - with strong leadership and real expertise - are the best way to turn around struggling schools. That is why we are identifying consistently weak schools and allowing experienced academy sponsors to take them over. Academies have already turned around hundreds of struggling schools and are improving their results at twice the national average."

Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, said: "Today's report shows the results of Labour's education reforms - including academies and better school leadership. There are half a million more children in good or better schools compared thanks to over a decade of investment and reform.

"However, there remains an arc of underachievement which is holding back too many young people. Even in David Cameron's backyard of Oxfordshire, there are too many coasting schools. We need to learn from success stories like Wigan and Darlington to understand why other areas are less successful."

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Jesus Wept

I loved the story that appeared in a variety of news outlets over the weekend - including the Guardian - about the weeping statue of Christ which turned out to be caused not by a miracle - but by faulty drainage pipes.

Apparently local worshippers in Mumbai, in India, noticed water trickling down the face of a statue of Jesus - quickly concluding that these 'tears of God' were the result of a blessed, miraculous event.

As always happens on such occasions the locals then started collecting (and presumably selling) the 'holy water' - while a campaign got underway to promote the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni - as a site of pilgrimage.

Now I know this all sounds like that wonderful episode of Father Ted - where some banal event occurs on Craggy Island - yet was hailed as a miracle by the locals for their own selfish, if understandable reasons.

But other people must have had that same thought as well - or maybe they were watching the repeats of Father Ted on TV - because along comes an Indian rationalist - Sendal Edamaruku - to show that the leaking water was the result of faulty plumbing.

For his 'sins' Sendal - a well known figure in India apparently - has been accused of blasphemy and if found guilty he could face three years in prison - for the bizarre 'crime' of telling the truth.

Meanwhile Sendal also received threats against his life and - as a result - has been forced to into exile in Finland for his safety.

Truly amazing - I hope the authorities in India take a stand against these ridiculous blasphemy laws - and that Sendal is able to return to his home country soon.

The voice of reason deserves to be heard - not to be drowned out by violent bullies masquerading as holy men.

Straight Arrow

The surprise appointment of the 'straight arrow' Canadian - Mark Carney - as the new governor of the Bank of England (the UK's central bank) is an important recognition of one thing.

That the 2008 banking collapse and deep recession that followed was not an 'act of God' or a natural phenomenon - as leading politicians tried to hoodwink the public into believing at the time.

Because as the head of Canada's central bank Mark Carney avoided the 'casino' banking approach - which has caused so much misery in much of the western world.

Yet this much riskier and debt driven approach to banking in the UK - happened right under the noses of the politicians who told us (hand on hearts) they were running the country at the time.

In fact the Labour government of the day encouraged ever increasing levels of debt through its own policies - in both the public and private sectors.  

So while Mark Carney's appointment is now being universally welcomed on all sides of the House of Commons - the the politicians on the Labour benches are the ones with a lot of work on their hands.

Because they will have to explain to the voting public why they are backing a very different horse now.

And what has changed to make senior Labour politicians so wise after the terrible events - which threatened to engulf the country only four years ago in 2012.

Art Carney by the way was an American actor who appeared in an episode of the famous Batman television series in the 1960s entitled "Shoot a Crooked Arrow" - playing a character called The Archer.

I wonder if Mark Carney is a relation - wouldn't that be marvellous?

Monday, 26 November 2012

Crazy Decisions

I think people who vote for UKIP are bonkers - but I also believe that 'good Christians' in the Church of England who voted against the ordination of women bishops - are bonkers as well.

In fact there's much more evidence of discriminatory behaviour on the part of  the Christian group than the people who support UKIP.

Yet I would think long and hard before deciding that the deeply held views of people in either group - however bonkers from my own perspective - makes them unfit to be foster parents.

So what are we to make of Labour controlled Rotheram council removing three foster children (of eastern European origin) from two experienced foster parents - simply because they were members of UKIP.

Prior to that the couple were supporters of the Labour Party apparently - although that didn't seem to be a heinous crime in the eyes of senior social work managers - whose politics, if any, are not public knowledge at this stage.

So a Government investigation has been launched - presumably into why Rotheram Council is off its rocker - and why it employs people (on big salaries no doubt) whose judgment is so terribly poor.

Social workers suffer from a bad press generally speaking - though it's not hard to see why when senior managers are able to behave in this ridiculous fashion.

The 'service' that Rotheram Council provides to its clients must be truly awful - if this crazy UKIP decision is anything to go by.

The last thing anyone needs - is social workers holding themselves out as the self-appointed guardians of people's politics - where will it all end? 

And with a parliamentary by-election in the offing to fill the seat vacated by disgraced Labour MP - Denis McShane - Rotheram Council has given UKIP an unexpected boost.

I suppose it's even possible that Rotheram Council's ham-fisted intervention - might even influence which candidate ends up in the House of Commons.

Now that would be bonkers as well - but stranger things have happened.

HP Sauce

The fortnightly satircial magazine - Private Eye - has a regular column entitled 'HP Sauce' which often succeeds in highlighting the hypocritical behaviour of certain politicians in the Houses of Parliament.

Here's an piece from the latest edition of Private Eye.

"HP Sauce"

"'Labour MP Michael Meacher wrote a furious post on his blog about Andrew Mitchell's "fucking pleb" outburst at the gates of 10 Downing Street.

As he said, "the language was a wide-open revelation of the inner attitudes, normally kept firmly padlocked away until once ensconced in power those born to rule can mete it out to the serfs physically, financially and power-wise...." 

Mitchell's repeated demand 'Let me through, I'm the chief whip' adds another dimension. Ministers can do what the hell they like, it doesn't matter what the rules say. What disgraceful behaviour!

Then again Meacher seems to have suffered a slight lapse of memory. As a minister at the 1998 Labour party conference, he had a furious row with a policeman and nearly got himself arrested, all because he was trying to get into the conference hotel without a security pass.

As Meacher explained at the time, "I didn't realise the Stakis (hotel) had become a fortress and I ended up having a vigorous exchange of views with a policeman at the front."

Sadly he didn't see fit to mention this in his post about Mitchell's sense of entitlement."

What a complete plonker.

Pays Your Money

I came across the following review of The Master - which I wrote about the other day - all I can say is that Paul Bradshaw from the Guardian newspaper - must have gone to  see a different film to the one I saw at the cinema last weekend.

I can scacrely believe that people get paid to write such nonsense as this:

"...I saw it as an eloquent drama of ideas, a Foucauldian account of unreason, all about crazy and marginal worldviews excluded from mainstream histories of the western enlightenment."

But you pays your money and takes your choice - as the saying goes.

"The Master – review"

Paul Thomas Anderson proves his uniqueness again, as Joaquin Phoenix's drifter bonds with Philip Seymour Hoffman's cult leader in a brilliant and sad dissection of postwar America

Peter Bradshaw - The Guardian, Thursday 1 November 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie The Master is brilliant, mysterious and unbearably sad, in approximately that narrative order. It is just that brilliance and formal distinction, together with a touch of hubris in the title, that could divide commentators. Anderson has within living memory knocked us for the biggest loop with his There Will Be Blood in 2007, and nothing makes critics more nervous than a director who makes two exceptional films in a row. Reviewers get a bit self-conscious about dishing out the top prize again, scared of looking like fanboys and pushovers. They feel the need to change the mood, to validate the uniqueness of their former praise. And I admit that after seeing The Master for the first time at the Venice film festival (the second was in London this week), I experienced a dark and timid microsecond of the soul on this score, before I swallowed my pride and just responded to what was in front of me: a superb film.

Like a lot of Anderson's previous work, it is about pioneers, leaders and dysfunctional families, and like There Will Be Blood it is about the origins of American modernity, the pre-history of a certain kind of self-help and self-belief, entrepreneurial and evangelical. In this case, it is the Year Zero of a belief system that does not yet have extreme age to put its irrationality above reproach. The Master is about homemade spirituality and gimcrack philosophy, a snake-oil salesman of religion offering self-medication of the mind and body, attracting desperately lonely and vulnerable people to his new cult. It all happens in a meticulously realised postwar America, like something from the pages of Steinbeck or DeLillo, but with bizarre setpieces and an extra-terrestrial strangeness all of its own. Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score makes a strong contribution.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a laceratingly powerful performance as Freddie Quell, invalided out of the US Navy in 1945 with a nervous breakdown, exacerbated by addiction to his own moonshine. His face is incised and gaunt like that of a medieval saint, he mumbles and giggles almost unintelligibly; walking around with his fists in the small of his back, elbows akimbo, like someone recovering from a terrible injury – which of course is what he is. (To me, Phoenix's Quell looks a little like Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road.) Living semi-rough and on the lam, Freddie finds himself stowing away on a grand and somewhat preposterous steamboat.

In charge is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a puce-faced public speaker who styles himself "The Master", hammy and plummy and steely. Dodd is a mix of L Ron Hubbard, Ayn Rand and Dale Carnegie. He believes in curing physical and psychological ills by rooting out previous selves and interplanetary interlopers from millions of years ago, through confrontational interrogations and therapies that are like hypnosis or recovered memory or even electro-convulsive shock treatment. The Master is amused by Quell, gets a taste for his hooch, and decides to make of him a special case for his treatment. Freddie is the Fool to his Lear, or Peter (or maybe Judas) to his Jesus. The Master resolves to break Freddie down and build him up anew, and Quell's chaos and Dodd's charlatanism become locked together in a dance of death – erotic and homoerotic.

When I first saw The Master, I saw it as an eloquent drama of ideas, a Foucauldian account of unreason, all about crazy and marginal worldviews excluded from mainstream histories of the western enlightenment. On a second viewing, I responded far more to the personal story of Quell and Dodd, and their absurd, sinister and poignantly doomed love story. Freddie's gift for brewing up moonshine out of anything to hand (paint-stripper, developing fluid, fruit, bread) and making himself the life and soul of the party is no incidental detail. His booze-genius is of course analogous to Dodd's gift for intoxicating rhetoric and ideas, cobbled together from bits and pieces of science and established religion. They are a match made in sociopath heaven. Both have a long-term addiction to their own supply, and maybe Quell and Dodd are the ancestors of showbiz faith; they fully understand the masses' opiate, having tested it extensively on themselves. But more than this, Anderson suggests that Quell is ultimately wiser than Dodd, and has finally understood that his association with him is happening on the rebound, the effect of personal heartbreak, missed chances and a lifetime of regret. The Master is a supremely confident work from a unique film-maker, just so different from the standard Hollywood output: audacious and unmissable.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Democracy in Action

I learned a remarkable thing the other day - that there is another mainstream UK organisation employing a process for making important decisions - which is just as bizarre and unfair as the Labour Party's.

Step forward the Church of England.

Because in an orgy of religious democracy a couple of days ago he Church of England voted to allow women bishops to prech and minister to its flock - except that it didn't.

Even though just about everybody - who is anybody in the Church of England voted for this to happen - and for the C of E to drag itself into the 21st century.
Now the results of the Church's consultation exercise were impressive:
  •  42 out of 44 Church dicoeses voted to allow women bishops - 96%
  • 148 to 45 of the Church's clergy voted in favour - 77%
  • 44 to 3 of the Church's exisiting bishops voted in favour - 94%
  • 132 to 74 of the delegates to the Church Synod (Parliament) voted in favour - 64%. 
But because the last voting category did not have the two-thirds majority required - 64% as opposed to 67% - the proposal fell and women remain second class citizens.

So women can be vicars or ministers - or whatever the correct term is in the C of E - but the fairer sex can't be promoted to the rank of bishop.

Which is as ludicrous as it sounds.

Lord above - what a complete mess - not least because you would expect delegates to the Church's Synod (or Parliament) to reflect and represent the views of the wider memebership.

So either they did not - or God's hand was at work in some mysterious way.

Here's what I wrote about a similar dog's dinner of a voting system - the one that's used to elect leaders of the Labour Party.

6% = 70% = 90% (26 September 2010)

The Labour party's electoral college makes about as much sense - as one of the Mad Hatter's tea parties.

But to be fair it has done what it was designed to do - which is to give union leaders undue influence over key party decisions - by galvanising a small handful of union activists to vote in a particular way or, as in this case, for a particular candidate.

Democracy it ain't - instead it's all about machine-like, Tammany Hall politics - also known as vested interests and raw power.

Consider for a moment the voting figures which decided who would be the next Labour leader - and potentially, at least, the country's next Prime Minister.

199,671 trade unions votes were cast in the trade union section of the electoral college - 80,266 for David Miliband and 119,405 for Ed Miliband.

Before the ballot took place the unions were boasting that around 3,500,000 trade unions members would be invited to vote - in a veritable orgy of union democracy.

Yet the turnout of around 6% means that ordinary union members voted with their feet - apart from a tiny number of union activists - who have no claim to represent the views of the wider membership.

The voting figures also confirm that Labour's electoral college is to democracy - what Alice in Wonderland is to quantum mechanics.

Because the Miliband of brothers received the votes of 122,806 individual Labour party members - 66,814 for David Miliband and 55,992 votes for Ed Miliband.

Before the ballot - Labour claimed 170,000 members would be entitled to vote - so the turnout of party members is respectable - at just over 70%.

MPs voted in even greater numbers, as you would expect, and cast 262 votes in total - David Miliband receiving 140 and his brother Ed receiving 122 - so the turnout amongst MPs was well over 90%.

Yet all three sections of the electoral college get the same weighted vote - i.e. 1/3rd, 1/3rd and 1/3rd.

So the end result is that some votes are much more equal than others.

In Labour's electoral college reality is turned on its head - much like Alice in Wonderland - with the incredible effect that somehow or other - 6% = 70% = 90%.

Whatever this is it's not democracy - more trade union members voted (199,671) than the entire Labour party membership (122,806) - which just about says it all.

Maybe these people were Tory, Lib Dem or SNP supporters - seeking to influence the outcome - who knows?

But what we do know is that the new Labour leader was not elected by his own party members - which is a sad day and a bad day - for anyone with a passing interest in democracy.

Mirror Mirror

I loved the following piece in the Private Eye's regular 'Street of Shame' column - which takes its name from the halcyon days when national newspapers were all concentrated in London's Fleet Street.

How times change.

But is it just coincidence that Labour MPs in the House of Commons have had nothing to say about phone hacking claims at The Mirror - just because it is a Labour supporting paper? 

Personally speaking I can't see any difference between having my phone hacked by the News of the World or The Mirror - either or both would be equally offensive and contemptible. 

"Street of Shame"

"The Sunday Mirror leapt aboard the bandwagon with an editorial blasting Newsnight for abandoning its Savile investigation and accusing the corporation of a "three-week cover up".

How very different from Trinity Mirror (the owner of the Mirror titles), which refused to launch its own internal investigation into allegations of phone-hacking for years - right up until the time four celebrities filed claims against three of its titles in the high court last week."   

Ask a Stupid Question

I watched First Minister's Questions (FMQs) in the Scottish Parliament yesterday - a very bad tempered affair and a poor advert for Scotland - in my view.

What passes for debate these days in Holyrood amounts to little more than a succession of puffed-up people asking the First Minister a series of loaded questions - which are the political equivalent of:

'When did you stop beating your wife, First Minister?'

Now I like a bit of good political knockabout as much as the next person - but I have to day this endless repetition of the same line of questioning is deadly boring and dull.

As things stand we are going to have the following exchange played out at Holyrood week afater week:

Q First Minister are you an mendacious, incorrigible liar or just completely useless and incompetent at your job?

A Neither, of course. 

Yet after this pantomime has been played out (with the questions read out verbatim as often as not) the relevant party leader then complains - bitterly and loudly at times - that the First Minister has not answered their question.

Cue - 'Oh yes he has!' - followed by 'Oh no he's not!'.  

Now I don't carry a torch for Alex Salmond or the SNP - my days of supporting just one political party or its leader are long gone - I'm pleased to say.

But seems to me that if the same people keep asking the same loaded question - they can hardly complain about their failure to get a straight Yes or No answer.

Are they stupid or what?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Out of Order

I came across the following story on the BBC's web site earlier today - which struck me as rather ridiculous.

I fail to see how the Parliament's presiding officer - Tricia Marwick - can make such a big fuss over nothing. 

In the Westminster Parliament MPs appear able to swan about doing exactly as they like - up to and including jetting off abroad to appear in silly TV programmes.

Yet in Scotland a normally mild-mannered MSP  - Michael McMahon - gets suspended for letting off a bit of steam even though he apologised later.

Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.   

"Labour's Michael McMahon handed one-day Holyrood ban"

"A Labour MSP who shouted "you're out of order" at Holyrood's presiding officer has been suspended.

It is understand (sic) that Michael McMahon was banned from the chamber for the day because Tricia Marwick did not think his immediate apology was sincere.

The presiding officer is due to make a statement to MSPs on the matter later.

Mr McMahon's comments came as MSPs discussed inaccurate figures given to the parliament by First Minister Alex Salmond.

During the debate the discussion became very heated which led to Ms Marwick calling out "order".

Mr McMahon responded by saying "you're out of order".

Following an outcry by MSPs in the chamber, Ms Marwick said to the MSP: "Mr McMahon, I would ask you to withdraw that remark now."

After the politician said "I apologise," the presiding officer requested that he come to see her at her office."

Striking Lawyers

I read that Scotland's lawyers may go on 'strike' because of planned Government changes to the way in which their fees are paid and collected - in cases that come before the criminal courts.

Now of course lawyers won't really be going on strike in the way most people would understand anyway - because they are not members of a trade union - instead they are private business people who would be withdrawing their services if this action goes ahead.

As I understand the dispute it revolves around plans to require lawyers to recover their clients' contributions towards legal aid costs - which will kick  in if an when an individual client's disposable income rises above £68 per week.

Now this has caused outrage amongst criminal lawyers who say it will create a conflict - if they have to do their best for clients while at the same time having to chase the same client for money - potentially at least, assuming that not every client will be in a hurry to pay for services rendered.

But I don't buy that argument because the same thing happens in civil cases just now - lawyers routinely act for and do their best for clients in a private matter - say a divorce or family law issue - and don't appear to suffer from a paralysing conflict of interest.

So what's the big deal in criminal cases?

Concerns have also been raised about the requirement for people facing court to pay a contribution towards the cost of their legal representation - which does have implications about 'access to justice'.

Will this lead to a system whereby only those who can afford to pay - and up being represented in court?

Now that's a concern I share but what I would say as well is that Scotland's criminal courts do have a reputation as a legal circus - one in which the same people appear time after time as if they are going through a revolving door.

So I think the legal profession would be mad to withdraw their services - instead of working with the Scottish Government to bring about long overdue changes to a system which is thoroughly discredited - in parts at least.

For the worst repeat offenders access to justice must feel like some kind of joke - especially as they are just working the system instead of being held properly to account for their behaviour.        

Money For Old Rope

I sent a letter to IPSA the other day - IPSA being the independent parliamentary body which oversees the payment of salaries and expenses to MPs at Westminster.

I can't think of any other walk of life where someone would be paid their full salary - having deliberately put themselves in a position where they are unable to do their job. 

So let's see what comes back.

By e-mail

Dear IPSA 

Payment of MPs' Salaries and Expenses

I would like to raise a complaint with you over the payment of MPs' salaries and that of one honourable member in particular - Nadine Dorries.

I understand from various news reports that Nadine Dorries is in a jungle somewhere in Australia as a contestant in a TV programme -  instead of doing her day job as an MP at the House of Commons in Westminster or in her parliamentary seat of Mid-Bedfordshire.

I am not a constituent of Nadine Dorries, but as a taxpayer I object to the Member of Parliament drawing a public salary when she is patently unable to carry out the responsibilities of her job.

The same must surely be true of any claims for parliamentary expenses and I presume that Nadine Dorries will be ineligible to submit any such claims for periods when she is physically out of the country.

I would therefore ask IPSA to suspend payment of her salary and expenses until Nadine Dorries returns to the UK and demonstrates that she is able to fulfil her day-to-day responsibilities as an elected MP.

I look forward to your reply.

Kind regards

Mark Irvine

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Tip of the Week

My tip of the week for saving money in these harsh economic times is avoid a trip to the cinema to see 'The Master' - a new film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Not only is the film boring and dreary - it is complete 'mince', in my humble opinion,  from start to finish which is no mean feat I have to tell you - especially as The Master has no discernible beginning, middle or end.

Now some might say The Master has fine leading actors - which is true - because Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) have starred, for example, in Gladiator and Walk the Line - The Big Lebowski and Capote, respectively.

To name but a few highlights from their films careers - so far at least.

PSH plays Lancaster Dodd - the film's eponymous Master - a mysterious, but genial, Svegali-like, cult figure who Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoneix) literally stumbles across while drunk - and goes on to befriend with a fierce and occasionally violent loyalty. 

In truth a more apt title for the movie would be The Disciple because Freddie Quell is the central, if unengaging, figure not PSH - but not even the best acting in the world can rescue a storyline which is unfathomable, impenetrable and at the end of the day - just downright boring and dull.

I thought of walking out and going for a beer before the first hour was up - that's how bad it was.

To use a footballing analogy - it would be like watching Lionel Messi (the world's best player unless your name is Christiano Ronaldo) kick the ball into an empty net 20 times - while the game's other 23 players all stayed up at the other end of the pitch.

Now what would be the point in that? 

Exactly - and that's exactly what I thought in taking my leave of 'The Master' - 'what the hell was that all about?' - though sadly, by that time, I had paid good money to sit though two hours of complete mince, as I said previously.

The only 'admirable' thing I would say about the film is the way Joaquin Phoenix  transforms himself from a good looking, handsome guy - into an emaciated, twitching, alcoholic wreck - albeit one with virtually no redeeming features.

And the audience doesn't even get to really know why he became such a mess - although there is the suspicion of an unrequited love with The Master.

So if that's your idea of a fun Saturday night out, then good luck is all I can say - otherwise I'd stay at home, watch Strictly Come Dancing - and invest in a nice bottle of wine.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Chip Off the Old Block

I put up a post the other day which included the ravings of Gilad Sharon - son of the former Israeli Prime Minister - Ariel Sharon.

See post dated 20 November 2012 - Final Solution.

Ever since I have been thinking about how ridiculous Gilad's argument were - not just because they come straight out of The Bible or at least the 'eye for an eye' mentality of the Old Testament - where God's chosen people could smite their enemies with complete impunity.

Up to and including the slaughter of their enemies - once the fighting was over.

No the thing that got me was the complete unfairness of it all - the demagogic use of language to make false and vicious claims about the people of Gaza.

Take Gilad's claim that the Gazans are simply getting what they deserve because they voted for Hamas - 'so hell mend them' - so to speak.

Now I'm not sure of the election figures but like any election elsewhere in the world - I'm pretty certain 100% of the people of Gaza did not vote for Hamas.

Some will have voted for Fatah the more traditional PLO group - which is in control of the West Bank - many others including children and young people will not have had a vote at all.

Yet everyone in Gilad Sharon's eyes deserves the same collective punishment - which is really what the Israeli action is all about - punishing the innocent as well as the guilty.

Fine for biblical and possibly even medieval times - but not in the 21st century if you ask me.

I suspect few people would agree with Israel's moral stance on this issue - except maybe extreme Islamic jihadists who would like to wipe Israel off the face of the map.

Likewise with Gilad Sharon's invocation for Israel to look to Hiroshima and Nagasaki - for both military and spiritual inspiration.

As if the events in Gaza are comparable with - War in the Pacific, Pearl Harbour, the invasion of numerous 'Pacific rim' countries by the Imperial Japanese army and navy - and war crimes on a mammoth scale against innocent civilians and captured allied soldiers.

Get a grip Gilad is what I would like to say - though I suspect I may be wasting my breath if Sharon junior is just another chip off the old block. 

If You Want To Get Ahead

I came across this fantastic picture of a man at the golden temple in Amritsar - wearing a giant Turban - which reminded me of another old saying.

'If you want to get ahead, get a hat.'

So this chap and his incredible headgear are clearly going places. 

Final Solution

Talking about nut jobs who make matters worse - here's an opinion piece from the Jerusalem Post written by one Gilad Sharon - son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

Some readers may also remember that Ariel Sharon was the leader of the so-called Israeli Defence Forces which invaded Lebanon in 1982 - and stood back while Phalangist militia groups murdered up to 3,500 defenceless civilians (mainly women and children) in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

No rockets were being fired into Israel at the time - as I recall - and 30 years later the path to peace proves as slow and tortuous as ever - while Israel continues to occupy more and more Palestinian land by building new settlements on the West Bank - in complete defiance of UN resolutions, of course.

Now the real purpose of this illegal 'land grab' is to make future peace negotiations with the Palestinians that much more difficult - if not impossible - to bring to a successful conclusion.

So I shuddered when I read Gilad Sharon's suggestion that Israel should flatten all of Gaza - and that his country's 'Defence Forces' should look back to World War 2 - and Hiroshima and Nagasaki for inspiration.

I don't know about anyone else - but it sounds frighteningly like a modern-day 'Final Solution' to me.

"A decisive conclusion is necessary"

by Gilad Sharon

"There is no middle path here – either the Gazans and their infrastructure are made to pay the price, or we reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip.

Anyone who thinks Hamas is going to beg for a cease-fire, that Operation Pillar of Defense will draw to a close and quiet will reign in the South because we hit targets in the Gaza Strip, needs to think again.

With the elimination of a murderous terrorist and the destruction of Hamas’s long-range missile stockpile, the operation was off to an auspicious start, but what now? This must not be allowed to end as did Operation Cast Lead: We bomb them, they fire missiles at us, and then a cease-fire, followed by “showers” – namely sporadic missile fire and isolated incidents along the fence. Life under such a rain of death is no life at all, and we cannot allow ourselves to become resigned to it.

A strong opening isn’t enough, you also have to know how to finish – and finish decisively. If it isn’t clear whether the ball crossed the goal-line or not, the goal isn’t decisive. The ball needs to hit the net, visible to all. What does a decisive victory sound like? A Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated.

To accomplish this, you need to achieve what the other side can’t bear, can’t live with, and our initial bombing campaign isn’t it.

The desire to prevent harm to innocent civilians in Gaza will ultimately lead to harming the truly innocent: the residents of southern Israel. The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.

The Gaza Strip functions as a state – it has a government and conducts foreign relations, there are schools, medical facilities, there are armed forces and all the other trappings of statehood. We have no territorial conflict with “Gaza State,” and it is not under Israeli siege – it shares a border with Egypt. Despite this, it fires on our citizens without restraint.

Why do our citizens have to live with rocket fire from Gaza while we fight with our hands tied? Why are the citizens of Gaza immune? If the Syrians were to open fire on our towns, would we not attack Damascus? If the Cubans were to fire at Miami, wouldn’t Havana suffer the consequences? That’s what’s called “deterrence” – if you shoot at me, I’ll shoot at you. There is no justification for the State of Gaza being able to shoot at our towns with impunity. We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.

There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.

Were this to happen, the images from Gaza might be unpleasant – but victory would be swift, and the lives of our soldiers and civilians spared.

If the government isn’t prepared to go all the way on this, it will mean reoccupying the entire Gaza Strip. Not a few neighborhoods in the suburbs, as with Cast Lead, but the entire Strip, like in Defensive Shield, so that rockets can no longer be fired.

There is no middle path here – either the Gazans and their infrastructure are made to pay the price, or we reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip. Otherwise there will be no decisive victory. And we’re running out of time – we must achieve victory quickly. The Netanyahu government is on a short international leash. Soon the pressure will start – and a million civilians can’t live under fire for long. This needs to end quickly – with a bang, not a whimper."

The views expressed in this op-ed do not reflect the editorial line of The Jerusalem Post

Mob Rule

Over the years I've met many people with Conservative politics - none had horns growing out of their heads to the best of my recollection - in fact some were quite impressive and inspiring.

So I enjoyed this timely article by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times at the weekend - which made me stop and think why people should behave in such a hateful, spiteful fashion - in a civilised democratic country.

Not least because it is perfectly possible to hold strong political views on issues - without resorting to vicious and personal attacks. 

Especially attacks that are completely untrue.    

Alan Davies - the stand-up comedian and star of various BBC programmes - is one of those now facing the wrath of Lord McAlpine's lawyers - for asking his 440,000 followers on Twitter:

“Any clues as to who this Tory paedophile is.... ?”

Shortly afterwards Alan Davies went on to retweet a response to his 440,000 followers which named Lord McAlpine - so fanning the flames of a terrible smear first started by the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Politics is a rough old game for sure - but this kind of mob behaviour on Twitter and elsewhere is an insidious form of bullying - both poisonous and dangerous in equal measure.

Because as can see from examples all around the world - once the politics of hatred and intolerance take hold - reason and logic go out the window.

"Of course he’s an evil wretch – he’s a Tory"

"A shattered-looking Lord McAlpine agreed last week that he had been “consigned ... to the lowest circle of hell” as a result of Newsnight’s grotesquely unfounded linking of him to the sexual abuse of children. What McAlpine perhaps didn’t appreciate was that as the former treasurer of the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher, he had long ago been categorised as satanic.

For many on the left it is axiomatic that anyone associated with Thatcher, or even with the Conservative party in its other less abrasive manifestations, must be wicked.

Not just wrong; evil. It is perhaps that which explains why it was leading lights of the left-wing Twitterocracy, among them George Monbiot and Sally Bercow, who had delightedly anticipated Newsnight’s imaginary exposé of paedophilia in high Tory circles.

Monbiot is now properly remorseful. Yet how could someone normally so conscientious in his research have taken pleasure in the lazy assumption that Newsnight had the goods? It can be based only on the mindset, subliminal or consciously held, that a man with McAlpine’s political background should not be given the benefit of any moral doubt: that someone who raised money for the Tories is capable of any depravity.

It is hard to tell how widespread this thinking is within the BBC itself. My friends in the corporation insist that the story, while appallingly shoddy, was not motivated by any animus against the peer because he was a Tory. So treat as an aberration, if you like, the following admission by the man who was until last month the BBC World Service’s Africa editor, Martin Plaut. Given a questionnaire by his local newspaper website last week, Plaut answered “Who or what do you hate and why?” with: “Tories ... So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.” The very recently ex-BBC man was quoting the late Nye Bevan, rather than inventing the phrase himself; still, it is quite something to hate a third of the British population with such a level of intensity.

When I mentioned this to an old BBC colleague of Plaut, she laughed and said: “Martin is no extremist. He’s just standard left-of-centre, not too bright, with all the usual stock of unexamined ideas.” That makes his remark more, rather than less, disturbing.

Perhaps Conservatives are more able to separate the personal from the political Can it really be “standard” that grown-up men and women, rather than just undergraduates working off adolescent rage, believe there is no moral distinction between, say, John Major and Adolf Hitler? Apparently it can: another friend, who used to be more closely aligned to the left herself (and is still no Tory), tells me that when she revealed to some of her old mates that she had friends who voted Conservative, “they recoiled with shock; it really was as if I had said that I enjoyed the company of child molesters”.

Her analysis of this phenomenon is that many people on the left “are principally concerned to feel good about themselves; the more wicked they can paint their ideological enemies, the better they themselves must be.

Perhaps it’s even based on a psychological terror of their own dark side.” It’s dangerous to generalise — although enormous fun — but I don’t believe it’s standard among the right-of-centre in Britain to regard those on the left as depraved merely on account of their political opinions. We may think of them as misguided, but definitely not moral misfits.

Certainly that was the way I was brought up. My father would quite often invite Labour party figures to our home for dinner and would have regarded it as juvenile and even barbaric to allow political differences to create a social Berlin Wall. Perhaps Conservatives are more able to separate the personal from the political. This seems beyond Polly Toynbee, the former BBC correspondent who now works for The Guardian. Last week she called for the scripts of The Archers to be infused with much more political content, complaining that the characters do not “say a word about benefits ... No mention of working tax credit to top up Ed Grundy’s pay, nor of housing benefit for their rent”.

The idea that Radio 4’s cosy, long-running soap should be a vehicle for agitprop is not, I suspect, one that would meet with approval in many homes tuning in for their dose of domestic drama. Actually, if Ambridge were recast to give voice to the political views of rural middle England, which is presumably its location, the result might appal the leader writers of The Guardian (“Here, Dad, that Nigel Farage is right: those foreigners can get back to eastern Europe, where they belong. Our lad would have got a good job if it weren’t for them” ... dum de dum de dum de dum and fade music).

Perhaps the best-known expression of the left’s view that anyone who opposes it must be suffering from moral turpitude was Gordon Brown’s dismissal of a voter raising that very concern during the 2010 election campaign as “that bigoted woman”.

Admittedly, this description by Brown of Gillian Duffy (a Labour voter, as it happened) was said in private, but it was captured by a television microphone the prime minister had failed to detach from his jacket; indeed, it was precisely the fact that the remark was not meant for broadcast that made it so telling. Suddenly the public could see what the Labour leader really thought about those who disagreed with him; and poor Mrs Duffy was visibly shaken when it was revealed to her.

The incident also encapsulated why Brown was a much less successful politician in a democracy than his predecessor. For Brown, all Tories were indeed wicked; he would never mix with those he suspected of being connected in any way with that evil party — and as a result he was completely out of touch with a wide cross-section (both rich and poor) of the British people.

He was no hypocrite, though: in the great parliamentary expenses scandal he came out almost untainted. Yet in the past fortnight two more Labour MPs have been revealed as having falsified their expenses: Denis MacShane and (after a trial in her absence) Margaret Moran. Can it really be just a coincidence that, although there have been a couple of Tory peers sentenced, every single one of the members of the House of Commons who has been convicted was a Labour MP?

Some have suggested this is deeply paradoxical: aren’t Tories meant to be the greedy bastards, rather than men of the left such as, for example, Barnsley Central’s Eric Illsley and Bury North’s David Chaytor, who both served prison sentences for their fraud? A more psychologically compelling explanation is that there is a certain type of man of the left for whom the intrinsic moral rectitude of his public position (as he believes) allows him to preserve his sense of being on the side of the angels even while his personal conduct is corrupt.

It is a form of impenetrable moral vanity, only reinforced by the genuine outrage with which such people can continue to castigate the profit motive; and as my friend pointed out, the more they stigmatise their political opponents as wicked or even evil, the more they can retain their moral self-esteem.

The most hateful of all such opponents are those, such as the late Keith Joseph, who make the ethical case for markets. This is why that genuinely good and kind man was subjected to boycotts, vile abuse and even physical attacks when he dared to suggest that socialism destroys moral responsibility and that those who make fortunes in competitive markets (through lower prices or better products) are serving the public good more than any trade union leader.

If he were alive today, Joseph would definitely be at risk of being labelled a paedophile."