current affairs

Do good people flinch from securing public office?

“Recent evidence suggests that in America, especially, charlatans prosper on the hustings, while good people flinch from exposing themselves to the humiliations and deceits essential to secure public office.” — Max Hastings in the Financial Times

An interesting column from Max Hastings on what we expect from our political leaders. Particularly in times of crisis they can appear rather lacking – the disappointments of Obama, the weasle words of Cameron, the phoney glitz of Sarkozy.

Hasting makes the assertion I quote above, a theme I see occurring more often in the comment pages. It would be interesting to get some data on this. How many people have been put off going for high public office due to the pressure, career risks and media scrutiny? (Of course how many of those are ‘good people’ would be harder to define.) Some might suggest the media glare is positive as it makes those with dark secrets reconsider. Perhaps but there are plenty, like John Edwards in the US or Mandelson in the UK, who ploughed on despite their skeletons in closets.

Without data to back up the view that charlatans proceed into politics I will beg to differ on such generalisations. But it’s interesting to note how many politicians have felt they deserved perks, extra pay and expenses by ‘working the system’ wherever they have been based. A sense of entitlement rather than service has grown amongst some. That is a problem.

Additionally I think many politicians are getting skewered by the awful political tactic of ‘triangulation’. They now have too many masters to please, too many promises to keep and having triangulated one too many times so that nobody quite knows what they stand for.

Easily said because I’m sure in the heat of a national election campaign the temptations are many to please each interest group you meet. But look at the mess we’re in now. Far better to be honest about your intentions.

Manifestos are one way to keep politicians honest, but they can’t respond to changing circumstances like global financial crunches. Crises really do depend on the character of those elected. And frankly I don’t think there are many great characters currently holding high office in this country at the moment.

current affairs

The bank bailouts were a rotten attempt at appeasement

As the stockmarkets go on a rollercoaster, and the US squeaks past a technical debt default, the world feels like an uncertain place. There are many difficult decisions ahead, but also some of the choices before national leaders seem pretty stark and obvious.

Using ‘the deficit’ as a reason to impose ideological cuts was a choice taken by the Conservative and LibDem coalition. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to re-consider, including the awful spectre of serious rioting in our capital.

There’s no excuse to go on the rampage, looting or arson. But growing inequality, declining social cohesion and fewer opportunities for many are known to have a devastating impact on communities. How many people with hope, with prospects of a decent job, go out rioting?

Perhaps cyncism over politics, such as Blair ignoring the massive Iraq peace marches, has accelerated the move in some minds from peaceful protest to more radical action. But rioting and direct action are not the same thing. There are motivations at work but there’s palpable anger at hand over inherent unfairness in the current system. Similar violent outbursts occurred in deprived parts of France but similarities drawn are at best inconclusive. Many argue there was little politics in these riots, just consumerism. Perhaps, but that has political ramifications too.

The situation, put simply, is this: The economy is weak, our education system is not fit for purpose, those who complete a degree find it won’t necessarily get them a good job and meanwhile we are vulnerable to rising energy costs as well as a massively indebted Western world.

In this context the bailouts of the banks, and the financial system as a whole, was in my view no better than appeasement in the worst sense of the 1938 Chamberlain-Hitler Munich Agreement.

Of course there were no painless choices, then as now. Politicians faced a set of bad-looking options. I can see why Brown and Darling in 2008 were desperate to avoid having to explain why savers and investors were suffering for the failings of banks.

But… are we really any better off now? We still see questions being raised about the financial viability of not just banks now, but whole countries. The system has not been fundamentally fixed, it just continues to unravel. How could it be different?

In the UK a Green-led action plan to right things would be:

  1. Reverse reductions to key areas of government spending including Police, NHS and local government.
  2. Close tax loopholes, clamp down on tax avoidance and ensure highest earners pay their fare share.
  3. Redirect massive government funding from defence and road building to preparing the UK for a carbon-free future: Wind power, electric trains & cars and a huge programme of energy efficiency for homes as well as offices. This will create jobs and skills.
  4. Reform the local tax system to use land value tax which encourages efficient land use and bringing empty properties into use. This will help to rebalance the UK’s runaway property market.
  5. Regulate banks far more strictly in terms of their risk exposure, how they lend and push for a ‘Tobin Tax’ on currency speculation transactions.

Those five points won’t right all wrongs, but will get us moving in the right direction.

At the moment much of the current government’s actions are taking us backwards, away from a better society and reducing our readiness to face the challenges we know are ahead.

Quality of life matters. I don’t think our current national political leaders are looking far enough ahead to fix what’s broken.

There’s lots of work to do and debating water cannons does not get us to where we need to be.

current affairs

Royal Alex complete demolition plans withdrawn!

It’s a crunch week for me — working on the council budget, a raft of exciting Open Knowledge Foundation work plus the planning applications for the site of the old Royal Alexandra Children’s hospital coming to Planning Committee this Wednesday.

Today I was informed that finally Taylor Wimpey have completely given up on their scheme to totally demolish the existing buildings on the site. For at least four years they have been presenting applications depending on razing the whole site — which the clear majority of the community opposed. In 2010 they submitted a new complete demolition scheme along with, for the very first time, a conversion scheme.

The full back story can be followed in my previous blog posts but most recently both Green MP Caroline Lucas and I had separately written to Taylor Wimpey’s CEO asking for them to drop the divisive and unwelcome complete demolition plans. Today, only a day before the hearing at planning committee, officers have confirmed that the demolition plans have been withdrawn.

So only the conversion scheme remains to be considered. Already a victory for the many residents and their associations who have worked so tirelessly over the years, as well as planning officers, to secure a better outcome for the site. The conversion option isn’t perfect but we’ve come a LONG way from what was on the table four years ago.

Click to read the submission to the Planning Committee I penned on behalf of Green councillors for the two wards the site borders (PDF).

current affairs

Do the Wikileaks Cablegate leaks damage democracy?

Acres of words have been written on what Cablegate (the Wikileaks release of US embassy cables) means, changes and so on. I have tried to avoid any knee-jerk reactions on this blog, whilst watching the debates unfold.

A number of misconceptions are taking hold which are influencing discussions in unhelpful ways. Firstly, Wikileaks did not steal or take the Cablegate cables. Someone passed them to Wikileaks, that’s what a leak is! So whilst the leaker may have broken laws and their terms of employment, Wikileaks haven’t. Neither have the New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais and the other media organisations who also are publishing the cables.

So, if you deplore the breach of confidence by the leaker, that’s fine — but don’t blame Wikileaks and other media organisations for it, the press can’t help but publish good stories that are in the public interest.

Again, if you deplore the leaks, then consider the poor security which enabled over 2 million US personnel access to these cables in such a way that they could be downloaded and leaked so readily. This further highlights the risks of centralised databases with wide-scale networked access. The system wasn’t cracked, a technical flaw wasn’t exploited, someone authorised to use the system just downloaded everything there.

Persecuting Wikileaks only serves to make them more of a rallying point giving them stratospheric profile, and makes them an even more obvious recipient for future leaked materials. So, in their doomed attempts to close them down, the US have succeeded in making the Wikileaks brand stronger than ever.

As for the leaks themselves, are they so bad that democracy and diplomacy are damaged? No. Of course everyone needs some confidentiality to think and debate their work before it is public. Apple wouldn’t want us to see each of their failed prototype gadgets, politicians want to be able to explore all options (even the unthinkable) and diplomats need to have conversations with all sorts of people, not just official points of contact.

However the cables show that confidentiality has been exploited, national security has been abused to cover up information which should be public. Every nation involved in Afghanistan needs to know why the US military are taking a 15% cut off financial support directed there. Dutch voters need to know about nuclear weapons on their soil. British voters need to be aware of the true story behind the release of the Lockerbie bomber. And so on.

To my mind issues of that nature should never have been withheld from the public in the first place. They are clearly of great public interest. That such significant issues have been withheld shows an astonishing disregard by governments for the public and disdain for accountability.

This attitude is worryingly widespread, governments across the world are implicated by these cables in hiding vital issues from their public. This indicates that it’s not a system or cultural failure in one specific democracy. It is human nature to protect one’s own, and also to use restricted access to information as a source of power. So the question for me isn’t about Wikileaks or diplomacy, both of which will surely carry on more or less as before, but about constructing accountability. How, given the massive imbalance in power and information, can citizens effectively hold governments to account when they can use ‘official secrets’ to protect themselves?

current affairs

What are council reserves?

Yesterday, amid all the snow-related stories, Eric Pickles the Tory local government minister issued an extraordinary statement about council reserves:

“…building up reserves isn’t simply about turning town hall vaults into Fort Knox. These untapped funds exist to ensure councils can respond to unexpected situations like the pressing need to tackle the nation’s unprecedented level of debt.”

Naturally this got widely reported, along with figures on local authority reserve levels e.g. The Argus writing “Sussex councils holding on to more than £387 million between them”

The problem with all this is that most council reserves are not there for emergencies. Of the £65.8m reported as being in Brighton & Hove City Council’s reserves, the vast majority is allocated. About £9m is the general reserve which is for use in case of unexpected issues like severe weather, swine flu, terrorism or a major financial hiccup. Certainly some of that could be used to bridge a gap in the council’s budget whilst trying to meet the coalition government’s cuts.

The rest of the ‘reserves’ are more like separate savings accounts for specific purposes. For example one is used to tuck away money for big IT spends — we don’t have enough spare cash in one year to buy these big ticket items so we save up for them — just like people do. We also put away money for things like the cost of major, long-term contracts such as the waste Private Finance Initiative deal with Veolia. Capital costs, for building and refurbishing, are also set aside in ‘reserves’ while the projects are tendered for and delivered. It’s money we have to spend, not spare cash.

If Eric Pickles was just an uninformed commentator this wouldn’t be worth my noting. But Pickles is a former leader of Bradford Council, an MP and the minister responsible for Local Government. He knows full well that most council reserves are not available for general spending. The cynicism of his intervention, just before the details of local government cuts are published, is quite breath taking. He has managed to put a story out there which implies councils are sitting on piles of unused cash whilst heartlessly cutting services.

Pickles knows no shame and is an ideological cuts man through and through, as he was on Bradford Council. The reasons Councils are going through contortions to save money and cut services is because that is what the ConDem government and Eric Pickles want. Labour planned cuts too, and stick by that message post-election. Only Greens proposed finding new sources of revenue by reducing tax evasion and increased top-rate taxes. We will keep putting the alternative out there and working constructively to prevent the worst cuts.

current affairs

YouTube Tribunal Success!

Today was the culmination of a process which began in early 2009 when Conservative Cllr Ted Kemble filed a complaint against me for putting clips on YouTube. The full background can be read in my previous blog posts.

The Tribunal hearing was held in a room at the Hilton Metropole Brighton hotel. This was arranged by the Tribunal service. Whilst I was grateful for a good number of supporters in the public gallery, in the hot seat it was just me there to represent myself.

The Council on the other hand had brought Mr Wayne Beglan, an outside barrister along with two council solicitors, a press officer and the Chairman of the Standards Committee.

The Tribunal consisted of Simon Bird QC, Narendra Makanji and David Ritchie. I don’t know Mr Ritchie’s background, Mr Makanji is a Labour activist and involved in a number of public bodies. Mr Bird is a barrister from the same chambers as the Council’s barrister Mr Beglan. However that didn’t stop him rather comprehensively demolishing some of Mr Beglan’s arguments during questioning!

I presented my arguments first. You can view my notes for my presentation here [PDF], though I did range beyond my prepared remarks as the presentation unfolded. The tribunal panel challenged me on a number of points, but mainly on my argument that the code of conduct didn’t apply because I wasn’t acting in my official capacity as a councillor when uploading videos to YouTube. I had difficulty providing clear-cut, legally grounded responses to some of their questions and so I wasn’t surprised when in their judgement they didn’t agree with this specific argument. Thankfully that didn’t affect the positive outcome.

Then the City Council’s barrister made his remarks. I found them to be rather piece-meal and quite often misleading if not factually incorrect. It is hard to tell if these were deliberate attempts to spin the Council’s case or just oversights through failure to fully review all the paperwork. Mr Beglan tried to conjure up a view that I had changed my arguments each time I had been asked to defend my actions. But in fact I was able to rebut this with the paperwork already before the tribunal.

Mr Beglan completely failed to take on my arguments that the Council’s interpretation of the code of conduct impinged on my European Convention on Human Rights article 10 rights to freedom of speech.

I then had a chance to rebut Mr Beglan’s presentation, though the panel through their questioning had done better work than I could have done. To be fair to him, it wasn’t easy to defend the Standards Committee’s original decisions.

Much of the debate ended up being about what constitutes a council resource and what would be improper use of such a resource. Many metaphors and examples were wheeled out, which I think were helpful in exploring the ideas. In the end the copyright issues surrounding the webcast were sidelined by the primacy of the article 10 issues. But it wasn’t disputed that there are exceptions to copyright protection which I could use to legally excerpt clips, and I think this contributed to the view that no resources as meant by the code were used by my actions.

Essentially it came down to this… The Council’s interpretation of the code would result in discrimination against me because I was a councillor — members of the public could do what I had done without restriction, so why couldn’t I? The code of conduct could not and should not be interpreted to restrict my rights to freedom of political expression.

So after an adjournment of an hour and twenty minutes the panel returned to find that they agreed with me that I had not breached the code of conduct. They rejected the findings of the Standards Committee and the sanctions immediately cease to have effect.

The tribunal’s full reasoning will be published in 14 days and there are 28 days for the Council to apply for leave to appeal. In summary the tribunal stated, in reference to my actions that:

6.1 He did not fail to treat Councillor Theobald with respect;

6.2 The resources of the Council which he used in posting the video clips fell outside the scope of the resources to which paragraph 6b(ii) applied;

6.3 To find the Appellant breached paragraph 6(b)(ii) of the Code on the facts of this case would involve a disproportionate interference with his right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the ECHR.

Whilst a stressful day, I didn’t find the legal debate and questioning quite as difficult as I had feared. For someone representing themselves (I refused to spend any money on this) I think I did reasonably well, mainly because a number of very kind people offered me tips and read my notes ahead of the hearing. Thank you to everyone who supported me in person, with messages or by signing ORG’s action on this.

I am absolutely delighted with the outcome. It completely erases the original sanctions and findings. It also shows that the code of conduct cannot be used to stifle freedom of expression, which is exactly what the local Conservative councillors were trying to do in filing the complaint in the first place. I address this further in the press release. For as long as the code of conduct still exists (Mr Pickles says it will be go), this result is important in giving councillors across the country greater confidence in their ability to express themselves freely.

Now, back to the work of representing my constituents as best I can. But I will also be following this up looking into a variety of issues. The Tribunal chose not to address my concerns with how the original Standards Committee panel worked including Cllr Lepper claiming not to have seen the videos in question (as supported by witness statements I collected) but then the Standards Committee subsequently flatly denying she said this. Also did the council really need to send so many people to the Tribunal, why did they fight my appeal so hard?

UPDATE: Freedom of Information request now filed. Cllr Kemble and the chair of the original Standards Committee hearing panel are spinning that all I had to do was apologise. No, I overturned being found guilty of improperly misusing council resources (a serious finding which I had to clear) and faced censure + suspension unless I apologised and submitted to re-training.

UPDATE 2: You can hear on BBC iPlayer the tribunal being discussed on BBC Sussex Radio before and after the result. In the second piece Dr Wilkinson from the Standards Committee and Cllr Kemble both participate, sounding rather unrepentant if you ask me!

current affairs

Why no NHS osteopathy in Brighton & Hove?

I was pleased to see a report in today’s Argus about osteopathy services on the NHS. The piece isn’t online but in essence it says a new report from the British Osteopathic Association has found that whilst NHS West Sussex referred over 1,800 patients for osteopathic treatment – no referrals were made by the NHS in Brighton & Hove nor in East Sussex.

NHS Brighton & Hove are quoted in the article saying that they provide the full range of NICE recommended treatments through their physiotherapy service. I don’t question the quality of the physiotherapists, but they are not the same as osteopaths. They operate in a similar field but with quite different techniques and approaches.

NICE guidance for lower back pain includes osteopathy. Indeed there’s a growing body of quality clinical evidence to show that osteopathy is at least as, if not more effective, than other methods for treating back pain. These include a recent meta study and the ROMANS study which found that “outcomes improved more in the osteopathy group than the usual care group” whilst osteopathy was not significantly more costly. Indeed when my daughter was born through a ventouse delivery, the hospital midwife recommended an osteopath for helping with the damage the delivery had done to her little head. Four years later and you can barely feel on her skull where the ventouse was used, but I paid for every osteopath treatment myself.

In January of this year, the Council’s Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee received a petition and a funding proposal calling for therapies including osteopathy to be made available through the local NHS. This was of great interest to me so I prepared for the item in detail including collecting abstracts of studies to cite such as those I have mentioned above.

Osteopathy clearly has a solid evidence base to back its use. However when I attempted to have this discussion the Conservative committee chair and the Chief Executive of NHS Brighton & Hove both were keen for no discussion to be held at all. Against my protests the item was not debated. The following committee meeting I tried to discuss it again or at least find out if the local NHS had done anything about the petition. Nothing.

So I applaud NHS West Sussex for looking beyond conventional medicinal disciplines in treating their residents. It would be great if other local NHS primary care trusts would, before they are abolished, set a precedent that osteopathy should be available under the NHS in their areas. There should be no argument over providing treatments backed by guidance and sound clinical studies.

UPDATE 27th October 2011:

Brighton chiropractor Matthew Bennett (of Sundial Clinics) sent me a link to an interesting case study which further supports the benefits of chiropractic, osteopathic and physiotherapy treatments – and that they end up being cheaper for the NHS too.

current affairs

Greens could take Norwich City Council this week

This week sees an extraordinary mass by-election in Norwich. Following Adrian Ramsay doubling the Green vote in this May’s General Election, Greens are now poised to take control of the council there.

Green Cllr Rupert Read has blogged on the possibilities here. You can also read about the exciting Green proposals for an ‘Open Council’ here.

If you can help on election day, this Thursday 9th September, then email

I haven’t been able to make it to Norwich this year. But I hope to see plenty of happy Norwich faces at Green Party conference this weekend! Please help out if you possibly can.

current affairs

Audit Commission closure links

Some more links on the Audit Commission story, which back up my view that axing the Commission is an error:

Via Liberal Conspiracy and Full Fact

current affairs

Conservatives risk good governance with plans to axe the Audit Commission

A version of this post appeared on the Liberal Conspiracy

I was astonished to learn today that Eric Pickles will be axing the Audit Commission. Or more precisely, according to the leaked memo on the FT site, the commission will be privatised. Pickles is notorious for being ideologically wedded to cuts as shown from his time as leader of Bradford Council.

From the Telegraph’s one-sided report you’d think the Commission were a bunch of no-good layabouts responsible for, among other things, the terror of the fortnightly bin collection which keeps all good Tories awake at night.

No doubt mistakes have been made by the Commission at times, and they have overpaid some top staff – but which public or private sector organisation hasn’t in recent times?

In my three years on the Audit Committee at Brighton & Hove City Council I have been struck by the conscientious, helpful and detailed work Audit Commission staff have done for the council. The Commission has also helped to make the performance of public bodies more accountable, such as with the OnePlace site which barely got the chance to get going before being canned.

All the staff are experienced and understand local government – because that’s what they do. They also are public servants and take their duties seriously. It must be especially galling that these highly skilled, dedicated staff have been given the axe in a way that, without any consultation or debate, goes against all that might be called ‘good governance’.

How on earth does Pickles think we are going to get the same kind of scrutiny of our public bodies from corporate auditors, inexperienced in local government, and who failed to prevent a litany of corporate fraud and failures? Furthermore, why are private-sector corporate auditors going to be any cheaper to hire in than the Audit Commission who didn’t need to make a profit from their work?

As public bodies continue to be rocked by the cuts and upheavals being rained down on them, I don’t think that now is a sensible time to also completely uproot the key scrutiny and overview body which works to ensure services are robust and money well spent.

If Pickles wanted some genuine savings he could have simplified the framework used to audit local government services. There would be plenty of people, including those in the Commission, with good suggestions on how to streamline the audit framework. Instead, as I understand it, he’s ditched the entire framework and now the Commission too.

I’m appalled by this political meddling in what is an arms-length commission to hold local government to account. This is yet another ill-judged, ideological and unnecessary cut which will end up costing us all a lot more in the long term.

(Updated 14/8/10 to include a link to the Liberal Conspiracy, and include paragraph on saving through simplifying the audit framework.)