The Sunday Times

December 11th, 2011

Tick all that apply: school exams are corrupt, easy, ripe for the axe

It is one of the greater mysteries of British life that people here are so slow to anger, even when their children are threatened. Nothing could be more important to parents than the future of their children and their chances in that uncertain future. Nothing could be more important to the country. Yet decade after decade our pusillanimous parents and citizens have said little and done less about the betrayal of our children though our state education system. Even now, after many education scandals and Britain’s collapse in international league tables, the best efforts of the present government’s education ministers to raise the alarm are met with cynicism or indifference.

Last week yet another education scandal hit the news, or rather a combination of scandals. A Daily Telegraph investigation demonstrated how corrupt our public examination system has become. Journalists discovered staff from some of the biggest exam boards coaching teachers, for handsome fees at expensive conferences, in how to get better grades for their pupils, including advice as to what questions will be asked by that board’s exams and which parts of the syllabus will be examined.

The investigations also showed how exam boards compete with each other commercially to make it easier for schools to get better grades. “Use our board and you’ll get more As” is the general message.

In one case Steph Warren, a senior official at the Edexcel exam board, told an undercover reporter posing as a teacher who was considering using the firm’s tests that “you don’t have to teach a lot” and there is a “lot less” for pupils to learn than with rival courses. Warren, who sets geography exams, said she did not know “how we [Edexcel] got it through” the official regulation system that is supposed to ensure high standards in GCSEs and A-levels. It also emerged that education publishers were making millions out of exam handbooks written by former chief examiners that offer insider information on how to get better grades.

Meanwhile, Ofqual, the body that supposedly monitors and regulates these things, was accused of turning a blind eye. More than a year ago Mick Waters, formerly head of curriculum at Ofqual’s predecessor (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), declared the A-level and GCSE systems were “diseased” and “almost corrupt”. Others have warned of the way exam boards sold advice on cheating the system. As John Bangs of the Institute of Education has said: “In the past Ofqual has seemed more concerned with putting up a defence of the exams system than properly investigating what is going on.”

One can only wonder what it would take to make it politically possible to destroy this corrupt system. We all know that modern exams are a constant misery for children, a misery for good teachers, although perhaps quite convenient for bad teachers, and a tragic constraint upon development and imagination: in no way are they a good test of teaching and learning. Talk to any teacher of very bright children, who must learn to disguise their abilities in these exams and stick to a kind of painting by numbers mark-grubbing. We also know that public exams’ marking is erratic, their grades horribly inflated and their results wholly unreliable. We even know that the whole system is in a nasty commercial way corrupt. And we’ve known all this for ages.

Given the apathy and denial that have allowed all this to happen over so many years, it seems unlikely that anyone at this late stage will be able to do anything much. But there are some quite simple things that could be done. All would save time, money and administration. All would allow children to step off the dreadful treadmill of modern education, which stifles imagination and learning in favour of mind-numbing Gradgrind exam points, and would free their teachers too. And they would work against corruption.

First the entire system of public exams should be scrapped. A new, hugely simplified system should be devised with the aim of having fewer exams, better exams, no coursework, more varied exams, more specialised exam boards and better marking.Incentives to corruption should be abolished as far as humanly possible; there should be no profit in exams. Ofqual and all its work should be abolished in favour of a new start by different people.

The point of having many fewer exams should be obvious. Children’s lives are made a misery by the number that weigh down on them throughout their school days. It isn’t necessary; the few exams of my childhood were less oppressive, much more interesting, considerably harder and much more informative about a pupil. Constant coursework should be abolished, too; equally oppressive, it has obvious risks of grade inflation, erratic standards and corruption.

Having fewer exams would also sort out the centrally important problem of exam marking. There is an extreme shortage of adequate markers and their work is worryingly erratic. Reducing the demand for marking by having many fewer exams would mean the time and skills of the better markers could be concentrated on a few crucial exams; poor markers would not be needed. At the same time marking should be better paid — and it could be if there were less of it.

Another reform should be an acceptance of variety — something historically suppressed in education in the name of equality. Children vary and so should the exams they sit. So, too, should the exam boards their schools choose. There could be the difficult exam board X for academic high-flyers, the sound vocational board V, the respectable middle-ranking board M for the less academic, or the very arty board A. Each board would have its own agenda and its own integrity and everyone from colleges to employers would come to recognise it.

Above all there should be no incentive for exam boards or teachers to cheat and no profit motive for them other than earning good fees for public services provided. They should have no incentive whatever to inflate marks and they should not be allowed to market their services to schools, teachers or publishers: they should not even have direct contact with schools or parents, least of all at chummy expensive conferences.

Exam boards, syllabuses and marking should come back under the disinterested umbrella of universities and other colleges, as in the past. But I don’t suppose anything much will actually happen: too few people feel the anger they should.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 4th, 2011

Does no one blame Gary Speed? Then weve found our humanity

The football manager Gary Speed was 42 when he killed himself last week, leaving behind a widow and two children. My father was 43 when he killed himself many years ago, leaving behind a widow, three children under five and one soon to be born.

Apart from that, the two men could hardly have been more different. My father was an eye surgeon and an American living in 1950s California. Speed was a Welshman living in contemporary Britain and one of football’s lesser gods. Yet there is a terrible, incomprehensible similarity between them.

What haunts Speed’s family and friends and his countless fans, and what torments anyone trying to come to terms with a suicide, is always the question why. In Speed’s case it is particularly hard to imagine why he became so desperate. Those close to him say he’d never been depressed and had seemed as cheerful and normal as ever only hours before his death. And it is obvious that he had, apparently, everything to live for: a lovely wife and children, great talent, huge success, wonderful prospects and many friends.

My father’s case is equally difficult for me to understand, although for an entirely different reason. No one talked about it at the time and no one talked about it later. His suicide in America was kept secret when our English mother came back to Britain. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I discovered by accident from a French girl in Paris that there was something wrong about his death. How I discovered shows exactly why in those days people close to suicide didn’t talk about it.

My French friend knew some of my mother’s acquaintances in England, so she must at some point have learnt from local gossip in this country something I knew nothing about. After spending the night in her family’s flat in Paris, en route to a gap-year destination, I asked her if her parents, who were strict Roman Catholics, would allow me to stay for an extra night. She asked them and they said they would: they didn’t hold my father’s death against me. After all, I was not to blame, my friend assured me.

Furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children At first I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. She explained it was because of my father’s suicide, a new idea to me. And although her parents believed suicide was a terrible crime against the Holy Spirit and a mortal sin, they were inclined to consider me innocent and only slightly tainted by it. That was in 1967. The next year saw the évènements of 1968 in Paris, but things were clearly still rather medieval in that part of the Faubourg St-Honoré.

This attitude, I soon learnt, was only an exaggerated form of what most people felt, religious or not. Suicide was a disgrace, something unmentionable and something that would reflect badly on the family and children: mental illness was something to avoid and deny.

My mother certainly felt that and so do other members of my family, even now. For a long time they were probably right, I think, much though I resented their attitude. After all, suicide was still a criminal offence in this country until 1961, which was several years after my father’s death. The living victims of suicide were driven for generations into a furtive, uncomprehending solitude of guilt and shame, even into the late 20th century.

Once I had learnt that my father had killed himself, I began as anyone would to question what had brought him to do something so terrible — something so extremely brave, lonely, desperate and unforgivable. To abandon a wife and small children, causing the last one to be born very prematurely, and leaving a legacy of elaborate damage over many decades, is something that takes a bit of explaining: any would-be suicide, however desperate, must be able to foresee such things.

There seemed to be no answer. The evidence I got bit by bit over many years from people who didn’t want to talk about it did not add up. His own sister, to whom I spoke in her old age, had a romantic notion of self-sacrifice in the face of a brain tumour, but that was nonsense. He had, apparently, been depressed at various times but I found it increasingly difficult to rely on anything anyone said. My (now late) mother could barely speak of it and after a while it seemed wrong to question her.

So I shall never understand, and perhaps it is better that way. The truth is occasionally harder to bear than uncertainty. What I do know is that furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children. The adults around a suicide may have played a part in some way, but that cannot be said of the children.

It is sad to live for many, many years with such unanswered and unmentionable questions and, despite my determination not to accept it, with a vague sense of taint. Luckily my mother brought back to Britain many of my father’s medical books and several of them were about psychiatry and psychoanalysis. So from an early age I had some awareness of the mysteriousness of the mind and the many forms of mental disorder.

Later I began to read other books and gradually learnt to understand and to forgive my unhappy father, in general if not in particular. I began to realise how totally overwhelming some periods of mental illness can be and how wrong it is to hold someone responsible for what he may do when out of his right mind.

I also began to understand this from personal experience: depression (a bad term) is now called bipolar or mood disorder (also bad terms) and it is strongly heritable. I’ve always felt lucky I’ve been only touched by it and never struck down; I’m glad, too, that it has forced me to learn true sympathy for people in the grip of a mental illness, as well as for their families.

To come back from all this to the tragic death last week of a hero of our time, I feel overwhelmingly glad that attitudes to suicide have changed out of all recognition in my adult life. Speed’s relations have felt able to be very open about his death, knowing that so far from facing disapproval and incomprehension, they can rely instead on the sympathy of all his countless friends and admirers and even — astonishingly enough — the support of the media.

What’s entirely missing, quite rightly, is any hint anywhere in the media of the old sense of shame and blame. In that sense my father’s case is entirely different from Speed’s and his children’s case from my father’s children’s. In these dark times that is a blessing worth counting.

The Sunday Times

November 27th, 2011

Beware, the equality zealots are unfair and cost us millions

It is almost self-evident that most people in this country approve of equality, whatever they mean by it. If so, it follows that most people probably approve pretty much, insofar as they think about it, of equalities legislation. Admittedly there are ludicrous stories, often true, about daft jobs being created in the name of equality: one of my favourites was a council job for a homosexual outreach worker to help underconfident gays exercise their right to have sex outdoors — a stalwart attempt to promote the active equality of doggers.

Everyone loves to tut-tut at all that. But behind the nonsense, most people imagine, lies a worthy and necessary determination to stop unfair discrimination on grounds of sex or race or religion — an active commitment to the ideal of equality. And the immense equalities industry that has grown up here is something many people consider necessary and desirable.

Over many years I myself have come to think precisely the opposite. I believe the equalities industry as it has developed is misguided, counterproductive and an active source of unfairness. This industry is intolerably expensive, especially now that the years of borrowed plenty are over. If people knew how much the equalities industry costs the country, in both the private and the public sector, they would be very much more inclined to question first whether we can afford it and second whether it really is a force for good.

What is not well enough understood is the fact that new laws have been imposing duties on employers that extend far beyond the obligation to avoid discriminating against individuals because of their sex, race or religion. Employers are now required to monitor, train and assess themselves continually and time-consumingly as to how truly equal their outcomes are, how representative their employees are of the wider population and how far they have sought out the right proportion (whatever that might be) of transgender people, females and people with disabilities.

They have a duty not just to avoid unjust discrimination, but actively to promote equality. This is an almost limitless duty to the point of absurdity. Another favourite example of such absurdity was the case of the Gloucestershire constabulary that got itself into a terrible muddle in its self-imposed secret “diversity drive” of 2006. In a fit of misplaced egalitarian virtue, driven by a government target of having 7% minorities people in the force, it suddenly “de-selected” more than 100 successful recruits simply because they were white men and hired instead every one of 129 female and minority candidates. An industrial tribunal told the force off for wrongful discrimination and ordered it to pay compensation in one case.

At the time of this “de-selection” policy, only 2.8% of Gloucestershire’s population was from an ethnic minority, according to the 2001 census, compared with an average of 8.7% across England and Wales — a perfect example of the equalities industry’s obsession with a dubious notion of representation. All the anxious self-inspection now required involves numerous bean counters, assessors and supervisors, who create an unpleasant atmosphere of guilt and fear and a nervousness about employing anyone at all, unless perhaps it is a new diversity officer.

At last, now, there is a serious investigation into this industry. The Civitas think tank is publishing a book this week by the sociologist Professor Peter Saunders, called The Rise of the Equalities Industry. It makes startling reading. Saunders’s research estimates that employers in both private and public sectors spend a total of nearly £1 billion a year on complying with the demands of equality legislation.

Saunders estimates that the costs of equalities monitoring amount each year to £150m in the service sector, £35m in manufacturing and £25m in construction; the total is £210m for small and medium-sized businesses — this is particularly alarming, because such firms are so necessary and so beleaguered — and £300m-£400m across the whole private sector. For the state sector the figure is up to £600m. Every time a new piece of legislation is introduced, such as Harriet Harman’s controversial Equality Act of 2010, yet more duties fall on employers and more money is required of taxpayers.

It might be said that all this expense is achieving something useful. Saunders argues that a large part of these costs is associated with mindless data collection, of no real use to anybody. I’m reminded of my local council’s parking consultation questionnaire, which included a whole page of questions devoted to ethnicity, as if skin colour could somehow be related to parking.

What Saunders has done is try to estimate or to make educated guesstimates about what the expenditure of the armies of apparatchiks really is. One of his many and hair-raising individual examples is the minor but quite incomprehensible wastefulness of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). After London won the 2012 Olympic Games bid, the ODA — which is responsible for developing the infrastructure for the Games — set up an equality and inclusion team employing five senior-level managers on six-figure salaries to monitor diversity in companies bidding for construction and other contracts. It declined to divulge the total budget for this team.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people in the business now always talk of equalities in the plural because equality has acquired so many different and conflicting meanings that it hardly exists as a single concept. The old ideas of equality under the law and equality of opportunity have given way to more confused ideas about equality of outcome and special treatment under the law for some people under some circumstances.

The notion of equality by numbers is another unquestioned assumption: it clearly isn’t necessarily true that if well under 50% of physicists are women, then ipso facto women are being discriminated against in this field. Saunders writes well about the long march of aggressive egalitarianism through the institutions. This book ought to be required reading for every employer, and it is a gauntlet thrown down to every member of the equalities lobby.

My point is a much simpler one, however.

If the costs are really as great as these estimates suggest, or perhaps even greater, then the entire equalities industry should be abandoned as an unaffordable luxury.

The Sunday Times

November 20th, 2011

The charity juggernaut that leaves the poor shivering

There is something extremely irritating about celebrities, no matter how distinguished, telling other people what to do with their money. Dame Helen Mirren has just announced she thinks that rich old people who don’t need their £200-plus government winter fuel handout should give it to poor old people who do. This makes our national theatrical treasure sound just another bossy thesp.

Lots of other celebs are in on this, too. Among their number are Lord and Baroness Kinnock, Gloria Hunniford, June Whitfield, Lord Archer, David Jason, Sir Terry Wogan, Sir Michael Parkinson and Ann Widdecombe. There’s glory for you.

All the same, they are right. Old people who wouldn’t even notice a credit of £200 on their bank statements should not accept this universal handout from the state. Nor should people who, while not filthy rich, simply don’t need it. Rather than give it back to the exchequer, like Lord Hattersley, so it can be wasted elsewhere, they should give it to old people who really need it to stay warm.

This good but faintly daft idea is not new.

Iain Duncan Smith mentioned it to me more than a year ago at a party, when I asked him about the obvious old socialist absurdity of universal winter fuel payments. This benefit to everyone over 60 costs £2.1 billion; while many of those people don’t need it, there are now well over 204,400 households with someone over 60 who are living in so-called fuel poverty.

It is surely right to spend state money to which we are supposedly entitled on people who need it more. Just as with people who personally give their child benefit to children who are needier than their own, it ought to be a satisfyingly direct process.

Not so, unfortunately, if one is to follow the example of the righteous thespians. Mirren and others recommend giving the winter fuel money to a charity called the Community Foundation Network (CFN), which will then redistribute it to other charities and community organisations helping the elderly, which will then presumably distribute it to those in need.

How the heart sinks. What about cutting out the charitable middleman? What about cutting out the charity — the several charities, and their staff — that stands between giving and receiving? Why not give the fuel money directly to a fuel-poor person? Imagine what would happen to Dame Elderly Richperson’s £200 or so if she gave it to a charity such as the CFN. It would go into an expensively run bureaucratic pot, and from there into a perhaps rather less expensively run bureaucratic pot, to be distributed much later. If anything but a few pence of that £200 finally reached Mrs Elderly Poorperson, it would be a miracle as great as the feeding of the five thousand.

Something has gone horribly wrong with charity. It is disappearing behind a swelling cloud of bureaucratisation, networking, interfacing, meetings, travelling, expenses and duplication of all kinds.

Without any sinister intentions, the world of charity has become a jobsworth’s jamboree, at several removes from the needy, and consumes, with the highest of intentions, much of the money that is given for the needy. And with its increasing professionalisation and national networking, it becomes difficult — impossible, sometimes — for small local charities to fundraise directly and personally. For that, small charities now need to go to an organisation such as the CFN.

The CFN appears to be entirely respectable. A large, complex organisation, it is doubtless full of good, well-meaning people with all sorts of useful skills, some unpaid and many paid. Its purpose is to encourage community foundations nationwide, in “a movement … committed to positive social change in the UK through the development of ‘community philanthropy’ ” — an aim surely as long as a piece of charitable string.

It says it also “has a role as national membership association for community foundations which encompasses negotiating and managing national grant-making and funding opportunities on behalf of its members and providing direct technical assistance to member community foundations through its network”.

How little this seems to have to do with anything simple such as giving small sums of money to individual elderly men and women who will be cold this winter. The language alone gives an idea of what has happened to charities, with their wittering about interfacing between “funding streams” and negotiating “the big ask” . It makes complex — and will stifle — the human instinct for generosity.

I don’t mean to attack this charity in particular. What I suggest more generally is that people who want to give money should cut out the middleman and give it to a real person. Most people’s daily lives will bring them into contact, if only at second hand, with a sad story that a bit of cash might make less sad. Otherwise, the vicar or the rabbi or the imam or the local nurse or the head of the local comp should be able to make suggestions. Of course that route is imperfect, but it is surely better and faster than the cumbersome route taken by present-day charities.

The welfare state has made people feel that there’s something demeaning about personal charity. For decades now it has been seen as condescending, in the spirit of Lady Bountiful; indeed, until recently, in my observation, trustees in charities were often despised by the professional workers as overprivileged, incompetent do-gooders. But there’s an easy solution: anyone afraid of offending someone in need can send money anonymously via a solicitor, at minimal cost.

I write with considerable feeling and years of experience as a trustee of two charities, one big and one small. Many charities have admittedly been forced to become very professional and complicated because they provide difficult and complex services under heavy legal burdens and duties of care.

But there is something chilling about the professionalisation of fundraising, in which grant-giving foundations chase one another round and round conferences, lunches and events, weaving their way through the lottery, the quangos and the great and the good, and cutting out the small battalions.

Surely the big society does not mean big charity: it means small, personal charity and personal giving and fundraising. Otherwise, in the old-fashioned expression, it will be as cold as charity — as cold as contemporary charity may well become.

The Sunday Times

November 6th, 2011

The divorce plan dangling more reward before malicious mothers

y mother-in-law was a monster.

MShe had many sterling qualities, but even her admirers agreed she was awful. When long ago my new daughter had just grown a few adorable curls, Grandma marched her without warning off to a smart stylist in Sloane Street and had them all sheared off. My baby girl looked like a skinhead baby boy for months, but Grandma constantly assured me, in defiance of all the facts, that this would make her granddaughter’s hair grow thicker. After that I tried to stop Grandma going out with my daughter unsupervised.

This caution proved necessary. Watching her baby granddaughter rolling around naked in the sun some time later, Grandma opined in her carrying tones that the child should be circumcised, the sooner the better, because it stopped girls getting into trouble. I don’t think she had the slightest idea what female circumcision was, or who practised it, but she clearly felt inclined to interfere in some way, and this was simply her latest bright idea. She would have been quite capable of bamboozling some greedy doctor into mutilating her granddaughter.

As the years wore on, my mother-in-law warned me repeatedly that even if I divorced her son, I needn’t think I would be able to keep her away from her granddaughter — all this in a breezy conversational tone, on the most amicable of occasions. She had grandparental rights, she assured me. Fortunately she was wrong.

I was reminded of nightmare granny possibilities by a tabloid shock story last week announcing the publication of a new independent review of family justice, commissioned by the Labour government. “Grandparents are ‘damaging children as they interfere during divorces’ “, ran the headline. According to the report’s author, David Norgrove: “Grandparents can be used by parents as a way of getting at their ex-partner. Grandparents are not always straightforward in the way they behave and the result can be damage to children. Not all grandparents are good grandparents.”

That is the truth, however unpleasant.

The same goes for parents. The highly controversial Norgrove review contains quite a few unpleasant truths, so two hurrahs for that. All too many considerations of family justice — what happens when families break up — are confused by attempts to avoid unpleasant truths. Justice cannot be based on wishful thinking.

One particularly painful truth is that it may not be best for all fathers (or mothers) to go on seeing their children after an ugly divorce, even when not themselves particularly at fault. Vengeful disputes over custody and drawn-out court battles are extremely distressing for children. Some parents are mad or bad or emotional menaces. It is also clear that there are some parents — another painful truth is that such parents are usually mothers — who will use access to their children as a weapon, driving their former husbands between hope and disappointment, and deliberately turning their children against them.

Such things happen often, and it is difficult, time-consuming and expensive to keep going to court to insist on the access to the children that has already been granted. To treat reasonable husbands like this, while their wives have behaved disgracefully, is a horrifying affront to justice.

The painful truth is that, just as in the judgment of Solomon, the answer is not to cut the child in two with the unfeeling sword of justice. Justice — access and custody rights — for the unhappy father might not be good for his unhappy child: it might indeed tear the boy apart. The truest father (or mother) might, like the true mother before Solomon, do well to sacrifice his or her own happiness for his child’s.

Court battles to establish parents’ rights, and domestic battles to exercise those rights, are often at odds with what one might call children’s rights. A child’s need for security and for emotional freedom from painfully conflicted loyalties may sometimes be as great as his need for two parents — or even greater. I’ve often thought that it is much easier to be the child of a dead father, as I was, than the child of a divorced father.

All this is why Norgrove proposes to deny divorced fathers the automatic legal right to see their children, which they now have. He wants to end the legal presumption of shared parenting. He has also explicitly avoided giving any new legal rights of access to grandparents, despite Conservative promises made by David Willetts in 2009. Grandma would have been outraged. “The law cannot state a presumption of any kind,” Norgrove says, “without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children.”

This is a position, however rational, that you might imagine would cause national outrage. In fact the response so far has been surprisingly mild. Perhaps that is because one has only to say, with Norgrove, that children’s wellbeing must come first to silence most argument. Norgrove explains his view by pointing to findings from other jurisdictions, such as Australia, which suggest that children are more damaged when courts impose specific access to both parents. “All the evidence,” he said, “is that it pushes judges into ordering more time with both parents than is good for the child.”

The tragic outcome of Norgrove’s view, reasonable though it seems to me, is that it will reward malicious mothers, more than they’re rewarded already. The absurdity is that his review was originally commissioned to deal with the existing bias in practice against fathers. That will now be worse.

It may be that none of Norgrove’s suggestions becomes law. The only cabinet member who likes them seems to be Ken Clarke, which is probably the kiss of death. But if the assumption of a divorced father’s right of access to the children is to be dropped, so too, in justice and reason, should be the mother’s. I should have thought it was illegal to discriminate against men in this way. It may be the case that the father would make a better lone parent or would be better equipped to look after a child. Why should the presumption remain with the mother? If neither parent has automatic rights of custody, each should make plans before any divorce. Where they cannot agree, they should be obliged by law to settle the matter, quickly, through professional arbitration, with powerful disincentives against dragging their families through the courts. This should apply to grandparents, too.

However, that wouldn’t have deterred my children’s grandma. The law cannot be proof against every monster in the family bestiary.

The Sunday Times

October 30th, 2011

Call it indeterminate, call it life – just keep them locked away

There was a lot of sound and fury last week around the subject of sentencing. Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, has come up with various proposals, some of which affect the jail sentences of the worst and most dangerous criminals, so unsurprisingly there has been outrage on all sides. Most inflammatory have been Clarke’s plans to abolish the current indeterminate sentences, under which certain criminals may languish indefinitely in jail without knowing when, if ever, they may persuade anyone that they ought to be let out.

Moral positioning on this has been quirky. On the centre-left liberal side is Clarke himself, a lifelong Conservative who now wants to get rid of indeterminate sentences which he calls “a gross injustice, a stain on our system”. Yet at the same time he is advocating mandatory life sentences not just for murder but also for other serious sexual or violent crimes. On the right-wing side is the veteran Labour grandee Jack Straw, once a left-wing student firebrand but now rather closer to the throw-away-the-key end of the political spectrum. He is all for indeterminate sentences, where appropriate; after all, his government introduced them in 2005. What a muddle and a mess.

All this comes on top of the public’s long-standing disillusion with sentencing of every kind. It has seemed for many years extremely odd to ordinary mortals that when a judge sentences a criminal to prison for a certain number of years, the actual time that prisoner spends in the slammer will be quite different. Why it will be different, and why the difference will vary so much, is a mystery to most people and even perhaps to quite a few lawyers.

It simply isn’t clever to allow the whole thing to be so impenetrably complicated. The judiciary is extremely anxious to make sentencing easier for the public to understand and accept, but has had little success so far. Either it isn’t in the jurisprudential nature to come up with clear explanations or the rest of us are too stupid and lazy to understand them.

However, there is one thing that ought to be obvious to everybody when thinking about sentencing cold-blooded murderers, torturers and child-killers — the criminals whom many people, and even a few judges, call evil. They are not in my opinion evil. That is a lazy and unconstructive judgment. What ought to be obvious, almost by definition, is that such people are sick or morally deformed or both. In all likelihood — although the scientific understanding of such things is still primitive — they cannot help what they do, and they may well never change: they do not have the run of themselves and cannot have moral autonomy, perhaps ever.

For that reason such people cannot and should not receive a normal sentence of a certain number of years’ detention, after which the prison gates will open. Such people can never, in the ghastly old-fashioned expression, “serve their debt to society” or leave their crimes behind them, washed clean in the ink of the parole board.

While many criminals should, indeed, serve a particular sentence — and preferably the exact number of years the judges impose — there are some whose future, whose crimes and whose risks to the rest of us are incalculable. That is why we need indeterminate sentences for imprisonment for public protection (IPPs), with no automatic right to release: they were one of the few things new Labour got right.

Uncertainty is a tragic part of the human condition. We live all the time with a struggle against uncertainty, especially about the things that matter most.

The word indeterminate is all about uncertainty: in ordinary English it means “not entirely known, established or defined”. In medicine it describes a condition whose underlying cause cannot be established. We do not yet know — nor does the wisest of judges or the most empathetic of parole boards — why a man (usually) has committed a disgusting crime of violence or even a number of them. From this it follows that the punishment cannot be made to fit the crime in any usual way. Therefore it must be as indeterminate in the legal sense as it is indeterminate in the ordinary sense.

For this reason it goes against reason and experience to abandon the legal idea of an indeterminate sentence. Admittedly it sounds horrible that a man should face the despair in prison of knowing the only way he may get out is to persuade a parole board that he is no longer a danger to society.

There is no question of proving this, obviously enough; merely of persuading a collection of people with the usual prejudices, anxieties and limitations. The public thinks parole boards are unduly soft, but I wouldn’t bet on that if I were an autistic and charmless serial child rapist.

At the moment there are 3,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences who have already served the minimum periods — the word tariff seems horribly inappropriate to me — recommended by the judge at their trials and there are 3,500 people who have served more than that minimum: 6,500 is a lot of people to be living in uncertainty, without much hope of freedom. The point is that in most cases, where the law is properly applied, this is not the fault of the legal system. The fault lies in the tragedy of the criminal’s own condition — whatever combination of mental illness and instability it is that has impaired his fellow feeling, his impulse control, his contact with ordinary reality and so on and made him into an unpredictably dangerous person.

This is a tragedy which is more clearly recognised these days, even though its causes are still little understood. What is understood, sadly, is that it is difficult or — more likely — impossible to repair misshapen personalities, whether they were distorted by nature or by nurture. This is a horrible thing for a convicted young man or his mother to hear, but in the light of current scientific understanding it is the indeterminate truth.

As Straw rather crudely put it on the radio last week, for a person on an indeterminate sentence to get out, the requirement of the law is that the serious offender has to show he has been able to “straighten out his brains” so as not to be a danger to society. Who could be sure that he has? Brains aren’t so simple. All this is the usual unnecessary mess — a dog’s dinner of bad faith, political expediency, ignorance and wishful thinking. The sick joke is that life sentences work in much the same indeterminate way anyway. So the sound and fury do not signify all that much.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 23rd, 2011

Bolt the door, granny, before they grab your spare room

What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones sang long ago. Getting old in Britain today means fear for most people — fear of terrible treatment in hospitals and care homes, fear of rising bills, fear of having pensions driven down by high charges and fear of seeing any savings eroded by inflation and negligible interest rates. Old people are openly described as bed-blockers, a growing public nuisance.

Now, as of last Wednesday, the elderly are being described as “bedroom-blockers” in their own homes. They are “house-hoarders”, practically spivs.

These nasty ideas were put forward last week by an obscure leftie charity called the Intergenerational Foundation, which launched a report in the House of Commons, sponsored by Tessa Jowell. It argued that people in their sixties whose children have left home are taking up too much room: their children’s empty bedrooms (and their own) ought to be freed up for young families. These sad old bedroom-blockers should be “nudged” or taxed into “downsizing” to something much smaller and more suitable to their advanced years.

Incredible though it sounds, people over 60 now stand directly accused of wasting space in the houses they own. Wasting space. It doesn’t seem much of a leap of the fearful imagination from wasting space to being a waste of space. The message is getting clearer: as King Lear said bitterly, age is unnecessary. His daughters wanted to make him downsize, too. They bullied him to cut back his retinue of knights and servants to almost nothing. “What need one?” says the heartless Regan. “O, reason not the need!” cries out Lear.

I was reminded of Regan by Jowell last week, but in fact she has been misrepresented in the media. She did not fully endorse the report; nor does she think pressure should be put on old people to leave their homes, although she does welcome debate about housing. All the same, the viperish spirit of Regan and Goneril is evident in the Intergenerational Foundation. Who is it — or anyone — to tell homeowners what they “need” and to suggest that by “clinging” to their homes they are contributing selfishly to the housing crisis and causing profound social problems?

The Intergenerational Foundation exists supposedly to “promote fairness between generations” but it looks to me as though it is, willy-nilly, promoting resentment between the generations in an egalitarian and punishing spirit. One can almost hear the rattle of far-off tumbrils. I was reminded, too, of Omar Sharif in the film of Dr Zhivago, coming back to his huge house after the Russian revolution to find it had been filled with strangers, by government order: he was then forced by an official to pretend that he was delighted. Several commentators have suggested that this country is now in a pre-revolutionary mood, given the anger and fear so widely felt about the likelihood of a double-dip recession. Certainly the generation wars seem to be gathering force.

Perhaps even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are now enemies of the peopleEveryone agrees it is frighteningly difficult for young people to find somewhere affordable to live. Rents have rocketed and buying a property is becoming impossible for most young people. Bedroom-blockers are all too aware of it — these young people are hgh helpful for low thyroid their sons and daughters and grandchildren. But it is not the fault of the over–60s. It is just as hateful to blame older people for the housing crisis as it is to blame them for getting old. They are innocent: they didn’t wish for it either. They did not cause the property crisis and the shocking rise in house rental prices. It was caused by stupid and irresponsible government policies over many decades. Now it seems that baby boomers are to be monstered and punished for crimes they did not commit.

Of the many explanations for the housing crisis, the most obvious is the criminal failure of many succeeding governments to build houses, particularly affordable family houses and flats. Shortage breeds high prices. Less often mentioned is the disgraceful failure of the Labour government (and earlier governments) to control immigration, so that several million more people need housing than in 1997.

Another explanation is the willingness over many years of local authorities to give young people subsidised single-person accommodation, particularly single mothers, thus hugely inflating demand. Yet another has been the general failure to sell valuable social housing in prime locations to create much more social housing elsewhere. All this — along with other bad policies and incompetent government — has put extreme pressure on ordinary young families with jobs and children. The answer, however, is not to be mean to granny and grandpa.

An Englishman’s home … or rather, since clichés must move with the times, a British person’s home has traditionally been his or her castle: when the drawbridge is up, the occupants are supposedly free from the attentions of nosy parkers and interventionists. But it hasn’t been so for years. Few of us perhaps know that since 2003 there has been a government “bedroom standard”. Under its calculations a dwelling is deemed officially underoccupied if it has at least two bedrooms more than it “requires”. This would mean there are about 18m “surplus” bedrooms here at the moment.

How the blood pressure rises. It may be necessary to make such measurements in public or subsidised housing, but to suggest that arbitrary notions of “requirement” and “surplus” should be applied by anyone — least of all government — to privately owned houses and flats strikes me as apparatchik speak of the more aggressively socialist sort.

Those surplus rooms may be used for all kinds of good purposes, such as havens for friends and family. Even if they are used for bad purposes — meetings of hellfire clubs or groups devoted to sticking pins into Gordon Brown — it is an outrage for the government or any freedom-loving analyst to suggest it is anyone else’s business why anyone wants “surplus” rooms or what they use them for.

Nor is it any of their business what prudent financial reasons older people may have for “clinging” on to their family homes, such as hedging against an uncertain future. Government and sensible theorists should turn their attention instead to providing lots of new housing and thus bringing prices down fast at the same time.

Hard times make for hard feelings. Perhaps the noise of the tumbrils really is getting louder and even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are enemies of the people. What a drag it is growing old.

The Sunday Times

October 16th, 2011

Take three bombs … my prescription to cure nursing

What should happen to a nurse who neglects her patients and stays chatting idly at the nursing station while they cry out helplessly for bedpans, or scream unnoticed when their anaesthetic drips have run out? What should happen to a nurse who is prepared to leave patients unfed and unwashed, lying in their own excrement, who scolds and insults them and has so little care for their basic needs that doctors have to prescribe water to make sure the poor souls get enough to drink to survive? This ought to be a rhetorical question. The obvious answer is that such a nurse is not worthy of the name. She (or he) should be struck off the official register of nurses permanently. So should any more senior nurse who tolerates such cruelty or fails to notice it. However, that is not what happens.

Last week, in yet another shameful NHS nursing scandal, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), prompted by the health secretary, reported the findings of unannounced inspections of 100 hospitals. What it showed was how widespread this nightmare nursing is across our hospitals.

The report showed that nearly one in five of the hospitals was breaking the law with its failure to treat the elderly with even the minimum care and respect. Just over half were falling short of proper care standards and one in three was struggling to meet even basic legal standards. It found that nurses’ bad practice could not be explained away by understaffing; the report attributed it to a culture of neglect.

Nor is this shamefully poor nursing restricted to geriatric wards. There is plenty of evidence that it can also be found on other wards — though so, too, can good and excellent nursing. If bad nursing really is so widespread, what would you expect to happen to all the bad nurses? The answer ought to be mass sackings. In a rational and moral world you’d expect shock, horror and breast-beating from the regulatory bodies and nursing establishment, and for lots of nurses to be swiftly struck off the professional register of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). You’d be wrong. In 2010-11, of the nearly 670,000 registered nurses, only 198 were struck off. Why so few? Nurses, like teachers, seem beyond punishment.

Ministers and health professionals were wringing their hands all week, with the usual evasive wittering about the importance of learning lessons and old people’s right to dignity. The word “training” was used a lot: Joan Bakewell even suggested “empathy training”. Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, came up with the idea of encouraging whistleblowers, but that is a curious approach to professional regulation. Otherwise there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan or even much of a response. Yet there are some very obvious things to do.

The first is to put a bomb under the NMC. If anything is wrong with nursing, as the regulator for nursing and midwifery, it has a duty to fix it. This council exists to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the public, set education, training and conduct standards, and investigate complaints. It says proudly that only 0.6% of registered nurses and midwives are referred for investigation each year. Is the NMC unaware that something terrible is going on and that it has a responsibility to fix it and that this figure doesn’t make any professional sense? Above the NMC is the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. Excellence! Accountable to parliament, this independent body oversees the work of the regulators of all healthcare professionals, including the NMC. It seems surprisingly satisfied with the NMC: it did an audit early last year and offered no serious criticisms. Surely there should be a bomb under this body too. It cannot be right that both these regulators should have presided without any noticeable expressions of guilt or shame over such a national disgrace.

No doubt the trustees and senior executives are worthy people — their biographies suggest they are. But they all seem to be part of that quangocratic medical establishment for which the kindest word is “complacent”. I suspect they are too much part of the public sector mentality and are thus unable to oversee with independent eyes.

In 2009 one of the very few nurses the NMC did strike off for misconduct was a whistleblower who secretly filmed neglected patients for Panorama to expose bad nursing practice, having despaired of being heard in any other way.

Another bomb needs to be targeted at nursing training — currently overseen by the NMC. At long last it has been acknowledged that current training isn’t fit for purpose, even by the nurses’ union, the Royal College of Nursing. Nursing degree courses should be revised by independent academics, dumping extraneous issues such as promoting equality. Bring the nurses back onto the wards for more than 20 weeks a year to learn by expert example. Bring back student nurses’ pay. There should be many levels of training, covering all practical and intellectual aspects and tailored to nurses with different strengths. All are important.

Empathy training is unnecessary: by 2013 all nurses will have to complete degrees and undergraduate nurses are already inundated with coursework on ethics, dignity and cultural understanding — it can’t be said to be working very well. What are needed are not empathy workshops but discipline, hierarchy and education by example — currently rather feebly called leadership.

With the nursing reforms of the 1980s and their pursuit of equality, university status and individualism for nurses, and in the contemporary hatred of deference and authority on the wards, the shared purpose of medical care was lost.

Bring back hierarchy and the chain of command. Bring back the old state enrolled nurses, who were carefully trained for bedside nursing but were less qualified than state registered nurses or graduate nurses. Train the auxiliary healthcare workers, register them and let them become an important part of the nursing team, not just the unskilled hired help.

Bring back the honour and meaning of the word nurse, applying it to every member of the nursing team, whether superskilled or modestly trained, whether a cardiac intensive-care specialist or a kind person skilled in giving bed baths. Bring back the old chain of command, in which everyone was responsible to those above them and for those beneath them. But what’s needed is a lot of creative destruction first.

The Sunday Times

October 9th, 2011

Men are trailing in our dust – we’ve lost the gender war, girls

One of the unintended consequences of feminism — at least I hope it was unintended — has been to marginalise men. Feminism has in practice been a long march not just towards emancipation but also against masculinity. Last week, in a new sign of this, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (a woman) announced that young women were now earning more on average than young men. Among women aged 22-29, the gender pay gap has been reversed, partly because these women are better qualified than men of their age. The lead that these young women now have is still slight, but it is unmistakably there, and it is the reversal of a trend.

This is not good news. Surely it is not what feminists fought for. The battle cry was for equality with men — including equal pay — not for victory over them. When I was a student and older feminists were asked how men could be persuaded to give up so much and join forces with women, they always said firmly that feminism was in men’s own best interests. I wondered then and I wonder now.

However right and proper it may be, nobody can pretend it is in a man’s interest to give up his time in the football stadium, pub or corridors of power to go to the launderette or the sandpit instead. Nobody can pretend it is in a man’s interest to have positive discrimination at work in favour of women, which is now almost universal.

There is a bitterness that dares not speak its name among men who have been passed over in favour of less capable women for at least two decades now. Things have been changing hugely in women’s favour. It is hardly in young men’s interest, as an indirect result of years of feminist agitation, to be paid less than young women.

Admittedly women have yet to break the glass ceiling in banks and boardrooms at the top end of the pay scale, but there is evidence that many well-qualified women choose not to do that kind of work. Across the rest of the ordinary population, women are, apparently, outdoing men. That can’t be right, unless one assumes that men are less intelligent and less capable, or otherwise less desirable, than women.

The explosion of university places in the past couple of decades has favoured not men but women: broadly it is middle-class women, rather than less privileged men, who have taken up the new opportunities of a university education. For some time significantly more women than men have been entering all kinds of higher education, and now it seems that women outnumber men at every type of university and are 25% more likely to get into university than men, according to figures published last year by the Labour government. As David Willetts, then shadow universities minister, said: “The gap between women and men is growing ever wider.”

For many years boys did much better than girls at exams at every level. But with school reforms, and what some people, including me, would call the feminisation of education, girls are doing much better. Girls have now increased their lead over boys in getting the best GCSE results: this year only about 20% of boys got an A* or A in their GCSE exams, compared with 27% of girls. This is an accelerating trend, which started about 20 years ago — about the time that girl-friendly coursework and soft subjects were introduced.

The only recent change in boys’ favour is at A-level: having for years outshone girls there and at degree level, boys fell back some time ago, again at the time of the dumbing down of A-levels and the inflation of grades at university. Recently, though, they have been closing the gap, increasing their share of As and A*s. The number of A* grades awarded to boys rose to 8.2% last year, while it fell for girls to the same percentage. Boys have also closed the gap to almost nothing in hard subjects such as maths and sciences.

The perception remains, nonetheless, that boys generally do less well than girls — less well at school, less well at getting jobs, less well at being emotionally intelligent, less well at social and workplace co-operation — and are generally speaking more of a problem.

I was horrified when I heard my nine-year-old daughter firmly telling my four-year-old son that boys do all the bad things in the world, and are rough and selfish. Girls, she assured him, were good. She was only mouthing the politically correct attitude of the time. People had suddenly discovered testosterone, the male hormone, as the root of all social evil, competition, teenage violence and war — all attributable to men. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes the cant of the day.

Nobody can seriously suppose that boys are significantly less intelligent than girls. There is no inherent reason to expect worse performances on average from boys than from girls at GCSE or A-level. So something is going wrong for boys. Just as girls were discriminated against in the past by misogynist teachers and exam markers — long ago the marking of 11-plus exams, in which girls did marginally better than boys, was officially “adjusted” to restore the “balance”, on the premise that girls were more mature at 11 than boys — so now boys seem to be the victims of some sort of discrimination, whether conscious or accidental.

It is odd that so little fuss is made about all this. Perhaps people are tired of the gender wars. Perhaps men and boys have internalised the prevalent idea that somehow masculinity is rather a nuisance: aggressive, impulsive, selfish with a poor attention span, and self-evidently the stuff of feral youth and violent crime. The notion that manliness was valuable — that a manly man would protect his wife and children and provide for them — has been undermined by the freedom of women to manage quite well (apparently but not actually) without them, indeed very much better without them at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, since this country’s benefit payments could have been specifically designed to make men redundant, and feel it.

Now young women are beginning to earn more per hour than men of their age.

Imagine how that must feel to any young man trying to prove himself as an adult, a lover or a father: the effort would hardly be worth it. If this trend spreads to other generations and to other pay grades, we will soon have generations of deeply disaffected and angry men. That was not, surely, what generations of feminists had in mind.

The Sunday Times

October 2nd, 2011

Sorry, children, these zealots will never let you be adopted

For years I have been tempted to believe that the training of public servants makes them unfit for public service. I cannot count the number of times I have written or spoken about this suspicion, which is becoming a conviction. Recently the powers that be have begun to admit that the training of nurses is not fit for purpose. It is now time for everyone concerned to admit that the training of social workers is also unfit for purpose and has caused tremendous damage.

As with nursing training, social work training has led countless good and intelligent people astray, to their own loss and at great public cost. When poor training is compounded with the current absolute belief in localism, it is hardly surprising that so many public services fail to serve the public properly.

Take social work. If social workers are indoctrinated during their training about the supreme importance of racial, sexual and gender concerns, over and above the particular skills of their calling, and spend a large part of their courses on academic theories about such matters, they will — like nurses — arrive at their first job poorly equipped for the actual demands of the work. Encouraged by their superiors, who have the same mentality, they will continue to pursue such priorities. What is more, they will do so in defiance of central government directives, again supported by their superiors.

I first became aware of this more than 20 years ago in the field of learning disabilities. Many years ago, some people set up communities or small homes to provide a good life for people with learning difficulties. Although these little communities and group homes were much loved by many people, and were clearly a good arrangement for some, if not all, social work fashion swung against them in the 1970s (in an overreaction to the hospital “warehousing” of people with learning disabilities). They became anathema.

Before long, local authority social services would no longer send these homes clients, insisting instead on the fashionable model of tiny flats ” in the community”, for only one or two people. This model was disastrous for many — underfunded, undersupported, insecure and lonely, sometimes among hostile neighbours. But social work fashion prevailed. Happy, small communities were broken up and hospitals in lovely sites were sold off and turned into apartments for the well-off. The vulnerable people who lived there were thrown out to depend upon the uncertain kindness of strangers.

After a while, even the government began to realise the folly of this. Academic research began to back the importance of choice and the value of all sorts of living arrangements, including such communities. In the 1980s and 1990s Whitehall sent around countless local authority circulars pressing councils to offer choice. But councils refused, many almost entirely. In reply to a letter I wrote to all councils in England and Wales in 2002, at least half said they would not consider housing in anything but the standard model.

In other words, they blithely ignored respectable research and the wishes of people and government. This is what often emerges when power is devolved: ignorance, outdated ideology, obstinacy, mismanagement and postcode-lottery care. Localism is not as benign as it may seem.

All this explains why adoption today is in crisis. The picture is similar. When Labour came to power, I remember Paul Boateng addressing a think tank on the subject. He actually admitted — to his listeners’ delight — that social services were indeed opposed to adoption, particularly to “transracial” adoption, and he and his government would sort this out urgently. Tony Blair did try, but his government’s efforts did not come to much and little has changed for the better. Last week it was reported that adoption had fallen to a 10-year low.

Only 60 babies under the age of one were adopted in 2010-11, fewer than 2% of the 3,660 babies of that age in care. The total number of children in care has grown to well over 65,000, yet only 3,050 were adopted — about 4.6%.

The obsession with ethnicity remains: despite a shortage of ethnic minority adopters and increasing numbers of white adopters, social services still often insist on “ethnic matching” — a form of racism that in any other context would surely be illegal. This is why, in part, 9 out of 10 black children in care never get adopted.

Not all the children taken into care need adoption, of course. But children are taken into care only if they are thought to be at serious risk of harm at home, and a study by Bristol University has found that nearly 60% of children who are returned from council care to their natural parents are then abused at home. There is now overwhelming evidence that adoption — especially early adoption — can give a child a chance of a good, normal life.

Any delay is disastrous. Apart from the risk of lasting damage to abused babies, the later children enter care, the more likely they are to stay there, according to a study by York University. Equally bad is the time it usually takes to get a child adopted from care, once the adoption decision has been made.

Meanwhile, people who want to adopt are often horrified by the intrusive, drawn-out grilling they face. Many give up. One single woman says she was asked by social workers how often and how she pleasured herself.

Martin Narey, the government’s new adoption czar and the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, says: “Even when it is patently in the best interests of the child, we have a system that is better at thwarting adoption than achieving it.” His recent report for The Times demonstrates this all too clearly. Defenceless children and would-be parents all too often face institutionalised resistance in social services, academia and national bodies. It may be impossible to break down this resistance. But there are some things that might be done.

Social work training, like nursing training, should be radically revised. The degree courses do not produce people who are ready for social work: overwhelmed with jargon-ridden theory, they are unprepared for the psychological, legal, managerial and moral responsibilities they will face.

What is more, local authorities ought to be obliged to do what the government tells them on such centrally important matters, or explain why they have not. Otherwise this public service, like so many others, will not actually serve.