The Sunday Times

September 25th, 2011

Speak up, or nurses will carry on with their woeful care

It is one of life’s many mysteries that the British are so astonishingly patient at times when they ought to be very angry. Take nursing. It seems there is no need for anyone in charge of nursing to beware the anger of the patient British patient because it never comes. Grumbles and lamentations there may be — I have had thousands of letters over many years from people horrified by the nastiness of their nursing care — and the Patients Association does its best, but a critical mass of righteous fury is missing. I cannot understand why.

For more than 15 years I have been writing diatribes against the low and falling standards of nursing in this country. I don’t mean all nurses, of course, but recently there have been enough horrifying hospital scandals to prove the point that disgracefully bad nursing is widespread. My views are not just based on my own observations of visiting many hospitals and patients. They have been formed by conversations with nurses themselves — good nurses who are increasingly frustrated and shamed by their profession and by some of their colleagues — and by countless heartbreaking testimonies from patients themselves or their relations, often in grief-stricken handwriting.

Before long it became clear to me, as many nurses themselves pointed out, that the problem lies mainly with training. Nursing training was leaving nurses unfit for nursing and still is. In the late 1980s the nursing establishment became obsessed with the idea that all nurses, like doctors, should have degrees — the national obsession with professional status — and be trained not in hospitals but in a university setting. This turned nearly 20 years ago into Project 2000, which was not opposed by Conservative governments, and promoted by their Labour successors and the Royal College of Nursing; all nurses were to have degrees by 2013.

That sounds fine, until one examines the consequences. Of course lots of nurses need degrees, and some have always been graduates. Nursing has become ever more complex and academically demanding at the higher levels. But it remains much what it always was, at what one might call the less academic levels, for which good training is essential but a university degree is not. In fact the intellectual demands of a university degree, and getting a place to study for one, have on the one hand turned many young people away from nursing altogether, when with a different training they might have become excellent bedside nurses. I can remember one trainee nurse in Greater London telling me how others on her course struggled hopelessly with Foucault’s theories of sexuality when they wanted only to look after sick people in practical ways.

Such nurses used to exist, in the bad old days before Project 2000. They were called state enrolled nurses (SENs) and were trained on the wards by matrons and senior nurses, and also had some academic training and exams. They were not nearly as highly trained as state registered nurses, but they were integral to the nursing team, part of a chain of responsibility with their essential clinical observations and expertise in routine issues — dealing with everything from bedsores to specimens, routine tests, bed washes, bedpans and reassurance.

They gave the NHS much of its worldwide reputation for bedside care. But they no longer exist. SENs have long since disappeared, victims of the nursing establishment’s pursuit of higher status and equality (an illogical combination, you might think). SENs’ work has been taken over by untrained, low-paid, unregistered, uninvolved nursing auxiliaries, with the results we have seen — too many patients left in their own filth, ignored, unfed and unwashed and begging nurses in vain for anaesthetics or a bedpan.

Meanwhile, Project 2000 has produced all too many graduate nurses who are too posh to wash patients and too qualified to care, without actually being of much use. “Unable to take blood pressure or give an injection, and a liability on the wards” was how one hospital trust executive put it to me nearly 15 years ago. At the same time complaints have been denied and whistleblowers punished. I cannot count the number of times I’ve written about it, to be ignored by the establishment and ferociously attacked by thousands of nurses. The Times writer Camilla Cavendish has recently produced several excellent reports about nursing. It is clear things have been getting worse.

Now, to my intense fury, all this has suddenly been admitted, without a hint of an apology, by one of the organisations that made it happen. Last week the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Peter Carter, had the gall to announce that many new nurses arrive in hospital incapable of caring for patients because they have spent too much time in the classroom and not enough on the wards. Too many of them, he said, “are not up to the mark”. How dare he announce this now, unforgivably late in the day? It was the predictable result of taking all trainee nurses out of hospitals and forcing them to do degrees. Equally shocking was the response of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the body responsible for setting standards for nurses. It merely commented that “the balance between theory and practice hasn’t changed. It’s 50-50, as it’s been for many years”.

Carter remarked that the way hospitals now depended on untrained, unregulated healthcare assistants was a “disgrace”. Of course it is, in the absence of the trained SENs who were part of the nursing team. His solution is to call for the registration and training of auxiliary workers. This defies belief. They would be SENs by another name, bringing the whole thing full circle. That is the real disgrace.

Where, all these years, have been the organisations and the people responsible for this prolonged disaster? Where were the quangos, the health ministers, the NMC, the unions, the nurses themselves and the doctors? Why were they silent about the suffering of so many patients? In 2000 Lord Winston was horrified by the treatment of his elderly mother on an NHS ward, and made a public fuss about it. But my response (after bitterly reflecting that my own mother was treated even worse in an NHS hospital) was to wonder why he was the first to do so.

Doctors and nurses must have known about such things for years — especially the many good and compassionate people among them. They should have joined together in mass outrage. They should do so now, apologising at the same time. But putting up with things one shouldn’t put up with seems to be the British way.

The Sunday Times

September 18th, 2011

The 40 little words bringing sense back to the classroom

After compassion fatigue, choice fatigue and information fatigue, we now face gloom fatigue. People are beginning to be tired of hearing that disaster looms and that we are all going to hell in a handcart. For one thing it isn’t entirely true. There are, for instance, signs that disaster may be receding on the education front.

Last week the education secretary, Michael Gove, made a bracing speech to the National College for School Leadership’s conference for head teachers in Nottingham, in which he had another go at Ofsted inspection, which has for years created gloom fatigue in many people who care about education. He pointed out that more than half the secondary schools and nearly a fifth of the primary schools that Ofsted had rated “outstanding” were no such thing.

They have achieved this accolade despite the fact that their quality of teaching and learning — one of the categories inspected — was not rated outstanding. This means that in reality 410 schools could and should lose their “outstanding” Ofsted label. Gove has promised to get the new chief inspector on the case.

It defies belief that a school with only a “good” or “satisfactory” report on its quality of teaching and learning should nonetheless be officially designated as “outstanding” — especially as Ofsted’s perception of “good” and “satisfactory” is not high. The reason for this misleading anomaly is that under current regulations schools must be measured in a total of 27 categories. That is far too many — they include the extent to which pupils adopt healthy lifestyles, the extent to which pupils feel safe and the effectiveness with which the school promotes equal opportunity and tackles discrimination.

Perhaps it is schools’ anxieties about this last demand from Ofsted inspectors that explains the astonishing number of children whose teachers accuse them of racism and hate crimes and report them — as they must — to the local authority, which then records them. The Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group, discovered recently that more than 20,000 schoolchildren of 11 or under were so reported in 2009-10. Some were younger than four. This is the result of a Labour directive of 2000. Head teachers who send in no such denunciations are criticised for under-reporting.

It ought not to be necessary to explain why this is stupid and wicked. It is also a perfect example of what has gone wrong with the state sector generally. Attacking social immobility, homophobia and unhealthy eating may be important goals, but they are not — or should not be — the primary purpose of people providing crucial public services, such as teaching, organising parking or rubbish, fighting crime or caring for the sick and needy. Spending a lot of time and energy on secondary or tertiary goals cannot help but distract time and energy from the primary goal. What’s needed in public services, as any athlete or research scientist would say, is focus — an unswerving concentration on the most important thing.

In recent years public servants have been driven to distraction by the number of often unnecessary goals they have been forced to pursue. With this distraction goes incompetence, uncertainty, confusion, bureaucracy and fear. Clearly the teachers prepared to do something as daft as denouncing a toddler for saying “gaylord” must either be stupid or — more likely — afraid. I think this fear runs right across all public services, with people constantly worrying that they are not tirelessly working towards the 27 must-dos, rather as in Chairman Mao’s China.

Like other public servants, teachers must be freed from worrying too much about wider social initiatives. There are plenty of other agencies for that. Teachers must be allowed and encouraged to focus on teaching. And that is what Gove is trying to promote. Last week he said — and it is in the education bill, too — that Ofsted must focus on only four key areas of inspection: pupil achievement; teaching; leadership and management; and behaviour and safety.

At last. Away with all distractions. So obvious, so necessary and so very much what parents want and probably teachers too.

According to a report published last week by the exam board Pearson, 97% of parents believe that quality of teaching is what matters in a school. How could anyone in the teaching establishment, or among Ofsted inspectors, have thought anything else? It ought to be obvious, too, that no matter how good the teaching, a child cannot learn if it cannot read. There is almost no clearer predictor of social mobility than reading, in the negative sense — those who can’t read are condemned to downward mobility.

Yet children are still failing to become readers. In this year’s tests it emerged that one in six 11-year-olds leaving primary school did not reach the reading standard expected (which is very modest). One in 10 boys aged 11 can read no better than a seven-year-old. However, last week a little light appeared on this gloomy front as well.

Some time ago Gove’s expert advisers designed a neat 40-word, one-to-one test for six-year-olds, to show how well each child could decode short words — the necessary but not sufficient skill underlying full reading and comprehension. It uses nonsense words such as “dov”, as well as real words such as bat (for example, b-a-t spells bat) and was designed to stop the reading rot in schools without upsetting anybody.

The test has been piloted in 300 schools and was studied by Sheffield Hallam University. On Friday it received a resoundingly good report. The great majority of schools and teachers in the study found the test helpful, appropriate, easy and quick to administer, either fun or at least not stressful for the children and useful for assessing a child’s phonic decoding ability. Perhaps most importantly, 43% of teachers said the test had enabled them to identify children with reading problems that they hadn’t previously recognised.

The test is not really a test: it is merely an assessment and an aid to teachers. No child can fail it or fear it; the results will not be made known publicly, so teachers need not fear it either. It seems to have brought them along with it despite the fact that a number are opposed to phonics. It might even have persuaded the more recalcitrant ones that synthetic phonics is genuinely the first and best building block of successful reading. At last, there are some glimmers of hope through the educational gloom.

The Sunday Times

September 11th, 2011

Scrap this childcare subsidy — it’s no use to mothers

Things have improved since Friedrich Engels’s famous report of 1844, when working-class women in Britain’s industrial cities had to tie their children to their bedsteads for safety before going out to labour in the factories and mills because they couldn’t afford childcare.

All the same, the problem hasn’t gone away. Childcare is still not affordable, at least not for most parents, and never could be.

Ignoring this glaringly obvious reality, feminists, activists and politicians have all cried out for decades for affordable childcare, as of right. But there is no such thing.

Last week the cry went up again. A report published by Save the Children and the Daycare Trust revealed that the poorest families are getting into debt because of the high cost of childcare; a third are turning down jobs and 40% are thinking of leaving work because they can’t afford such care. Nearly half of the poorest families have cut back on food to pay for someone else to look after their children and 58% said they were, or would be, no better off working once they had paid for nurseries and childminders.

These problems are not restricted to the poorest families. The research found that parents across all incomes cannot afford not to work, but at the same time struggle to pay for childcare. Many are cutting back other spending. Most strikingly, nearly one in four of all working parents is in debt because of childcare costs.

Another study, published last week by Haliborange, claimed that four in 10 working mothers admit sending their children to school when they are ill, because they cannot take time off work to look after them or pay someone else to do so. One woman explained that after she had paid for childcare and her rail fares to work, she had almost nothing left.

There’s nothing new in that, even among people on above-average incomes. I discovered it myself years ago when I had both a baby and a reasonably paid job and when childcare was cheaper. Only the well paid and the rich can afford to pay for wall-to-wall childcare.

According to the Daycare Trust, a nursery place for one child under two for 25 hours a week costs on average £4,670 a year and £6,164 in London. That, of course, does not cover a full working day, so more childcare would be needed for any parent working full-time — about £12,000 per child in London. The average gross wage is £25,000, so the sums do not add up for most people. This ought not to be a surprise.

Yet activists and outraged parents continue to claim that the costs of childcare are unacceptably high. They’re missing the point. For most people, childcare is necessarily uneconomic in an open market. A mother of two or more on a modest or low income cannot hope to pay to replace herself and still have money left over. Any mother substitute she hires will need to earn at the very least what she earns herself, net.

Although a paid carer can look after up to four children, she will have to get a minimum of a quarter of the mother’s pay per hour per child, so three-quarters of it for three children and so on. Only if a mother of two or more earns significantly more than a childcarer will she gain by working. And, of course, many don’t.

In any case, paid childcare is always more expensive in real terms than a parent’s care of their own child. Parent carers, who don’t get paid to do it, don’t have the burden of National Insurance or tax. Nor do they pay for police checks or insurance or training, or maternity leave or sick pay, all of which are factored in to the high cost of paid carers. Nor do parent carers have to pay rent and repairs for nursery space, or for installing the remarkably high number of lavatories that are statutorily required in nurseries.

I suppose one could regard looking after one’s own children as an “opportunity cost”, financially speaking, but I would say that handing tiny infants over to nurseries is an “opportunity cost” for the children, developmentally and emotionally speaking. This is something that is always ignored in the frenzies of successive governments to get both parents working.

Because paid childcare is genuinely uneconomic, huge numbers of parents can afford it only with massive support from the hard-pressed taxpayer. Until recently some parents were entitled to get 80% of their childcare costs subsidised by the taxpayer. That has now been reduced to 70% and the whole system will soon be overtaken by a new universal credit, which will not reduce the subsidies overall.

Parents are still gigantically subsidised to go out to work and are then heavily taxed on the proceeds. Even families earning about £62,000 a year — among the richest 3% of households — can get some tax credit help. We are spending £2 billion a year on childcare subsidies in tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit.

The glaringly obvious question is why should society subsidise childcare and all its bureaucratic costs? Why should taxpayers stump up for all the mind-numbing, unreliable churning of rebates and entitlements and credits and employer vouchers and paperwork and administrators and appeals systems? The obvious answer is that they shouldn’t.

It is doubtful whether it is good for young children to be given over to strangers. It is not doubtful at all that many nurseries are barely satisfactory. It is certain that children benefit from one-to-one, consistent, long-term attention, which they cannot get from nurseries; and that the majority of mothers wish to be with their young children. Leaving aside the case of feral children, who arrive at nursery or primary school unable to recognise their own names and without even being toilet-trained, but thinking only of perfectly adequate families, I think it is an absurd waste of money to push mothers out to work with huge subsidies when it is wholly uneconomic.

What’s needed is a revolution in tax and benefits. Two-parent families on low incomes should be taken out of income tax (they will still pay many other taxes) so that they can afford to look after their own children. Families on better incomes should get large tax rebates for stay-at-home mothers (or fathers).

Young, single, problem mothers, however, should be dealt with differently: it’s clear that chaotic families with generations of non-working mothers should not be encouraged to stay at home with lots of babies. But equally, respectable mothers should not be pushed out to work by childcare subsidies or treated the same way as the most difficult welfare queens.

The Sunday Times

August 28th, 2011

I didn’t need a politician to mentor my Norland nanny

Mentoring means sharing social capital, to use two post-riot buzzwords. Families rich in social capital hardly realise their advantages; their contacts, their confidence, their know-how, their sense of entitlement, their sharp elbows, their social skills and their understanding of how to work the system. Everyone could use some of that but a lot of people have none of it.

All the same, when politicians talk of mentoring dysfunctional families in person, it is really rather funny. There cannot be many problem families who would welcome a grinning cabinet minister on their doorstep, keen as mustard to do them good.

The coalition government has announced that some of its ministers and advisers will be offering themselves as mentors, as reported in this newspaper last week; they will adopt some workless families to set them straight. They mean to set an example to others by volunteering to become “family champions”. But do-gooding is not always welcome: it needs to be done with sensitivity and tact, qualities for which politicians are not universally admired.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Jane Austen matron, who set herself to bullying her unlucky villagers into peace and prosperity. Imagine having Jacqui Smith, the former Labour home secretary — who has indeed already decided to improve the moral fibre of two prisoners by allowing them to repaint her house — standing on your doormat, determined to show you a better way. It might provoke a riot.

All the same, a public commitment to the idea of sharing social capital is long overdue. Informal mentoring is as old as civilisation, but this new organised, political initiative is the idea of a social entrepreneur called Emma Harrison (of A4e — Action for Employment). The only thing wrong with it, as far as I can see, is involving politicians. That, I am afraid, is usually the kiss of death.

What’s needed is for more ordinary people to adopt a person or a family, in the spirit not of a big society but of a generous society. Perhaps there is room somewhere for a formal scheme such as Harrison’s under which people are trained how to help the dysfunctional manage their money, deal with red tape and get up in the morning. But I can’t help feeling that mentoring is best done personally and informally, without political control or right-on training.

That may produce imperfect and unequal results, but it goes with the crooked timber of humanity, and for that reason is much more likely to succeed. Mentoring — meaning mentoring outside one’s own tribe — should become a convention. It should be something that people feel they ought to do.

The fact is — like sex before Philip Larkin’s 1963 — a lot of mentoring goes on already. I had no contacts in the world of journalism when I started work, but I have been generously mentored by a brilliant stranger who has become a close friend. Without her advice, I would have fallen beside the rocky wayside of journalism — uninformed, unencouraged and underconfident.

I have even been a mentor myself. When my first baby was born and I went back to full-time work, I employed a live-in Norland nanny, complete with uniform and white gloves. She came at a cheap rate as she was still a probationer, and had to work for nine months in a family before graduating. She was not well-off, as many Norlanders are; she had left school at 16 with a couple of GCSEs, and had to work for a year in the Norland kitchens to help pay for her course.

It soon became clear to us that she was very bright; on her side, getting to know us and our university friends convinced her she could easily do as well or better and we began to talk about what she might achieve. She was interested in sciences and maths so we encouraged her to start with a couple of GCSEs: then I began working from home, she went on living with us as a part-time Norland au pair, and started maths and science A-levels at a nearby college.

The college was the first obstacle. Our nanny finally admitted that the maths course was no good. The students took no interest and the useless teacher didn’t always turn up. That was my mentoring moment: following my husband’s precept that the only real function of middle-class, middle-aged women is to make a fuss and get their way, I rang the nearest private school — the legendary St Paul’s girls’ school — asked to speak to the head of maths, and persuaded that kind-hearted man to give our heroine private teaching at our house. “I never knew,” said our nanny afterwards, delighted, “what good teaching could be.”

Triumphs followed — superb A-level results, a scholarship, entry to a top London medical school, a first, and the Norland uniform has long since been swapped for the white coat of a distinguished research virologist. It can happen.

My few other attempts have not been quite so successful. With some I didn’t seem to be able to help at all. And according to friends who have tried to mentor brutalised teenagers who have come out of council care, there are some people who are damaged well beyond amateur help. But my few small efforts haven’t always been useless. Consciously I was trying to do something in a small way to repay a debt to a generous benefactress, a rich single lady who had given my widowed mother a great deal of help in bringing up her four children.

Unconsciously, perhaps, I was following my mother’s example. In middle age she became quite well known locally as the person to go and see with any problems with O-levels, A-levels, university entrance, filling in application forms and for careers advice, for which she had a gift. She also, without comment, did her best to encourage people, especially if nobody else had done so.

Across the country there are countless people who quietly try in ways they can manage to help people get on. They wouldn’t see themselves as mentors and they probably wouldn’t consider that they been sharing their social capital, any more than Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme realised that he had been talking prose all this life. They certainly haven’t been trained and they would go out of their way to avoid guidelines and politicians, and they probably wouldn’t feel inclined to emulate a minister, but in their way they constitute the big society that David Cameron has been talking about.

All they need is encouragement and a little recognition and perhaps an introduction to someone who could use their help, where otherwise they might be afraid of intruding. Throw dysfunctional families a jobs lifeline, Letters, page 26

The Sunday Times

August 21st, 2011

You say you’ll flee higher taxes, Mr Filthy? We call your bluff

In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, the chief of police Captain Segura explains with chilling good humour that there are class distinctions in torture. There are the torturable classes and there are those who are torture-proof. This nasty truth has often seemed to me to apply to tax in this country, for the past couple of decades at least. Paying tax is for ordinary people; the super-rich are not really taxable.

Oddly enough this dispensation has been widely accepted for several decades. It was even a Labour minister, Peter Mandelson, who said in 1998 that his government was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich — so relaxed that Labour barely restrained them and hardly taxed them. The received view has been that if the rich and the super-rich are forced to pay more tax, they will leave the country and take their wealth-production somewhere else, which would be a disaster for the economy.

The same argument was applied at the time of the credit crunch and the banking crisis: filthy-rich bankers and their tottering banks could not be more strictly regulated, it was regretfully said on all sides, because that would drive them away to tax-proof and regulation-proof places, as a result of which our financial services industry would collapse. In other words, people widely agreed, whatever their views about tax and regulation, that the super-rich hold us over a barrel. They do not belong to the controllable classes.

Now, though, this consensus seems to be weakening, even among some of the super-rich themselves. Warren Buffett, the gazillionaire investment oracle of Omaha, said recently in a New York Times article that he felt that he should pay more tax. Last year, he said, he had to pay just 17.4% of his taxable income, a lower percentage than any of the ordinary mortals in his office, who paid between 33% and 41%. The American mega-rich get extraordinary tax breaks. Buffett thinks that the very rich have been coddled for long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. “It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice,” he wrote.

There were, of course, the predictable howls of outrage, but equally some super-rich people publicly supported Buffett. In this country, too, although there had been the usual indignant harrumphs about the Lib Dems’ proposed mansion tax when Vince Cable first announced it last spring, there was a much more considered response when he re-announced it last week.

The Tory party as a whole might never wear it, but there are many Conservatives and very wealthy people who accept that there is justice in the rich sharing the general pain in these hard times. The British, even at their most vainglorious, have never been quite as relaxed about displays of extreme wealth as have the Americans, and never quite so confident about their entitlement to it; after all, it was as recently as 1974 that the top rate of income tax here was 83%, which, with a 15% surcharge on unearned income (investments and dividends), could rise to a 98% marginal rate of personal income tax.

Perhaps that is why there has been less outrage here than one might have expected about the mansion tax, especially given that the Lib Dems suggested lowering the 50% top rate of income tax at the same time. That is obviously a step in the direction of fairness for the hard-pressed professional middle classes and the huge majority who can never hope to own a house worth more than £1m.

It is true the mansion tax wouldn’t raise very much. According to MoneyWeek, if it were raised on property values above £2m, it would produce about £1 billion a year. Raised on values over £1m it would probably be more than £2 billion. So its point would be more political than fiscal. But a property tax would send a clear, popular message that — to coin a phrase — we really are all in this together, even filthy rich foreigners, at least in house and home. There would be a chance property prices would come down, too, which would also be an obvious social good.

The only question is whether it’s possible without driving away the economy’s golden geese. It would be a very risky experiment.

Last year, Britain’s financial sector paid £53.4 billion in taxes, which was 11.2% of the country’s total take, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers. But London is hard to better from the point of view of the super-rich. As well as having the expertise, traditions and infrastructure of a leading financial centre, it is (riots aside) a lively and interestingly mixed place to live, especially with children — much nicer than New York, Hong Kong or Shanghai. When hedge funders fled to Zug not long ago, their bored wives soon forced them to return to more regulated but less dreary places.

Within my living memory, taxes were much, much higher. But the top rate in 1974 did not cause a mass flight of wealth-creators from the country. Similarly, when the euro was created, and people warned that London would cease to be a leading financial centre in Europe, there wasn’t an ugly rush of heavy hitters to Frankfurt, despite all predictions. London did best, even outside the eurozone. And as Buffett said last week, tax rates for the rich in America were far higher in the 1980s and 1990s, yet he and others did not throw a fit and stop investing.

“I have worked with investors for 60 years,” he wrote. “I have yet to see anyone … shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate … And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40m jobs were added between 1980 and 2000.”

That was America; they do things differently there. In any case, the general acceptance over here of the fact that the super-rich do not belong to the controllable classes seems to be beginning to crumble. Inequality in society is tolerated by consent, whether by tradition, religion or supposed self-interest. The recent riots in London, and the uprisings of the Arab spring, must have made many people pause to think about the nature of consent and of consensus.

If enough people are disaffected and angry, if enough people feel that the very rich are beyond tax, beyond responsibility, beyond reasonable control and above the hardships most people face, that tacit consent to their great wealth may disappear.

The mega-rich, the bankers, brokers and assorted wealth creators (and wealth destroyers) may have everyone else over a barrel for now, but perhaps not for long. They may find that they suddenly do belong to the controllable classes.

The Sunday Times

July 31st, 2011

Stop wallowing in Norway’s grief – it was not our tragedy

The mass murder in Norway is unspeakable. Unfortunately a great deal too much has been said about it. From the moment after Anders Behring Breivik’s bomb exploded in Oslo, the international media and the commentariat have rushed in with a cacophony of reports, speculation, conspiracy theories and instant interpretation.

It has been sickening. Most obviously offensive was the media’s obsessive attention to every horrifying detail in Norway. Awful, too, was the public’s appetite for it — no better than rubbernecking at a motorway pile-up. We did not need to know every last detail of the search for the dead teenagers, or their growing death toll minute by minute, or precisely where their bodies were found. We did not need to have the newspapers and the mass media dominated by all this, day after day. The Daily Telegraph even had an online section dedicated to Norway, and most news websites had live coverage and running commentary, with new video clips and images. It reminded me of a disgraceful map of Dunblane, published in a respectable newspaper after the massacre of 16 primary school children in 1996, carefully marking each house where a child had been lost: the intrusion was breathtaking.

I admit it is strange for a journalist to take this line; newspapermen and women are supposed to be determined to tell the whole story and cover all the angles. One would not expect a journalist to shrink from reporting on the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan massacres. But I have always hated what seems to me like dwelling on unnecessary detail, using horror as a kind of background infotainment. The media are not always guilty of this: we don’t see shots of starving Somali babies actually passing the point of death, or their mothers’ tears, although we see enough to understand the crisis there.

Worse still has been an outpouring of sentimentality (unlike the dignified restraint of the bereaved Norwegians) from commentators in other countries talking sanctimonious nonsense. Typical was the outcry of Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post: “We are all Norwegians now.”

We are not in any sense Norwegians now, however much we may sympathise with their grief. We didn’t think we were all suddenly Americans after the Columbine high school shootings or all Scottish after the Dunblane shootings. We were just very shocked and sympathetic.

Nor was it true to claim, as several rhetoricians have, that Norway will never be the same again. One even declaimed that “Norway’s history begins tomorrow”. Norwegians have not had a mass senseless killing before — hardly surprising since their population is less than 5m and such atrocities are extremely rare — but they must be well aware that such things do occasionally happen. After all, they have some bestselling crime writers who express an extremely bleak view of psychopathic killers. Although Breivik’s mass murder has shocked Norwegians, it cannot have changed their world-view. While they may want to review their policing procedures, they are already well aware of the threat of sudden, unexpected violence, as is every country in the world after many terrorist attacks.

Worse yet is the attempt to impose explanations on what happened. This has been depressing because it is self-evidently too soon to do so; there isn’t enough evidence yet even for the Norwegian police.

At first there was a flurry of horror at the suggestion that Breivik was connected to international right-wing groups and had even been nurtured in Britain by the English Defence League. The Norwegian police kept saying there was so far no evidence, despite extensive investigation, that Breivik had links to other like-minded cells in Norway or Britain. They think he was probably acting alone. This has not stopped others proclaiming that he was working with international right-wing terrorists.

Clearly it would suit some Muslim sensibilities to believe there are white European terrorists, driven by an anti-immigrant obsession to commit acts of organised international terrorism. That would establish a kind of parity of atrocity between Muslims and non-Muslims, which might make good PR for Muslim groups. But there is no evidence for this, at least not so far. Nonetheless, the day after the Norwegian police yet again said they had found no evidence that Breivik was working with extremist groups, Quilliam, the British foundation founded by reformed Islamists to combat extremism, put out a press release entitled “Symbiosis between anti-Muslim extremists and Islamist extremists”. The foundation said that while Breivik was not very devout, “like Islamists” (terrorists) he was misusing Christianity for terrorist ends. Quilliam recommended that governments reassess the threats posed by anti-Muslim extremists and develop a strategy to counter them.

These are complex matters, yet it seems manipulative of Quilliam to link such ideas with Breivik’s apparently solitary butchery and certainly to do so before the facts are established. Besides, there is no need for any “wake-up call” for security services about the dangers of the right wing in Europe, whatever noisy commentators have said. It seems rather an overreaction of Europol to set up a taskforce of 50 experts to investigate non-Islamist threats in Scandinavian countries. The threat of radical right-wing extremism has been endlessly researched for years and most governments have taken steps to deal with it.

The right response to such an atrocity is to respect the grief of the bereaved by saying only what must be said. Outsiders ought to wait for the facts to be known before even thinking of holding forth about wake-up calls, lessons to be learnt and the nature of terrorism. We cannot hope yet to understand what happened in Norway or why; perhaps it may never be comprehensible.

What people could do is restrain their urge to impose meaning on what may well prove to be meaningless — just another senseless mass killing by a human with a terrible defect. It is profoundly depressing that these murders have been used by so many people, so quickly and in so many different ways, to talk up their various interests. That is a tragic defect of human nature, too.

The Sunday Times

July 24th, 2011

Crisis solved: ship the poor out of their costly homes and sell them

Pessimists such as me tend to think that most complex social problems are pretty much insoluble. Take housing. Thinking about insane property prices in this country, the extreme shortage of property that ramps them up, the dearth of housebuilding, the frustration of working people who cannot hope to buy their own homes and the 4.5m on the social housing queue, one is tempted to despair. London, for example, is becoming a city inhabited only by the very rich and the very poor on benefits.

But there is a radical way to help solve all these problems and it has the advantage of being simple and obvious. It is to sell off social housing in the most expensive parts of central London and similar places and use the money to provide more and better housing elsewhere.

Prime London property sells for about £2,000 a square foot: only millionaires can afford it. But surrounding such prime properties are huge numbers of council houses, council flats and housing association homes — more than 790,000 in a city with a population of 7.8m — many of which could be sold for enormous sums. I recently saw a two-bedroom former council flat in a council block, close to several other such blocks, that was on the market for £750,000. Many other people there were council tenants on low rent; the true market rent would be of the order of £26,000 a year, or £500 a week.

I know of another large house in west London that is occupied by about eight housing association tenants. It would probably fetch more than £10m. That would buy or build a huge amount of social housing somewhere cheaper. And obviously building more housing, regardless of who lives in it or owns it, will bring down property rentals and prices for everyone.

This solution does mean moving poorer people out of the most expensive areas. So does the government’s policy of capping housing benefit. Not surprisingly, there are many who object violently to this, seeing it as a kind of social cleansing, as Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, put it. The Child Poverty Action Group, for instance, brought a legal challenge to the High Court last week in an attempt to overturn both the housing benefit cap and the government’s new restriction of the maximum subsidised house size to four bedrooms.

One of the group’s concerns is that the government’s plans will inadvertently discriminate against the poor black and ethnic minorities, because 45% of such people live in London and make up almost a third of its population. One could take the other view, however: that giving enormous subsidies to some people is discriminating against others in need who get nothing. Perhaps a similar class action should be brought by those people on council house waiting lists.

Of course, many people won’t want to move. All the same, no one has a universal human right to live in expensive streets at public expense. Nor is it fair to other people — those who do not get council housing or housing benefit — to expect them to pay taxes for others to live in prime locations. Again and again opinion polls show that most people feel the injustice of this.

Human beings have moved home, time out of mind, out of necessity, just as children today have to move far away from where they grew up to somewhere much cheaper. It is just that in this case the idea of necessity has been disguised by the erratic and unfair workings of the welfare state.

It is not right that there should be one group of people that gets this strangely preferential treatment from the state, this curious protection from necessity, while the necessities of others are neglected. Moving home may be difficult and disruptive, but if it were merely a couple of miles across London in the company of friends and relations (policy makers would have to be very careful about that) it would hardly be a disaster. In some cases, such as a move from a cramped flat to a pleasant new ground-floor home in a leafy suburb, life would be much better.

No doubt many people would complain that moving people around like this is social engineering. But the existence of heavily subsidised housing is in itself social engineering, particularly in the most expensive areas.

It’s a form of social engineering that is not often questioned: there’s a fixed belief, especially on the left, that mixed communities are a social good. Last week Kathleen Kelly of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation strongly defended them partly as a protection against growing social inequality. Unfortunately the evidence is the other way. Mixed communities aren’t mixed in practice and don’t help those in social housing: this particular form of social engineering does little or nothing to make people more equal.

This point is made in an authoritative report, Making Housing Affordable, published by the Policy Exchange think tank. It repeats the well known fact that people in social housing are much less likely to work than people in private housing — 46% employment as against 92% in the private sector, what’s known as the “unexplainable gap”. In London, where social housing is mixed into rich areas very close to plenty of job opportunities, unemployment is at this same terrible level. This goes along with other disadvantages, such as poor mental health and poor progress at school. Yet the report says the cost to the exchequer of social housing (in direct housing costs) is £15 billion a year — and this to house only about 4m people rather badly.

Social housing clearly needs radical form, as Policy Exchange argues at length, particularly in its perverse incentives that encourage people to stay needy if they want to stay in their homes. But such reform is cumbersome, expensive and unlikely. Pending any such reform, to put it crudely, if people in social housing are not working and not thriving in one place, they might as well do the same thing somewhere much less expensive.

Many of them might do better. One of the great blights of inner city social housing ghettos is the prevailing culture of worklessness and dependency across generations, and a loss of self-respect and autonomy, to say nothing of the endemic violence. Breaking up those toxic estates might well destroy their toxic culture and enable people to start again somewhere new. Simple, obvious and probably politically impossible.

The Sunday Times

July 17th, 2011

Face it, Clegg – you must choose between your kids and country

Miriam Gonzalez, the wife of the deputy prime minister, said last week that her husband was destrs s oying himself in his efforts to be a man who put his children first. This is alarming for the rest of us, who urgently need Nick Clegg to put his job co-running the country first, in these exceptionally difficult times.

Apparently, he is wearing himself out, rushing from early-morning meetings in Downing Street to his home in southwest London to take his children to school, returning to Whitehall and then sometimes hurrying home again in between other ministerial engagements for story and bedtime, as well as standing in for his wife if she is abroad on business. “Nick kills himself,” she told Grazia magazine, “to be able to do it all.”

How maddeningly familiar this sounds. For years now we have been listening to ambitious women bewailing the discovery that they can’t have it all, or do it all, which is both true and obvious. Now it is the turn of men to work out that they, too, cannot combine kiddies’ bathtime and the school run with being alpha-plus people. Having it all, all the time, is impossible. Something has to give, as any mother knows and as fathers are belatedly learning.

It is probably true, as Gonzalez complained to Grazia, that people still assume that it’s the role of the woman to do the giving and to manage the work-life balance when ambition clashes with family life. But no thinking person like her need bother about such general assumptions. This is not a question of old-fashioned sexism and the devaluation of women. It’s about an unavoidable fact of life.

If two highly ambitious and clever people, such as the Cleggs, want to combine having three children with two extremely demanding careers, they ought to be able to see, however equally they approach their choices, that something will have to give in both their cases, his and hers alike. It’s no good expecting to offload any inconvenient parenting on the other person if one spouse is just as ambitious as the other. Alpha-plus mummies cannot be expected to stand in for alpha-plus daddies, any more than vice versa.

What most people seem unwilling to acknowledge is that great success demands great sacrifices. So does parenthood. The very idea of sacrifice is out of fashion. But in truth there is simply not enough time in the day to be a hugely successful deputy prime minister, media mogul, international lawyer, opera singer, surgeon or creative scientist and to put one’s children first. Alpha-plus people have to put their work first, time and again. And if they don’t, they will either be less successful or they will be skimping their work.

In particular it seems to me outrageous that top politicians, men or women, are seriously prepared to dump their responsibilities, frequently, to deal with their children. They even admit to it as a sign of virtue. But it is short-changing their voters and the public. Politicians, especially top politicians, need time and energy, and more than just the odd moment in which to think without distraction. Otherwise they can’t do their jobs.

There was a time recently when for many weeks Clegg looked extremely tired and stressed, which caused a lot of comment; I imagined then that it was because he was upset by his transmogrification in the fickle public mind from pin-up to whipping boy.

Now I wonder whether what everyone saw on his face was the strain of trying to be a hands-on dad as well as deputy prime minister at an extremely demanding time. I have no doubt that his wife feels exactly the same strain as she tries to combine her high-flying legal life, jetting about Europe and reading legal papers late at night, with her life as a mother of three young sons. It’s the unavoidable consequence of imagining that one can have it all, man or woman.

I don’t doubt that the Cleggs love being with their sons. The company of little children is one of life’s greatest joys. But it is a joy that high achievers have traditionally gone without, whether they have realised it or not — and until recently a lot of high-achieving men clearly had not the slightest idea that being with one’s own children is a huge pleasure. You cannot imagine a freedom fighter in the Arab Spring rushing home from the front line to eat with his children; or a surgeon in the middle of a difficult operation handing over to her registrar to go to a birthday party; or a great Shakespearian actor being home often for teenagers’ supper. In fact, one celebrated classical actress told me not long ago that she had decided when young that she must choose between children and a career, as she could not give herself to both. She remains sure she was right.

It’s bad enough when GPs and social workers go part-time to spend time with their families: it interrupts continuity of care and can lead to confusion and mistakes. So much the worse, then, in jobs where it is the particular individual who is needed — and paid and expected — to be fully on the case, such as Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill or even, in their way, Tony Blair or Clegg or Christine Lagarde, the new International Monetary Fund chief.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, made the terrible sacrifice of her family life to serve her country. In less heroic terms, a man with the responsibilities of a deputy prime minister should not be “killing himself” in pursuit of a sentimental mistake of feminism.

Nobody is obliged to be a super-alpha male or a super-alpha female. Nor is it a universal human right to become one, just because one is capable of it. Nobody asked Gonzalez and Clegg to try to rise to such heights. They could have chosen, as many people do, to make compromises with their ambitions. I know lots of men and women who have faced up to all this, in different ways, without complaining.

Like them, the Cleggs could have moved into a slower lane for a time, while their children were young. Or they could have acknowledged that what they needed — and what, indeed, they had — was a good full-time nanny, with further back-up, who would let them forget about their children and their domestic life almost altogether during their working hours, however long. This was the traditional solution to the problem. The children seemed to survive and both parents were free to succeed without being driven to the brink of destruction.

The Sunday Times

July 3rd, 2011

The useless don’t deserve jobs just for being British, minister

The late Miss Ann Hannay, sometime proprietress of the Dorchester Ballet and Dance Club in Dorset, which I attended many years ago in a church hall, welcomed any pupils whose parents could pay the modest fees, no matter how modest the child’s abilities. But when, occasionally, she came across an exceptional pupil with an unmistakable talent for dancing, she would say to my mother, sadly, that the girl couldn’t be English. In those days, that meant native British.

At the time I thought Miss Hannay was being rather harsh. After all, we had the great Margot Fonteyn, born plain English Peggy Hookham, though I discovered later that her mother was Brazilian-Irish.

But much, much later, living in central London, I began to think that Miss Hannay might have had a point. Between the shop assistants, dry cleaners, pubs, clubs, minicabs, nurses, coffee bars, waiters, car washes, receptionists, domestic cleaners and even florists, I came to realise that most of the people who are any good at something are not English — not native-born British. The only exception is at a local high-class French baker, where the French employees are deeply incompetent.

Time and again I have found that if someone has a willing manner, good, clear handwriting and an aptitude for mental arithmetic, they have been educated somewhere else: in Hungary, Russia or Poland, or more or less anywhere in the former Soviet bloc. They tend to speak better English than the natives, too, apart from their accents.

Conversely, I’ve found that anyone with very bad handwriting is virtually always British. And once, when I asked the price of 10 metres of some fabric, the English sales girl told me what it cost per metre and then actually got out a calculator.

That is why Iain Duncan Smith’s appeal to British businesses to give unemployed young Britons a job ahead of “labour from abroad” is likely to fall on deaf ears.

He is right that British employers are failing to employ their fellow countrymen and women. As the Labour MP Frank Field, the coalition’s poverty adviser, has recently shown from official figures, 87% of the 400,000 new jobs created during the first year of this government went to workers born abroad. Native-born young unemployed people are being left out in the cold.

Duncan Smith is demanding the help of the nation’s employers. He says: “As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance and not just fall back on labour from abroad … we also need an immigration system that gives the [British] unemployed a level playing field.”

But that’s the whole point. The playing field isn’t remotely level; nor is it likely to become so.

Young foreign workers are bright, highly motivated, enterprising and well educated. Young unemployed Britons are few, or none, of those things. In particular they are worse educated, most of them come from a culture of welfare dependency and all too many of them come from families where worklessness is a way of life. Few of them are prepared to accept hard manual labour or useful menial jobs, and few of them have the skills to be a waiter, plumber, nanny or stonemason.

People vary, of course, but as a generalisation the foreign worker is likely to be better and more hard-working than the comparable young Briton to whom Duncan Smith wants to give a chance.

It would be nice to find something simple to blame and something easy to change. No doubt Duncan Smith has given it a lot of thought. But the factors that have made so many young British people relatively useless are complex.

One might start by blaming an educational culture that has undermined the country’s schools and produced generations of illiterates and innumerates. Alternatively one might blame a welfare system — which doesn’t exist where the foreign workers come from — that has made it more pleasurable and more profitable for the low-paid to stay out of work and under the duvet, or to take benefits while also working in the black economy.

They do things differently elsewhere. I’ve noticed over the decades that the ordinary workers in this country who have struck me as capable and well educated — at least at the basic level of reading, arithmetic and good handwriting — are from foreign totalitarian regimes, ranging from former Soviet countries to Franco’s Spain. Quite what that says about how to achieve basic levels of education I am not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with discipline and a longing for something better, which will only come through self-help.

In any case, in terms of basic education, migrant workers seem to have had a better deal than the children of this country.

Given it is highly unlikely our education system and welfare culture will change overnight and suddenly start producing literate, numerate people who are keen as mustard to take on any honest work, Duncan Smith’s plea seems unreasonable. It’s tantamount to asking this country’s employers to pass over useful workers in favour of young natives who will only give them grief and lose them money — and who don’t want to do the work anyway.

What’s deeply depressing is that there seems to be two Britains. One is full of hard-working young people. Whether in the creative worlds of IT, media and music, in which Britain still excels, or in some of the skilled trades, there are huge numbers of people who are driven, responsible and independent. There are highly skilled people, young and old — doctors, lawyers, architects, civil engineers and academics — who work hard and well at all levels of their professions. There are also those who are desperate to find work, so restricting the influx of immigrants who compete for that work, as Duncan Smith suggests, might well help them.

But then there is the other Britain, the Britain of those who can’t — or can’t be bothered to — make it in a competitive workplace. It’s absurd to think that, in a time of great economic uncertainty, employers should be expected, out of the goodness of their patriotic hearts, to take on anybody like that. They have to compete with the rest of the world too.

If there is any solution to the problem of youth unemployment, Duncan Smith has yet to think of it.

The Sunday Times

June 26th, 2011

Look out, Dr Bully wants to snatch granny’s sip of sherry

When Jeanne Calment of Arles reached her 117th birthday in 1992, a local paper reported that she was being pressed by those in her nursing home to give up cigarettes — though she smoked only one or two a day — and port, which she loved. I was reminded of that hateful story last week, when the Royal College of Psychiatrists announced that people over 65 are drinking far more than is good for them, and that each day women should restrict themselves to a small glass of wine and men to less than a pint of average-strength pub beer.

Introducing this new “safe limit” in a ponderous report called Our Invisible Addicts, the college outlines a problem of substance abuse among the wrinkly and suggests old people who have half a bottle or so of wine with food, or regularly down more than a couple of pints at the pub, are binge drinkers: more than 4½ units for men and more than three units — two small glasses of wine — for women is bingeing. It recommends GPs screen everyone over 65 for excessive drinking and, if they persist in ignoring this new “safe limit”, treat them for addiction.

This is all heartlessly silly. One can only gasp at the mindset of the people who dreamt it up. For its lack of perspective, lack of human understanding, lack of common sense and lack of political realism, this must be up there with the pronouncements of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

No doubt there are geriatric problem drinkers. No doubt old people metabolise alcohol less efficiently than the young. No doubt booze interferes with pills. No doubt getting squiffy leads to geriatric accidents. No doubt there are old people who drown their loneliness in booze. But none of that justifies this puritanical mass bullying.

For one thing, the truth is that the number of elderly “hidden addicts” among us is actually tiny, according to the statistics cited in the report itself. What’s striking in the midst of the authors’ doom and gloom is the very high proportion of older people who do not drink much. NHS figures designed to show how many men drank more than four units of alcohol (two pints of weak beer) on at least one day a week showed that nearly 80% did not do so. Among older women, 90% did not drink more than three units of alcohol even one day a week.

In other words, most old people drink very little indeed, both by normal standards and by the standards of this interfering report.

Here are some of the things that I believe lie behind this mindset. First of all — and there must be some clever Greek word for it — people who are preoccupied with something have the mental habit of seeing that particular something everywhere they look, to the exclusion of other things, and so exaggerate it. It’s a professional deformity of experts. Strikingly, almost all of the distinguished people on the working party and editorial team that produced Our Invisible Addicts are experts in addiction. Perhaps it is too simple-minded to assume that such a team is likely to see addiction where others might not.

Then there is the constant phenomenon of unthinking egalitarianism — the one-size-fits-all mindset. It is everywhere. In this case, concerns about a tiny minority of problem heavy drinkers are imposed on the vast majority of responsible old people. Everyone must be cross-questioned by GPs, just because a few really need help.

And again, the safe limit for one person — whatever that may truly be — is simply not the safe limit for another. As the report carefully points out, old people metabolise alcohol differently from young people. What it ignores is the fact that individuals of any age metabolise everything differently from other individuals.

With alcohol, it must seem obvious even to the unobservant that one young woman, say, will feel tipsy after a single small drink, while another girl can drink big men under the table and wake up without a hangover. One chronic heavy drinker may die with a healthy liver, or surprise his doctors with one on an MRI scan. What is a safe amount of sherry for one granny would put another in A&E, and it is useless to generalise.

And the number of units now proposed in this report is so ludicrously low, in most people’s experience, that it will be widely ignored, thus completely destroying the point of the warning.

Underneath this mentality is a bullying, precautionary principle based on a mistrust of the public. As a result, the same excessively cautious diktats are applied to everybody. It shows a breathtaking contempt for the public, and at times for the evidence. Four years ago The Times revealed that the current recommended drinking limits for everyone (21 units a week for men and 14 for women) were simply “plucked out of the air” as an “intelligent guess”.

The recommendations were made in 1987, without any firm scientific basis, according to a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced them. Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, said the committee’s epidemiologist confessed it was “impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t”, because “we don’t really have any data whatsoever”.

Since then there has been some evidence that the recommended limits should be raised, but health ministers have chosen to ignore it. If they are doing so in the belief that this will keep costs down in the NHS, they are entirely wrong — old people drinking and smoking themselves to a relatively early death would go a long way to solving the national ageing problem.

But what’s worse than any of this muddle and prejudice is the heartlessness of the report. Old people will now be bullied about their modest drinking and shamed out of one of the great pleasures and consolations of old age. The report appears to be saying that anyone over 65 who drinks more than a dribble of alcohol needs medical help, but that is to mistake the symptom for the disease. The disease is ageing and the loneliness, failing health, anxiety, loss and pain that ageing flesh is heir to.

Since there is absolutely no hope at all that the state or the NHS can or will sort out these problems — it cannot begin to provide adequate psychiatric services or deal with serious poverty among the elderly — it is frivolous to talk of treatment.

If old people want to use alcohol as a palliative, who has the right to stop them? And what could be sillier than the mentality capable of telling a woman of 117, such as Jeanne Calment, that she must not smoke or drink because she might shorten her life?