Tuesday, 2 September 2014

In West Yorkshire, eight out of nine crimes reported to police safeguarding units aren't recorded as crimes


From the report of Her Majestry's Inspector of Constabulary's report into West Yorkshire Police's data recording and management:

We examined 108 reports that were referred from other agencies directly to the force’s safeguarding units (public protection). Of the 27 crimes that should have been recorded, 3 had been. Of the 3, all were correctly classified and one was recorded outside the 72-hour limit allowed under the HOCR. As some of these records related to sexual offences and assaults on vulnerable adults and children, this is a serious cause for concern and is a matter of material and urgent importance.

The emphasis is mine and shows this report isn't routine but topical. I cannot make more comment - will be seeking further clarification. However, when eight out of nine crimes deriving from other agencies are not recorded there is perhaps a bit of a problem?


A fully independent and impartial investigation...

South Yorkshire Police's desired finish?

We're told this is planned by South Yorkshire police:

In announcing an investigation of the police's handling of the abuse of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham between between 1997 to 2013, Ch Con David Crompton said: "A fully independent and impartial investigation is required to ensure that people have confidence that organisations or any individuals will be investigated fairly, rigorously and with complete impartiality."

I guess the Chief Constable could have squeezed a few more 'impartials' into that sentence but not many. And it's welcome that this enquiry is happening surely? Or is it just another coat of whitewash painted over over a police force already remembered for the enthusiastic use of such an approach? Read the Chief Constable's wording very carefully - he's no saying what you think he's saying. And such people don't say these things by accident.

Here's what the Chief Constable actually means:

Crompton has begun discussions to identify an appropriate force to carry out the inquiry.

So that's clear then - it's independent in so far as those investigating how South Yorkshire Police responded (or rather didn't respond) to child sexual abuse in Rotherham are police officers from a different force. No indication that any of the enquiry will be conducted in public merely that, at some point, a report will emerge saying that some police officers who are conveniently no longer with the force did some terrible things and failed big time. But that this doesn't reflect at all on the current crop of 'leaders' who, of course, are brilliant, effective and robust.

How much whitewash will be needed I wonder?


Monday, 1 September 2014

On the accountability of public sector management


I don't make a habit of quoting Labour MPs (they have a depressing tendency to spout nonsense) but this from Simon Danczuk is spot on:

We’re also starting to see a worrying cult of leadership. Highly paid managers are seemingly untouchable and distant from front-line workers. The rise of the unsackable, unaccountable and unapologetic public-sector manager is a trend that will only see services continue to deteriorate. And let’s be clear about what that means. It won’t be just missed targets or a poor Ofsted rating. We’re storing up huge social costs. 

I saw an article the other day, from an organisation called Democratic Audit UK, that argued (in a defence of modern politics) that accountability was greater today:

It is heresy in Britain to suggest that anything in its public life may have got better, but in terms of accountability it most certainly has. It is scarcely too much to say that over the past twenty years there has been a revolution in accountability. From human rights to freedom of information, with much else along the way, governments have been held to account in a way that was previously not the case.

Simon Danczuk's article and the reality of government, the experience of all of us trying to hold social services, police and planners to account for their decisions, is that too many of the decisions government takes are beyond the reach of that accountability. Moreover they are the result of activist government extending its regulatory and management reach ever deeper into society - chasing the shades and demons of modern society and feeding the industry of professional 'experts' that lives on the back of those broken and dysfunctional bits of our society.

We have a semblance of accountability, select committees, scrutiny panels, freedom of information requests and endless teams of inspectors, but with this comes a feeling that what those organisations do makes little difference to teflon-coated managers protected by a library of HR rules. So we aren't surprised - disappointed, even shocked, but not surprised - when David Nicholson, the bloke in part responsible for the scandal of deaths at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital crops up in ever more senior roles. We shrug our shoulders and sigh when we see Lin Homer lurch from one procurement or management crisis to the next. And we cry angrily at the pay out given to Sharon Shoesmith, who led Haringey Social Services at the time of the 'Baby P' death.

I could go on with this and I know you can add dozens - maybe hundreds -of names to the list of people who simply weren't accountable for the actions of the organisations they led. I'm not arguing here for lynchings, heads on poles or even summary dismissal but for a sense of duty and responsibility and for the idea that failure shouldn't, as if in some dark version of Dilbert, be rewarded with promotion. And for the idea that the people we elect to represent us - to make decisions on our behalf - should be able to do so and, so they can, for the activities of police, social services, courts and procurements to be open and transparent to those people.

There's a dangerous view out there among professional public sector 'leaders' that we've moved to some sort of 'post-democracy', to a world where what they are doing is too detailed, technical, specialised and private for elected politicians at any level to merit any say over those decisions. Much of the promotion of this 'post-democracy' comes from the social democratic left, from the inheritors of the Fabian mantle - they claim that far from promoting an unaccountable technocratic governance they are seeing how power has shifted to 'business'. Except they dismiss liberal, local and participatory solutions as 'populism' preferring instead to fall back on the belief in their own inherent rightness and fitness to rule.

To return to Simon Danczuk, he illustrates this problem perfectly:

Last week I received a text message from a current Labour MP saying she was disappointed by my views on this issue. I was only elected in 2010 and already I’ve found that politicians are sometimes discouraged from exploring and investigating complex issues because they’re expected to stay tethered to a dominant ideology and not stray far from the stock replies to difficult questions. This does nothing to strengthen democracy. It weakens it, and creates cynicism. The public want to see matters like this discussed and they want politicians to come up with answers, not just endless hand-wringing. 

Yet when we do what Simon suggests, too often we're told either that it's terribly complicated and involved and not quite what we're saying or worse still (and as a Conservative this is more likely) accused of racism, sexism, class prejudice or some other sort of discriminatory practice. There are a few brave souls out there (I'm not sure I qualify here, for what it's worth) but perhaps too few to crack open the edifice of modern government and shine some light into it's interior - to bring a little more accountability.


Sunday, 31 August 2014

Malnutrition - public health people are lying to us about its incidence


The Guardian writes this:

Doctors and hospitals are seeing a rise in children suffering from ailments caused by poor diet and the faculty has linked the trend to people's inability to afford quality food. Latest figures show there has been a 19% increase in people hospitalised in England and Wales for malnutrition over the past 12 months but experts say this is only the extreme end.

From this you would conclude, would you not, that there are hordes of starving children with distended stomachs filling up our hospitals? Whether the author did this deliberately is unclear but the truth is that all of that increase in malnutrition relates to the elderly. Every year, for as far as records of malnutrition go back, there are around 200 children admitted to hospital with conditions related to malnutrition.

The main reason - here from 'fullfact' -is this:

People with certain long-term health conditions can’t always retain all the nutrients they need – particularly the elderly, who might also struggle to make the trip to the supermarket. With this in mind, the higher incidence of malnutrition might also reflect broader demographic trends, including the fact that the UK’s population is ageing. The most recent Nutrition Screening Survey showed that those aged 65 plus were more likely to be malnourished than those who were younger. In addition, it may also be that hospitals are now more likely to screen a patient for symptoms of malnourishment.

So the Faculty for Public Health (and Tracey McVeigh in The Guardian) are misleading us about malnutrition because it suits their political agenda. There has been no increase in child malnutrition and the numbers are very small (200 hundred cases in a cohort of nearly 12 million) but we continue to be told that there is a problem. That is, of course, when the Faculty for Public Health isn't telling us that all our children are obese because of "junk food" and fizzy drinks.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

In which I agree a little bit with Owen Jones


It's OK folks, I've not turned overnight - as if in some Kafka-esque horror - into a socialist. But I think that Owen Jones, Boy Socialist has a point when he talks about the elite and what the Americans would call 'corporate welfare':

Who are the real scroungers? Free-marketeers decry 'big government' yet the City and big business benefit hugely from the state – from bailouts to the billions made from privatisation. Socialism does exist in Britain – but only for the rich

Now our youthful leftie then goes on to spoil his argument a little by missing out on some of the corporate welfare but his points have some merit. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Owen's criticism of what he calls 'privatisation' also has merits.

The point however relates to a different cause than Owen suggests and the solution lies in less socialism not more socialism. The problem with what Owen calls privatisation is that it is nothing of the sort. Privatisation involves taking a state-owned monopoly and placing it - usually through sale - into an open market environment. We did this with telephones, gas, electricity and water with considerable success (although the state kept its fingers in the pie by fixing all these markets in one way or another - mostly to the benefit of businesses rather than consumers).

Issuing contracts to run trains on a state-owned rail network is not privatisation. Nor is outsourcing the collection of municipal waste or the commissioning of hernia operations. This is just the state opting to buy rather than do itself - for it to be true privatisation you have to change the customer - to have to have a system where consumers make choices in a free (or relatively free) market.

However, to return to Owen Jones, he is wrong when he argues that big business rejects 'statism' but right when he points to the benefits that the grandees of big business get from big government. The switch to a smaller state with more of what we call 'public services' delivered through the market simply doesn't suit those powerful businesses that deliver those public services on contract. Or indeed the equally large businesses that fund those businesses allowing them to compete for large public contracts.

However, the problem here isn't just the fact that public services are outsourced but that the market is, mostly because of regulation and legislation, seriously constrained. Owen points to the big public services contractors like Serco, G4S, Atos and Capita and makes reference to the 'Big Four' accountancy firms. What he describes here is a marketplace constrained by the scale of the contracts and by the specification of those contracts. While the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would partly open this market - and some of the regulations, its main outcome for public services would be opening up EU 'markets' to large US contractors (and vice versa).

The problem is that, so long as people like Owen insist that services are delivered through a planned system rather than a market, the producers - whether state employed management or the managers in private contractors - will fix the system in their own interests rather than in the interests of the consumer. And while there are areas - basic scientific and medical research, for example - where only the state will invest, in areas where a market can operate there will be more investment under capitalism than in a state-directed monopoly.

Owen Jones is right to identify corporate welfare as a problem but completely wrong in offering a 'solution' that merely transfers the self-interest to the managers of state enterprises. If Owen wants real change he needs a system where the self-interest is transferred to the consumer of the service - you and me, the public. And this system - in most circumstances - is called a free market.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Friday Fungus: The Zombie Ant Army

Be afraid! Be very afraid! You know the Threat Level thing? This is Threat Level Zombie Ants!

The research focused on a species from the genus Ophiocordyceps — known as “zombie ant fungi” — which control their ant hosts by inducing a biting behavior. Although these fungi infect many insects, the species that infect ants have evolved a mechanism that induces hosts to die attached by their mandibles to plant material, providing a platform from which the fungus can grow and shoot spores to infect other ants.

This little fungus takes over the ants brains and leads them to a place where the fruiting head can grown and spawn the source for more zombie ants!


Politics and science...

"A soldier, having seen traces of a horse in the sand, will immediately pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and from that to the thought of war...But a farmer will pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plough." Spinoza

There's a tendency for some educated scientific people to consider that you can reduce the process of political decision-making to an exercise in the scientific method. Some sort of 'test' is conducted and the results mandate the policy decision. Most often the 'test' isn't an actual experiment (these are, as those scientists should know, pretty hard to construct in real human populations) but some sort of meta-analysis of smaller tests and analyses. From this process we arrive at statements like 'the science is settled' and 'nearly all scientists agree' despite the scientific truth being a whole lot more nuanced.

A related approach is to assume that a human problem identified by 'science' must require the intervention of the state for its resolution. At this point I can hear some on the left peeling away from the argument but bear with me because this really isn't about left/right or big/small government but about the role and purpose of two different things - science and politics. It would be a rum do if we used politics to determine the outcome of science. Why then do some people not see an equivalent problem in trying to use science to make political decisions?

Scientific and political questions are framed very differently. This is for good reason. A scientist would not, for example, ask "Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No". Yet this is an entirely valid question in a political context that will lead to a clear decision. A scientist might ask 'what would Scottish independence mean for X' and then try to construct some sort of test to answer the question. And the findings from that scientific enquiry might well help people answer the political question. But the science does not provide the answer.

The second point about that independence question is that is it absolute - the 'right' answer is that answer securing the most votes. Fifty Per Cent Plus One is enough. For science that isn't enough. Read any piece of good scientific research and you will see caveats - a section perhaps entitled 'limitations' setting out the constraints of the test being conducted and towards the end of the paper a piece on the need for further research. Good scientific research doesn't answer questions so much as turn one question into a myriad of other questions. Such an approach is fantastic if we want to understand the world but worse than useless if we want to decide whether or not Scotland should be independent.

So when a writer - as happens here - singles out one political ideology as peculiarly anti-science this is the result of either a profound ignorance of politics and the political process or else the presentation of a personal ideology as if it were scientific fact. Indeed, we can observe the same from other political perspectives - the adherence of many on the left to the view that GMOs are bad, nuclear power peculiarly dangerous and pesticides destructive is a fine example of how scientific evidence is routinely ignored.

If we are to 'respond' to climate change this does not mean that there must be more government, more regulation and some sort of crusade to stamp out any capitalism bigger than the corner shop or the local agricultural co-op. Those who choose to say 'I don't believe a word of it' also cannot be dismissed because they might just be right.  The problem is (and here's some science) that our ideology - political bias - means that we do one of two things: either we make choices that fit our existing bias or else we select particular findings while ignoring others again to fit a prior bias.

To return to that Scottish independence question again. Were I a 'Yes' supporter seeking evidence to support my case, I would select those studies, tests and experiments that support my contention that Scotland should be independent. I would also ignore the element of choice involved in political decisions. There are costs and benefits to every decision but political or ideological bias leans us towards emphasising only the costs or only the benefits.

To give another example, the argument that alcohol costs the UK £21bn each year is, say public health people, derived from scientific enquiry. It may well be a true figure. But against that figure we have to set an estimate of the benefits society gains from alcohol not just jobs, businesses and exports but the pleasure we get from a glass of wine or a pint of beer.

In the end we have become rather too dependent on scientific enquiry in answering (rather than framing) political questions. And the risk here is that the scientist, once removed from the constraints of experimental investigation, is likely to be just as ideologically biased as the non-scientist. Indeed, what we get too often is a complete misrepresentation of the ideology with which the scientist is disagreeing. To suggest that somehow 'libertarians' balance "individual rights against the rights of others" is a complete misrepresentation both of libertarianism and of the small-government conservsatism that the author was actually criticising.

One of the curiosities about what we might call the 'scepticism movement' is its ideological attachment to a sort of social democratic human engineering view of politics. I compare this to the commonplace view among the centre-right that everything would be fine if only we put businessmen in charge. For the 'sceptics' the solution appears to lie in sort sort of post-democratic technocracy where the task of politics is to implement the 'findings' of the scientific consensus and that politicians should be slaves to the selected and presented evidence. A side effect of this concept in politics is the modern idea of leadership - politicians' task is to 'lead' the reluctant and recalcitrant populace towards to consensus defined by the technocrats' 'science'.

None of this is to dispute the value of science. Rather I want to step back from the fetishising of scientific enquiry as the only worthy decision-making system. Instead of a "science says yes" process called evidence-based policy making, we need to understand that the purpose of the evidence is to inform our decision-making not to do that decision-making for us. And the point and purpose of democracy - lost in translation all too often - is for the people or the representatives of the people to make choices about things that can't be (or aren't) made in the market.

Like everyone else scientists are prejudiced, have irrational attachments to ideological positions and allow personal likes and dislikes to colour their thinking. I take the view - like many of those libertarians - that most of the time decisions are better taken in the marketplace where mutual benefit and added value determine the outcome. But this is an ideological position - one with a great deal of scientific support as it happens - and others will believe differently. As we've seen with the independence debate, scientific enquiry can only inform the choice that people have before them.